Vigan, Philippines: Restaurants & Ruins, Empanadas & Españoles

Baguio is the only bump in a long ride up the coast from Manila to the far reaches of north Luzon.  I’m sure there’s a route that hugs the coast the entire way, but I wanted to stop at Baguio first, before continuing on to Vigan.  Manila is only 150mi/250km away from Baguio, but after a seven-hour bus ride, seems much farther.  That’s because the going is so slow through town after congested town full of motorbikes and three-wheelers putt-putting around and clogging up the main road, that it’s almost impossible to travel more than 40m/60k per hour.  Factor in rest stops and it’s a slow go.


It’s worth it, though.  I was skeptical up until the last hour that Baguio was truly a “mountain” town, but sure enough, we finally start climbing, and the scenery immediately becomes more interesting and the roadsides full of wood-carvings and furniture made from the local forests.  This region is called the “Cordillera (mountain range),” sure, but without any real connection to the Spanish language other than through the past, terms are subject to change over time.  It’s been noted over and again that language proceeds exactly like biological evolution, for some strange reason, some innate law that has yet to be firmly and finally articulated.


So after Baguio the road continues on through the hills for about another hour or so, and then heads right back down to the coast again, back to the congestion of an exploding population forced onto an infrastructure that fails to keep up.  At least on this side of the hill it’s firmly and finally separated from the metropolitical madness that is Bangkok, uh, I mean Manilla.  Apparently the population of the Philippines has doubled in the last fifty years, ‘nuff said.  I’m starting to dislike these dense congested lowlands so much that I’ve already decided to drop Donsol & Legaspi down in south Luzon from my itinerary for this trip.  Swimming with the whales in Donsol sounds way cool, and Legaspi sounds nice enough, too, but it’s the distances between them that I dread.


I love cruising through the countryside more than anything else, really, but not all the civilization in between.  The highlands and the world-famous Ifugao rice fields will be the focus of my trip, I’ve decided.  If I do go south, I’ll fly, one way at least.  But all that’s after I return to Baguio.  For now Vigan is the project.  I’ve been to so many of the various Spanish Colonies around the world—including the original one at Las Palmas de Canarias—that it would be a shame to miss it.  Five hours or so up the road from Baguio, it’s the town considered the most representative of the Spanish colonial era, an honor for which it’s won UNESCO World Heritage status. 


It’s pretty nice, too, I’ll have to say.  Quite a bit of the old Spanish architecture is still here, but it’s more than that, for it’s somehow embedded into the collective consciousness, too.  They even have empanadas, albeit something of their own style.  Other than that the cuisine follows themes present elsewhere in the Philippines.  Maybe this is where there remain some Spanish speakers left over from the old days.  Except for the “pero…pero…pero (but…but) that punctuate modern spoken Pilipino/Tagalog, you might not know just how full of Spanish the language actually is.  But like mitochondrial DNA, it’s there, floating without a nucleus down through history through the female lineage.  That’s a metaphor. 


Spanish mostly occupies that middle level of the language that is not necessarily essential, but highly useful, the artifacts of culture, especially cuisine, but also including names dates and the hours of the day.  It’s immediately obvious in the written language, albeit with some spelling changes.  With cuisine, though, the original spellings tend to remain intact, more or less.  So I had arrozcaldo for supper last night, good as any rice soup I’ve had anywhere in Asia or my own kitchen, and pandesal is a staple for continental-style breakfasts.  Adobo is the national dish, of course, but I’m not sure who copied whom with that.  Of course that has nothing to do with the presyo dyaryo of rice.


Everyone has Spanish surnames of course, with the possible exception of the Chinese.  I guess you could get some interesting combinations there, maybe Wong-Garcia, or even Fong-Torres ... use your imagination.  At one time Spanish must’ve played a role similar to that of English in the present.  In fact I suspect even within my lifetime you could once have honestly said that “everyone in the Philippines knows Spanish.”  But you can’t say that any more.  I’ve heard tell of a group of speakers hanging on precariously somewhere in the archipelago, but I’m not sure if that’s current info.  Will English eventually suffer the same fate?  It probably depends on the evolution of their own national language.  The more it develops as an educational medium, the less the need for English.   Is edukasyon the solusyon, or would it kill the Philippines greatest asset?


The Chinese are equally present in the Filipino cuisine, with such staples as sio pao and sio mai on every corner, and chau fan and lumpia in almost every restaurant.  In general, though, the native culinary approach doesn’t differ much from that of up-country Thai, if not Thai restaurants abroad, meat and veggies in creative combinations over rice.  They’ve even got sticky rice in very similar forms to that of the Thai.  Too bad they don’t have brown rice.  Noodles play almost exactly the same role, as alternatives to rice.  Then there’s quail eggs, fried pork skins, coconut-based concoctions, even fried chicken skins!  It all seems so familiar… everything but the temples.     


But Vigan has got as many of those as you’ll find anywhere, churches, that is, and santos to boot, some of the nicest carved wooden ones I’ve ever seen.  I might have to buy one; I could use the divine intervention.  I haven’t seen anything this nice since Guatemala, and they were no cheaper than this … not that you can put a price on a saint…or a priest…or a poet.  But maybe the nicest vestige of Spanish culture is the presence of plazas in the town center…or even the town center itself fer Chrissakes!  Such is not usually the stuff of Asiatica.


The ubiquitous Chinese tend to occupy every available line of sight with a billboard, or a logo, or a pretty girl, something for sale creeping through the back alleys into your mind.  Malang is my favorite city in Indonesia for that very reason, that and the fact that it sits up at several thousand feet.  No tourists go there.  But here not only is there a town center, but there are even horse-drawn carriages to supplement the colorful three-wheelers which dominate local transport.


The only tourist activity on hand here seems to be the “river cruise,” but that doesn’t sound too compelling, so I walk several miles to the beach and back for my “day trip,” eventually playing basketball with the kids at my destination as my payoff.  I haven’t done something like this in … years. 

I go up to a store with a large Coca Cola™ sign.  I flag the old man over.

            “I’d like a Coke, please, ice cold.”


            “How about Pepsi?”


            “How about an RC?”

            “Seven pesos.”

            “Siete pesos?”

That’s seventeen US cents, and I get an SNL routine to boot.  I’m good.  I figure if I’m going to try Spanish out on anyone, this would be the place.  Otherwise I’d just be un rebelde sin causa.  So I give it a go … but no luck.  Oh well.


The picture on the eatery’s wall looks like green beans, so I order that with rice.  It turns out to be stir-fried chilies.  I guess that’s why they called them sili.  Oops.  I brace myself, then dig in.  It’s delicious.  I think an episode of history has just become clearer.  I’m good.  I go back to Baguio tomorrow, then Sagada—hippie capital of the north—the next day.  Bus tickets in these parts can not only not be purchased online, they can’t even be purchased in advance.  Sounds like somebody needs a computer.  Me, I’ll revert to an earlier era of travel not only without reservations, but without a guidebook to wander the streets looking at, something that I hardly ever bothered with anyway.  That sounds good to me.  C U there.

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