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.”

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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.]

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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.

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

signin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Catanduanes rocks at OKB-Gayon Bicol 2012

I counted at least 15 Catandungan entrepreneurs at this trade fair, which opened yesterday at SM Megatrade Hall 2—a good number considering the 80-plus from all over the Bicol region who are exhibiting their best homegrown products in this annual event. (Please see my earlier post on OKB-Gayon Bicol 2012).

More than the good turnout it’s the range of products that pleases me about this event. New and refreshing initiatives are clearly creating some productive dynamics in this once sleepy isle in the eastern seas.

I’ve read about quilting in Catanduanes and was pleasantly surprised to see some actual products at the event. The detailing and craftsmanship of the hand-sewn bags, pouches, potholders and comforters are of the type that finds good market overseas. The labor-intensive venture not only provides livelihood to families in Virac, Bato and Baras towns but also keeps formerly idle housewives and other family members off the gossip factories. (For inquiries, call Ma. Louella Vargas, Nizacch Crafts, 09195016138 or eych­31@yahoo.com).

It was nice to see Sudsea Products again after it made it to last year’s Bicol Fair and romped off with the Best Dressed Booth Award. Sudsea President Nena Schwalb started designing fashion accessories in 1987, which saw a ready market in Germany and other parts of Europe. Today she turns out around 1,500 contemporary designs per season—each one bearing her creative input. (Nena Schwalb, 09301901 or nena.schwalb@googlemail.com).

Nena proudly shows a neckpiece with coco shells as its main material

Terestian Craft makes novelty items (lamps, frames, boxes, cards) and home furnishings using handmade paper. It started production in 2000 and has been supplying its creations at Balikbayan Handicrafts and some shops in Boracay. Owner Teresita Sebastian gets help from daughter Melany in designing their products. (Teresita or Melany Sebastian, 0915-9678785 or terestian.crafts@yahoo.com).

These wine holders use handmade paper and abaca leaf sheaths or bakbak

Furniture and home furnishings form another important sector in Catandungan trade. This year’s exhibitors include Etbal Enterprises (Edgar Balmadrid, 0946-1166524); Marclo Enterprises (Engr. Luis Magtagñob, 0999-8814968 or marclo_ram@yahoo.com); Selinrail Trading (Sergio Rodriguez, 8204647 or sr679@yahoo.com), and Ronnie’s Rattan Crafts (Ruby Lumbao, 09072767841).

In the Food Products section, I noted Teves Pilinut Candies (0930-2686525); Nelia’s Food Products (Airen Giray, 0918-6371102); Catanduanes Deli (Lynn Margarita Molina, 09469793673); and Belen’s Pinahamis na Pili (Evelyn Bonifacio, 0909-7156449 or bonifacio_evelyn@ymail.com).

I also came to meet the man behind Impling’s Latik and was fortunate to grab a box of his famous delicacy. There weren’t many of this treat to go around as he only brought a handful, but the good news to Manila-based Catandunganons is that Sir Impling will have his latik available to us when he starts his ‘offshore’ production very soon.  (Simplicio Mendoza, 0921-6116079).

There were other suppliers of native products (bags, rugs, carpets), including one from my hometown San Andres, whose contact details I failed to get. If any of those concerned comes by this blog post, please send in your contact details and I will include them accordingly. In the meantime, you can hang me, maybe. 😦

Surfing in Puraran has always been a major draw for Catanduanes. At the fair to promote exciting possibilities was Cecil Estrada Soria (09157649123 or pbbr_puraran@yahoo.com).

The best time to experience surfing, establish trade connections, and discover other travel attractions in Catanduanes is this October during the Catandungan Festival. For details, please call (052) 811-3229; email tourism_catanduanes@yahoo.com or visit http://www.catanduanes.gov.ph.

 

Market Week Philippines at SM Megamall

I’m never too busy for a trade fair, especially one like the ongoing Market Week Philippines at the SM Megamall, which puts together innovative and export-quality Filipino products.

Formerly known as the National OTOP (One Town, One Product) Fair, this year’s event features products, crafts, and services of over 350 micro, small and medium enterprises from all over the Philippines.

Three sectors are represented:  Home (furniture, gifts and houseware, home décor), Fashion (apparel, footwear, accessories), and Food (fresh and processed food, plus health and wellness products).

Many of the items are trade show ‘regulars,’ but some merit more of the visitors’ time and attention not only because of their novelty, but also because of the Filipino artistry and creativity that are evident in them.

Artisanal mats from Samar are not just for sleeping on.

Bamboo is the basic raw material for these decorative lamps. Bamboo craft production aims to improve the economic condition of the poor farmers of Angadanan, Isabela and mitigates the ill effects of environmental degradation.

There’s good news in those water hyacinths that clog our waterways. They can be turned into functional items, such as bags, shoes, apparel…

… and this accent chair.

Stonecraft from Zambales uses serpentine, a natural rock with metal deposits pressed into the cracks, which give it a beautiful structure. The stone takes on a greenish or brownish hue depending on the prevailing metal.

