Daraga, Albay, the Philippines
November 21, 2015
Everyone knew the drill: Pretend to lean on it, rest your elbow on it, lick it like a lolly, strangle it like your ex’s neck. The funnier the pose (but who was laughing?), the better (arguably). These done-to-death touristy photo ops seemed to be the be-all and end-all of Cagsawa Ruins. The sobering history of how it came to be was reduced to photo effects. It had gone down the pathetic road of the Tower of Pisa.
My clique would never fall for such cliché. We were there to “experience” the place, whatever that meant. It had been 200 years since Cagsawa Church was buried by volcanic flow from Mayon’s most devastating eruption. I wanted to pay homage, not quite sure how, to that fateful day in 1814. But we had not bargained for Christian Manzano.
The day was winding down, the crowd had thinned, and vendors were packing up. I expected ATVs at the park, but none was in sight that late. Light had faded enough to keep us from exploring the ruins. In no time I saw a young man approaching us. I could smell an offer a mile away; I made a rejection gesture lest he got any closer. He kept his distance but never left.
The boy of 18 was smooth; before we knew it, we were puppets on Christian’s strings. He had highjacked my camera and directed our poses with the flair and confidence of a pro. At first I was alone doing green-screen acting with nothing. Soon, the pictorial concepts involved the rest of my squad. We acted out scenes seemingly straight out of old stop motion monster movies: petrified by a giant foot bearing down on us and amassing great strength to lift boulders.
Were our antics a tad disrespectful? We were on a mass grave, after all. The famous belfry was practically a tombstone for hundreds of townsfolk buried by lahar as they sought refuge inside the stone church. That belfry had become the only visible mark of the doomed town.
Only their bodies had perished. Centuries on, their spirit lived on. The Cagsawa Ruins became a symbol of the strength and resilience of the Bicolanos who had withstood calamities, volcanic and meteorological, throughout their history, and, like that belfry, they remained standing – undaunted and enduring.
I paid for Christian’s pro-level work and added a big fat tip. Not so much for the fun photos, but for his subtle yet unrelenting salesmanship. He embodied, and we celebrated, that never-say-die spirit. Despite the late hour, he turned our rushed visit to Cagsawa into a meaningful experience.