Monday, October 11, 2010


The Galeon Andalucia at Pier 13, Manila.
Cellphone photo by Marra PL. Lanot.

October 8, 2010, was celebrated as the Día del Galeón, or Day of the Galleon. It was the very first celebration of the Unesco-declared Día del Galeón, and the celebration was held in the Philippines, which was supposed to be the host of something called the “International Día del Galeón Festival 2010: Connecting Continents.”

I learned about the event only the day before from a Philippine Daily Inquirer report, which came out the day after the Galeón Andalucia, a replica of a 17th-century Spanish galleon, sailed into Philippine waters and docked at Pier 13 of Manila’s South Harbor. The ship was supposed to be open to the public for boarding and viewing on October 8 and 9, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not join my wife, Marra PL. Lanot, when she decided to take a look at the Galeón Andalucia and take a few pictures with her Nokia cellphone.

So I decided instead to dig up an article I wrote 20 years ago, when a travel magazine assigned me to check out a report that a life-size replica of a Spanish galleon was being built somewhere in Cebu, and to use that galleon as the peg for a travel feature on Cebu. I wonder whatever happened to that envisioned Galeón Cebu, which was to be named the Infanta Filipina. I read somewhere, not too long ago, that it was the project of a group headed by or including Inquirer lifestyle columnist Cory Quirino, but the only information I could get about that, from a cursory googling, comes from “Then & Now,” Norma Japitana’s entertainment column in the Philippine Star.

In her column posted on on September 19, 2010, Norma J reprinted something she had originally written in 1990, the same year I wrote my travel article. “Andy Williams came and got a standing ovation because he made us remember The Shadow of Your Smile, Our Love is Here to Stay and Days of Wine and Roses,” Norma J wrote on June 26, 1990. “The fact that he came to help build the Spanish Galleon of Cory Quirino’s group made it more worthwhile.”

Anyway, for all it’s worth, and in belated commemoration of Día del Galeón, here’s slightly revised version of the piece I wrote back in 1990. It first appeared in Continental Airlines’ Pacific Travelogue 1990, published in Honolulu by EastWest Magazine Co. Ltd.

Marra at the helm of the Galeon Andalucia.

Photo by a volunteer tour guide, using Marra's cellphone.


On the road in Cebu, “an island in the Pacific.”


ON THE LATE-AFTERNOON flight from Manila to Cebu, I found myself seated beside a young white Anglo-Saxon blonde, whom I naturally took to be a scuba-diving backpacker out to explore the island’s fabled coral reefs. But when I asked where she was from, she said, “Cebu,” and started speaking in Cebuano to prove it. She turned out to be the Cebu-born daughter of British nationals; her father was an official in the copper mines. Cebu springs such surprises on the unwary visitor.

I was on my way to Cebu, a Philippine province 587 kilometers south of Manila, to take a look at a galleon in the making. There, I was told, a project had been launched to build a life-size replica of Spain’s ancient sailing ship. Originally made for war and subsequently used for commerce, the galleon in its planned reincarnation was to be equipped with state-of-the-art technology and modern-day conveniences for the benefit of the ocean-cruising tourist trade: the Love Boat in 16th-century raiment.

My seatmate on the plane had heard of the project but didn’t know exactly where in Cebu the galleon was being built. She was not the only one in the dark. I asked around almost as soon as I hit the ground, and nobody could direct me to the proper shipyard or to a city office. The local tourism unit provided handouts with a lot of useful information (for instance: the Japanese accounted for the most number of foreign tourists to Cebu, with 37,538 in 1988, followed by the Hongkong Chinese, 17,173, and the Americans, 13,947), but there was no mention of a galleon. It was still a drawing-board concept; it was not yet a tourist draw.

Killing time and following up some leads, I went around Cebu City, the provincial capital. I had earlier enjoyed a panoramic view of the Queen City of the South (as it bills itself) from the Cebu Plaza, the plush mountainside hotel in which I was billeted courtesy of the Department of Tourism. A closeup showed a feverish construction boom, which in a few years will radically alter the face of the metropolis. For the moment, however, it still retained a good deal of its Old World charm. This was particularly noticeable in Fort San Pedro, the country’s oldest and smallest Spanish-built stone fort, which houses the tourism office, and in Casa Gorordo, one of the few Spanish houses in Cebu to have survived the bombing of the last world war. Both places have been converted into museums where the elegant relics of a bygone era are on permanent display.

