As with most things, it started with a call on the cellphone… from my dear friend Cindy R-V…
“Would you like to come with us to Laoag for 3 days? Sept 10 – 12, Monday to Wednesday.”
“Can I get back to you, Cindy? I have several things to check first…”
I studied my schedules and figured out ways to reconfigure everything just so I could “escape” with my friends to Laoag, Ilocos Norte.
“OK. I can go.”
That late Monday afternoon, we all found ourselves at the “Cafe France” at the Centennial Terminal: Cindy R-V, Naynay V, Raqui R-L, Evelyn H-R, and Pinky R. Tata P sat with us while she waited for her flight to Bacolod.
The flight to Laoag on PR 228 was a pleasant and quick 55 minutes. At the airport lounge, we were greeted by Imee’s staff who hung pretty red ribbons with innovative shell and coconut designs on us as a welcome. We were whisked to a Coaster which took us in 20 minutes to our designated hotel, the “Plaza del Norte” in Paoay.
I did not expect much by way of accommodations because I had been visiting Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte on and off for the past 20 years and I was content with a clean room and a clean and functioning bathroom, no matter how basic ( of course that rule did not hold at the upscale Fort Ilocandia hotel ). What mattered to me was that I was with good friends and that I would certainly have a wonderful time.
The “Plaza del Norte” hotel, all of 3 years old, was a completely pleasant surprise: all white, clean, neat, spacious, and sprawling. It had been a project of Bonget’s when he was governor of the province. It certainly was of a new generation of hotels in Ilocandia. My room, 105-B, overlooking the courtyard and swimming pool, was good-sized, clean, neat, and uncluttered, with a clean and well-planned bathroom. I was happy with my accommodations, given my various interesting experiences with hotels in Ilocandia. I knew I was in for a really good time.
Dinnertime was at the hotel’s “Cafe Ayuyang” and everybody opted for the all-you-can-eat Mongolian Grill ( although all of us went once and that was it ). It wasn’t half bad for the limitless seafood and meats you could pile on, which were then cooked on a grill in the patio outside. What I found interesting was that soumak ( a Persian spice which tastes mildly of Chinese “kiamoy” ) and cumin were included in the garnishes; I put generous amounts knowing full well I would probably smell “Arabo” the next day ( well, periodic sprays of Annick Goutal’s “Eau d’Hadrien” took good care of that! ). Kapampangan that I was, I had to make additional orders of “Bagnet” & “Kalderetang Kambing.” The “Bagnet” was very well done and was enjoyed by everyone at the table.
We were already at the table when the other guests arrived. Dulce R arrived, and so did Fe R-G. They had driven up from Manila and it had taken them 9 hours. Betsy & Co. would be arriving the next day for the D-Day ceremonies.
( Cindy, her daughter Naynay, Cindy’s sister Raqui, Cindy’s sister-in-law Evelyn, Evelyn’s daughter Pinky are from the Miguel Romualdez line; Cindy is his granddaughter. Dulce is from the Vicente Orestes Romualdez line; she is his granddaughter by his first wife Juanita Acereda. Daniel Romualdez Sr. of Pandacan, Manila and Trinidad Crisostomo Lopez of Leyte (( originally of Basey, Samar )) had 3 sons: Norberto, Miguel, & Vicente Orestes ).
( Fe Roa-Gimenez headed the personal assistants of Mrs. Marcos during the Malacanang years. )
After what seemed to be a long after-dinner chat with the R cousins, we retired to our rooms at 10:00 p.m.. I fell asleep quickly because I had not slept adequately the previous night. We would also have to leave the hotel at 8:30 a.m. the next day for the 95th birth anniversary mass for the late President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos ( born 11 September 1917 ) at 9:00 a.m. at the old Batac parish church.
I was late for the departure time of 8:30 a.m.! I was late!
Imee’s efficient staff briefed us on the activities for the day. We were assigned a “Grandia” van driven by a kind Manong Erwin, who worked for the mayor of Currimao town as well as the provincial governor’s office. We finally left the hotel at 8:32 a.m.. According to Manong Erwin, Batac town was only 20 minutes away. It was a wonderful sunny day and we drove through picturesque Paoay… we passed by an elegant Mediterranean-style villa by the lake and were told that it was Rudy Farinas’, further on was the road that led to the storied Ferdinand Marcos resthouse “Malacanang ti Amianan.” We passed Paoay town proper, by the famous “earthquake baroque” church, and I noted that the town plaza had been improved from years ago ( there was a time when the tennis court at the back of the church was the major development ). We were disappointed to hear that the “Herencia” restaurant, famous for its delish and cosmo “pinakbet” and “bagnet” pizzas ( think of Manang Biday meets Alice Waters ), had relocated.
