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Published: December 31st 2008
After our introduction to the Ati people, the sellers in the Barter of Panay, we decided to trek through an area inhabited by the Bukidnon people, the alleged buyers. From the town of Maasim we took motorbikes to a small village on the edge of the mountains where the dirt track ended, degenerating into a path of sorts. We took our lunch surrounded by a crowd of onlookers before continuing on foot. After a three-hour walk we arrived at Trangka, a village of bamboo houses with corrugated iron rooves set on a hilltop with a spectacular view out over the foothills and lowlands stretching all the way to the sea. Staring out there I even fancied I could make out the dark outline of the island of Negros against the horizon.
In one of the only concrete buildings in Trangka, those two that make up the tiny school, we encountered a group of three young female teachers from Maasim, squashed like sardines into what they called an office but which would more accurately have been described as a cupboard.
"It's so hard here," one of them told us, "we have so few resources and so many of the children can't attend
lessons full-time because they have to help their parents work. Sometimes it takes them six years to complete one grade, sometimes they just don't complete it at all. I teach Grade One and it's one class with sixty five pupils aged between seven and thirteen who come from all the surrounding villages."
I shuddered at the thought. As an English teacher myself, I knew that even managing a private class with just two children of exactly the same age could be near-impossible and thoroughly maddening.
"There are much fewer pupils in the other Grades though," she continued, "because to go on to the next Grade they need to be able to read and they also have to have a birth certificate, which many of them don't."
Later we were invited to attend the wake of a child who had recently died. "What happened to him?" we asked Roli, our guide, who in turn asked the grandmother of the child.
"A spirit got into him," she replied. "One day he went fishing in the morning, everything was fine, but by evening he was dead."
Entering the house of the deceased's family we found it full of people, including the three teachers
who were sat around the coffin chanting Christian prayers.
"Someone has to stay up all night every night to protect the body from spirits," a family member told us through Roli. "Every night so far the neighbours have seen a giant fiireball flying past the house."
I went over and over this again in my mind. How could they possibly think they had seen a giant fireball? They were clearly very kind, spiritual people so were not lying. How did this type of mental distortion of reality work? Did they see a shooting star which their belief in the spirits transformed into a blazing ball of fire in their mind's eye? Then, looking out for another one the next night, were they so afraid that even the smallest firefly or distant airplane could be imagined into being the fireball returning? I am not criticising these people for their beliefs or saying that they are due to a lack of education - belief in ghosts is a worldwide phenomenon - I am just trying to imagine how the mind can invent something like a giant fireball passing over your neighbour's house, and indeed if it actually can think up such a
thing. Perhaps something strange was going on there in Trangka; I remembered the words of a fellow we had met on Busuanga island in the Calamian Group: "Black magic and spirits, they can't hurt tourists because tourists don't believe in them. They can only get you if you believe in them."
After dinner we opened two bottles of Tanduay and for a while stayed up drinking with some villagers in the traditional Filipino way: everyone drinks from the same glass, one by one, and follows each shot of Tanduay with a drink of water. Afterwards we lay in our beds and fell asleep to the sounds of two teenage boys singing. "They're practicing courtship songs," Roli had told us. "If a man here wants to get married he has to woo the woman by singing to her. After that he has to perform a kind of ritual dancing machete fight called the Sinolog with her father. Maybe at the next village they can show us one."
The next day we walked for three more hours to the village of Inaman, stopping on the way to shower in a waterfall. The trail had been fairly easy, not too steep for
the most part and mainly just up hillsides and through fields with a final stretch along a dry river bed at the bottom of a small canyon. There was little in the way of forest, most of the interior of Panay having been logged long ago.
On arrival in Inaman we were taken straight to the house of Reuben, a friend of Roli's who he had met on his many previous treks in the area over the previous twenty years. We were greeted with smiles and handshakes all round and settled down to share some of our food with our hosts.
The questions began, using Roli as interpreter, with, "So are you two married?"
"Yes," we replied, not wanting to offend or confuse them by telling the truth.
"How long for?"
"Two years." We stated the approximate length of our relationship.
"Great! So how many children do you have?"
All the smiles faded and were replaced by looks of pity and concern.
"You should see our Babaylan," Reuben told us, referring to the local medecine man. "He can do a special massage to re-arrange Lizz's uterus."
We were rather shocked by this idea and had not yet thought of
a reply when another man piped up: "For the first two years after I got married we didn't have any children, so we saw the Babaylan. Since then my wife's got pregnant every year! We've got twelve children now!"
This was one massage we were definitely going to have to avoid.
"Can you tell them that in our culture it's not necessary to have so many children, in fact we don't actually want any?" Lizz asked Roli.
Roli did not translate to them, just telling us, "They won't understand that. In their culture you have to start having children as soon as you're married and you don't stop until you have ten or twelve. It's kind of like an investment - the more children you have, the more help you have with your work."
The conversation switched between us asking questions through Roli and Roli laughing and joking with them in their language. It was clear that he was very popular among them and his arrival with us was quite an event.
After a while, some of the people who had gathered at our arrival left to go back to their work. One man went to plough his rice fields
with his water buffalo. A young boy went underneath Reuben's house, which like all houses in the area was built on stilts to keep out rats and snakes, and began cutting abaca fibre to be made into mats. Four women stood outside the house preparing recently-harvested rice for the evening meal: a quantity of seeds was emptied into a circular hole in the middle of a large, smooth wooden block carved from a tree trunk before three women set about pounding it with huge wooden clubs. It was an enormous pestle and mortar, and one that seemed to require considerably more time energy than the ones used in pharmacies and chemistry labs back home. When this process was finished and the grains of rice were separated from their outer shells, the contents of the "mortar" were emptied into a kind of large abaca bowl and tossed over a foot into the air, all the grains and shells miraculously landing back on the bowl after each toss and, after several minutes of tossing, somehow separating from one another. Small, edible parts of the shells remained so that the rice was not entirely white as usual but a mixture of white and
Later in the afternoon, while we were lying down and trying to relax on the extremely hard and uncomfortable bamboo floor, the Babaylan, a man named Bukoy, entered and asked us if he could do anything to help. Someone had clearly been talking to him. We asked Roli to try to explain to him that we did not want any babies but that we would be happy to accept any other type of massage he wanted to give as we were very tired from the road.
Somehow, during my massage and the rubbing into my back of a strange oil from a Tanduay bottle full of plants and roots, the subject came up of the tribal war in a different area of Panay called Delacsaan that had forced us to cancel our trek in the area.
"What weapons do they use?" I asked.
"Just machetes and bows and arrows," Roli replied. A bit different from Mindanao where Muslim extremists have supplied them with high-powered machine guns.
"And why do they fight?"
"Usually its to do with blood feuds, vendettas, things started by silly little things like rude comments, you know, if someone says to someone else 'Hey, your wife
is sleeping with another man!' or something like that. It's such a shame though because the area is just so culturally rich. They even have certain girls who are made princesses at birth and kept in one room until they are twelve years old. They're not allowed out and they aren't allowed to see anyone other than their family, but there's a small hole in the wall of their room so that other people can look at them - it's because these princesses are the most expensive kind of wife, you know, white-skinned, small, innocent, so people often want to buy them. Anyway, the whole purpose of this is that they're taught various chants about the history, culture and legends of their people. They're the guardians of the culture of Delacsaan."
Damn that tribal war!
"What about here, do they ever have conflicts?"
The man who had twelve children thanks to the Babaylan's magic touch replied: "We used to but it all ended about twenty years ago. There were wars over land disputes and two families completely destroyed each other until there was only one girl left from both of them. She took over the land of both families and
that's how it all ended."
I did not think to ask at the time but presumably the girl must have killed the last remaining member of the other family.
In the evening of our second day in Inaman we were invited to watch the Babaylan perform an exorcism on a house in which everyone was sick. We waited for some time in the house as it grew dark and the family shared their food with us, everyone using the same plates and cutlery - no wonder the sickness had spread to everyone.
The Babaylan arrived several hours after dark had fallen and began preparing for the ritual. He explained that there were four main types of spirits, each with their own names. He could tell which type of spirit was plaguing someone by the nature of their illness: spots or a rash meant it was the spirit which had been angered when someone tripped over the place in which it resided - to cure the illness the person and the Babaylan would have to go back to the last place the victim had tripped up and make an offering; a headache indicated that the offering should be made somewhere
where the victim had been working; a serious illness meant the slaughter of a pig and an exorcism dance by the Babaylan. Today, the spirit was a sagamlahan; the family had paid two chickens to the Babaylan for its exorcism and provided another for the sacrifice.
The Babaylan began by using some green plants, bending them and tying them together to form crosses, the arms of which looped up and bent back to form circles. A number of black chicken's feathers was then added to the top of each of these before chicken's blood was wiped over it. The ground outside the house was then covered with huge leaves and the bizarre items, along with the sacrificed chicken, were laid out on them. The Babaylan then wondered around, muttering and chanting before declaring that the ritual was over. Although not quite as ritualistic and occult as I had hoped for, the ritual had still been interesting to see, particularly as it took place a two minute walk away from the village church, a bamboo building with a white sign above the door on which were written the words "Inaman Church".
The next morning we left Inaman to cheery goodbyes
from everyone and some rather bizarre advice: "When you're doing it, do it to the right if you want a boy and to the left if you want a girl!" Lizz told me that throughout our stay she thought that nobody had really got rid of the idea that we were a terribly unfortunate couple who could not have children, and that she had kept on receiving pitiful looks from people around us.
Today's walk was longer but more spectacular than the previous days. We walked for a few hours past tiny collections of houses and people working in the fields or carrying their rice back home in abaca baskets hung over their foreheads and hanging down over their backs. After around five hours we found ourselves on a very high ridge which offered a panoramic view in all directions.
