No reason to be lonely in Panglao

There are at least two versions on how Panglao island in Bohol province got its name. One says that Panglao was derived from the word “panggao” or “panggaw,” a native fishing device. The name evolved from “panggaw” to “panglaw” and finally to “Panglao.” The other story points to a historic event in 1803 when Spaniards came to this island and named it Panglao after the word “mapanglao” (alt. mapanglaw)  or a lonesome place.

With regard to the second version, Panglao has clearly shaken off its ‘lonesome’ connotation as it has, through the years, developed into a major tourist attraction known for its white sand beaches and fabulous diving sites. Recently, however, it has received some bad press owing to a complaint posted by a netizen involving overpriced seafood during an island hopping tour. The incident led to the closing of food stalls on the island in question (Virgin Island) – a move that certainly made many vendors unhappy or ‘mapanglaw.’

We were here around the same time that this contentious issue happened. In our case, though, we had no time for island hopping. Our limited stay allowed us to take a countryside tour instead; yet, the experience left some pretty good memories of the island that will last for a long while — and make us want to come back to see more of what we missed on our first visit.

Here’s showing why:

Somewhere near, a lovely beach awaits.

Where we stayed (Henann Resort, Alona Beach), a small stretch of public beach was just a few steps away, perfect for a quiet stroll or just chilling out on lounging chairs by the shore. Truly, a much-needed change of scene after two years of pandemic lockdown.

Panglao offers a glimpse of a rich historic past.

Blood Compact Site

Driving through Tagbilaran City, we stopped for a look-see at the site of the Blood Compact in 1565 between Spain’s General Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and Datu Sikatuna, a native chieftain of Bohol. This is regarded as the first peace treaty between two nations of different race and religion. The peace treaty is commemorated here every year through an annual celebration called the Sandugo Festival.

(Other sources, however, point to the blood compact between Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and Rajah Kolambu of Limasawa 44 years earlier in 1521, challenging the Boholano record.)

Baclayon Church

This church dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is widely regarded as the second oldest stone church in the Philippines. The foundation of the church is believed to have been built in 1595. It was declared a National Cultural Treasure and a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the National Museum, respectively. It was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List of the Philippines but had to be delisted because of the damage to its bell tower caused by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in 2013.

The magnificent church features 18th and 19th century images and altarpieces on its main altar and two side altars.

Inside the shrine, we bowed our heads in silent prayer and looked up to the ceiling in awe and appreciation of the paintings done by artists from different parts of the Philippines.

Clingy butterflies, wide-eyed tarsiers, harmless pythons…

After being holed up with furry feline friends at home for the past couple of years, it was such a thrill to see (and touch) other members of the animal kingdom. In the wildlife sanctuaries that we visited in Bohol, we spent some awesome time with butterflies that didn’t fly away at the sight of people.

An albino python was so cool with being petted by visitors. We were awestruck by the flying lemur and bright-colored hornbill. And of course, the iconic tarsiers of Bohol.  Clinging to tree branches and blending in with the surroundings, it was so easy to miss their tiny form – but oh, those eyes!

Refreshing drive through the Mahogany Forest

On the way to see the famous Chocolate Hills, we drove through a two-kilometer stretch of road lined with towering mahogany trees. This man-made forest was part of a reforestation project to address the problems caused by slash-and-burn farming and to ensure proper water supply to the Loboc River. Full implementation of the project started in 1958 after years of delay owing to insufficient funding.

The Mahogany Forest is a favorite stop for tourists (us included) who want to savor the cool and breezy vibe while posing for souvenir photos!

The call of the hills

We had to cross out some items in our itinerary for the day, but there was no way we would miss climbing 220 steps for a view of the famous Chocolate Hills. But up we went and it was all worth it!

