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Ever heard the expression “as far as your eyes can see”? While cruising the roads of Negros Occidental, most of which are lined with endless sugar cane fields, I heard the expression again from my Negrense tour driver. I fell asleep during one of the long drives, and our talk before I drifted off was on who owned the vast sugar cane farm we were just passing by. A powerful political family, with blood relations to the current president of the nation, it turns out.
When I woke up, I asked him again whose farm it was that we were passing by now, and he said that it belonged to the same family. I could not believe it. I knew I had a rather long nap, “And this still is their land?” I asked. Yes, it still is theirs, as far as my eyes could see, he said. And we laughed.
Just as summer was setting in, I journeyed through the western Visayan province of Negros Occidental in five days and four nights. It was a journey as lush as the province’s thickest fields of sugar cane–I find it almost heartbreaking to forego the retelling of some parts of the trip. But as far as my eyes saw, and as much as my heart could bear of the warmth of the Negrenses, these are what shone the brightest during my adventure.
Ancestrally at home
Silay City, also referred to as “The Paris of Negros,” is home to at least 29 heritage houses, three of which are museums. This means that the rest are actually lived in by its owners, making these sites real homes. All of these homes have been recognized by the National Historical Commission as heritage treasures.
At the ancestral home of the late senator Jose Corteza Locsin, I met Locsin family members and home caretakers, 83-year old Tita Charet Locsin and one of the grandsons, Neil Solomon Locsin. Lovely Tita Charet, who looked far younger than her age, served me the Silay alternative to coffee–hot cocoa drink with ground peanuts and carabao’s milk. I sipped my luscious drink while listening to Neil’s explanation of words popularly associated with Negros Occidental’s sugar land heritage: hacienda and asenderos. I used to think that hacienda meant “mansion”, when it simply means “farm” in Spanish. And asenderos are sugar cane planters, not cruel landlords as misrepresented in popular media. Neil also explained that around the 1900s, Silay’s rich sugar industry ushered in an age of prosperity, making the city Negros Occidental’s political, intellectual, and cultural hub. Powerful families settled in Silay, most of whom still wield influence to this day: the Locsins, the Aranetas, the Lacsons, the Jalandonis, and the Lopezes, to name a few.
Another of these families are the Hofileñas. Their ancestral home was the first in Silay to open its doors to the public, and the first inhabited house in Silay to be declared a national landmark. While I was awed by the library, the antique furniture, and the rich family stories from the Loscin home, what endeared me to the Hofileña home was its artist descendant Ramon and his vast collection of paintings, sketches, and other modes of visual art. Ramon’s home could have a showdown with the country’s national museum, and might even beat it, what with the house’s frames by National Artists and international legends. Artworks by Napoleon Abueva, Fernando Amorsolo, Ang Kiukok, Juan Luna, Vicente Manansala, Felix Hidalgo, Guillermo Tolentino, BenCab, and many others line its bright, wooden hallways.
There are also works by Japan’s Katsushika Hokusai and Spain’s Francisco de Goya. There is even a drawing by the national hero himself, Jose Rizal.
How did Ramon acquire this collection? Apparently, Ramon is an artist himself, and was a peer or a friend of some of the artists whose works hung on his home’s walls. He was also said to be dashing during his youth — too dashing, in fact, that artists used to request to draw or paint him nude (a couple of these amazing nude portraits are on display), and gave him priceless art in exchange. It can be said that Ramon, ever the visionary, got the better end of each modeling gig. “I’ll just die, Silay will live forever,” Ramon told me. What his beauty has earned in the form of artworks will help make that happen.
In the city of Talisay, another house is gaining fame for its unique backstory. Called “The Ruins” because it is actually just the remains of the 1920s mansion built by sugar plantation owner Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson in memory of his Portuguese wife, the house was ordered by the Americans to be burned during World War II, to prevent the Japanese from using it as a camp.
“Isn’t that quite drastic?” I asked a guide, who said that, actually, burning the mansion was the best option at the time. Had it not been burned, it surely would have been occupied by the Japanese–then the Americans would have been forced to bomb it. Had it been bombed, Talisay would not have what is hailed as one of the 12 most fascinating ruins in the world, “the Taj Mahal of Negros”, its pillars shining golden without fail at every dusk.
Gastronomical at the capital
Negros Occidental’s capital is Bacolod City, popularly known as “the City of Smiles” given the festive nature of its people. That festiveness is best understood, though, through a Bacolod food trip. The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Negros Occidental had me undertake the challenge of lunching, back-to-back, at two of their best member restaurants in the capital city, and boy was I up to it!
First stop was at Aboy’s Restaurant, with its vast food halls and banquet spreads. Owner Nestor “Aboy” Evaristo said the place started operating in 1992 as a carinderia (small eatery), with only 10 tables. Scanning the lunchtime crowd, I noticed that it was made up of mostly male patrons. No wonder—the food at Aboy’s could fill the hunkiest of men.
Aboy’s bestseller is a Bacolod favorite, chicken inasal (skewered) that is grilled to golden-brown perfection, and served with native salads such as ensalada na puso sang saging (boiled banana heart salad in coconut and vinegar sauce, with onions, tomatoes, and ginger), and ensalada na talong (eggplant salad with red salted eggs, tomatoes, and onions). For soup, I had punaw, which is clams cooked in ginger broth, topped with dahon sili (chili leaves). My grilled blue marlin was unlike those served in the big metropolitan cities–Aboy’s had it basted with oil and atsuete (annatto), giving it a buttery-tasting exterior. My grilled squids had the same mouth-watering salty exterior, and their tender white meat contrasted well with their stuffing of crunchy white onion and soft tomato. There was no time for dessert at Aboy’s because I had to run next to Bob’s Restaurant for the second leg of my food challenge.
