Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catanduanes learns to conquer waves

By Ephraim Aguilar
Baras, Catanduanes

MORE THAN A REMINDER OF THE ISLAND’S sheer submission to the world’s largest ocean, the strong waves that smash Puraran in Baras town in Catanduanes are every surfer’s dream.

Tagged as the “The Majestic,” the turbid waters of the coastal village are no longer whipped-up props of strong typhoons that frequent the province.

Most surfers say Puraran has the most powerful and challenging waves and deem it the “last stop” or the country’s ultimate surfing destination.

In the 1980s, a group of Australians discovered the surfing potential of Puraran, according to Allan Tanael, 28, one of the local surfers. By word-of-mouth, more visitors came, riding the waves by day and sleeping in the village’s public school at night in the absence of resorts.

Tanael says those who kept coming back decided to build a beach-front cottage on his grandparents’ land. His family’s Majestic Puraran Beach Resort now stands there.

Tanael learned surfing when he was 12 years old, simply by watching foreigners handle the furious waves. His only problem: he did not have any surfboard.

One day, to his delight, one of the foreign tourists gave him a surfboard while serving as their guide.

“If they like you, they would give you one. Sometimes, we would mend broken surfboards and reuse them because we could not afford one,” Tanael said.

An original Australian or Hawaiian short board costs P10,000 to P25,000, and a long board, P30,000 to P35,000.

Surfing may be a rich man’s sport for a rural Filipino, but it has gained popularity in this fifth-class municipality.

In 1997, emerging surfers from Baras and other towns formed the Catanduanes Surfing Association. (Tanael is now president of the group.)

The provincial government also held the island’s first surfing competition that year. This month, the Baras government held its first surfing and wall-climbing clinic. A hundred locals, mostly youths, signed up for free lessons.

During the event, the Department of Tourism in Bicol donated 20 fiberglass surfboards.

Joey Cuerdo, president of Power Play Events Management, which organized the four-day clinic, says the participants had been very receptive and enthusiastic. The clinic introduced not just surfing but other beach sports, like Frisbee and wall climbing.

“When rural folk come to the beach, all they usually want to do is sit down, chat or drink,” Cuerdo says. “They are not used to people inviting them to a game. Unless you approach them, they would simply gaze from a corner.”

“But you can see their interest because they would watch the game,” he adds.

Cuerdo says the clinic made the people aware of “sports in their backyard.”

“I would tell them they should be proud to be from Catanduanes, because they have the waves that only few places in the country have,” he says.

What sets “The Majestic” apart from others is the shape, Tanael says.

“During peak season, the waves would form a perfect tube. The waves are smooth and would break gently,” he says.

The Puraran wave is a “reef break,” the kind that breaks over a coral reef or a rocky seabed. It can be the most dangerous yet most rewarding for surfers seeking adventure.

The waves are as high as six feet in October, when the winds are strongest. It is also the annual schedule for the professional surfing competition in Baras.

Tanael says Puraran welcomes neophyte surfers who can try certain areas where the waves are not as high. During typhoons, the waves reach 10-15 feet, forcing residents to flee their homes for safe ground.

Cuerdo believes the challenging waves of Puraran can produce competitive surfers.

Surfing draws people of any race who feel being “cool,” Cuerdo says. “Surfer and cool ... there seems to be a parallelism. That would also explain why surfing brands are really popular. Surfing is cool.”

But Tanael says it has not yet reached a point when surfing is a career alternative. He teaches in a public elementary school.

Provincial tourism officer Carmel Garcia sees a brighter prospect for tourism, although, she said, more manpower, ample promotion, better facilities and private sector partnership are needed.

In Puraran, Majestic Beach Resort and Puting Baybay (White Sand) Beach Resort offer accommodations.

“At least the road network is far better now. Only few roads are left to be cemented,” Garcia said. Baras is a 90-minute drive from the capital town of Virac.

Virac can be reached directly by plane from Manila or a four-hour ferry ride from Tabaco City in Albay. Its airport hosts two airlines—Cebu Pacific and Zest Air. It has at least 11 hotels and inns.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dethroned beauty rejects condition for reinstatement

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—Lawyers of dethroned beauty queen Maria Venus Raj have asked the Binibining Pilipinas pageant organizers on Wednesday to reinstate Raj without any conditions and to clear her name of any wrongdoing.