The conical, almost symmetrical hills are such a refreshing sight, inviting questions as to how they were formed. There had been several attempts to explain their origin – including volcanic activities, tidal movements, and geologic shifts. Going past these theories, Chocolate Hills have been included in the National Geological Monuments of the Philippines (along with Taal Volcano, the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte, etc.) and is being proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The hills merited the name ‘Chocolate’ because their grass covering turns brown during the dry season. We visited in rainy August and saw them blanketed in lush green grass, and I like them better that way. Green is generally associated with nature, harmony, and many other beautiful things – a lot of which we experienced during our brief stay in Panglao.

133 years ago today

(Originally posted under Facebook Notes on August 19, 2011. Today is the 144th birth anniversary of Manuel Luis Quezon, first President of the Philippine Commonwealth).

Kaunting bato, kaunting semento – monumento. Who hasn’t heard of this playful saying before? But for truly great men and women, cement and pebbles just won’t make the grade. The Quezon Monument at the historic Perez Park in Lucena consisting of a larger-than-life size bronze statue standing on marble base is one beautiful symbol of greatness, not only of the person being honored, but also of the little-known heroes who helped shape the structure.

The statue was built out of one-centavo bronze coins donated by young school children all over Quezon Province. The collected coins were sent to Italy where they were melted and molded into its current form by an Italian sculptor. Conceived in 1950, the monument was finally erected in 1954 at the expansive Perez Park, a popular historical destination in Lucena. A marble wall inscribed with President Quezon’s “Message to My People” serves as a perfect backdrop.

The full text of the message follows.

Message to My People

My fellow citizens: there is one thought I want you always to bear in mind. And that is: that you are Filipinos. That the Philippines is your country, and the only country God has given you. That you must keep it for yourselves, for your children, and for your children’s children, until the world is no more. You must live for it, and die for it, if necessary.

Your country is a great country. It has a great past, and a great future. The Philippines of yesterday is consecrated by the sacrifices of lives and treasure of your patriots, martyrs, and soldiers. The Philippines of today is honored by the wholehearted devotion to its cause of unselfish and courageous statesmen. The Philippines of tomorrow will be the country of plenty, of happiness, and of freedom. A Philippines with her head raised in the midst of the West Pacific, mistress of her own destiny, holding in her hand the torch of freedom and democracy. A republic of virtuous and righteous men and women all working together for a better world than the one we have at present.

                                                                                            –   Manuel L. Quezon*

*born August 19, 1878

This Happy Farmer Breaks Gender Stereotypes

It takes someone who has actually done it to state with confidence that the hands that rock the cradle can also till the soil. Women can successfully raise children, produce food by cultivating the land, and contribute significantly to community building.

 Luzviminda Teston-Oropesa is one such woman.

None of those tasks is easy, especially for a single mother like her, who manages her farm in an environment that lies in the country’s typhoon belt. Minda Oropesa is from Catanduanes, which had experienced extreme weather disturbances in recent memory. Each time she felt like giving up upon seeing the damage caused by those storms, she kept reminding herself of the many reasons she should rise and start all over again. She has always placed the welfare of the farm workers and those who stand to benefit from the fruits of their labor above her own.

Geologist turned farmer

Before she went into farming, Minda was a professional geologist and was working as the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) officer of a mining company in Leyte. While managing soil rehabilitation activities in the mined areas, she envisioned vast potentials for her family-owned farm in Catanduanes. She had clear plans for her retirement, and as soon as the opportunity came in 2011, she went back to her idyllic town of Baras and started developing their more than three hectares of agricultural property.

Oropesa as featured in the 2020 calendar of the Department of Agriculture

In 2012 she organized the Happy Farmers Producers Integrated and Livelihood Association, Inc. (HAFPILA) composed of 37 members/farmers, 30 of whom were women. The term ‘Happy Farmers’ in their name has the same ring to it as that of The Happy Island, the tag used by Catanduanes for tourism promotion. The organic farm is listed as one of the Certified Learning Sites for Agriculture in the Bicol region, a classification given to farms that adopt applicable agricultural technologies, using doable and sustainable farming strategies, and are operating successfully.

