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July 06, 2010

REINERIO ALBA

When the plane landed in the airstrip of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, one would have wished it was smoother and not with a jolt, at least not in this part of the country whose “serenity” Filipino writer Kerima Polotan had indelibly mused about during her 1972 visit. But such an incident was yawned away as easily when the service van that picked our group of media people passed through the main road out of the airport, and the trees came to view: acacia, ipil, narra, and Royal Poincianas all abloom, meeting the excited necks of newly-arrived visitors like one dreamy garland of calmness one after another.

The media was brought here to witness the closing ceremonies of the National Heritage Month, celebrated annually by virtue of Proclamation No. 439 on Aug. 11, 2003, declaring the month of May of each year as National Heritage Month. In Manila, the month-long celebration in May kicked off with an event in Intramuros called “Viva Intramuros highlighted by a Misa Baclayana at the Manila Cathedral and participated in by the Loboc Children’s Choir of Bohol. In between, events were held highlighting the Filipino culture and heritage through performances, workshops, lectures, and exhibitions with Manila as starting point to Davao down south.

Titled “Preserving the Gift of Faith Through Culture and Environment,” the closing ceremonies in Puerto Princesa covered two nights of cultural presentations featuring indigenous songs and dances at the local coliseum organized by the LGU in partnership with the Filipino Heritage Festival Inc. (FHFI), headed by Festival Director Bambi Harper, FHFI President Armita Rufino, and FHFI Finance Officer Araceli Salas, and funded by The National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

“Nothing can break the Filipino faith. It’s the one thing that keeps us going despite the many adversities we encounter,” stressed Harper during the kick off ceremony in Intramuros.

In Puerto Princesa, faith, as our group would eventually find out, would be linked more to the beauty of the place. Palawan itself, wistfully referred to with pride as the country’s “last frontier,” is a paradise of 1,700 islands and islets, and is marked archaeologically for the 24,000 year old skull cap of a pre-historic man now popularly known as “Tabon Man” that was found in Tabon Cave in Quezon. In her book, “Letters from Pala’wan,” Criselda Yabes even noted how the province “juts out as a land bridge from the north of Borneo,” leading her to comment that it is not quite a stretch to conclude that Palawan may have been a loan word from Sanskrit to mean “sprout, shoot, bud blossom.”

The city tour that immediately followed was a fitting introduction to the place: Crocodile Farm & Nature Park (now renamed Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center), Binuatan Weaving Center, and the Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation in Abanico Road, Bgy. San Pedro. One’s mental suitcase was kept opened to snapshots of images: the glass-encased 17-feet-long skeleton of a crocodile named Rio along with deceivingly immobile crocodile hatchlings; Binuatan’s multicolored bags created out of the fibers of buri, mangrove, vetiver grass, and a weed called “amumuting;” Rurungan’s impressive piña fabrics, wraps and dresses. These images prepared the eyes well for the next day’s must-go tour to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, inscribed in 1999 as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Aside from it being a strong contender for the ongoing search for the New Seven Wonders of the World, the site, for all its hosted stalactites and stalagmites that conform to particular shapes (body parts, vegetables, human figures), is made more memorable by the well-timed script that each boatman spouts to his eager passengers as one’s boat passes by the 8.2 km. navigable length of the underground river. The group’s gustatory experience included meals of the freshest seafood fares in Badjao Seafront Restaurant, Ka Lui, and Kinabuchs Grill and Bar, including an oyster-like Palawan delicacy called kinilaw na “tamilok” or tamilok in vinegar. “Tamilok,” our group would learn, is a worm-like mollusk found in dead mangrove trees.

As for the history of Palawan and its people, the media had but to see the first night’s performances opened by the Holy Trinity University student’s retelling of the arrival of the Spaniards in the area through songs and dances. The plight of the Palaweños during the war was also depicted through a play staged by the Palawan State University. This then was brought to a climax by the Philippine Opera Company’s touring presentation called “Harana,” showcasing the evolution of Philippine music through songs and dances. Towards the end of the show, Mayor Edward Hagedorn even joined the group in the singing of the Constancio de Guzman-composed kundiman, “Maalaala Mo Kaya.”

The second night’s show offered the audience Palawan’s songs and dances with groups such as the Tipano Band, Tatos, and Sinika. Spotlighted were the Cuyonon’s Pondo-pondo, a dance performed during wedding feasts by the bride and the groom or parents of the couple. The Batak women who naturally came up on stage sans breast cover, drew a bit of a raucous reaction from the young crowd, but even the exposed breasts were soon forgotten as soon as their performances started. Kerima Polotan in her essay “Palawan Stopover” did mention about the gayuma or love potion of the Batak she had heard being talked about by the locals, a gayuma so potent it can “entice a resistant lover or force a hostile dog into submission.” Still, gayuma or not, the audience were regaled by their performances that night. The men came next with their two-stringed budlong, playing out initially what sounded like a folk song but it turned out to be “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, enough to disabuse the audience of notions of what can be played by ethnolinguistic groups such as the Bataks.

The last day was marked by a tree-planting activity by the media people at the Irawan Watershed in Barangay Inagawan where the group met up Rogelio Daquer, City Environment and Natural Resources Officer who explained the tree planting efforts of Mayor Hagedorn, the Irawan Watershed being the city’s main source of water supply. Daquer said that each year, during the Pista y ang Kagueban (Feast of the Forest), which falls on June 27, the city government assists people from all walks of life who come here to plant a sapling. Also, every Feb. 14 since 2003 (in an event called “Love Affair with Nature”), couples who get married on a mass wedding presided over by the mayor, are required to plant a sapling in the 8,000 ha. piece of land. Interestingly, Daquer says there’s an 80% survival rate for these saplings. So, on our knees, our group did plant at least 20 mahogany saplings that day. The following day, we left Puerto Princesa, lungs pumped with fresh oxygen, skins aglow from swimming, minds filled with new knowledge and memories, and wishing more that Palawan is really not the last frontier for the Filipinos.