Of Summers Past and the Pinurunan

(This piece was originally published in The Catanduanes Tribune in May 2007, l-o-o-o-n-g before I started blogging. It appeared in Sisay Kita?, a column written by Dr. Ramon Felipe Sarmiento, a respected advocate of Catandunganon heritage preservation. He graciously wrote the following intro to my essay:

Note: The recently concluded elections once again reminded us of one truly dark aspect of our Catandunganon selves. Every three years, we are made to partake of this shameful, degrading exercise. It leaves such a heaviness in our spirits, a nasty bad taste in the mouth. Why do they have to schedule elections during the merry month of May when we are supposed to bask with sunlight, indulge the senses with the scent of flowers and the taste of delicacies, and enrich the spirit with devotion to the Holy Cross and Mama Mary? The good news is that there is enough of our Catandunganon experience that could counteract the negative effects of elections. Tribune reader Chit Aldave-Tribiana, now based in the capital city, sent this charming essay about her memories of summer in Calolbon. We publish it here to remind us of the brighter side of our being Catandunganons, something that should hopefully take the better part of us and eclipse, God willing, our vices. We should not give up on ourselves. – Mon Sarmiento

oOo

I count the summers that I have not been to my hometown and I sigh over lost opportunities. The last time I visited San Andres was in 1994, so that adds up to over a decade of missed chances to go back in time – to places that hold personal significance, and with people I’ve kept special kinship with despite the years. San Andres is ‘home’ because it is where I was born, and although I was raised, schooled, and now have chosen to live with my own family in Manila, my parents, when they were still around, made sure that we spent summers with relatives and friends in good old Calolbon. Looking back now, those were unforgettably feel-good times.

It’s the peak of summer again, and memories seem to recur even at the slightest effort.

I scale the stairs to take my MRT ride to work and suddenly it feels strangely like counting the steps going up and down the Calolbon municipio – a favorite energy burner back then when the knees were stronger and the heart could take the pounding, no problemo. And all that just to get a nice view of much of the town sentro, the turquoise span of the Maqueda Channel, and the distinct contour of the Mayon Volcano on the horizon.

Mt. Mayon as seen from the Calolbon (now San Andres) municipal view deck

Going past Mother Mary’s statue at the EDSA Shrine, I couldn’t help thinking of the Batong Paloway chapel, which enshrines what is believed to be a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. I last saw the image in the early ‘70s when it was about the size of a regular postage stamp; it has reportedly grown bigger since then, and sadly, has been the subject of a few controversies. I, myself, am puzzled as to how a probable reproduction of a Renaissance painting on a stone found its way into the barrio. The painting, which is called the Madonna del Dito or Our Lady of the Thumb, is sometimes attributed to Carlo Dolci, a 17th century Italian painter. Interestingly, the question of who actually painted the Madonna del Dito still has no definitive answer. Of course, for many devotees, faith has no need for proof or logic, and in the final reckoning, believing unconditionally is what really matters. There’s no denying though that the Batong Paloway image is one of the most beautiful representations of the Virgin Mary in a dolorous form. Whatever the true story is behind the ‘growing stone’, San Andres is a must-see place if only because of Batong Paloway.

Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a stone, enshrined in Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel in San Andres, Catanduanes

Where we live in the city, a group of young people have started hanging buntings on the streets in preparation for the feast of San Isidro Labrador in the middle of May. That’s when I ache for the slew of fiestas taking place back in San Andres during this merry month, especially those in Sta. Cruz, Salvacion, Datag, Tibang, Carangag, and Lictin. The city folks could learn a lot from Calolbonganons, or from Catandunganons for that matter, on celebrating fiestas – from the de rigueur novena, to the pabayle, to the fiesta proper, down to the segunda dia.

For nine consecutive nights before the fiesta, the barrio jovenes keep themselves busy by organizing the novena prayers to their patron saint. This means, among other things, decorating the ermita, inviting the parapoon and hiring a gitarista. The novena attendees are lucky if the jovenes are the hardworking type, because then, their goodie bags or tandan after the prayers would include not only biscuits but also ibos and pinurunan. With thoughts of the pinurunan, I feel my craving reaching its peak. This delicacy, which is made from ingredients and materials largely found in the province, virtually takes a village and trusty teamwork to prepare. Especially when it is used as tandan, I view it as a metaphor for the barrio folk’s piety, diligence, and strong sense of community.

