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TAAL: HERITAGE TOWN

0 Comments 23 January 2010

TAAL: HERITAGE TOWN

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

At C-5 Road in Taguig City, Metro Manila, near my residence, the car bearing friends Odette and Binggirl of the Earth Day Philippines Network hove into view, and we were on our way. It was to be ecotourist tour, with equal emphasis on the environment; and our destination was the heritage town of Taal in Batangas, its Pansipit River, and nearby Lake Taal, the historic body of water and ecological wonder.

We took the Tagaytay route, less traffic and more scenic. Tagaytay the ridge city remains a prime piece of real estate for entrepreneurs and Manila residents seeking to build a resthouse in that cool hideaway. There are now a bewildering number of restaurants, hotels and inns, mansions and subdivisions. But from time to time along the ridge, there were views of Taal Volcano and the lake, as beautiful as ever from a distance.

Odette was enchanted; she hadn’t passed this way for some time. The problems concerning the lake were not evident from here.

Then we reached Batangas and the highway curved downward towards the lowlands, passing through San Nicolas and Agoncillo, with a lot of greenery still around. Then came bustling Lemery and finally, after a relatively brief ride of more than two hours, Taal, with its stairway dedicated to the first Filipino saint Lorenzo Ruiz, miraculous Our Lady of Casaysay Church along the Pansipit River, and row of 19th century ancestral homes leading to the plaza, where stands the mighty San Martin de Tours Basilica, its majesty now marred by a new belfry which looks like an infant formula bottle (biberon, as one resident irreverently told me during a previous visit).

Taal has a rich history and, during the Spanish regime, was the capital of the province, also named Taal (now Batangas). The area it covered stretched from the lake-volcano to Balayan Bay. It was a progressive area, Taaleños (Batangueños) being hardworking. But a catastrophic eruption of Taal Volcano in 1849 wrought havoc upon the lakeshore districts, followed by a severe earthquake in 1849.

The sitios and barrios – Lemery, Bauan, San Nicolas, Santa Teresita, San Luis and Alitagtag – became towns. And Taal itself was transformed into a sleepy, quiet little town overlooking Balayan Bay. It is a living museum town, not quite on the scale of Vigan in the North but still an important reminder of what is worth preserving from the past.

There are many landmarks in Taal, among them the Agoncillo ancestral home, or the Marcella Agoncillo Historical Landmark which is run by the National Historical Institute.

Marcela Agoncillo’s claim to fame in Philippine history is that she sewed the Philippine flag which was displayed during the inauguration of the First Philippine Republic on June 12, 1898. This was at the request of President Emilio Aguinaldo. Marcela and her husband Felipe were also in exile then in Hong Kong.

The museum, restored and well maintained, has antiques, mementoes and artifacts associated with ancestral homes. But what caught my eye were old books in Tagalog, English and French; the latter were acquired while the couple was in the Crown Colony.

Near the Agoncillo home is another architectural gem, an ancestral home built in the late 19th century, and now oddly named Villa Tortuga as a tribute to the marine turtle (pawikan) which can occasionally be seen in the nearby river.

The house still reeks of elegant, bygone days and has original planks for floors, capiz-shell windows, long table, vintage photographs, chandeliers, family piano, a mural depicting the countryside, paintings, staircase, multimedia artworks, and santo. The designer who rents the house has added antiques from his own collection.

And it was to this house that we repaired to for lunch cum briefing on the ecological state of Lake Taal. Our host for the delicious meal (which included tawilis fish, a delicacy from the lake) was renowned glass sculptor Ramon Orlina, who is a favorite son of Taal.

Also present were staffers from the local and regional DENR (Department of Environment & Natural Resources) and consultants.

The consensus was that Lake Taal, which is a prime ecotourist attraction in Southern Tagalog, is in a lamentable condition ecologically (tagilid) due to pollution, overfishing, and proliferation of fish cages. The prized fish maliputo is becoming an endangered specie.

 Talks are ongoing with the mayors of the surrounding towns, and most are cooperating, submitting the names of owners of fishpens which have to be dismantled. These cages have to be reduced to a tolerable level. One mayor, however, seems to be protecting the fishpen owners. Koreans are believed to be the investors/ silent partners in these ventures.

Later we chatted with Peter Capotosto of Sail Philippines, an Italian-American who is a longtime resident of Batangas, and an ecological consultant/coordinator.

“The pollution comes from residents and businesses like the resorts,” Capotosto said. “They are dumping sewage directly into the lake. Taal is a living lake but it is dying. A lot of people also dump their garbage into the rivers that flow down to the lake, including the Pansipit, which is the only river that drains out into the sea.” Pansipit runs through four towns- Taal, Lemery, Agoncillo and Balayan.

 Another source of pollution is fish feed, which is actually chicken waste (s–t). “You see piles and piles of this chicken feed,” the environmental specialist said. “There is a simple solution. Just classify fish feed as solid waste, and you are not allowed to dump solid waste into the lake.” But pollution, he added, is worse in the area of the fish cages.

“The lake used to be very clear but it is now murky,” Capotosto concluded. “You cannot see a fellow diver only several feet away. And this is a tourist zone!”

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