I made my first trip to Manila from Pasuquin in the mid-‘60s when I was probably five or six years old. We rode an “owner-type” jeep, with an uncle and a driver in the front seats, and me at the back. It was dawn when we started, travelling on mostly gravel roads. When we got to Ilocos Sur, gravel turned to asphalt—a legacy of the first Ilocano president: Elpidio Quirino.
A few more hours and we were in La Union, then Pangasinan. The North Diversion Road was still being constructed, so we followed MacArthur Highway on our way south, through the Central Luzon provinces of Tarlac, Pampanga and Bulacan.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Monumento in Caloocan. The electric lights of Manila were a revelation to one who was used to the candle- and Coleman-lit nights of my hometown. The full moon nights, when the bright moon’s rays would trace the uniform white squares on the capiz windows, were the only exceptions to pitch-black evenings. There was hardly any traffic to speak of, and it probably took all of 15 minutes from Monumento to Sampaloc where my aunt welcomed me to their rented apartment in Dos Castillas.
It was in a small compound, and many of the tenants were Ilocano, with a few from Bicol, the Visayas and Tarlac. The sounds of Tagalog, or what I imagined to be Tagalog, were incomprehensible to my little self. It was not until I moved to Manila in 1968 that I really learned to understand and speak Tagalog.
These days, we need only three hours from Balintawak, through NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, exiting at Rosario. The ride from there to Ilocos Norte may take a little more than five and a half hours, less if driving at night.
Whenever I head north, as the big city recedes into the distance, the heart flutters and the mind relaxes with every kilometer traversed. The night air seems cooler; the waning moon looks somewhat more inviting.
In the midst of this year-long quarantine, Ilocos takes on a somber tone: it is warm and humid, and the roads are dusty, with occasional bursts of color from the hardy bougainvilleas that line the highway. Because of Covid protocols, there is less vehicular traffic and fewer people. It is like going back to the cuaresma of my childhood when the beaches were empty and entire villages were silent, save for the murmured prayers in chapels and homes.
It is this silence that I find whenever I visit Sitio Remedios in Currimao, along the town’s beautiful bay. It was inspired by memories of gentle and innocent time. Capilla San Miguel is its heart, facing the main plaza and the sea. There are seven houses around the plaza, transferred from their former locations in various towns of Ilocos Norte. It took all of four months to rebuild them in early 2006, and opened to the public on the first of May of that year.
Fresh seafood, vegetables, and the inevitable bagnet with KBL (kamatis, buggoong, lasona), as well as fruits of the season are served, whenever possible freshly caught and picked. There are no TV sets to distract the guests, no intrusion, just the soft sound of the waves, and the refreshing breeze.
It is a place to rest, and be at peace. It is home, where one inevitably returns.