It is a bake-off that I knew nothing about. Take a human. Buckle a yellow helmet. Warnings not mandatory. Plonk her on an open jeep that jumps, bobs, leaps, hops on boulders in a rough river. Forget the waterfall. Put her in a hot pool under the blue sky. As she swims, the volcanic mountains will stare as sentinels. One of then erupted in 1991 and was dubbed the second-largest eruption in the 20th century. Tell her, the volcano will not erupt today. Let her sun, get her on the jeep again that plods through the river at breakneck speed. That is Station 3.
At Station 2, the bake-off begins. In warm volcanic sand. Get into dry beige shorts-shirt set and watch as the man digs a grave. That’s where the human will be baked for 15 minutes. Not just baked. A man will walk over the grave. Do not expect eulogy. Or, a pastor to bless the soul. You are on your own. Alive. With other ‘dead’ in the community grave.
In the Philippines’ Puning Hot Spring & Spa (near Angeles City), I waited for my turn to be buried. In hot sand grave. “Grave? No. It is psammotherapy. It is very good for blood circulation and joint pain,” Boyet Sayo of the Philippines Tourism Board was lending solace. I looked around. Of the four grave plots, one had a group of supine Japanese. All cocooned and not one whimpering. Mine was a corner grave plot. Grave no. 1. I put my head on the folded towel and even before I could mimc the grave posture with limbs on the side, the Puning man shovelled tonnes of sand on me. I was trapped. Not a finger moved. A drop of sweat gathered on my forehead. In the packed sand, my heart pumped. Maybe I was losing ounces and getting prettier. Maybe because weight loss and ‘total body beauty’ are listed as psammotherapy benefits.
“Want a massage?” The Puning sandman asked graciously. Buried in hot sand, I was stolid about everything. I assumed he’d pull one limb out and massage. Instead, he started walking. On my legs. Then, limbs. Yeah, walked on me while I was still entombed. Soon, the sandman vanished. I was counting minutes in my head. Fifteen minutes is what the sandman had fixed my grave time at. “Done?” I asked. A sand woman uttered a vehement “no” and started fanning my sweat off. Minutes ticked. In my head. The sandman reappeared. “Get up,” he pronounced. I tried. I could move no finger. The sandman raked sand off me. I was out of the oven. Ounces thinner? Do not know. Prettier? Do not know. A sand woman brushed sand off my nape.
The bake-off was not over yet. I lay on a plastic bench slathered with smooth volcanic ash from the erupted Mt Pinatubo. The benefits rolled again: Mudpack helps with allergies and promotes healthy skin. I was parched. In the world’s largest producer of coconut, all I wanted was a sip of coconut water. There was none. I settled for mogu-mogu, a sugary drink with chunks of lychee. In the Philippines, I was out of the grave and the frumpy beige shorts-shirt. I was myself again.
Few hours and a missed flight later, I was in northern region of Ilocos, famous for tobacco and Vigan City, the best example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. But, in the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, history had to wait. I first met the birds. Caged budgerigars by the reception desk of Playa Tropical resort Hotel. The birds flitting despairingly in the white cage. A lone bird sitting in another cage. Lonely. Forlorn. In the middle of the night, the budgies were awake. Disoriented by the bright lights. I stood by the cage. The yellow budgie pecked with its hookbill. The one in blue looked at me. Perhaps urging to let her fly in the wide sky. My heart twitched. A fat tear gathered in the corner of my eye. The night was laden with melancholy. For the caged birds.
Next morning, I met Prince, a handsome white horse. Wearing blinders and a tasselled headband, he galloped through the cobbled streets of Vigan’s historic centre which is a beautiful amalgamation of architecture from Europe, China, Mexico and the Philippines, a townscape without any parallel in Asia. The traditional Hispanic checkerboard street plan is dominated by the St Paul’s Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the City Hall and the Provincial Capitol Building. Prince’s clip-clop mingled with the chaos of the town where locals and tourists gather for the famous bagnet (fried pork belly), gigantic hand-fluted empanadas, the sinful, skinless longganisa (sausage) and the dragon fruit ice-cream. Prince was manoeuvring classically through the jeepneys and the tricycles, the oh!so Filippino modes of transport. Prince looked happy, he only works eight-hours once a week.
The Ilocos region is lush, dotted with tobacco farms and boughs of mango trees burdened with yellow/orange fruits. A land complete with colossal sand dunes and white beaches swathed in silken sand. I hopped off at Paoay Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The St Augustine Church is old in time, organic in material and baroque in its mien. The mortar used in the church is an organic concoction of sand, lime, sugarcane juice boiled with mango leaves, straw and leather. The 17th century architect must have been so ingenious. In the church, I said no prayer for the soul of the departed architect. I prayed for the freedom of the budgerigars. God, open their cages and let the budgies soar in the blue sky of the beautiful island nation of the Philippines.