A Visit to the 19th Century
I’ve lived in Metro Manila my whole life. I’ve battled the horrendous hi-way traffic five days a week since my grade school years (and I’ve lost many times, too, if the number of tardies I’ve acquired throughout my schooling is any indication). I’m used to the smog and the noise that can be found only in a busy, over-populated metropolis. I’ve grown accustomed to being 10 minutes away from the nearest shopping mall, and I can’t imagine life without cable TV and the Internet. If I had to be away from the city for longer than a few days, I’d miss it terribly. What more can I say? I’m an urbanite through and through.
It was, hence, only to be expected that alarm bells would go off in my head when one summer my parents happily announced that they were taking me on a road trip to Vigan. Eight hours in a car with nothing but rice fields to look at? Three days in a place that prided itself on being stuck in the previous century? More rice fields on the ride back?! They must have been kidding themselves if they actually thought I’d agree to come.
As it turned out, I was the one kidding myself when I thought they’d agree to go without me. So on an early summer day, trapped in an SUV with my parents and armed with only my loudest CDs, I was on my way to Vigan.
Located 408 kilometers northwest of Manila, Vigan is the oldest surviving Spanish colonial city in the Philippines, and it’s very well-preserved. How it miraculously escaped the World War II bombs that wreaked havoc on most of the country is baffling. Now it’s both a treasure and a window to the past. I must admit that underneath my initial reluctance, I was actually quite interested in seeing the historic spot for myself.
It was almost 11 o’clock at night when we finally drove into the narrow streets of Vigan. We were all tired, sleepy and a little bit cranky by then. We needed to stretch our legs and to find a place to stay fast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be as easy as we hoped. The Spanish-style stone houses lining the streets were dark, their wide capiz windows shut for the night. There were no modern street lamps lighting the way, and everyone seemed to have gone to bed. In the imaginary list of assumptions about Vigan that I kept in my mind, I put a big check beside “no nightlife whatsoever.”
Then my dad turned a corner, and we saw our first human being. He was leaning against his posh ride, his face illuminated by his cellphone’s back light—he looked quite out of place against the backdrop of ancestral homes. He graciously pointed us to the direction of the nearest inn. Whether he was a tourist himself or a Vigan native back for a vacation, we never found out.
We checked into the El Juliana Hotel, which like most of the establishments in Vigan was a converted antique house. I breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that although the rest of the building looked like it belonged in the 19th century, the rooms looked more current and had air conditioning, cable TV and modern plumbing.
I must admit that Vigan’s charms worked a lot better on me in the light of day when I could actually see and therefore appreciate the full effect of the colonial city. Our visit to Calle Crisologo, a long cobblestone street flanked by beautifully preserved houses on both sides, early the next morning had me feeling for a moment like I had somehow either stepped into a century-old photograph or gotten caught in a time warp. Hearing calesa wheels rolling along and horses’ hooves clip-clopping on the cobblestone only added to my temporary confusion. But common sense and the bright yellow Kodak sign hanging from the awning of one of the antique houses reminded me that I was in the 21st and not the 19th century.
Calle Crisologo. Photo by my mom, doodle by me.
We spent our days in Vigan visiting old churches, the burnay jar factory, and prominent homes that have been turned into museums. Going into those ancestral homes gave us a very clear picture of what 19th-century life must have been like. They looked authentic enough to make me feel a twinge of hesitation every time I took a picture of the antique interiors—the last things I wanted to see were hazy humanoid shapes (read: ghosts!) on my prints, thank you very much.
Our taste buds appreciated the Filipino/Spanish-style cuisine offered by several of the province’s restaurants. I remember being particularly satisfied (i.e. stuffed close to bursting) with the paella at Cafe Leona’s, a restaurant that doubled as a karaoke bar. (Who knew? Vigan had some kind of nightlife after all.) However, the street-food lover in me enjoyed the empanada and okoy sold at random corners a lot more.
The one thing I did not enjoy on our Vigan trip was riding the calesa. I kept feeling pity for the poor horses that looked tired and overworked to me. My parents were starting to get really irritated every time I commented about how sad the horses’ eyes were. I don’t know… I guess I’m just a big old softie when it comes to animals.
By the end of the third day I was more than ready to head back home to the present (i.e. the often stressful charms of Metro Manila). It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my stay in Vigan—because I definitely did—but there was only so much one can do in the quiet province. One more day and I was sure I would have crossed the fine line between “relaxed and tranquil” and “bored out of my mind.”
However glad I was to be going home, I was equally happy that I allowed myself to be dragged into the trip. More than a history lesson, our Vigan vacation gave me a much-needed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of urban life. A dose of the province’s historic architecture and serene pace calmed me just enough to be ready and raring to jump back into modern living. I guess every city kid needs a visit to the 19th century once in a while.
Oh, all right. I confess. That was a “bloggified” version of an essay I wrote for school a few years ago. I found it lying around, and I thought, “Why not? It’s not like I’ve never recycled schoolwork into website content before.”