BALSA FESTIVALLian, Batangas, May 24, 2003 -
- The beach of Matabungkay in Lian, Batangas
has been a tourist destination since the 1960s. With its striking sunset
and two-kilometer stretch of creamy fine sand facing the South China Sea,
visitors have made it a popular summer vacation spot, one of the more
accessible venues from Metro Manila.

Matabungkay's beaches are also lined with a multitude of balsa or bamboo
rafts. The people of Lian built them from long and slender, mature bamboo
tubes, buried in sand to age (also to prevent wood mites from burrowing the
shallow cores), then joined by strong ropes and nails. They even build
small bamboo huts over these balsas, so those who venture out to sea on a
bright, sunny (and definitely hot) day can relax in its shade.

The beauty and ingenuity of the bamboo beach rafts was celebrated by
Matabungkay and the town of Lian through the Balsa Festival last May 9 and
10. Spearheaded by the Matabungkay Park and Beach Hotel and Lian Mayor
Ruperto Magno, the festivities were made colorful by the festival sponsors
with activities like the balsa race, balsa décor competition, a cultural
dance contest, a food baratilyo and a beach party.

Lian used to be a barrio of the coastal town of Nasugbu. It has a long
history of barter trading with sea-faring merchants from China centuries
before Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet of ships discovered the Philippines.

A more popular tale about its name seemed to have originated from the
town's ties with the jade-eyed neighbors: When the first group of Spaniards
landed on its beaches, they chanced upon a Chinese dealer. They asked him
what place it was that they had landed on and, thinking they were asking
his name, the Chinaman answered, ''Li'an.” The misnomer stuck. In 1914, a
man named Francisco ''Kapitan Isko'' Lajano led his town folks to a
successful campaign for the town's segregation from Nasugbu, and became its
first hefe de municipio.

During the recent two-day festival, local and foreign tourists flocked to
the quaint barangay of Matabungkay to experience beach fun and a locally
flavored carnival of sorts. It rained during the early hours of the
morning, but it did not deter people from enjoying the pristine waters,
crowding the fine stretch of sandy coast with their lifesavers, beach
balls, reclining chairs and monobloc benches.

One could not help but admire the Filipino's ability to spice up the
ordinary during the balsa décor competition. Around 10 to 12 balsas were
dressed up like altars by competing resorts, the finishing touches applied
just hours before the actual judging.

Some had their balsas installed with motorized pressure hoses to create an
effect of cascading waterfalls; some used local greenery like coconut
fronds and large branches of the talisay tree or a shower of calachuchi
(temple tree flowers) and bougainvillea to decorate the bamboo huts.

One fascinating raft used children dressed up in mermaid and mer-men
costume, even a red mermaid inside a clamshell, with water spraying the
sirena from the inside.

The most eccentric floating balsas, however, were those using amber-colored
beer bottles, kegs and cases, creating a 10-foot replica of your favorite
San Miguel and Red Horse beers (they were not entered into the competition,
by the way, since they sponsored the event).

Local entrepreneurs with their knives and apple mangoes turn Matabungkay
into one major bedlam.

A fellow writer said she quivered at the sight of an old lady holding so
many balisong (butterfly folding knives), butcher's knives and swords in
her right arm, persistently trying to sell at least a silver dagger to her.

This year's most memorable event, personally, was the presence of two
groups of performers during the program: the dancing lolas. In their
red-hot salsa costumes, the septuagenarians danced the Chihuahua to the
crowd's delight.

The Caucasian woman beside me could not believe her eyes at the vibrant
grandmothers swaying their hips and arms. She said that usually, these old
women would have had a bone crunch after a round of dance.

“Not these women,” I secretly told myself, “they are as swift and graceful
as the butterfly knives (balisong) of Batangas.” (By Raymund Magno
Garlítos, Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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