Author: James Z. Carpio

In 2009, I took a flight from Manila back to Naga after spending more than a decade in that capital. Riding on an airplane back in the 1990s for vacations from the university was frequent. I still have my old flying student card in my brown clutch bag. At those times I can say that passengers were mostly locals. When I came home in 2009, the plane was filled with domestic and foreign tourists.

The realization that Naga has people and elements from different countries across the globe came when I went to the world class Camarines Sur Water Sports Complex or CWC in Pili, which is a part of Metro Naga. I felt like I was in Greenbelt, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore and while in transit at the Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt airports. The international sophistication made an impression that etched a distinct mark in my mind that definitely this part of booming Bicol has become cosmopolitan.

Intermittently, I would enroll at Naga’s top leisure gym which is a value added amenity of a luxurious upscale hotel. My usual schedule would be Mondays to Saturdays when the establishment is open. I arrive at six in the morning and spend an hour or two depending on the work out plan. The foreigners that I have seen inside the gym, by the pool and at the café al fresco were mostly Caucasians. Those have become the sights that I experienced every time I would go to that place. The sounds that I have heard were a Babel of tongues and English in different accents.

At the city center near the historic landmarks, I have glimpsed of a busload of Caucasian tourists being oriented by a local guide near the façade of the old Spanish architecture inspired edifice of the Universidad de Santa Isabel. Near and in the vicinity of the Plaza Quince Martires I have spotted white folks resting and taking pictures.

Africans, East Asians like Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese can also be seen in the aforementioned public places. One time we dined at a leisure mall and we happened to bump into a group of Korean tourists. And every time we would be fetching or sending off family or friends at the Naga Airport I will see people of different races.

Traveling back in time during the 1980s, a pioneering restaurant opened offering burgers and American inspired cuisine. At first, the owners shared in a television interview that they were discouraged from venturing into that business opportunity. They were told that rice is still the main staple of food for Bicolanos. This restaurant underwent different transformations and evolved into one of the leaders in the dining industry and even opened franchises outside of Bicol.

The clamor for Bicolano cuisine prompted the specialized branding of local diners and restaurants into catering to the adventurous palate of all tourists. The trademark of which are viands cooked in gata (coconut milk) seasoned with sili (chili peppers) with laing (vegetables) and Bicol express (pork in shrimp paté) at the forefront.

I put a spotlight on Bicol food because in the next part of this article we would take a world tour in discussing the wide array of cuisines from different countries. There is an Asian mart that sells grocery items from Korea, Japan and China. A meat shop run by a Swiss provides delectable European flavors. Some hotels serve all types of cuisine. Furthermore, there are Italian, American, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Tunisian and Middle Eastern cafes, diners, food booths, and restaurants.

In addition, international and national fast food chains can be found in Naga. A recent comment from a visitor who came all the way from Batangas said, “It is just like Manila.” And I remember a friend with her family observing that almost all businesses are here now from the banks to the restaurants and the country’s biggest chain of malls has a branch located in the business district of the city. Soon more gigantic malls will be established.

Business process outsourcing companies have already started operations here and more will be making Naga their new hub. This development has triggered more housing and subdivision projects. Going back to tourism, more hotels and resorts are being constructed as the local city government has launched a new campaign.

So far the Panicuason Hot Springs, Mount Isarog trek, Malabsay falls and other natural or man-made wonders are explored and enjoyed by tourists. Naga city has a vibrant nightlife. An adventure theme park offers golf, horse-riding, ziplining, rock climbing, and Pili nut picking. The provincial government is also bracing itself as a prime tourist destination while continuing with Caramoan as an elite white sand island hopping attraction it is complementing this natural treasure with more diverse nature and various sports programs.

Since Spanish colonial times Naga is one of the oldest cities built along with Cebu and Manila. It is where East meets West. It is a glorious mix of different cultures; Indigenous, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and American. Presently, a renaissance has sprung. People from all over the world have been discovering for themselves a distant foreign city that has a touch of home.

Because of American English, foreigners can break the language barrier and truly engage in making friends along their journey and coming back is always a welcome thought. Tourists stay for months to escape winter in their country. Easy communication with the Bicolanos is an added special advantage: no need for sign language.

After August is a month of a spectacular event. Consider this as an invitation. The Queen of Bicolandia will once more be venerated with great fervor and pious devotion. The Peñafrancia festival will be celebrated. It is the biggest Marian pilgrimage in Asia. It is attended by millions of people from across the country and the world to give veneration to Ina, the Our Lady of Peñafrancia, Patroness of Bicol. This is the grandeur that is Naga, the ‘Pilgrim City’, dedicated to Ina, the grandeur of grandeurs.

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