Vigan ChurchVigan, Ilocos Sur, May 3, 2003 -- I had to laugh myself silly for my misadventure last Good Friday. It all started with a misconception of a particular destination.

I was supposed to go to San Fernando, Pampanga to photograph the Lenten rites in the town Cutud, where hooded male penitents flagellate themselves until their backs actually bleed. Itís an all-too familiar image of the Filipino cultural landscape during Lent. And I was hoping to capture bits and pieces of it on film.

I never really had an idea as to where the town of San Fernando really is, and didnít have the minutest notion of how to get there. I never bothered to do research since the whole plan of going there was pretty much spur of the moment. Also, Iíve never been much of a stickler for fastidious travel planning. Iím pretty much a gung-ho type of traveler who travels light, sets an impromptu itinerary, and plays everything by ear. I just go where my whim and feet take me. So, all I did was pick up the yellow pages and look through the list of bus companies. I found one company with an ad that mentioned "San Fernando," and so I called up and asked if they had any available trip for the early morning of Good Friday. Luckily, they had one bus leaving at 4 a.m., and so I went to the terminal that Holy Thursday afternoon and bought a ticket immediately.

Early Friday morning came and I got to the bus terminal just a few minutes before the departure time. I only brought with me my camera and two extra shirts since I didnít see any point of bringing anything else to what was supposedly a day trip. I settled in, the bus left and I slept, leaving word to the conductor to kindly let me know when we get to San Fernando.

I woke up a few hours afterwards, and it was already 8 a.m. I asked the conductor if we were there yet.

"Malayo pa," the conductor replied, "nasa Tarlac pa lang ho tayo."

Bang! Isnít Tarlac beyond Pampanga? Did I get my geography all wrong? Impossible, unless God had a sudden freaky sense of humor and completely redrew the whole map of the northern Philippines overnight without me knowing. And then it started to sink in. I remembered that there is another area prominently called San FernandoÖand it is in La Union. I was on a bus that was heading to a place 1,000 kilometers away from my intended destination. (Well, the bus was right on course; it was me who was off tangent.)

I was in a very interesting dilemma. I could get off the bus and get a ride back to Pampanga. But that would be busting over P219 worth of bus fare. After a few minutes of deliberation, my frugality won over and I decided to ride the entire trip out. Anyway, I could always check out the flagellation rituals in Pampanga next year. (A pathetic excuse for my idiocy.)

I arrived in San Fernando, La Union around 9:45 a.m., not really knowing what to do there. I havenít the slightest idea what is there to see in the town, although its rustic urbanity did strike me as particularly pleasant. It was a progressive town, considering that it is the provincial capital of La Union. It would have been nice to savor the things the city had to offer, despite the fact that most of the establishments were closed in observance of Good Friday. I really didnít have much to go on, and so I thought to myself that I might still have time to go back to Pampanga and hopefully catch some last moment glimpses of the penitential rites I was hoping to capture on film. But as I was strolling along the plaza, I saw a row of Vigan-bound buses. Iíve heard about Vigan and Iíve always wanted to visit my momís home province of Ilocos Sur for a long time. So after a quick brunch, I got on the bus and pushed further up north on a journey wherein all previously intended objectives were thrown out the window. It became a completely different adventure by itself.

When I arrived in Vigan, I was surprised to see so many people out in the streets on a blistering afternoon. It was Good Friday which seems to be the hottest and sunniest day in summer and yet there was a bazaar with people selling various items. There was an ukay-ukay booth with selections of RTWs and apparels. There were vendors hawking various artifacts and souvenirs. There were food stalls churning out a cornucopia of delicacies and gustatory curiosities.

The air was scorching, and the sun was beating intensely down the whole place, washing out the lightly colored faÁade of seemingly newly painted government buildings, which further added to the radiance of the place. The city was gleaming with a life of its own.

I made my way to the cathedral, which I later found out was the seat of the archdiocese of Northern Philippines or Nueva Caseres as it was referred to in the olden days. Lenten services were being offered and the whole cathedral was jampacked with churchgoers. There were carousels carrying the austere images of the suffering Christ and other figures. I guess Good Friday in Vigan was commemorated with religious observance and communal celebration at the same time.

The whole place was completely enthralling and was romantically reminiscent of forlorn Spanish colonial times. In remote corners, you could feel the history of the city, as if time had stopped over 300 years ago and you were transported back to the time of pueblos and encomiendas. Many of the streets were lined with old, two-storey Antillan houses, with their massive brick and stone-laden first floors contrasting with the light and airy second floors picturesquely typified by sliding capiz windows, verandillas of wood or iron grilles, and tiled roofing. Horse-drawn calesas still ply the narrow cobblestone streets that run through some areas of the city, and some of the old folks still displayed an austerely dignified aura around them.

Yet amid the historical remnants, it was undeniable that Vigan hasnít escaped the encroachment of cosmopolitanism. Many buildings had facades plastered with modern hues. There were also fast food restaurants and a shopping arcade beside the main plaza. On the cobblestone roads, tricycles and late-model cars likewise move alongside the many calesas. And hanging outside the window balustrades of a hotel, which has kept its antique Spanish-era faÁade, was a large streamer advertising a bikini contest and summer party at some nearby beach.

Vigan for me was quite an overpowering feast for the senses the sight, the sound, the smell, the taste, the feel of a quaint and historically revered city bustling to a curious rhythm of elegant antiquity and emerging modernism. It was my first time in Vigan, yet somehow I couldnít help but wonder if the city will ever lose its nostalgic allure from a bygone era (an allure which is deeply rooted in our national history and our cultural identity) to the pervasiveness of modern culture. I fervently hope not, because I definitely would want to retrace my journey back to Vigan. And next time, it wouldnít be merely by accident. (By Zean Villongco, STAR)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved