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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, June 30, 2006

entry arrow11:08 AM | Negros From a Bus Window

Most of us suffer from a paralysis of familiarity and proximity, a condition that dictates that the place where we take root would be the last in our priorities for discovery. Say, the New Yorker who has not seen the Statue of Liberty, or been to Central Park. Or the Dumagueteno who has not been to Siquijor, which is tantalizingly only thirty minutes away (by boat), but is seemingly forever out of reach.

Negros has always been my forgotten destination.

I -- like many of you reading this post -- have lived here my entire life. And yet, I am constantly made aware that I am a stranger, for the most part, of what Negros can offer the intrepid traveler. A quick visit to the provincial tourism office will educate you about what you are missing: the photographer Michael Ocampo has documented considerably the fact that Negros Oriental is teeming with undiscovered waterfalls, caves, lakes, rivers, hills that rival the famous ones in Bohol, beaches, and mountain retreats that should be declared world-class, but have of yet languished in touristic anonymity.

There are days when I mock myself silly for not having once set foot in Lake Balinsasayao, but I comfort myself in knowing that there are others who are worse: I have friends, for example, who have not been to Forest Camp in Valencia, or the sprawling plains of Bundo in Dauin, or have gone dolphin-watching in Bais Bay. Miggy, a poet friend, boasts of having not gone out of Dumaguete's boundaries his entire life -- something I cannot imagine for myself, for how do you live fully when you are caught forever in the vicious gravity of your comfort zone?

Being a stranger to home is not at all uncommon. Possibly, it springs from the notion that home will "always be there," and that if we really want to, it takes only the slightest effort from us to arrange a visit to local landmarks and tourist traps, and satisfy what ounce of curiosity we may have. In other words, home is always too easy to take for granted. Cuernos de Negros, for example, is stamped into the blueprint of my geographic DNA, a drape of mountain ranges so familiar it has virtually disappeared in my everyday consideration, willingly blinded away not by choice but by over-familiarity. Sure, sometimes, while I am walking down the narrow streets of Dumaguete, or when my boat from Cebu is inching to touch port at the Boulevard, I catch a glimpse of its sprawling majesty, the shape of a pregnant woman lying down to sleep. Then the image strikes hard, and holds me, and makes me wonder about beauty and nature and what-not. And then I turn a corner, and forget about it once again.

This summer, circumstances conspired to make me a plucky traveler throughout most of the island, which had me traversing our local highways, from Dumaguete to Bacolod, taking in Negrense countryside in all its varieties and subtleties. The Ceres bus has virtually become a second home, from the air-conditioned behemoths that constantly cross the provincial boundaries, to the rickety small ones which travel to the nether-regions up north and exasperate me in their tendency to pack in passengers like sardine cans while stopping every so often to pick up even more passengers. From sheer familiarity, I can now easily conjure in my imagination the sight of the ticketmaster tapping me on the shoulders asking me where my destination was and proceeding to punch tiny holes in my ticket to mark my fare -- marks so mysterious I have yet to learn how to decipher them.

There are delights, and there are also disappointments, in rediscovering the breadth of Negros, from Bacolod to Dumaguete. Not that my discovery is final and all-reaching. For the most part, all I could do the entire summer was to take in everything from bus windows. I always insist on sitting right beside the window, because I like that shimmer of delight that courses through me as I get fast glimpses of places I will never get to, given my citified and city-bound existence. I do not notice the blur of the places rushing past me as the bus revs on to the next stop: what I notice instead are the colors, and most of all, the smells that emanate from every other spot in the island (what comes to mind now is the sugary scent of Bais, and also the sudden noxious smell of that factory between Bais and Tanjay). There are also the differences between each town, between regions. Negros Occidental, in contrast to the cramped hillsides and bitin plains of Oriental, amazes me with its sprawling wideness, plains that dominate the landscape of Kabankalan, to Himamaylan, to La Carlota. And all that sugar.

Going north in the Oriental side, I like the small-town demeanor of most municipalities, and their special oddities. Sibulan is always a short ride, and remarkably unremarkable, while San Jose's Lala-an Boulevard always strikes me as being both creepy and amazing. There are ghost stories to savor about traveling through this stretch of San Jose -- and they seem even more immediate because of the stark beauty of the whole place. But I love the most the tree-shaded stretch between Manjuyod and Bais and Tanjay, where, on both sides of the highway, sugar fields stretch on and on, and are bordered from each particular hacienda by resplendent flame trees. The roadside old Spanish houses are refreshing, and interesting, blasts from the past -- something distinctly Oriental.

