THE healed tears on her earlobes reminded me of a cock’s crest: soft to the touch but arresting to look at. They reminded me of little deaths, the kind I have to live through, to live with every day. Three nomongs dangled from her rugged ears. They were light and made dry little sounds once fondled.
She must have spent the whole morning on her farm behind the range, and was on her way home when she passed by a crowd gathering at the unfinished barangay hall—a structure with a concrete floor, tin roof, and pieces of metal sprouting like unsightly twigs of a dead tree. She still had her fuchsia brim hat on, secured by a blue strap under her chin. She looked as graceful and beautifully aged as her lmimot—a necklace in yellow, black, and red beads—that caressed her neck. She found our fascination with her fascinating. Three cameras were aimed at her—Alexa’s, Aldo’s, and mine. She broke into a toothless smile when Aldo showed her the photos. With mouth agape, Fayat Dalugan looked at her own face on the screen.
I was embarrassed of myself.
I was aware I saw her as someone organic, someone whose identity was both disappearing, yet necessary to the place. I saw her every moment as a piece, a hint of a story, the ruckus behind the stillness of the lakes, the lakes that made her place popular, the lakes that cannot be seen from Tasiman, a place an hour or so away from where the lake is. I was aware I dismissed the woman beside her, who smoothed and combed her oily hair, who wanted to be included in the selfie and be taken as interesting. Almost desperately.
My hunger for the authentic is as strong as the locals’ for the unfamiliar. Or perhaps my authentic and the local’s unfamiliar navigate on the same terrain guised under two different names. Like Fayat’s granddaughter’s. She who had escaped and wanted to prove to the outsiders that she succeeded in doing so.
I could see the hunger in her, the kind of hunger I have for her birthplace.
She looked a lot lighter than the rest; her hair—as stiff as it was rough to look at—was dyed the color of corn hair adorning the mature fat cornstalks on some hills on our way to Tasiman. Just like her grandmother, she wore a pair of dangling earrings like pieces of hanging thread, but hers were made of gold, the same kind my five-year-old niece had. She became our bridge across the little worlds within Lake Sebu: she could speak Tagalog, some of the people around us, especially the ones I wanted to talk to, could not understand any other language beside theirs.
She envied our fascination towards her grandma. And perhaps, she felt betrayed. Perhaps in the back of her mind, her stories were more interesting to tell.
She wanted to talk about the lives outside the mountains. She had been working in Manila and insisted she was here in Lake Sebu for a short vacation, that all of these—the language, the never-ending ranges, the seeming pastorality twinned by naivety—were just passing and should not be taken as integral parts of her life.
“Medyo. Mas malayo ang Lake Sebu,” I answered.
“Nakapunta na ako do’on,” she informed.
“Maganda ba doon?” I played interested.
“Oo, ang ganda. Ang dami naming nakitang artista.” I forced a smile, my lips pressed tightly together.
“Siya, anong taon na siya?” I asked, while looking at a skinny short-haired girl behind her grandmother. There was something odd about the girl’s hair. There were many baby hairs growing near the crown. Perhaps she had this weird habit of pulling out strands, like I do when stress bugs me. Fayat’s granddaughter asked the girl with a disinterested tone.
I wanted to know; she detested playing bridge.
After saying, “17. May asawa na siya,” she picked up where she had left, “Nakita ko si Angelica doon.” No matter how hard I tried to wheel the talk towards a different road, she would always go back to where she left off.
I found us funny: she who talked about Boracay; me who was interested in her grandmother; she who beamed about Manila, me who wanted to know how many girls at Tasiman married and got pregnant in their teens (there were at least four of them in the gathering)—a custom allowed by the tribal laws; she who force fed her life in Manila, into our conversation, me who snobbishly dismissed her capital stories as not as important.
Both of us were arrogant and naïve in some ways.
Since she could not understand the language around her, Fayat Dalugan stared at the nearby mountains—she must have been thinking about the earth she seeded with corn, waiting, hungry for January rain’s arrival.
A talisayon was slaughtered behind the makeshift school.
A local man removed the feathers of the slightly boiled, native young male chicken with the expertise of a father who has done this countless times on his kids’ birthdays.
The killing is always done behind the house, hidden, to spare everyone from the necessary death, from the brutality of slicing a chicken’s throat and letting the blood gush out. Behind him, a young man prepared a massive kaldero for the rice.
The preparation was for us. Outsiders, ironically, get the meal the locals rarely have.
“This was one of the many insurgents’ trails,” S pointed to the edge of the forest, on the right of the man who prepared our meals. Unlike the man, S looked so regal with his uniform and M16.
A thin cloud ascended and stilled over the ranges. The only sounds I could make out were the distanced silence and the noises inherent to gatherings: old women’s murmurs, kids’ shrills. Nearby, two young armies assayed the slope with lollipops in their mouths.
I wondered if our four escorts really entertained the possibility of an encounter. Or did they just oblige because we were the so-called media on assignment: the four of us—Aldo, Alex, Che-che, and I—were tasked to verify Nanay A’s works for the Indigenous People.
