We ate breakfast on the top floor restaurant and sat by the window, a prime spot for gazing at SM City Iloilo mall, the express way, and the steadily increasing traffic roaring down it. Not much of a view.
My phone buzzed. Chyrel was already waiting for us in the hotel lobby, so we quickly finished our breakfast and dashed down. Another of our long-term internet-acquaintances, this was our first personal meeting, and I very much appreciated her coming to meet us, especially as she had taken an overnight boat from Cebu, an island to the East in Central Visayas. We each hugged upon greeting, then left the comfort of the air-conditioned hotel for another maiiiiiiinit summers’ day in Iloilo.
Since Chyrel and I had never before explored Iloilo, Jen acted as our local tour guide. Our first destination: Molo Church.
“My parents got married there,” Jen explained to Chyrel, when we had flagged down a trike.
I had seen pictures of Molo Church, with its red spires and neo-Gothic angles. The design of this Spanish-colonial church is all squares and triangles, giving it a sturdy appearance. Indeed, it has survived earthquakes, fires, and the Second World War (it’s said that the bells still bear the scars of gunfire). It is also nicknamed a ‘feminist church’ by some websites, which is an ironic moniker, when you think about it, given many of the restrictions on women in the catholic church.
The barangay (district) of Molo also had an interesting history: it had once been the parian of Iloilo – the area that Chinese immigrants were confined to under Spanish colonial rule, as the Spaniards were outnumbered by Chinese immigrants and their descendants, and feared uprisings.
We alighted from the trike on the other side of the river and walked the rest of the way – Jen had wanted to see the ‘I Am Iloilo’ sign, and take a photo with it.
At Molo plaza, we found a bench under a tree to shield us from the skin cancer-inducing sunshine. Molo church stood directly in front of us, toweiring over a line of jeepneys that had parked right outside its doors, their owners taking a break and trying to hide from the heat. Their presence, though, detracted from the old-world vista we had come to witness. In the plaza, pink bougainvillea bushes bloomed. A lady holding an umbrella strolled though, the only one to dare leaving the safety of shade.
It was approaching midday and 37ºc, and there was barely anyone besides us in the plaza. We decided to seek shelter across the road in Cafe Panay, a cafe located behind Molo Mansion, an elegant, colonial-period building completed in the 1920’s and recently restored, somewhat (more on that later).
Inside, there was only one customer, and two members of staff, one of which turned out a classmate of Jen’s from school. Chyrel and I quietly chat and perused the menu while they caught up. The conversation inevitably turned to Jen’s life in England, and then to me. Upon looking at me, no one ever expects me to be half-Filipino, and there’s a particular look of curiosity, and varying degrees of warm acceptance, from Pinoy’s when they learn this fact, along with an awkward hello and questions about whether I can ‘speak Filipino’ – kaunti lang (a little). Jen’s schoolmate asked for a photo of the two of them, which I took, before taking our order.
Ten minutes later, it arrived. I’d ordered tsokolate, a rich, viscous hot chocolate, served in a cup no bigger than an espresso mug. Blowing on it, the surface barely stirred, and I tentatively took a small sip. Mistake. It was like the sugar-sweet lava, and it left the tip of my tongue singed. Jen passed me some of her ice-cool calamansi juice, and I sucked on an ice cube. Five minutes later, tried again, and despite my throbbing tongue, the tsokolate was beautifully full-bodied and inched down my gullet, warming me to my core, which after sitting for twenty minutes in a heavily air-conditioned room, was appreciated.
We bid farewell to the staff and decided to explore Molo Mansion, since we were there. Also known as the Yusay-Consig mansion, owing to the families who once resided there, it had fallen into disrepair and had been expected to be demolished. In stepped SM, owner of retail outlets and supermalls, such as the one across from our hotel, who saved the building and even worked to restore its former grandeur.
Inside, we found one of SM’s Kultura branded outlets, selling, what it calls ‘Filipiniana’: t-shirts, hand-made trinkets, and other (slightly pricey) pasalubongs (souvenirs), as well as other, more locally-produced offerings. The interior seemmed impressive enough, though, with chandeliers hanging from its high ceilings, and dark wood lining the floors, furniture, and archways. It’s just a shame that, rather than turning the property into a museum instead of what is, in essence, a posh gift shop. I do wish the building had been spared this fate, though given that its alternate fate was one of being destroyed, can I really judge SM harshly?
I pondered this as we sat in the jeepney, on the way to La Paz.