Monday, April 18, 2011

Rizal-Laguna Loop Part 2: Palm Sunday in Antipolo

Palm Sunday at Antipolo

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rizal-Laguna Loop Part 1: The Lake Beckons

Its the Holy Week once again, a time when most Filipinos would take this opportunity to rekindle their catholic faith by immersing themselves in the celebration of the true meaning of lent.  Lent, we Filipinos have our ways and traditions that brings this season to life.
 Looking for the best way to spend this lenten season? try going around the Lake!

Ahh…the Lake.
I live along the fringes of Laguna lake, in one of the towns that hugs its shoreline. I always love looking at her thru my bedroom window. Not much on what’s happening on the waters itself, but more on the different cultures that sprouted around the lake since pre-hispanic times for which the lake gave birth to.
The lake…its like a single canvass containing a multitude of strokes, of different colors, of different folks. With Laguna on its borders in the east, west and southwest; the province of Rizal bordering the north to northeast; and finally the Metropolitan in the northwest, the lake boasts of what might be the highest diversity of cultures, traditions and sceneries congregated around its heart-shaped area.
From town to town, one can fetch a different story, taste different food and experience local Tagalog traditions at its best. The term ‘tagalog’ must have come from the term ‘Taga-Ilog’ or from the riverside according to historians, while the term ‘Bay’ must have come from the term ‘baybay’ as what the taga-ilogs called the enormous lake.
Town to town, around the lake….not a bad idea. Others have traversed this route for different reasons. Capturing on digital film the beautiful sceneries that the provinces of Rizal and Laguna has to offer, or a food trip around the lake would not be so bad, or a shopping spree of the different native products from the cashew nuts and ‘suman’ of Antipolo, to the wood carvings of Paete to the delicately embroidered pińa cloth of Lumban…definitely the lake will not cease to amaze even the most seasoned traveller. 

But what could be the best time to go around the lake? Three years ago, we decided to make this trip, packed our car and armed with a map, we began our sojourn through the towns sitting around the lake during the most culturally loaded but solemn occasion of our catholic nation….the Holy Week. Since then, going around the lake on Semana Santa also became a yearly tradition for me. This Holy Week, come travel with me as we experience the best of Filipino traditions and culture around the lake…..

Watch out for my following posts:

Part 2: Palm Sunday in Antipolo
Part 3: A Gathering of Saints in Binangonan
Part 4: Calvary Hill in Binangonan
Part 5: Atypical Church of Morong
Part 6: The Quaint Old Church of Baras
Part 7: The Heritage Church of Tanay
Part 8: Pililla at the Edge of Rizal
Part 9: Crossing the Border, from Rizal to Laguna
Part 10: Our Lady of Turumba Church in Pakil
Part 11: On a Good Friday at Pakil
Part 12: Paete, the Old Stone Church and its Carvers
Part 13: The ‘Prusisyon’ in Paete
Part 14: Church at Pinagsangahan, Pagsanjan
Part 15: Historical Church of Magdalena
Part 16: So High at Majayjay
Part 17: Besides its Shoes, Stand the Magnificent Church of Liliw
Part 18: The Old Heritage Houses of Pila
Part 19: The Church of Old Pila
Part 20: Going Home

Laguna de Bay, is the largest lake in the Philippines and the third largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. “Laguna de Bay” is an old Spanish term for Lake of Bay, Laguna which is Spanish for lake and Bay, one of the earliest towns in Laguna (wiki).  It was Captain Juan de Salcedo who ‘discovered’ Laguna Lake when he sailed on the lake through the Pasig River to discover populated communities on its shores in August 19, 1571. Captain Salcedo is the grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Philippines’ first Spanish designated governor. Since Salcedo chose to land in Bay, (could have been “Baybay” meaning lakeside) he named the lake “Laguna de Bay,” where the province got its name “La Provincia de la Laguna De Bay”. But even before tha Spaniards came, Laguna de Bay and Pasig River were the natives’ expressway to Maynilad, now Manila. The river and the lake was also the trading route of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese merchants bartering their potteries and other goods with local products in the 14th and 15th Century (
It’s a shame that the lake has continued to suffer pollution particularly around the metropolitan side, though government and non-government entities had worked hard to keep further pollution at bay, no pun intended.  Thanks to its great size, lake pollution has not spread throughout making it relatively manageable to keep the lake still fit for freshwater fishes to live. The lake is a primary source of freshwater fish in the country.  The lake is actually shaped like an italicized ‘W’ with two peninsulas jutting out from the north. Between the peninsulas, the middle lobe fills a large volcanic basin.  It is believed that the lake was formed by two major volcanic eruptions more than a million year ago (wiki).
So much history revolves around the lake and its surrounding towns. What is more rewarding is simply to live it, experience it and feel it as you take the road to go around the historical and culturally-rich route of the Rizal-Laguna Loop.


