Two thumbs up for the Catandungan Festival

[This article was published in the Manila Bulletin, November 7, 2010 and in Manila Standard (shorter version) on November 5, 2010]

Unlike most Philippine festivals inspired by cultural themes or religious events, the annual Catandungan Festival of Catanduanes is celebrated to mark its independence from Albay in 1945. Thus, no specific icon or anchor singularly captures the festival’s raison d’ etre. Instead, Catanduanes expresses its pride in being a separate province in several ways—by retelling its colorful past, by attracting visitors to its tourist spots, by highlighting  the beauty and talents of its people, and by showcasing its burgeoning trade and micro-scale industries.

The result is a kaleidoscope of events featuring the diverse make-up of its 11 municipalities—each with different stories to tell, which when put together serve as the warp and woof that complete  the colorful tapestry that is Catanduanes. The recent Catandungan Festival held on October 18-24 was the 16th since the provincial government staged the first such event in 1995. It was my first opportunity to witness the celebration, an admission that makes me a bit red in the face, given that I am a Catandunganon, albeit transplanted in Manila. Seeing the promotional materials online especially the images of past events and the line-up of activities this year compelled me to book a flight to Virac. I wanted to see firsthand how the island would live up to its festival theme of “Kalikasan, Kalusugan, Kabuhayan: Sulong Catandungan!” 

A scene at the trade fair
Native bags for sale at the OTOP Bazar

Catanduanes Vice Governor Jose Teves Jr., Steering Committee Chairman of the Catandungan Festival, admitted that this year’s event had to face challenges including stringent budget and limited preparation time.  He didn’t sound apologetic at all, however, and was in fact proud that despite the handicap, this year’s organizers did very well in putting together a string of exciting activities that reflect the best of the island and its people.  Among other things, he said that locals and visitors were out to witness “the longest civic and military parade in the history of the Catandungan Festival.”

It didn’t rain on this parade

True to the Vice Governor’s claim, the civic and military parade drew impressive participation from the military, local police force, provincial government officials and employees, NGOs, special interest groups, the academe, and civic organizations. Most municipalities were represented by their own drum and lyre group, municipal employees, street dancing group, and featured floats inspired by the towns’ identity symbols such as the manok (chicken) for the municipality of Bagamanoc, kinis (crab) for Panganiban, and the calo (hat) for Calolbon (now San Andres). The contingent from San Andres, the second largest municipality in Catanduanes, outnumbered  the other groups and easily stood out in their cheery yellow shirts.  A bevy of Bb. San Andres hopefuls also marched, nay, glided along like Sandra Bullock after she perfected her walk in Ms. Congeniality.  Spare me some understanding if this comes with a hint of hubris—San Andres happens to be my hometown.

Fortunately, the longest parade in the history of the festival didn’t have to contend with overcast skies, which is like second nature to October in this windswept province. The islanders must have scored some brownie points with the environment and merited sunny weather all throughout the festival.

Festival  of Festivals Showdown/Street Dancing Competition

At some specific points during the parade, the street dancers rendered teaser moves from their dancing competition numbers in response to the crowd’s chant of “sample, sample”. Their full performance-level demonstrations were of course reserved for the big crowd and the judges who were waiting at the Virac Fountain.  The contingent from Bato won first place for their beautifully choreographed interpretation of the Sibubog Festival. Sibubog is a type of fish that figures in one of the popular historical tales about Bato. Their performance earned a total prize of Ps. 110,000 and added another feather to their municipal cap, Bato having recently won the 2010 National Literacy Award for having the most number of professionals among 4th to 6th class towns.  These two recent victories, no doubt,  give weight to the Batonhons’ motto of “Bato Alisto!”  The second place went to the town of Gigmoto, whose Umasilhag Festival entry was a tribute to the three main sources of livelihood on the island: uma, sila, hag-ot (farming, fishing, and abaca stripping). The Viga dancers’ smooth moves depicting the story of their Paray Festival landed them in third place.

