MEET THE PILGRIMS. Traveling with friends I haven’t seen in years is a special occassion to touch base and recall the good old days when we were in what used to be an all-boys Catholic school in Mendiola. The itinerary set for us by Moses, who came to town after recently passing the bar exam in Australia covers a thanksgiving pilgrimage in Manaoag, lunch in Alaminos, dinner in Pampanga, and several hours on the road. The pilgrims aboard two SUVs rendezvoused at a 24-hour burger joint along NLEX. In the one SUV were Moses, Niño, JM, Rod, and myself. In the other were Traj, Laica, Lailani, Mickey, and Casey.
At 5 a.m., like rowdy school children on a field trip, we rolled northwest through Bulacan and the last town of Tarlac to reach urbanized Urdaneta City. We knew we were in rural Pangasinan when the monotonous view of rice fields and sugar cane plantations were broken by alternating vistas of nipa mangroves, fishpond, and stalls selling freshly harvested oysters along the highway.
SITIO SANTA MONICA. The town of Manaoag was originally named after the mother of the saint that founded the Augustinian order. The Augustinians established Sitio Santa Monica in 1595 and was succeeded by the Dominicas in 1605.
Wedding rites were being held when we arrived in Manaoag Church at mid-morning. Under the enormous, octagonal dome in front of the main altar were a couple exchanging I do’s before the ivory image Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de Manaoag.
THE LADY WHO CALLS. How the town was renamed
Manaoag is narrated in a folk story. A farmer on his way home from a day on the field was surprised to see a glowing tree that took the shape of the Virgin Mary. A voice from the apparition instructed him to build a church on the site. He rushed to the mission house to report the message but he was dismissed by the friar. The story of the apparition spread throughout other towns and soon pilgrimages were made on apparition site of the Dinad Apo ya mantatawag (the Lady who calls). The phrase was eventually made shorter to Manaoag.
Just like the generations of pilgrims who came to the town of Manaoag, our group whispered our prayers to the Lady who calls.
PILGRIM RITUALS. It has been a tradition among pilgrims to light candles with their petitions at the candle gallery behind the church. Prayer candles with printed image of the Virgin are sold by ambulant vendors and at the church’s souvenir shop. Some votive candles come in different shapes and colors.
At the souvenir shop, pilgrims buy statues of the Virgin, rosaries, and bottles of coconut oil that is believed to be a cure-all for different illnesses. Some bottles sold along the roadside contain roots and sundry objects infused in oil. Pilgrims gather around a priest stationed near the holy water dispenser to have their religious articles blessed. Some pilgrims request the priest to recite prayers and sprinkle holy water into their vehicles.
THE ROADSIDE EMPORIA. Outside the church complex is a kaleidoscope of local colors, flavors, and shapes from the yellow green banana leaf wrapped around the yummy tupig and the glossy golden basket that contains the patupat, an Ilocano version of suman to the sweet chico pineras and cylindrical rootcrop called togue.
From the roadside emporia, I finally choose to bring home an alat basket with its flexible bamboo cone lid called the hasang where freshly caught fish is dropped into this wide-shouldered fish creel.
LUNCH AT ALAMINOS. With our souls nourished and tummies starving, we left Manaoag an hour before lunch and raced further into Pangasinan to Alaminos, a town famous for the Hundred Islands. But for a group of hungry friends, Alaminos will forever be synonymous to the warm hospitality and sumptuous lunch prepared for us by Hecson Lee.
For lunch, Hecson served us with food to die for begining with the papaitan. Paired off with steaming, fragrant rice, the shrimp and crabs dish were heavenly. The longanisa, the bangus, and the chopseuy are found elsewhere but the fliar and flavor is endemic only in the Alaminos home of Hecson Lee. Before leaving, our thoughful host gave each of us a personalized souvenir.
PALUTO IN PAMPANGA. We reached Angeles City to meet our friend Harvey just in time for dinner. A well-loved public servant, councilor Harvey served as our student council president back in college.
Just like how we were back in the day, we exchanged stories and reminisced college days while we feasted on Kapampangan-style paluto of chicharon bulaklak, liempo, bulalo, pork and chicken barbeque, stuffed hito and squid that Harvey personally selected for us from a smorgasbord of meat and seafood.
EPILOGUE. Just like for most of us with the Christmas season, December is a busy time for councilor Harvey especially a week before the Lantern Festival in San Fernando. We’re thankful we found time to reunite.
Harvey proposed to set another get together this time at Abe’s Farm in Magalang or at Atching Lilian in Mexico or witness the Mal a aldo on Good Friday. He promised to give us the front seat to this bloody street theater in barrio Cutud. With all these, we found another reason to gather for another roadtrip just like how we did in Manaoag and Hecson Lee’s Pangasinan. Pampanga is an equally interesting province waiting to be explored with friends.
-10 December 2016
Feast of the Our Lady of Loreto | Human Rights Day