cabo and his or her group members who are assigned on a given novena day, usually source the materials for the pinurunan. Other jovenes give either cash or contributions in kind, such as rice, coconut, sweet potatoes, and sugar. The rest pitch in by working the grindstone, preparing the lukadon and the langkoy, wrapping the pinurunan, or tending the hours-long steaming. Wrapping itself can be a creative expression. The easy way is to wind the despined coconut leaf or langkoy around the round-shaped dough in a radial fashion and tie the neat package with a knot; the fancier way, which is rarely done nowadays, is to weave the langkoy, mat-like style, around the dough. Because of the coconut content, pinurunans do not keep for a long time. But then, what took hours to prepare is virtually demolished in a flash. After a bite into the chewy texture with the distinct sweetish, nutty taste, there’ll be no reason for leftovers.

The pabayle, which comes after the novena, draws volumes of memories that perhaps it is best left for another round of musing. For now I imagine dusk setting in, creating silhouettes of coconut trees with their fronds waving gracefully in a nature dance. From somewhere, the faint strains of a guitar, which earlier accompanied the songs of the pious, drift into my consciousness, lulling me to dreamland. The whole pinurunan experience fades into the night, but not without leaving its tacit lesson: prayers coupled with hard work have their just rewards in due time. For some, the rewards may come fast and sure like the tandan after the novena. Others may have to count years, but if they wait, life’s blessings do come without fail. Many of those youth group members who are now way past their jovenes days hold positions of governance in their town or elsewhere. Clearly, their first shots at leadership had served them well.

I’ve just passed up another chance to visit San Andres. Although writing about it eases the longing somehow, I know I’ll have to do something about going back sooner rather than later.

For now, I invoke echoes of summers past in my mind… and I’m home.

Medicine or Medication?

On my way out from the doctor’s office after my regular checkup today, I saw these posters along the hospital corridor. They instantly reminded me of the quote (source unknown) that I used as the banner for this post.

Each poster speaks for itself. Together, they help us remember that true healing comes from treating not just the body, but also – and perhaps more importantly – the mind and soul. And that some forms of medicine cannot be bought from the drugstore. They are available for us, free. We just have to go out (or deep within ourselves) and find them.

And I’m sure it’s not just coincidence that the first letters of these next three ‘medicines’ spell the word FIT!

###

Know Thy Stressors

(Featured image source: Dictionary.com on Twitter)

Several times last month, I experienced sudden spikes in my blood pressure. I couldn’t quite get a handle on the cause as I was diligently taking my medications. Whenever this happens, my immediate reaction is to apply acupressure on my hands and feet. Somehow this helps.

I reviewed in my mind what I could have done to contribute to the spikes. True, I’ve been taking coffee, but I limit it to only one cup a day in the morning. Still, I told myself to go easy on the caffeine.

I spend a lot of time online because I review and edit academic manuscripts as a side hustle. While I try to avoid distressing posts about pandemic-related issues  and leaders I love to hate, I could not help checking out on what friends have been sharing on their Facebook pages. I’m a mindful follower of physical distancing, but social distancing is another matter.

It occurred to me that the ominous photo of a lighted candle against a black background had been passing through my News Feed a lot. This could only mean that someone I know or someone close to that person had passed on. In the last few weeks, it included several known personalities, a much-loved wellness coach, and a former work colleague. The depression was real.

During the long lockdown, taking online courses has been an enjoyable and fulfilling diversion for me. I have successfully completed courses offered on the Coursera platform by top US universities. My latest course, however, was not all fun. It was a two-month course, with several quizzes and peer-reviewed assignments. Prior to the exams, they would normally flash a message saying that only a small portion of test-takers pass the exam on first attempt. That was just a little too much for this senior learner.

Still, I was determined to complete the course. I opted to take it on audit mode (which saved me US$79) and didn’t bother applying for financial aid, even if a formal certificate would boost my credentials as an academic editor. The course was “Writing in the Sciences” by Stanford University. The exercises and the peer-reviewed assignments weren’t a walk in the park. I’m sure they have contributed to my anxiety—and the rising BP.

Promptly, I searched for other possible modalities to help calm the mind.  I went back to doing my qigong meditation exercises and this time, I listened to songs that are popularly believed to help keep the BP on an ideal level.  I’m glad that among those listed is my favorite “Watermark,” an instrumental number by Enya.

And then, there’s “Weightless” by Marconi Union. A study has shown that listening to this song resulted in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants’ overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

I didn’t have to wait long. I’m now back to my 120/80 BP level.

