Tayo na sa Antipolo
Let us go to Antipolo.
Before the construction of Marcos Highway in the late 70s, the only way up to the mountains of Antipolo from Marikina was a circuitous route along narrow winding dusty roads. There were no direct transport service to get up there except for private and hired vehicles, but it was, since the very beginning, a major Catholic pilgrimage site, having been for over three hundred years the home of the venerated dark brown image of La Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage) found in the Minor Basilica of Antipolo.
The original image of Our Lady arrived in the town of Taytay in 1626 via the port of Manila, having traveled on the Mexican galleon “El Almirante”. Subsequently, because of continual flooding, the image was transferred to the higher grounds of its now present site. True to Her Name, the image made another crossing to Mexico, then back again to Antipolo against the odds of pirates, poor navigators and mutinies aboard the ships. Around the middle of the 18th century, Our Lady finally arrived safely back in Antipolo to stay for good. On two occasions after Her return, so the legend goes, the image disappeared from the main altar and was found both times nestled in the branches of the local hardwood, the tipolo or breadfruit tree. It was a clear indication to the church authorities at the time that this was as Our Lady wanted to see Herself: sitting on a pedestal carved out of the tipolo tree trunk, and there she stands to this day, crowned with gold, holding a scepter and serenely looking down from high above the main altar.
The present church itself, a modern design, is the latest incarnation of the church built around 1639. The original church was destroyed in a Chinese rebellion, rebuilt, and again completely destroyed towards the end of the Second World War after the Japanese had occupied and turned it into a garrison and the area’s main arsenal. Despite the old church being completely destroyed, how the image of Our lady survived is of a minor legend on its own: the image was taken off the altar by the head sacristan before the Japanese arrived, wrapped in blankets and buried in a drum under the convent kitchen. Just prior to the arrival of the Americans and the total destruction of the town, the image was dug up again and taken further into the mountains for safekeeping.
The church I remember from my childhood was a small, stone church, looking much older than it really was from years of continuous exposure to rain and sun. Tradition has dictated that you went on the pilgrimage in the month of May, attended Mass, and then lined up at the side of the church to go up a long flight of stairs for a visit with the Blessed Image. A corridor had been constructed immediately behind the main altar where Our Lady stood on her pedestal a good fifty feet above the ground floor. A glass wall protected Her back, but a space at the bottom of the plate glass gave access to the hem of Her goldthread-embroidered mantle. This was, for most of Her devotees, the purpose of the whole trip: to be with Our Lady up close, to see Her long flowing hair cascading below a filigreed gold crown and reverently kiss the hem of Her garment. During those days in the pilgrimage month, the wait could be as much as half an hour, but no one minded: it was after all, the culmination of the whole experience, as it fittingly should be.
But we were mostly children then, and Antipolo was more or less just another outing, another church. The real hidden gem then was the side trip to Hinulugang Taktak, or Taktak Falls, not far away from the church. It was, in hindsight, nothing but a small (15 feet high) waterfall that trickled into a medium sized pond, but to us big town kids, it was the closest thing to awe-inspiring nature as we ever came across. It also provided our family the time to do something together, and no doubt gave our parents a welcome day off from work.
The pilgrimage was a major journey for the whole family back then, and the only other time during the year that my father would actually consider closing the store. We would all get up early in the morning getting ready for the trip, and by nine in the morning my father would have hired a passenger jeepney for the day-long journey. Relatives would be welcome to share the ride with us, and many did, so that by the time we were ready, the whole vehicle would have been full, sometimes the small children sitting on the floor.
The trip would usually take about two hours, just in time to arrive for the middle-of-the-day Mass. Because there was no direct route, we would have passed by several small villages and towns, until we reached the spot where the paved roads would suddenly come to an end, replaced with bumpy, narrow barely-two-lane streets winding around the side of the mountain. Higher and higher we would go; through the billowing dust trailing behind the jeepney, we would catch glimpses of the towns we had left down below. After a while the brown dust would start to get a distinctive reddish tint, until the earth on the side of the road would become a brilliant orange brick colour, and then we knew we had arrived.
