Festivals Of May
We set out from the highway in Los Baños, a town steeped in the history of revolucionarios and great heroes. Although, it’s difficult now to imagine life in this town where gentlemen once rode stately horses and respectable women arrived in dignified-looking karitelas. These days, the streets are no longer the tree-lined dirt roads they were in the time of Paciano, the reticent brother of the polymath and great Malayan hero, José Rizal. We drove through the town in a convoy of three vehicles, zipping past colorful displays of inflatable swimming pool floaters and bathing suits meant for the tourists who flock to Los Baños every weekend for the hot springs and swimming pools. Weekend swimmers arrive in droves, and they never fail to cause a gridlock that brings the vehicular traffic on the old national highway to a standstill.
It took us an hour to inch our way past the intersection that leads to the University of the Philippines campus on the slopes of Mount Mariang Makiling, with its boiling mud pools and thick rain forest where blood-sucking leeches thrive in the undergrowth. The highway leads to the town of Victoria where a flock of gigantic concrete ducks marks the corner of the road to the town of Nagcarlan. We were just on a road trip through the beautiful places on the slopes of Mount Banahaw on our way to the Province of Quezon. For us, the route was just a shortcut to avoid the weekend traffic in San Pablo City, but it would be a great injustice to neglect mentioning that the quiet mountain village of Nagcarlan was settled by the grandson of the Basque-Spanish explorer Miguel López de Legazpi who was the Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies, an expansive territory that included the Philippines, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Palau and Micronesia, Indonesia, and parts of Formosa that is now modern-day Taiwan. Even today, there is still a vestige of the Spanish influence in Nagcarlan, from the Baroque church of San Bartolome to the Franciscan-built underground cemetery that also served as a meeting place for the leaders of the Katipunan when they planned the historic Biak-na-bato pact of 1897.
Our destination was the town of Sariaya, the only community on the slopes of Mount Banahaw that has a coastline and possess the unique reputation of being resilient to the Moro pirate raids of its early history as well as the devastation of a great earthquake, floods, mud slides, and fire. It’s safe to say that the people of Sariaya are descended from early settlers who possessed a cast iron resolve to defy nature and circumstance. Which, probably explains why the town celebrates a festival every year that requires a certain level of boldness and courage to participate in. Sariaya’s “Agawan Festival” is an exercise in physical resolve, it’s an event that can best be described as being a human version of the Spanish “running of the bulls” with a bit of wrestling and a sprinkling of “Hunger Games,” minus the violence.
The mechanics of Sariaya’s Agawan Festival is difficult to comprehend if you haven’t seen it up close, but imagine the energy of an extremely large crowd of people building in excitement as they gamely follow the processional image of San Isidro Labrador, the well-dressed patron saint of farmers. People with big smiles on their faces and empty sacks tied around their chest jostle for position before the households along the procession route begin to lower towering stands of “bagacay,” a kind of bamboo, that are heavily-laden with fruits, vegetables, plastic ware, pastries, money, and everything else that can be attached to the swaying masts of bamboo that are eventually wrestled to the ground by the over-eager crowd and vigorously stripped of its offerings. There’s no need to worry, though, when people begin to push, shove, and jump all over each other because it’s all part of the fun.
The frantic pandemonium of the Agawan Festival takes place on narrow streets lined in many places by pre-war era mansions that serve as monumental memories of Sariaya’s prosperity in the heyday of the coconut industry in Quezon. Back then, the extravagant landowners of the town made enough money that allowed them to hire well-known architects from Manila like Andres Luna de San Pedro, the designer of Paciano Rizal’s house in Los Baños and son of the great painter Juan Luna, and also Juan Arellano who designed the Art Deco municipal hall of Sariaya as well as the Metropolitan Theater, the National Museum building, the Manila Post Office, the Cebu Provincial Capitol, and the Jones Bridge that once connected Calle Rosario (Quintin Paredes Street) to Binondo before it was bombed into oblivion during the Second World War.
On the 14th of May every year, a day before the Agawan Festival, the grand balconies of the old mansions of Sariaya serve their age-old purpose as a vantage point for the town’s Flores de Mayo parade. The annual pageant is unique by its requirement that the participants must only wear gowns made from the leaves and other parts of the Buri palm, or “Buli” as it is also known. Local designers vie to make the best gown every year, and they scour the town and neighboring villages for the most beautiful women they can find to wear the gowns they work on for months. And all of it is just for a moment of awe in the public’s eye when the final product adorns a Reyna Elena in the traditional Santacruzan parade known in Sariaya as the Sagala ng Buling Kasuotan.
Dark clouds and a slight drizzle wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the town of Sariaya as they launched a relentless weekend of festivities. Everywhere, people filled tables with food and drinks, including the local lambanog coconut wine which, depending on how far back into childhood its drinkers want to send themselves to, the concoction can have as much as 83% alcohol content. For those who are used to it the alcohol content is just enough for a nice buzz that makes them smile like silly, but as for me, being a non-drinker, it felt like I ingested a shot of elephant tranquilizer. The clear liquid I dumped into my gullet felt warm before my face started to lose all of its muscular abilities and the lambanog began reaching up to my brain like a cold hand. It’s certainly not for the uninitiated, but it’s probably okay if you don’t mind somersaulting fantastically through the streets like a gymnast on steroids after knocking back a few glasses.
