Philippine Island Times Adventures of an American expat in the Philippines

December 15, 2009

Aswang Attack

Filed under: General — Donald @ 11:53 am

One of my neighbors reported that two men were attacked by an aswang last week inside their home just a few kilometers from where I live. The aswang entered the house as a cat and then turned into a dog and attacked. Neighbors heard strange screams coming from the house, like those of a goat. They came to investigate and saw the aswang briefly take human form before becoming a bird and flying away. One victim is dead and the other is in the provincial hospital with lacerations to the shoulder area.

She says this is the first time she remembers hearing of anyone in San Juan dying from an aswang attack. Last year she witnessed an attack herself, but the victim was only a goat. On that occasion, late at night, she heard a goat screaming outside her house and went to find out what was wrong. With her flashlight she saw what appeared to be a dog attacking the goat and she fought the dog off with rocks. It was apparent that the attack had really been by an aswang because the goat had only a small puncture wound, but under the skin there was a large cavity. Aswangs normally bite and then suck the insides out of their victims. She also found a dead chicken with its guts eaten out. The meaty flesh was intact.

To ward off aswangs, she carries a bottle of herbal oil, touching a bit of it to her neck whenever she hears something suspicious. She also stuffs the many holes in the sides of her house with ginger and salt, so that an aswang’s tongue cannot slip through.

[This was hottest aswang story I’d come across so I put my neighbor in the truck and tried to track down the witnesses. Many people had heard the story, but in every neighborhood we checked, people said it happened in some other one. My neighbor friend was shamed that the story didn’t pan out. Very bad idea to bring her along for the investigation.]

Into the Mountains

Filed under: Mindanao — Donald @ 11:32 am

While I was in Mindanao I wanted to get a glimpse of life in the countryside. The Pentecostal pastor above, who had helped to organize our peace symposium, kindly offered to show me around. Bukidnon province is spectacular. Rich soil and lots of rain make it absolutely lush, and thanks to its remoteness, steep mountainsides, and the indigenous presence, even a bit of rain forest is intact. Lots of the vegetables and fruits we eat in Siquijor are imported from Bukidnon. So are lots of the Del Monte pineapples eaten all over the world.

A few hours by bus got us to Malaybalay, where we took a little break in the park.

We went on to the village of Bangcud by jeepney and a homemade trike.

I could live in Bangcud.

The Datu (tribal chieftain) of the Higaonon tribe was away but we spoke for a couple of hours with his wife and others at their community center, noted on the banner below to be the “Office of the Integrated White Tape Bolo Batallion”. Their paramilitary goes by that name because its primary weapon is a bolo (machete) with white tape wrapped around the handle.

The Datu’s wife is strong, smart, and charming. She explained that the tribe is large and scattered around much of the island. In fact, as she sees it, the entire island belongs to them. I told her I had spoken with many groups, some of them Muslim, who claimed parts of the island as their ancestral domain, and asked her what could be done about that. She explained that long ago their chieftain and the Muslim chieftain met together and resolved the issue. Each placed a pile of rocks on the ground. The Higaonon pile began to grow and the Muslim pile did not, so both agreed that the island belonged to the Higaonon alone.

Her part of the tribe is centered in the mountains a few hours walk from Bangcud. Men there hunt and women grow crops and forage. Many have now come to the village in search of a better life, but it is still difficult.

She said that what the tribe needs most is a school.

We talked a lot about the magical powers of herbs, a huge magnetic and radioactive tree that transmits power by sending out particles that you can see and feel, and the special potency of snake oil.

I’ m invited back for a gathering of her tribe and six others on Christmas day. One of their celebratory drinks is wine infused with the body of a Philippine cobra. They promise me a taste.

We had dinner that night with one of the Pentecostal families. The man of the house was in the army hand had recently been shot. Sitting by his open casket in their living room, trying to explain borderline personality disorder to the pastor while we were surrounded by men wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying Armalites, was one of my stranger life experiences. We spent the night with another family in his flock.

I slept oddly well.