The landscape, the mountain air, even the people looked totally different, for they were descendants of aboriginal pygmies called the Ita, or Aetas, the original Filipinos who populated most of the northern part of the country since time immemorial. Dark-skinned and tiny, the full grown adults usually no more than four feet tall, they are believed to have crossed land bridges from Borneo over twenty thousand years ago, settling mainly in the northern parts especially in the highlands of the Cordillera Mountains. Highly itinerant and industrious, they eventually dispersed as far as the southern parts of Luzon. A peace-loving community, the Ita would more than likely move than have to defend their territories by force of arms. By the mid 60s when the development of Antipolo became inevitable, the Antipolo Ita have moved on and away, and those few left behind had become nothing more than quaint tourist curiosities, and many have turned to begging in the church courtyard.
As soon as we reached the church and just before getting off the jeepney, my father would always remind us: “Huwag kayong magpapasabit!” (Don’t let anyone pin anything on you!, meaning a religious medal) not because he did not approve of such things, but because it had become a major enterprise for the locals. And true enough, we would have barely stepped out of the vehicle when everyone, children and adults alike would be swarmed by at least half a dozen women eager to pin on your clothes a religious medal for donation. Despite a very firm ”No!” from my father, the women were very aggressive, and would march with us all the way to the entrance of the church in the hopes of soliciting payment for their efforts. Many years later they would become a considerable nuisance that the city would effectively ban the practice and they would all but disappear, although not totally.
A major fringe benefit of these trips was the visit to the market stalls after church and Taktak Falls. There would always be the customary food purchases of suman sa ibos (steam cooked sticky rice wrapped in coconut fronds) and kalamay na itim (chewy rice cakes made with dark molasses), latik, a coconut cream spread made with dark brown sugar, and the specialty of the area, freshly roasted giant kasoy, unsalted cashew nuts.
For the children it would be like Christmas in May, and we were allowed to pick out one souvenir each from the trip, usually a toy. Two of these stand out very clearly in my mind for two distinct and different reasons: one was small papier-mache horse coloured bright red with a heart painted on its chest. We called it Reddy for obvious reason, and it was so sturdy that for several months I was actually able to sit on top of it and pretend it was a real live pony. That was until an older cousin of mine, probably jealous that he was far too big to sit on the horse, grabbed it one day, hoisted it up over his head and pretending to be a strongman, tried to pry apart the stiff legs and managed to break one of them. Of course no amount of repair could restore it and no one ever rode it again after that. For a couple more years it sat atop a high dresser with its bandaged leg until it became too dusty from lack of use and was unceremoniously dumped in the garbage soon after.
Years later, my older sisters Otie, Ennie and I decided to pool the individual money and bought a badminton set instead. After sunset when the street in front of our apartment was all but deserted by traffic, we would play a set or two. Then one evening, frustrated that my sisters seemed to be playing far too long without giving me a turn, my mean streak went into overdrive and I grabbed one of the racquets, ran into the kitchen and held it over the stove’s open flame. The nylon string immediately melted of course; I got a good scolding and my sisters refused to speak to me for days afterwards.
Antipolo has changed much since the time of my childhood memories. Now a very bustling city, and the titular capital of the province, it has modernized beyond recognition. Deforestation as a result of regular kaingin, or widespread clearing of the forest through burning, was a regular occurrence in the 70s. It was not unusual most evenings to see from where we lived miles away, fires burning on the slopes of the mountain. Overly developed with subdivisions sprouting everywhere, the rampant and unchecked deforestation had caused major erosion on the sides of the mountain resulting in untold deaths and property damage. The denuded mountain unable to hold torrential rain water that comes each typhoon season, the heavy downpour drains regularly on the valleys below and cause major flooding in low lying areas.
All I have are my memories of the old Antipolo: the small baroque styled church, the even tinier Itas, and Taktak Falls which had ceased to exist but recently brought back to life artificially as another tourist attraction. And a few photographs from those trips: black and white photos of us, very young and innocent looking in our Sunday best, with Angie in her pigtails and Al unsmiling, with carefully groomed pomaded hair.
© September 2007
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Photos of how the old church looked:
The new church today: http://www.pbase.com/uteh/image/43857186
Taktak falls: http://www.antipolocity.com/falls.htm