July 26, 2019
CHEESE ROLLS OR SUMAN?
“Cheese rolls?” I asked Kapitana. Why are you serving us cheese rolls? This was in August 2018 when Gina Lopez first made us meet the community in Tublay, Benguet. “That’s our OTOP (One Town, One Product)” Kapitana sheepishly says. In chorus, my partners and I exclaim: “You don’t have cheese here. Let’s look at your natural resources”, we tell them. Lo and behold, they had sweet potato, heirloom rice, and more.
Apparently, local culture dictates that when visitors come, the “best foot forward” would be to serve cheese rolls, coffee for mid-morning (merienda) snack then noodles and fried chicken for lunch. We sort of admonished them for serving us western food. They started to now think of their Ark of Taste produce like Tinawon or heirloom rice.
In February 2019, as we arrived, the community laid out boiled sweet potato (camote), boiled bananas, rice cakes (suman), and the famous Benguet Arabica coffee. Beautiful! Finally, no more cheese rolls and the community started to serve local fare. They started to be proud of their produce. Recipes for rice cakes soon came out and the community started to think local while thinking of how to entertain the tourists who have now heard of Tublay.
After two more visits last year and early this year, we again came up just last week to Tublay and we were surprised with the transformation. The village (through their Captain Apolonia, and her board members like Madam Nena Wasit) improved the barangay hall and transformed it into an alfresco café.
There were kind-hearted donors who gave them wood furniture sets which added to the warmth and ambiance of the veranda. The community members prepared for the coming of tourists like us and had coffee, sweet potato, and corn soup.
We were almost in tears as we were taken around by the group to see what they have done to their barangay hall—showing us the pretty chairs and tables, showing us their new “corner” office up in the second floor, and their clean washrooms. They are tourist-ready!
Imagine being able to do this in the most remote areas of the country. Many communities do not think that their local produce are best for visitors. They are shy and almost embarrassed to prepare local fares like sweet potatoes, peanuts, and boiled corn. But once they are told that their local food is really good, then they get empowered and confident to now prepare them and have tourists taste these.
They offered us a ‘soup’ in a bowl which turned out to be corn porridge. Our partner Reena suggested for them to dress it up with crushed peanut brittle sprinkled on top to suggest that it is a sweet meal rather than an expectation that it is a savory soup. And on we went to dress up and cut up the camote to make its presentation more appealing.
Simple innovations have made this community more confident. They also now sell souvenirs in their “honesty” store inside the hall to drum up more interest in Tublay, a fifth class municipality about 45 minutes from Baguio City. The local leaders—from the mayor to the village captains—have all embraced eco-tourism as a way out of poverty or low income. The agricultural chief has embraced Organic Farming as a differentiator for Tublay. As most people associate Benguet with upland vegetables, Municipal Agriculturist Jeffrey Sotero differentiated Tublay by making organic agriculture his priority. So, if you are thinking of “Baguio vegetables”, choose Tublay as its origin.
We are going back to train and teach them to make “lemons out of lemonade”, like making zucchini bread out of too much supply of zucchini; making bell pepper jam because of a bumper crop of bell pepper; and making sweet potato snacks in different forms, too.
Our partner Jeannie will start the tourist tracks while also training weavers under Josie Lauro, the mayor’s charming better half. I still hope I find more women in the coffee farms so we can do harvest tours this coming crop season.
So as we go about doing work through our ECHOsi Foundation (thanks to Gina Lopez and the University of Cordilleras for the support), we gain a lot of insights about culture and community. This Tublay transformation is one of our quick rewards. Ms. Onie Aguinalde of Project HELEN and the University of Cordilleras have been our partner in the hiking and discovering of Tublay’s treasures, some of which are very well hidden.
You, too, can transform a community into sustainable ones. Just give your share of what you already know and add the local vibe and voila! You may just find another gem as you do your CSR, your ministry, or community outreach. Just make sure they will be sustainable long after you have gone or moved on.
On August 9 at WOFEX in SMX, I will be presenting some stories about Tublay and similar examples at the Mountain Partnership and Slow Food forum called “A Taste of the Cordillera”. It starts at 2 pm and is open to the public.
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