WHEN you travel way up north in the Philippines, two things will strike you: the unbelievable hotness of the region, and the tangible presence of a dead president.
We were on a rented car from Vigan, headed to Laoag to take our direct flight home to Cebu later that night. The day was young and our driver/guide cheerfully offered to tour us around Ilocos Norte before takeoff. We had just realized that, when in Ilocos, driving around in an air-conditioned car isn’t such a bad idea since the world outside always seems to be a few degrees hotter than we’re used to. And so, what normally would take just an hour and a half drive stretched to a short day as we explored popular hot spots along the way.
Marcos Museum and Mausoleum in Batac City
Here, you will find the preserved body of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, still not buried. Slowly, I walked around the dim, solemn and almost creepy mausoleum, each step prodded by curiosity. I grew up learning about the atrocities during Marcos’ reign, associating his name with “Martial Law”, “greed” and “dictator.” But upon finally looking at the wax-like body of this larger than life historical figure of a man, laid out like a saint, my first and only thought was: he’s shorter than I imagined.
The rest of the museum showcases memorabilia of the late president, from his stint in the armed forces down to his presidency. Walking around, reading his brilliant letters and looking at old cultural pieces and iconic photographs—you can feel the love and loyalty of the people for him and his family. What does it say about Marcos—a man who’s lost a nation’s trust, denied a hero’s burial, and yet still revered in his hometown? It was strange. This was not a world I knew.
Under the relentless heat of the sun, we proceeded to Paoay, Ilocos Norte where the familiar postcard-perfect San Agustin Church, also known as the Paoay Church, stands in all its centuries-old Spanish-era glory. This beautiful structure is listed as one of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. I could hear wedding bells all the way across the dry sprawling grounds. Accompanied by my apprehensive afternoon shadow, I walked then stopped in the middle of the brick pathway, staring up at this massive church and wondering if dreams of forever could be burned by the sun.
Malacañang of the North
For a welcome glimpse of clear blue waters, we drove along the legendary Paoay Lake.
Along its lazy shores, you’ll find the official residence-turned-museum of the late President Marcos. The Malacañang of the North, or what the Ilokanos endearingly call Malacañang ti Amianan, is said to be a “birthday gift” of then First Lady Imelda Marcos to her husband on his 60th birthday. I fell in love with its timeless architecture—wide open spaces, hard wooden floors, grand balcony and long capiz-windowed hallways overlooking the lake. From its elegant rooms to Spanish inspired furniture and grand spiral staircase—everything is a work of art. I went around feeling like a brush stroke in a beautiful painting.
Museo Ilocos Norte & The Sinking Bell Tower in Laoag
The memorabilia in Museo Ilocos Norte and the town’s progress in the face of its Sinking Bell Tower are testaments to the Ilokanos’ resilience and hard work. The Museo in Laoag is rich with lessons from the past—how the people persevered and turned dry lands to their advantage, toiling despite the beating of the sun, and perhaps, political controversy. It’s admirable how they have survived and seem to have remained unified under one leadership.
At the wall of Marcos Museum in Batac, you will find this prayer, which reads in part:
“Cleanse us of our anger, our bitterness, and our recriminations of the past; spare us the doubts and anxieties of the present; and purify us for our sacrifice so that we may raise a people who will be their own strength today, and their own warranty against the future.” (by Ferdinand E. Marcos, 1917-1989)
Having visited Ilocos Norte, I realize that how we look at people and the past will always be colored by our present. Somehow, in between shades of gray, we find our own version of the truth. I don’t know about you, but like the photographs I’ve taken, my memories of Ilocos Norte will always be in sepia.