Tarlac, the Philippines
May 1, 2014
My friends and I had to count years before we found the time to take this road trip. Our plans for a rustic R&R in the lupain (farmland) of our haciendera friend Perfy always fell through, our free time never in synch. Conflicting schedules aside, there was never a reason urgent enough to drop all other plans – until my BFF, Danson, came home for a month-long vacay after seven years overseas. Thanks to a non-working holiday, all five of us crammed into Vang’s car and drove to Victoria, Tarlac on Labor Day.
In no time we were driving through Hacienda Luisita, the controversial sugar plantation in Tarlac that had been a thorn on the side of two of our presidents. Not realizing there was a veritable member of Tarlac oligarchy among us, the hacienda gatekeepers denied us access, not even for Instagram photo ops. Only The Aquino Center, a museum showcasing memorabilia of the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was open to the public, but we ditched the guided tour in favor of lunch. Immersing in the life of this modern Philippine hero would have to wait, although Labor Day would’ve been an ironic time to visit as this hacienda had become a symbol of the injustice done to plantation laborers by powerful landowners, his wife’s family particularly.
To a car full of growling tummies, all roads led to Isdaan Restaurant made up of several floating bamboo huts built over a fishpond, from which I thought our lunch would come (it turned out to be a koi pond). Neither the wobbly dining huts nor their boodle platter was the main come-on. In-ya-face statues of the famous (the Obamas), the fictional (the Incredible Hulk), the fabled (three wise monkeys), even the spiritual (huge Buddhas), among others, vied for photographic attention. Tacky only to non-camwhoring types, which we were not. Why decide to be solely a floating restaurant or a theme park or a pilgrimage site when it could be all of the above?
There were also hut-hopping service peddlers to keep customers preoccupied while waiting for their food. Danson availed himself of a quickie massage and we had a trio serenade our hostess, Perfy, with a performance-level rendition of Nasa Yo Na Ang Lahat that kept the original Daniel Padilla diction.
How telling that the restaurant’s most famous gimmick was an anger management corner where customers, presumably venting their frustration with the snail-paced service, could buy porcelain plates of various sizes to throw and smash onto a concrete wall as they shouted tacsiyapo (a Kapampangan cussword). Ki tried his hand at plate-smashing. surely imagining me as the target.
Before sundown, we made it to what we came for: Perfy’s farm in Victoria. As we set foot on the summer-dried ground, time slowed down and the late aftie held on longer than usual. But what would city mice do in a farm? Camwhoring, needless to say, posing as the characters of a primetime soap about hacienderos and obreros. I was in character, doing my Coco Martin impression: wide smile, slit eyes, flaring nostrils.
After all the camwhoring, care of our director of photography, Vang, we surprisingly reached the tiny orchard in the middle of the field with the sun still out. We expected self-service mango-picking, but obreros were quickly dispatched to do the job. It left us ample time to
be useless pester the livestock and pose for photos by the haystacks. The setting sun lingered a bit to smile at our shenanigans. Back at the newly-built farm cottage, bowls of sago with crushed ice and milk prepared by our hostess with the mostest, Perfy’s mom, awaited our return. Chillax to the max.
We retreated to the mansyon, Perfy’s ancestral house, for the night. The chalet-style house was still looking grand and elegant as I remembered it years ago when we had the pleasure of meeting luminous socialite and politician Tingting Cojuangco right there in the living room. I climbed several social strata that day! Until now we have been convincing Perfy to take the reins of the farm in due time. Mostly for selfish reasons – so we could always have vacación en grande in Tarlac, bask in farm freshness, and hobnob with the elites. In other words, have a taste of livin’ la vida Victoria.
Our heartfelt thanks to Perfy’s family for their all-out hospitality, the there’s-no-tomorrow meals in her mother’s garden, the tanked-up van we used to tour the province, and, of course, the take-home mangoes – the fruit of our Labor Day!