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.
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, 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.