Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Asturias

Suroy Suroy Sugbo 2009: Explore the Midwest – Asturias

Another world. That is all I can say of this little town that I hope won’t urbanize anytime soon. It has its own unique rural charm making it easy to fall in love with.

The local guides, Jona and Catherine joined our bus at the very first Barangay of Asturias as we said goodbye to Balamban. From this time, I readily noticed that what Asturias wants to be proud of, is not the presence of fantastic things but just the serenity and abundance of nature, for indeed it has!

First to amaze us, was a wide expanse of connecting rectangular ponds that I readily thought to be fishponds. These ponds line the side of the road and wide enough into the fields. Everyone noticed that there were big sprinkling mechanisms in many of the ponds. Almost like fountains in fact! But there were no plants or gardens to sprinkle water to! In fact, everything was water in all of the ponds. Thus explained Jona, that we were passing by a prawn farm. Hmm, I now know the difference between a fish farm and a prawn farm… the sprinklers hehe! I did not ask though what the sprinkling thing is for! Probably to aerate the water more?

Our attention shifted to the left when they mentioned about a fresh-water spring at the edge of the sea. Not on the beach, but further out on the shallow side of the sea. Almost everyone said “ha?!” and they explained that there is such a thing! That is when the stories about the funny name “Tubigangmanok” started. Hard for me to pronounce that (even to write/type, gosh)! And that funny name is what the barangay is called!

Okay, here is the story… seafarers/fisherfolk returning to land were surprised to see a chicken (manok) drinking water (tubig) from the edge of the sea. And in this country of cockfighters and voracious inasal eaters, everyone knows that no chicken (rooster, hen or chick) would drink sea-water, right? So the curious men went to the area and tasted the water. They found out it was fresh cool water coming out from the ground. Thus, they named it “Tubigangmanok” (where the pesky little manok got/drank water). They marked the place so that people living in the coastal area won’t have to go inland for their drinking water. In time, they built a well on that site and now there is an added housing probably to make fetching water easier and/or for visitors to have something to perch on! Take note, the fresh-water well is not on the beach, it is out in the shallow parts of the sea – even during low tide!

Okay, enough of the sea.

Like anywhere else in the localities we have toured so far, the children and townsfolk line the streets to welcome us. Drum and bugle corps were there playing for us as our buses swiftly passed by their areas.

Our convoy just breezed thru town (we did not stop by the municipal hall nor the church) and headed straight to a hinterland farm field near another body of water. Oh, so we were at the edge of the Buswang Lake. This is purportedly the biggest inland body of water on the island of Cebu.

My goodness! A lot of the townsfolk were there to welcome us. There were two elementary school children’s drum groups playing and dancing for us. I could see that people were scattered on the grassy areas amidst big trees and coconut trees. Even our buses parked under those coconut trees. As expected, the town regaled us with some performances and we were readily ushered to… you guessed it… food again. The local officials and volunteer guides/marshals/ushers got busy herding us to “special areas” they have reserved for us. That was of course, after each of us got another adornment of a lei made of little wooden beads and a big snail shell for pendant.

Tony told us earlier on that we’d be having our morning snack via a picnic in this town. I was right not to believe him this time! Where do you see morning snacks that have breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner food served all in one table?! Only during the Suroy Suroy Sugbo!

Okay, I sampled some cooked root crops (not camote excuse me), bananas, mangoes again, and I feasted on that thing called bingka. That’s how they call it in Cebu, the first “bi” in bibingka is chopped off to become just “bingka” though no one would kill you if you still keep saying bibingka! This one attracted me because it looked to have a rather rough gold to brownish texture and shined delectably moist as if saying “come and eat me”! I sampled one at first. It really is moist (to almost wet) than any bibingka I have tasted in this country. Plus, the taste is by itself good, no need for butter or grated whatever. OMG what a picnic! The bingka went well with FRESH Buko Juice!