December 8, 2009

War and Peace

Filed under: Mindanao — Donald @ 9:48 am

I see the large island of Mindanao every time I walk the beach. Close as it is, and even though most people there speak roughly the same Visayan dialect as my neighbors do, iit’s a very different place. Our little island is soft and warm, and life on the coast is easy-going. Siquijodnons smile a lot. Even at a distance, Mindanao strikes me as hard and imposing. It mountains tower over the sea and lightning often flashes there at night. As our little prop plane made its descent into Cagayan de Oro on the north coast a couple of weeks ago, we passed very near the neighboring island of Camiguin, which supposedly has the highest concentration of active volcanoes in the world. The place just reeks power.

I was going back to Mindanao to speak at a peace symposium. The island hasn’t seen lasting peace since the Spanish tried to colonize it a few centuries ago. They were never entirely successful. Neither were the Americans or Japanese, or the many Philippine administrations which sent waves of settlers there from other parts of the country beginning in the 1930s. The indigenous tribes that have been in Mindanao for thousands of years and the Muslim communities that established themselves centuries before the Spanish arrival continue to claim their ancestral lands. The Muslims have been insistent about it. Their resistance took its contemporary shape in the 1970s with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Several years of heavy fighting left about 100,000 dead and a million refugees. The Marcos dictatorship eventually made an uneasy settlement with the MNLF, and in succeeding years, MNLF forces have been more-or-less integrated into those of the nation. Other Muslim factions, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf, have not come along peaceably.

The MNLF was represented at the symposium by all of its commanders in the northern region down to battalion level and led by their Assistant General Secretary (pictured below, signing a peace covenant at the conclusion of the event).

When I mentioned to one of the symposium organizers that I wanted to spend a few days in the mountains to learn a little about village life, he introduced me to the Secretary, who promised to guarantee my safety “110%”. He took me to a General, who gave me his cell number and his signed photo ID (as proof of our relationship) and offered to arrange an armed escort if I wanted one. That’s a nuke where a flyswatter will do; the mountains near Cagayan de Oro aren’t dangerous; but I appreciated the grand gesture.

At the symposium I sat next to the gentlemen below, who turned out to be associated with the Sultan of Maguindanao.

I’m not aware of any connection between the Sultan’s family and the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao shortly after the symposium. I’ve exchanged quite a few texts with the Sultan’s son, on the left above. During the “picture picture” mayhem after the conference he insisted that this young lady give me her number too.

Apparently it improved my mood. The girls even got the MNLF guys to lighten up during the photo session.

They could not convert them to a new hand gesture.

It was encouraging to learn that a Turkish-based Muslim group, Risale-I Nur, is promoting a peaceful and scholarly brand of Islam in Mindanao. Their president (below left, at his home) was a gracious host, and the kind of guy who could become a real friend.

He filled my suitcase with about 50 kilos of books published by his organization and invited me to speak at their big conference in Istanbul. The Italian gentleman second from the left has worked for peace in virtually every major trouble spot in the world over the past couple of decades. Second to the right is the patriarch of one of the most prominent Muslim families in the Philippines. His father was the country’s first Muslim senator and he himself is past president of Mindanao State University. In our afternoon together he shared some great stories, including one about demonstrating against Marcos, and his subsequent year spent as a political prisoner.

Some of the indigenous tribes were also represented. The six people in the center below are Higaonon.

On the far left above is a Mormon professor at Xavier University (a Jesuit school). On the far right is a Muslim woman associated with Risale-I Nur. She is from Zamboanga, where people speak Chavacano, a Spanish creole. Lots of the organizing for the symposium was done by Pentecostal missionaries. It was the most culturally-diverse event I ever attended.

The government was represented by one of the five presidential advisors on the peace process, who updated us on the latest developments since talks resumed a few weeks ago. An Armed Forces of the Philippines General in charge of a Mindanao division discussed how the army has been working toward peace by promoting community development. By and large the talks were serious and informative. The assigned title of mine was “Inter-religious Cooperation”, but it really focused on how prejudice can get in the way of such good stuff, since prejudice and bad behavior are what I understand best. The audience was generally receptive, especially the Muslims.

For me, Mindanao is as interesting and exhausting as a high-stakes poker game. After two weeks I was elated to be home. Already I’m thinking of going back.

