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!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...