Handog ng Panagbenga sa Pamilya Baguio

AS YOUNG children we often have our own memories of taking strolls in Burnham Park just enjoying the chilly weather in a picnic with the family relishing boating at the lake, experiencing the bicycle rides, gobbling cotton candies, sipping hot choco and feasting on street food galore.

But Burnham Park was more than just that last February 10.

It relived a smorgasbord of childhood fantasies, complete with kite-flying, boat races, painting activities, fun games, street food, wholesome concerts and a spectacular fireworks display.

Veering away from the often crowded and snarled traffic scenes of the Panagbenga Festival’s double-feature, the Grand Street and Float Parades, the event transported old timers to the Baguio Flower Festival’s beginnings 18 years ago.

“It is our way of giving back to the Baguio community,” said Festival chairman Freddie Alquiros setting the tone as curtains were slowly unveiled ushering the family-oriented and fun-filled community activity called the Handog ng Panagbenga sa Pamilya Baguio.

Recalling those wonderful years close to two decades ago, back when the annual flower festival was still held inside Camp John Hay, memories of marching bands playing the Panagbenga Hymn composed by Saint Louis University’s Dean Macario Fronda ushered back nostalgic memories.

An 18-year Odyssey

Festival organizers, the dynamic duo of Alquiros together with his co-chairman Baguio Country Club general manager Anthony De Leon, admit that Panagbenga after 18 years of showcasing what this mountain resort offers, has not only grown as a local festivity but a regional festival that attracts millions of spectators yearly.

With the fully-booked hotels and lodging accommodations and crowds of gargantuan proportions flocking the Summer Capital especially on its highlights, organizers believe the Baguio community that hosted the annual floral festival through the years, should be given their own time to experience the activities.

Aptly, this year’s theme “A Blooming Odyssey” is but fitting as Alquiros claimed lessons of past missteps and controversies has led them to improve year after year.

In past festival offerings, the often jovial mood were marred by infighting among local politicians which split the festival into two, criticisms of poor street dancing and float participations, children participants drenched in rain are now memories of the past.

The over commercialization which critics have lambasted organizers through the years are experiences the duo want to forever erase in the Panagbenga experience, Alquiros said.

Alquiros claimed they are now aware that politics should be out if the annual festival. Other efforts to improve the annual flower spectacle include the entry of the Baguio Cultural Society in the street dancing competitions as well as in “balancing both the interests of the public and the festival sponsors.”

He said this balancing act is tough but he emphasized “they have to play the role of safeguarding the identity of the festival by blending both the traditional Cordillera inspired concepts and the flower theme with expectations from festival sponsors who have contributed much for the success of the activity.”

Challenges also come from sponsorships which they claimed plummeted through the years.

“Some of our major sponsors who have known our work stayed on with us through the years despite their own constraints as shown in their decreased financial support,” he said.

Both organizers claimed the budget coming from the city government and Representative Bernardo Vergara funds reaching P5 million are all allotted for prizes of different competitions. Other financial needs would be fulfilled by funds from sponsors and events organized by the BFFI such as Baguio Blooms and the Session Road in Bloom.

But he said there are still rooms for improvement especially on the Baguio Blooms (formerly Market Encounter) which for years have been criticized for subleasing violations and disorderliness in past festival installations. Both organizers pledged they will redesign the event emphasizing the landscaping component of the activity as the main attraction.

Nonetheless, all these setbacks are now long forgotten.

In past years, stage musicals such as Phantom at the Lake and other concerts “were organized for the local crowds” while there was a time when the lake bloomed of flowers during the annual fluvial float competitions.

Still organizers thought that more than just fulfilling the visual senses, it is apt to make the activity more experiential.

Last year, upon the insistence of Panagbenga founder and lawyer Damaso Bangaoet, the BFFI included the Handog ng Panagbenga sa Pamilya Baguio as a way of thanking the local community.

The first one conducted last year was coldly accepted with chilli cook fests and concerts but they continued on improving. He said patronage from the local crowd has increased this year more than double the crowd compared to last year.

A Country Fair in Baguio

In different hues and palettes, keeping up with the tradition of the Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, some 108 art enthusiasts trooped early morning to Melvin Jones football field to paint with their family members.

“It’s a family affair for us,” shared media man Andrew Pinero who now works for the Baguio Country Club who came with his family calling it “a fun-filled family bonding activity.”

Husband and wife tandem John Allan and Councilor Philian Weygan-Allan also joined the painting activity adding wholesome touches to Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom which the councilor claimed “depict the character of the city as a wholesome destination for families.”

Alquiros said the yearly painting contest have to be subsidized entirely by the BFFI as its previous sponsor for the activity backed out. “We don’t want wonderful traditions such as these from not happening we have to support it,” he said.

It was not indeed an ordinary day for Baguioites, who were delighted to see a country fair bringing them back to the Baguio carnival days, as three universities that has catapulted Baguio as an educational center, created creatively-designed theme booths complete with costume playing students facilitating wholesome games to the crowd.

Western themes were showcased at UC’s theme booth complete with ushers in cowboy garb as fun games of horseshoe throwing contests coupled with a Baguio cowboy and live horse exhibit.

University of Baguio, not to be outdone, showcased their culinary prowess with a modern theme with fun games complete with students ushering visitors in cosplaying attires.

SLU, meanwhile, kept it simple and traditional in a Cordillera-inspired theme booth with ushers clothed in native attire to live native pigs exhibit to boast and a Cordillera hut ready for picture taking activities.

The Baguio Country Club, meanwhile, sponsored the Kite-flying contests that brought back memories of a popular milk brand’s competition that for the past years have not staged a competition in the highlands.

Kites shaped as boats, squids, Egyptian pharaohs, snakes and dragons thrilled crowds who witness their take offs and landings. Reminiscent of the previous regatta competitions held at the Burnham Lake during the American period, boating concessionaires participated in friendly races in the newly rehabilitated lake.

But what probably the star of the day are Burnham Park’s street vendors.

For Joaquin Talleon, 42, a cotton candy vendor for 20 years now, the recent decision of BFFI to invite and accredit them to sell at the event grounds was a blessing in disguise. This resulted to additional income with the BFFI not charging them anything for selling at the event even providing them with Panagbenga aprons for free.

In flower adorned white tuxedo, Burnham park’s famous coffee and hot choco vendor. Carlito “Mr. Hot” Ruazol, 56, a former employee of the Hyatt Terraces and Manila Peninsula claimed their participation in the community activity is a “recognition from organizers that big businesses do not only profit in the flower festival but small entrepreneurs too.”

Alquiros believes this too.

He said the accreditation of some street vendors selling popcorn, hot choco and coffee, sweet corn, cotton candy among other popular park foods are part of the festival’s aim of being inclusive to small and big businesses alike.

During the afternoon, up until the night’s spectacular fireworks display, mash-ups of Filipino, classical, modern and Broadway hits performed by university students serenaded lovers, families in what people claim as an early Valentine treat.

With all these activities rolled-out in a whole day activity, the Handog ng Panagbenga sa Pamilya Baguio is but a microcosm of the entire Baguio Flower Festival’s 18-year journey from a simple community gathering to a formidable regional festival that it is today.

Organizers promised of improvements annually adding new strands into the tapestry of the Baguio Flower Festival for the whole world to see. (JM Agreda)


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