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.

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