February 14, 2009. ‘Twas the day of St. Valentine, barely 12 hours after my first Junior-Senior Promenade. The night before, I’d been shaking my booty in a crowded multipurpose hall in the middle of Butuan City. Now, while others were busy preparing for their Valentine’s dates or purchasing boquets of roses, I was in the local airport’s pre-departure area, waiting to board a Philippine Airlines flight bound for Manila. The next day I would fly to Legazpi City, and then from there take a couple-hour car ride to Naga, the city of Peñafrancia, where I would be staying for the entire week.
The purpose of the trip? To participate in the 2009 National Schools Press Conference, the country’s biggest campus journalism competition. This year, the contest was held in Naga City with the timely theme “Climate Change: A Call for Responsible Campus Journalism”. The Philippines’ most budding young writers, from Abra in Luzon to Zamboanga in Mindanao, would converge in friendly competition to exercise our freedom of expression—and I was going to take part in it!
Later on that day, I would find myself in SM MoA, frantically looking for a bookstore selling the legendary Moleskine notebook—the notebook used by Hemingway and Chatwin, by Van Gogh and Picasso. PowerBooks was out of stock, and Fully Booked was nowhere to be found (until it was too late), so I decided to head for National Bookstore. There were but a few left on the shelf when I got there, so I picked up the smaller, 192-leaf, soft-cover variety and lined up to pay for it. Php1,295 for the little bugger, but it was well worth it. I also purchased a copy of The Fray, the latest album from my favorite piano rock band The Fray (notable songs include You Found Me, which was used in the Lost Season 5 trailer, and Syndicate). Satisfied (though nearly broke), I and my companions retreated to our hotel to rest up.
The next day, we were up and about early to take our breakfast. After checking out, we boarded a van for a relatively short trip to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. We checked in as a group, and after hesitantly paying the exorbitant Php200 terminal fee, settled in the pre-departure area for a two-hour wait to board our Legazpi-bound flight. I would have spent those two hours well by going online and surfing the Internet, but I couldn’t connect to the Internet using the terminal’s free WiFi.
Daragang Magayon: First Sighting
At around 10:20 AM, I boarded the Legazpi-bound PAL flight. Around an hour later, we touched down, and as I disembarked from the plane, I finally sighted her: Daragang Magayon.
Mayon Volcano is Bicol Region’s crown jewel, a volcano with an almost perfectly conical shape. Its beauty is awe-inspiring, as is its ferocity—she is an active volcano that has been erupting with relative frequency for decades now. She buried Cagsawa Church when she erupted in the early 19th century, killing the people who took refuge inside the church. The last time it erupted was in 2006, although sulfuric smoke is regularly emitted from its mouth.
Thankfully, she was relatively behaved the day I first saw her. We had to board a van bound for Naga City shortly after we landed, but I fretted not, as I knew I’d meet her even more up-close in the days ahead.
I’ve forgotten how long the trip from Legazpi to Naga took. They gave us a two-hour estimate, but I can’t be entirely certain as I slept during most of the trip. We shared the van with three employees of the DepEd central office (who were genial, thankfully) and a few other folks. We arrived at the terminal in Naga, and the first thing I noticed was that the place was a considerable deal more prosperous than Butuan. They had two malls (so does Butuan, but one of them’s tanking and the other one’s really just a poor excuse for a mall). SM City Naga is also set to open its doors in May.
We headed to our billeting quarters. It wasn’t an elementary school as in previous press conferences, but in Sunny View Hotel. Apparently, the presscon organizers didn’t see Naga City schools fit enough to house delegations, so they billeted us in different hotels across the city instead. I was thankful for the fact—the hotel rooms were homy albeit simple, and there was a chic coffee shop in the lobby that offered free WiFi as well as pastries (and of course different varieties of coffee).
On the 16th, the NSPC kicked off with the customary opening parade followed by the Opening Program. The sky was overcast and I recall a momentary drizzle, but aside from that the afternoon was pretty OK (if you don’t count the walk we took from Panganiban Drive to the Capitol). We weren’t allocated any seating during the Opening Program so we helped ourselves to the shade of a plant box thingamajig and waited for the ceremony to end. The city government was bagets enough to put on a brief fireworks display after the program.
After that, we headed to Sta. Cruz Elementary School where we would be eating breakfast, lunch and dinner for the duration of our stay. I have to say in all honesty that the food that week wasn’t the best I’ve eaten in my life. It was almost always soup and meat—I like my fill of fish every once in a while. Still, it was better than nothing, although I found myself wishing for a KFC chicken meal every once in a while after taking my dinner.
The next day was Armageddon, the day that gave meaning to this weeklong escape from reality. I would battle it out with my counterparts from the other regions of the country. Anxiety crept up on me the moment I woke up that morning, although that subsided a bit as I took an afternoon nap. My adviser woke me up hurriedly, and after I got dressed, I headed for the local house of worship to say a quick prayer before heading for Camarines Sur National High School.
After about an hour of waiting in our holding room, we were finally led to our contest room, and the strict-looking examiner from the DepEd Central Office gave us our topic: “How do students in your school view climate change? What are the practical considerations? Why should it be viewed as an urgent issue?” (or something to that effect). I wrote away for one hour, although I wasn’t able to properly write my conclusion no thanks to the horrid time limit and our equally horrid, superstrict examiner. Whatever, I thought as I exited the contest room. I did what I could and that’s all that counts.
