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Friday, September 30, 2011

PEBA Conquers Al Laith!

"One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure." - William Feather

When quizzed where Al Laith can be found in Saudi Arabia, most expatriate workers especially Filipinos would pass for  the  next question convinced that some remnant from old civilization has finally been discovered from obscurity. Talking about obscurity, not too many information Google or Bing is able to dispense apart from a similar description that, yes, not a majority of Saudi residents both locals and expatriates know which part of the peninsula the town is located, and  its being a sleepy and dusty town 180 kilometers south of Jeddah.

Normally, going to places as quiet as Al Laith does not appeal to big city dwellers, hmm, unless you have suddenly developed a dislike for large shrimp and fish for which the town is known for. Compensating for the town's 'ghostly' attributes however, is the existence of the National Prawn Company - the pride of Al Laith and one of the largest prawn farms in the world. The sprawling company  alone, I heard, is a city within the city, and the invitation to visit the place couldn't come any better.

As planned originally, a group of PEBA bloggers from Jeddah along with TFC Mideast correspondent Charles Tabbu, will invade the place to witness and cover some sort of events I understand, that will take place Tuesday night under the auspices of NPC. If one wonders how did we get the invitation, well, the PEBA president Mr. Nereus Jethro Abad is one of the top managers at NPC and himself the program director of the said event. So there we go, with the media in tow, supposedly.

Always a formidable leader that he is and the most punctual too, PEBA founder Mr. Kenji Solis came at the meeting place the earliest, tagging along with him a protege and another potential talent in Mhel Mante, whose off day coincided with the trip. Pepe Cabrera and I just managed to skip from duties for this adventure. And along came Mr. Charles Tabbu in his best outfit,  sporting a bravado befitting a media man. But to some extent, the guy's entrance was far from being climactic. He had the trip cancelled the last hour because on the same night he flies to Riyadh on a company obligation. And who says we were disappointed?   Not at all, because it was not the end of the road for bloggers who wanted to be interviewed and get seen on TFC (thank Lord only those with Tagalog accent made the shortlist).

Not wanting to miss a perfect broadcast material, it didn't take long before Mr. Tabbu had the SACO parking lot converted into an instant workshop for broadcast journalism. Fifteen minutes later, the Jeddah bloggers were all but hesitant to banner their new-found profession as they  geared up for a shooting and interview mission . By then,  Mr. Tabbu was already stripped of his camera and other media paraphernalia, and oh yes,  his press ID has been turned over to some aspiring journalist too. It will be an understatement to say that our mission is nerve-wracking, not only because Mr. Tabbu wouldn't accept anything less than excellent, but because we were expected to be interviewing people in a broadcast quality setting. We didn't pretend anymore to have wanted to see him off to the airport because we wouldn't have much time left to rehearse our role to pull off our stunt convincingly. Indeed, to a novice, this was one heck of an assignment. 

If we could have dragged more with us, there was still room in the Nissan 4x4 that the NPC sent to fetch us, courtesy of Mr. Abad. Ibrahim the Sudanese driver jokingly warned us of everything Badu (Bedouin)  that would greet us there. He seemed to loosen up a bit understandably because the road is something else. We hit the road at around seven, though a little late. Just a tidbit how it's like negotiating a road to Al Laith (at nighttime) - the highway is a stretch of nothing but black, no sharp curves, except for ubiquitous road signs warning of "camels crossing", as though half of Saudi Arabia is inhabited by camels. If the driver ceased to be impressed by the lengthy drive, in which case hunger and/or sleepiness trumps virtue, the "distance to destination" road signs are as equally as ubiquitous to encourage him that the tape is  getting closer. The seemingly never ending stretch of excavation ironically helps motorists with its well-lit detour and arrow signs. 

Al Laith here we come! First off, it won't take much persuasion for one to agree that the adjectives appended to the place fit the scenery. If you're used to drive in Jeddah, you tend to obey traffic rules even in dead hour. But don't get terrified when upon entering the town, the traffic lights though working are constantly in red. There is no dereliction of duty insofar as traffic enforcers are concerned, in fact you'll find no one. It's just that the number of vehicles plying around town center are too scant to count let alone manage. Small roundabouts instead dot the street corners, perhaps their efficient way to manage traffic. 

During business hours most shops are conspicuously empty, save for a vendor or two. Seems like desolate lots forever await their tenants that never came. Most outlying streets don't  have streetlamps. I even joked that this similar setting is perfect dump site for salvage victims. And that's for some first impression folks. Wait till you hear first-hand accounts from Filipinos who swear to have loved their city. Truth be told, I didn't hear anyone of them complaining of homesickness, because the Filipino community especially at the NPC is a close-knit  family in itself, as shown in the level of camaraderie in the air.

At the venue, we heard that the program will be the closing ceremony of the Messengers of Peace and the Boy Scouts of Saudi Arabia Jamboree hosted by the town of Al Laith. But I'm not really sure as to my information, though I tried to grab one of the program brochures only to see it in full Arabic texts. The program was to be highlighted by a video and cultural presentation prepared by the Filipino talents of the NPC that sponsored the event. 

Even in Jeddah, I've never seen the over 400-year Philippine history portrayed in a single presentation. So that explains why a Rizal, a Lapu-Lapu and Marcos duplicates fight off for your attention at the dressing room. The distinctively Masskara outfits of Bacolod, the Ati-Atihan of Aklan,  the Tinikling and Igorot dancers were not to be denied of the spotlight if only for their creativity and colorful costumes.

Moments captured in sequential order:

History books say one of the earliest Philippine settlers are the Malays who drove out their Indonesian predecessors who earlier had the land's native black people or the Negritoes driven out to the mountains. To me, the settler with a spear dons a shoulder strap resembling a bullet cartridge, or perhaps it's time to brush up my history? Bad location and my grumbling midsection did not help my cause either.

Who doesn't know the story of Magellan and Lapu-Lapu in the battle of Mactan? These two guys try to overpower each other, although in the end the favored protagonist wins to the dismay of Magellan fans whose excellent swordplay is  no match to the muscular Cebuano. Got no idea if Magellan got the revenge backstage.

Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero in his most chinito version. The book he cuddles is enough for you not to mistake him for some Korean popstar our girls back home go gaga over.

Nope, they are not  Japanese soldiers aiming their rifles at the perceived 'traitors'. In fact they are Rizal's assassins and history says they are Spaniards. Too bad for Rizal, he fell flat to his back almost hitting the narrator.

Andres Bonifacio  is the face of the Katipunan. Though he was no threat to Rizal, yet his avid fans still pose a challenge to the latter's title. Manong acted out his role convincingly that sent chills up my spine. The Saudi audience also could be seen erupting in approval though you don't expect them to be googling what KKK really signifies.

It is a fact that Saudis are not Uncle Sam's biggest fans. Not until he takes center stage that drew immense cheers from the audience. The portrayal didn't come any better in an Obama-like swagger, neck arched high- an Obama signature, and yes the skin color complemented the trick. Just I got a little problem here, I thought FDR was the wartime president.

The face has some resemblance. The slightly over-sized barong did not matter as much. This is Ferdinand Marcos, arm poised to pull off a Hitler, I mean a Martial Law declaration, I guess. Yes, even without the table in his office and the dreaded 1081 in his hand, the Martial Law got declared. Later I learned Marcos is an Ilonggo. He  speaks just like me. 

The emergence of basketball as the most popular sport in the Philippines. These guys did a great job emulating Caloy Loyzaga's era when the country  once placed fifth at the Olympics. Except of course that when you play defence you don't smile a lot and trick the dribbler into glaring at your forehead when it emits some fierce light.

Arguably the most famous Filipino is Manny Pacquiao. Volumes have been said about this southpaw from Gensan, hence a real Filipino pride. He is immensely wealthy and famous. He graces magazine covers and rubs elbows with  Hollywood celebrities. Our protagonist above may be no match to the real Pacquiao, but he swears he will give the guy a run for his (Pacquiao's) money when they both belt out "Sometimes when we touch", of course diction is 50% of the criteria.

I'm still perplexed whether it's some sort of sticks made of rolled cardboard or real wood used in modern arnis. But what impresses me is their precision and grace. Even locals were transfixed at the spectacle. If one day they started to trade their sandals for an arnis in a fight, then we are convinced we left a legacy there. By the way, Mr. Abad how many off days you gave the guys to practice their stunt?

Can somebody tell me is this an Igorot tribe? I'm a little lost (read as dummy) when it comes to indigenous costumes. The dance though was gorgeous. The costumes rarely a staple in the nearest flea market, and that says a lot of the effort. I'm also convinced some moral police present had their orientation taken seriously, re some exposed skin/abs here are not to be taken either seriously .

A war dance. I thought the costumes and props were meticulously crafted, and that's where the audience's attention was drawn to. A tremendous amount of talent is what I see here. Making a shield and  cleaver duplicates ( I heard they're made of carton) could use up a week's time? The warrior prays that his cleaver doesn't break or he has a straw in his hair left for his arsenal.

This is what we call a Maglalatik dance, another hit to the audience. Latik in the southern part is always associated with coconut, hence the props. Our protagonists in yellow seem to be racing to outshine each other with each pulling off separate moves. Kuya in the center obviously is the leader/choreographer. "Please don't copy me", he says to the left. "Look I have made my bra into a choker!"

Another distinctly Filipino "Sayaw sa Bangko" or chair dance proved to be another showstopper.  I thought if Mang Pula is a lot heavier than Mang Azul, then there goes the show. This is the show's part when I prayed not one of them loses his balance and hits the floor. Overall the dance was fantastic as much as the skills  were superb.