Which tells me that running away from stress does not always cut it for anyone. Sometimes we have to face challenges head on  if we know that overcoming them will make us feel better and happier down the road. Back to that Stanford course, I managed to complete what was programmed to be a two-month offering in just about three weeks (luckily, without any need for retakes). Halfway into the course, I was able to apply a lot of the concepts taught on my editing work.

 It was all worth it!

Oh, for Love’s Sake!

Of course, Friedrich Nietzsche and several other great philosophers like him do not make ideal poster figures for Valentine’s Day. They are remembered for their critical thinking and scholarly pursuits; but love and romance? Zilch.

Nietzsche, in particular, had a disastrous love life. He proposed thrice to the same woman but was rejected in all his attempts. He lived alone for most of his nomadic life, though he believed and wrote in one of his works that serial marriage would be good for men. In his mind, women were cut out for domestic life.

In a letter to the woman he wanted to marry, he wrote:

“I would greatly wish to be allowed to be your teacher. In the end, to be quite frank: I am looking for people who could be my heirs; some of the things that preoccupy me are not be to found in my books—and I am looking for the finest, most fertile ground for them.”

That’s a classic declaration of love – Nietzsche style.

SØren Kierkegaard is another tragic romantic. He fell in love and was loved in return. A month after his engagement, he broke off with his fiancée and was said to return his engagement ring to her – via mail. Fearing that he could not be a good husband, theologist, and literary critic all at the same time, he chose to remain unmarried.

His regret over this failed romance can be seen in these lines from Either/Or (1843), his first published work:

 “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…”

The following great thinkers aren’t very inspiring either.

Jean-Paul Sartre:

“You know, it’s quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don’t do it.” — Nausea (1938)

Schopenhauer:

“Love is a trap for men to perpetuate the species.”

Where science rules, love is also a widely studied subject. But to talk about lust and attraction in terms of testosterone, adrenaline, dopamine, or serotonin could be quite formidable.

So, if you want to anatomize love, click here.

And that explains, perhaps, why all the world loves a poet. Poem writers love rhyme and rhythm. They capture pure emotions in beautiful lines. In school we were told to memorize lines, or even entire poems; and some of those come in handy on certain days – like today.

‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’ for example, is more than just a nursery rhyme. It has been the inspiration for many Valentine greeting cards and love letters. And if you were around in the ‘60s, you might have sung this tune, too.

Years after school, it seems Elizabeth Barrett Browning and How Do I Love Thee never left us. I know some schmaltzy seniors who are still counting the ways — and can recite the poem from memory.

Remember the wedding scene in the movie Love Story? The character Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) recites Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman, and Jenny (Ali MacGraw) reads Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnet XX11.

And this scene from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral? The poem is by W. H. Auden.

Click here for more love verses.

To end this post, here’s one of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Heart eyes, anyone?

Something to moo about in the Year of the Ox

(Banner image source: Vecteezy)

The Chinese New Year starts on Friday, February 12. As we may all know, each lunar year is associated with a zodiac animal, and 2021 is designated as the Year of the Ox. Based on the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, this year’s Ox sign is also linked with the Metal element; thus, 2021 is specifically the Year of the Metal Ox.

In Chinese culture, the Ox is considered a power symbol, and an Ox year is usually seen as a more hopeful year. Just like the Gregorian New Year, the equivalent Chinese celebration should be the perfect time for us to rewire our thoughts and life intentions based on what we have learned from the previous year.

How may the Metal Ox help us pull through in uncertain times?

Chinese people associate each animal sign with certain characteristics. Those born in the year of the Ox are generally known to be traditional and conservative. They may be slow to act but are very persistent and hardworking, such that once they have made certain decisions, they will hammer away despite difficulties. And given their unquestionable will power, they may be expected to almost always achieve their goals.

The Metal Ox, in particular, oozes with confidence and is strong-willed. This Ox is quite frank and may not always care about what others think or feel. But one good thing about this Ox type is that they will always deliver on what they promise to others. Although not very social in nature, they keep a circle of loyal friends who are always ready to help during difficult times. The metal element represents firmness, resistance, and clear thoughts. In relation to human nature, this symbolizes inner strength and discipline.

The Ox is also associated with the Yin energy, generally associated with feminine attributes, nurturing of family, and compassionate towards those in need. This trait will be very helpful in times when we have to rebuild emotional and spiritual strength during difficult times.

