TINIAN-Things heated up on Tinian over the President's Day weekend as it hosted the 9th Annual Tinian Hot Pepper Festival at a more spacious venue, which organizers said might just be the new permanent site for the island's biggest event.
The festival was off to a hot start at the Kammer Beach during its opening ceremony Saturday noon, packing enough heat with the many activities lined up for spectators.
Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz said that he and Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Perry Tenorio and board chair Marian Aldan-Pierce went around the venue, talking to people to find out that they liked the new site.
Historically conducted at Tinian's Tachogna Beach, organizers decided to move the event to a new venue as the pavilions at the former site are in need of repair.
“We're really excited. I think we've finally found the right place for the Pika Festival,” Dela Cruz told Saipan Tribune.
The annual festival highlights the island's donni sali, a small but highly potent pepper that grows abundantly in the jungles of Tinian and has gained popularity within the community and internationally.
According to Dela Cruz, the donni sali is “very special” to the island, as the hot pepper has become a source employment and income for Tinian residents.
The two-day festival is made possible by the MVA, Tinian Mayor's Office, Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino, and the Tinian Municipal Council. Other event sponsors are IT&E, Marpac, Star Marianas, Fleming's, JC Café, and Senate President Jude Hofschneider.
Dela Cruz also acknowledged Norman Tenorio for providing ferry service using his Super Emerald vessel, which accommodated bikers and other Saipan residents who wanted to take part in the festivities.
Hundreds of visitors flew in from the neighboring islands of Saipan and Guam to take part in the festivities. This year's event also accommodated throngs of tourists from China and the U.S. mainland, even attracting the attention of Korean TV media.
“As always, we try to make it bigger and better so that we can continue bringing visitors and residents together,” said Dela Cruz.
Now on its 9th year, the festival featured traditional activities that focus on the island's products and aquatic surroundings.
For the first time, JC Café sponsored the “A Minute to Win It” Pikalicious Burger Eating Contest where contestants where challenged to chow down a flavorsome but fiery burger prepared with a sauce using the donni sali.
First placer Renato Esteban said he only joined the contest for fun. “It was spicy and I had a hard time swallowing the burger,” said Esteban, who has been on the island for 22 years.
Other winners were Michael Marshall, second place, and Tom Erickson, third place.
Another headliner was the hot pepper eating contest. For the female category, the winners were defending champion Tina Marie San Nicolas, who won for the third straight year, second placer Jamie San Nicolas, and third placer Dolores San Nicolas.
Tina San Nicolas said it was her mother-in-law, Karidat San Nicolas, who got her to start eating the hot pepper.
“Every time I eat, I just have to have the hot pepper,” she said. Her four children also have the same eating habit.
San Nicolas said she just tried to win her crown back. “I just love this festival and Tinian has the hottest, most blazing pepper in the CNMI!”
For the Dragon Boat Race event, Team Mayor clocked in at 6 minutes and 32 seconds, besting five other groups to win the speed contest.
“We made sure that we moved and paddled in a straight position,” said Mayor Dela Cruz.
Another group member, Frank Dela Cruz, said their victory was a collaborative effort. He said group members chanted ugan chunga so they will all paddle at the same time.
Winning second place in the boat race was Team JC Café and third place went to Team UDZZ.
Team JC Café's Jun Degamo said second place wasn't bad since they were able to demonstrate teamwork.
Another member, Jake Cruz, noted that the rough waters made it challenging for them to paddle consistently. “It was fun and enjoyable for all of us,” he added.
Meanwhile, Marciana Cruz topped the booth decoration contest with her island-inspired trimmings that consisted of the Tinian hot pepper, palm fronds, and the local tangerine. Cruz's brother, Ador Fronda, decorated the booth to make it more attractive to customers.
“I'm thankful that the judges were fair. We were really excited to participate in this festival. We're proud of Tinian because we have a peaceful and safe community here,” said Cruz, who arrived on island in 1985.
This mother of four said they will use the $150 prize money to celebrate.
The two-day festival, which was broadcast live over KKMP, also featured other contests and various performances from Cedrick the Magician, Saipan Music & Dance Studio, Marianas Blend, Tao Tao Taga Cultural Dance, Marianas Blend, St. Joseph's Catholic School on Tinian, Guam's Santa Rita senior citizens, Joe Sablan's one-man band, and award-winning violinist Zhen Yu Zu.
MVA Tinian's Vida Borja expressed her appreciation to all participants and guests as this year's event was their biggest crowd to date.
“This is a family-oriented event and our new venue is safe for our children. We all look forward to our 10th year celebration, which we will try to make even bigger and more fun,” said Borja.