The next day, I was awake at half past five, bathing and then dashing to Sta. Cruz Elementary for breakfast. To wash off the anxiety and tension of the previous day, I would, along with several of my co-journalists and advisers, be touring Bicol Region. We would be going to the Eco-Village in the Capitol, passing by the Camsur Watersports Complex along the way. A wildlife park was also on the itinerary, but really the two “main events” (if you will) of the day were the Cagsawa Ruins, the ruins of a church buried when Mayon erupted in 1814, and the Mayon Skyline Park, a park sitting above the clouds, approximately 2,200 meters above sea level on the slope of the volcano.
Cagsawa Church was buried in lava when Mount Mayon unleashed its fiery fury in February 1, 1814. People who sought refuge from the lava flows were buried inside the church or in the adjacent convent. The tour guide who accompanied us said that there may be hundreds of bodies that lie beneath the ground at Cagsawa.
We took several pictures and stayed a while, listening to the tour guide (whose name escapes me) tell stories relating to Mt. Mayon and Cagsawa. Afterwards we unleashed the power of our wallets in the souvenir stalls outside the ruins before continuing the tour.
Meeting Mayon up-close
The Mayon Skyline Park is a sort of observation deck that sits above the clouds on the slope of Mount Mayon, about 2,200 meters (2.2 kilometers) above sea level and offers the most up-close view a normal tourist can get of the perfect cone of Mayon. When we got to the skyline park, Mayon’s peak was cloud-covered and clouds were amassing to her side. (Legend has it that whenever Mayon’s peak is covered by clouds, that means that she and her lover Ulap (cloud) are kissing.) Unable to get a photo-op with the peak, we decided to take pictures with the sea of clouds in the background. We also entered the Mayon Planetarium which was nothing more than a bunch of tarpaulin posters of Mt. Mayon, Mt. Pinatubo, Mars, the Sun, etc., and a small “audio-visual room”—a projector showing a documentary of a volcano on a white wall.
We waited patiently for Mt. Mayon to show her beautiful peak, but when after fifteen minutes she still refused to show, we decided to descend back down and head home.
As we were going down the twisting, winding, narrow roads that led back to civilization, one of our companions noticed the clouds atop Mayon parting, making the volcano’s peak finally visible, its sulfur-spewing mouth perfectly clear for us to see. We hurriedly asked (ordered, commanded, barked at) the bus driver to stop so we could camwhore with the mountain. He obliged, and we disembarked in a frenzy, looking for the perfect spot from where we could take pictures of the mountain.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic to get that shot—me posing, flashing my biggest smile, the perfect cone of Mayon in the background. I asked my teacher to take a couple of shots of me and Mayon before we boarded the bus again and hesitantly left the volcano, bidding her “Until we meet again.”
We proceeded to one more quick stop, the Emerald Grotto in Iriga, and then returned to Naga, tired yet satisfied, spent yet smiling.
On the afternoon of the 19th, the awarding ceremonies were held, and as the emcee said the words “Feature Writing, English Secondary”, my heart skipped three beats. Unfortunately, I didn’t rank among the Top Seven (I’ll probably never know exactly where I ranked). In any case, I didn’t regret the experience—I made new friends, met Mt. Mayon, and got the chance to write about a topic I was very passionate about. Despite the fact that I didn’t have another trophy, another feather to add to my cap, I was satisfied.
Stuck in Naga
So the National Schools Press Conference ended on February 19. That day and on the 20th, delegates began to leave Naga to return to their home cities and towns, to return to daily life.
But not us. No, sir-eee. You see, we’d been told that the conference would end on the 21st, so we booked our return flights (Naga-Manila-Butuan) for the 22nd. When we found out that we’d have nothing to do in Naga from the 20th to the 22nd, I was itching to rebook our Naga-Manila flight to February 21 or cancel it altogether (and make a land trip to Manila). After all, I wanted to shop for more stuff in the nation’s capital. An eyeball with my fellow plurkers was even possible. But our teacher, afraid that rebooking fees wouldn’t be refunded by the school, decided to keep our original schedule—we would leave Naga early in the morning of the 22nd, and then later on that day leave Manila for Butuan.
So, two days with nothing to do in the city of Peñafrancia. What was I to do? My schoolmate and fellow campus journalist, Kuya Nico, and I decided to spend the two empty days we had in Naga playing arcade games at World of Fun. I finally had the chance to play air hockey, and Kuya Nico and I won tons of tickets in the Colorama game. Of course we spent loads of time shooting hoops at the basketball game. I tried my hand at the arcade bowling game, too.
After two days of arcade gaming, we accumulated a total of about 820 tickets, which we traded in for cute little teddy bears. Huzzah! Thanks to Naga’s relative abundance of retail stores, I also purchased some new stuff from Bench, got new Nike earphones, and bought the Rockferry album by Duffy.
I’m going home
On February 22, I finally bade goodbye to Naga City, to Mayon Volcano, to my second NSPC. As the Cebu Pacific turboprop airplane I was on took off from Pili Airport and headed for Manila, I longed—longed to return to Naga, at the same time longing to return back home. After a two-hour layover at NAIA Terminal 3, I boarded another Cebu Pacific flight, this time bound for BXU, the place I call home.
The 2009 National Schools Press Conference was one of the most memorable events of my life as a campus journalist, and I can only look forward to more adventures to come. Congratulations to the organizers of the national presscon for a satisfactory job, and congratulations to us, today’s campus journalists and inheritors of the mighty pen. ’til we meet again!