Bob’s Restaurant, established in 1965, is owned and managed by the husband and wife team of Bobby and Cynthia Magalona, kin to the esteemed Magalonas of the Philippine entertainment industry. Bob’s Restaurant is esteemed in Negros Occidental, too. It is one of the first drive-in restaurants established during the drive-in era, and has been part of the fabric of Bacolod life. It is so homey that the staff already knows the favorite spots of most of their customers, or their idiosyncratic preferences in having their orders prepared.
I didn’t have family with me while eating at Bob’s, but the spread they gave me could have satisfied an entire family’s cravings–what with a seven-course meal, including dessert. There were the chicken satay and satay Bobby, both inasal dishes with a twist–rich peanut sauce drizzled over the skewered chicken and pork. Adobong pusit was squid slices cooked in vinegar and soy sauce and topped with green onions. Lengua estofado is tender ox tongue, mixed well with the texture of soft fried camote (root crop) and fried banana. All in a stew of brown syrup, that dish made me feel as if I were discovering new levels of “tender”. I also had sizzling boneless milkfish, fried lumpiang ubod (spring rolls of coconut trunk strips, bean sprouts, and ground pork with salty-sweet sauce), and Bob’s signature fruit punch (watermelon, buko meat and juice, papaya, pineapple, mango, and ubod bits). That fruit punch was a revelation–it was the first ubod dessert I have ever had, when all the while I had thought that ubod was mixed only in viands.
My food trip was not actually limited to Bacolod. At the municipality of the rice-terraces-lined Don Salvador Benedicto, the youthful mayor, Lawrence dela Cruz, sliced the roasted pabo (turkey) himself, which I ate with ensalada na paco (ferns in sour mayonnaise dressing). At the tribal district of the native Ata people, I drank the best coffee in my entire trip—all-natural, organic coffee, poured in my cup by no less than the Ata chieftain, Richard. In Sagay City, in the northern tip of Negros, I saw how squid rings pasalubong (take-home, crunchy squid ring treats) was packed, and how fresh cow’s milk is harvested from a dairy farm that feeds under-nourished schoolchildren. And at the United Nations-recognized OISCA silk farm in Bago City, I tasted the sour yet juicy fruit of the plant fed to silkworms: mulberries.
In Sipalay City, down in southern Negros Occidental, I learned that Negrenses call soy sauce patis (the word is used to refer to fish sauce in the rest of the Philippines). In Hinoba-an town, I heard the locals call their sweet rice cakes suman (in other parts of the country, the snack is called biko). I know very few Visayan words, but amazingly, whenever I said “Adto ta!” my hosts always smiled and understood. The phrase means “Let’s go!”
A sea for every summer
Negros Occidental is enveloped by the Sulu Sea on its southern coastline. Either it is faced by white sand beaches, or nestles marine sanctuaries. Sipalay has its fair sands and diving schools in Punta Ballo beach cove, while Hinoba-an, just adjacent to Sipalay, has its Obang caves, accessible through boat rides and where tourists could snorkel.
The town of Cauayan, located northeast of Sipalay, was bathed under good sun on my last day at Negros Occidental, so I seized the chance to visit two of its main attractions: Danjugan Island and Balaring Beach.
Setting foot on Danjugan’s white sands, I was given a brief primer by one of its guardians about its geography and biodiversity. He opened the lecture by saying, “This is not a beach resort.” True enough, although equipped with solar-powered cabanas and furnished with wooden and bamboo fixtures, Danjugan is not a place to simply lie back and be a beach bum. In fact, should you decide to stay in the cabanas, proceeds will go to the island’s preservation, as it is owned by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. Danjugan is surrounded by marine protected sanctuaries while also being a tropical island rainforest. While on the island, I did not have time to wade through the crystal clear waters or run across its coves and stretches of fine coral white beaches. Instead, I went inland and watched an eagle land on its nest, peeked inside a bat cave, and trekked on trails that ran above giant black mangrove roots soaked in wide lagoons. Danjugan, I must say, is for the adventurous at heart.
But I later did find my beachbummer’s heart a spot. At Balaring beach, I finally got the chance to wade through the waters. It was just past high noon when I took my dip–the low tide enabled me to go as far as I could off the beach, then turn and look back at its creamy whiteness.
After a quick dip, I soon ran back to Punta Bulata Resort. Lunch was waiting, prepared by Bacolod-born resort owner Miren Zayco. The banquet was a feast, but what I remember most fondly are her banana cake slices topped with sweetened young coconut shavings. I ate to the tune of bossa nova music, to the sound of baby waves approaching the beach, and amidst stories of my host’s life at and love for her home, Negros Occidental. I listened while the sweets she served merged with the saltiness of the sea on my lips.
I knew five days would not be enough to cover all of Negros Occidental. Perhaps my Negrense hosts would even say a lifetime is not enough. Each one of them told me to come back, and I should, because there was one thing I forgot to do–stand in the middle of one of the many haciendas we drove by, hold a freshly harvested peeled tubo (sugar cane stick), and bite from it and sip its raw juice, the way asenderos do to quench their thirst under the summer sun.