In whatever way we decide to navigate the Year of the Metal Ox, may we be inspired by the winning characteristics of its ruling animal:

  • Focused and Determined — with a clear vision of the things that are really important to us and to achieve them given the resources available without doing harm to anyone.
  • Stable and Persistent in executing our plans of action even when things seem impossible to overcome; and whenever difficulties arise, keeping faith that they will be resolved through hard work — and at times, with the help of family and true friends.
  • And most importantly, by being Compassionate. This mindset is grounded in the principle of seeing beyond our personal needs — and perhaps placing the good of others, if not on equal terms, even higher than our own. This caring for others could be seen in many forms during the past year, and if maintained even after the pandemic, could be a true agent of change. It is, perhaps, the most critical factor in the reprogramming we need for the years ahead.

It is believed that people born in a given year have the personality of that year’s animal. That should sound good for Ox-born people (like me 😊).

Let us take to heart the ideal attributes of this zodiac animal — Focused, Determined, and Compassionate. We may have different personalities and life pursuits. But it may not be such a stretch to believe that there’s a bit of an Ox in each one of us.

Happy Lunar New Year!

Corporate Social Responsibility: The SMC Model

There is something so endearing in San Miguel Corporation’s most recent letter to its shareholders. SMC is one of the Philippines’ largest and most diversified conglomerates, with operations in food and beverages, packaging, fuel and oil, power, and infrastructure.

The letter comes with the year-end dividend check and a pocket-sized 2021 calendar printed with the tagline “SAMA-SAMA SA LABAN. WALANG IWANAN.” (“Together in battle. Leaving no one behind.”)

The company chose to save on printing the customary corporate wall calendar and channel the savings toward feeding children at Better World Tondo, the company-funded learning center and food bank for the poorest communities in Tondo, Manila.

In his letter, Mr. Ramon S. Ang, SMC President and Chief Operating Officer, further shared the company’s initiatives in response to the pandemic and hastening the country’s recovery.

“The events of 2020 only strengthened our resolve to leave no one behind. The year began with relief operations for those affected by the eruption of Taal Volcano. At the height of the pandemic and the lockdown, our food business ramped up operations to ensure food would always be available and accessible. We donated PPEs, medical supplies and equipment, on top of providing fuel for a free shuttle program and waiving toll fees for frontliners and medical workers. Our facilities at Ginebra San Miguel were repurposed to product and donate disinfectant alcohol. We set up our own RT-PCR testing laboratory to test almost 55,000 employees nationwide and allow them to re-enter the workplace with greater confidence. These are only some of the measures we took to help our country.”

Quantified, these efforts have amounted to more than PhP13 billion. At the same time, SMC continues in its commitment to invest in infrastructure projects that will create jobs, such as the Manila International Airport, the Skyway Stage 3, and the SLEX toll roads.

But this is the part that really pulled at my heartstrings. The letter also came with a prayer card (stampita) of the company’s patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel. (SMC evolved from La Fábrica de Cerveza San Miguel, a brewery put up in 1890 in San Miguel, Manila.)

The prayer and Mr. Ang’s final message below are very apt invocations for these difficult times.

“…let us reflect with gratitude on the blessings we have received. May the New Year bring us a renewed sense of courage, resilience, and hope in better days to come.”

San Miguel Corporation – my kind of business.

Mr. Ramon S. Ang – my kind of business leader.

(Banner photo source: https://www.sanmiguel.com.ph/)

Why Opt for Optimism?

Another year, another opportunity to get things right — and perhaps get a better chance to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise.

There will be hurdles, for sure; but after the annus horribilis that was 2020, and the uncertain prospects for 2021, my inner voice dictates that I request Messrs. Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Defoe to move over. No offense meant. But, gentlemen/sirs, as you scoot, please take with you your dictum that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world.

I’d rather take a different stance and latch onto that bright North Star for direction, inspiration, and overall well-being. That star has a name: it is called Optimism. And its brilliance tells me that there is more to this coming year and beyond than just health scares, bills to pay, and other not-so-rosy circumstances.

In its simplest form, optimism is the belief that the outcomes of events and experiences will generally be good and positive. It is a dear cousin to hope and resilience, and is the counterpoint of pessimism. But optimism is not just about butterflies and rainbows. It has scientific basis; thus, it can be learned and nurtured. In the field of positive psychology, “learned optimism” is the process of recognizing and challenging otherwise pessimistic thoughts in order to develop more positive behaviors. As an individual learns to handle tough situations, he is able to manage and improve his overall well-being.