While having a sandwich at a place called Balls Burger, I watched the passing parade. No longer much in evidence were the leisurely tartanillas, Cebu’s unique horse-drawn rigs, and once the chief form of public transport for prole and gentry alike. In their place were other aspirants for the title of King of the Road: the motorized tricycle, basically a motorcycle with a sidecar that can carry up to 15 passengers, to the astonishment of the motorcyles’ Japanese makers; the trisikad, a bicycle with a sidecar, its name being a bilingual pun combining tricyle and sikad (Cebuano for “kick”); the jeepney, a national symbol; and the meterless taxicab. With taxis you stated your destination, the driver named a price, you haggled if you could, and only when the two of you had agreed on the fare were you allowed to get in. Since I didn’t know my way around and didn’t speak Cebuano, taxis proved more convenient than Rent-a-Car, and the drivers, eager to show off their fluency in Manila Tagalog, were a rich source of local lore about the sexual habits of Cebu’s politicians. But they knew nothing about the galleon.

By this time I was about to give up on the galleon and had decided to look into the better-known attractions of Cebu, a place advertised in travel posters in Europe as “an island in the Pacific.” (The catchphrase prompted at least one official of the central government to criticize this apparent effort to dissociate gentle Cebu from the rest of the rowdy country.) Luckily I visited an old friend in Liloan, a small town about an hour’s ride from Cebu City, famed for its flaky otap and crunchy rosquillo biscuits, and for having produced nationally known beauty queens and movie stars. My friend introduced me to a guy who shall hereinafter be referred to as Pardy.

Pardy is the kind of colorful character every travel writer should try bumping into. A man darkened by sun and sea, with an overflowing belly reminiscent of the Chinese Buddha’s, he was given to atrocious puns like: “The police, they are up to some police-ness again.” He gave me a calling card on which he is described as having “no phone, no address, no money, no job, no prospects,” with the added information that he “specializes in underwater demolition, revolution, gunrunning, bootlegging, civil wars, smuggling, orgies, prayer meetings and church socials.” And he said he could take me to the shipyard where the galleon was being built. We shook hands on that.

BRIGHT AND EARLY the next morning Pardy came to pick me up at my hotel in a battered Toyota driven by his sidekick, improbably named Marlon. Actually, he should have been named Evel Knievel. He had no qualms about overtaking cars which were in the process of overtaking other cars, even if we happened to be negotiating hairpin turns on heartbreak hills. My balls, as the Tagalog saying goes, climbed up to my throat.

I had told Pardy the galleon wasn’t my only goal; I was also interested in getting a sampling of what Cebu had to offer to tourists. He now informed me we would first visit Moalboal and stay there overnight. From one of the handouts I had picked up at the tourist office, I would later learn that Moalboal is a town on the southwest coast, 89 kilometers from Cebu City. Pardy told me it was a place frequented by scuba divers and snorkelers who go for off-the-beaten-path vacations.

On the east coast the ride was a smooth one. Somewhere along the way I espied a signboard above the door of a nipa hut saying, “Welcome to Hare Krishna Paradise,” and in town after town, billboards announced “cock derbies” sponsored by “cockers’ clubs.” I was reminded of a story told of the Cebuano as gambler. It seems that churchgoing cockfighters often went to communion just so they could pocket the eucharistic hosts, which they would later feed to their fighting cocks. With the kind of faith that moves mountains, they believed bread that had been transformed into the body of Christ had the miraculous power of making cocks strong and victorious in battle.

We got off the beaten path as soon we started to cross over to the western side, by way of a gravelly mountain road with no railings to obstruct our view of heart-pounding ravines. We roared through a market area, all bustle and excitement, pungent with the myriad smells of peasant commodities being sold or exchanged: goats, pigs, cows, carabaos, salt, corn grits, firewood. After what felt like an eternity, we came down to a breathtaking view of the sea, so clear and shallow you could see the white sand shining underneath. It was this wading-depth coastline that gave the island its original native name, Sugbo, meaning, “to walk in the water.”