On this particular weekend in May, the lambanog flows freely and the province of Quezon is brought to an impressive state of province-wide celebration by the simultaneous festivals that take place. Just a few kilometers from Sariaya, the town of Lucban was busily putting the final touches to the annual Pahiyas Festival that features colorful kiping, the vividly-colored rice dough shaped into leaves and used to decorate the town’s houses that compete in an annual event that has proven incredibly attractive for tourists. We drove through Lucban before the celebration of the Pahiyas Festival got into gear, and already the giddiness of last-minute preparations and the bustle of people carrying large pots of food and crates of drinks to wherever they were planning to celebrate gave the town of Lucban an atmosphere of when you know that fireworks are about to be ignited. We would have certainly loved to stay for the kiping but we we’re on our way to Gumaca to see what they had in store for their Araña’t Baluarte Festival. The name is a mouthful but it basically translates to “something that’s like a chandelier” and the word “baluarte” refers to the intricately decorated arches that you’ll find all over town during the celebration of San Isidro Labrador.
On the road to Gumaca, we stopped at a place called Kamayan sa Palaisdaan which, by its name and the superfluously native decor, might seem kitschy at first but is actually a very comfortable and interesting place to stop for a bite of kare-kareng hipon or a taste of their mouth-watering pastry made with squash dough that’s fried and coated with caramel. The dining area is built right on top of a fish pond, hence the word “palaisdaan” in the restaurant’s name. Across the street from it is a curious concept restaurant that uses a real-life Boeing 737 as its dining space. Operated by the same family that runs the Kamayan sa Palaisdaan, the airliner-themed restaurant called Air Summit Gourmet is built on an 8-hectare property that offers hotel accommodations, hiking, camping, and other things in addition to the dining experience. The food is prepared by Chef Taren , a Lucban native who worked in the kitchen of the Genoa-based Costa Cruises before moving back to the Philippines. It’s definitely a good place to replenish and indulge a little when you’re trying to fit all of the major festivals of Quezon Province into a single marathon weekend.
The town of Gumaca is one of the oldest towns in Quezon Province and is roughly 221 kilometers from Manila along the Pan-Philippine Highway (AH26), halfway to the city of Naga in Bicol. It’s certainly a long way to travel for those who are more used to their urban commute than long distance road trips, though, I would say that it’s well worth the effort to get there. The road goes through the Quezon National Forest Park, a preserved area of forest on the hills overlooking Pagbilao, Atimonan, and Tayabas Bay, and from the craggy limestone peak of a place called Pinagbanderahan hornbills still take to the air among the trees and against a panoramic view of Lamon Bay and Alabat Island to the east.
Lamon Bay plays an interesting role in the history of Gumaca. Previously named Gusuan Bay, it’s a body of water that was renamed after the pirate Lam-ong who, according to folk tales, made the mistake of falling in love with the daughter of Gumaca’s earliest ruler, Lakan Bugtali. It’s hardly a spoiler if I mention now that the lovesick pirate ended up being fish food because of his juvenile infatuation for a woman whose father disliked pirates and was very handy with a jungle bolo. To this day, there is still a small but well-preserved fort in Gumaca called the Kutang San Diego that guards the entrance to a small inlet where local fishing boats are moored. The guns and canons of the San Diego are still trained on the waters of Lamon Bay, as if waiting for an impending raid by the pirates that once terrorized Alabat Island and other places up and down the coast from Gumaca.
To nobody’s surprise, our arrival in the modern-day town of Gumaca was greeted with a glass of the ubiquitous lambanog followed by festive dancing to the tune of a furiously strummed guitar and exuberant singing. It seemed to me that the whole town was in town for the Araña’t Baluarte Festival, if that makes any sense. People wore their best clothes to admire the town’s preparations for the festival and to promenade the seaside park in the shade of the old fort. There was loud music, carnival games, tattoo sessions, street food, and powerful liquor everywhere to while away the time before the grand spectacle of the day, and just like in Sariaya the Araña’t Baluarte Festival involves a scrum over vegetables and other edible things dangling overhead, though, in Gumaca they swap the bagacay for impressively colorful bamboo arches built on the route of the local procession for San Isidro Labrador.
If a distinction has to be made, the Araña’t Baluarte Festival is a more traditional version of the Agawan Festival in Sariaya. Both festivals are equally fun, colorful, and certainly awash in the community traditions of passing around glasses of lambanog, but there was also the strophic hymns of the “Dalit” that we heard in the voice of an old woman and in the music of a guitar-playing old man. We danced, we cheered, we looked on in awe at beauty and grace, side by side with people who have achieved things, people who are yet to chase after their dreams, and those who forego the things that most people want and spend their entire lives, instead, carefully watching the sky for lightning that let’s them know it’s almost time to plant again.