Manila, July 10.
Sixteen buses carrying five hundred delegates were in the convoy. Ten buses were to go to Calamba, the boyhood home and shrine to Dr. Jose Rizal, and six were traveling to Kawit. Kawit is the hometown of General Emilio Aguinaldo and birthplace of the Philippine Revolution, where, on June 12, 1898, a group signed a declaration of independence from their Spanish overlords, flew their colors for the first time and publicly dedicated themselves to the new, yet-to-be determined independent nation.
As reported to me by someone on that bus… Bus Six never went to Kawit. The tour company heard that many more people wanted to go to Calamba, and could not be accommodated. So they decided to change course of one of the buses and send it instead to Calamba, the childhood home and now-shrine to Dr. Rizal.
The Bus Six tour guide, having memorized dates, treaties, names of revolutionaries and military figures to prepare for a three-hour tour to the Aguinaldo Shrine, seemed frazzled at the thwarting of the Kawit itinerary. He bought a little time to compose himself and started the bus riders on introductions.
Around the bus they went, one by one, introducing themselves, until the circle returned to the tour guide.
Side note: it’s customary among Filipinos in an introduction to ask where you are from (in the States or Canada), and then to ask the next question, “Taga-saan po kayo sa Pilipinas?” Or, “Where are you and your family from in the Philippines?”
Luckily for this guide (and for the riders of Bus Six), he also had Philippines Consul General Leo Herrera-Lim of Chicago on the bus.
Said my source, the consul general took the tour guide’s helm.
Wielding the microphone, she said (and a few others, too, reported to me) that he was quite the expert on all things Rizal.
Our convoy crawled south through the morning gridlock on EDSA, or the sixteen-lane artery (yeah, it’s sixteen lanes!) AKA Epifanio De los Santos Avenue. Past shopping malls, flyovers and underpasses to the outskirts of the 17-city, 17 million resident-strong urban conglomerate known as Metro Manila to the Southern Luzon Expressway, we went.
We picked up speed and passed large industrial areas. Billboards advertised new, gated subdivisions; whitening creams; Jollibee; Bear Brand baby formula. Farms and mountains loomed ahead.
Just off the exit for Calamba, several large restaurants with huge parking areas for tour buses vied for Philippine pesos, American dollars, Japanese yen or South Korean won.
As we neared the center of town, we slowed as the traffic built and the streets narrowed. Old fire trees’ wide spreading branches gave shade to our route, and their signature red-orange flowers lit the tips of their boughs.
The old stone church, St. John the Baptist, appeared to our right. The tropical elements and time wore the stone to a dark mossy grey. Across the street was the Rizal Shrine, built on the site of his boyhood home.
The Rizal Shrine staff greeted our contingent very warmly with wide-brimmed straw hats that kept the sun off our faces. An ensemble of local, young rondalla musicians regaled the garden with their trilling, harmonious guitars. I wondered how these young people kept their composure in full formal wear in the unrelenting heat. They appeared not to sweat.
An L-shaped building with a peristyle flanked the southeastern part of the compound, which housed additional galleries and a gift shop. A buffet of “snacks” awaited in a receiving room — kakanin (rice desserts of all sorts) and pancit (marinated pan-fried noodles with vegetables and meats) and the best calamansi iced tea I drank all trip.
The main house today is a replica of the original built on the same footprint. In the architecture of the times, the primary living quarters was on the second floor, while the ground floor was used for storage of goods, livestock, beasts of burden or foodstuffs, a mill, or kalesa (horse-drawn carriages) if the family was wealthy like Rizal’s. Brick walls of the ground level were laid fortress-thick and with very small windows near the top. Carriage-bearing doors opened out onto the street. Living quarters were kept upstairs to minimize damage during monsoons and for security of the owners and their property.
The upper level was built to breathe. The upper floor was built with a slight overhang beyond the stone footprint of the ground floor. The walls were built of wood, with large windows of sliding translucent capiz shell shutters. Vaulted ceilings were high to bring hot air up and away from the occupants below.
The furnishings were more or less typical of what I’d expect, except one item. Over the dining table in the kitchen hung a punkah, an Indian fan. A house servant, standing to one side, pulled the rope to fan his/her seated employers during the their meal.
Clearly Rizal was from a landed family to be situated so near to the town church, in those days, the center of power. My new friend Romel shared that Rizal was of the ilustrado class. Status, as some forms of it persist today, dictates one’s destiny: peninsulares or Spanish, mestizas (those of mixed heritage – Spanish, other European, Mexican formerly New Spain), illustrados (landed class of Filipinos), and indios (everyone else).
As my anonymous contact on Bus Six related this story to me, I was thinking, wow, the Consul General assigned to my own city — an expert, drop-of-the-hat tour guide — must have some opinion on Rizal’s national hero status. Here’s what Consul General Lim shared with me by email:
Many attempts have been made to dilute the accomplishments of Jose Rizal. As I shared with the bus I rode in going to his birthplace, Rizal was a true philosopher and renaissance man. He took up surveying in Ateneo [de Manila University] primarily to familiarize himself with the mythologies being applied by the authorities then to systematically deprive his family and many others of their land. He took up medicine in UST primarily to know more of the eye ailment that afflicted his mother. He learned many languages (including French, English, German, Russian, Spanish and Japanese) so that he could appreciate writings of leading philosophers and thinkers in their original (not translated) version. When he was exiled by the authorities in Dapitan and after he won the lotto, he started a cooperative, a school, medical practice and built some interesting waterworks.
He travelled to the US in 1884 in an attempt to understand a fledgling democracy’s practice of freedom almost a hundred years after its independence from its colonizers. He saw many potential difficulties for still-to-be independent Philippines and he detailed these observations in many of his writings and letters to friends. Not all his sage advice were heeded, of course. In one [of] his diary entries on his visit to Chicago, he called attention to the pervasive use of Indian emblems in many tobacco stores at that time. For me, [this was Rizal’s] implicit critique of a country that did not recognize native Americans as US citizens until 1924 (the very people that occupied the land before the colonizers came—not citizens!). [emphasis mine]
We may not yet fully understand Rizal even today. I long for the day that I can understand his Spanish and German writings and fully appreciate their contemporary and aspirational contexts. It is no accident that he has been revered as a hero; it is also no accident that he is Filipino. I just hope we have the opportunity to have a better understanding of the man—not from the eyes of any of our colonizers.
Back to Bus Six. They boarded the buses at Calamba.
Having exhausted possible talking points and discussion on Rizal – thanks to Consul General Lim – it was now JOKES TIME, said my contact on the sixth bus.
Ever the info-tainer – the tour guide got up and said, “So I guess since I memorized all these facts about Aguinaldo, I’m going to entertain you with my jokes.”
Humor is a tool well used in Filipino culture to break awkward situations, lend lighthearted respite from serious or lengthy conversations, or to save someone from losing face (as the guide may have felt).
“What’s the difference between a French kiss and an Australian kiss?”
“The Australian one is down under,” he answered, giving way to many laughs but one reprimanding ssst.
Said she of the disapproving ssst sternly, “Please no green jokes! There are children present…”
Retorted the guide with a flourish, “You are the one bringing malice to my joke, I was just pointing out that, geographically, Australia is down under…”
Next stop, Taal Volcano…
The Rizal Shrine in Calamba, Laguna, can be visited on Calle Real. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 AM to noon and 1 PM to 5 PM. Admission to the Shrine is free.
Sample some rondalla, courtesy of the Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey!