Zambales: Why I say ‘yes’ to spur-of-the-moment invites

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing; my friend asked if I wanted to go to the beach the next day and I said, “Why not?”

Sometimes, when you say yes to spur-of-the-moment things, you get this.

I have almost always never said no to travel. There is an allure in seeing new places and discovering new things. Plus, the promise of being able to dip my toes in the ocean was too good to pass up. There were six of us on this trip; five introverts and one extrovert, all of us happy to be out in the sun. We checked into Circles Hostel in San Felipe, Zambales, whose bare-bones accommodations and rustic, artsy theme was precisely its charm. There were no private rooms; you had a choice of either a bunk bed or a hammock, all of them cooled only by ceiling fans and the Zambales breeze, a mosquito net your only protection from the elements. Someone had written “I threw up in this bunk” in mine; I fervently hoped he or she was bluffing. The hostel was filled with graffiti; almost every nook and cranny decorated with pictures and words of encouragement and hope, someone’s thoughts come to life, left behind.

This cat is exactly where it is supposed to be: in everyone else’s way.

We dumped our bags on our beds; to heck with lockers, and ran to the beach. I don’t have to describe the beach. You can see it for yourself in the first photo above. While we were laying down blankets, a guy wandered by and asked if we could watch his belongings for him. He had jumped on a bus from Manila, hoping to run to the beach to forget. He hung out with us for a while, swimming in the ocean, playing Cards Against Humanity while having lunch, then just napping the afternoon away before he had to catch the bus back to Manila. “I’ll find you guys on Facebook,” he said as he waved goodbye. We read and told stories and listened to Beck’s new album and napped some more. “Time moves so slowly here,” my friend said. “I love it.” We found ourselves at the beach again after dinner, this time sitting around a bonfire on a clear night. There were stories, and food, and booze, and a guitar, but most of all, there was company.

We went through a lot of ‘Lord of Light’ and ‘Midnight Society’ jokes very quickly.

We fed the fire and fed ourselves; our hearts, minds and bellies full of friendship and poetry and corn chips. We left the beach just after midnight, somehow making it back to fall asleep in our bunks. We woke the next day, each at his or her own time, everyone slowly converging in the common area to lounge some more, some sprawled on the bean bags that littered the straw-matted floor, some on one of the hammocks that swung from the posts, and others, myself included, clustered around the hostel-provided bananas armed with cups of coffee and a jar of Nutella that someone had thoughtfully brought along. And then it was time to head home. As we loaded our bags into the cars, we knew that we had been part of something special; a magical sort of nothing that manifests, not in extreme emotion, but the lack of it, a total relaxation of the soul. Suddenly, we knew what it meant to be chill. Absolutely nothing happened on this trip, and that was what made it beautiful. I would not have been able to be part of it if I hadn’t said yes to my friend’s invitation, hadn’t been ready to leave in less than a day’s notice, hadn’t been afraid to survive without internet, hadn’t been brave enough to just be. In fact, from the way my friends told it, the whole thing had been a spur-of-the-moment decision on their part too, which just goes to show that sometimes, especially when it comes to vacations, the best courses of action are those that require the least planning.

Buhay na Bato in Leyte’s Rafel Farm

 

Leyte Rafael Farm_1

A few years ago, I found myself in Rafel Farm in Leyte. The farm is a beautiful events place where one can hold elegant parties and host casual but classy lunches.

After such a casual yet classy lunch made up of Filipino favorites, we were left to explore the breathtaking surroundings.

I was looking at the garden near where our van was parked when one of the guys on the trip, a seasoned news photographer, tapped me and surreptitiously pointed to a nearby rock.

“That’s a Buhay na Bato,” he said. “If you look closely, you’ll notice that the crags make it look like a human face, but you’ll only see it if the elemental that lives in the rock lets you.”

wpid-Leyte-Rafael-Farm-2_1.jpg

 

Buhay na bato means “living rock,” he explained, and refers to rocks inhabited by earth elementals. You can tell th by their vaguely humanoid features, which come from having been inhabited by an elemental for so long. He learned about living rocks durung one of his many trips to Mt. Banahaw, one of the most mystical places in the Philippines. The mountain is rife with them, he said, one of the reasons why travelers in the wilderness must always watch where they step.

“Can you see its face?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Look closely,” he urged. “I’m sure it will show itself to you.”

I waited, wondering just how crazy my companion was to be talking aboy stuff like that, and how much crazier I was for believing him.

And then, I saw it. Two shadows for eyes, a sharp jut of nose, the ridge of a knitted brow, mouth set into half-frown.