Rizal-Laguna Loop Part 2: Palm Sunday in Antipolo

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Just Passing by in Albay

Travelling in Bicol by land gives one a sentimental journey through quaint straw houses, rolling hills and blue skies. It’s a welcome contrast from my home city where tall buildings are the only treats you have from the harsh sun.
I’ve always loved taking this dreamy ride down the road from Sorsogon to Legazpi.  Just a perfectly sleepy afternoon, yet contentedly sucking in the flavourful panorama of Bicolandia from our van window. Funny how life seems so slow in this region where the pounding of strong typhoons and monsoons is very much part of everyday life. Makes one think and admire the resilience of the Bikolanos as they steadfastly defy Mother Nature’s mood swings. Ah! Bicol…a land of contradictions.

After an exhilarating adventure in Donsol, my friends and I packed our bags, took the van going to Legazpi and prepared ourselves to another bout of the long bus ride home. But wait! Who would want to leave Bicol without a glimpse of the perfect Mayon? So we took a short detour and head out to the Cagsawa Ruins….

My batteries conked out by this time so I have to ask my friend, Mel Dimapilis, to lend me her pictures for this post. Thanks Mel!

Mayon Volcano is an active volcano that forms part of the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Rim. Mayon is famous for its ‘perfect cone’, almost symmetrical and smooth. If not for the 49 eruptions in its 400 years recorded history (wiki), the cone today would have been as perfect as it was centuries ago. It still was beautiful, well, if it showed itself. The clouds were relentless when we got there. Gee, methinks it wanted us to go back…

Folklore has it that the name Mayon is adopted from the legendary heroine Daragang Magayon (Bikol for ‘Beautiful Lady’).  The locals would add that if Mayon did not show itself to you, then it only means she wants you to come back. I already said yes but guess she was not convinced…oh well, we still loved her just the same.

Though the best view of Mayon is from Lignon’s Hill, still in Albay, the most famous view area is the Cagsawa ruins. The most destructive eruption of this still active volcano was in 1814 when it buried the town of Cagsawa.  The bell tower is the only remnant of the church buried by the volcanoe’s lava. Looking at the history of this temperamental volcano, it can be said that it is the most active in the country, erupting several times…and devastating when it did.

The Cagsawa Ruins is not only a place of historial value, but it also became a one-stop-shop for shoppers looking for anything Bikol - from food, handicrafts, shirts, even lava rocks if you please - thus, a haven for souvenir-hunters like me!

Bicol is known for pili, abaca and chili. The culture and development of the Bicol region were pretty much influenced by those three.

The pili tree bears fruit which is green to violet and contains the seed whre the famous pili nut can be found. The shell itself is so hard that cracking the pili nut is a talent among the bikolanos. 

The pili nut, Canarium ovatum, is found mostly in Bicol and is native to the Philippines. The nut is considered a cross between a macadamia and almond and is used in confectioneries such as candies, chocolates, ice cream and baked products. In Bicol, pili products can be seen all throughout the region and in different forms: sugar-coated, in small breads and the famous marzipan de pili. Marzipan in other parts of the world is a bar or paste made of sugar and ground almonds. Mazapan (as what the locals call it) or Marzipan de pili is an adaptation where almonds are replaced by grounded pili nuts. Yum! Uh-oh I accidentally ate mine while walking, so no pictures were taken by Mel.