So, why indeed, should we choose to view the glass as half full rather than half empty?

1 Because it helps keep us healthy

One may argue that optimism is a result rather than one cause of good health. We are healthy, therefore we’re upbeat. But the reverse is also true. Optimists tend to lead healthier lifestyles, have strong social support groups –and because of their proactive outlook—tend to get better medical care and are more apt to follow medical advice compared to pessimists. And this should not be dismissed as an empty claim. There are scientific studies showing that optimism helps boost our immune system, protects us from infectious diseases, and decreases instances of relapse. From the point of view of proactivity, optimists are less likely to be involved in accidents because they take careful steps to protect themselves.

2 Because it promotes better relationships

This one’s a no-brainer, I think. Optimists tend to be better liked by others because they radiate positivity in what they think, feel, and do. They tend to be more energetic, confident, and in control. Optimists are nice to be with and are highly valued, whether as friends, work colleagues, romantic partners, business executives, or as world leaders.

3 Because it keeps us in control

Depression, anxiety, helplessness are feelings associated with loss of control over certain circumstances. Exactly how pessimists behave as they tend to blame themselves or others for things that go wrong. They also believe that certain unfortunate events are permanent and adversely affect other areas of their lives. Consequently, they are often paralyzed by such beliefs. Optimists, on the other hand, are more able to see that misfortunes are fleeting and can be overcome by well-thought-out plans and actions. They tend to view these temporary setbacks as opportunities to bring out their character strengths.  Thus, they are more likely to resolve issues with less despair.

Hollywood actor Michael J. Fox sets a very good example. Then only 29, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1991. After a long break from acting, he started the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000. He has since written four inspirational books, including Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, published in April 2009, and his most recent memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, published in November 2020.

“Optimism is a choice, but in a way, it isn’t,” he says. “There’s no other choice. I don’t think there’s any other viable choice than to hope for the best and work toward it.”

In another interview, Fox said: “Optimism and hope relate to how we think and feel about the future. If we really do believe that things will work out for the best, all the setbacks become easier to deal with.”

I’ll stop at these three reasons. You are most welcome to add more.

Winter Solstice of the Soul

Snow does not fall on my side of the world. So, what’s my business writing about the winter solstice?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the longest night and the shortest day of every year takes place around December 21st. This phenomenon, known as the winter solstice, occurs when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the Sun. This explains the early sunsets and late dawns, and the short noontime shadows. This exact event also happens in the Southern Hemisphere around June 20th or 21st.

Outside of this astronomical explanation, the winter solstice takes on a cultural and spiritual relevance for many. What is widely deemed to be the start of winter has become the symbol of rebirth and a natural shift to Spring. It is that time when the earth is quiet and bare, but it is also the time when the seeds underneath the ground are just waiting to grow.  It is an opportunity for us to recognize the natural order of the universe and remember that our lives are part of something bigger that is constantly changing and renewing.

Thus, winter solstice has become a period for self-reflection and performing letting go rituals. On that day, ideally, we should make peace with our old self – who and what we had been – and reflect on what no longer serves us. It is the time for releasing stale energies, negative emotions and experiences, and invite new potential into our life. It is a day for connecting with Mother Earth and the Universe to usher in that rebirth and to help manifest our new aspirations.

And because the human spirit knows no geographical boundaries, we may join kindred souls in the opposite side of the world in celebrating and expressing our gratitude to Mother Earth. With the intention to let go of those thoughts and emotions that are no longer serving our purpose, we first acknowledge them as blessings for all the lessons they taught us. Some things may have caused us difficulties and pain, but they also made us better persons, and for this we should be thankful.

But how exactly do we let go?

A simple way is to list down all the things that we want to release. It can be about the pain of losing someone or something valuable; feelings of insecurity, envy, doubt, or fear; frustrations over unfulfilled goals. Next, build a fire and burn the list while stating your intention to let go. The statement could be something like “I now release all those parts of me and my experiences that I have kept to myself all this time. I love who I am, and with unconditional gratitude and compassion for myself and for others, I let go of all these things that no longer deserve to be in my life.”

Those who may be in areas near a beach could write down the things they want to release on the sand and let the waves wash them away.

Do a mindful breathing ritual. When you inhale, imagine yourself taking in new energy filled with love, compassion, and everything that you want to manifest in your life. As you exhale, imagine everything that you no longer want being released out of your mind, body, and spirit. As you do this, chant the mantra: “I let go, I let go, I let go…” and visualize the release happening.