“Ang mga tao dito takot sa uniporme,” he said while accompanying us to a group of farmers planting corn by the nearby slope. I wonder which uniform he was talking about. Theirs? Or the other party’s? Or were the people here scared of the stereotypical message it conveyed regardless of the party represented: intimidation, authority, danger, fear?
“Narinig mo ’yong lalaki kanina? Sabi nya, ’salamat, NPA.’ Di niya sinabing ‘PNP.’” He was referring to the only man who joined the women farming by the slope.
S’s boots squeaked with every step he took. I just walked beside him, my steps as light, as silent, as my gaze fixed on the imposing mountains behind the ugly building.
I always find danger real, yet so overrated. I have not experienced danger too terrible that I can claim I have undergone something terrifying. The dangers I have seen involved some others’ lives, mostly framed by media’s trained eye. Every time I chance upon news from Mindanao, I find myself wondering what kind of life there is outside the chosen angle?
The only thing murdered on our trip was a talisayon whose soup always reminds me of cornfields, a centuries-old mango tree, and a duyan tied to a molave that has been long gone. Childhood.
I did not entertain death. My mind could only process the possibility of scrapes and punctures.
The dirt road to T’nuos doubled as a river. Constant floods drilled the roads. Concerned about my safety, the habal-habal driver kept on asking if I was all right, if I was scared, after all, the motorbike navigated through a narrow, slippery path as wide as an anaconda’s back I saw slithering on the NatGeo channel, after all I was a woman in a regal flowing pink skirt, after all I was a woman.
“Anad na ko,” I said. I trusted the drivers. The roads, in all their corrupt states, must be one of the few things they knew by heart, like a poem. They knew every pothole; they memorized every curve.
I’m used to navigating through these ill roads anywhere in the country, but haven’t accepted their very existence.
The road to T’Nuos was very telling. It tells the state of the elementary education kids get: rough and inconsistent. Inside the classroom, a nipa hut, whose wide windows’ thresholds were anchored at the bottom, Dunisa—a young volunteer teacher—taught the kids the English equivalent for greetings like hyu h’lafus.
T’Boli is the main medium of instruction, the language everyone can talk and understand. It is a language full of words trapped in the throat. The letter f’s wide use in northern Luzon and southern Mindanao languages must be one of the reasons of its inclusion in the current Filipino alphabet.
Armed with her own language, the confident Dunisa pointed to the words she wrote on the board and guided the kids in their pronunciation.
Far from her hometown, she stayed with a local family and went back home on weekends.
An hour or so later, after a class demonstrated especially for us, Aldo posted a photo on Facebook with the kids and Dunisa in her kgal nisif and suwat lmimot with this caption: Dunisa and some other volunteer teachers of the Indigenous People program in the area offer an inspiring insight into the true meaning of passion as they dedicate their lives to the upliftment of the lives of these tribesmen. Imagine, they only get paid P500 a month! Way below that of average school teachers – and they’re not even complaining. They’ve found real joy and satisfaction in their work.
They are not even complaining. They have found real joy and satisfaction with their work. How much of this was true. Dunisa was aware we were from the “media,” a term I distrust, mainly for its imperfections and limitations. She knew we were verifying the philanthropic works of a fellow teacher, someone she admired a lot. Oftentimes, her salary arrived late, a salary donated by a T’Boli councilor.
Did Dunisa talk about joy and satisfaction once she got back home with nothing but some dirty clothes?
ANGER is a language I understand well. A woman stormed in and out the meeting at the makeshift school. Angry, she punched the table and demanded for the promises of free shovels and hammers. It had been delayed for a month or so, she claimed. After venting out her grievances, she walked down the slope and resumed her job—to plant corn.
Interested, we followed her down. From a safe distance, the unfinished building looked exactly like what it was: ugly and incomplete.
The woman and her fellow parents bored a hole on the hill, dropped a single binhi—a corn seed—bored a hole again in the midst of the thriving camote vines, and dropped a seed again. Out from this seemingly random act came the corn’s uniform thickness growing on some hills.
The nearby slope was weedless, clean, the soil as dark as my hair. Only kaingin could achieve such an instant clearing. Nanay A said, the rainforest was gradually disappearing. The T’Bolis were pushed farther and farther away from their ancestral domain.
She pointed to the forest S and I looked at earlier.
“I’m convincing the T’Bolis to protect that.” She tugged my arm and brought me to a corner where we could see the forest. She looked straight into my eyes, her eyes mirrored the tone of her voice: desperate. Until now, I wondered why she sounded and looked so. Was it because she knew it was my task to write about her and her works, and I needed convincing? Was it because deep in her heart, she knew her single act of philanthropy would not really change much? Did she sense it: my wariness and doubtfulness of everything?
The land near the forest toiled by the T’Bolis was now owned by a lowlander—a word used for people, mostly Ilokanos, who made their home within the territories of the T’Bolis. The lot, the farmers warned us, also housed tungaw: the invisible blood-sucking monsters that could find their way to nether regions.
Here, the people knew what grew on their lands. Here, they felt what they could not see. Here, they asked what tribe you were from. Because they know what and who they are: T’Boli.
