The Oarswomen of Lake Pandin

IF Pagsanjan town in Laguna has its famous “bangkeros” or boatmen taming the river rapids for thrill-seeking tourists, a group of innovative rowers in a lake in San Pablo City not far away is luring the laid-back ones to try a leisurely pace.

Scrappy men are not behind the oars, but women possessed by an entrepreneurial spirit who are guiding bamboo rafts mounted with cottages for guests with gentle strokes around the quiet Lake Pandin.

“We now enjoy our work here,” Lina Salian, 53, said in Filipino. She gamely lifted her arm and flexed the muscles that have developed from four years of rowing guests around her home.

As they paddle, the women, mostly living along the banks, recount stories, share informative tidbits and even cook for the visitors. Numbering 16. they belong to the Samahan ng mga Maliliit na Mangingisda ng Lawa ng Pandin. And its women’s subsection.

For a fee of P180 each tour, the oarswomen bring guests around the 20.5-hectare Pandin, one of the city’s famous Seven Lakes. (The other lakes are Sampaloc, Bunot, Calibato, Yambo, Palakpakin and Mohicap.)

They provide entertainment trivia about the area, including one about how the prickly shrubbery surrounding the lake prevented the Japanese soldiers from conquering the Filipinos and forcing them to run away, yelling that even native plants were so tough.

Weekends are the busiest days. Sometimes, busloads of people would visit—a far cry from the secluded place it once was.

Roots of business

The women attribute their successful venture to Mandy Marino. “He helped us improve our lot,” Evelyn Monserratt, 42, said in Filipino..

Five years ago, Marino and a friend were scouring San Pablo for “beautiful places” and were quickly enthralled by Pandin’s peaceful ambience and beauty. “[My friend] … lamented that if left unguarded against exploitation, the lake will be in ruins within five years. We decided to set up a foundation with the preservation of Pandin Lake as its flagship project.”

But the project had some drastic implications, including the possible relocation of the lakeside dwellers. Marino slowly prepped them on their impending fate and began training them in alternative livelihoods such as soap-making.

This did not suit well with the farming-fishing community, however. They needed work that would bring them immediate returns.

“The most challenging part was to convince them [of] our sincerity,” Marino said. “Many organizations have come with offers to help, only to leave without accomplishing anything.”

After a year, the women came knocking on Marino’s door. They suggested that they raft visitors around Pandin.

“It was a great idea where the preservation of the lake’s beauty would have a direct impact on the community’s livelihood,” Marino said.

Foundation help

His foundation helped the women get a startup funding for their facilities and be entered in the Viaje del Sol, a tourist roadmap drawn by business establishments in Laguna and Quezon to promote the beauty of the countryside. It endorsed the lake to media, giving the Lake Pandin tour a much-needed exposure.

Despite the assistance, it was not an easy start. “Signs of greed started showing up. It took a few meetings but in the end they realized that they either work together or sink together,” Marino said.

Now, the business is steadily progressing. At first, the women paddled narrow rafts, about 2 feet wide. “As many people wanted to ride, we borrowed P10,000 for a bigger raft,” Monserratt said.

At present, five of the rafts are rented from the men in the community who belong to Lakbay Kalikasan, an educational tour group.

Salian and the rest of the women have even made adjustments to facilitate the tours. For one, they implement a strict life-vest-wearing policy for guests swimming in the 180-foot deep lake.

A “rope” system helps them navigate and steer faster. Ropes are tied in strategic areas across the lake and hand-propel the rafts during windy days.

Male tanods accompany the visitors on a separate raft to handle emergency situations.

Food services

The women have branched out into offering food services for the guests. “We cook the food ourselves,” Salian said.

The menu varies, but usually, they serve grilled tilapia, ensaladang pako, ginataang hipon, bananas and fresh buko. Salian said the group had even come out with a magazine featuring their recipes.

Seafood is even grilled right on the raft, using old coconut shells as charcoal.

Each of the women earn P100 to P300 per day, Salian said. And when they’re not paddling, they craft souvenirs, such as key chains, barrettes, cell phone holders and wallets that they sell to their clients.

Moreover, they do regular jobs, like washing clothes and working in the town proper.

The women are quick to point out that there are no feminist undertones in the tour package. The business arose from necessity, said Feliciano Arinda, 51, president of the Samahan.

Paddling for guests gives them extra income, while their husbands tend to the fields or do other work.

Division of labor

The men and women of Lake Pandin have even devised a division of labor. The men, who are part of Lakbay Kalikasan, handle the large student educational tours, while the women take care of the tourists.

“At home, we alternate in doing the chores,” Arinda said. His wife, Sion, belongs to the women’s group.

Right now, about 20 households are benefiting from the women’s project.

Marino remains as guest coordinator, Monserratt said. However, the benefactor said he was preparing the women to handle everything by themselves. He shows confidence in their abilities.

“These are really nice people, who laugh easily and enjoy their work. Their friendliness is so catching that it does not take long for tourists to let their guard down and comfortably interact with [them],” he said.

Angelo Taruc, 22, was amazed after spending an afternoon in Pandin. “I’m glad and amazed that the community is able to survive and thrive by themselves—and through a creative way at that.”

Another tourist, Riza Milante, 20, finds the women admirable. “It’s good that they recognize the benefit of safekeeping the environment,” she said. “It also shows that they are self-reliant and that they look for ways to continuously improve.”

“The women are taking an active role in making a substantial contribution to the livelihood of the community,” Taruc said.

For inquiries or reservations, please contact Mandy Marino at (0917) 501-6694. Lunch is preordered for an additional P180 per head.