The shore of Matabungkay seemed to disappear in the multitude of people and resorts that ranged from rudimentary cottages of bamboo and coconut fronds to unappealing cement blocks of rooms jostling for beachfront space. The whole thing actually extended into the sea with a checkerboard of native balsa, bamboo rafts with little huts on them, anchored and tied to each other like a floating village. From afar, the balsa village looked orderly and even handsome.
Children bobbed in the water with their assortment of floaters. Vacationing men, ruddy from beer or sun took a dip now and then. Vendors carrying bilaos of sineguelas, green mangoes and triangles of rice cakes wrapped in plastic and banana leaves, taho in aluminum canisters and bunches of colorful and tawdry floaters combed the stretch for buyers. The salty scent of the sea was screened by the smoke and aroma of barbecues and squid and milkfish being grilled.
The tide was high at nine this scorching morning in the second weekend of May, the tongues of the sea wiping the latte-colored sand clean of innumerable footprints and lapping at the thresholds of some of the cottages. Then came the lively drumbeats, getting louder by the minute and indicating that this was no ordinary day in Matabungkay. Emerging among the throng, an Ati-atihan group pounded their feet, shook and danced along the shore, their bodies painted in cerulean blue with gaudy headdresses of rooster feathers looking like Krishnas gone tribal. The group, hired all the way from Sampaloc in Manila, arrived in the middle part of the two-kilometer beach where a stage was constructed for the event and showed their tribal-fusion terpsichorean mettle for the finale. It signaled the start of the main event of the two-day Balsa Festival.
At the southern part of the shore, about six rafts were being embellished and fussed about. Several feet away, brawny and swarthy boatmen docked their rafts for the race. The captains positioned his men who held on to their poles poised and ready. Organizers scampered about on the stage. Someone cranked up the microphone and asked the people to stay clear from the race area but the children seemed oblivious bobbing gaily in the waters.
I was at the stage, fanning myself like crazy, surveying the whole shebang and wondering when was the last time I was here. It was ages ago. I was about six or seven. There was no Balsa Festival then, but Matabungkay was a very popular beach as far as I could remember, the vogue vacation spot especially for Manila folks. The beach is accessible to city by a two-and-half-hour drive to the northeastern Batangas town of Lian, to which the coastal barangay of Matabungkay belongs. The barangay was so popular that its name could suddenly ring a bell, while Lian elicited a blank look. It was only now that I learned that Matabungkay was part of Lian, a rather sleepy town with narrow streets and several aging houses. I also learned that the town was once a barangay of the adjacent town of Nasugbu and had a history of barter trading with the Chinese long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Folklore has it that when a Spanish soldier landed on the shore and asked a Chinese merchant the name of the place, the merchant, thinking that he was being asked his name, answered “Li’an.” Thus, the name stuck. The modern town of Lian actually traced its history to Francisco Lejano, fondly called Kapitan Isko, who worked for its segregation from Nasugbu in 1914 and eventually became its municipal president from 1914 to 1917.
These pieces of information swam in my mind with impressions of the town snatched from the bus window trying to anchor on something to form a veritable picture. But these remained peripheral as I passed its houses, its oddly-shaped church, its humdrum storefronts into the road to Matabungkay, hemmed by little fields of rice, corn and sugarcane, where royal poinciana trees in full bloom blazed into my attention. Then, the blue pieces of South China Sea came through the branches and gaps among houses.
Matabungkay was my first taste of the sea. In one of my childhood summers, we packed ourselves into a hired jeepney—me, my family and neighbors, jostling inside with coolers of food, pots and pans—and off we went. I squealed at first sight of a strip of lucent blue sandwiched between the cloudy mottle of white and azure of the sky and the green-and-brown motley of trees and cottages. A cottage was rented, and we children made a beeline to the water, as if we were meant to be with it like the proverbial ducklings. The first thing I did was to dip my finger into the water and tasted it to prove to myself that this was indeed the sea. The sand was sometimes brown, sometimes ashen with streaks of black, but it glinted under the sun. Like the numerous people who were there, we sunbathed, buried ourselves in the sand, grilled tilapia and milkfish, ate sumptuous lunch with our fingers and went back to swim. That was in the early eighties. Since the seventies, Matabungkay enjoyed a great deal of popularity. However, that rapidly declined by the late eighties. Other beaches like Puerto Galera and Boracay became buzzwords.
Matabungkay might have suffered from the competition from other beaches, but more importantly it suffered from complacency and neglect that led to the decline in the quality of the beach and in visitor influx.
Forty-three-year-old Rico M. Violeta had a fond childhood memory of Matabungkay. His family would rent a raft where they grilled fish, ate together and swam around it. Now, he serves as the general manager of Matabungkay Beach Resort and Hotel, a 4.8-hectare complex of swimming pools, gardens, beachfront, restaurant, bar, rooms and villas. Owned by former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste, the resort has been operating for 22 years now and is under the management of Leviste’s sister, Ma. Cecilia Leviste-Antonio.