The Bala-as Cliffs, off Bindoy, proves irresistible to my romantic imagination, its sheer drop off the highway softened by the breathtaking view of Tanon Strait. Rustic quiet is all that I can think of when I see Bindoy, or Ayungon, or Tayasan, or Jimalalud. Seeing La Libertad, a town whose poblacion is basically a tiny sprawl in the shape of the letter L, I commented to a traveling companion: "What if you are asked to live in La Libertad for ten years on fifty pesos a day, in exchange for two million pesos at the end of that decade, would you do it?" He answered: "Not if I die the first year from the overwhelming quiet" -- the true metropolitan.

Guihulngan, with its seaside boulevard, curious carabao landmark, and surprising buzz, is a stark contrast to the sleepy countenance of most of northern Negros Oriental. I have come to associate it more, though, as being the requisite bus stop, where I can buy my last bottle of mineral water and a bite of really huge bibingka, before getting off my final destination, in Canlaon. One knows for sure that one is entering the sleepy regions of the north by a strange -- and maybe even sad -- "landmark": there are plastic advertising signs for Guerrero Brandy and Boss Cigarettes everywhere.

Once, to entertain myself in order to keep me from nodding off to sleep, I kept a list of eye-catching barangay names as my bus swept through every quiet point beside the highway. The most memorable ones are surprising and always humorous -- Calagcalag, Tulo-tulo, Ulay, Tuyay, Canluto, Maaslum -- giving the observant traveler endless speculations as to the origins of their strange names. There is also Manjuyod's Aroma Beach Resort, a name that never ceases to remind me ... of dirty things and anatomical nether-regions. Don't ask me why.

Canlaon has been my weekend destination for the past few months, because -- in the interest of uncovering one peculiar aspect of Pinoy pop culture -- I am covering the strange goings-on known as the Hari ng Negros pageant, of which I am going to write at length next week. You can say that Canlaon is a city of lost potential: it is a beautiful place, but it is trapped in some kind of unimaginative vice that I cannot quite explain. I first visited the City in the Clouds when I was a sixth grader -- and the Canlaon in my memory has always been confined to the following sensory memories: a shower of green, and cold shivers.

Today, Canlaon has almost become a shadow of its former itself, and what was once known as the Baguio of the South has succumbed to the death rays of too much sun. My summer tan I got courtesy of not once spending a day in the beach, but spending most of my weekends in Canlaon while chasing waterfalls. Gone are the trees of my memory. Canlaon is surprisingly bald, given the fact that it is a mountain city. I asked a local why this was the case: "They cut down all the trees in the 1990s," he said, with a hint of the apologetic in his voice. That seemed true: the green canopy that draped the cliffs and hillsides of the winding road between Vallehermoso and Oriental Negros's last city to the north have been replaced by uncontrolled agriculture and poor squatter's "real estate" -- ugly houses built virtually on the air, on stilts, on sides of cliffs, obscuring everyone's view of the once magnificent-looking valley. What have replaced the greens are brown patches that resemble bacterial mange on a dirty stray dog. Still, the recent rains have somehow given reprieve to the brown baldness, and grass is finally growing -- quickly easing our sight.

There is almost nothing to do in Canlaon City. Everything closes down, except the karaoke bar, by 7:30 p.m. There is no coffee even in its premiere lodging place -- the whitewashed Canlaon City Pension House which is plunked down on an otherwise lovely compound with a magnificent view of the distant mountains that approximate the beauty of Tuscany, in Italy. I like the people, though, even the staff of the pension house, who had graciously accepted my request of reservation for a July 2 activity, only to be told last week that city officials have revoked my accommodations, because they had guests for a rodeo show.

"But I have a three-week old reservation. Don't you feel it is your duty and responsibility to respect that? Do you honestly expect to greet your visitor coming to your city with this inhospitality?" I said.

I was told instead that some city officials had peculiarly nasty persuasions. Oh, well.

There are no other places to stay in Canlaon, except JCC Inn and Midway Inn with its pet monkeys and dogs -- and that, too, is already fully-booked, also by visitors kicked out of the Pension House. Canlaon dismays me. But, thank God, it is not typical of a Negrense town. The rest of my summer travels around Negros have seen occasions of utmost graciousness and hospitality. And that is enough for me to take kindly to my good old island.


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