 

She deserves the credit for introducing the members to the Diversified Integrated Farming System (DIFS), a concept that favors polyculture or growing different crops, over that of the traditional monoculture, where a single crop is planted over a wide area. Researches have shown that DIFS is more viable, uses natural resources more efficiently, offers better pest resistance, and produces more varied and nutritious produce. In the long term, it has better contribution to economic stability and social equality as it allows farmers to participate directly in decision making.

Everything Organic

Vermiculture has an important role in organic farming

The member farmers do not use chemical fertilizers; instead, they produce carbonized rice hull enriched with vermicompost tea and extracts from fish amino acids (FAA), fermented plant juice (FPJ), and oriental herbal nutrients (OHN). They also engage in vermiculture or the cultivation of earthworms for composting. The by-products, which are made available commercially to the community, have been proven in many studies to promote plant growth and significantly increase nutrient content of fruits and vegetables without degrading the natural resources.

These days it is not uncommon to see young people, especially agriculture students from the Catanduanes State University and youth council members, getting immersed in farm activities – a hopeful vision for Minda. “Our farmers are already old, I hope that the children will continue their parents’ endeavors in tilling the land where they were born,” says this woman farmer who walked her talk when she chose to nurture her father’s bequeathed land.

Agri students learn how to turn rice hulls into organic fertilizer

At certain times, Minda’s farm would burst with colors from flowers and fruits of roselle, dragon fruit, and other seasonal crops, which are sold fresh or processed as jams. For additional income and sustained livelihood, HAFPILA ventured into the production of natural food supplements in 2014. Medicinal plants, including moringa, serpentina, turmeric, mangosteen, and gotu kola grow abundantly on the island. These are solar-dried or made into tea, essential oil, or processed and packed as food supplements in capsule form. Despite the ‘no approved therapeutic claims’ caveat, the use of certain herbs for medicinal purposes has become popular in many cultures. Many of them are undergoing scientific reviews for their possible health benefits, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic. For example, serpentina (Andrographis Paniculata) is believed to reduce the severity of lung inflammation and could be helpful during the early stages of Covid 19.

Part of the farm planted with dragon fruits, a rich source of healthful nutrients and profitable income
Oropesa and some of HAFPILA’s products at a recent trade fair

Happy Farmers, for a Happier, Healthier Lifestyle

For her laudable initiatives to promote organic farming in Catanduanes, Minda was awarded the top prize in the Search for Outstanding Rural Women of the Department of Agriculture in 2015. In her acceptance speech, she said, “It is an honor to be a woman. We play a big role in shaping our nation.” Onwards, she knows that this role comes with huge challenges. “Despite the abundant resources in our province, Catanduanes remains one of 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines with high prevalence of malnutrition,” she says.

Oropesa during the 2015 Awards for Outstanding Rural Women

Through HAFPILA, she hopes to achieve food security through the use of efficient, effective and productive farming systems. She dreams to replicate the humble successes of her group in as many farming communities as possible in Catanduanes. “In supporting us, in buying our products, you are helping us realize our dreams.”

***

Call 0926 728 3444 or click here for inquiries.

(An edited version of this article is in the August 28, 2021 issue of the BusinessMirror. Photo credits: HAFPILA, Inc.)

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.]

***

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.

I Went Loca in Gumaca

(NOTE: This is a throwback piece, originally posted under Facebook Notes, May 2011)

Until I got invited by the Quezon Tourism Office to join their San Isidro Festival Cultural Trail, I had always associated the May 15 celebration with just the Pahiyas in Lucban. But three more exciting harvest festivals on the same day? Of course I said yes in a heartbeat!

