Rizal Province, the Philippines
December 30, 2008
We let the road lead us. That was our guiding principle of a good road trip.
One lazy December day, Ki (my fellow “road-tripper”) and I did just that. For Manila urbanites, an out-of-the-blue road trip was mostly a toss between going north or going south. Going east was hardly even regarded as an option. (Going west would mean embarking on a boat trip.) But on this day, we headed eastward with no particular destination, no compelling reason other than to follow the road.
We drove the stretch of Marcos Highway, past dense suburbs and malls, wondering where the dead-end was. There was none; it just gradually lost lanes as it traversed the sparsely populated beyond. The eight-lane city highway in Metro Manila eventually shrunk into a two-lane country road. It was in this winding highway that we found ourselves alone for long stretches, meeting only an occasional jeepney or motorcycle.
Ki was anxious we might run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, as there seemed to be neither town nor gas station in sight. There was a small variety store (sari-sari store in the vernacular) that sold gas in one-liter Pepsi bottles. Ki bought one, just in case. After all, we didn’t know how much longer we needed to drive to see a town.
Zigzagging the highway on the slopes of the Sierra Madre mountain range offered spectacular views at every turn: forests, foothills, limestone cliffs, and the placid blue of Laguna de Bay beyond. The forest was densely verdant, seemingly pristine. We passed by a few resorts and inns here and there, but the area looked mostly untouched by development, a fact that considerably added to its rustic charm.
A hill of undulating cogon captivated us – it was both a static and dynamic sight.
A small roadside store conjured up images of South American countryside. Ki and I fancied we were in the Bolivian Altiplano.
A row of motorcycles parked by a cliff, overlooking the rolling terrain, was like a scene straight out of the Latin American film Motorcycle Diaries.
A pair of flowers blooming by the road provided a shocking red accent on the shades of green around.
After an uncertain hour on the road, we finally drove into the old town of Tanay. As with most Spanish-style towns in the Philippines, at the town center stood an imposing stone church.
Seemingly unremarkable, the San Ildefonso Parish Church‘s facade belied its rich rococo retable. We found the interior of this centuries-old church colorful and charming – quite whimsical, actually – a stark contrast to its stone-cold exterior. The bas-relief Via Crucis panels on the walls of the church offered a curious twist. The scenes were updated to the 18th century, and they conjured up the Spanish era in the Philippines rather than the time of Christ in the Holy Land.
The church’s silence was broken only by the occasional pitter-patter of the prayerful who would come in for a quick rogation and a quicker exit.
By the side of the church, I heard sobbing sounds. I peeked outside and found a boy slumped by the door. Whatever he was praying for, he agonized for it.
The hillside town of Morong was our last stop; it was saving the best for last. The lovely St. Jerome Church came into view, perched on a hill. Originally built in 1615, the church had been renovated over the succeeding centuries but retained its antiquated allure. Unfortunately, the church’s main portal was locked.
The neo-baroque facade was eye candy enough: richly detailed with bas-relief and adorned with miniature statues and a mural. Said to have Mexican and Chinese influences in its design, it was a testament to our strategic location at the crossroads between these two maritime trading countries.
Finally, it was sundown when we made our way back to the city by the shore of Laguna de Bay. Road trips on a whim like this offered the most interesting discoveries. Pleasant surprises could be had in places that figured below everyone’s radar. Rizal Province was so near Metro Manila, yet mainly undiscovered as a drive-through getaway and a peek to our past.
It was Ki’s birthday; it was also Rizal Day, the death anniversary of our National Hero. It dawned on us that the road trip, although unplanned, was a fitting way to celebrate the life of Jose Rizal – by rediscovering our cultural heritage in the province named after him.