You may find this meditation guide useful.

I also came across this song by Lisa Thiel.

May each day of your life be filled with warmth and love.

Happy Winter Solstice!

On Monuments of Nature (and of Men)

The memory refuses to go away and begs to be written about.

One night during our last vacation in Catanduanes two years ago, my husband and I were walking back to our inn in the capital town of Virac, when a distinct smell wafted through the air. I found it fragrant; the hubby said it was pungent. On a middle ground, we both thought it was intoxicatingly strong! The smell emanated from a huge tree.

The morning after, as we went out to go about the day’s business, we passed by the same tree. The smell was gone, but on the ground was a carpet of tiny white flowers – the source of the previous night’s sensory experience. The blooms fell from a huge dita tree which, judging from its height and thick, gnarled trunk, must really be old. Nearby, a middle-aged man wielding a broom was ridding the ground of the fallen leaves and blooms. I had to ask him if he knew how long the tree has been there. He smiled and said he didn’t know, but that it has been there even before he was born. But one thing he knew for sure: the tree provided wood used for building coffins.

The tree trunk, gnarled with age
The tree, profuse with blooms
The carpet of fallen flowers

The mighty dita looms tall and strong beside a molave tree (designated as the Belmonte Tree) in the municipal plaza, dwarfing the nearby Juan M. Alberto Memorial Building which, in contrast, is now abandoned and largely dilapidated. On the same ground stands a bust dedicated to the late provincial Governor Juan M. Alberto, who rose to national prominence during the Marcos regime, along with his brothers, Jose (Congressman, 1957 – 1972) and Vicente (Governor, 1967 – 1986).

The molave and dita trees are hardy landmarks
The dita tree next to the JMA Memorial Building
A tribute to the late Governor from his friend, the island poet Jose A. Tablizo.
The corroded dedication plaque from a former leader.
The marker on this molave tree says: “The seedling of this tree was planted by the Hon. Gov. Deogracias Belmonte of the Sub-province of Catanduanes on December 15, 1937 in the observance of Arbor Day.”

Sometime later, I had the chance to trawl the internet for some information on the dita tree. There must be more to it than just being a coffin material. What I found proved that it is a very interesting tree, a great natural gift to men. A true monument by any standards.

Origin and other names

The tree is known botanically as Alstonia scholaris, in honor of the English botanist Professor Charles Alston. The word scholaris was added because the bark of the tree is used for writing tables and blackboards; thus, it is also called the Blackboard Tree. In India, it is widely known as Saptaparni, from the Sanskrit words, Sapta (meaning seven) and parni (meaning leaves) because its leaves are often in bunches of seven around the stem, forming a star-like pattern.

It is also infamously called the Devil’s Tree in Western India, where tribes believe that the tree is home to evil spirits. Sitting or even passing under its shade is often shunned.

The tree is believed to originate from India and other Southeast Asian countries. In the Philippines, it can be found far north in Cagayan up to Palawan and Mindanao, and in almost all islands and forested provinces.

Medicinal Properties

The bark, leaves, and roots of the dita are reported to have antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and many other curative properties. In some parts of India, there is an annual ritual involving mass drinking of the decoction of its bitter bark, which is believed to boost the immune system and prevent diseases.

Nuisance Tree or Tree of Life?

The dita may have earned a bad name as the Devil’s Tree and is considered a nuisance by many for dumping dried leaves on the ground that need back-breaking cleaning. But to some families in Bagong Silang, Quezon City, the tree became a lifeline during the onslaught of Ondoy in 2009. To avoid being swept away by floodwaters, 37 persons clung to a dita tree. All seven families – including a two-month-old baby — were saved.  Read the full story here. 

Quezon City councilor Alfred Vargas proposed a resolution recognizing the tree as “a tree of life.” “It was just a tree but it now stands for the people’s hope and ability to move on. I think they have moved on and have accepted what happened before,” the councilor said.

This story stoked my interest back to that tree in the Virac plaza after the serious damage of super typhoon Rolly on Catanduanes. Seeing photos of the typhoon aftermath, I wondered if it was able to withstand nature’s wrath this time. Three weeks after Rolly’s landfall, I talked to a friend based in Virac to know how things are holding up. Still weary after the harrowing experience, she nevertheless assured me that greening has started;  trees all over are developing new sprouts.