Crafts from way down South

Dolls in colorful costumes reflect the age-old traditions of Parañaque, such as the Komedya and Sunduan. The Komedya is a stage play set in medieval times with royalties as the main characters. The stage play is an annual fiesta feature in Barangay San Dionisio. Sunduan is a fiesta tradition in Barangay La Huerta, where young men and women parade in traditional costumes. The men carry parasols to shield the women from the afternoon sun as they fetch the maidens from their houses and escort them up to the barangay’s chapel courtyard.

I was pleased to see some booths showing products from Catanduanes, the island province in the Bicol region that I call home.

I can’t wait to see new trade and tourism developments in this beautiful island in the coming OKB Gayon Bicol Regional Trade Fair. I’ve marked my calendar: October 4 – 7, 2012 at SM Megatrade Hall 2.

[You may view more photos for Market Week Philippines on my Facebook page.]

Weighing in on a slogan

If the new Department of Tourism tag line was so bad, I could have simply kept my mouth shut. Quite the contrary, I found it rife with creative potential. Truth is, I liked it instantly despite the bad press for the ‘copied’ and ‘unimaginative’ concept. I liked it even better when the DOT secretary parried all the negative feedback and made a firm stand on the matter. He knows whereof he speaks, so now I‘m on the pro-More Fun in the Philippines camp.

Now there are thousands of posts showing why it is, indeed, more fun in the Philippines. Creative. Funny. Self-mocking, at times. Some are outrageous. I wanted to join the fray, but how? My knowledge of Photoshop is pathetic, and I needed to download the required Harabara font type to come up with my own meme.

That’s when Facebook came to the rescue. A friend’s update led me to a site that promised the easiest way to create “More Fun” images. I only needed to upload my photos, add captions, and voila!

These first three photos were taken in Albay during the Magayon Festival two years ago.

The next three were taken in Atimonan, Gumaca, and Tayabas in Quezon province last May 2011.

Minutes after I did the ‘Time Travel’ photo, I found a material posted by another person using the same caption but on a different image. Did I feel ‘unoriginal’? Certainly not.  As the DOT says, there can be no copyright on the generic expression. Being transported back in time was exactly how I felt when I was viewing the awesome Malagonlong bridge in Tayabas, which took ten years to build starting in 1840. It’s my truth, therefore I own it.

The meme maker, however, does not always produce nice-looking results. In some cases, the caption gets washed out especially in photos with light backgrounds, like these ones taken in Catanduanes. But then again, that should not detract from the true beauty of the place.

Visit http://www.morefunmaker.com/ and have fun making your own images. No old travel pictures? It’s always a good time to take new ones. Travel money should not be an issue. Metro Manila, for example, is as fine place as any for a photo shoot. With the excitement stirred by the Bourne Legacy Hollywood venture in the country, nothing could keep anyone from posing in San Andres Market or in chaotic EDSA Pasay Rotonda and using  “Rachel Weisz was here” as the photo caption.  It’s all about attitude, after all.  The rosier it is, the better.

Travel around the Philippines if you can. Savor the moment, take pictures, write about your experience. Have fun, and don’t forget to tell the world about it.

Ooh la la, latik!

With its many variants – perhaps as many as there are provinces in the Philippines – the rice cake, generically called suman, could be our de facto national kakanin or snack. Depending on its place of origin, suman also goes by the name budbod, ibos, moron, sayungsong, dodol, among others. My all-time favorite, however, and not just because I come from Catanduanes in Bicol, is the delicacy we call latik.

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By itself, this steamed rice cake, with virtually nothing but little salt added to glutinous rice, may not look particularly enticing. The secret of making good latik is the addition of juice extracted from malunggay (moringa oleifera) leaves to enhance its flavor and nutritional value.

It looks plain at first blush, but it takes on a different character when ‘bathed’ with the rich white syrup locally called bañar (Spanish word meaning ‘to bathe’ or ‘to pour syrup on’). The bañar is a mix of coconut milk, just enough water, and sugar brought to a long boil (adding anise seeds for flavoring is optional) until it reaches the desired consistency. The result of this pairing is a delightfully creamy treat. If you’ve heard of that expression about food being so good it makes you forget your name, then think Catandungan latik. As locals would say, silam na sana, which roughly translates to “it’s so yummy, nothing compares!”

Because making latik is quite laborious (steaming the rice cakes and preparing the bañar take hours), the delicacy is not everyday fare*, but is often served on special occasions, notably during town fiestas. In most houses, latik is served to guests for breakfast and as dessert after a hearty lunch, then stretches on to become the main afternoon snack, that is, if it’s not finished off earlier.

Bicolano cuisine has earned its place in the culinary map through its hot and spicy numbers including laing, pinangat, and Bicol Express. Not too many, however, are familiar with the other side of the Bicolano palate. And that’s a real shame. Because when it’s hot, oragon food is very good. But when it takes a saccharine turn – especially for people with a sweet tooth like me – it is even better.

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(*Some enterprising kababayans have cashed in on this sweet treat and latik vendors can now be found in the Virac market on any given day. Arguably, the best latik are those by Mr. Simplicio “Impling” Mendoza, which are sold at the Virac airport and RSL bus terminal.)

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.