Lent in Lucban

Lucban, Quezon Province, the Philippines

March 27, 2010

“What is the Matrix?” asks Neo, the famous Keanu Reeves character. The answer is out there – in old Philippine towns where streets radiate out in gridiron pattern from the four corners of a central plaza, marked by a huge stone cathedral. No less than King Phillip II of Spain, whom the Philippines was named after, legislated such geometric town planning in all colonial communities in the Americas and beyond.

Old House in Lucban, Quezon

Lucban in Quezon Province is a perfect example. Our bus could only maneuver turns around right-angled kitty-corners with snail-paced precision. Even then, the unwieldy bus almost tipped over a street sign.

The town was the last stop in our pilgrimage that started in the neighboring province of Laguna. En route to Quezon Province, we had to zigzag through the southern tip of the Sierra Madre mountain range. This was the roller coaster part of the journey when everyone in the bus raised their arms and swayed to every hairpin turn, oblivious to the precarious situation we were actually in. One side of the road plummets to deep ravines deceptively concealed by verdant cover. The highway is popularly known as bituka ng manok (chicken intestine).

We made it to town in one piece, thankfully. But I must confess that I decided to ditch the mass at the church because the mere mention of Quezon Province gives me a one-track mind: pinagong!

Pinagong: The Specialty Bread of Quezon Province

Pinagong, literally turtle-shaped bread, belongs to the class of local bread called monay – a kind of bun baked for varying lengths and with varying water content, hence its different forms and degrees of softness. Pinagong gets its name from its appearance: flat on one side, convex on the other – supposedly resembling a turtle’s carapace. Its distinctive features are corrugations on the convex surface and stubby projections on both ends.

The bread might have originated from another town, Sariaya, also in Quezon. The original pinagong, distinctly different from the low-quality kind made in Manila, is not too hard but still chewy, not too sweet but still creamy – no need to slather bread spread on it but perfect with peanut butter. It is ideal for dipping into hot cocoa or coffee (dipping bread into breakfast beverage other than juice is an endearing Filipino habit of old; unfortunately modern Filipinos find it barbaric – clearly I beg to differ).

I jumped off the bus and scoured the town for it. The first bakery I found ran out of it just minutes before – apparently another pilgrim beat me to it (what was with this group of pilgrims – bread-shopping first before saying prayers?!). Another panaderia had run out of it. I crisscrossed the grid of streets like a maniac before I got my eureka moment: five big packs of pinagong for P30 each. In my excitement, I failed to get the name of the bakery. I was just beside myself for finding it and for having pasalubong (present from a trip) for my dad who shared this pinagong fondness with me.

Packs of Pinagong

After I had the stuff, I had the peace of mind to take in the small town ambiance of Lucban. Some wooden Spanish-era buildings with capiz sliding windows were still extant, not as museums but as functional residences and places of business. Others, though, had already been updated and ended up looking quaintly contrived, such as the oddly-named Ground Zero Pizza.

But back to earth – I remembered I was here to visit the Church of Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, a massive baroque-style edifice built at the end of the 16th century. It loomed over the town center like a dark fortress. The bell tower or belfry was formidable on its own – an imposing gray tower accented by green weedy overgrowths sprouting from its crevices.

Lucban Church (San Isidro Labrador Church)
Lucban Church Nave
Lucban Church Belfry

It was impressive that the centuries-old look of the facade and belfry had been retained. The nave and chancel, unfortunately, had already been refurbished, eradicating the last vestiges of quaintness and history in favor of a modern antiseptic sheen. I didn’t linger inside as there was not much to see and the prayers were over by then.

A skip and a hop from the church was a piazza that reminded me of Tuscany, if only I had been to Italy! This piazza is Rizal Park, in honor of our national hero, Jose Rizal, commemorated with a statue standing on a tall white plinth. Around the cozy, leaves-strewn park were wrought-iron benches under the trees in full view from the brightly-colored Patio Rizal Hotel’s balconies. I wanted to be billeted here during the town’s Pahiyas Festival, arguably the most colorful fiesta in the country, in mid-May but the hotel had already been fully-booked a full year before!

Rizal Park and Patio Rizal Hotel in Lucban

Capping this pilgrimage was a visit to Kamay ni Hesus Grotto and Healing Church (Kamay ni Hesus is Tagalog for Hand of Jesus) in the outskirts of Lucban and on the foothills of mystical Mount Banahaw. Completed in 2004, this complex had since been famous for its healing masses on Mondays and Saturdays. The church sits at the foot of a slope dotted with all 14 Stations of the Cross. On the summit stands a huge image of the Ascending Christ with outstretched arms, a more hopeful finale to the Stations of the Cross that only ends at the Messiah’s burial. The Christian salvation, after all, is based on Jesus’ resurrection, not just his death.

The climb, called Via Dolorosa, was rather challenging – the incline was steep and the almost-300 steps were narrow, putting the dolorosa on the via. I easily worked up a sweat despite the cool breeze at this elevation.