And that dita tree?

She said it’s still there. A little shaken, but still standing strong.

Like a true heritage tree.

Why howling Catanduanes always shines through

[This article was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 20, 2010. I am reposting it now – 10 years after –  in light of the recent devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Rolly on my province.  I want to share memories of how beautiful the island was before it was brought to its knees by the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit the country. Catanduanes had sprung back from similar crises in the past, and the rebound may take longer this time, given the extent of the damage. Yet, with the strong faith and character of its people and with help coming from all sectors, there is no doubt that it will show its “Happy Island” face to the world in due course.]

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I have ambivalent feelings about my province, Catanduanes, being called “Land of the Howling Winds.” On one hand, I’m helpless because the unflattering moniker rings true. Catanduanes lies in the typhoon belt and is often talked about in the same breath as inclement weather.

On the other hand, I’m in denial because the description is, after all, only half-true. On warmer days, when the winds whisper rather than howl, Catanduanes shakes off this tag and transforms itself into the idyllic place that it truly is. This emerald isle lying east of the Bicol Peninsula is the perfect hideaway; the place to be to savor nature in its largely unspoiled state, reconnect with one’s historical and religious heritage, and experience the rustic charm of island living, plus the true Bicolano zest for life.

Life is a beach

Getting to Catanduanes by plane from Manila takes less than an hour. Shortly before touchdown at the Virac airport, one gets a visual treat from thousands of feet above sea level: a glimpse of the western coastline makes one giddy at the prospects of living it up on this island with its stretches of amazing beaches. Catanduanes may have earned its merits primarily as a surfing destination, but there are countless other possibilities for the less daring. From the capital town of Virac, a roughly 11-kilometer drive through tertiary roads to the southern tip of the island brings one to the oft-visited resorts in Igang, Antipolo, Balite, or Marilima.

Twin Rocks Resort in Virac
Time and tide conspired to form this arch in Batag, Virac. Locals call this Pier of the Encantos.

Twin Rocks Resort in Igang is known for its postcard-pretty scenes and classy amenities, while Mamangal Beach in Balite offers perhaps the most stunning sunset view on that part of the island. The gentle waves here are ideal for skimboarding and the powdery white sand compels you to take off your flip-flops and stroll barefoot. Off the beaten path, it is quite likely that you’ll discover an undeveloped beachfront where the only footprints you’ll see on the sand are your own. No hawkers, no curious onlookers; just the peace and quiet you need to recharge your tired body and weary soul. A hammock and a book will make excellent buddies. Remember to bring your snorkeling gear because it will be hard to resist the urge to explore the beauty that lies beneath the crystal-clear waters.

Sunset in Mamangal
A skimboarder calls it a day at Mamangal

Other parts of the island beckon with their own beach attractions. You’ll run out of fingers counting the exciting options. We were told to allot more time on our next visit to check out Amenia and Pasa Tiempo Resorts in San Andres, Toytoy Beach in Caramoran, Soboc Beach in Panganiban, and the different resorts in Puraran, the surfing area located in Baras town.

Nature’s gifts

The province is dominated by a mountain chain – a rugged terrain that is a great come-on to adventure-seekers. From Virac, we headed towards Bato and dropped by Maribina Falls where we found early-morning picnickers already enjoying the cool waters gushing from the multi-tiered cascades. Again, the decision was prompted by the proximity of the place; otherwise, we would have wanted to explore other well-known waterfalls such as Binanuahan or Nahulugan Falls in Gigmoto.

Maribina Falls

The Virac–Bato route is accessible by jeepneys or tricycles, which are the readily available public commutes on the island. There are also private vans for hire, but my personal choice for navigating this picturesque route is the motorbike. Nothing beats a leisurely ride while taking in the cool mountain air coming from one side and getting a panoramic view of the sea on the other—and feeling the wind against your face, blowing all your urban cares away.

Taking the opposite direction to the town of San Andres, the sceneries are just as enchanting. The winding trail approaching Lictin is lined with lush vegetation and is a favorite stopover for spelunkers who usually visit the Luyang Cave.

From here, one can drive farther west to the Agojo Fish and Maritime Sanctuary. A boat ride around the protected area allows visitors to view colorful species of fish and corals. In Codon, the development of a RORO port holds great promise. When completed, it is expected to boost tourism in Catanduanes through a shorter link to Camarines Sur.