We bumped on, noting that long stretches of the west-coast road were being cemented, which means smoother sailing in the future for accidental tourists. Three hours after we left Cebu City, we were on the dirt road leading to Moalboal’s beach. We passed an empty, solitary structure bearing the sign “Moalboal Tourist Sports Complex”--actually a cockpit--and then suddenly we were at the end of the road, an oasis of cottages and bamboo pavilions with names like Paradise Inn and Eve’s Kiosk. A number of one-room “schools” offered to teach scuba diving in eight easy lessons, and rented out the necessary outfits and equipment. It wasn’t tourist season, but there must have been more than two dozen white men and women in the place, in swimwear, scuba gear, or regulation tees and shorts.

After a sumptuous lunch of steamed crabs and grilled fish, fresh out of the sea, and washed down with San Miguel beer, we took a siesta. I thought I would wake up with aching muscles and joints, but didn’t. We had another beer at Eve’s Kiosk, and got a briefing from Eve herself. She showed us an old brochure, with faded colored pictures, describing a “mysterious underwater cave” in the “quaint little diving island of Moalboal, beautiful and unexplored.” The brochure called on the reader to “discover the secrets of the Philippine seas” by making a “descent to darkening depths,” with its “kaleidoscope of colors” and “structured cave-like coral walls [that] pulsate with tropical marine life.”

Fired by the promotional prose, we hied ourselves to a diving school. There was a speedboat scheduled to take scuba-diving students and enthusiasts to a nearby island where, the shop attendant assured me, the deep blue offered fabulous sights. But my landlubber instincts--which have instilled in my bones a deathly fear of any body of water that goes deeper than my neck--had taken over. I settled for snorkel and flippers, which together could be rented for 15 pesos per hour.

I stayed close to shore, avoiding the sudden drop in the sandbank. But even here there was enough “pulsating tropical marine life” to dazzle this first-time snorkeler. The Jackson Pollock permutations of coral, the multifarious species of tropical fish, dappled, candy-striped, of various shapes and sizes--I had seen these in aquaria before, but there was nothing like seeing them underwater, being surrounded by them, floating with them. For the first time in my life I saw a live starfish of lapis-lazuli blue. The haze of aquamarine before my goggled eyes and the sound of my own breathing contributed to the eerie beauty of it all. It gave me an inkling of what made scuba divers rave about Cebu, and made me rue my own fear of the deep.

THE NEXT DAY we left Moalboal, but not before getting a full tank from a hut that sold gasoline stored in liter-sized Coke bottles. The gasoline seller wore a T-shirt that said: “Don’t shoot journalists.”

We were back in Cebu City at noon, but had lunch in the next town, Mandaue, in an improvised outdoor restaurant that served succulent barbecued chicken with puso, rice served in little triangular packs of coconut leaves, in which they had been steamed. Afterwards we proceeded to the island of Mactan.

Connected to the main island by a bridge almost a kilometer long, Mactan is the first and last place that the plane-borne visitor to Cebu sees, because it is the site of the international airport. It is also famous for many other things: its world-class beach resorts, its distinctive limestone (known in the Philippines as Mactan stone), its guitars, and the historical fact that Ferdinand Magellan’s 16th-century dream of circumnavigating the globe ended here, when he was killed on the beach by the warriors of the native chieftain Lapulapu.

We looked around for guitar-makers and learned they were all to be found in two barrios, Maribago and Abuno. No one seemed to know the reason for this concentration of skills. Perhaps there was a forest in these barrios once, but now all the wood used for the making of the guitar, such as Philippine mahogany and pinewood, come from Mindanao. We found our way to Lilang’s, reputedly the largest guitar and handicrafts factory in Abuno. In one of the workshops, export-quality classical guitars were being made by an assembly line of twelve men, specialists in various aspects of the craft, from the cutting of the wood to the varnishing of the finished guitar. In an adjoining showroom, a Japanese couple examined samples of the native 14-string mandolin called banduria, and shelves full of ukuleles decorated with painted palm trees flanking the word Hawaii.

