PAMATI: Listen to the Water and Songs of the Ancestors was a gathering I attended July 1-10, 2015 at Balay Agusan, Municipality of Bunawan, Province of Agusan del Sur, CARAGA Region, Northeastern Mindanao, Southern Philippines. The event brought together indigenous spiritual leaders of several tribes with Filipinos and Filipinos from the diaspora to engage in a sharing of ideas within the context of a unique community.

Sorting out my experience at PAMATI and sharing it with others has been difficult due to the complexity of the impact the event had on me. Recently I asked my FB friends to help me by sending their questions about my recent trip.

PhyllisS asks: Was there an event or person that changed the way you look at things now – or that will change you in a meaningful way?

There were many transformative moments during PAMATI, many people I met who changed my way of thinking, but I think one of the more unusual moments happened the day after PAMATI when a small group of us went on a trip to the countryside with our guide Father Joseph Audiencia, SVD.

After breakfast, we gathered ourselves up in a converted military transport truck and headed first to a local high school where upland Manobo children were studying. Most of the teachers were also Manobo and their dedication to their cultural practices was evident. After our visit, we traveled through the countryside where we saw how the development of roads affected the indigenous people, effectively separating families who would otherwise flow from one area to another if the road did not exist. Father Joe mentioned how the roads created not just division but also created access to settler culture that often led to an impulse among younger Manobo to leave the area in search of a ‘better life.’

The landscape was beautiful, reminiscent of the countryside around my own town of Bellingham, Washington – great expanses of flat agricultural land with distant hills and trees. As we rumbled along the rough road, we passed wood houses, some weathered by age and typhoons, others newer and reinforced with concrete and steel. Occasionally, the road would be blocked to slow traffic as it navigated around offset barriers. Road blocks were typically at the edge of villages and near schools or hospitals. Our driver was both safe and savvy, navigating the road and the vehicles traveling at various speeds on the roadway – slow tricycles burdened with passengers, darting motorcycles, large trucks bearing palm for oil or equipment for more road building.

We were rolling along toward the place where Lolong, the giant crocodile, had been captured a few years ago, when the driver brought the truck to an abrupt stop. We looked around searching for the destination he had chosen for us to view, but then became concerned when he seemed to be working on something under the hood. The road had large rocks and I thought perhaps one had gotten lodged in the engine compartment or such. A few moments later, he ran around to the back of the truck and handed Father Joe a small bird. He took it for a moment saying that the driver had accidentally hit it. My friend Krysta was moved with compassion and took the bird in her hands as the driver popped back into the cab of the truck and drove off.

I couldn’t see if the bird was dead or stunned. I tried to figure out why the driver thought to pick up the bird after hitting it. At home, drivers simply murmur an apology to no one in particular while they keep on driving. I’ve been known to do that when I’ve been afraid I’ve hit an animal – never would I think to stop and check on the animal’s well-being unless I thought it was a pet or an animal large enough to do damage to my car. I felt humbled by the driver’s decision to help the bird and by his trust that somehow the group of us would know what to do. Krysta checked the bird gingerly as did Ish who sat beside her. The bird was alive, though for how long was difficult to determine. I was a few seats down and could not offer any aid. We had no first aid kit and I’d never tended a wild bird before. The stunned bird shat on Krysta at one point, but she didn’t let go. Instead, she, Ish, and Lagitan, who sat across from them, extended their hands and prayers for the bird’s well-being.

We continued to roll along the countryside, but all eyes were on the bird. Would it die? Could their prayers and good energy save the bird? If they did, what would we do with it? We were miles from its home territory by the time it seemed to recover from being hit. Lagitan identified it as a ‘tinikling’ bird, a long-legged water fowl best known for its reflection in the Tinikling dance where dancers deftly avoid the clapping of bamboo poles at their feet. We started to hum the song together and once the song was done, the bird fluttered in Krysta’s hands and shat again on the floor. Lilac offered tissues to clean up the mess; Lagitan protested saying he liked tinikling poo as a blessing. We laughed and rolled along the countryside. The bird continued to recover and we began to discuss what to do with our newest passenger. I worried that being far from his home would be difficult for him, but taking him with us deeper into the territory didn’t seem right either.

After about a half hour, we turned onto a side road and as we slowed, Lagitan took the bird in his hands and set him free on his side of the truck. The bird fluttered and settled into the brush. I craned my neck to see if it was okay, but we moved too fast down the new road and the brush concealed him from view. We wished him well and continued on our journey to see other Manobo villages and the central house of Father Joe’s order.

Thinking back on that moment, I feel a sense of both pride and wonder, the same feelings I held in that truck as I watched Krysta gently hold the tinkiling bird. Sometimes we come across trauma, perhaps in ourselves, perhaps in others, and we just need to gently hold that trauma in our hands, send it love, accept it for what it is, then be willing to let it go where ever it needs to be next.