Tongue-tied in Tacloban

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Flag of Philippines  , Visayas,
Saturday, August 2, 2008

There's one name that easily comes to many people's minds whenever Tacloban City is mentioned — Imelda Romualdez- Marcos. Truly, the city's become synonymous with the country's most colorful and controversial first lady to ever live in Malacaņang Palace.

This isn't surprising since Imelda spent her childhood and young adult years there. At 18, she became the city's unofficial ambassadress of goodwill, enthralling visiting politicians and dignitaries with her songs. Her singing prowess and stunning looks earned for her the title, "Rose of Tacloban." For decades now, Imelda's clan, the Romualdezes of Leyte, remains the mightiest political dynasty in the whole province.

Her detractors may dispute it but the city is undoubtedly one of Imelda's bailiwicks, at least during the time when she was still in power. She helped pave the way for Tacloban to reach its current status as one of the country's fastest growing cities through the multimillion infrastructure projects that she ordered to be built there and in the entire province.

Foremost among these is the San Juanico Bridge, the two-kilometer span connecting the islands of Leyte and Samar, crossing over San Juanico Strait — reputedly the world's narrowest navigable strait. It was during the Marcos years when Tacloban gained greater national prominence with the completion of the bridge that's considered the longest in the country and, for a time, in Southeast Asia. The serpentine span is sometimes referred to as the "bridge of love", allegedly a gift of the late dictator to his wife.

But there's more to Tacloban that I wanted to see other than the landmarks associated with the former first lady who gained notoriety for her shopping sprees to the world's most luxurious boutiques, ostentatious collections of shoes, gowns, jewelry and artworks, extravagant parties and flamboyant beautification projects amidst the poverty that plagued her country.

I've been hearing so much about the city's renowned treasures — its rich historical, religious and cultural heritage — which stirred my interest to go there. Fortunately, I had some official business in nearby Catbalogan City in Samar, affording me a chance to segue to Tacloban. The trip also took on some nostalgic significance as it was my first time to set foot on Leyte where my great, great grandparents on the maternal side originally came from.

Like many other towns in the province, Tacloban is known for its devotion to the Sto. Niņo (Holy Infant Jesus), even naming its church after him. Located at the corner of Real and Zamora Streets, the Sto. Niņo Church houses the miraculous image of the venerated infant. Each year, the city becomes the center of religious and cultural celebrations in honor of the child Jesus, particularly towards the end of June. Fluvial parades and the Pintados-Kasadyaan festival are among the colorful activities that form part of the annual feast.

For her part, Imelda, who must have been a staunch devotee of the Holy Child, has put up a magnificent landmark right in the heart of Tacloban — the Sto. Niņo Shrine and Heritage Museum — which is often confused with the church. Located in Real Street, the sprawling two-storey building was one of the numerous presidential rest houses that the late president had built. I got curious about this edifice for it's been said to house some of the most astonishing assemblage of Imelda's extravagance so I, together with my hosts, wasted no time in going there.

To gain entrance, we paid a fee of Php200 (or about US$4) for our group, inclusive of a guided tour. The guide then asked us to take off our shoes and wear one of the available slippers throughout the duration of the tour. Entering the shrine, we found ourselves inside a chapel that dominates the entire ground floor.

I immediately noticed the altar where the image of the Sto. Niņo is prominently displayed, encased in glass and surrounded with tiny lights. There are also several rows of wooden pews that can accommodate about a hundred people. An elegant array of chandeliers illuminates the entire chapel. It was, according to the guide, Imelda's personal altar.

On each side of the chapel, I saw several rooms and asked the guide what's inside them. He said these were reserved for the Marcoses' guests and visitors. Each of the rooms was tastefully embellished with unique motifs that represented the original 13 regions of the country, and featured dioramas showing Imelda's metamorphosis from a naīve town lass to the most powerful woman in the land.

We then proceeded to the upper floor of the building which contained the rooms occupied by the former First Family. Hanging on some of the walls there are the paintings of the Filipino masters Amorsolo and Malang, if I'm not mistaken. Moving further, we found a 30-seater dining room and a grand ballroom which was said to be a replica of the one at Malacaņang. There's also a wooden bas-relief of Malakas at Maganda, the legendary first Filipino man and woman.

As we moved from one room to another, we finally caught sight of Imelda's precious collection of objets d'art, paintings, sculptures, curios, and what have you. Seeing the real McCoy in the flesh was a mind-blowing experience that left us tongue-tied for several moments during the tour.

As the stunning scenes assaulted our senses, we could only shake our heads in disbelief at the gaudiness and lavishness of it all — jars and porcelain from China, rugs and draperies from Belgium, tiles and leather from Italy, floor carpets from Argentina, period furniture and fixtures from France and Britain, and many more.

It was at that point when I began to ponder why the place was called a shrine. From what I understood, a shrine is supposed to be a sacred building or structure containing the remains or relics of a saint or a holy person that serves as an object of veneration or pilgrimage. True, there's the image of the Holy Child downstairs. But why are there no masses being held there? Why are there no devotees nor pilgrims praying and offering flowers?

Oh, well, Imelda must have her own definition of what a shrine ought to be. Perhaps she thought it's a place where she can whimsically put together under one roof the innocent and the iniquitous, the sacred and the sacrilegious, the virtuous and the vicious.

Whew, what an incredibly imeldific experience!
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