Monday, February 26, 2018

Searching for Plants and Butterflies in Cebu’s Fort


 

 
  Of all the many sites there are to visit in Cebu, one of the principal buildings that should be high on everyone’s list is the Fort of San Pedro, which was the first fort built in the Philippines after the Spanish invaded in 1521 under Ferdinard Magellan.
 

 
It's a small triangular shaped fort which is only about one eighth the size of Intramuros in Manila. One side faces inland while the other two sides face the sea, and had artillery consisting of 14 mounted cannons, most of which are still visible today. The fort has a total land area of 2,025 sq. metres and its walls are six metres high and 2.5m thick.  
 

 
The original fort was built by under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi, first Spanish governor of the Captaincy General of the Philippines.
 

 
It was made of wood, but in the early 17th century a stone fort was built in order to repel Muslim raiders. It served as the nucleus of the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines.
 

 
During the Philippine Revolution at the end of the 19th century, it was attacked and taken by Filipino revolutionaries, who used it as a stronghold.
 
The Cebu City Government assumed responsibility for the management of Fort San Pedro in Feb 1, 2008. It has prioritized heritage conservation and biodiversity preservation; but it decided to transfer the old artefacts of the Museum to Museo Sugbo: The Cebu Provincial Museum, so there’s not a great deal to see here, unfortunately.
 
However, there are plenty of old pictures and photographs to give an idea of what the place looked like over the centuries.
 
In one room, for instance, you will come across pictures of the landing of the Spaniards on Cebu Island…
 

 

 
… Rajah Humabon of Cebu actually welcomed Magellan and the Spaniards; and both he and his queen Hara Amihan were baptized as Christians, this symbolising the start of the Christian conversion of the Philippine islands.
 

 
Now, I know what you’re thinking… Surely Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer? Well, he was, of course, born into a Portuguese noble family in around 1480, and became a skilled sailor and naval officer. But he was eventually selected by King Charles I of Spain to search for a westward route to the Maluku Islands (the "Spice Islands"). And so it was that he organised a Spanish expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth, which was completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano.
 
In another room, we learn of Magellan’s death. After baptising Rajah Humabon, the latter and his ally Datu Zula convinced Magellan to kill their enemy, Datu Lapu-Lapu, on Mactan. Magellan wanted to convert Lapu-Lapu to Christianity, as he had Humabon, but Lapu-Lapu said no way!
 

 
So, on the morning of 27 April 1521, Magellan sailed to Mactan with a small attack force. During the resulting Battle of Mactan against Lapu-Lapu's troops, Magellan was struck by a bamboo spear, and later surrounded and finished off.
                                            
Walking around the fort is a bit like walking around intramuros in Manila, though on a much smaller scale.
 
At each of the three corners of the Fort are towers that served as bastions, or viewing decks. These are La Concepcion at the southwest, Ignacio de Loyola at the southeast, and San Miguel at the North.
 

 
To maintain diversity of life within the Fort, the management has embarked on a conservation program. Down in the courtyard, for example, is a collection of Cebu’s pre-Hispanic and Hispanic agricultural plants that are being reintroduced.
 
Around the battlements, however, you’ll find an attractive use for worn-out car and truck tyres…
 

 
The Bastion La Conception is being landscaped with ornamental plants introduced to the Philippines at an early period, including rosal, pobreng kahoy and bandera española, among others.
 
The Bastion Ignacion de Loyola is being cultivated with herbs and spices, including indigenous plants with known medicinal benefits. Spices which attracted the Spanish conquistadors to the Philippines in the first place are also planted here.
 
The Bastion San Miguel, meanwhile, has had a butterfly conservation programme established. A caterpillar chamber has been built and several flowering plants are being cultivated to attract caterpillars and adult butterflies to feed on.
 

 
It’s all a far cry from what the Fort was originally established for, but why not?
 
A visit here won’t take up more than about 45 minutes, but I think you will find it time well spent. Enjoy!

Cebu’s Mad-King-Ludvig-style Church in Sibonga

 

 
It has to be said… Filipinos don’t believe in doing things by halves. It’s the last day of my trip to Cebu, and friends have suggested we visit the Monastery of the Holy Eucharist, which you can find in Simala, Sibonga, about a two hour drive south of Cebu city.
 
The Monastery is popularly known as the Simala Shrine or Simala Church. At first sight, you could be forgiven for thinking you had come to one of the castles of mad King Ludvig II of Bavaria. It’s certainly eye catching enough for that, but it is also clear that it is still ‘work-in-progress’.
 
The church is not even 20 years old – it was built in 1998 by the Marian Monks from Pampanga after reports of several miraculous events in the vicinity, including the shedding of tears by statues of the Virgin Mary (known here as Mama Mary!). Ever since, the shrine has been a hot spot for devotees of Mama Mary, hoping that their prayers will be granted.
 
 
Mama Mary was said to have interceded through a Penitential Rosary Walk in 1998 to stave off a local epidemic that had already claimed the lives of several children. She is also credited with numerous other miracles. So the devout take this place very seriously. Don’t even think of wearing hot pants, mini skirts or even baseball caps if you come here. You won’t be allowed in if you do…
 
 
But I am not wearing a mini skirt, let alone hot pants, and I am waved through by the bored looking guard on duty.
 
Once inside, the architecture continues to amaze. But it amazes in a way that brings out a smile on your face. Some may well accuse it of being well over-the-top, but I have to say I quite like it!
 
 
Looking over the castle-like parapet you get a good view of the garden below with ‘We Love Mama Mary’ “embossed” in plants for all to see.
 
 
Inside the church itself the attention to detail is strong; and if you have a mind to take off your shoes, you can make a tour of the passageways behind and over the main hall.
 
 
The paintings on the ceilings are certainly eye catching, though I think I would take issue with one description you can find on cebu-bluewaters.com which is surely a little too enthusiastic in describing them as “just like some of those you can find at the Sistine Chapel in Rome”. (You can almost hear Michelangelo turning in his grave at the thought!)
 
 
Like many Catholic churches in the Philippines, you won’t have to look very far to find a souvenir stall…
 
 
And as I discovered on my visit to Padre Pio’s shrine, you can buy coloured candles, each one representing an intention to go with your prayers: red for love; blue for perseverance; green for prosperity, and so on.
 
Mind you, the colours have totally different meanings here from those used at Padre Pio’s shrine… There, red is used for life’s crisis; blue is for jobs and exams; green for good health… how confusing!
 
 
Outside the main body of the church is an area put aside for testimonials. Here you’ll find loads of letters and items donated by people who believe they were cured by the intercession of the Virgin Mary. They’ve even left wheel chairs and crutches, to make their point.
 
Just beside the testimonials is a notice to those who are thinking of going to the loo (known as a CR in the Philippines). The loo inside the monastery (do they really only have one?) is reserved for pilgrims only. Lesser people – such as your favourite blogger – should use the paid-for loos outside in the car park area as the water supply is not sufficient, apparently.
 
 
The notice does, however, leave a few questions unanswered…
 
If the water source (provided by Mama Mary, apparently) produces only 300 gallons per hour, and the powers-that-be felt the shortage “due to the thousands of pilgrims using the CR”, then how will it change anything if the CR inside the monastery is still free for [all] pilgrims?
 
And if there is enough water down in the car park area to cater for the needs of all the tourists, why doesn’t someone simply set up a pump to push more water into the monastery area?
 
Or maybe someone could ask Mama Mary if she could provide just an incy-wincy little bit more?
 
Maybe no one has yet figured out what colour of candle needs to be burned, that has connotations with supplying water for public facilities.
 
Personally I’d just install a pump.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Super-hero in Calamba


What is it about us that we all seem to have a need for heroes? I don’t just mean the super-heroes that come out of Marvel and Hollywood, but real-life heroes – those we can look up to and admire in some way.
 
If you were to do a Google search of “Philippines, hero” you would find that one name crops up over and over again: that of José Rizal, who is generally considered the greatest Filipino hero ever, and often trotted out as THE Philippine national hero, even though he has never been explicitly proclaimed as such by the Philippine government (though they are, apparently, still thinking about it!).
 
José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, to give him his full name, was a Filipino nationalist who lived in the latter half of the 19th century, during the tail end of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines. Though he was an ophthalmologist by profession, Rizal became a writer and a key member of the Filipino Propaganda Movement which advocated political reforms for the colony under Spain. He was executed by the Spanish colonial government for the crime of rebellion, after the Philippine Revolution – inspired in part by his writings – broke out.
 
So it is no surprise that anywhere that can be linked with Rizal in any way whatsoever has been turned into some kind of national shrine; and the two most prominent are where he was born (Calamba) and where he died (Intramuros).  
 
 
Not sure where Calamba is? Maybe this map will help, helpfully displayed inside the museum. Manila is in the top left of the picture and Calamba is just to the left of where it says Laguna on what looks like a root of ginger, which depicts the local lakes.
 
 
The museum is but a stone’s throw from Calamba’s town plaza and parish church and is actually a replica of the house where Rizal was born on 19 June 1861. The seventh child and second son of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso, Rizal regularly recalled his childhood home in Calamba, longing for it ‘like a weary swallow’ while he was travelling in Europe.
 
 
Unfortunately, because of a land dispute with the Dominican friars, the Rizal family was evicted from this home in 1890 and the house soon fell into disrepair and was demolished. The present structure was erected in 1950 by National Artist Juan F. Nakpil from funds donated by schoolchildren.
 
 
Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but as a museum I found this place distinctly underwhelming, albeit that the house is very impressive. If you are not familiar with Rizal, you are going to have to do a lot of work here to learn anything much about his life and times. The museum appears fixated, for instance, on displaying quotes from his writings – deep, and meaningful stuff such as “It has been said that love has always been the most powerful force behind the most sublime actions”. Wow… dynamic or what?
 
 
There are also posters such as this one that depict birds in Rizal’s reminiscences. Hmmm…
 

 
The house itself is of two storeys and is made from stone with narra wood floors, and has capiz shell windows (an important cultural icon in the Philippines, using shells from the ‘windowpane oyster’ – placuna placenta – that have been used for thousands of years as a glass substitute because of their durability and translucence). There is also a library, dining room, three bedrooms, a kitchen and pantry leading out to a balcony. Located on the ground floor were the servants’ quarters, workroom, and a storeroom for food supplies. The backyard was planted with various fruit trees, which Rizal frequently mentioned in his writings: atis, santol, tampoy, makopa, plum, balimbing, and kasuy. A small nipa hut served as the young Jose’s hideaway.
 
Here. For instance, is the 'antesala' – used as a library and guest dining room.
 
 
This is the bedroom of the brothers Paciano and José. The blurb tells us that it is small and has a single bed made of narra wood. It also has a marble-topped table and a wash basin. What we are left guessing is whether the two brothers shared the bed, took it in turns (while the other slept on the floor perhaps?) or whether there was actually more than one bed, but that the museum couldn’t afford to put in a second one.
 
 
The blurb-signs go on to tell us that here is the bedroom of Jose's nine sisters. Like their brothers' bedroom, this room is small and has a single bed made of narra wood. We can also see here the authentic sewing machine owned by Saturnina.
                                            
Well I doubt you could get nine beds into this one room, so I am even more intrigued now about the Rizal family’s sleeping arrangements!
 
 
Relatives and close friends were received in the living room. There were usually two or three sets of furniture, although as there is no extant record of the actual furniture arrangement, the set up here is based on that found in other houses of the same vintage as the original Rizal-Mercado house.
 
 
Rizal was born in his parents' bedroom, where you can find furniture such as the matrimonial bed, a rack (for pillows, mosquito nets, and mats), an altar and a chair.
 
 
At the top of the stairs, the museum staff have seen fit to install a TV screen, that not only seems a daft place to watch TV, but is almost certainly unlike any TV the Rizal family could have dreamt of owning!
 
 
But from the upstairs windows, there is a good view of the gardens, with their manicured lawns, where the remains of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso are now buried.
 
 
According to Valentina Sanchez, the family cook, Jose's favourite meals included relleno (green chilli pepper stuffed with minced meat and coated with eggs), adobo (cuisine that involves meat, seafood, or vegetables marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns – widely considered to be the unofficial national dish of the country), estofado (stewed pork with beans, carrots and banana), puchero (stewpot) and tinola (soup-based dish served as an appetizer or main entrée in the Philippines). Carne asada (grilled beef, cooked with a certain amount of searing to impart a charred flavor) was his absolute favourite.
 
In the kitchen, Doña Teodora Alonzo apparently loved to cook sweets, sausages, shrimp paste and pickles, which she sold in a small store downstairs.
 
 
But the room that gets most people posing for a selfie has to be the family loo – or CR, as the Filipinos insist on calling it. Why a hole in a plank of wood should draw so much attention – especially when you consider that Rizal’s situpon never actually graced this particular loo seat – is anyone’s guess. But it’s somehow nice to imagine our super-hero as being a little “human” after all, don’t you think?
 
 
The family bathroom, however, is hardly alluring in any way whatsoever, I fear; and few people were wanting their photos taken here!
 
 
One thing we do know about young Rizal is that he had sticking out ears – that is if his self portrait is anything to go by.
 
 
I guess we could also work out his shoe size too, from this old pair of his socks that are on display in the museum.
 
 
His top hat is also on display… He obviously wasn’t big headed (British humour… sorry!)
 
 
As for this pair of long-johns he wore, I’m not sure what one can deduce from this. And in a country as hot as the Philippines why would anyone be wearing undergarments like this anyway? Could they have been used by him when he visited Europe? Alas we are not told.
 
 
There’s also a display of bank notes with José Rizal’s mug shot on them. Here is the 1916 ₱2 bank note, for instance. Rizal’s portrait regularly featured on ₱2 notes from then on, when they were in circulation.
 
 
There’s also all-manner of medals and medallions featuring our hero.
 
 
But I somehow feel that these ‘I ♥ Rizal’ badges verge on necrophilia, and certainly I have yet to see anyone in the Philippines proudly sporting them.
 
 
Super-heroes are one thing. But one must surely draw the limit somewhere!

Saint or Charlatan? Who really knows the answer?


I often think that those who have real faith are lucky. It must be comforting to ‘know’ that there is always something somewhere keeping an eye on things and looking after you; someone who can step in when things go bad and make things right again.
 
But I’m an old cynic and have always found it difficult to understand the lure of the church, and of religion, and of relying on a spirit to take care of me in my hours of need. And yet…
 
I was recently taken to a national Catholic shrine in Batangas, south of Manila. It was devoted to Saint Padre Pio – someone whom I had hardly even heard of. Yet Padre Pio has become one of the world's most popular saints, with more than 3,000 ‘Padre Pio Prayer Groups’ worldwide. A 2006 survey by the magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics pray to Padre Pio for intercession than to any other figure.
 
As far as I am aware he never ever went to the Philippines, yet apart from in his home country of Italy, there are shrines dedicated to Padre Pio not only in New Jersey, in the USA, but also here in Santo Tomas, Batangas.
 
 
The shrine in Batangas is only around a decade old and is a right hotch-potch of the uplifting and the downright tacky, depending on your point of view. For instance, some might think these street lamps are veering on the side of tackiness, though I have to admit I quite like them.
 
 
Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in a town in the southern Italian region of Campania in May 1887. He was given the name of Pius (Italian: Pio) when he joined the Capuchin Order of Friars. He became famous for exhibiting stigmata for most of his life – from the age of 31 until he died at 81 – and was both beatified (1999) and canonized (2002) by Pope John Paul II.
 
Pio is said to have lost up to a cup of blood every day. But surrounded in controversy throughout his life, the debate rages on even now, after a book published in 2011 by Italian historian Professor Sergio Luzzatto relates how a letter, from a pharmacist who arranged the delivery of carbolic acid to Pio, was discovered in the Vatican’s archives. Luzzatto suggests it was the corrosive acid that caused the bleeding on the saint's hands. He also said that many Popes had expressed doubts and suggested the Vatican only canonised Pio because of public pressure.
 
Luzzatto’s claims were dismissed by the Catholic Anti-Defamation League in 2007, with a stiff rejoinder that according to Catholic doctrine, canonisation carries with it papal infallibility! (It must be great never to be wrong about anything!)
 
Locals of San Giovanni Rotondo, where he lived, have accorded him a position only just below that of the Virgin Mary. He apparently displayed persuasive powers of conversion, healed the sick and could prophesy the future. Followers also believe he had the gift of 'bilocation' – the ability to be in two places at once.
 
Perhaps, when all is said and done, it doesn’t actually matter if he had such mystical powers or not. It’s a well known medical fact that a positive attitude helps in the cure of illnesses – that one’s own psychosomatic powers can make a huge difference to one’s chances of recovery. If you have a strong faith to add to that feeling of positivity, this could well explain many of the cases reported of people regaining their health after visiting Padre Pio.
 
So back to this shrine in Batangas. Almost the first thing that you see ahead of you is the Mother of Mercy bell tower, which you can go up if you have a mind to.
 
 
The structure of the main church is made mostly of local materials such as wood, stone, bamboo, nipa leaves and sawali (woven bamboo strips). The shape of its roof is said to resemble a salakot, a traditional Filipino hat used by farmers as a protection against the sun. The structure is open so that the pilgrims can enter and exit freely, while also allowing cooling cross-drafts throughout the church.
Inside hangs a huge replica of the ‘Glorious Cross’ based on a design used for the Archdiocese of Lipa during the Jubilee Year of 2000. The cross at the crucifix, the bottom of the altar table and the lectern are made of drift wood; and at the back is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel while the Baptistery is found below.
 
 
Everywhere – and I really do mean everywhere – are depictions of Padre Pio… wooden, plastic, plaster, paintings… and I guess this is where you’ll find a fine dividing line between religious symbols and tacky artefacts, depending on whether you are one of the faithful or not.
 
You can look up at him…
 
 
You can look down at him over the railings…
 
 
You can be beside him as you walk around the main church…
 
 
You can see him smiling down on you from the water tower…
 
 
…or maybe you will be tempted to buy a half size figure of him to stand in your hallway at home…?
 
 
Across from the main church you will find the ‘Sanctuary of the True Cross of Christ’ which can be used as an overflow church when the main hall gets too crowded.
 
 
It, too, is massive and open to the elements.
 
 
Inside, apart from the statues and pictures of Pio, is a model of Pope John Paul II, who had been responsible for Pio’s canonisation. The glass cabinet also contains a papal relic, but I have no idea what that relic consists of.
 
Around the perimeter of the site you can find symbolic ‘stations of the cross’. Here, for instance, is the Last Supper.
 
 
Naturally there are also loads of statues of the Virgin Mary (though not as many as Padre Pio, I have to say) …
 
 
And of course, you can burn candles, the way you can in most catholic churches.
 
 
What I hadn’t been aware of was the fact that the colour of the candle should be chosen according to what prayer you are hoping the candle will help with… Green for good health; yellow for financial blessings; orange for family matters; pink for love; and red for crises, to name but a few.
 
 
I’m not sure if this colour coordination also goes for the many ‘Christmas tree’-type lights that are draped over many of the small trees…
 
 
You can also admire Padre Pio sitting on top of a gurgling burbling fountain in the Holy Water Sanctuary, where many fill bottles of water to take back home with them.
 
 
You need a drink? How about the water jars lining the sides of one of the paths …
 
 
And don’t miss the incredible ‘phallus’ plants – a member of the ginger family, if I remember rightly.
 
 
Yes. There is surely something here for everyone, whether you are one of the faithful or not, and whether you believe that Padre Pio was rightly beatified, or whether he was simply a charlatan.
 
Cynicism is easy; but this place is testimony to the faith that many Filipinos have in their church. And that is probably no bad thing, when all is said and done.