Thursday, December 31, 2015

Puente de Malagonlong

Before 2015 ends, let us just share to you these videos of our adventurous selves visiting one of the country's oldest Spanish-era bridges. I'll be blogging about this next year — that's technically a few hours from now. Can't do it right away because of time constraints (oh poor corporate slave that I am).

This bridge which we visited last Sunday (December 27) is the fabled Malagonlong Bridge, more popularly know by its Spanish name: Puente de Malagonlong. At 445 feet, it is said to be the longest bridge during its time. It's located in the pastoral outskirts of still rural Tayabas City in the province of the same name. Puente de Malagonlong, which I also suspect served as an aqueduct, was constructed between 1841 to 1850 using manual labor. Coral stones, egg whites, and apog (lime) were used as mortar because cement wasn't available back then. But look at it now: it's still standing proud despite the greens covering it. It was built to last, having survived numerous earthquakes, typhoons, and the last great war.

It was a fun experience for the whole family, especially for my kids who don't have the luxury of roaming around our noisy neighborhood. But we didn't allow them to swim because the current is so strong and the cold climate is not fit for swimming. Perhaps next time when time (and budget) permits.

Without further ado, here's the bridge.

Río de Dumacaa.

Advanced Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Villa Escudero: a fun way to enjoy Filipino culture

A tropical storm was threatening to ruin our planned excursion last November 22, a Sunday. Thankfully, the heavens decided to set it off course. Our one-day vacation even felt like it was summer! The original plan was for a simple lunch date. But Gemma Cruz de Araneta, our daughter Junifera Clarita's iconic godmother, decided to see not just our little princess but the whole Alas caboodle as well. So off we went to Southern Luzón's famous tourist attraction: Villa Escudero Plantations and Resort. Gemma picked us up from our home a few minutes past eight in the morning and arrived at the resort at around ten to beautiful sunshine.

Arrival at the reception area.

These sombreros are from their Tía Gemma.

The employees were all dressed in traditional Filipino attire: camiso de chino, barò at saya, etc. An affable lady by the name of Sally was our assigned companion. She accompanied us all throughout, from the carabao ride all the way to our cottage.

Gemma already lost count as to how many times she has been to this resort. Her first was when she was nine years old, when the place was not yet open to the public (her family and the Escuderos have been longtime friends). It was my second; my first here was in high school during my late paternal grandmother's birthday. But that Sunday visit was my family's first ever.

My family's first carabao ride, complete with live Filipino music!

My recollections of Villa Escudero, though it happened in high school, were not very vivid. I couldn't even remember what exact year I first visited the place. Maybe I was a bit bored during that time because the first site we visited in the resort was a museum, a place which, admittedly, is not a favorite hangout for city kids. At that phase in my life, I still didn't possess any appreciation or interest whatsoever in culture, art, and history. And instead of being thrilled, I found the carabao ride a bit amusing. Having grown in the city, me, my brother, and an elder cousin were chuckling in secret at the "strange predicament" we were all in: being serenaded by musicians and singers in a carabao-drawn cart. Looking back, I now feel embarrassed and disappointed at how I found all those things funny considering that I was already a young adult. I guess that it is imperative for all Filipino parents to rear their children on how to appreciate our culture.

What I vividly remember about Villa Escudero is that it had an abundance of coconut trees. But during our visit there last month, I only saw a few; I was to find out later during the day from one of the owners herself, Rosalie Escudero-Blume (a friend of Gemma's who we met later before lunch), that the family plantation was not spared from last year's destructive cocolisap infestation, not to mention the lack of government support to replace the many coconut trees throughout Southern Luzón that have already aged. Also, a sizable amount of Villa Escudero's territory has been converted into an exclusive residential area. Still, in spite of rapid modernization all around it, Villa Escudero has not lost its rural charm.

Our first activity upon entering the resort was riding a decorated cart-pulled by a carabao.

Pastoral scenes such as this one can be seen via the resort's carabao ride. The Malepuño (or Malepunyó) mountain range is at the background.

Yeyette was nostalgically delighted to see this mantel (tablecloth) because she and her family used to have one back in her ancestral home in Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental. Her late maternal grandmother wove the exact same design as the one in this photo!

The resort is already prepared for Christmas.

"Cadena de Amor" is the name of our cottage which lies along the emerald waters of Labasín Lake.

Cozying up to the placidity.

The carabao ride brought us to a reception area where we signed up for a cottage. Gemma chose one fronting Lake Labasín.

Now, Lake Labasín and its wooden cottages on stilts were something I do not remember during my first visit to Villa Escudero. After lodging our stuff in the cottage fronting the greenish waters of Lake Labasín, Gemma bade me and the kids to try out rafting. We had to leave Juanito because only kids seven and up were allowed.

Seeing the rafters drifting peacefully from afar made me more excited than my children.

It was a good three minute jog from our cottage to the raft dock. Upon reaching the dock, Imagine my horror when I found out that we have to do all the rowing to ourselves (that's how lazy I am). I thought staff members will do it for us. The first and last time I did some rowing was in the murky waters of Manila Bay way back 1996 as a midshipman for my alma mater's Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. But here, it's all green and sun. At least, that's a compensation. Besides, we were provided life vests. And best of all, we were assured that there were no crocodiles around. The waters were practically clean and safe. =)

Only two persons were allowed per raft. Since Jefe was the youngest in our group, I had him as my rowing partner. Krystal and Mómay took the other raft. Krystal and I were at the rear of our respective rafts.

It took us a good ten minutes or so to get our bearings and learn how to maneuver our rafts all around the lake. After some impromptu self-teaching, we were able to row ourselves towards our cottage. Hurrah.