Kamay ni Hesus Grotto in Lucban
View of Kamay ni Hesus Healing Church from the Grotto

A biblical Disneyland can be found behind the church. For reasons that escaped me, whimsical tableaux depicting scenes from the book of Genesis were scattered throughout the park. The gloriously naked first couple Adam and Eve was accounted for, with a stealthy serpent, an enticing apple, and one angry angel making special appearances. A full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark was under construction at a distance. Could animal dioramas be far behind? Too Disneyesque for a retreat place, methinks, but perfect for photo ops.

Adam and Eve Banished from the Garden of Eden Tableau in Lucban
Noah’s Ark in Lucban: Anchor Ark-weigh!
The Creation Tableau and Me: Lucban

On the ride back to Manila, the pilgrims were treated to an in-bus film showing, a Filipino indie film called Magnifico. It tells the story of the titular good-hearted boy who sincerely gave his all in helping his family in dire straits, not just financially but spiritually. It movingly shows how sacrifice, love, and death converge and lead to spiritual redemption – which is basically the Lenten message. Somehow it was lost on all the touristy goings-on at picturesque cathedrals, quaint little towns, and Disneyesque tableaux.

So what is a Holy Week pilgrimage? The answer was in there – on the bus on our way home.

Salamat is Tagalog for Thank You!
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14 thoughts on “Lent in Lucban

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  1. A great article to read. I’d never been to Lucban or any provinces in Quezon. Hearsay that the women of Quezon are stronger than men when it comes to drinking their local wine, lambanog. The monay bread reminds me of my neighbor. I will start eating the middle part of the bread and joke “your naymo taste good mmm”. In return, she will joke back, biak na bato (crack bread?) taste better! There are beautiful and unique places to visit in Luzon, and through your blog, we will know these places. Keep blogging.

    1. You’re hilarious, Inno. Every Ilonggo boy, I think, goes through the monay joke phase! 🙂

      Quezon is one of my favorite provinces, actually. And not just for pinagong. 🙂 I used to go there on weekend trips with my friends, most of whom are now in different parts of the globe. So the province gets a sentimental edge.

      Moreover, the towns are really quaint and not as busy as those in, say Laguna or Batangas. And there’s this wonderful restaurant, also in Lucban, called Palaisdaan where you dine on floating nipa huts and gorge on fresh tilapia. So many fascinating places in Quezon.

    1. Checked out the places you’ve visited. No Asia yet? I bet you’d find this continent fascinating. And it seems you like the beach – we have white sand beaches and clear waters here in the Philippines! Is this such a hard sell? 🙂

  2. Like in this post food often takes center stage when I enter a new place. I love good bread so much that I think I should start the all carbohydrate diet. I’ve always wanted to know what pandesal tasted like and now after reading this I have yet another to wonder about.

    The colonial buildings are wonderful and it’s great to see them in use. I love those floor to ceiling sliding windows that look to have the original glass in them! Lucban Church and especially the bell tower have so much presence. Amazing how it wears it’s age so dignified and has a cloak of plant life.

    Ground Zero pizza is an odd name since…well…who would want to be at ground zero?

    I have some friends going to the Pahiyas Festival on the 15th and I look forward to seeing the images of it. I’ve heard and read about it but pictures taken by someone you know add something special I don’t quite understand.

    I don’t think the sculpted Adam and Eve in the tableau could be more Caucasian if they were dipped in a vat of tooth whitener. I guess they had SPF 10000 sunscreen back then. That to me makes it even more odd.

    Thanks for another fine post. Also big thanks for the translations and explanations for those of us who have partial or no knowledge of the language and culture.

    1. Appreciate the feedback, TAO! Yes, those sliding window panels still retain the original capiz shells (not glass), I believe. It’s quite common in old towns like this. What I like about Lucban is that it’s not (yet) touristified to look preserved, unlike say Vigan, which is akin to Charleston, SC – intended to be beautifully preserved. Lucban IS just old.

      Hahaha Ground Zero sure is odd for a resto name. Oh well, this is the country that has White Sand BIATCH Resort, a bakery called Bread Pit, and a mom-and-pop pizza place named Pizza Hot! 🙂

      Oh, and Caucasoid sculptures – they were obviously Hollywoodized! Most Pinoys don’t really know what Hebrews, or Mesopotamians for that matter, look like. It’s safe to say they based it on biblical films churned out by Hollywood, e.g. “The Bible” and those Cecil B. DeMille’s epic films. Most biblical statues here are made to follow that standard. Just part of the Hollywoodization of the Philippines. 🙂

  3. I think I’ve seen the pingpongs here too…… they’re too famous I guess. I don’t know what they’re called here though! because technically ( :p ) they’re not a part of the Indian cuisine. I had it once when I was at my friend’s place ……I liked it so much that I asked for three more!!!

    1. Do you really mean PINAGONG? You typed “pingpongs” (as in table tennis?). If it is, your friend must be Filipino!

      I’m just surprised you have it in India too! I couldn’t even find one here in Manila. At least those done the right way as they do in Quezon Province.

  4. great travellers!if you are planning to have a lot of fun during your journey be sure not to taste MORTILLA PASALUBONG and DELICACIES products or your on your way to the medics.

    1. They were? I suppose it depends where the Garden of Eden was. I always thought that Africa was the cradle of civilization. Adam and Eve could’ve been Negroid.

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