Also, the reinstatement should not be done for humanitarian reasons, they added in a letter to Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) on Tuesday.

The BPCI announced on Sunday it was giving Raj a chance to reclaim the Binibining Pilipinas title provided that she obtained a valid passport. The pageant organizer also said it had reassessed Raj’s situation and was giving her the chance “for humanitarian reasons.”

The Bicolana beauty was dethroned on March 29 due to inconsistencies in her birth records. She explained that she was too poor to go to court to correct the inconsistencies—which were not of her doing in the first place.

No requirement

“A passport was never a requirement for joining, and even winning, the Bb. Pilipinas title … Accordingly, it should not be made a condition for her reinstatement,” lawyers Gigi Berberabe, Dickson Berberabe and Teodoro Pastrana said.

Raj found another ally in fellow Bicolano, Sen. Francis Escudero, who said the BPCI should reinstate her solely on the basis of her rightful claim to the crown.

Raj, in a statement sent to the Inquirer Wednesday morning, said she was grateful for the BPCI for the reconsideration but again asked the BPCI to clear her reputation.

“Galing man po ako sa isang mahirap na pamilya lamang, itinuro po sa akin ng aking ina na ang integridad at kredibilidad ng isang tao ay napakahalaga (Though I come from a poor family, my mother taught me the value of integrity and credibility),” Raj told the Inquirer.

She said the accusation of misrepresentation, which the BPCI had pointed to as the ground for her dethronement, tarnished her reputation and cast doubts on her right to the Bb. Pilipinas title.

Internet angels

Raj has attracted an increasing number of online supporters.

A published report (not in the Inquirer) which quoted an unnamed representative of the Araneta Group as saying Raj was “snubbing” pageant training sessions, drew immediate Internet flames.

On the Facebook fan page “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas Universe 2010,” netizens rushed to Raj’s defense: “Spare Venus from that black propaganda. Make peace, BPCI. Venus may have nothing in life but we are the angels helping her. She has her family and us. Take note of that,” said one post.

Raj, in her own response, said she was ready to join the training session as soon as she was reinstated. She also said she had spent time in her hometown Bato, Camarines Sur, to gather the documents needed for her passport application.

Online survey

Raj’s raging supporters have also put her on top of an online survey of Miss Universe candidates on the Spanish website

In a span of just one day, Raj, 21, a part-time model, jumped from number 26 to the top of the survey as of Wednesday noon with over 2,000 votes—overtaking 36 other Miss Universe candidates.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dethroned beauty to regain crown if she gets passport

By Armin Adina, Ephraim Aguilar
Philippine Daily Inquirer

DETHRONED BEAUTY QUEEN MARIA Venus Raj can keep her title that was taken from her less than a month after her coronation as the country’s official representative to the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

In a statement sent Saturday to the Inquirer, Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) said: “… After due deliberation, we have reassessed the situation pertaining to [Raj] and have decided, for humanitarian reasons, that if she is able to obtain a valid Philippine passport, we will reinstate her as Binibining Pilipinas-Universe.”

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who had sought an explanation for Raj’s dethronement, was very happy and thankful to the BPCI for reconsidering their decision.

Genny Marcial, corporate affairs and PR manager of Araneta Group, the parent organization of BPCI, said Raj would have until June to present a valid Philippine passport “because the Miss Universe pageant may be held in August.”

Word of Raj’s reinstatement spread quickly on the Internet. Online fans who had rushed to her defense were overjoyed and started blogging and uploading the good news on various social networking sites.

Joyce Burton-Titular, whose blogsite has been following Raj’s story since Day 1, said: “I honestly think it’s the grace of God working through all the bloggers, forums, Facebook community, and TV and newspaper coverage.”

Burton-Titular, herself a former beauty titlist, told the Inquirer that Rafa Delfin, director of the website for pageant aficionados,, had sent an appeal to the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) on Raj’s predicament.

On his Facebook fan page supporting Raj, Delfin said he forwarded the newspaper article about Venus’ humble roots to MUO president Paula Shugart, to which she replied: “After reading this article, this young woman definitely deserves her crown back.”

“They were all moved because they felt the humility and honesty of Venus. Her story of being raised on a farm, in a hut with no electricity, graduating cum laude and winning pageants is powerful. And she still goes home to that same hut today,” Burton-Titular said.

