Two Travel Essays

By Apolinario B. Villalobos

 (Published in Beyond the Horizons, the author’s collection of poems and essays)

The Petrified Woman of Capiz

From history books, I came to know of mummies in Egypt. Then I learned of the mummies of Kabayan, even saw them at close range during one of my trips to Benguet. All of them were cured with specially prepared concoctions to enable them to withstand the decaying process of nature. But not the one I saw in Casanayan, a barrio in Pilar, Capiz.

Casanayan is two hours away from Roxas City, the capital of Capiz Province. I hied off there one day after overhearing at the city’s public market about a preserved body of a woman in the said barrio. I hired a car and a driver. Thelma, the great-granddaughter, was very hospitable. She even offered me something to eat before we proceeded to the “chapel,” a few steps from the house. It was a box-type concrete structure with a glass-covered chamber inside where stood the dried-up remains of Maria Basanes.

Thelma prayed. I prayed too. Then she lit a candle. I noticed thick candle drippings on one of the railings.

Thelma told me that people would pray in front of the encased remains of her great-grandmother to ask her soul’s intercession for favors. In doing this, a candle is lighted and a donation is left afterwards. The proceeds are used in buying the candles and whatever maintenance the “chapel” may need. I was so engrossed with Thelma’s narrative that I did not notice it was almost noontime. I asked Thelma if the body could be taken out of the cubicle so that I could take photographs of it. I thought of asking for help from the driver, who had opted to keep watch of the car. Thelma told me, however, that the body was not that heavy and she could carry it herself.

Indeed, the body weighed less than ten kilograms. Thelma and I positioned it facing the door, and she obliged to pose beside the body, holding a candle with one hand and holding an image of the Virgin Mary with the other hand.

After the photo session, I closely examined the remains and could hardly believe that the skin had remained preserved after such a long time. There was not any sign of ant bite, as should be the case. The hair was still intact, although stringy. All of these despite the fact that her body was not embalmed when Maria died on March 12, 1929. Thelma told me that her grandmother was buried immediately when she died, as was the practice that time.

Thelma also told me that her grandmother had been very religious and had devoted most of her time in prayers and helping others. She was looked up to as someone whom neighbors would approach in times of needs. It was because of these that they believed that finding Maria’s body well preserved after so many years was a miracle.

Word about the “miracle” spread fast. In no time at all, opportunistic and superstitious fishermen in the community took turns in desecrating the grave and stealing strips of skin from the dead woman’s forehead. The family was aghast to find this out, and in order to protect the body from further mutilation, they transferred it to their house and later on built a “chapel” for it.

All Souls’ Day, Thelma said, would find their yard teeming with people. They come either to pray or just see for themselves the much-talked-about “mummy.” The family would welcome them as long as they behaved accordingly. On my way back to Roxas City, I asked the driver why he did not join us. He told me that he was not used to looking at the remains of the dead. I said it was just the remains of a woman who died years ago. He did not seem to hear me. He was driving at top speed, obviously to get out of the barrio as fast as he could. It was to my advantage as I got to the airport just in time for my flight back to Manila.


Spelunking, Anyone?

The name of the sport sounds strange as a French dish. In fact, many local adventurers may not even have heard of the term, although it simply means “cave exploration.”

Unlike any other sports, spelunking is relatively inexpensive. All you squander is time, effort, and courage.

I have been exploring caves since I was in high school. We used to hike to the hinterlands in the barrios in our town searching for waterfalls. Most of the time, we would find caves behind waterfalls or sometimes at the foot of hills, reeking with guano. When we were lucky, we would chance upon real fascinating ones—small openings leading to cathedral-like chambers illuminated by sunrays coming from cracks and holes.

After a long respite from cave explorations, my interest was revived when I discovered this small cave in a remote barrio in . . .

There’s also this cave in Calbayog with neck-deep water that I explored with a guide whom I found out later to be an ex-convict. I was able to convince him that going inside would not do us harm since the water was clear. The instant camaraderie must have established confidence prompting him to confess he was once a thrill killer and a highway robber in his hometown. But it was his first time to get inside a cave.

