On June 29, I departed the Vancouver, BC airport for Bunawan, Philippines to attend PAMATI, a “mutual listening between a handful of Filipino babaylan and other elders, and a small number of Filipinos and Filipino diasporans in the fields of music and arts, religion, healthcare, gender studies, peace studies, environment studies, and postcolonial studies” as stated by organizer Grace Nono. The event was commissioned by the Tao Foundation for Culture and Arts (Philippines), Center for Babaylan Studies (US), GINHAWA (Philippines), Institute of Spirituality in Asia (Philippines), and Asian Social Institute (Philippines). The gathering was held at Balay Agusan, July 1-7, 2015.

I’m an artist who responds to an audience; like the patients with a severe form of Parkinsons portrayed in the movie Awakenings, I often can’t formulate expression without the help of the energy of curiosity from others. Recently I asked my FB friends to help my by sending their questions about my recent trip.

TitaniaB asks: What one thing will you never forget? What was the best and what was the worst part of your adventure?

It’s often hard to say in the present moment what will stay with you forever, or at least to the end of your days. What I think now as insignificant, a tangent to my current path may turn out to be a turning point I can’t in these first few days home from the Philippines.

Still, there are certain moments that stand out to me that I’ll likely return to often.

What one thing will you never forget?

The feel of Manang Maban’s hand in mine as she grabbed it during one very intense ritual. She spoke to me in a language I couldn’t understand, but her meaning was clear – I need you; please help me pray. And we did, first seated as we watched the ritual unfold, then standing, when the ritual peaked. Later I asked her why she reached out to me. She told me, through her translator, that she saw the ritual leaders needed help. They needed /our/ help and she reached for me. She smiled and I saw pride in her face that had we prayed together, that I’d answered her call so quickly and easily. I trusted her completely and she, me.

What was the best and what was the worst part of your adventure?

The Best: The clear request from three different Babaylan to remain connected to me after we parted.

I had attended PAMATI with the expectation of listening and learning all I could when I was in the presence of the many Babaylan present. I figured I’d soak in what I could and then fly back home to try and make sense of it all on my own. I never imagined there would be any interested in continuing contact after the event was over, anyone who wished I lived closer so they could teach me their ways. All three Babaylan hope that I will visit them again and soon. They want to show me their land, introduce me to their kin. Our hearts are full with being with each other, even as we long for more.

Best…ish…: Purple water hyacinths bobbing in great flotillas in the Agusan Marsh.

When I think of “marsh” I think of mud and there was little muddy about the Agusan Marsh – it was more lake than mud and the water hyacinths were both beautiful and menacing. We had to cut through great swaths to get from one edge of the Marsh to the Sanctuary. The passage to the Sanctuary went smoothly for most, but the return to the river was more difficult for many. On my return, the flotilla we tried to cross kept closing in around us, halting our 8-person Bangka. The boat captain pushed the hyacinths away from the rear of the canoe with a wood board while his first mate pushed at the hyacinths at the front with his paddle. At one point, I pushed against the hyacinths too, murmuring Tabi Tabi Po – I’m sorry, please excuse us. The marsh wanted to keep us, that was for certain, especially when I heard the troubles the others had getting back the next day.

The Worst: But the hyacinths were not the worst part of my adventure – the worst was the heat exhaustion I experienced the last day of the gathering. The day was bright, clear, and hot, the sun beating down on our event that brought dignitaries and students from the area to hear the testimonies of the Babaylan and the participants. There were many speeches and I tried various ways to stay cool – lots of water, cool cloths, shade, a fan – but as the morning wore on, I could feel the exhaustion creeping up. I didn’t want to leave, though, seemed impolite to depart the celebration of all our time together. It was one of those ‘shoulda known’ moments – I shoulda known I was crashing when I was getting grumpy. Shoulda noticed that the things I was doing to keep cool weren’t working. Shoulda opted out as soon as I saw the sun was going to be too bright and hot for this Northwest baby.

But heat exhaustion hits my brain first, so my decision-making skills diminish even before I realize I’m affected. My friends and family in the US know this, but no one at the event did. Around lunchtime, I collapsed into a puddle of tears in the dining area, unable to move or to think, only to feel embarrassed and helpless. Thankfully there were many healers there to help me, to lend me their strength, and to get me back to my room where they continued to tend me until I recovered. I’m grateful for the good work of my friends Dr. Alice, Mumbakki Lagitan, Patutunong Abraham, and Baylan Ambina who brought all their skills to bear on my recovery. I will never forget Grace singing a lullaby to me, her strong voice like a lifeline keeping me from complete unconsciousness.

Worst moment? Perhaps, but also a grace-filled moment, one full of love and support. How can that be so bad then?