TAGUIG CITY, Metro Manila – The city was in a festive mood. Drums, trumpets, and lyre played island beats for hours, only taking a pause to switch musicians.This scene is way off the presumed grid patterned concrete blocks of the Bonifacio Global City. We were on the side of Taguig City that people barely know about. Both banks of the river where highlighted with bamboo poles, flagged with red or pink colors. Boats of all shapes, sizes and worthiness gathered at the foot of the Santa Anna bridge connecting Barangays Bambang and Sta Ana. This was the staging point for the pagoda. The procession starts from the more than 400 year old Church of Santa Anna then proceeds east towards the mouth of the river adjacent to Laguna de Bay; then back tracks as far as until the boats could no longer pass due to the mud, garbage, and low water line. Hundreds of people every year, especially for the parishioners of St. Anne celebrate the river festival or fiesta on July 26.

The Pagoda of Give and Take

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All geared up for the Santol Battle ahead.

Like other fiestas in the archipelago, this river festival was supposedly adapted from indigenous religious beliefs of the ancient Tagalogs (Taga Ilog or People of the River). I couldn’t find any verifiable source as to the origin of this belief. But if I could imagine as to how the ancients invented this celebration it would probably be based on the the tale of a long extinct fish that used to dominate the river called the Banak. It was said that the ancestors believed the abundance of their fish catch depended on the generosity and benevolence of the river spirits and gods. Gaining favor from these supernatural beings required offerings of fruit or other valuable goods by throwing them into the water. This probably preceded the modern day version of throwing or passing fruit, chocolates, bottled drinks, slippers, and other edible goods to revelers between boats and onshore. Sometimes it looked like a bronze age naval battle when dozens of Santol (the favorite choice for throwing) flies pass your head from all sides. One needs to be alert and swift to evade or catch these flying fists or else get a black eye or get splashed with polluted water in your face. Veteran participants of the fiesta are well prepared for these eventualities by wearing a hat, long sleeved shirt, face cover and a baseball glove or net. This was also a good day to practice your arm swing by testing the limits of your power and accuracy in throwing Santol. One could do this by throwing a Santol to someone standing on a balcony of his house at three floors high, 50 meters out. There were no written rules, only the essence of reciprocity. When someone gives you something, it is only becoming of a good neighbor to give something back in return. But most of the time, the people were more in a giving mood than in a taking one.

The Environmental Cost of Fiestas

The pagoda of at least 30 small boats reached Laguna de Bay after crossing the flood control gates. There at the mouth of the river, about 100 meters offshore; people encircle the platform where two priests sprinkle holy water to the devout. It was a frantic effort from each boat to get as close as possible to get at least a single drop of holy blessings for whatever cause or reason they believe in. Some people even jumped onto the lake as a gesture of successfully completing this leg of the journey. The water was chest deep for some people for a quick cool down from the intense afternoon heat. Then once everyone has received their fair share of heavenly blessings, as if on cue, the sky changed from bright blue to shades of grey. The water from the sky started dropping in small drips, then patches, until it poured a regular curtain of rain as the pagoda started heading back to port near the Santa Anna bridge. Meanwhile, one cannot remiss the environmental costs of such joyous celebration. In the first place, the state of the river was dead beforehand. And after this pronouncement of a shared tradition ended, one sees additional non biodegradable wastes floating and sinking on the river and lake. There is no disagreement that fiestas like this is good for community cohesion and welfare at least once a year, but this opportunity for collective action should have also considered the cost of human activities to nature. As Tagalogs or Taga Ilogs (People of the River) we should know better to care more for this system that nurtured our ancestors for many generations. Maybe next year, apart from the main fiesta there should be a participatory environmental program for citizens that teaches them how to be advocates and champions for waterfront development. The river may be dead, but it can still be resurrected as long as there are people who care enough to make miracles.

Somewhere in Laguna de Bay. Getting holy blessings from St. Anne's Parish Priests.
Somewhere in Laguna de Bay. Getting holy blessings from St. Anne’s Parish Priests.
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