Monday, August 6, 2012

Maconacon, Isabela: Reading Thoreau, Hiking the Forest, Crossing Dicatayan and Hearing the Ghosts of a Storm Past

Maconacon Pantalan Blues
Chance long exposure shot at the pantalan, sans tripod
"Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows.  Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him.  He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth."
                                   "Friday,"  A Week on the Concord & Merimack Rivers,
                                 Henry David Thoreau

It is perhaps no accident that the book I lugged on our exploratory trip to Isabela was "Thoreau on Land, Nature's Canvas" (© 2001 by the Thoreau Society, Houghton Mifflin Company).  Perhaps I need the inspiration to explore beyond the surface, to appreciate what the natural environment of the place has to offer.  And I thank Henry for that.
Baggao Aerial View
Hovering over Baggao enroute to Maconacon from Tuguegarao
There's not much on the Internet about Maconacon and for that reason, we sort of brought provisions so as to be self-reliant for a week.  That and minds open to wandering.  After a 12-hour bus ride to Tuguegarao, we were airborne on a SkyPasada plane over PeƱablanca and Baggao.  17 minutes later, we landed on the small airstrip of Maconacon, which along with Divilacan, Dinapigue and Palanan, comprise what can be called as Isabela's tourism coastline. 

We're about the only visitors here, having a whole room at the municipal dormitory to ourselves.  The amenities are spartan.  Power comes on at 5pm and shuts off at 12 midnight.  There's a SMART tower alright but the mobile network service is virtually non-existent. Through resourcefulness, we were able to rent out a fan from a neighbor to cool off during the breeze-less nights even for just a few precious hours when there's electricity.
Maconacon Leda Snackhouse Tres Marias
Tres Marias at Leda's
Food Haven.  We found consolation in the seafood which were fresh and very cheap.  We ate every meal at Leda's Snackhouse, the first carinderia we stumbled upon in the marketplace and got a surprise each mealtime.  A shrimp and vegetable meal for two goes for under two hundred pesos, expensive softdrinks included (P20 for a small Coke since most of the goods come all the way from Sta. Ana, a 15-17 hour boat ride away).  A blue marlin and vegetable set for two goes for a little over a hundred pesos.  At the wet market, one lola even enticed us with lobsters at P170 per kilo.  If we had more baggage allowance on the plane and didn't have to take the bus back to Manila from Tuguegarao, we would've gladly bought home a kilo or more (more is like it).
Maconacon Romualdez Beach II
Romualdez Beach on a cloudy day
Ghosts of a Storm Past.  Typhoon Juan ravaged the town in 2010 but the locals talk about it like it happened only a week or so ago.  Like in any place visited by a calamity of epic proportions, the people tend to speak wistfully of the past, of what used to be, how things will probably be different from now on.  And everybody has stories to tell -- of houses being carted away by the waters, of the municipal gym coming undone, of palm trees yielding to the wind.

Escorted by foresters to Romualdez Beach, about 20 minutes away from town center, our guides describe the place as a shadow of its old, beautiful self.  The rocky beach, now tree-less and extending far inland, used to be crowned by she-oaks, they said, a landscape befitting this former enclave of the rich Romualdez clan which is related to the former First Lady, Imelda Marcos.  It still is breathtaking even on an overcast, cloudy day.
Maconacon Dicatayan River Stones
Dicatayan River View
Maconacon Og with the Dumagats' Dog
The next day, we hiked through the forest around Dicatayan (called Blos by the Dumagats) River, over an hour away from town center by motorized vehicle called kuliglig.  Decades after the log ban (Isabela, particularly Maconacon, was the site of extensive logging, both legal and illegal, in the 70s), the forest seems to have recovered, the only apparent damage that remained was the scarring and landslides caused by Typhoon Juan.   The cicadas were making themselves heard early in the day even as we found curious-looking insects along the trail.  I even got a compliment from a Dumagat farmer whose dog I befriended.  He told us in Ilocano (translated): "You must have an agimat (amulet) because my dog usually bites strangers."  I've heard stranger compliments from a lot of people but this one made my day.
Maconacon Forest Fulgoridae
Fulgoridae we found on the forest trail
Minority becomes the majority.  We crossed the river via a bamboo raft to get to Brgy. Reina Mercedes where we found out that the Dumagats are no longer the minority as they already make up 70-80% of the barangay's population.   The elementary school was alive with the sounds of children playing.  Come noontime, we were treated to a remarkable sight of Dumagat school kids whose after-school recreation isn't computer games but swimming in the Dicatayan River.  For a moment, I felt pity for city kids who don't know what simple joys they were missing.
Maconacon Dinakayan River Aerial View
Dicatayan/Blos River aerial view
A huge volume of matter ceaselessly rolling through the fields and meadows of this substantial earth -- making haste from the high places, by stable dwellings of men and Egyptian pyramids; to its restless reservoir...
                                             "What a Wonder a River Is," 5 September 1838     
                                           Journal 1:55, Henry David Thoreau

Oh, but the river isn't the same as before, our guides tell us on the way back, as the typhoon has radically altered its path and changed its appearance.  The big bridge is gone and the view has changed in a lot of the places along the bank.  More apologetic-sounding words of regret, I guess, for what was once a spectacle.  From the air, we could see what they mean but on the other hand, I still find the river incredibly beautiful.
Maconacon Forest Carabao Spider III
Colorful spider we found on the Dicatayan forest trail
No show.  On our third day, our guides failed to show up for a reason that escapes us. Pity since we were eager to explore more.  Guess the town's thrust isn't tourism after all.  Then it rained hard in the afternoon as if in commiseration with our plight.  The wonderful food at Leda's (Adobong Pusit (Squid marinated in Soy Sauce), Inihaw na Galunggong (Grilled Round Scad) and Steamed Kangkong (water spinach) served with Isdang Bagoong (Fermented Fish Sauce) helped console us as we readied our stuff for the long trip back to Manila the next day.  That and another helping of Thoreau's inspired prose before the power and the lights went off.
Maconacon SkyPasada Unloading
SkyPasada unloading at the Maconacon airstrip
Lagal[og] thanks SkyPasada for helping us get to Maconacon and back.  SkyPasada flies to Maconacon thrice a week (Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) from Tuguegarao.  Visit for details.


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