Cagayan’s guiding light won’t let darkness fall
By Melvin Gascon
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a series of reports on lighthouses in Northern Luzon. The Inquirer is featuring these century-old structures to highlight their importance to the country’s northern sea lanes and call attention to their neglect.
TERESA Jamorabon was beaming as she recalled the years when living at the Faro de Cabo Engaño was everything she, her husband and their brood of nine could only dream of.
Her husband, the late Gregorio Jamorabon, was among the longest-serving lighthouse keepers in the Cape Engaño light station on Palaui Island at the northeastern tip of the archipelago.
From 1946 to 1968, the Jamorabons called the Cape Engaño lighthouse their home.
“It was wonderful. We were like living in paradise; we had everything we needed. We were happy because best of all, my husband was working while he had with him his family,” Jamorabon, 80, said.
The Cape Engaño is one of the 27 major lighthouses in the country, which, until now, continues to play a crucial role in navigation, especially for ships traversing the Babuyan Channel in Northern Luzon and the Pacific Ocean. It is under the supervision of the Department of Transportation and Communications, through the Philippine Coast Guard’s lighthouse division.
Perched on the northern edge of the island, Cape Engaño is still regarded as one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the country.
Built in 1888, mostly by Filipino laborers, the structure has withstood the Spanish-American War and World War II, as well as the wrath of scores of typhoons.
The fortress-like station sits atop a hill 92 meters above sea level, overlooking the Cape Engaño cove on the east, the clear waters of the Babuyan Channel and the Dos Hermanas (Two Sisters) Islands on the north, and the vast Pacific Ocean on the west.
It is said that Spanish seafarers who first set foot on the cape were so enthralled by its natural beauty that they named it Engaño.
From the Santa Ana town proper, the station can be reached by a 30-minute boat ride from the Barangay San Vicente port, going northward and docking at the white sand beach of the Cape Engaño cove. It takes 20 minutes to hike the top of the hill.
The station has four major structures: The one-story main pavilion that serves as the office and the workers’ quarters; two smaller identical buildings, which used to be the kitchen; and the storage and powerhouse.
At the center is the 11-m (47-foot) octagonal tower, whose protruding attic (the platform on which the crown and lantern rest) is visible from all angles around the cape.
According to Jamorabon, the complex used to shelter seven crew members tasked with maintaining the lighthouse. Their families lived with them.
It used to be like a castle, she said, describing how for a long time, it stood in all its grandeur, and how its lights used to glow at night like a modern city in the middle of the jungle.
To live there was to be the object of envy for many people in Santa Ana, according to Jamorabon, because, for one, it was the only place in the area where residents enjoyed electricity.
“Santa Ana was still then a dense jungle, so that when people came here, it was like they had gone to the city,” she said.
Jamorabon described how well the government took care of the lighthouse keepers and the station. The workers’ families lived harmoniously in separate rooms, but under one roof.
Their rations—rice, beans, noodles, cooking oil and kerosene—arrived every month and were shared equally among the workers, regardless of rank, she said.
Imelda Jamorabon-Leaño, 47, Jamorabon’s eighth child, recalled how she and the other workers’ children, coming home from school every weekend or during Christmas or summer breaks, found joy in watching ships as these arrived from the Pacific Ocean and the Babuyan Channel.
The lighthouse keepers also raised goats to augment their food. The forest and the sea were also abundant sources of food, said Leaño, now a grade school teacher at the Santa Ana Central Elementary School.
But the light station received substantial attention from the government only until the early 1980s, said Jamorabon, adding that assistance dwindled with the change of administrations.
She has not set foot again on Cape Engaño since her husband retired from service in the 1960s.
But Jamorabon feels that pinch in her heart whenever she hears people’s accounts of what has become of the lighthouse.
Today, the light station sits forlorn on the island and is in a sorry state of decay and neglect. It continues to be destroyed by elements, aggravated by the government’s apparent apathy to preserve this cultural and historical treasure.
The windows, doors and roof of the main pavilion, as well as that of the kitchens and the storage rooms, have been destroyed, leaving only the two-foot thick granite walls intact. The rusting power generators are now pieces of junk.
The tower has also fallen victim to thieves and vandals. The eight bronze lion busts, which used to cling onto the tower’s eight corners underneath the attic, have been stolen. Even its bronze marker was also pried off from the front wall of the pavilion.
The cisterns or concrete reservoirs, where lighthouse keepers used to collect rainwater for drinking and household needs, are no longer in use.
Treasure hunters had dug a tunnel underneath the main building and graffiti dominate the buildings’ white granite walls.
But all is not lost for the Cape Engaño light station.
Thanks to dedicated lighthouse keepers like 51-year-old Cesario Sumibcay, who, despite the low pay and lack of adequate attention from the government, continues to ensure that the lighthouse remains functional.
The Coast Guard has replaced the lantern with a solar-based lighting mechanism, which required little human intervention.
Gov. Edgar Lara is optimistic that a joint restoration project that the provincial government was embarking on, in partnership with the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority and a number of nongovernment organizations, would restore the luster of Cape Engaño.
“This is why we are opening up the place to ecotourism to raise public awareness about the need to preserve the lighthouse and possibly attract future investments on the island,” he said.