Bantay, Ilocos Sur, the Philippines
March 8, 2022
Who would go out of town on foot? This pair of urban trekkers, apparently. When Ki led me out to an intercity provincial road, it dawned on me that we were doing exactly that! How naive of me to think we were just taking a lazy stroll through the vicinity of our accommodations. I had not factored in walking under the hyperactive Ilocos sun at high noon and risking getting sideswiped by careening vehicles on a barely-there sidewalk. That was how our day trip to Bantay went down.
After forever and 45 minutes from Vigan, we were finally a crosswalk away from Bantay Municipal Hall. It was the landmark for the historic Bantay Bell Tower located a block or so behind the government building. The fact that the tower was a 430-year-old monument – restored in 1950 – had always been overshadowed by its place in Pinoy pop culture. It was known more as the shooting location of Ang Panday, a 1980 superhero movie starring the equally legendary FPJ. I never saw the film, but I knew about the bell tower because of it.
In the place of an entrance fee, a dropbox was on hand to receive cash donation. I had seen the brick tower twice before, but this was the first time I went in and climbed its winding flight of stairs. Midway through, a landing offered a panoramic view of mountains and sea through slit-like windows. Ki, feeling a bit acrophobic, decided to stay put. I went up the final staircase to the belfry.
The belfry was manned by a young man named Andrei completing his OJT hours. He quickly fact-checked me by calling it Bantay Watchtower owing to the huge, old bell at the center. Andrei explained that the warning bell was used to alert townspeople of approaching enemy during both the Spanish and Japanese wars. Around it were four smaller bells hanging on their own arch window and used for every personal milestone: baptism, wedding, funeral, and regular mass. The unique chime of each bell rang in each of the stages of life and everyone in town would know about it. This way of public announcement predated social media by centuries.
Back at the midway landing, Ki was still transfixed by the 360-degree view through the narrow arches of turret windows. There was visual poetry to the east: the gleaming white cemetery nearby lay exactly at the line of vision where Abra River cut a gorge through the Cordilleras in the distance. To the west, the urban sprawl of Vigan and the blue expanse of West Philippine Sea disappeared into the horizon. It was clear as day why Andrei preferred to call it a watchtower over a bell tower. The name was directly lifted from the word bantay, meaning “to guard,” after all. In this vulnerable coastal plain and river basin, it provided a vantage point for reconnaissance of the surrounding land and water. It was an important part of the city’s defense.
It was also my first time to enter Saint Augustine of Hippo Parish Church or, simply, Bantay Church. The wine-colored, baroque façade was a stark contrast to its plain white interior unadorned with the usual biblical murals in other churches. It left to the imagination how it looked in 1590 when it was built a year before the watchtower. The present church was a reconstruction of the one damaged during WW2.
My detour to the restroom, surprisingly spacious and modern, at the back of the church led us to the open-air Chapel by the Ruins. Not a soul was in sight, which made the peace and quiet take on an eerie vibe. The rows of wooden benches and a Communion table were enclosed by the ruins of brick walls, remnants of the old church destroyed in WW2. The altar and the cross were set in a niche in one such wall. It all grounded the inaccessible past to the present. I supposed it put one’s personal supplications, even one’s existence, into a broader perspective of history. At least for me.
We may not have heard the ringing of the Bantay bells. In many other ways, though, this famous watchtower all but told the collective story of the people of Bantay. It had guarded and preserved their history through all its phases from past to present. The visit was worth the punishing walk from Vigan. I wondered if it would still be worth the corn that was forming on my big toe. It beggared belief that we actually walked back to Vigan.
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