RORO port development in Codon, San Andres

A short distance from Codon is the Munagbunag Cave located along the road near Mayngaway. Camera buffs will have a grand time capturing the mystifying images found in the various chambers of this cave. The cliffs outside the cave offer a great view of the Codon Point and nearby Camarines Sur, which should not be missed.

Exploring Munagbunag Cave
View from a cliff outside Munagbunag Cave

When the sun sets and night creeps in, it is time yet for a unique sensory experience during your island visit. If you find yourself somewhere near Hilawan or the densely forested area near the Luyang Cave in Lictin, San Andres, pause and enjoy the symphony of crickets and the dance of fireflies – luxuries that are not quite possible in places that are choked with pollution. Your knowledge of asterisms will also come in handy when you do a little game of connect-the-dots as you try to trace the patterns of the flickering diamonds in the clear night sky. These memories will go with you anywhere, long after you’ve left the island.

Hispanic heritage

It has been centuries since the Spanish conquistadores set foot on Catanduanes, but the Hispanic influence still runs deep into the Catandungan character. Words of Spanish origin have found their way into the dialect, Castilian-sounding family names are common, and islanders are known to be deeply religious. Most barrios have chapels or ermitas, which folks use for religious functions. People can keep track of time through the tolling of church bells.

In the town of Bato, for example, folks wake up at the crack of dawn to the pealing of the Bato church bell. The Baroque-inspired church is an imposing structure by the riverside, its thick walls built with mortar and coral stones that have withstood the ravages of time and the elements. It took more than 50 years to build and was completed in 1883.

St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
Moss-covered detail of the St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
A secret hideaway in Barrio Bote, Bato

About 15 minutes away is the Batalay shrine, which houses the first cross erected on the island. It marks the burial site of Fr. Diego de Herrera, an Augustinian priest who led an expedition in 1576 that was shipwrecked off Batalay and who was later martyred by the natives. On the same site, a spring flows with water that locals believe can cure certain illnesses.

Barrio Batong Paloway in San Andres is another popular pilgrimage site owing to a stone image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Different stories related to the image and its miracles are being floated to this day. The common thread, however, is that the stone has grown in size but the image embedded in it has not been distorted. Details like Mama Mary’s hair and her thumb peeping through her blue mantle which, in the past, reportedly required a magnifying glass to see, are now clearly visible to the naked eye.

Fiesta Island

Perhaps, the most evident trace of Spanish culture here is the observance of fiestas. After completing the novena to their patron saints, townsfolk pull out all the stops in merrymaking. No town fiesta is complete without a civic parade and marching bands, local beauty contests, and the vesper ball. The latter is where the locals and homecoming guests prove they can be hot at cha-cha (the ballroom staple, not the political maneuver), which appears to be the favorite beat to show off their innate sense of rhythm.

The usual fiesta fare includes gulay na gabi or laing, dinuguan, humba, grilled tuna or other fishermen’s catch, and steamed crabs locally known as an-it. I, for one, always leave room for dessert. The other temptations I can resist, but not santan (coco jam with pili nuts) and latik, the Bicolano version of the suman, which comes with a to-die-for sauce made of sugar, coconut cream, and anise flavoring. The best part about fiestas here is that they don’t come with RSVPs. Be bold and invite yourself. You will be treated like a much-awaited guest.

One might wonder how the Catandunganons who experience the wrath of the monsoon winds as if on schedule can be so warm and gracious. I used to ask the same question too, until I met an old man who quipped, “ga tullo man sana pag ga ullan” (it only leaks when it rains). He didn’t even know it, but his wisdom and the unique way by which he articulated his words had hit home. The double “ll” in the dialect is sounded like a vowel somewhat similar to, but not exactly like the Spanish pronunciation of “pollo”, a curiosity that’s a spot-on clue to a person’s island roots.

Tess Herrmann, a Virac-based resort owner, shares a related perspective. While showing me around her beach property, she pointed to the coconut saplings at different stages of growth and started to relate them to the storms that hit the island, “These younger ones here came after Reming, while those taller ones after Loleng,” and pointed to others as the sprouts after similar destructive storms. “They remind me not to lose hope, but to rise up to the challenge by building and planting even more than what had been destroyed,” she added.

Indeed, the howling winds may blow away roofs, flatten crops, and make life difficult at times on this side of the archipelago, but resilience seems to be one word coined especially for Catandunganons. Theirs is a lesson in accepting things we cannot change and in viewing the glass as half-full — mindsets that make a world of difference when things get a bit too complicated.