, JANUARY 7, 2008  (STAR) PURPLE SHADES By Letty Jacinto-Lopez - Have you been bitten by the travel bug?

You break out, thrilled to be at the actual sight that you’ve read about or watched on video. The excitement spreads and you willingly succumb to its allure again and again.

At the age of 13, I crossed the International Date Line and the “infection” had not left me.

But there was a downside.

It made me a stranger in my own country.

I was buoyed by that snug feeling that our hometown attractions would always be where they were and I could therefore set them aside, giving priority to attractions found in other faraway places.

Recently, I finally got to taste local hospitality. We were going to visit the provincial towns and municipalities south of Manila. We chose to travel by car to experience and enjoy the fresh air of the countryside along with the kutkutins or munchies that we were sure to savor along the way.

In three hours, we reached the town of Tiaong, Quezon Province. Our host, Mico Villanueva, met us at the pottery workshop of Ugu Bigyan, a world-class artist known for his one-of-a-kind pottery pieces. The artist was also an accomplished cook and he prepared a full meal worthy of praise and, definitely, a repeat. Try his Kulawo pickled banana heart for a piquant lift.

Ugu built a shaded and convivial personal space where he can teach, design and showcase his craft. No wonder out-of-town visitors flock to his garden/sanctuary, a feast for the eyes and for the stomach as well.

Before sundown, we heard Mass in nearby Lucban in a shrine called Kamay ni Hesus. There was a life-size image of Jesus Christ standing at the zenith of a hill that was carved in an ascending order to recreate the via dolorosa or 14 stations of the cross. It reminded me immediately of Brazil’s statue of the risen Christ on top of Corcovado (hunchback) mountain.

The healing center and grotto were the brainchild of Father Joey Faller. I’d never heard of Father Joey Faller, until Mico’s short account of his healing ministry.

When Father Joey stopped briefly to meet us, his casual and easy-going demeanor put us immediately at ease. Father Joey was garbed in a jogging outfit, as though ready for a fast round of basketball. He was far from the image of a healing priest except when he extended his hands in welcome. I felt a warm, soothing and comforting aura in his presence that was definitely heaven-sent.

In Lucban, Mico proudly showed off the native dishes that have placed Quezon province on every food junkie’s map.

There was Pancit Habhab (native pancit eaten straight from banana leaf with a dash of vinegar to taste); Lucban longganiza (popular local sausage with distinctive taste, found only in Lucban); Kiping (a common decorative item during the Pahiyas Festival which, when cooked, becomes a culinary delight); Broas or our local version of lady fingers which are popular sweets in this province.

After dinner at the Kamayan sa Palaisdaan located along the boundary of Lucban and Tayabas, we knew we were in trouble — the best kind of trouble, that is. Grilled dishes had an element of fun when eaten on floating cottages and there didn’t seem to be any end to our sudden surge of appetite that was triggered by the high-spirited kita-kumain (let’s eat) setting.

Having been fully nourished, we drove further for nine hours but did not feel weary or bone-tired. The fiesta atmosphere began with the freshly picked produce that lined the national highway.

We found organically grown, native bayabas (guavas) that sparked memories from childhood. We used to pick these pink, sweet and meaty-to-the-bite fruits from our backyard and, sometimes, we got a tummy ache from overeating. One bundle weighing about 1.5 kilos cost us P30. Dirt cheap! How could you not feel good and lucky to have nature’s bounty practically for free? We didn’t have the heart to bargain.

At Legaspi City, we were welcomed by the staff of Venezia Hotel. To our delight, the manager of the hotel, Josie Mateo, was an old colleague from the former Manila Hilton Hotel.

Venezia was severely damaged by the strong typhoons “Milenyo” and “Reming” but this has not affected its standard of quality and service. Rooms and facilities were kept clean and the staff was responsive and clearly motivated to offer assistance.

Bicol cuisine is better known for its dishes cooked in gata or coconut cream. The other key ingredient of Bicol cooking is the sili (hot chili) especially the tiny but potent labuyo.

Most main dishes in the region are based on gata and sili, particularly the way vegetables are cooked. Whether it is banana blossoms, langka (jackfruit) or any edible plant, Bicolanos transform them into delicious dishes topped with more chili.

The most famous dish from Bicol is probably the Bicol Express, a mixture of pork meat and shrimp paste sautéed in tomatoes and onions and lots of green and red chili strips simmered in coconut cream.

Chef Francis Cristobal of La Roca Gardens used chicken instead of pork meat and it tasted just as delicious and picante with labuyo and gata.

Of course, we went mad over the pili nuts and the different ways of preparing them — salted, unsalted, marzipan, yemas, honey coated, nougat or as candies — at the Albay Central Pili Nuts Candy.

Bicol’s main attraction is the Mayon volcano. One tourist took photos of Mayon with clouds of hot steam spewing from its mouth. In jest, he asked, “What tobacco could he be smoking?”

I laughed at his reference to a chain smoker.

Our tourist guide, DOT’s Miss Fe Buela, shared with us another legend: “There once lived a very beautiful native princess who had an uncle named Magayon. He was so possessive of his niece that no man dared to challenge his wrath by courting the favors of the young maiden. One day, however, a brave and handsome warrior was so smitten by the princess that he threw all caution to the wind, clambered up through the window of the royal chamber and enticed her to elope with him.

“With Magayon at their heels, the couple prayed to the gods for assistance. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a landslide buried the raging uncle alive. Local folks now claim that it is Magayon’s anger bursting forth in the form of eruptions.”

Legend or not, the sight of this perfect cone standing against a moving, color-changing sky left me awestruck and thankful.

Visiting Quezon and the Bicol Region drove home the point that our country has been wonderfully blessed with natural wonders that equal, if not edge out, those found in other countries.

We have nature speaking eloquently of the many wonders our country has been blessed with. They speak to us in silence, but then again, maybe not.

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Thanks to Betty Nelle, DOT’s Director for Product Development, Maria Ong-Ravanilla, DOT’s Director of Region 5 in Bicol and Val Congzon of DOT Manila. The fireflies, the butanding and Mount “Magayon” join me in our shouts of “Mabuhay” and “Maraming salamat.”

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Venezia Hotel is located at Renaissance Gardens, Washington Drive, Legaspi City. For inquiries, call (052)820-5824 in Legaspi or 634-7790 in Manila.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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