Saturday, February 7, 2009


My brother won in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Kabataan Essay category when he was in 1st year college (he wrote the entry at the end of his high school senior life). I decided to give it a try last year. The theme was, “If you were to take a foreigner to only one place in the Philippines for only one day, where would it be and why?” The blog entry title is actually the title of this piece.


“Why do foreigners bother to come to the Philippines?”

I don’t mean that to sound sarcastic or anything, because honestly, it’s something that I used to always think about. Maybe because every single time, the thought itself struck me as something as complicated as, say, Martial Law.

For one, I couldn’t seem to put how Westerners still flock to our country despite the abductions of Father Bossi and the Burnhams, which I thought should’ve served as some kind of “DO NOT ENTER” sign to them. With a variety of more exotic, more attractive places out there to choose from – Singapore, Japan, China, Thailand, for instance – I couldn’t help wondering whether foreigners are only after having their pictures taken with the perfect cone of Mt. Mayon or the idyllic panorama of the Chocolate Hills as a scenic backdrop. Coming from a nation with 7,107 equally-blessed islands, it’s surreal to believe that people are only after our God-given beaches and mountains. There has to be a bigger, much stronger reason for that.

But constantly thinking about that only led me to blind alleys. So there, foreigners come here, period. And they arrive in a sun-drenched Philippines hearing the very enthusiastic “Mabuhay” (a greeting generally meant as welcome and hello) from plane and airport employees, not knowing that thousands of Filipinos, on the other hand, are headed overseas, most even wishing to switch places with these tourists. It’s all part of one huge irony. Lately, however, I’ve began entertaining a newer, even grander thought:

What if I were the one to take these tourists around the country, instead of having them lose their way, fall prey to snatchers, or go see and visit just the “ordinary stuff?” It’s a brilliant idea – at least for me. I can perfectly picture myself walking ahead of a noisy group of backpackers, pointing out this and that, talking about historical tidbits, complete with a megaphone at hand.

Being underaged, however, I guess it’s one idea that’s just going to be an entertaining daydream for me. So anyway, say, it’s just a one-man team, and the guy has only a single day to spare? There’s only one place that comes to mind: Iloilo City.

Many people would find this an oddly interesting choice. After all, those who come to the country usually hie off to the cool mountain villas of Baguio or the white sand beaches of Boracay, some even preferring to spend the entirety of their stay in the congested atmosphere of the metropolis. But if there’s one reason that surpasses all others about my pick for a destination, it would be this: Iloilo City is my home.

I want this visitor to come to Iloilo because I want him to know my home. I want him to see another side of the Philippines – one without childish politics in the papers, one without the smog and literally bumper-to-bumper traffic, and one without commercialized beaches and malls that are perennially full to overflowing. I want him to realize that there is still another side to the country – one that’s not Manila but also not Sulu or Batanes.

Much more than that, however, Iloilo is the one city in the Philippines that I know about best. Imagine a field trip to the animal kingdom: Elephants would not be teaching you how to stalk prey by the riverbanks, nor would a gator talk about the importance of having ivory tusks, right? The point is, because Iloilo is my hometown, I can certainly cater to all of my visitor’s needs, give him the most informative and relaxing tour there is, and make his stay uncomplicated and comfy – thereby, making the most out of his trip. If the guy only has a day to spend, then I might as well help make it as memorable and enjoyable as a flight to the moon.

If I appear to sound a bit biased, it’s because it’s not just for the sole reason of the city being my home that I’m taking my visitor there. Iloilo may be less popular compared to the likes of Cebu and Palawan, but it nonetheless possesses certain aspects to which other places in the country lose out to.

To start with, the place offers an entirely different atmosphere. It all begins from the moment the plane touches down the airport: On one side, there stands what has been named “the country’s most beautiful airport terminal”; beyond the length of the runway, the majestic peaks of the provincial border loom like bluish shadows. Downtown, the nostalgic tone is unavoidable, especially as one meets the Hispanic edifices and narrow streets interloping with paved roads and modernized clusters of buildings, the hustle and bustle of the metropolis fused with that small-town, quiet-village ambiance. It is exactly that “big-city-meets-the-province” feel that puts the place in a league all its own – a uniquely rustic yet urban piece of land.

After all, travel is more than just obscenely huge malls and packed museums; it is a journey into another world, a cultural immersion. As the saying goes: “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” Visiting Iloilo is basically an all-in-one package; it has the three things that matter most in travel.

First of all, there are the people themselves. If there’s one characteristic that defines the Ilonggos best, it would have to be their way of speaking. I always chuckle at how newcomers in the city find the spoken language baffling yet captivating. Think of it as saying “Do you want me to punch you?” the same way as “You’re such a nice girl?” sans the glaring eyes and harsh, challenging tone. Well, that’s aside from their supposed frugality (as compared to their fellow Hiligaynon speakers in Negros) – a main reason why Mang Inasal, the grilled chicken resto, dominates the fast food business there. Otherwise, smiles and laughter usually fill every corner of the city – Iloilo’s not called the “City of Love” for nothing, after all.

When it comes to places of interest, Iloilo certainly does not lose out to its sister cities. A city tour, for one, takes only half a day – ample proof of how small the city is – yet the sights that one can visit are actually numerous and distinctive: Molo Church and its all-female-saints line-up, Jaro Cathedral and its belfry, the harbor and Fort San Pedro, Chinatown and Calle Real, to name a few. Simply put, Iloilo is one place where an afternoon can be spent with an unfussy, enlightening walk by the sidewalks. And in many ways, it’s actually at the crossroads of Western Visayas – where Boracay, Guimaras Island, UNESCO Heritage Site Miag-ao Church, Antique, and even Bacolod City are all within easy reach.

Finally, if there’s one factor that matters most in travel, it’s food – and Iloilo definitely has its unique and well-known food culture to boast, and one that has been said to be extremely palatable. I can now say that with certainty, given that every time we have non-Ilonggo guests, they leave the city with palates longing for more of the local cuisine – plus, some extra pounds. The most recent evidences for that are some of my brother’s classmates in Manila, who came to visit a few weeks ago. During the day of their flight back, they were all visibly talking about how “healthy” they’ve become. With the famed Lapaz Batchoy and Pancit Molo leading the menu, plus goodies from the fabled Biscocho Haus, it’s hard not to see why.

By the time my dear visitor finishes his day in the city, I’m positive that the way he views our nation would already be in a more positive light. That’s very plausible, considering that he gets a glimpse of some not-so-famous city that aims to be labeled as first class within seven years, running under the slogan of “USWAG Iloilo” – Go Forth Iloilo! And with the slightest spark of hope within me, I hope that this new friend of mine will be more than determined to spread the word about Iloilo City, and do his part in making my hometown even more progressive than it currently is.

Because in the end, travel will never be about grandiosity or luxury; it will always be about experience and culture. That’s the real Iloilo City: where people continue to smile, laugh, and feast amidst a bleak political and economic setting; where the atmosphere has more than just Eiffel Towers and Great Walls; and where tourists are offered that once-in-a-lifetime experience of the real classic meaning of “Mabuhay!” That’s something only few people realize, and few places offer. That’s what makes this country different. And that’s exactly why foreigners continue to flock to the Philippines.

Allow me to greet you “Mabuhay!” – anytime.

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