“Ikaw? Anong tribu ka?” was a question I did not see coming.
“Bisaya?” I answered with the certainty of doubt. If the woman pressed further, she would have found my lack of faith. It was too vague an answer.
Year after year, the T’Boli, the original settlers, were pushed farther to the highlands, away from their lakes. As of 1991, 68, 282 T’Bolis in Socckssargen were recorded in the National Museum census. It has been more than two decades.
“Ang iba kasi sa kanila, mangmang,” Nanay A said while crying. By mangmang she meant, too trusting, too kind to the point of gullibility.
Here, the people did not know the wealth of their land. Here, they accepted, as long as there was a place for them to be pushed, they would be fine. Here, they did not understand the idea of land titles.
But they knew the land was theirs. They knew.
It reached me through Facebook, a place too virtual, too intangible, too infinite compared to something so finite and final: death, her death.
It was raining hard outside, I remember, and the baby in the duyan—a blanket tied to the roof braces—was sound asleep; while the women’s hands in the weaving house were fully awake: pummeling the woven abaca, stitching a delicate design, rubbing the pummeled abaca with a seashell.
She arrived in her traditional costume, which she purposely wore for the visitors. We, the outsiders, wanted to see her that way: Lang Dulay, the dreamweaver. An illusion that her culture was not dying yet; that everything was all right, she was still wearing her tribe.
But of course, we knew what the real course was. She became a tourist attraction, someone visited by the outsiders, someone to have a selfie or a portrait with.
Some knew she was an icon without really fully knowing what she was an icon for, but facts like these are just a Google search away: President Fidel Ramos awarded her the Manlilikha ng Bayan in 1998.
She sat by the window, obviously old and tired, approachable for photos, yet seemingly detached. I hugged her like a kid and kissed her temple to make her feel I was interested in Lang Dulay, the woman, the mother, the grandmother, the dreamweaver. She giggled—a sign perhaps that the detachment, the wall between us had cracked.
Days after our visit, she was rushed to the hospital for a serious stroke and was admitted for 40 days. Showing no sign of recovery and with a mounting bill to think of, her family decided to bring her home, where she hung on for two more months before her body finally gave up on her.
Lake Sebu is one of the exotic destinations in the Philippines, said a blog entry I saw on Facebook. I wondered what was so exotic about Lake Sebu. I must ponder the word exotic here. The Lake Sebu I have read about online, the photos of Lake Sebu I saw online and the Lake Sebu I have experienced may have some resemblance, but in retrospect, they are not the same.
Nobody told me there were many resorts skirting around the lake already, mostly owned by lowlanders. Nobody told me the habal-habal drivers were slowly adapting the tourists’ rate: the P10 fare becoming P20.
I am wary. I am wary of words like exotic. But perhaps it takes tourism to preserve Lang Dulay’s culture. A friend said, the culture has been long dead, long before her death. None of the locals are doing the t’nalak for the sake of safekeeping. Everyone does it for money, perhaps to buy formula for the baby sleeping inside the showroom, next to his mom pummeling the rough fabric. It takes five women to finish the intricately designed t’nalak table runner. It takes them more than a month to complete one. The handwoven fabric is meant to be sold to us, the outsiders, who most of the time, do not really have a thousand pesos or two to spare for a table runner.
I bought a kala, blonso, and t’sing to assuage the guilt.
I lost the blonso. The t’sing, a spiral brass ring, was split into two. I wore the other half on my right thumb, the other missing. Or dead.
Egrets abandoned the coiling branches by the lake and took flight. An old man’s owong pained the stillness of the early morning water. The reflection of the massive tilapia sign was as still as the January sky. At the edge of the lake, the ranges were of two shades of light and softness: this is the Lake Sebu everyone had—serene, as serene as the pink lotus floating on the lake.
Before joining everyone for a tilapia-filled breakfast, I walked by the lake, once with Aldo to take photos of the lake skimmed by the fog and soft light. Once I crossed the dirt road alone and followed a small path to the lake on the left. I followed the shrill of happy voices and soon found the source: three girls jumped from the owong and splashed each other with the icy lake water. The water rippled, the pink lotus danced on the surface. A mother duck guided her brood to the other end of the lake.
If there was one thing I wished, it was that Lake Sebu never forgets to live—it is this very scene of innocence and simplicity.
I left the scene with the thought of the two young sisters who danced onuk to the tune of hagalong up in Tasiman. On the wall of the makeshift school, there was a poster providing a brief lesson on body parts: an arrow pointing to a blue eye and stated eye.
But the kids were oblivious to this: these little details I often see—the I who eyes, miseyes, overeyes things.
So, imitate they did a bird I did not know.
Dance. Dance. Their feet took tiny steps, never missing the beat. Taking the lead, the snotty-nosed older sister wearing a faded Barbie dress turned around and encouraged her shy younger sister to do the same.
So perhaps as long as these two young girls and many others celebrate their birds, their rivers, their lakes, their trees, everything will be fine. Perhaps. Perhaps.
Text and Photos by Jona Branzuela Bering
First appeared on Sun.Star Cebu | August 13, 2015 (Part 1) and August 20, 2015 (Part 2)