Violeta joined the resort three years ago and has been tasked to liven up Matabungkay and bring the tourists back. He was given, according to him, “half a year to do it, to try to re-market it to a better position.” Being in the industry for years, creating gimmicks for resorts and hotels proved to be his forte. Surprisingly, Violeta is an aeronautic engineering graduate of PATTS. When there was no position open in his field and not finicky about the kinds of job that were available to him, he applied to be a waiter at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Makati. From there, he rose from the ranks: from waiter to room service manager. He served other hotels here and abroad before joining MBRH and facing its problems.
Recognizing the marketing power of festivals, which were cropping up all over the country and were actively supported by then tourism secretary Richard Gordon, he and the management staff brainstormed and decided to create one. Almost immediately, the balsa emerged as the craft and the symbol around which the festival would revolve.
“This place was known for its balsa,” Violeta said over an al fresco dinner by the shore the night before. Myriad specks of light traced the arc of the shore like a constellation. The rafts floated peacefully within the heaving bosom of the arc. In our yard, foot lights craftily made of lighted candles and sand in brown paper bags marked out the winding paths of the garden. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the country,” commented he.
Inquiring the old folks in the area about the balsa, he found out that it was not just a touristy thing. Usually measuring ten meters long and four meters wide, the raft was traditionally fashioned of ropes and mature tubes of bamboo, which were aged by burying them in the sand. The process also prevented mites and other pests to eat into the bamboo. It had been used as transport of goods during low tide. But now, the raft is primarily used as a recreational facility by tourists who want to venture out into the sea and spend a leisurely time.
Riding the raft is an experience that is recommended for anyone who is going to Matabungkay. Leona Nepomuceno of the press relations office of the Department of Tourism confided that the beach is ordinary, but when you are on the balsa it is different. She brought in a group of journalists to elicit their support in promoting the place. Finding the beach not really spectacular, they were skeptical and uninterested. But when put into the balsa, they readily changed their mind.
Tourism is the primary source of income in Matabungkay, where there are 220 resorts ranging from modest cottages to the big ones. The major resorts remained to be Kandahar, Tan-awan, Coral and MBRH. Its trade organization is the Resort Neighborhood Association of Matabungkay, Inc. (RNAMI) Beyond these resorts were fields of sugarcane, mangoes, corn and rice.
When Violeta and company approached the local barangay council to sell the idea of the festival, the council was enthusiastic about it. The municipal government was equally supportive, even passing a resolution to have it celebrated every year. Financing the festival though was left to Violeta, who sought sponsorships from corporations.
Violeta and his team also designed the festival program, which included live band shows, a cultural dance competition, the balsa decoration contest and the balsa race. And the cheesy Ati-atihan? The number was included as a come-on, according to Violeta, and served as noisemaker, perhaps to drum up an air of festivity.
The centerpiece, of course, is the decoration contest and the race. This year, which is the festival’s third, the race gathered about 12 contenders. Some were invited from other barangays and towns in Batangas. Violeta planned to make the race a national event, drawing contenders from all over the country. Each raft had one captain and about six men with long bamboo poles that would propel the raft by pushing the poles against the sea bottom. They would race 500 meters to the sea, retrieve a flag and race back to the shore.
After the race, the decorative balsas slowly paraded along the shore towards the stage, garlanding the otherwise dull beachfront. As we sipped sodas, the rafts floated by looking like themed booths in a home and garden trade show washed out by a flood and brought to the sea. They were amusing to look at. One raft gathered all the potted plants they could find to create a tropical jungle effect. A cave was created where a dark-skinned boy in loincloth and with a spear guarded its entrance. At the side, a girl in mermaid costume sat in a giant clamshell. Crowning this creation was a waterfall flowing from the top of the cave and cascading into its mouth. The whole thing was heavy that it was in danger of sinking if not for the men that held it up during the parade.
An old lady beside us was rooting for the other raft of simple Mindanao-inspired concept with shimmering drapery hanging on the eaves of the hut, a frangipani tree punctuating one corner and the family on the float wearing malongs. “You’re okay! Beautiful! Simple!” she cheered. “Will you look at that one. Why, it’s like a jungle.”
At the tail end was a raft fit for Halloween. The heavily draped hut showed a turbaned fortuneteller looking intently at her crystal ball. Outside, a witch was stirring her obnoxious brew in a cauldron. In the heat of summer at the beach, such a scene drifting past you leave you with a surreal feeling.
When the ostentatious rafts were displayed and docked, the dancing lolas entered, giving unique spike to the program. Still nimble-footed and graceful, these grandmothers danced on the sand in their red floral baro’t saya, flicking their fingers and fans into the air and delighting us. Violeta said someone from the barangay council suggested including the dancing lolas in the program, and they had been one of the favorite numbers ever since.
In the lull of the afternoon, I caught up with them, sitting by the shore and under the biggest camachile tree I’ve ever seen and a royal poinciana in full bloom. Like gentle summer confetti, the fire tree dropped its blazing orange petals every time the breeze brushed the branches. Nearby, the pool splashed with children and a stage was being assembled for the night’s live band party.
Munching on wedges of pineapples and donned now in bright red salsa dress for a performance later in the afternoon, these groovy grandmas were a sprightly lot, given to banter and good-natured ribbing. Hailing from Maligaya Beach, Bucana in Nasugbu, they formed the seven-year-old group called Samahan ng Batangueño and were hired now and then to perform at events like fiestas. Fifty-six-year old Vener Villanueva served as their liaison officer. The rest of the group comprised Juana Lopez, 68; Saning Gamez, 69; Luningning Lopez, 59; Caridad Villajuan, 72; Mayli Mercado, 68; Antonia Sable, 68; Juliet Ilao, 54; Gloria Sandelices, 68; Josefina Taborete, 56; and Choleng Albeso, 72.
When I pressed them to tell me some stories, they told me to wait for Choleng who went to buy a pack of cigarettes. When she arrived, she wore a faded brown skirt offset by a white blouse with polka dots as if affirming that indeed Lola Choleng was the life of the party. Lighting a cigarette and giving me a chair to sit beside me, Lola Choleng, who wore her salt-and-pepper hair tied in a bun, asked me what I want to know.
Well, to start with, do you know how Matabungkay got its name, I asked.
“It’s like this: There was this Spaniard…” she started. It was the eternal anecdote about the querying Spaniard and the misunderstanding native again. I wanted to know the punch line of this. So, the Spaniard asked a fisherman mending his net on the shore the name of the place. Instead, the fisherman warned him, “Tabi po, baka matabunan ka.” I didn’t get exactly what it was that the Spaniard might get buried under, perhaps a big bundle of net. So “Matabunan ka” became Matabungkay.
“You know where the name Nasugbu came from? Well, there was this Spaniard…” Choleng continued. Indeed, you must not get Lola Choleng started on these stories. Anyway, the Spaniard chanced upon a woman in her house and asked the name of the place. But then, the rice she was cooking was boiling over. “Ay, nasubo na!” she exclaimed. So, “Nasubo” became Nasugbu.
After a while, the irrepressible Lola Choleng was regaling us with her naughty antics during her young days, “nung dalaga pa ako.” In her amusing and engaging way, she told us how they got into the movie theater for free by hoodwinking the ticket lady and by creating a scene. She would sneak behind a man in queue and pinched his butt. The man turning around to find another man would challenge the other into a fistfight. During the ensuing melee, they snuck into the theater.
Choleng just finished third grade. Perhaps, war broke out and interrupted her education. It seemed that the war years were not a dreary time for her. She remembered vending fruits and sweets, and there were Japanese soldiers around. The soldiers took a liking to the little girl Choleng and showed her affection.
“Do you know how I got married?” she said. “Hay naku, ako’y napahamak dahil sa hilig ko sa halo-halo.” (I got into trouble because of my fondness for halo-halo) At 21, she was being teased about being still unmarried. “Eh, wala akong naibigang lalaki at wala namang naibig sa akin,” she said. Her friends pointed to a man in a store and dared her if she could make him like her. She looked at the young man and found him handsome. So, she agreed to a bet. She must treat them with halo-halo if she failed. Choleng walked up to the man and told him right away that she and her friends were on a bet. She asked him to act as if he was taken by her. So, in the following days, the young man became her companion. Her skeptical friends dared her again. If he was really your boyfriend, he must kiss you, they said. So, the plucky Choleng asked the man to kiss her. The incident created such commotion that led to their marriage.
Their peals of laughter burst now and then, bouncing among the branches and shaking more petals loose. The song “Kanlungan” filled the air and slowed down everything, becoming our soundtrack for the moment. In the heat of the afternoon, people stayed clear of the shore, which looked blissfully abandoned, and huddled in their rooms or in the shade. Noel Cabangon kept asking, “Pana-panahon ang pagkakataon. Maibabalik ba ang kahapon?” The tone dripped of nostalgia and punctuated by a tinge of regret.
But these grandmas seemed to have no regrets. And yes, yesterday can be brought back. Under the flame-tasseled royal poinciana in the heat of the summer mellowed by breeze, the grandmas narrated their pasts, recreating them. And in Matabungkay, people were trying to bring back the glory days of the beach, some perhaps with their memories becoming source and inspiration for making things happen.
Many things are renewable, including memory. As time shriveled petal by falling petal, my memory sprouted new ones, bright and burning.
Published in The Daily Tribune, 18 May 2004