Ilocos Norte Dreaming

Danton Remoto
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Ilocos Norte dreaming

When I was younger and ten pounds lighter, I went to Ilocos Norte and remember the brown nipa huts and the empanada I ate near the church. I also remember reading the marker on the house of the poet Leona Florentino.

A few months ago I returned, and saw that the brown nipa huts have been changed by sprawling houses with Mediterranean designs – orange and yellow and red. The empanadas are still there, bigger and hotter than before. And the roads are cleaner, wider, and, as the ads say, smooth as silk.

I went there to visit Sitio Remedios owned by St. Luke’s Medical Director Dr. Joven Cuanang and talk to some leaders up in the north. “It evokes one’s childhood,” I told the good doctor as we sat down to a lunch of inabraw (boiled vegetables), tanguinge sinigang soured with tomatoes, and big squid adobo.

The fishermen, their wives and children – around 100 of them – were just hauling in the nets from the sea. I said it looks like a Cecil B. de Mille production, and pretty soon, the sea would part and we could walk all the way back to China. And Rene, our wicked friend, says that the people have been hired to haul the fish while we were eating, and would soon return to their chores after we were done with lunch. We laughed at the absurdity of our tales.

Dr. Cuanang is a neurologist who went to school at Harvard. His studies into the human brain made him conclude that there is a need, as Rene said, “for a holistic understanding of the human body and mind. The cure to illness involves both body and the spirit. It was this realization that led Dr. Cuanang to heighten his interest in the arts.” Owner of both Boston Gallery in Cubao and Pinto Art Gallery in Antipolo, Dr. C. also pushed the careers of many of the brightest young artists around.

Last year, he bought and restored the vintage houses tumbling down his native Ilocos. His dream: to recreate his childhood more than 50 years ago. And so now we sit here, in Sitio Remedios, an exclusive beachside property in Victoria, Currimao, Ilocos Norte. Around the cobble-stoned plaza stand typical Ilocano houses. The houses have Ilocano furniture, santos, and décor; ivory wood and silver religious icons. The bed and table linens are embroidered in patterns similar to what my late grandmother did. You’re welcomed with frangipani and fresh broad leaves arranged in an arch on your bed. The rooms are air-conditioned, thank God, for the Ilocos sun can be punishing on one’s skin, even if you’ve slathered yourself with SPF 30 as protection. Now I understand better those lovely stories of Manuel Arguilla about the blistering days in the Ilocos. Paoay Church has inspired the elevated chapel in the middle of the community. The Sentro Iloco is the meeting hall, while the Teatro Iloco serves as a venue for cultural shows.

But it is the food that I relish the most. When people tell me that I have gained weight, I am truly happy. And the food at Abrao, the restaurant, is good but not fattening. Well, almost. There are vegetables – fresh, turned into pinakbet, or puki-puki (eggplant mixed with eggs) and of course, seafood freshly caught from the Currimao Bay.

Herencia Café sits in front of Paoay Church, which has been declared a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. We ate pinakbet pizza (super good) the first time we visited. Next time we dropped by, we ate igado (pork with liver, lungs heart and kidney) and bagnet (Ilocano lechon kawali) with KBL or kamatis, bagoong and lasuna (tomato, fish paste, and shallots).

Back in Sitio Remedios, we had thick chocolate that Dr. Cuanang says is the best drink if one wants to fall asleep. We drank that along with fresh biscocho from Rene’s family in Pasuquin. The mosquitoes feasted on Jessica’s skin. I was spared, and listened to the sound of the sea and the conversation lighting up the night.

The next day I met Governor Michael Marcos-Keon. He is a first-term governor and already, you could sense the change in the place. The clerks sit upright and work silently. No TV sets distract them from their work. You can’t find the hum of gossip and idle chatter that you normally find in other government offices. In these chambers, work seems better than words.

I talk to the Governor, who looks like Robert De Niro. He tells me that his four priorities are health, agriculture, tourism and education, especially focused on the youth. Agriculture is the bedrock, since 64 % of the people depend on it. Health is top priority, with loans, grants and equity coming in from the Asian Development Bank, the Dept. of Health, and the European Community. Gov. Keon is also improving the provincial hospitals and building more rural health units, as well as bringing doctors and nurses to the barangay health centers.

As for tourism, Gov. Keon doesn’t want Pagudpud to be “overloaded like Boracay. We have many sites of great natural beauty, and that is why we want to focus on eco-tourism.” A new international airport is in the offing, as well as a convention center and five-star hotels. The Chinese consulate will be set up this year, which will open Ilocos further to Chinese tourists.

The next day was our last day, and we visited the sand dunes near Fort Ilocandia. Here, Tom Cruise shot Born on the Fourth of July. And now, here, the nearby sea is still and clear as glass. A wind blows from nowhere, turning our clothes into the shape of sails, like a country setting out for a new journey.

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