Prayers answered

On the Facebook fan page, “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” there were mixed reactions about the reinstatement. The page has nearly 4,000 fans.

“God sees the truth and hears our prayers. Cheer up Venus, smile and show the world how beautiful you are inside and out,” one of Raj’s supporters posted.

“Petitions were heard, our prayers were answered,” another fan wrote.

However, a number of bloggers and Facebook users continued to criticize the BPCI, the local franchise-holder of the Miss Universe pageant.

“I’m overjoyed that BPCI is giving Venus a chance … [But] why is obtaining a passport posed as a challenge to her? Shouldn’t they help her with it?” one fan posted.

One commented on Raj’s problem regarding her birth certificate.

“It’s the same story for many poor Filipinos applying for overseas work. When they apply for a passport, they discover discrepancies in their birth certificate,” another fan wrote.

This is usually what happens in rural areas where birth registration is entrusted to midwives, who could give the wrong information to the civil registrar.

“Such are the travails of the rural poor. But did these people commit misrepresentation? No. Were they persecuted by law? No. Their records were simply corrected,” another fan said.


The 21-year-old Raj won the Binibining-Pilipinas-Universe title last March 6. She romped away with the special awards Best in Long Gown and Best in Terno, and was voted by her fellow candidates as Miss Friendship.

But on March 29, BPCI stripped her of her title for inconsistencies in her birth records. The organization also proclaimed second runner-up Helen Nicolette Henson as her replacement.

BPCI told the Inquirer that Raj’s birth certificate stated that she was born in Bato, Camarines Sur, her father is a Catholic Filipino, and her parents are married.

However, it was learned that she was born in Doha, Qatar, her father is Indian and she was born out of wedlock.

BPCI said misrepresentation was the sole basis for stripping Raj of her title, and not citizenship or residency as in previous dethronement cases.

Raj disputed BPCI’s claims of misrepresentation. In television interviews, she said she never hid the truth. As early as November, during the screening for the pageant, she already told BPCI that she was born in Doha, Qatar, to an Indian father and a Filipino mother.

Raj said she did not have a hand in the filing of her birth certificate with the erroneous information. The inconsistency was a result of the delayed filing of her birth certificate.

Her aunt, Josephine Ramos, filed the document three years after she was born. Raj said her aunt did what she did to protect her family from embarrassment.

Raj said she only learned of the inconsistency when she was in high school and was applying for a scholarship. She added that it was poverty that prevented her from correcting her official birth records.

Prominent personalities expressed dismay—even outrage-when they learned of BPCI’s earlier decision. Among them were senator and vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda, Gabriela party-list representative and senatorial candidate Liza Maza, Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima and Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption Chair Dante Jimenez.

Raj, who graduated cum laude with a degree in Communication at Bicol University, will attempt to become the country’s third Miss Universe winner, after Gloria Diaz (1969) and Margie Moran (1973).

The last time the country placed in the pageant was in 1999 when Miriam Quiambao was proclaimed first runner-up to Botswana’s Mpule Kwelagobe. With a report from Rey Nasol, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Farm girl to get Bb. Pilipinas crown back if…

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 19:03:00 04/10/2010

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—After the public outrage on the dethronement of Maria Venus Raj as a Binibining Pilipinas titleholder and the country's representative to this year's Miss Universe, local pageant organizers announced her reinstatement on Saturday.

It came on the condition that Raj will first have to obtain a valid Philippine passport.

“The Executive Committee of Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) announces today that after due deliberation, it has reassessed the situation pertaining to Ms. Maria Venus Raj and has decided, for humanitarian reasons, that if she is able to obtain a valid Philippine passport, they will reinstate her as the reigning Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” said the statement, which was published in the Multiply account of Araneta Center.

No direct announcement had been made yet as of late Saturday but Bb. Pilipinas Universe 1985 Joyce Burton-Titular confirmed the BPCI statement in her blog

Burton-Titular said she was able to get confirmation of Raj’s reinstatement from BPCI’s public relations manager Genny Marcial.

The Adventures of a Beauty Queen blog has been persistently following Raj’s story from day one.

The BPCI committee members also said that though they were “sensitive of (Raj’s) situation, they are aware, too, of their responsibilities as an entity existing under Philippine law.”

