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The Weaver at the Ala Eh Festival

Over the weekend, I went to see the Trade Fair of the Ala Eh Festival in Batangas City. The visit turned out to be something of a disappointment. Perhaps, I should have gone at the start rather than at the end of a week of festivities. On the other hand, in last year’s festival in Tanauan City, the fair was as vibrant in the last day as it was in the first.

For starters, in Tanauan last year, the organisers closed off an entire avenue to accommodate the exhibitors’ booths. There was also so much more colour, which made examining the booths a discovery trek and such a joy.

In Batangas City, the booths were laid out flea market style on a parking lot. That was fine. What was not was that the booths were so much fewer than last year’s; and even these were not as elaborately adorned as the ones in Tanauan.

Selling ought to be one of the objectives of the fair; but definitely not the primary one. The entire festival, after all, is not only a tourist event but a celebration of culture.
I asked one booth attendant if there was still a contest for best-decorated booth among the participating cities and municipalities. There was, he told me; but the booths were judged on the first day. That explained why the setup was no more pleasing to the eye than a public market.

If I was disappointed, it was because the trip from Lipa was at least half an hour. I was regretting having come out, but there was something of a consolation at the booth of the Municipality of Ibaan. At last, I found something that I did not see in Tanauan last year.

At the Ibaan booth, there was an old woman weaving bed sheets using an old wooden loom. She must have been late seventies or eighties. She patiently moved the handle of the loom back and forth and the threads slowly fell into place as the textile started to take shape.

She even paused for a while and happily posed for me when she saw that my camera was pointed at her. I was taking a video, though; and when one of the booth keepers told her so, she returned to weaving her bed sheet.

From the booth keeper, I learned that it takes all of four hours to complete a bed sheet if the old woman worked continuously. She could finish three or four bed sheets in one day.

Each bed sheet sold for no more than 250 pesos. Believe me, that is a steal! A similarly-sized bed sheet being sold at the mall’s department store will go for at least a hundred pesos more.

I bought one although I had no real need for it. It was for the old woman patiently weaving her bed sheets who, once she returned to her work, became totally oblivious of everything else going on around her.

The money I paid was irrelevant. What the old woman was doing was an art, a craft; a dying one at that. Her art needed patrons; and I was happy to be one. Moreover, people here age need to be doing something with their hands and, more importantly, their minds; else they waste away.

Years ago, I watched another old woman patiently embroidering fine cloth for a barong tagalog. As she did so, she lamented that the younger generations of her hometown of Taal were no longer interested in the craft.

One day, artisans like her and the weaver at the Ibaan booth will die out without having passed on their skills to the young; not for lack of desire to do so but because of the lack of interest in the young.

The economics of production mean that machines can create more bed sheets and embroideries at an immeasurably more efficient rate; but these sheets will be lifeless commodities that were not created by the loving hands of an artist.

What a pity that at the Taal booth, where they – but of course – sold the world-famous Batangas fan-knife, the balisong, they could not have thought of taking along one of their artisans to demonstrate how the knives are made for the benefit of the visiting public.

Or, now that I come to think about it, somebody to embroider one of those intricate designs that once made the Taal-made barong tagalong so famous – unless all the old women who used to do these have passed on to the afterlife.

Perhaps, in the future, such demonstrations should be made obligatory for each exhibiting city and municipality – someone weaving fans from sugarcane rind at the Tuy booth; showing how to cook pinais na dilis the traditional way at the Batangas City booth; or how achara is made at the Calaca booth.

Selling ought to be one of the objectives of the fair; but definitely not the primary one. The entire festival, after all, is not only a tourist event but a celebration of culture.

That is why I took great joy from the weaver at the Ibaan booth. She represented a snippet of Batangas culture that one cannot otherwise ordinarily see; and made coming out from Lipa not such a waste of time, after all.

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