October 2, 2009

I Smell Wet Dog

Filed under: General — Donald @ 8:16 pm

This time there really is a wolf. Filipinos tend to call every circular storm a “typhoon”, but Pepeng (“Parma” to most of the world) is the genuine beast, and with some very sharp teeth. Reports vary, but all put the maximum sustained winds somewhere between 200 and 300 kph (134-196 mph). Some say it will be stronger than Katrina and maybe the strongest storm ever recorded in the Philippines. The path is again well north of us here in Siquijor, and north of Manila too, but it will drag in lots more rain there, and they cannot handle it. One of my friends was in Manila yesterday looking for her missing sister. She found her safe at home, up on the roof, where she has been for days. Pepeng is forecast to weaken as it makes landfall in Luzon, but also to slow its westward progression and linger for a while. People are evacuating countless towns on the coast, below dams and volcanoes and steep hills (to avoid the inevitable mudslides), and on and on. Even after the water goes down there will be lots of illness among people who waded for days through waist high sewage and who will be eaten by mosquitoes for weeks. This is dengue fever season too.

None of those problems for me personally. My symposium in Mindanao has been postponed until November and our fiesta here in Solangon is coming up next Wednesday. Streamers are flapping wildly across the main street (maybe the other one too; I haven’t been up the mountain today) and I hear music blaring from our outdoor basketball court, announcing tonight’s disco. Filipinos don’t cancel many parties.

September 29, 2009

High and Dry

Filed under: siquijor — Donald @ 5:05 pm

I’ve gotten a few emails from people asking about the flooding, so I thought I’d post here to let everyone know things are fine in Siquijor. Manila’s lousy drainage system is chronically plugged with the plastic wrappers and other junk everyone just tosses into the streets, so it floods every year at this time. Saturday they had about 13 inches of rain in six hours and lots of people died.

I had to go to Dumaguete Friday to get money and fix a visa problem. Ferries were canceled the next day, but that was just a little inconvenience. I caught the first one Sunday for a slightly wild return trip.

Tuesday I leave for Mindanao where I am scheduled to speak at a peace symposium. People keep telling me that there are two more typhoons on the way, but I know they are lying. Even Ondoy (the preferred Filipino tag) was only a tropical storm.

September 8, 2009

Party Time

Filed under: siquijor — Donald @ 1:03 pm

Bugwas is the biggest festival of the year in my municipality of San Juan, Siquijor. It lasts a few days, with live bands every night, plenty of sugba sugba (“grill grill”) in the park, a beauty contest, a basketball tournament, and everyone’s favorite event, street dancing.

The municipality celebrated its fiesta later in the week. Families prepare huge feasts that traditionally are open to anyone who ventures in, but that are attended mostly by family and friends. A good time was had by all, except for the pigs.

I added one of those to my neighbor’s offerings (above). A good friend (below) is about to carve into another at his family’s place. He’s heard that the tradition of having lots of people over to eat an entire pig at a sitting was developed years ago due to the lack of refrigeration. I did my part to prevent pork spoilage at four houses that day.

My friend above had a birthday party for his daughter two days later.

I forgot to take a camera to the next event, a great birthday bash thrown by the owners of Coral Cay, just down from my house.

On my first trip to the Philippines I stayed a couple of weeks at El Dorado Beach Resort on the neighboring island of Negros and learned to dive. Some of the staff there, including the girls left and right below, became my first friends (yes, just friends) in the country.

Last weekend the one on the left was in the Miss Dauin pageant, so I made a return visit to cheer. She won Miss Photogenic and Miss Congeniality, which seems about right. The girl in the center is Miss Philippines Earth. She came to judge and was also staying at the resort.

Back to work until my little neighborhood has its own fiesta on October 7. I need a break.

August 24, 2009

Porkchops BID

Filed under: Cebu — Donald @ 12:01 pm

“Chong Hua”, I said to the driver.

“Jaguar?”, he replied.

It was 7:00 a.m., I was trying to get to the hospital, and he was ready to take me to an expensive strip joint.

Since I haven’t been feeling well the past few weeks it seemed like a good time to get a physical. I’d been planning one anyway, just so a doc here would have records on me. Chong Hua has the best reputation in the region and offers “executive checkup” packages at reasonable prices. I wasn’t too sure about the treadmill stress test, since I’d been completely inactive for the past month and one of my ankles isn’t so flexible anymore, but the only problem came in the 11th minute, when my heart rate still wasn’t as high as for some reason they thought it should be. The lady doc and nurse tried to move things along by getting me to talk about marriage. They were more than a little surprised when doing that made my pulse slow noticeably. A few minutes at higher speed and incline did the trick. Newton up, Cupid down.

