BACACAY, Albay -- The main road from the Cagraray Island port to Barangay Cabasan here was beautifully lined with mats, the leaves still green, some with neon strips of yellow, pink and green.
Like central Luzon highways lined with yellow corn or palay, the unpaved road is like a long aisle adorned with colorful mats up to an altar. Or as a visitor would think, there was a red-carpet welcome when journalists visit the rural areas. Some passers-by just step on the mats, while most find the little spaces in between mats to step on.
It was a very humid morning and soon dark clouds covered the sun after lunch that the women rushed to gather the mats and the raw leaves, some colored, rolled into a circular thing that resembles a hot pad.
Mat-weavers, mostly women and girls, are hoping for fine weather to stay longer to enable them to gather and dry wild palm leaves to eventually weave into mats.
Best in summer
With unusually long dry spell this year, business appears brisk for the local para-banig (mat-weavers).
"Our trade depends heavily on the volume of tourists coming to see the Mayon Volcano," said Christine, 28 and mother of two. She and most women and girls in Barangay Cabasan and neighboring Napao in Cagraray Island make one or two mats a day depending on the volume of house chores they could forego.
The majestic Mayon Volcano in Albay is the major tourist attraction in Bicol region and whether it would show up to visitors or not, depends largely on the weather.
"Siyempre 'pag tag-ulan, kaunti lang ang bisita kaya 'di kami nakabebenta nang marami," (Less tourists arrive during the rainy season so we do not make brisk business) another mat-weaver said.
Besides, the raw material for banig has to be dried under the sun before this is further processed for weaving. The finished banig also needs a one-day drying before it is brought to stall-owners in Tabaco, Albay.
Learning to weave early
Like Christine, Sheryl, her cousin, says she learned how to weave when she was a little girl and made her first mat while still in grade school. She is now in her late 20's and is starting to teach her eldest daughter the art of mat-weaving. Her own mother taught her the craft.
"Children learn by watching and later by doing it little by little," she narrates her own experience at teaching her daughter.
According to the Cabasan women, they engage in weaving in between their house chores, Because most of them are young mothers of two to five children, they only attend to mat-weaving when the school-aged children are off to school and if the smaller tots are asleep.
Karagumoy, a palm grass resembling a pineapple plant, abound in the hills, not so far from Barangay Cabasan. The supply of karagumoy comes from the forest also in Cagraray Island and the women have to travel on foot to get their supply. They and either their espouses or grown-up children gather the leaves, de-thorn and haul these home where these are dried for about a day before passing these under a heavy coconut trunk to soften.
A first-time visitor to Cagraray Island will notice the ingenuity of the gadget and wonder what the long trunk is for. It could be very tedious for the new-comer to do the softening activity, pushing the round coconut log through the strips of karagumoy leaves some six to eight feet long.
These undergo dyeing by boiling the rolled leaves in "dyubos," a locally available coloring medium. These are further left to dry some more to extract the water.
After weaving, the mats are spread on the hot road before packing them for their final destination: Tabaco trading area near the port.
Making a living
One of the women brings the mats to Tabaco once a week. She either gives the other women an average of P20 for weaving for her a mat or buys the mats at a lesser price to allow for a modest markup. This is socially acceptable in Cagraray Island because to go to Tabaco, one pays P30 per trip, paying more depending on the volume of mats.
A mat commands P45 to P80 depending on the size, which is determined by its width measured based on the number of "feet." In Tabaco, the price starts at P75. In either Baclaran in Paranaque or Divisoria in Manila, the smallest mat is around P200.
"May apat at kalahating paa, anim at walo," (There is 4.5, six or eight) says Christine demonstrating by walking through the width of a single mat, measuring almost five with her petite foot as a unit of measure. These represent the single, double and queen-size beds.
Christine sells 50 to 60 mats to Tabaco per week. When she has more time, she goes to Camalig town "because the price of banig is higher there.
The mountains and forests of Cagraray Island still abound with karagumoy and the women parabanig are optimistic the supply for mat-weaving is far from dwindling.
As long as their environment remains friendly to the plant that gives them the raw material for banig, Cagraray women and their daughters will have a sustainable means to make a living.
The stretch of the trek from Cabasan to Napua reveals sites of areas where the plant grows, showing a steady supply of karagumoy. From time to time, meadows and roadsides are lined with the same bright green mats laced with neon green, yellow and pink.
Boys carrying rolled mats on their heads emerge from a row of houses into the soft slopes and hills. All of a sudden, the idyllic rural scene comes alive with people who create in the visitors from Manila a nostalgia for the banig.
Soon each of these Manila-bound women have folded banig on each of their heads while the women of Cagraray Island in Albay count their money without even going to the port area in Tabaco to sell their mats.
If anyone survives and is happy over the heat of the prolonged summer due to changes in climate, the Albay parabanig does. # Lyn V. Ramo