The pili tree is a tall, oak-like tree, averaging 20 meters tall, resinous and resistant to strong winds and harsh weather; which is why they thrive effortlessly in bicol. There are three pili cultivars grown in the Philippines: katutubo, mayon and oas (Agribusinessweek, 2009).  Aside from a large tract of land planted to pili trees in Negros, there is still considered no commercial planting of the tree as a crop. Fruits are collected from gigantic trees (some are even centuries old they say) in the mountains near the provinces of Sorsogon, Albay, and Camarines Sur. Harvest season is from May to October, peaking in June to August.

Though other Asian countries are also planting pili, they are mostly grown as ornamentals. It’s only in the Philippines that pili nuts are produced and processed commercially. In 1977, the country exported around 3.8 tons of pili products to Guam and Australia. In the pre-war era, pili nuts were already being exported to Hawaii, Germany, France, Britain, and Japan, according to the Plant Industry Digest published in 1970.  To date, the only large buyers left are Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the nuts are used in the Chinese festive dessert known as the “moon cake” (Agribusinessweek, 2009).

I was still trailing Mel around the souvenir stores of Cagsawa, expecting to see just pili products and abaca handicrafts, when we chanced upon this stall selling big knives called "itak" and even swords. Apparently, these metalworks ae considered an industry in Tabaco, Albay...a town next to Legazpi. My naughty uncles once told me that the bikolanos used the steel from the railtracks to make these knives. Ha! well of course those stories were not true. The small metalworks industry is supported by the Department of Trade in Albay to improve the locals' skill and, thus improve their productivity.

I found these beautiful shell curtains when I lost Mel, so I used my phone cam...not bad for a celphone! a lot of stores also sell shell products.  I think these products were made in Ragay, Camarines Sur. I'm not sure so I'll do some research in the future.

I found Mel again taking pictures of another important product of Bicol: abaca. The bicol region ws once the flourishing capital of abaca long before the Americans came. Abaca, or Musa textilis, is indigenous to the Philippines, our very own. That's why the ropes that were used in hispanic galleon ships were called Manila Hemp, and the name stuck until today. The strong fibers of abaca made it an important crop especially in Bicol. Unfortunately, the abaca trees in bicol were struck by a disease long ago that prompted the government to plant abaca in other parts of the Philippines in order to save the industry. What I learned recently is that the Americans even brought (stole?) abaca to Ecuador.  Now Ecuador is the second largest abaca producer in the world, and a competitior of the Philippines. Its really a sad story but I'll dwell on it in my future post (I'm doing a photo-shoot of fibers and fiber production in the country and will post it once its completed).

Now back to Bicol handicrafts. Since abaca is still a dominant industry in the region, though not propagated as a crop same as the pili tree, people here have mastered the skill in producing fiber and weaving it into various handicrafts. The tedious process of scraping the fiber out of the leaves, drying, spinning it into threads, and weaving it into mats, baskets and bags takes more than two weeks where labor is very much intensive.  From the leaves to the baskets, these products are not easy to make.  For a cheap price of P10-30 for mats, well I should say that its too small for the effort these people put into it.

There are a variety of products that one can buy made of abaca and other local materials. I took this picture of a stall while Mel is busy on the other side. There were mats, hats, baskets and bags of different types.  The weavers and handicraft producers here have evolved from doing only plain abaca baskets and bags. Now, modern graphic designs can be seen in their products.

These bags are being promoted by Legazpi as the new eco-bags. Its made of abaca twines and can be used as shopping bags in replacement for the plastic ones. Legaspi is very much known for its abaca bags, from these eco-bags to the more sophisticated cocktail purses.

These mats are the new attractions. They called it flower mats and can be used as displays or as table runners.

These are abaca balls, popular during christmas season but can also be an all-year round decoration. They are made of abaca twines weaved into a ball.  This is a product of Pilar, Sorsogon.