Bamboo rafting (raft 1: Daddy Pepe & Jefe / raft 2: Krystal & Mómay).

After about an hour of rowing under the hot morning sun, it was time for lunch. We returned to the cottage to fetch the others. Off we went to Villa Escudero's most popular site: its waterfalls restaurant, the only place there that I remember so well.

We're flooded not just with water but with mouth-watering Filipino delicacies!

The waterfalls restaurant is right below Lake Labasín, towards its southern end. The waters at that point are dammed to accomodate a hydroelectric plant (the first in the country). At the restaurant proper below it, lunch is served al fresco on bamboo dining tables set in a few inches of crystalline running water from the falls. Diners enjoy sumptuous Filipino dishes as their feet are submerged in ankle-deep waters. Our kids, especially Junífera Clarita, had a grand time dipping themselves while eating. And right after lunch, they swam all around. I would've joined them, but saw no adults dripping wet. The disadvantages of parents who are kids at heart.

Villa Escudero has been around for more than a century, but it was only in 1981 when it was opened to the public as a tourist spot. Gemma remembers how apprehensive the Escuderos were with their plan of converting their plantation into a resort that focuses on Filipino culture. They turned to her and asked her if the idea was of any good; she thought it was marvelous.

The Escudero family apparently made a wise decision. Throughout the years, their resort developed a worldwide reputation as a focal point in experiencing Filipino culture and history in a rustic Filipino setting.

Junífera Clarita y su legendaria madrina.

Junífera Clarita practically led her madrina Gemma from our table at the farthest end of the open-air restaurant all the way to the waterfalls.

Mómay and Jefe enjoying the waterfall of Labasín Dam after our hearty lunch. Little did they know that they're enjoying the cascades of the country’s first working hydroelectric plant by Arsenio Escudero during the early 1900s to supply his desiccated coconut factory.

After lunch, we returned to our cottage to get dressed and prepare for the Philippine Experience Show set at 2:00 PM. With glasses of halo-halo courtesy of Gemma, we were treated to authentic cultural dance performances which were personally choreographed by the late Ramón Obusan, 2006 National Artist for Dance (whose sister I happened to meet two years ago).

Top left: ragragsacan (Lubuagan, Calinga). Lower left: sinquíl (Lago de Lanáo). Top right: Fandango sa Ilao (Pangasinán). Lower right: tiniclíng. Center: curtain call.

The dances, ranging from pre-Filipino (a more appropriate term for pre-Hispanic) dances to those that date during colonial times, were all performed with live music. All performances were deftly executed (at least from the audience perspective), especially those dances that required balance (Binasúan), timeliness of steps (La Jota), and grace (Yacán). It was a treat to watch our own native dances together with hundreds of people, including non-Filipinos. It also gave me an opportunity to examine the mood of the audience objectively — with pre-Filipino dances they were engaged but disinterested; the rhythmic patterns of the musical instruments (mostly percussion) coupled with the dancers' graceful choreography seduced people to take some forty winks during that hot mid-afternoon (I saw one table in front of the stage with two or three unconscious heads). Even Krystal fell asleep, her head propped to the top rail of her chair. The feeling towards the performances, though they were a sight to behold, seemed distant, foreign.

But when it was time for Filipino dances, i.e., those which many people call today as "Spanish Colonial", the atmosphere became lively. Rhythm was partnered with melody with the arrival of the resort's local rondalla group. All eyes were onstage. There was no more giddy head.

Krystal woke up. And that "foreign" feeling had dissipated.

After the show, people lined up to have photo sessions with the country's first international beauty titlist...

...while we had photo sessions with the dancers!

After the one hour or so performance, it was curtain call time. The emcee introduced all the dancers and musicians. Everyone in the hall was surprised when the emcee mentioned that all performers were actually the very same employees who have been assisting all the guests of the resort, from customer service to the accounting department. Those incredible people were doubling as cultural performers! No wonder we saw Sally performing with them in some of the dances!

Afterwards, we trooped to the children's playground. Our three boys had a grand time running around (something they couldn't do back home), Krystal took it as an opportunity to learn how to ride a bike (the place has an in-house bike rental with one-hour training program for a mere ₱100), while the grown-ups chatted on the grass (Junífera Clarita was having her siesta on her mother's lap). Sally caught up with us. Even Rosalie joined in the fun conversation.

It's never too late to learn how to bike, even if you're fifteen! Villa Escudero has an in-house bike rental and workshop available. Here Krystal is handed a certificate by Red, her trainer.

Rosalie later invited us back to the hall for some good coffee, leaving the kids behind at the playground with Sally. We were privileged to get to know Rosalie more, how she and Gemma go way back, and how she and her family handle Villa Escudero, including their beloved employees-slash-cultural performers. In fact, Rosalie tells us that they don't treat their employees as workers. They treat them as family. And she says this to us in a matter-of-factly manner. She told us how she saw red when a rude customer called her staff "peons". She chose to defend her employees' dignity rather than to accommodate an impolite customer.

How ironic that a more wealthy hacienda in Central Luzón couldn't reciprocate what the Escuderos have been doing to their employees. While the Escuderos treat their employees as family, the owners of this wealthy Central Luzón hacienda treat their workers as peons (sadly, many of them were even shot to death back in 2004).

¡Felicidades a los Escudero! May their tribe increase!

With Rosalie Escudero-Blume, one of the owners of Villa Escudero. I was delighted to learn that she's an AlDub fan too!

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Gracias Gemma por esa excursión tan memorable y maravilla que regalaste a mi familia. Eres muy amable. Nunca olvidaremos ese día.