We were yacking about “those days” and before we knew it, we were already in Batac town. Probably because the van had an identifying mark or something, the police and the barangay tanods waved us to the “VIP entrance.” Make no mistake about it: It was Marcos town and the profound affection and great esteem accorded to the late President Ferdinand Marcos was not only visible but palpable even to non-Ilocanos like us. We drove into the Batac church patio, filled with various contingents waving flags and banners awaiting the arrival of the Marcos family, the de facto royal family of Ilocandia. We alighted from the van and entered the church, which was already nearly full with various contingents as well — men, women, youth. Cindy led us to a vacant pew in the middle of the church when an announcement was made that the first 5 pews were reserved for the guests of the Marcos family; the people occupying them immediately stood up and transferred. We took the 5th pew on the left side — Cindy by the aisle and me by the other end. In front of the first pew were the individual pews reserved for the Marcos family. A lady in black and white whom no one recognized sat at one of the individual pews.
As I was wont to do, I took in the church interiors while waiting for the ceremonies to start. Austere, Ilocano austere. I observed that the Batac church did not yet have “Imee’s touch,” nor “Ma’am’s touch,” nor the faultlessly elegant “Irene’s touch.” However, I noted a beautiful, elegant lifesize statue of the “Immaculate Conception” in the center niche of the main reredo; it seemed to be the work of one of the famous Quiapo ateliers prewar. On the right side ( the Epistle side ), there was an interesting, overpainted antique statue of “La Virgen con Nino Jesus” on a niche, possibly early 1800s or even mid-1700s. I was seriously studying what was before me when the other live Virgin, the Madonna of Malacanang herself, finally appeared…
A growing hubbub at the church entrance signaled that The Eternally Beautiful One, the former First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, had finally arrived. She glided up the aisle, resplendent in a deep red silk terno and her signature pompadour, amidst the characteristic flurry of security men, assistants, politicians, and media — just like the “old days.” Whatever one thought of her, the lady simply had an amazingly potent and lasting megawatt star power. The excited congregation clicked their cellphones endlessly. As she neared our pew, the group stood up to greet their “Auntie Meldy.” She was happy to see her relatives and associates and “beso-beso ed” one by one. When it was my turn, she paused momentarily and gasped: “Ay, anak ni Poling! Kamukhang-kamukha!” ( “Poling” was Froilan Zialcita Romualdez, her first cousin, son of Manila mayor Miguel Romualdez )
The group laughed. “Ma’am, hindi anak ni Poling ‘yan. Si Toto Gonzalez iyan, kaibigan natin.” they explained.
“Pero mukha kang Romualdez!” she insisted. “Toto Gonzalez! Ikaw nga! Bakit hindi ka na bumisita sa akin? Ang saya ng kuwentuhan natin…” I just smiled and nodded. ( Long ago, Mandoy’s daughter Eliza told me that her Auntie Meldy enjoyed my company, intrigued as she was by my knowledge of the Manila families, the establishment, the Marcos circle, and also of the New York, London, & Paris social sets, the top jewelers, etc. — in short, my knowledge of her world. )
She sat down at the end of our pew and exchanged more pleasantries, unmindful of the scheduled ceremonies. At the same time, a steady stream of people queued up to greet her. Natural charmer that she was, she was unfailingly gracious to all.
Signaled by Atty. Eden Volante, Mrs. Marcos stood up from our pew to take her place in the individual pews in front. She looked askance and gestured towards the lady in black and white ( whom no one recognized ) who continued to sit on one of the pews, seemingly oblivious to Mrs. Marcos’ arrival: “Sino siya???” Mrs. Marcos asked. Later during the mass, we all found out to our comic relief that the lady was none other than the lector. Hahahah.
After some time, Bonget ( Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ) and Lisa ( Atty. Lisa Cacho Araneta-Marcos ) arrived with their security detail.
The sprightly octogenarian Fortuna Edralin Marcos-Barba, the last surviving sibling of President Marcos, arrived, wearing a cheery printed red-and-white dress. Mrs. Marcos greeted her affectionately with “beso-beso.”
Last to arrive was “Gov” Imee ( Maria Imelda Marcos ), looking morning fresh in white “abel” ( Ilocano woven cotton ). No, Irene ( Irene Marcos-Araneta ) was not present.