“Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan hindi makararating sa pinaroroonan ” (He who does not know where he came from, will never reach his destination) – Tagalog Proverb
When I first started talking about going to the Philippines this summer, I was often asked “Have you been there before?” to which I’d smile and nod. “The first time was when I was two years old,” I’d say, “then again when I was six. The third time was in 1995; twenty years ago.” Each time, I’d gone with family to see relatives in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, my father’s birthplace, but this trip in 2015 would be to a completely different place, a new island to me, Bunawan, Philippines on the island of Mindanao. I’d also be traveling alone, my family of choice left behind in Bellingham, WA and my family of origin left behind in the Seattle, WA area. My parents thought me crazy, thought that my husband was at best neglectful – here was their good Catholic daughter going alone to the heart of militant Muslim territory to do what exactly?
The last question was, and is, the most difficult to answer not because I was uncertain of my reasons, but I was uncertain how to communicate it in such a way that others would understand. Perhaps it is the people-pleaser within me or perhaps the performer wanting to pitch the story in a way the audience will understand. In any case, my reasons varied from wanting to understand the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines to wanting a deeper connection to my spiritual heritage even though I do not live on my hereditary land base. There were aspects of healing intergenerational trauma alongside environmental concerns, both local and global. And mostly, curiosity about what it would be like to travel alone to meet people doing something I’ve only read about – the work of the Babaylan.
In returning home after 10 days in the Philippines, I’ve struggled with both jet-lag and finding a way to speak of my travels. Those close to me all spoke of the transformational potential of the trip; more than once, a friend would look me intensely in the eyes, grip my arm, and say “This trip will change your life.” But how do you write about such changes when you know they have shifted your perspective on yourself, your history, and your future?
Questions. Questions are always a good place to start. With the help of my FB friends, I’m going to post thoughts about my trip based on their questions, on what they want to know about my journey. CindyS was the first to respond to my FB post. She asks:
“What will stay with you? What new learning caught u off guard? Where will u go to again next time? What could u not get enough of?”
What will stay with you? The sensation of the land.
Before I stepped off the plane at Butuan Airport, I wondered what the land would feel like. Would it feel foreign and distant? Would it feel welcoming and familiar? Would it just feel hot and humid, with no other resonance?
What I felt was all those things but in measured balance. I arrived a bit before noon, and the sun was high and full. Temp was in the mid-80s F, I imagine, with a thickness to the air much like stepping out of a hot shower. The runway was flat but not too distant, the land sloped into hills where low slung houses sat and a man walked the edge of his property. In the distance a few palm trees swayed in typical tropical fashion, but further still, hardwoods stood steady. I could describe the feeling of being in Butuan to being similar to when we lived in Honolulu, but that would be inaccurate – Honolulu was a harsh city in comparison to Butuan with its small town feel. Touching down was more like the first time I landed in Pullman, WA, a feeling of remoteness and at the same time a certain trepidation that I was treading where I might not be welcome. Yet, there was a feeling akin to welcoming as I made my way down the metal stairs to the runway, an overall sense of “Oh there you are. Where have you been? Have you eaten? How long can you stay?” Classically Filipino questions that I sensed was literally rooted to the land itself, an ethic that assumes community first, an interconnectedness among all beings.
What new learning caught u off guard? That even when I’m trying not to be noticed, I’m seen.
It’s likely a stretch to say that not being noticed yet being seen was something new I learned, but it certainly caught me off guard. The theme of the gathering was Pamati – to listen. I went to the Philippines to be part of a gathering of Babaylan, indigenous spiritual leaders and wisdom keepers from over a half-dozen tribes. I knew the likelihood of me understanding half of what they taught was poor, if nothing else because of the differences in language (most talks were translated from a tribal language into either Tagalog or Ilocano, then further translated to English for a few of us). Still, I would sit and listen in the hopes of absorbing what I could. I asked few questions except to clarify with my translator, yet after sessions I would find myself drawn into conversations by leaders who were curious about my storytelling and teaching (I’d given a quick introduction of myself at the outset along with the other participants). These conversations developed into rapport, and in some cases friendship, something I found both humbling and gratifying.
Where will u go to again next time? Pangasinan, Philippines.
As I mentioned above, my trips to the Philippines have been to see my father’s family in Calapan. There are apparently few members of my mother’s family left in Pangasinan, yet I hope to visit there next. One participant mentioned that there is still a strong Babaylan presence in Pangasinan in the form of faith healers and such. There were no Babaylan from Pangasinan present at Pamati, however, so I’m more curious about how the techniques and knowledge has survived colonialism in that area. I have invitations to visit the T’Boli people of Lake Cebu, the Ifugao of Northern Luzon, and the Maguindanao of West Mindanao too, so I have plenty of places to explore next.
What could u not get enough of? The food…
Classic, right? So much good food. I stayed at a place called Bayan Agusan – Agusan Home – the place where Grace Nono lives. There was a small meeting room, two sleeping lofts, her house, and an open air dining area next to an outdoor kitchen. From that kitchen and a small indoor kitchen came the most wonderful food three times a day. Simple food – white and purple rice, fried fish or fish soup, vegetables in coconut milk, traditional hot cocoa, boiled plantain – but wholesome food. Now that I’m home, I crave the gentle care the cooks put into each meal and the way the smallest portion filled me and sustained me. I’ve looked up a few recipes online in the hopes of replicating the dishes I had, and I was delighted to discover that many of the dishes I had were Ilocano. I know very little about my Pangasinan/Ilocano heritage, so it was good to connect with my roots through food.
…and of course, the community…
Grace Nono, our host. Lilac, my roommate. Lagitan, Abraham, Maban, Myrna, and Alice, my teachers. Donna, Karen, Ish, Lester, Nessie, Joy, my new friends. Inday, Lily, Mila, Lukayo, Lizae, my old friends unseen for months/years. All the Babaylan and elders as well as participants. The crow who stole food from the duck pond. The spirit of Lulong, the giant crocodile. The land that spoke and shook and cradled us every night. I miss them all terribly even though I’m glad to be home in Coast Salish territory once more.