Alright, the buko juice was not just handed to us by waiters for there was none here. Imagine this… a lot of coconuts were piled up on the table. Some were not even detached from their stems yet. Two men with big bolos were on hand to pick your coconut and chop a hole so you could drink the water/juice. A real farm picnic! The ladies in-charge of each table did have white straws ready but I saw that no one was interested. It was such a fine experience guzzling the buko juice straight from the heavy nut as you invert it above your face so the hole is just right on your lips. Whoa! It is not over yet! When the liquid is all down your throat or you think you already have had enough, you give back the buko to any of the men, with one swish of the big “sundang” they chip a part of the husk and form it into some kind of spoon. Next they’d hack the nut in half and voila, the soft coconut meat for you to scoop with your “new” spoon and eat to your heart’s content!

I did catch myself that whatever I did, I had my bingka on the right hand and a ‘coconutful’ of buko juice on my left or laid down beside me. This was a time I thought my little camera was getting in the way and I wished I had more hands! Nope, we are not done with the buko nuts! This activity attracted three teeners who were fellow suroy guests traveling with their parents and/or grand parents. And the manongs happily engaged them in a quick tutorial on how to deal with the coconuts. I listened in. The knocking part was hardest. You knock on a nut to determine if its too young, young enough or already old. The “young enough” has the most delectable meat with just the right slimy to soft consistency. If a nut is too young, you open it to find no meat as everything is liquid yet. If a nut is too old, the meat is already thick and not too friendly to your braces or dentures!

If the knocking portion was hard to learn, the hacking made me uneasy. It’s not just a knife they’re using, it’s a big sharp bolo! But don’t panic, good that the manong did not give his bolo for any of the kids or us to try. That was wise of him. He just repeatedly demonstrated how to hack the nut so that there is a hole for drinking, how to make the spoon, and how to give the final hack that would cut the nut in half! Other guests got attracted to this “learning session” that an alert guide told us the raft was already sinking on our side. Whoa, so we scattered a bit!

Raft I said? Oh yes, while there were tents with tables on the grassy plain, there was a roofed bamboo raft with a long table and benches all made from bamboo. Though tied to some tree, it happily floated on the lake. Food on the long table was the same as what was served on land. I was one of the luckier ones to have earlier opted to hang-around this raft since alert marshals controlled the capacity. It could, I think, easily fit 40 to 50 persons but the organizers did not want our feet to get wet, so I’m guessing there were just probably between 20 to 30 people on board at any time. I loved the cozy feeling just sitting around on that raft looking at the placid waters of the lake, listening to the boys’ choir and watching some of the dancing. As if to cooperate, there was just a very light breeze enough to make you feel the comforts of a farm but without blowing anything away.

Hey we were in an open field with just trees around and two or three houses over near the little path where our buses were parked. So how was the comfort room arrangement? There were literally hundreds of us people – the guests, the performers and the spectators, right? Hah, this is one reason why Asturias remain in my lowly memory of a brain. They did not rent portalets, which is always yucky anywhere anytime anyway, right? Hear this: right at one side of the field, they erected toilets that looked like the ones commonly you see in rural areas – w/ a grand twist. Let me carefully describe this one of a kind fantastic comfort rooms…

In rural areas, it is common that the comfort room is out and separate from the house. It is usually a rectangular enclosure but open near the roof to let the air out. The walls are usually made of woven nipa or coconut fronds, right? It is exactly the same how Asturias made those comfort rooms. However, the fantastic twist was… the floor was neither dirt nor the same grass as in the field just outside of the enclosure. They made it with Bermuda grass! I know they did not plant that just yesterday or last weekend for the crevices between each tiled square would be visible. The grass has already grown to carpet-like appearance; therefore, it was prepared for some time already in anticipation of this tour. Wow! But yes, the woven walling (coconut leaves) were fresh such that the smell of the leaves contributed to the rustic effect. Now hear this… if in the usual rural toilets you just see a hole or something to squat on, no not these ones in Asturias. The toilets had real white toilet bowls (complete with flushing mechanisms) sitting on the Bermuda grass. Yep, the walls were made of coconut leaves (layered to ensure privacy) BUT there were urinals, sinks with faucets and toilet paper dispensers. How they were able to tuck or tack those heavy toilet things to walls made with coconut leaves, I did not investigate anymore.