These are among the popular hats around. Its a combination of abaca and the "banig" or barn leaves. Its pretty modern and can match your color anytime.
The third most important product where Bikol is known for is the "siling labuyo".  Well, these aint the real stuff but the people here honored the lowly siling labuyo by turning them into the ultimate bikol souvenir! Bikol is known for its typical hot dishes, laced with super hot chilis of this type and boiled in coconut milk until its dry and oily. Coconut produces oil that is healthy, consisting of short to medium chain fatty acids that are readily burned into energy and not deposited in the veins as fats (This is why coconut oil is different from other vegetable oils and much healthier) Wait, I'll go back to chilis. It is only in the bicol region where hot dishes are an everyday fare, sumptuous dishes that can rival the Thai, Indian and Mexican for the most spicy foods contest! When in bicol, give the bicol express a try...or even the chili ice cream! Ha! I tried it and I survived! felt like a medal of honor.

The Cagsawa Ruins is indeed a worthy stop in our journey. But, who would go home without a picture of the beautiful Mayon?  That completed our journey to Bicol this summer. Well, I promised to be back because Bikol still has so much to offer. Secret is, I'm from here and I'm one proud Bikolana!

Well, so long Mayon, see you around, take care and remain defiant against the typhoons and monsoons...and as my friend puts it, best wishes from one goddess to another!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Donsol: Off the Coast of Sorsogon for a Glimpse of the Bashful Butanding

At the tip most part of Luzon you can find one of mother nature’s splendid creations, the docile whalesharks. Sorsogon is the gate in the south welcoming visitors from the central and southern Philippines and has long been host to one of the highest concentration of whalesharks in the world.  Though whalesharks can also be found in other parts of the country such as in Negros and off the coast of Batangas, it is in Sorsogon where these gentle creatures are protected dearly by the locals turning them into the centrepiece of their thriving tourism industry!  The whalesharks indeed became so popular and phenomenal that swimming with the whale sharks was featured in Time Magazine in 2004 as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia.

I really can’t swim, but passing up an opportunity to see the whalesharks in whale-son and in its peak season is just too…..unforgivable (this site is PG13 you see). So my friends and I packed our swimming gears and went downside to Donsol. The whalesharks were reported to be seen not only in Donsol, Sorsogon but also in the towns of Pilar, Castilla and Magallanes. Nevertheless, Donsol seems to be the favourite waters of the whalesharks or the “butanding” as they are called locally that the Department of Tourism declared this area an official sanctuary of the whalesharks.  Whalewatching season is from November to May, but the peak is from February and onwards to summer when the butandings can be seen in groups...or so i heard.

Sorsogon...the beautiful waters of Sorsogon. Can't blame the butandings for liking it here. I can live here too! (sheesh! i'll cut you off before you can even spell whale! back to PG13).

Travelling to Sorsogon from Manila by land can be rough, even if it’s riding in your own car. But the Bicol region has long improved its accessability, both by land and by air. Flights to Legazpi, Albay from Manila can cut your travel time by at least 10 hours (!!) and you only have to take vans going to donsol, 3 hours tops. Buses from Manila plying the routes of Naga or Legazpi offer really comfortable options such as the lazy-boy seats or the sleeper-type bus. The price of P800+ (lazy-boy) to P1000 (for sleepers) are really reasonable considering it’s an 8-10-hour land travel minus the bone aches and the sleepless night.  Just ask for it at the Peñafrancia or the Isarog Lines terminal in Cubao at the back of Ali Mall. Make a reservation early especially if its peak season. There are also busses going straight to Sorsogon…but I haven’t tried that one yet. Well, if you’re budget spells like b-u-s then there really is no problem.  Vans going to Sorsogon can be found at the bus terminals in Naga and Legazpi. Well, you can always swim you know....just stay away from the ro-ros and ferrys.....

Donsol already has a number of resorts lying along the coast that caters to travellers. But, you can always find relatively cheap homestays (homes which offer accommodations to travellers by offering one or two of their rooms for a price). I heard there is also a hotel in the city, but I prefer the homestays since it do give visitors a homey feel, not to mention that it’s the cheaper alternative.  Food is also not a problem, there are a few small restaurants in town, but the resorts have bigger restaurants and even fastfoods…I remember there is a Binalot stall near the Tourism office.  You can get around pretty much by hiring a tryke.

