Think back to your favorite parts of summer from your childhood…perhaps a summer cookout, ice cream shops, family trip to the beach, watermelon, swimming pools.
It’s summertime in the Philippines! For the months of April and May school is out and children enjoy playing in the ocean and eating halo-halo (this dessert translates to mean mix-mix and contains a wide variety of ingredients including but not limited to shaved ice, sweet milk, jello, bananas, corn, fruit, ube jam, peanut butter, beans, sweet potato).
San Jose Island, better known as Carabao Island, launches the summer season with its annual fiesta!
As an unbiased foreigner, I was asked to serve as a judge for the fiesta competition. We thought we were judging the numerous groups of costume-clad dance teams…really they wanted us to judge the carabao!!
The carabao on the left was my favorite! I also participated in their annual fiesta mountain bike race. Don’t left the beautiful scenary fool you, a beach start over loose sand gave way to mountains so steep all contestants had to get off and walk. And the race started at 2pm in the afternoon (you don’t truly understand the meaning of the phrase ‘heat of the day’ until you have experienced summer in the Philippines and then try to do a bike race in it).
As we raced through each village on Carabao Island all the children came out to cheer us on, particularly me, the only female contestant!
There is no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and if not for the small meal prepared with a few other Peace Corps volunteers my Thanksgiving might have passed by unnoticed. Stories of pilgrims and Indians and the combination of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy are completely unheard of here in the Philippines.
But the lack of large Snoopy balloons is easily made up for in the excitement of traditional Filipino fiestas. I recently attended the MIMAROPA festival which is a regional event (one step below the Super Bowl for fiestas comparatively). The displays of costumes and dancing could rival cirque du soleil!!!
After watching this parade through the streets we filled into an outdoor stadium and watched each team’s elaborate dance routine. Romblon’s presentation began with a marble quarrying enactment to the intimating booms of traditional drum accompaniment. Other provinces showed history of Spanish arrival or daily practices like catching fish or growing corn.
Best of all, I didn’t even realize the festival was happening or was such a big deal until the day of (I had traveled to Calapan City for a work conference). Not Macy’s or football but definitely an incredible display of talent – costumes, dance, and drums!
“Will you bring your bike to the Philippines?” many of my friends from the Coastal Cyclists in Charleston, SC asked as I prepared to leave last July 2014. No, my Specialized road bike with centimeter wide tires, clip in shoes, and no shock absorption would not have gotten me very far on the roads of Romblon.
While the national road is paved for nearly the entire circumference Tablas Island, each day I must also navigate the rocky, dirt roads common to small neighborhoods. Roads, whose large rocks and gravel in the dry season and muddy potholes in the wet season would have eaten the tires of my Specialized roadbike while easily tossing me from my seat and into the rice fields lining their borders.
The motorbike is the most common form of transportation here. When I first arrived, I had to stop myself from pointing and laughing every time I saw an elderly Filipino grandmother whizz past me with no helmet operating a motorcycle. (While motorcycle grandmas would be out of place in America, apparently the sight of a blonde white American girl jogging through the neighborhood is also equally worthy of a point and laugh in this part of the world.)
A consequence of abundant motorbikes and rough, unpaved roads is AMAZING mountain bike trails! The best way to spend a free afternoon is biking a mountain ridge on a dirt, packed single track overlooking the ocean.
For Odiongan fiesta this past April I helped to plan a 28km Mountain Bike Race. Expecting maybe 30 participants if we were lucky, our registration booth was initially overwhelmed by over 70 riders including school kids, seniors and out-of-town professional riders!
Every municipality in the Philippines holds an annual weeklong fiesta. In Romblon, the largest fiestas are those in the capital and in the city of Odiongan, where I live. Although Odiongan will not be celebrating fiesta until April, this past weekend all of the Peace Corps volunteers, as well as many local residents of Romblon traveled to the capital for this fiesta celebration. I had to get up at 3am to stand in line just to get a boat ticket and then the boat was so packed with people I could barely find a place to stand! Good thing the Peace Corps issues us a personal lifejacket because the U.S. Coast Guard definitely would not have approved the ship at that capacity!
The president of the Philippines even made an appearance, arriving via private helicopter to give a speech (in Tagalog, of course). This is the first time he has ever visited our province and I was lucky enough to get a special access badge to the event! Following the president’s speech was the parade of Santo Nino, a statue of the baby Jesus belonging to Spain, however the local legend says that Spanish ships tried on 7 different occasions to bring the statue back to Spain and they were continuously met by rough seas and forced to turn back. After the 7th time it was decided that the Santo Nino would remain in Romblon and finally the weather turned fair allowing the Spanish ship to return home (without the statue).
Saturday morning was full of parading, costumes, dance, and delicious street food. I watched the various “tribes” compete in costume, dance and drumming competitions and enjoyed fresh roasted corn and hot peanuts sold on the streets.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17