May 15th this year fell on a Sunday, so the humongous crowd was expected. Pahiyas in the morning didn’t disappoint with its dazzling colors and the aroma of longganisang Lucban. It would have been fun to experience Agawan Festival in Sariaya and grab at goodies hanging on bamboo branches called bagacays; but we had been there on the 13th for a walking tour of the ancestral houses and the Buri Products Fashion Show. The prospect of scuffling for suman at the Mayohan Festival in Tayabas had to be skipped; we spent the previous day there visiting many historic landmarks, including the awesome Malagonlong Bridge, the oldest stone bridge built in the province in 1840.

The Araña’t Baluarte in Gumaca more than made up for the missed Sariaya and Tayabas Festivals. The festival got its name from Spanish terms referring to the farm produce neatly arranged in chandeliers (arañas) that hang on bamboo arches (baluartes).

A typical arana set-up
A typical araña set-up

This year, the people of Gumaca put up 17 creatively decorated baluartes along selected streets as their usual way of thanking their patron saint San Isidro for a bountiful harvest. Earlier in the afternoon, we joined the pamasyalan, a leisurely walk through all the baluartes. Along the way, various groups offered fruits, drinks, and all sorts of native delicacies to the promenaders as part of their thanksgiving ritual. I sensed this was a prelude to something even more exciting.

Some of the good stuff that await promenaders during the Pamasyalan
Some of the good stuff that await promenaders during the Pamasyalan

All arañas are fair game during the festival. At around 4 pm, a procession passes by all the arches; once the image of San Isidro goes past, it is the signal that the crowd can jump, tug, and grab at whatever produce they fancy.  I couldn’t imagine myself joining the fray and I didn’t want to risk getting a serious bump from a 2-kilo squash falling on my head, so I was prepared to just watch and take pictures of the free-for-all.

Baluarte No. 16 before the agawan
Baluarte No. 16 before the agawan

And then someone made this PA: “Pakiusap lang po sa lahat, huwag na po sana kayo makipag-agawan sa baluarte 16. Ipaubaya na po natin ito sa mga bisita nating mga taga media. Yung mga barangay tanod po, paki-alalayan lang po ang mga bisita natin.”

Such a thoughtful gesture. But there was a problem.

Wala raw pong dalang lalagyan ang mga taga media. Mga barangay tanod, pakibigyan lang po sila ng mga sako.”

Before I could say OMG, sacks were passed around and someone handed me a huge plastic bag, the size used for a week’s worth of laundry.  From a distance, I could see the procession approaching and I almost missed a barangay tanod’s question. “Ma’am, ano po ang gusto ninyong kunin”?  “Maski ano,” I replied, but then my eyes fell on a nice walis tinting tied to a pole. Mamang BT saw that look on my face. “Ilan po gusto ninyo”? “Ay, isa lang,” I said. Mamang BT was not convinced and quickly bundled three walis tintings.

In the commotion, I didn’t notice who handed me a buri hat, and then another offered a flower fashioned from wood shavings. Cool! I posed for a picture with Kelly Bautista, Culture and the Arts Promotions Officer of the Provincial Tourism Office.

Clueless me with Kelly Bautista of the Quezon Tourism Office
Clueless me with Kelly Bautista of the Quezon Tourism Office

By this time, the image of San Isidro was just a few feet away. Heads were alternately looking up to mark their target harvests, and down to check the procession.

The image of San Isidro passing through Baluarte No. 16
The image of San Isidro Labrador passing through Baluarte No. 16

When the image finally went past our baluarte, mayhem broke loose. I decided to stay on the sides for fear of being crushed, but then things started to find their place into my plastic bag. Mamang BT threw in a big bunch of sitaw; a woman dropped an armful of suman, some student volunteers dunked in corn, then  tomatoes, eggplants, squash, more sitaw, bananas, sweet potatoes. I went crazy!

Shoot mo dito!
Shoot mo dito!

No, I got nervous! The bag was almost full and I figured I’d need at least five people to carry my loot. I begged my well-meaning friends to not add any more stuff. A woman tried to reassure me that things will be OK once the bag finds its way into the van.

Oh, my gulay! Masakit na ulo ko sa dami nito!
Oh, my gulay! Masakit na ulo ko sa dami nito!