Head out to Sea early! Be up early in the morning since the butandings are early risers. Chances of seeing the whalesharks are high according to the spotters only at early mornings to mid day. that's why there are less boats that are traversing this trip in the afternoons, plus there is always the threat of rain in this era of climate change. So, just head to the beach earlier at 6 am.

You're first stop should always be at the Donsol Tourism Office.  Its located at the beach. Registration is a must! and its good since the boaters are ensured to be paid equally and that prices are set at a standard (so no more haggling)...uhmm i cant remember if its P1,500 per boat but each boat shall allow only 6 passengers plus the Butanding Interaction Officer or the BIO, the spotter and the captain. If you are in excess of 6, then you can always ask the next boat if they are missing one or two passengers. Another rule is that only one boat is allowed per butanding, though this one rule is obviously quite hard to adhere to judging from the number of visitors they get in just a day during peak season. You will be paying for the whole boat and the lifevest. Snorkeling equipment are also available for a fee. There really is no need to pay extra to the crew, but since we are just happy for all their help and their genuine concern for making our trip a memorable one, we were really happy paying them extra! especially our BIO, well....we are quite a handful! and i can tell he got tired just from keeping our overflowing excitement in check! haha...

The BIO was obviously the team captain, he shall swim with you towards the whaleshark.  I was looking for a nice picture of our BIO which we called machete at the time. Well, he really have hard muscles and a deep, dark tan obviously a trained swimmer.  Well, I guess that's comforting since we are out at sea!  but what strikes us the most are the spotters. They stand upright at the top of the boat where a mast would have been roped to. There they wait, standing straight....just pray they have good eyes or you're going home tearful....Not everyone is lucky to see a whaleshark even if its peak season. Its a gamble and its explained in the orientation. Well really, you cannot blame these guys if you're really unlucky to see one. You can see they try so hard.

We can see four or five boats and we waved at them, hoping all of us would be blessed by just a mere sight of the wonderful butanding. The BIO explained that sometimes the whalesharks travel in groups especially in peak season, but guarantees as these are very shy animals.

The BIO would also explain how to spot a butanding. They are actually very knowledgeable. I commend the tourism office for training these people. Its good to have very eloquent people on board. The information they shared adds to the wonderful experience.

Then we wait.....its okay to wait you see, rather than go around in cirlces pursuing animals like in a hunt. Yes, a hunt. When you see excited tourists in motored boats pursuing a pack of dolphins just to get a view, its nice...dont get me wrong coz I've been to one of them. But then again its a sad experience when you see more than twenty boats running a race just to get a closer view of these animals, sometimes blocking their paths...not to mention the effect of the roar of a pack of motor boats on animals whose means of communication is based on sound! the dolphins are not showing off, they are not even swimming...they are running away! is it cruel to be a tourist? not if you're responsible. 

Well, I did not get this feeling in Donsol. Hopefully it stays that way. The people here are very protective of these animals, because they know it brings them livelihood. That's a good way to repay them. And besides, the whalesharks are not here to welcome the tourists you know...they're here because of the warm waters and the abundance of plankton and krill in the area at this time of year. Plus, i read in wiki that the wam waters of Sorsogon are also breeding grounds when a baby butanding was caught in Pilar way back in 1998.
Apart from your swimsuits, you can also bring your own gear (mask, snorkel, fins and the works). But if you don’t have one, then they can be rented at the office. Other things you need? Towels, sunscreen, sunglasses, slippers, extra clothes, plastic bags for your bags and valuables, camera….better if you have the waterproof kind. I did feel a little miserable for not bringing one. But I found…well, disposable waterproof cams in the souvenir stores (P700), that is…AFTER the trip, geez! If pictures are very important for you, then I’ll say its worth it! Haizz….

If the whalesharks havent arrived yet, you can have some time to swim...if your BIO lets you. But swimmers are generally allowed under the watchful eye of your officer.  They said that scuba diving is not allowed in the area. The reason is that, some of the gears may startle the gentle beast. However, some diving sites are offering diving packages with the butanding. Its the ultimate experience I guess. Well, for non-swimmers llike me, I'll be content watching it from the boat. But definitely a dive would be other-worldly.  Maybe the dive sites are in other locations just so the trips are controlled and paced and that the whalesharks are not disturbed.

