MANILA, March 11, 2004 (STAR) RENDEZVOUZ By Christine S. Dayrit - The weather was unsympathetic. Just when parade participants went out donning their most colorful and creative outfits, heavy downpour welcomed them. Amid the blinding rain, schoolchildren gamely beat their gongs and drums and sashayed down the streets of Baguio City for the Panagbenga Festival. Notwithstanding the sudden downpour, the show went on. The spectacle was witnessed not only by the locals but foreign tourists as well who joined the revelry.

Panagbenga is the Kankanaiís word for "season of blooms." Though a relatively new festival in the Philippines, Panagbenga has proven to be a crowd drawer. It was first held in February in the grounds of Camp John Hay nine years ago. Last year, some 800,000 people trooped to the summer capital of the country to celebrate the season of blooms. This year, the crowd was estimated at one million according to some members of the city tourism council.

From the vicinity of the Supreme Court compound on Session Road corner Kalaw Street, one had a vantage view of the parade. Luckily, partakers to the festival converge here every year for the celebration. We had the honor of being invited by a very close family friend and Supreme Court Justice Consuelo Ynares Santiago to stay in her cottage during the duration of the Panagbenga.

Tita Elo, fondly called the indefatigable Justice, is a very gracious host. She made sure everything was well taken care of. With her, we discovered the latest offering of the Pine City: SM Baguio. The mall is so humongous and has everything the leading department stores in Manila have. Mind you, the mall is perched on a hill and at night from afar it looks like a giant lantern illuminated with bright colors. Thanks to the open-ceiling structure, the nippy, crispy breeze of the city sets inside the stores.

Iím sure tomorrow, the weather will be more cooperative for the floral floats parade," Tita Elo enthused. The floral floats parade was the highlight of the weeklong celebration. True enough, the sun was bright the following day. We viewed the floats first as they congregated right in front of the SC compound. What greeted us were giant floats bedecked with flowers of all kinds. Roses came a plenty. Gerberas were everywhere. Strands of everlasting were braided to outline the edges of floats. Fresh strawberries and tulips were used as accents in some float designs. Dendrobiums, lilies, chrysanthemums, Malaysian mums among other blooms were a sight to behold.

Like butterflies fluttering around the flowers everybody was in the mood to ogle at the floats as they tirelessly clicked their cameras to capture the moment of full bloom. Tita Elo with Supreme Court Justice Angelina Gutierrez, Filipinas Callejo (wife of SC Justice Romeo Callejo), and Virginia Davide (wife of Chief Justice Hilario Davide) reveled at the sight of all the beautiful and bountiful floats. A wooden bench long enough to accommodate 10 people at once was parked right outside the compoundís gate so the Justices could enjoy watching the festival all the more. The relatives and friends of Justice Gutierrez from the US were all ecstatic. But the effervescent Tita Elo, with her ever-supportive staff Dulce Rovedillo and Teddy Marmibe, just couldnít be stopped from fleeting from one floral float to another with her striking electric flowery bag in tow that literally stole some moments of the occasion. Like a bee in search of nectar, my bestfriend Bum D. Tenorio Jr., a first-time Panagbenga reveler, allowed himself to get lost in the middle of floral floats as he took photographs of them.

Aside from the fact that Baguio was in the season of bloom, the city, according to municipal mayor Nestor Fongwan, was also preparing for the Strawberry Festival 2004. Events are lined up for the occasion such as the search for the biggest strawberry in the province, vegetable fun run, strawberry eating contest, tapuey and strawberry wine tasting, among others.

The festival will culminate on March 20 with the viewing and partaking of the giant strawberry cake. Fongwan said the cake will be 11 ft. in height, 8 ft. in height and 9 ft. in diameter. Itís expected to have 48,000 servings on a 3"x2" x2.5" size. Cost per serving is P10. The first giant strawberry cake was baked in 2002 and served 14,000 slices. In 2003, two giant cakes were made and served 28,000 slices. More than 100 people will render their services for free in preparing, cooking of jam and baking of the giant strawberry cake.

Lead bakers Eric Espadero (proprietor, Valley Bread) and Nonette Fontanilla (proprietor, Cranberry) will use 1,500 bars of butter; 1,625 kgs. of sugar; 9,000 eggs; 860 cans of evaporated milk; 1,155 kgs. of all purpose flour; 20 kgs. of baking powder; 10 kgs. of iodized salt; 250 liters of whipped cream; 1,550 bottles of strawberry extract; 675 kgs. of strawberry jam; and 2,000 kgs. of strawberries.

Our friend Lia Anonas, who finished a hotel and restaurant management degree from Hotel Institute Montreux in Switzerland, is all excited about this gigantic strawberry cake. She added that apart from strawberries, Benguet is also famous for its well-homogenized peanut butter, the best in the whole archipelago. She got some jars of this sweet and creamy delicacy from the Benguet State University nearby.

After early Mass at the cathedral to thank the good Lord for all His blessings, Tita Elo prepared a hearty breakfast of chicken longaniza, boneless daing na bangus, garlic rice and Baguio Country Clubís raisin bread with the yummiest peanut butter. In the middle of a very cold morning (6.9 degrees, mind you ), we raised our cups of barako coffee to celebrate the many joys of this wonderful life. Same time next year, we vowed to return for Panagbenga 2005. This early, visitors are planning to join next yearís floral festival. The butterflies and bees signify their attendance, are you coming?

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For more information about the Strawberry Festival, call the secretariat at the Benguet mayorís office, (074) 422-2601.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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