But I just did what I had to do. To a young boy holding an empty sack, I gave as much sitaw and other veggies I could grab from the bag; soon his companions were asking for their share, so the eggplants and bananas had to go. An old woman asked for some tomatoes; but those tomatoes were so nice and plump…what the heck, good-bye salsa!

Mamang BT noticed the small crowd forming around me and promptly sealed my bag. “Tama na po, wala nang matitira sa bisita natin.” I checked my walis tintings. They’re still there. So I’m OK.

It’s been more than a week, but I still couldn’t help chuckling at this experience. It was such a blast!

And everything in that bag tasted good! Thank you, Gumaca. Thank you, Gillian and Kelly for the invitation. Thank you, San Isidro.

Hope you invite me again next year. I promise I’ll bring my own heavy-duty sack, and at least five able-bodied carriers.

 

Christmas in Paradise, Part 3

FIRE

Nightlife in Boracay won’t be complete without fire dancers. Combining dance moves and fire twirling requires long training and seamless execution. While highly fascinating to spectators, it can also be dangerous. The expression ‘playing with fire’ reminds us not to mess around with something really dangerous, as we could get burned.

Fire dancing has an interesting history that traces its origin to the Polynesians who used the practice as a tribal wartime ritual.  Swinging the poi or “ball on a string” developed wrist strength and flexibility needed in handling weapons. As it spread to different parts of the world, fire dancing was used for other purposes, including storytelling, festive celebrations, art, and even healing.  

Fire symbolizes many things to different people and cultures. On one end it represents passion, creativity, and desire; on the other end it stands for consuming heat and destruction. In the spiritual aspect, fire is used to symbolize hope, rebirth, and infinity as in “eternal flame.”

Whatever stage of life we are in, passion and compassion should never leave us. But just like the fire that glows brightest at night, it is in those darkest moments (and yes, our senior years) that we need to keep our inner fire burning.

Let’s seek what lights our fire. And whatever it is, may it be with the intent to make not just our own lives, but also those of others, better. Let’s be with those who fan our flames. Let’s feed our passion and remember to share our creative gifts with others.

Christmas in Paradise, Part 2

WIND

The weather started to act up in the evening of our Day 1. On the second day, we had to cross to the opposite wing of the hotel for breakfast, since the dining area on our side was full. Before breakfast was over, the hotel staff were reminding guests to stay far from the glass windows for their own safety.

Outside, the winds were gaining strength. While no one was looking, I pulled the drapes a little to the side and took shots of how things were outside. Within a short span, I saw how the trees by the pool swayed to the tune of the winds.

One minute the tune was soft and low.

The next minute it became louder as if to issue a warning; and not too long after, the loud whistle became a serious howl.

While waiting for the temporary lull before the storm takes a counter turn to unleash more power, I thought about some people, like hotel staff, who go about their assigned tasks even during holidays, to make sure that hotel guests remain safe and sound. 

There are many others out there who take on holiday shifts, bad weather and all, away from their families, in the service of others. Think of security personnel, airport staff, health and rescue workers. They sacrifice their own welfare to keep us out of harm’s way. Perhaps we can help them fulfill their mandates better by not taking risks and minding the odds. Best, let’s be nice to them and give them the respect and admiration they deserve as everyday heroes.

There are current studies being made in search of ways to lower wind speeds during storms and to reduce their destructive potential. Until that technology is in place, distance yourself from characters who claim they can control natural forces [remember the Mindanao Earthquake (B)ender?] by simply commanding the elements to ‘Stop!’ 🙂

(Up next, “Christmas in Paradise, Part 3”)

Christmas in Paradise (!?)

Wouldn’t it be nice to spend Christmas in paradise? At least that was the intent when, months before the holidays, my son booked a 3D2N family getaway in Boracay.

Smell the sea, feel the breeze, hear the ocean, be at ease.