A whaleshark has been sighted....there they go! dont worry, I'll be here when you come back! look at the muscles of our friend machete...are my friends that heavy? peace! I have to do something on the boat you know!

What draws the crowd in Donsol is the experience of swimming with the whalesharks.  Though the butandings can get as large as 15 meters in length, they are gentle animals…docile as described and forever bashful in nature.

If you are not a swimmer but possess a strong heart and a boatful of courage, then you can also enjoy it by just swimming along.  The BIO will always be by your side while you swim. you just have to hold the rubber what my friends did.  Look at machete literally pulling all of them to where the whalesharks were spotted. Now you know why we paid him extra! chuckle! chuckle!

THERE! the butanding! can you see it???? Its there...right on the water! uhmmm.....just look at it a little closely and you'll see! OMG...its so spectacular!!! what? you cant see it?

I changed the color a little so you can see the whaleshark's shadow. There! can you see it now! right in the middle! ha! Even if its only a shadow, we were screaming on the boat! its so exciting to see butanding! what a sight....shadow i mean...

Yey! my friends are getting close to butanding! hurrah! hurrah! why did i not bring a waterproof cam?!?! arggh!

And the whale swam away...for just a fleeting moment, the swimmers were awed! captivated at the size of it, thanking mother nature for the chance...a chance to see one of God's grand creations.  That moment was enough to put smiles on all our faces, blood racing in our veins....and our throats sore from screaming! ahh! purely spectacular...divine even...

But there are rules for interacting with the Butanding. Its just right, so the whaleshark will not be threatened by so many tourists everyday during their feeding and birthing season. In order to make the interaction possible where both parties are awed...or at least one is and the other is happy munching, then rules should be strictly followed. At the Tourism Office, you can find them posted on the wall, and your BIO will also ensure that you remember them. Remember the whalesharks are only here in our waters at certain periods of the year? well, you see they are known to migrate to different seas at different seasons of the year. For the summer, they like it here....I mean, at Donsol. so let's keep it that way....

Well, according to the Donsol Tourism Office the rules are:
  • Do not touch or ride the whaleshark
  • Do not restrict the movement of the whaleshark or impede its natural path
  • Maintain a distance of 3 meters from its head or body and 4 meters from the tail
  • Do not use flash photography
  • Do not use SCUBA gear, scooters of jet skis or any other motorized jet propulsion machines
  • A maximum of 6 swimmers per whale is allowed and 1 boat per whaleshark many boats....

This experience is all about the butanding, Rhincodus typon in scientific terms.  The whaleshark, which is not really a whale but a shark…a gentle, bashful shark, who feeds on plankton and krill, which we have so many. They are documented to be even friendly, allowing humans to swim, play and touch them. The whalesharks are known to inhabit the tropical and warm-seas. So they are really not unique in our waters.  They are also seen in places such as the Maldives, Bay Islands in the Honduras, Thailand, Ningaloo Reef in Australia, Christmas Island, etcetera which means a lot more places.  There must be a reason why they go back in our waters consistently every year.  We don’t really know, but as I’ve said, let’s keep it that way.

Yet we can be proud, because the Phillippines is one of the countries who first actively protected these wonderful whalesharks. The whale shark has become the target of commercial fishing where they seasonally congregate. The population is still unknown according to wiki and the species is considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In 1998, the Philippines banned all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks for commercial purposes, followed by India in 2001 and Taiwan in 2007. They are listed as vulnerable and continued to be hunted in parts of Asia, but at least countries have started to realize the importance of preserving these animals.  Though the Philippines is still listed as one of the countries that STILL hunt these creatures, but then again…the people of Donsol, Sorsogon, the agencies of government are working together to make the wonderful butandings feel safe and at home in our abundant waters. 

Well, the Butanding adventure definitely is the quintessential outdoor experience…the ultimate Nat Geo-like or something! Every outdoors-man or girl should reserve a day or two to go downward to Donsol and get a taste of what’s it like. Well. I did…even if I purposely tied myself to the boat, I promised myself I will go out there and touch these lovable butandings! Wooh!
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