First placer Bato and its Sibubog Festival number
The Gigmoto dancers in the Sila segment of their Umasilhag Festival
The Kinis Festival entry of Panganiban (Photo credit: Catanduanes Provincial Tourism Office)

Beautiful island, charming people

The other events of the Catandungan Festival aptly highlighted the tourist attractions and the winning ways of the Catandunganons.  The Majestic Surfvivor Clinic and Exhibition at Puraran, a known destination in the world surfing circuit, kicked off the celebration on October 18. The Bb. Catandungan pageant  on October 21 gathered  20 finalists for the title, which was won by Krizta Camille Valeza of Virac.  Governor Joseph C. Cua, along with his wife Nancy, Vice Governor Bong Teves, and some DTI officials formally opened the One-Town, One-Product Christmas Bazaar on October 22. The Kundiman Fiesta in the evening of October 22 was a fitting venue for Catandunganons in their golden years to represent their respective towns and show off their vocal talents through the songs of their youth.

Bb. Catandungan and her court (Photo credit: Catanduanes Provincial Tourism Office)

BIOME 2010, a biodiversity conference gathered environmentalists and scientists led by Dr. Abe V. Rotor and Dr. Josie Biyo to formulate, among other things, policies and programs on sustainable development, nature conservation, and climate change for local implementation.Sports enthusiasts had their day on October 23 through a 10-kilometer marathon and a basketball exhibition game pitting the Manila All-Stars versus the Catanduanes  team. The 2nd Catandungan Isla Karera, a 107-kilometer race, combined the basic triathlon with Amazing Race-style challenges, including surfboard paddling, caving, rappelling,  and trail running through the scenic spots of Virac, Bato, Baras, and San Andres. The contenders also proved their mettle at puzzle solving, making nipa shingles, cracking pili nuts, and dancing the pantomina. The Naga team won the triathlon event while Rodel Estrella emerged first in the Junior Elite Duathlon. Isla Karera was organized by SILANG Service Mountaineering Society, a Bicol-based group that aims to preserve and protect the environment and natural resources.

Isla Karera contestants crack tough pili nut shells using stones (Photo credit: Silang SMS)

Beauty, Brawns, and a lot of Brains

While the local beauty contest and the athletic events served as the playing fields for the charm and physical skills of  the Catandunganons, the Skills Olympics and Pauragan 2010 showed that the island has more than its fair share of young, brilliant minds. Iron Chef -“Bicolano Ini,” a culinary skills competition, gave the Catanduanes Colleges contestants a chance to prove that they were a cut above the rest.

The Science and Technology Exhibit gathered some of the most impressive research works of high school students from different municipalities of the province. Many of the investigatory projects involved the use of locally available sources for various applications, including boiled acacia bark as a quick reliever for amoebiasis; sap of the wild gumihan tree as sealant and adhesive; products from the guyabano (sour sop) and golden kuhol; madre de cacao extract as mosquito repellant; abaca sap to hasten wound healing; and rice washings to enhance the growth of 45-day chicken. Some of the exhibited projects, such as the improvised solar distillation device and the use of the Gmelina bark fiber as substitute to recycled paper pulp in making handmade paper, have been submitted to the Regional Science and Technology Fair 2010-2011.

Iron chef contestants in action

The Skills Olympics, Science and Technology Exhibit, the Kundiman Fiesta, as well as “Pauragan 2010,” a quiz contest staged with the help of UP Catandungan, were all organized by committees chaired by PBM Edwin Tanael.

These golden ladies turn the Kundiman Fiesta into a night of nostalgia (Photo credit: Catanduanes Provincial Tourism Office)

In his public invitation message weeks before the festival, Governor Joseph Cua wrote that “the Catandungan Festival offers opportunities for leisure, pleasure and the rare privilege of knowing our people. And from them you get introduced to an entirely new vision and glimpse of life in a sun-blest Pacific island.” I heeded the invite and found out why Catanduanes could be the next big thing in trade and ecotourism. I learned enough to make plans this early to block off October next year for another look-see.

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