Less than a kilometer from Lilang’s was the backyard workshop of a 67-year-old artisan named Angel, who said he had been making guitars since he was 10 years old. His three brothers also made guitars, and their two the sisters sold them. They had learned the craft from their parents, but now none of Angel’s children seemed interested in carrying on the family tradition, and his apprentices were the children of his neighbors. A couple of assistants helped him, but he did all the major tasks himself, seated on a log outside the door of his workshed, his bare feet touching ground, while stray dogs drifted in and out, and tethered fighting cocks crowed ceaselessly. At the time of our visit he was at work on a bajo de arco, a double bass, commissioned by the priest of a nearby parish.

A visit to Mactan, Pardy said, would not be complete without paying homage to Lapulapu, revered as the first Philippine hero to oppose foreign invasion. Off we went to his seaside monument, in what is now Lapulapu City. It was a sign of native ambivalence toward the conquistador that right behind the impressive Lapulapu statue was an obelisk in honor of Magellan and of glorias españolas, Spanish glories. Lapulapu’s heroic proportions, moreover, prompted Pardy’s comment that Mactan’s pride looked more like an American Indian brave than a Malayan warrior.

On the beach nearby was a boat-building community. Some workmen were putting the finishing touches to a catamaran, commissioned by European tourists; others were carving a banca, the Philippine canoe, out of a large log. That reminded me of the galleon I had come to Cebu to look for.

CEBU is well-equipped for the 90-million-dollar galleon project. It has modern shipyards and a shipbuilding tradition, and Cebu-based companies currently control 90 percent of the country’s inter-island shipping. Historically, it was among the first of the Philippines’ 7,000 islands to witness the coming of Magellan’s three surviving ships in 1521, although its role in the later galleon trade is not particularly clear.

At least once a year for 250 years, from 1565 to 1815, the Manila Galleon plied the seas between the Philippines and Mexico, carrying silk and spices to the West and bringing back silver coins and soldiers of fortune. Cebu does not seem to have had a share in the profit and the glory. The definitive book on the subject, William Lytle Schurz’s The Manila Galleon (E.P. Dutton, 1939), does not include Cebu in its list of places where galleons were constructed; but the Encyclopedia Britannica (1981) notes that the island suffered “extensive timber cutting for the building of Spanish galleons on the historic Manila-Acapulco route.”

Pardy, who when I first met him seemed absolutely sure where the galleon was being built, now spoke with less certainty. He had heard it was in one of the shipyards in Consolacion, the town between Mandaue and Liloan, but he didn’t really know which. Fortunately, his first guess was the correct one. The impassable road, made for Land Rovers and 10-wheeler trucks, shook our nerves and rattled our bones, but after several detours and endless questioning of pedestrians, we reached Santiago Shipyard--named, appropriately enough, after Spain’s patron saint.

Still hanging outside a temporary prefab in the shipyard were streamers put up during the launching ceremonies. One welcomed national and provincial dignitaries. Another proclaimed: “La Infanta Filipina Keel-Laying Project, date July 29, 1989. Voyage of discovery, 1992. Seville World’s Fair, the Barcelona Olympic Games and the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. The Philippines’ official representative in these historic world events.”

At that moment the Infanta Filipina, the Philippine Princess, was nothing more than four massive pieces of planed hardwood which had been towed from the province of Surigao, in Mindanao, and were now joined together end to end for a total length of 200 feet: the keel. Attached to it was an actual-size model of the prow. Inside the prefab, tacked to one wall, were the blueprints prepared by naval architects and marine engineers, providing a graphic preview of the shape of things to come.

At that moment the 20th-century galleon was still a dream, but not an inglorious one. On the way back to the city, I thought of Magellan’s guide and slave, christened Enrique. Described in the chronicles of the voyage as Malay, Enrique was most probably Cebuano, since he could speak the language of Sugbo and was able to act as interpreter; and if indeed he was Cebuano, then he was most certainly the first person to circumnavigate the globe, since he had come full circle when Magellan’s ships brought him back to his native land.

Despite the rough ride, I fell asleep and had a dream, and in my dream I saw Enrique on the deck of the Infanta Filipina, Pardy and Marlon and Eve and Angel beside him, with a white Anglo-Saxon blonde as guide, all setting out on a voyage to discover the Old World, to find what lay beyond the dazzling shadows of Cebu.