Maybe I imagined it. Maybe my brain willed my eyes to see what they wanted to see. All I know is that my companion told me to snap a picture, which I did (he said the rock wouldn’t mind), and whenever I look at it until now, I can still see that elemental’s slightly annoyed face posing for me.

Our Lady of Piat, Cagayan Province

One of Cagayan Province‘s biggest draws is the Our Lady of Piat Basilica, which is located in Piat and houses the image of the same name. Our Lady of Piat was brought to Cagayan from Macau, and is said to be miraculous, performing many miracles.

Our Lady of Piat Basilica in Piat, Cagayan

The basilica holds a grand altar, and receives so many visitors that they had to build a separate place for devotees to get their items blessed.

Our Lady of Piat Altar

Devotees can get their items blessed here during specific times and days of the week.

Pilgrims who want to touch the statue of Our Lady of Piat can do so by going round back where a small door gives them access to the statue’s base.

 

Devotees line up to touch a part of the miraculous statue.

The basilica is more than a place of worship. It is also a gathering place for the community, and is an interesting place to people-watch. As with any high-profile pilgrimage center, its grounds abound with vendors selling candles, religious items, toys, and local snacks.

A soldier offers a candle in prayer.

The police doing their morning exercises on basilica grounds.

You don’t have to be a religious devotee to enjoy a visit to Our Lady of Piat. It’s a good place to visit if you’re after a little slice of Cagayan life.

Lallo Church, Lallo, Cagayan Province

Cagayan province was an influential province during the Spanish era, and the some of the biggest reminders of its colonial pasts are the many churches that are still used to this day. Cagayan is especially popular during Holy Week, when many people flock to the province for Visita Iglesia, a practice where people visit anywhere from one to fourteen churches as part of their lenten prayers.

One of the most popular churches in the province is the Lallo Church (sometimes spelled Lal-lo), located in the town of the same name.

The Lallo Church in Lallo, Cagayan.

The town, under its old name Nueva Segovia, used to be the seat of the Archdiocese of the region, before it was moved to Vigan in Ilocos Sur.

The side of Lallo Church, beautifully overgrown with vines and shrubs.

If you cross the street, you can check out the Evangelization Cross encased in glass, as well as take in the view of the nearby river.

Evangelization Cross across Lallo Church.

The river across Lallo Church.

You don’t have to pass by the church if looking at churches is not your thing, but if you find yourself in Lallo anyway, make sure to ask where you can find the famous Lallo Milk Candy. This candy is made from carabao’s milk and  looks like pastillas, tastes like yema, and sells out quite fast.

If, however, you appreciate religious architecture or want to do a Visita Iglesia in the area, Lallo Church is a must.

You can get to Lallo from Tuguegarao via Jeep or van. The church is located along the highway, so the dirver should have no problem dropping you off in front or nearby.

Palaui Island, Cagayan Province

Santa Ana, located on the northeastern tip of Cagayan province, is home to beaches and beach resorts. It is where provincial locals go when they want to relax by the seaside. Santa Ana is also the jump-off point to Palaui Island, a small island that contains the Cape Engaño Lighthouse, a historic lighthouse that first went into operation in 1892.

The Cape Engano Lighthouse stands on a hill in Palaui Island.

It takes less than an hour to get to Palaui from the Sta. Ana pier. Many people come here for an afternoon of swimming and exploring, as aside from the lighthouse, the island has a forest and a waterfall. There are no resorts on the island, but visitors are allowed to camp overnight, or stay in one of the homestays on the island.

Tourists get to Palaui via banca.

Most of the way up to the lighthouse is easily trekkable because of a path, but getting to the path is another matter, as you need to climb a muddy incline to get to the grassy part of the hill. I wasn’t able to go up because of my weak legs, so I asked someone to take pictures of the lighthouse and the view for me.

View from the hill.

Cape Engaño Lighthouse

If you’re up to a little more exploring, you can trek to the waterfall in the middle of the forest. This is quite a challenging journey, as it involves crossing a coral shelf and going through a forest (and crossing at least two creeks in the process). I didn’t make it past the second creek because of my disability, but someone kindly took a picture of what I missed. I don’t feel bad, though. I made it up to the middle of the second creek and that was an adventure all on its own, one that I shall maybe one day write about.

 

But even if I didn’t get to do any of the island activities, I did get to hang out here:

Palaui Island, Cagayan Province

And sometimes, it is what is in front of you that is the most enjoyable.

 

Santa Ana is two hours away from Tuguegarao via jeep or bus, and is about 13-14 hours away from Manila via bus. Only Florida Liner goes directly from Manila to Santa Ana.