“The BPCI, being an organization concerned not just with the quest for true Filipina Beauty, but more so, dedicated to the empowerment of women and the uplifting of the lives of marginalized Filipinos, has always considered the welfare of our candidates paramount,” the BPCI statement added.

Raj’s online supporters also expressed joy over BPCI’s decision.

On the Facebook fan page “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” there are mixed reactions to the reinstatement. The page has nearly 4,000 fans.

“God sees the truth and hears our prayers, cheer up Venus, smile and show the world how beautiful you are inside out,” read one message posted by a supporter.

“Petitions were heard, our prayers were answered, doors may have closed but reopening is not impossible. Our Lady of Peñafrancia, our Ina, is really good to her child, Venus. Urusad kami sadi Rinconada sa pagsuporta saimo (We are one here in the Rinconada district in our support for you)!” said another fan, apparently Raj’s kababayan.

Raj, 22, a cum laude journalism graduate of Bicol University, is from Barangay San Vicente in Bato, Camarines Sur.

Some people were not satisfied, however, particularly with respect to the passport condition.

“For some reason, I am not satisfied with this development. Why is BPCI passing the ball to Venus’ court? Could it be a delaying tactic, perhaps to pacify fans and sympathizers? Something smells fishy, but let us see. Please remain vigilant!” a fan said.

“I’m overjoyed by the news that BPCI is giving Venus a chance. Although they remain (expletive deleted) for me! Why is obtaining a passport posed as a challenge to her? Shouldn’t they help her with it?” one fan said.

Another said Raj’s dilemma with her birth certificate is the same story for many poor Filipinos applying for overseas work.

“Just when they are about to apply for a visa they discover discrepancies in their birth certificates,” the fan said.

He added that this was not surprising, especially in the rural areas where birth registration is usually being entrusted to the midwives, who may feed the wrong information.

“Such is just one of the travails of the rural poor. But did these people commit misrepresentation? No. Were they persecuted by law? No. Their records are simply corrected,” the fan added.

Albayanos are jubilant over Raj's reinstatement as winner of the title.

A retired government employee who is fond of praising Bicolana beauties was very happy to hear the development.

“She must have had a very good lawyer and she herself knows to defend her title,” Carmen Vicuña told the Inquirer over the phone. She added she was convinced that Raj was a very intelligent person because of the way the beauty queen answered media interviews.

The social network Facebook was flooded with supportive comments to Raj since she surfaced on the page and she told the Inquirer that she was thankful for the overwhelming support from her fellow Bicolanos.

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who sought an explanation for the dethronement of Raj, was very happy and thankful to the organizers for reconsidering the issue.

“Over the past three years, Albay has had a bountiful harvest of beauty trophies. Last year, Ms Melody Gersbach first won as Ms Magayon 2009 before becoming Binibining Pilipinas-International and was a semifinalist in China. Ms Necio was a runner up to Ms Gerbasch in Magayon,” Salceda said.

Another Albay beauty, Ms Jane Bañares, won as Mutya ng Pilipinas 2009 even after losing in Magayon but winning Ms Polangui.

With a report from Rey Nasol, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Friday, April 09, 2010

Page One Image 4/9/2010

Dethroned Bicol beauty queen fights for dream

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 02:35:00 04/09/2010

BATO, CAMARINES SUR—Streamers of congratulations still hang in Barangay San Vicente here for its instant celebrity-daughter, Maria Venus Raj, who would have represented the country in the Miss Universe pageant in August after winning the most coveted Binibining Pilipinas title.

But her reign had been cut short by organizers less than a month ago.

“My fight is now more than just chasing a dream. It is about clearing my soiled reputation. It is about standing up for people who are poor and born out of wedlock. It is a fight for acceptance,” Raj said in an interview at her house made of wood, bamboo and “anahaw” leaves.

She has been living in the house without electricity for 21 years.

Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) took back her crown when it discovered false information in her birth certificate—that she was born in San Vicente, Bato, Camarines Sur, when she and her mother said she was actually born in Doha, Qatar; that her father is a Catholic Filipino when, in fact, he is an Indian; and that her parents were married when they were actually not.

Mother is OFW

During the pre-pageant’s panel and individual interviews in November last year, Raj had said she was born in Qatar, where her mother, Ester Bayonito, had worked as a domestic helper from 1986 to 1988, and was brought to the Philippines a month later.