Oh yes, this is almost the highlight. To say that the audience was mesmerized is simply an understatement. The skills, the steps, the beat, the synchronization all made up for a fodder for all eyes to get fixated to. That uniqueness I think gives Tinikling a more well-deserved status worthy to be called as national dance. 

The Ati-Atihan of Aklan is a festive and colorful street dance. It is almost as old as history. Ati refers to a person with black skin and kinky hair. Their features are more similar to the Aborigines and the locals of Papua New Guinea. They were thought to be the first inhabitants of Panay and Negros islands. Given the scant supply of charcoal in the KSA, our three protagonists had only their necks and faces painted black in a quasi dalmatian spoof minus the bark, but with a bite.

Move over Mardi Gras. The Masskara Festival is uniquely Negrense. Sounds familiar huh? I'd been watching this on the streets of Bacolod since I was a kid. Oh dear, it brings back a lot of memories. Thanks to these four guys who did justice well enough to the grandeur that is Masskara. Dazzling costumes, along with some abs, and oh yes some cleavage too can come in a package.

The entire cast appears onstage eliciting loud cheers from the audience. And who would not? The show did not disappoint. In fact I could have slipped through the rows and collected ten riyals from every one in attendance.

If there was one surreal and proudest moment we had, this was it - the Philippine National Anthem being played in front of a packed Saudi audience. I heard some choked up while the anthem is being played, I thought I was alone. I later heard myself from the video I recorded, belting out  as if I am in a trance. :-)

He is not kind of reciting some Boy Scout oath. This scout official demonstrates a profound respect to the Filipino flag while the Philippine National Anthem is being played. It was odd to see him the only one standing in the front row where dignitaries are seated. It took a while however, before others realized the faux pas and followed suit. Breach of protocol? No. It was a miscue for they heard the song for the first time other than theirs when Ittihad and Hilal lock horns in the pitch.

The dignitaries at the front row to their amazement at an all-Filipino male crew's ability  to put up with  lack of female counterparts, yet the moves still turn out to be graceful. If Saudis eventually decide to incorporate Hair Dance in their own all-male shows then we have a really big problem here. Blame it on some hip-swaying skills by the Filipino talents that drag some audience into confusion, but the talents certainly will not be denied of the rapturous response.

Hear ye, hear ye! This one could paint a thousand words! Might as well be entry material for this year's PEBA photo contest? Anyone?

Man of the Hour Pepe Cabrera steadies the lens as Engr. Ahmed Al Balla, Managing Director of the National prawn Company heaps his appreciation on Filipino talents and citing their great contribution to the company, in an interview.

Despite the unanimous hesitation to stay longer, we agreed to Mr. Khaled Al Aldali's invitation to experience their state-of-the-art digitarium, where we were basically treated to a barrage of shooting stars and celestial bodies that adorn the galaxy, live as shown from their own satellite. I don't know if I described it right. We were then ushered to  their own screening room (not quite inferior to that of Megamall's), and had a taste of 3D experience. That explains why we got dazed even more, this time starving stomach didn't take the blame.

PEBA people and Filipino managers at NPC pose with Mr. Khaled Al Aldali, NPC's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility. After the photo ops, the group headed straight to the restaurant where talents and volunteers had almost staged a rebellion in a fit of starvation. We feared Marcos, Magellan and Pacquiao could cause a melee as it was almost 12 midnight sans dinner.

The talents minus their costumes still manage to smile once confronted with a lens. This time PEBA founding chairman Mr. Kenji Solis initiated the trick that essentially calmed the starving souls down. Once served, 26 basins of kabsa got wolfed down mercilessly, with the sexy part (thighs) competing with chicken wings flying around oral cavities. I have to admit though, that was my best dinner in quite a while. 

Three and a half hours later we were safely back home. Thanks to our dear PEBA president Mr. Abad, for taking good care of us and credit also goes to Ibrahim who ferried us back to Jeddah safe and sound. My gratitude goes to God for His protection and provision, all the glory belongs to Him. Indeed, what an adventure it has been!

**pictures courtesy of Mhel Mante, the event's lensman whose stamina was truly unbelievable. Good job Mhel!


DonPepe1972 said...

I enjoyed our little adventure. I really enjoyed being a journalist, even just for a day. For a small sleepy town in the desert, Al Laith ROCKS!

Esoy said...

Bitin ba? Sayang, time did not allow us to visit the NPC prawn farm. If we came at daytime we could have enjoyed the scenery or the corniche.

Pinaywriter said...

Someday I think it would be cool to pick Mr. K's brain, doncha think so? I didn't get to do pichur pichur sa PEBA 2011 kasi my friend was sick and it was uber late. ^.^

Anyway this sounded like a cool adventure. ^.^

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