Having fun
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 21, 2014 - 12:00am

At least 3,000 people climbed Mt. Apo, the country’s highest peak, during the Holy Week break, according to Davao officials.

Thousands more trekked to other mountain peaks and millions surely visited other travel destinations across our archipelago.

Yesterday, radio stations reported heavy traffic along all three roads leading to Baguio City as people returned home from the summer capital.

At the North Luzon Expressway, southbound traffic crawled starting at the Bocaue exit as early as Saturday afternoon. It was the same at the northbound exit of the South Luzon Expressway.

Traffic volume is expected to remain heavy in the coming weekends, although not as bad as during the Holy Week break, as people enjoy the summer, the peak season for tourism. Certain industry players are pondering the impact of moving the academic calendar and keeping students in school during the best time for taking a long vacation. If August becomes the start of the school year for all, there will still be a Holy Week break, but the rest of the summer will be a question mark when it comes to local travel.

Few people are going to climb mountain peaks during the rainy months of June to August. The lahar-covered slopes of Mt. Pinatubo are off-limits to hikers during monsoon season.

Students won’t be home to enjoy their town fiestas in May; they will be having final exams. Whale sharks stay away during the typhoon months. The winding mountain roads of the Cordilleras also become dangerously slippery, with a high risk of landslides and dense fog. The rapids of Pagsanjan can become dangerous.

It speaks volumes about the state of Philippine education that we are adjusting to other countries’ academic calendars rather than the other way around. So far, only a few of the universities have moved their academic calendar to adjust to regional schedules. But these are the biggest universities, with branches across the country.

Students in these schools, including many of the iskolar ng bayan of the University of the Philippines, can afford to enjoy their annual school break in countries where it’s summer during our monsoon months of June and July, the new vacation period. But next year it could mean lost business for the local tourism industry.

To make up for the potential loss, more effort is needed to lure foreign visitors to enjoy the Philippine summer.

*      *      *

It shouldn’t prove too hard, especially with the prospect of direct flights to Europe and more US cities after the country’s Category 1 aviation safety status was restored.

We have enough attractions plus natural TLC to lure more tourists and give them a truly fun and memorable experience.

On Maundy Thursday I revisited one of my favorite destinations, Talisay in Batangas. Holy Week traffic in Tagaytay was as usual horrid, but I was pleased to see that Talisay’s top resort has expanded.

Club Balai Isabel started only in 2006, originally as a project to build a Filipiniana museum and library. Today the museum remains an idea, but the resort promotes local culture and Taal Lake lore, with 70 percent of the property reserved for indigenous trees led by the eponymous talisay.

From three hectares and seven employees, the resort now sprawls across 12 hectares and employs 200. A 2.6-hectare plot acquired from Meralco in 2009 is now a site for barrio picnics complete with a lechon pit large enough to roast a cow, and a conference area with rattan ceiling and chandeliers with the posts recycled from Meralco lampposts.

Resort president and CEO Nelson Terrible (yes, that’s his surname) has added a chapel to his property, designed like old Spanish churches and featuring an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that he brought home from a visit to Mexico City.

The main table at the altar of the Espousal of Jesus and Mary Chapel is a single massive block of heavy ironwood, harder than steel, which sits on top of a volcanic boulder found near the site.

Beside the chapel is a digging area showing a wall and a roof. The National Historical Commission is verifying whether these are the ruins of a church that was buried when Taal Volcano erupted in 1754.

Local lore has it that Taal Lake used to have sharks, either because they swam in from Batangas Bay through the Pansipit River or because the lake used to be part of the sea. Today the river is so heavily silted it prevents even talakitok from entering the lake from the sea to spawn. When talakitok enters Taal, it feeds on the algae unique to the lake with its volcanic bed and becomes the more succulent maliputo, now an endangered Batangas delicacy.

Locals say the lake populations of banak and ayungin have also dropped drastically. The suspected culprit is the janitor fish, reportedly introduced by foreign fish pen operators to clean up the pen beds, but which eat all types of fingerlings.

The number of fish pens are down from a high of 20,000 to 6,000, but the unique lake ecosystem remains threatened like that of Lake Buhi in Camarines Sur, home of the endangered sinarapan, the world’s smallest commercially harvested fish.

Slowly replacing the missing species in Taal Lake is the scrumptious red tilapia (kingfish in restaurants), which can weigh up to three kilos. Tilapia, however, eats smaller fish and needs proper cages.

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For tourism, preserving the environment is good business. Communities that have benefited from whale shark visits are aware of this. Palawan has known this for a long time.

Knowledge of local lore also helps. Nelson Terrible regales guests with the myths of Taal Lake, such as the headless priest that haunts the site of the buried church, and the history of Talisay. Did you know that Talisay’s original name was Kumintang?

His stories include more recent trivia: Talisay is a sister city of Slovakia; Russians, who come to the Philippines for faith healing, like lambanog and call it coconut vodka.

Such stories enhance the unique setting and service in Balai Isabel, making it popular not only among Russians and other foreigners but also among balikbayans and local visitors who hold weddings and conferences there.

Last year Balai Isabel, named after Nelson’s 29-year-old only child, was the venue for about 200 weddings, with 35 of them in December alone.

Such events are not dependent on school schedules. The new school calendar might affect tourism, but there are alternatives for drumming up business. You can have fun in this country all year round.


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