Raj has professed her innocence, saying she had nothing to do with the information her aunt put in the document when her birth was registered three years after. She discovered the inconsistency when she applied for a college scholarship at the Francis Papica Foundation, which had not been corrected until she was dethroned.

Raj said she and her mother had no idea that she would someday be joining a national beauty pageant and that they were not able to correct the errors in her birth certificate because this would entail extra expenses.

Local contests

The youngest in a brood of five children, Raj started joining local beauty pageants when she was 17 years old, as well as oratorical contests at San Vicente High School.

“Whenever I won, I would give the prize money to my mother, who saved it up to buy seeds for the planting season,” she said. Her mother, now 59, is a tenant farmer, dressmaker and “hilot” in their village.

“My dream, more than to be a beauty queen or a model, is to just really give my family a comfortable life,” said Raj, who graduated, cum laude, with a journalism degree at Bicol University.

Raj was Miss Bicolandia in 2007 and Miss Philippines-Ecotourism in the Miss Philippines Earth pageant in 2008. With her winnings, she started buying land on installment basis for her mother.

“We moved from one place to another … about four times. It was hard not to have your own place. When there were conflicts we were always forced to leave,” Raj said in Bicol.

Ma. Lourdes Pili, Raj’s English teacher at San Vicente High School, said she used to coach Raj for oratorical contests.

“What always amazed me about Venus was her determination to succeed. Whenever she joined contests, we would borrow uniform and shoes because hers were old and faded. But she was never discouraged,” Pili said.

Resign or be dethroned

In a press conference in Naga City on Wednesday, Raj recalled how hard she cried when she was told about the decision of BPCI officials to strip her of her title.

Her predicament, she said, started a day after she was crowned on March 6 when Stella Marquez de Araneta, pageant head, supposedly expressed shock when she learned that she was born in Doha.

Raj said she was given two options—resign or be dethroned.

She said she was coaxed to sign a letter of resignation and was advised not to talk about the reason for it to protect her and her family from “judgmental people who would belittle them because of her past.”

When she told the organizers that she could not just sign a document without the presence of a lawyer, they met again for several hours only to tell her that she would be dethroned, she said.

Raj’s replacement will be the contest’s second runner-up, Helen Nicolette Henson, as the first runner-up, Dianne Necio was only 17 years old then.

According to Miss Universe pageant rules, the winner of the title must be 18 years old.

Poor girls’ dreams

Anjo Santos, Raj’s talent manager and mentor, said he was shocked at the sudden decision of BPCI. “It killed the dreams of poor beautiful girls like her who came from poor families to pursue their ambitions to succeed.”

She was never given due process, he added.

Because of embarrassment over her dethronement less than a month after she was crowned and the fear of being the talk of the town, Raj and her mother would not go out of their house.

Raj’s name is now all over the blogosphere. Fan pages on the social networking site Facebook were created to petition her reinstatement as the “country’s rightful candidate in the Miss Universe pageant.”

Free legal support

Lawyer Francis Padua Papica, who sponsored Raj’s college education, and another counsel volunteered to defend her for free.

A netizen, who requested to be identified only as King and a student of Bicol University, said his fan page would average around 300 interactions a day and had more than a thousand members.

One of Raj’s friends, Christian Jay Millena, 21, of Daraga town in Albay, believes BPCI has not dealt with Raj’s case with tact and decency.

“Take note that the BPCI even failed to properly inform the public and even the persons concerned of the real issue why Venus was dethroned,” he said.

Even Dante Jimenez, chair of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and also a Bicolano, pledged his group’s full legal support during the press conference held at Avenue Plaza Hotel in Naga.

‘Handiwork of losers’

“I think this is the handiwork of losers who wanted to dethrone a legitimate winner,” Jimenez said.

Some 50 children from poor communities welcomed Raj with flowers to dramatize her roots and support from fellow Bicolanos. Before leaving, she told them not to give up on their dreams even though how poor they were.

“She is an inspiration to ordinary girls with beauty and brains who are just daughters of poor farmers or fisherfolk. She is a perfect inspiration to ordinary Filipinos who can tell the whole world that economic status is not a hindrance to fulfill a career using their God-given talent,” said Santos, Raj’s talent manager. With a report from Juan Escandor Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon