Saturday, January 29, 2011

Trip to Iloilo part 1

Ronilo Benadero, CFI on-island manager, goes to his home every January. Ron’s family has been in Barangay Lay-Ahan, one of 50 barangays of Pototan, for over 60 years. Pototan is in Iloilo Province on the island of Panay in the Visayas, which make up the central region of the Philippines. The biggest city on Panay is Iloilo. Got all that? Thus endeth your geography lesson for today. All nine children (eight sons following the firstborn daughter) were born there, and four of the now-grown men still live and farm the land. Ron invited us to visit during his vacation, which coincides with their annual barangay festival. We decided to do so this year.

Our flight to the Iloilo Airport left Manila at 5:15 Wednesday. A.M. In the morning! Who in their right mind schedules flights at that hour? With the rule that you are supposed to be in the airport two hours before a domestic flight, that meant that we needed to get up at 2:00. Of course we went right through the pre-flight check-in and security check, leaving us about an hour and a half to wait. The flight itself was one of the best we have ever been on, leaving and arriving early. Upon arrival we found a van driver who was willing to take us the half-hour drive to Pototan. We texted Ron, and he met us at the drop-off point. While we were waiting for Ron, we noticed that the local school buses were actually tricycles, motorcycles, and whatever else could haul as many children as possible. We all took a jammed-packed tricycle to Ron’s for breakfast, came back to Pototan to get a hostel room, and then went back to Ron’s for the rest of the day.

We were pleased to see Ron’s wife Marivel again, and his parents, who live next door in the family compound, seemed very happy to meet us. Over the course of the first day we met many of Ron’s relatives who live very nearby. There was a constant parade of ducks, turkeys, chickens, goats, and dogs. We went out back to see a catfish farm run by one of Ron’s brothers. Throughout the day, customers came to buy catfish. Ron’s father Pastor (name, not religious title), and mother Milagros, both close to 80, worked drying and bagging recently harvested rice. This area is sometimes called “The Rice Granary of the Visayas,” due to the many hectares of level land perfect for rice paddies. Later in the day other family members arrived, including one of Ron’s daughters. We ended the day by eating turkey adobo, and catfish soup.

The day before the festival, in this case Thursday, is mainly spent preparing food. This means butchering the pigs, turkeys, goats, etc., so that they can be ready for the big day. The men are very involved in the preparation of the various meats. Later in the day we stayed at Ron’s family complex, greeting visitors who travel from house to house. Filipino tradition ensures that there is plenty of food and drink to be shared with all visitors, and the Benaderos hold up their end of the responsibility. Ron has many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews, as well as many friends. The barangay captains’ president (head of the 50 barangay captains) stopped in for a visit. Ron’s brother Renan was recently re-elected Lay-Ahan barangay captain.

On Friday we waited for our friend Gilbert, who used to be one of the photographers on Corregidor. He has moved back to his home on Guimaras, and he and his wife run a small sari sari (convenience) store. When he arrived in Pototan we all got into the tricycle owned and driven by Jose “Kalbo” Benadero, one of Ron’s many cousins, and headed back to Ron’s, arriving before noon. (Kalbo is Filipino for bald. Ironically, Kalbo has lots of hair, contrary to Ron and many of Ron’s brothers and other cousins.)

We were immediately served about a half-dozen food choices. They included: lumpia (spring roll); valenciana (sticky rice with chopped pork liver and seasonings); estofado (fried pork with cooking banana, potato, and pineapple); pabu (Filipino for turkey – pabu-pabu sounds like gobble-gobble); dinoguan (pork blood with finely chopped inner organs, onion, garlic, ginger and other seasonings); sisig (pork organs, brains, and ears, well chopped and heavily spiced); lechon (young pig grilled by constantly turning on a bamboo spit over hot charcoal); and achara (a sweet-pickled salad made with shredded green papaya, carrots, and red bell pepper. This version included green beans; others we’ve eaten had raisins). Spellings and ingredients for these dishes vary by region and by what is available. We both think that Ilongo food, which shows strong influence from the hundreds of years under Spain, is the best Filipino food we’ve had the privilege to eat.

The weather was unseasonably cold. We had each packed one pair of blue jeans, “just in case.” As it turned out, we pretty much were in jeans the whole time. Due no doubt to man-made global warming, it has been so cold during January that the local freshwater fish, tilapia and bangus (milk fish) are lethargic, not wanting to eat or mate, and therefore having an effect on the fish supply. Gilbert says it got down to 15 Celsius in Guimaras, or 59 Fahrenheit. That is downright cold for this part of the world. While we were in Panay the skies were generally cloudy with occasional rain showers, and all unpaved roads became worse and worse each day with mud. Very appropriately, Kalbo was wearing a sweatshirt with a snowman on the front.

We never made it to the actual barangay festival. Starting around noon, we could easily hear the pounding of the sound system bass. We were still at Ron’s house, a good two miles away. Ron and Steve took a motorcycle ride to the basketball court where the music was pounding and where the dance was to be held, and Steve decided that the speakers, which would not have fit into a small boxcar, were just too loud for us to enjoy ourselves. We both have sensitive ears, and dislike loud noise. A few children were standing in front of the speakers holding their ears, and the bass notes literally were hitting Steve much like cannon fire at Civil War reenactments. Since we are also not much for late night activities, we bowed out as gracefully as possible. Our main objective had been met: spending time with Ron’s family and seeing this part of the country.

To be continued…

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