Funny am talking about toilets here, but I can’t not tell you such a good experience. Imagine anyone spilling water on the floor (oops Bermuda grass), it would not make the floor untidy or something, right? Water would just seep through to the ground. Honestly, I wanted to take inside and outside shots of those toilets but I was afraid it might have offended either my fellow tourists who were lining up for their turn or the Asturias organizers. Oh well, am planning to make one such in my backyard!

Hey, the picnic was not done with my toilet stories! I actually thought that was just it in Asturias – meaning we went to the edge of the lake with some light entertainment from school children and a plethora of food like there was no tomorrow. In fact, if that was it, I already found it one of the more fantastic routes of the Suroy. But there were contests too. I cannot forget two of those contests.

Here was the first contest: lady master of ceremonies said something on her microphone, then from all directions, men with carabaos started appearing at center of the field. Some of them were riding on top of their beasts, some were just walking with their carabaos while one even came into the center standing on top of his animal. Wow! Cute that one carabao came in with her master but her baby tagged along. The playful little beast easily grabbed the limelight just by following its mom who was probably saying “stay at our mud puddle, don’t follow me”. At first, I said to myself, OMG they’re going to have a carabao race and the animals might run into anyone of us. But it was grander than a race. There was only one objective: once the lady said “staaaart NOW”, the first carabao to kneel on the ground would be winner.

It was truly a grand spectacle with all of us cheering and laughing and clapping some of the carabaos probably got intimidated! Well, am sure it was not an easy feat for the beasts and their masters. Of the men: some loudly instructed their animals to do kneel, some made guttural commands, some whipped their carabaos, another fiercely tugged at the rope, some signaled with their hands, others even lowered their bodies to let the animals imitate. Of the beasts: one knelt on just one knee, some were hard-headed, one knelt on two knees and even let his chin drop to the ground, another also knelt but quickly stood up. Oh the mother carabao was a showoff (probably cuz her baby was watching)! She knelt on two front legs yes, but went far beyond to even bend all his four limbs and she looked like crouching. Splendid show!

Oh there was the other contest where I caught myself loudly cheering. I got carried away by the excitement of all who were there. It was the single-rider boat race. No no no, this is not your regular hydroplane race. This is a race where boatmen paddle in their own bancas! Our position at the raft had the best vantage view by the way, and I did not even expect there was to be this contest. And I realized that’s why there were those little bancas by the edge of the water. I thought they were just parked there for any of us tourists to use since some actually did. When the emcee said something, out came the boatmen all wearing green shirts that had big numbers front and back like we see during marathon runs.

BTW, most if not all of those little bancas are the real dug-out type – meaning they got a log from somewhere and carved them to become bancas. And I think those are “personal toy vehicles” of the boatmen when they traverse the lake. Why? Because they are so small only one person (the paddler) can ride at a time!

Okay, at the sound of the starting gun, everyone of them paddled furiously trying to reach a mark out in the waters before turning back to return to the start/finish line. The fun and laughter was truly contagious. An elderly woman (fellow tourist) was reminded by one of the marshals to minimize the jumping since our raft might topple over hehe! OMG, one man’s boat started to veer right and away from the target turning point! Oops, his banca even blocked and rammed with other contestants, then it totally turned back as if he was already returning. The cheers became increasingly loud. Oops someone fell to the water! Ahh, I think all of us were shouting our lungs out to cheer! Oh well, somebody won, many will try their skills next time around. It was such fun to watch them, I myself was panting after the race due to the cheering!

Lastly, there were bigger and motorized boats also nearby. They were just there waiting for anyone who wanted to join the quick joy rides to near-middle of the lake for a grander view of the serene waters and the islet. Many of my tourmates did so, but when I felt like hopping in, some of them were starting out for the buses. So, I thought I was too late for any more boat ride. I over-enjoyed my lackadaisical existence at the raft with all the bingka and buko juice that I did not notice those boat rides had been going on since we arrived. I won’t say how many bingkas I finished hehe!

Oh well, when looking for a unique hideaway with everything from mountains to sea, I will surely remember Asturias!

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For a chronology of the stories in this trip, click the following numbers:
01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12

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