"Behind us is Maasim municipality," Roli told us,"and that is Alimudiaan municipality." The word municipality is somewhat confusing because it sounds like it should be a town. In fact, in the Philippines, it actually just means something like an area centred around a town and encompassing many outlying barangays or villages. Anyway, there was definitely no town in the area
On the way to the starting point of the trek
This bridge still actually counts as "road"! After we had crossed the motorbikes followed us and picked us up on the other side!
ahead of us which Roli was pointing to. It was in fact a circular valley, surrounded on all sides by luscious green-sloped mountains which in many places had been cut into rice terraces and glowed with the almost dazzling emerald green of the rice crop. Rather worryingly, there was evidence of landslides everywhere - giant patches of brown that interrupted the green at not-so-irregular intervals, areas where the side of the mountain had simply given way. There was more than one visible landslide that had clearly destroyed a part of someones rice terraces, the consequences of which must be dire for families who are largely self-sufficient but rely on rice to keep them alive.
We descended into the valley and within an hour we had arrived at the village of Umingan. Still small and inaccessible by road, it was more modern than Inaman where the extent of technology's encroachment had been a radio and a toilet. Instead, on arrival in Umingan, after six hours walk through the wild mountains, we were greeted by loud techno music blasting from inside a bamboo hut.
"They have a tradition here," Roli told us after we had settled into the hut where we would
be sleeping for the night, "of these kind of singing debates. They do it especially when they have visitors from other villages, everyone just sings about recent events, problems, worries or just how they are feeling."
Over a period of a few hours a very large crowd gathered until about fifty people were sitting or standing outside our house. Several containers of Tuba were brought out and opened and a guitar was brought and passed to a thirty-something man who began to sing: "I wish death would come to me, because my wife is sleeping with another man! I do everything for you, I work so hard, why do you cheat on me?"
Another man took up the role of the wife and sang back at him, "Don't be stupid, it's all in your mind, I've always been faithful to you and I always will!"
"You see, they have no secrets here," Roli said to us, "especially after they've drunk more Tuba!"
I mentioned to Roli that the people here seemed to drink more Tuba than in Inaman, where at a maximum only one container had been drunk per day.
"Yes, he replied, they drink much more here because they
have more coconut trees to brew it from!"
A sixteen-year-old boy took the guitar and began to sing, "There's a girl I'm so in love with, I try so hard to please her and do everything I can but she doesn't talk or listen to me..."
And so the evening continued, with lots of laughter and merriment but surprisingly sad songs about people's lives. However, the more Tuba people drank the more light-hearted the songs became until they were more stories from other villages than personal problems. Late in the evening it all ended on a very silly note with a song that gradually built up to this final line: "There's a father chasing the mother chasing the child chasing the dog chasing the cat chasing the rat under my house!"
Before we went in to bed the Barangay Captain thanked us and told us that they were all very happy because we were the first foreignors any of them had ever met. He then asked us to tell someone about their situation - for the last twenty five years they had been plagued by the landslides we had seen evidence of during our trek. Sometimes they would destroy someone's
entire rice crop, leaving them and their family to survive of potatoes for half a year.
The next day, several hours further on, we came to the village of Dao in which the organisation Gawad Kalinga was sending occasional volunteers to help teach the villagers to read, write and do maths. They had also helped set up some emergency homes for anyone whose houses got destroyed by landslides. Here we were invited for lunch by the Barangay Captain who spoke basic but nearly incomprehensible English. He kept trying it out on me and looked crestfallen every time I had to get Roli to translate.
After lunch Roli came over and informed us that in this village there were several expert fighters of the Sinulog, the ritual machete fight dance that young men were required to perform with the father of their bride, and that they would be pleased to put on a show for us. Of course the atmosphere would be nothing like catching the real thing but what the hell, it would still be fun. We said that we would like to see the Sinulog and over the next hour or so quite a crowd gathered on the
village basketball court.
At last three pairs of men appeared, all carrying machetes inside their traditionalhand-made sheaths. They took their places, some music started up and suddenly they began to fight. And I do mean fight, not just dance. Each man held a machete in one hand and the sheath in the other and there was plenty of slashing, stabbing and rolling around on the ground. each one's machete always perfectly blocking the other's attack, occasionally becoming locked in a cross between their faces and through which they glared at one another.
"Wow," I said, "doesn't anyone ever get hurt?"
"Sometimes," Roli replied, "and they do go ahead with the marriage, but it's a bad sign. It means it will be an unhappy marriage."
"Poor couple!" I thought. Imagine having to be married with the knowledge that it was going to be an unhappy one!
The rest of the trek went by unremarkably, although at one village along the way we were invited in to someone's house to try a dish entirely new to us - sweet potato fried in sugar. We ate so much of it that we felt completely bloated afterwards and could barely continue the walk.
Overall I considered that the trek had been very successful. It had been different from all my previous treks through tribal territory in that we had hired an English-speaking guide in advance rather than just picking up a local on the way, which here would of course been less feasible because neither of us spoke good enough Tagalog to do so. I found the disadvantage of this arrangement had been that it had been harder to form personal relationships with the people we stayed with along the way. However, there had also been a great advantage; Roli had been a truly excellent guide with a strong love for the people and their culture, and had done his best in trying to introduce us to this culture, whether by interpreting all our many questions, finding out about the Babaylan's ritual in Inaman or organising the Sinulog in Dao. The end result was that we had found out less about our hosts as individuals but more about their traditional culture and spiritual beliefs than I had on my previous treks.
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