Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Guiuan: Almost famous

By Patrick S. LarragaContributorInquirer
Posted date: June 24, 2007

MANILA, Philippines - The quiet town of Guiuan, in the province of Eastern Samar sits on the edge of the vast Pacific. On this remote sliver of land, waves hit landfall on their long journey from thousands of miles away. And through the years, the ocean currents have brought conquistadores, warring soldiers, political refugees and even a saint.
For a town so obscure, Guiuan has had a surprisingly colorful history.
The island of Homonhon, about an hour away by banca from the town, is where Ferdinand Magellan first landed on Philippine soil more than four centuries ago in the first recorded trans-Pacific voyage. Magellan and his scurvy-stricken men were said to have been welcomed to Homonhon by a gold-bedecked datu called Garas-garas.

So impressed were they with the hospitality (as well as the gold on the person of the host datu) that he named the place Nueva Providencia, proceeding to claim Homonhon and the rest of the islands for the Spanish crown.The freshwater springs from where Magellan and his men drank are still there, but these days the island has a new tenant. A controversial mining company that calls itself Heritage has pulled up stakes and has made Homonhon its base.

Fortified town
Further into the Spanish occupation, Guiuan is said to have developed into the third largest fortified town in the Philippines, after Manila and Zamboanga, in the 1600s. The fortifications may have been built to support the town's role as an emergency stop for ships in their journey across the Pacific from Manila to Acapulco during the years of the Galleon trade.

A considerable Chinese community, lured by the prospect of commerce, established residence in the town as early as the 1700s.

From this period of relative prosperity came one of the most beautiful churches in the Visayas. Built by the Jesuits in the 18th century, the church, dedicated to the Purisima Concepcion, boasts the solid and stern demeanor of fortress churches in the coastal towns of the Visayas.
The austere beauty of the facade, however, belies the effusiveness of the art inside. In its side altars and baptistery, the Guiuan Church offers unique shell ornamentation found nowhere else in the country. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, in a book to document the art form, counted 106 species of shells as having been embedded in an "admixture" of lime and cement to frame and adorn niches and walls within the structure.

Declared a national cultural treasure by the National Museum, the Guiuan Church is refreshing for having retained much of its original structure and decor, resisting what one writer has called "the over-beautification" of old structures, in the pursuit of which concrete porticos are grafted onto coral-stone fa├žades and tiles are replaced with crazy-cut marble.

Still, the Guiuan Church has not escaped the depredations of the trade in antiques; one of the church's beautifully carved side doors was said to have been sold surreptitiously in the 1980s. Despite the loss, the church's main doors still stand magnificently where they have stood for decades, together with an impassive St. Peter holding the keys to heaven.

Smaller scale
In Barangay Sulangan, the chapel of San Antonio de Padua receives a regular flow of pilgrims who come to light a votive candle and pray for divine intercession. The chapel mirrors the shell art of Guiuan Church, albeit in a much smaller scale.

Outside the chapel, from their makeshift pawid shacks, women sell shells as souvenirs to pilgrims. The seas off Sulangan are said to be a fertile source of shells, among them the precious golden cowrie. At the time of our visit, however, no rare golden cowrie was on display, as this shell has earned endangered status due to overharvesting.

"Kinokompresor," a woman vendor said, explaining the method of gathering such shells.

During World War II, transients of a more belligerent bent also made Guiuan their temporary home. In Barangay Dumpao, a concrete marker off a white-sand beach commemorates the struggles of men from three nations who "fought a war" in Guiuan.

In Barangay Ngolos, the incongruous 3-km asphalt runway built by the US Navy is still there, but since the Americans are long gone, the runway now serves the more practical purpose of drying bed for corn and other grains. In the same barangay, Base 3149 served as a military base for the Americans during World War II and was the supposed base of the Enola Gay, the B-52 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945 on Hiroshima.

Russian refugees
The Russians, too, came to Guiuan. Tubabao Island, one of the islands within the jurisdiction of Guiuan, was used by the International Refugee Organization in 1949 to provide a temporary home for some 5,000 refugees, survivors of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War of 1922. The Russians, too, built their structures, houses and even a church, before eventually moving on to more permanent stations in the United States and Australia.

Among the Russian refugees was the Orthodox Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who was said to have prayed for good weather, thus driving away potentially damaging typhoons.

It is said that as soon as he left, the camp was totally destroyed by a typhoon. Today, some Guianons are said to have Russian blood running through their veins. But years of regular typhoons appear to have wiped out the material traces of the saint and his flock.

During the wet season, when wind and rain lash across the islands, Guiuan comes into prominence as the point where such weather disturbances hit landfall. Indeed, Pag-asa maintains a radar station in Barangay Sapao, one of less than 10 such stations all over the country, putting Guiuan in the league of such places as Aparri and Baler.
In the dry summer months, the Pag-asa radar station, perched on a hill planted to calamansi trees, affords expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, the Leyte Gulf and the ugly brown scab of Manicani island, like neighboring Homonhon, a place scarred by mining.

For tourists unmindful of its rich history, Guiuan has kilometers of deserted shoreline and long sand tracks that lead from beach to beach to yet another beach. One imagines spending lazy days on a bike just exploring the sleepy, scenic coastline.

From the somnolence that it has fallen into, there are signs that Guiuan's fortunes may change again soon. Calicaon, an island connected to the Samar mainland by a causeway, now hosts a resort fancy enough to sport the distinctive slope of the Minangkabau houses of Sumatra. A sign just off the dusty road that traverses the island bears witness to the ongoing construction of a yoga sanctuary.

Soon, tourists and other transients may once again descend upon Guiuan, some to leave their mark and commemorate their passing and some to journey on with nary a trace.

Guiuan is three hours by van from the new Abucay station in Tacloban.


PinoyApache said...

wow, what info. i never knew the russians were here. good blog you got here, that's why i placed you as one of my links

ShortTermEnthusiast said...

Interesting! I think I will visit one day.....

What to do in Tacloban City, Leyte and nearby

Enjoy the scenic San Juanico Straight . Rent a kayak for a day and paddle your way round the bay of Tacloban, under the beautiful San Juanico Bridge. Kayaks are for rent for around a thousand pesos a day.

Waterfalls in the City
A recent discovery , a majestic 30 ft waterfalls hidden in the mountains of Tigbao and Salvacion just4 Km. outside Tacloban . Maps towards the waterfall site is available. A day trip for picnic and swimming is most ideal.

Nearest to Tacloban is Sohoton National Park in Basey just off San Juanico Bridge. The Tourism Offisce in the Municipality of Basey provides excellent tour guides for a hassle free caving. Ideal for non professional, amateurs, and family trips.The one-man adventure outfit of Joni Bonifacio provides professional caving for the more advetourous. Explore the three caves of Jiabong in one day. The ultimate Langun – Gobingob Cave in Calbiga offers more for serious spelunkers. Langun-Gobingo expedition is usually a 3day – 2 night from one end of the cave to another, but an shorter trip can be tailored. Calbiga is one hour away from Tacloban. Jiabong is an hour- and a half trip from Tacloban

Wall Climbing
Bukid Outdoor Shop offers wall climbing. For 60 pesos you can climb till you drop. They also sell outdoor gears for hiking, camping, mountaineering, and surfing.

Three hours away in Calicoan Guaian E. Samar, is a surfing paradise. Blessed with the thundering waves from the Pacific, local and foreign surfers throng to ride the waves of this new surfing capital. Not to mention that Guaian boast of long stretches of white sand sans the crowd and vendors. A laid back town, with friendly people, and a rich history. Do not miss the historic 300 year-old church in the town plaza.

Skimboarding in Tanauan
The secret is out, Tanauan and Dulag towns in Leyte offer the best spots for skimboarding. Tanauan is a 30-minute jeepney ride from Tacloban while Dulag is an hour away. The town of Tanauan is touted as the skimboarding capital of the Philippines. The town hosts the Tanuan International Skimbording Competition which is held every Easter Sunday of each year. Skimboarding gear is available for rent.

The Leyte Mountain Trail is an outstanding trekking area which starts from the Mahagnao Volcano Natural Park of Burauen to Lake Danao Natural Park in Ormoc, a distance of approximately 40 km. This rainforest tour will cover the beautiful lakes of – Mahagnao, Malagsum, Casudsu-ran and Danao. The spectacular Guinaniban Falls is not to be missed. From the crest of the central Amandiwing Mountain Range is breathtaking view of mountains, forests, plains and the island of Samar and Leyte. The Leyte Mountain Trail houses a profusion of tropical flora and fauna including colourful insects, butterflies, dragonflies, bugs, giant millipedes, deers, wild boars, monkeys, birds, orchids, and giant ferns.

Tongonan Hotsprings National
Tongonan Hotsprings National ParkLocated in Ormoc City, 123 km. from Tacloban City (also accessible from Kananga). A valley of geothermal power source that can supply electricity to the whole region when fully developed; cool and relaxing climate; first geothermal power plant to operate in the Philippines.

Lake Danao
Lake DanaoLocated in Ormoc City, 125 km. from Tacloban City. A violin-shaped lake 2,100 feet above sea level and 3 km, long; hemmed by cloud-capped-mountain ranges of undetermined depth; wild animals roaming its surrounding forest; hunter’s paradise; lake said to be the habitat of giant eel.

Cuatro Islas
Located in the towns of Inopacan and Hindang, Leyte; plus pumpboat ride. Four lovely isles namely, Digyo, Apid, Mahaba, and Himokilan bordered by white sandy shore; surrounded by beautiful coral gardens, the best in Leyte island. A total of 287 species of reef building corals can be found in the islands waters; rich fishing ground. Himokilan is the largest island of the Cuatro Islas where the big delicious coconut-cracking crabs called “tatus” are found.

Mt. Pangasuhan Ecopark
Mt. Pangasuhan Ecopark is located in Brgy. Pangasuhan, Baybay, Leyte. One of the few remaining virgin rainforests in the Philippines. It is richly endowed with diverse flora and fauna, many of which are considered endangered species like flying lemurs and tarsiers; a unique and precious ecological asset.