The Doppler Echocardiogram above proves definitively that I do have a heart, though. As I understand it, the colored spots even indicate a flicker of life. Prognosis: unknown.

Two days of searching found only that my blood counts are all low, presumably due to the virus that gave me a fever last month. The Filipino doctor didn’t seem concerned, suggesting only that I rest, drink plenty of fluids, and maybe add a multiple vitamin with iron. Oh, and eat more meat. What a country.

August 4, 2009

Balik balik

Filed under: General — Donald @ 5:20 pm

I have not been eaten, though I did run into some hungry looking guys at the Festival of San Juan.

Here are some of the reasons I haven’t posted in a long time.

1. Internet is appalling these days. It takes forever and half of the time something goes so badly sideways that I lose everything. This time of year is worse than usual because of the weather. A tropical storm or typhoon passes nearby every ten days or so, knocks out the power, and ruins the cell signal. Recently it was dark and rainy for six days straight.

2. Two fevers and a bout of food poisoning. The last fever gave me a good beating. It broke a week ago but I’m still weak and dizzy (more than usual even).

3. Haven’t been doing much fun stuff to tell stories about.

4. Spending lots of time on volunteer projects. One was a series of training seminars for local science teachers. (Another seminar speaker informed the assembled that one of the big problems with climate change is that it will cause Jupiter and some lesser bodies to leave their orbits and elicit a solar event that will destroy all life on earth. It’s worse than I thought.) Another is helping the Rotary Club, which is doing lots of great things like improving water supplies to elementary schools. Here is a pic of the current water supply at one of them:

When the kids use the toilet, they fill the bottle with water and carry it a long way so they can flush and wash up a bit. The school hosts over 400 kids and the kids host countless parasites.

5. I don’t like anything I write. The descriptions of volunteer stuff are unseemly and the other stuff is whiny.

This morning I visited a special ed school to check on a little girl with cerebral palsy. For the first time in her life she is walking around (with help from adults). Walking makes her face shine like the sun; she just loves it. Her treatments cost a whopping $5 a month. I’m a happy guy.

(“Balik” means “return.”)

May 22, 2009

New Home Starts

Filed under: siquijor — Donald @ 12:45 pm

When I returned from Cebu I found that my landlady had begun construction on a cottage in my backyard. No more view to the sea. Having a beachfront place to rent out has always been her dream, though, so I was happy for her. I was less happy to hear that she had financed it at 3.5% per month and was planning to cut down the biggest tree in her yard for lumber.

While having my coffee the next morning I heard the workers pass by. Seemed a little odd that they were starting before 4:00 a.m. with only the moonlight to see by, but then I remembered them digging in the hot sun the previous afternoon and I thought I understood. I didn’t. My landlady later explained that “there is a traditional way to build a house.” The workers had come before sunrise to place in the new excavation some hair, a few old coins, and blood. The hollow blocks they build with around here literally crumble in your hands, so maybe it’s not a bad idea.

The Great Leap Forward

Filed under: General — Donald @ 12:39 pm

I’ve spent way too much time over the past few months figuring out the nuts and bolts of living here. One big issue is transportation. Tricycles are available at the road in front of my house, but the wait can be over an hour and they only run during daytime. My landlady rents me her motorcycle for fifty cents an hour, but it’s not always available, and riding on an island with lots of dogs and no good hospital is a risky proposition. It’s unusual for a month to pass without hearing of a motorcyclist being killed on Siquijor. Finally I went to Cebu and forked over big money ($3500) for a little truck.

These things are made by Suzuki, the motorcycle company, for the Japanese home market. Once they get too old to pass emissions tests there they are chopped up and sold. Filipinos buy the parts and put them back together in great numbers. It’s a 4×4 with high- and low-range gear ratios and a locking differential. The engine has only three cylinders and a tiny 660cc displacement, but after giving it a workout, I’d bet that with the right tires this truck would climb a tree. (One of my tires is mounted backwards, by the way. Not a country where you can expect perfection.) A couple of removable benches under the canopy will seat four Kanos or six Filipinos.

No nook or cranny of Siquijor is safe from my advances.

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