Unknown to many, Aklan is not only popular for its Ati-Atihan Festival. It’s also a province of caves. One time, a friend and I were brought by our hosts to a town near Kalibo whose hills are pockmarked with caves. The cave system, which covers a wide area, is called Tigayon. In some of its chambers, Tigayon challenges the spelunker with its deep pools.

In Capiz, there’s a cave whose bowels spew cool spring water. Located at Dumalag, it is not too far from the capital town of Roxas. Inside, there’s a waist-deep pool and stalactites near the exit.

The cave in Dauis, Bohol, is an intriguing one. It is called Hinagdanan because, to get inside, you have to climb down a ladder through a small opening. This underground cave is illuminated by a big hole above the crystal-clear pool. It has just one chamber, and when your eyes become used to the dark, you’ll find that it is not eerie at all inside. Initially, the setting will make you imagine dancing fairies and elves.

The Callao Cave of Tuguegarao is so enormous that spelunkers who have been there use it as a gauge in sizing up other caves. It has a chapel in which Mass is held during the fiesta in honor of the town’s patron saint. It is on top of a limestone hill and could be reached after negotiating several hundred steps leading to the entrance.

In Basey, Samar, a town accessible from Tacloban by jeepney, is one of the most beautiful caves in the country. The locals call it Sohoton. It has a fantastic setting of lush vegetation teeming with birdlife. Multi-chambered, it is full of sparkling stalactites and stalagmites. On holy days, the old folk would venture inside to look for amulets.

Not to be outdone is Albay’s Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave. It has four entrances and four chambers interconnected by slippery trails. The cave was used as a sanctuary of the locals during the Second World War. It also became a venue of “benefit dances” during the early days of Martial Law when curfew was strictly observed.

Agusan del Norte has its Diwata Caves, so called because it is believed to be inhabited by fairies. As the chambers could be reached by the seawater during high tide, I presumed that the splashing water inside the caverns could have produced the frightening sounds that the locals associated with supernatural beings.

For a really thrilling cave exploration, I tried the Bathala Caves of Marinduque on a Holy Week. Bathala has several chambers, one of which is Python—my favorite. At the entrance are real pythons, coiled and unmindful of our intrusion. It is said that they are harmless, but woe to those who would hurt them. I was told that a drunk penitent who killed one python just for fun fell dead on his way back to the barrio. It was a heart attack. I do not know if his heart faltered due to remorse or he simply got the curse of the pythons.

There are caves near Manila that are just waiting to be explored. All that one has to do is take a jeepney to a barrio and presto, you have a cave gaping at you!

We did just that one leisurely weekend. There were twenty-three of us in the group, four of whom were girls. We went out of dusty Manila to explore a cave in Wawa, Montalban.

We were told that the cave was once used by retreating Japanese soldiers during the later part of the Second World War. To get there, we had to go up a hill. We were hoping at least to find some samurais and Japanese caps. But it was the stench of the guano that greeted us. As we stepped inside, we found our shoes submerged in bat waste about eight inches deep. Overhead, the disturbed bats screeched at us. Amid the dim, we made our way gingerly. A slip would mean a disastrous fall on the thick layer of guano.

Crawling through a three-foot tunnel that led to another chamber, some of us got scraped by stalactites. We were aiming for the “window” through which we could have a fantastic view of the river below.

After a dizzying stay of about an hour inside the cave, plus bruises on our knees and back and some badly smelling behind, we went down the mountain through a drenching rain. But we were all satisfied and were looking forward to more adventurous spelunking somewhere else, especially the mummy caves of the mountain provinces.

Cave exploration could be dangerous to the careless. The sport, therefore, teaches you to be careful. It develops your instincts and senses. Although the claustrophobic feeling inside caves tends to make you helplessly alone, it affords you the chance to exercise patience and determination.

Because of the challenges which the sport poses, I don’t think I’ll ever stop exploring caves. It is a good alternative to mountain climbing on rainy days. If it has a good therapeutic effect on me, why can’t it be for you? Caves, anyone?