It’s now common knowledge how typhoon Ursula’s wicked sense of timing ruined Christmas festivities for everyone in that part of the country. With torrential rains bringing floods, and raging winds downing all communication lines, including internet and cable TV connection, what else was there to do but sleep it out in the safety of our hotel room? Such expensive slumbers, and we couldn’t even bring those beds home. 😒

Yet that’s not everything that can be said about our dream holiday gone bad. Allow me to share my Christmas reflections in three parts: (1) Earth, (2) Wind, and (3) Fire.

EARTH

One cannot be on a beach without meaning to pick up some seashells on the seashore as souvenirs. I know, I know… this is illegal in many places, and especially in Boracay which has a municipal ordinance banning the collection of sand, pebbles, and seashells from its beaches. On Day 1 on the island, I spent about a couple of hours strolling on the beach before it got dark, hoping to spot some pieces of sea glass at least (since collecting shells was a no-no).

Was I on the wrong side of Boracay? Could it be because we were at the traditionally busiest Station in that part of paradise, where the surge of tourists may have adversely affected the abundance of seashells? I had no intention to break the law, and I was not tempted to do that either, because there was NOT one piece of shell to pick up in the first place. I would really like to know why there are no seashells on the shores of Station 2 in Boracay.

Why are Boracay beaches so white?

As far as my eyes could see, it was a long stretch of pearly white sand, and I couldn’t help asking why Boracay is so blessed. Please click here for an explanation.

There and then I dismissed the idea of finding what I was meaning to see. Instead I strolled barefoot and enjoyed the feel of powdery sand against my soles. That simple exercise now tells me that sometimes we need to hit the road not necessarily to make memories or collect souvenirs, but to simply be in the moment. And in that moment, for me, it was to connect with earth, my personal element — something I have not done in a long while. The sand felt so good as it yielded to my every step, while I imagined whatever undue fears and worries I had being sloughed off along with dead, callused skin. The best foot massage ever.

Thank you, Universe, for that wonderful grounding moment.

(Google-sourced photo)

(Continue to “Christmas in Paradise, Part 2”)

Catanduanes: Raising its happiness index via abaca farming

The tourism tag ‘Happy Island’ suits the province of Catanduanes to a T. It is blessed with unspoiled beaches, rolling terrain, and many idyllic spots that continue to attract foreign and domestic visitors. Its latest tourism figures showed an increase of 11.31% from 2016 to 2017 driven by visitors seeking new travel experiences.

Catanduanes also takes pride in being the country’s top producer of abaca. The Bicol region contributes about 40% of the roughly $130.3 million annual abaca exports to major global markets. At least 90% of the regional share comes from the rich soils of The Happy Island.

Abaca has been traditionally turned into twine, cordage, textiles, and handicrafts. Its more modern applications now include manufacturing various items such as automotive parts, paper and currency notes, and many fashion and lifestyle products.

The quest for organic and eco-friendly raw materials has further contributed to the preference for abaca over synthetic materials. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) through its Industrial Technology Development Institute (ITDI) has recently developed a technology that combines abaca and resin to form a composite that is lightweight, cheap, and corrosion-resistant. ITDI used this technology to form the roof and sidecar of a motorized tricycle to demonstrate the unique qualities of the composite.

The global demand and prospects are obviously huge; but the challenges faced by abaca industry players in meeting this demand are equally daunting. There has to be massive expansion and rehabilitation of abaca farms throughout the country. The aging population of abaca farmers needs to be addressed by encouraging the younger generations and convincing them that farming can be profitable. Economic losses have been reported owing to low productivity and deteriorating fiber quality resulting from viral-borne plant diseases. Thus, new methods are needed to improve not only the yield but also the quality of the fiber.

banner.jpgDuring the recently held Abaca Festival in Virac, Catanduanes, local farmers had a chance to convene with Catanduanes Governor Joseph Cua and Mr. Kennedy Costales, Executive Director of the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA), for vital updates affecting their trade. In this gathering, 107 farmers from the 11 municipalities of the province were awarded cash incentives to help rebuild abaca farms that were devastated by Typhoon Nina in 2016. The awarding was part of the PhP50-million ‘Cash for Work’ program set by the Department of Agriculture aimed to gov cuabenefit around 15,000 Catandunganon farmers.

For his part, Governor Cua assured the farmers of government support in propping up abaca planting in Catanduanes while reminding them of the need to improve the quality of their produce. Noting the loss of interest in farming among millennials, he said that initiatives are being taken to make farming easier, requiring less brawn activity, but with the potential for workers to rake in decent income.

ceremonial awarding

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Ceremonial awarding of cash incentives

 

Representing PhilFIDA, the attached agency of the Department of Agriculture tasked with developing and sustaining the fiber industry in the country, Executive Director Kennedy Costales cited the latest initiatives to double, even triple, the country’s abaca output in the following years. As stated on its official website, PhilFIDA “pursues a range of programs particularly for the development of disease-resistant and high-yielding planting materials, sustainable disease management program, improved fiber extraction machines and the acquisition of sustainability certification for the production of high-quality abaca fibers.”

Director Costales reiterated PhilFIDA’s vision to mechanize abaca production in Catanduanes and the rest of the country. Additionally, in the next few years, abaca farmers in the province will be organized into cooperatives to be run corporate-style by professional management teams.

This is the core of the Abaca Tuxy Buying Special Project (ATBSP), a new trading system meant to eliminate the traditional “all-in” buying scheme where unorganized farmers sell their produce in an individual and fragmented manner. The farmers are at the losing end of this arrangement, as the grades and standards of abaca are applied only at the level of the Grading and Baling Establishments (GBE), who get the premium for high-quality fibers. The farmers are thus constrained from improving the yield and quality of their products.

tuxy.jpg
Given the same grade of abaca, the machine-stripped fiber tends to be whiter, finer, and more lustrous than the hand-stripped fiber

The ATBSP aims to improve the marketing arrangement by clustering farmers into cooperatives with 50 to 100 members each. The project takes half the burden off the farmers’ back by simplifying abaca processing from the traditional 12 steps down to 6, allowing farmers to focus on the quality of the fiber. They will be trained in all aspects of production, including warehousing and fiber trading, grading and classification of fibers that meet market standards.  “This shifts their mindsets from being mere farmers to being entrepreneurs,” says Dir. Costales. The cooperatives will handle the rest of the steps, including stripping the fibers using spindle-stripping machines, drying, classifying, bundling, and selling the fibers in bulk directly to GBEs and local processors.

The farmers present were then shown how a  spindle stripping machine works. Compared to hand-stripped abaca fibers, which are coarse and priced at PhP55.00 per kilo, fiber produced mechanically are of higher quality and can be bought at PhP110.00 per kilo on average.

 

A ceremonial turnover of heavy equipment (a 6-wheeler and a 10-wheeler), a forklift, weighing scales, among others, to the Pinoy Lingap-Damayan Credit Cooperative (PLDC) capped the day’s event. These were funded by the Philippine Rural Development Program (PRDP) of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

Earlier this year, Congressman Cesar V. Sarmiento, Representative of the lone district of Catanduanes, filed House Bill No. 7369, declaring the province as the Abaca Capital of the Philippines. The Bill seeks to promote and support the abaca industry in the province, while safeguarding it from destruction caused by plant diseases and calamitous events.

The Bill also stipulates the creation of an Abaca Research and Development Center attached to the Catanduanes State University – College of Agriculture and Fisheries. The Center shall conduct researches and studies on the development, production, management, and marketing of abaca fiber; provide technical assistance and support to abaca farmers; and develop technologies beneficial to the abaca industry.

Favorable events are coming together for the benefit of the soil tillers and the parahagot (abaca strippers) of Catanduanes. It’s about time they got their share of good cheer on The Happy Island.

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