It’s been a long time since I went on hiatus, but it’s time to fill in the stories once again. I started this blog to share my experiences with family, friends, travelers and dreamers. It’ll soon become clear why the long break, but thank you for keeping touch and catching up with me. The next dozen posts certainly have some magic in them. This one's chock full of fun stories, so settle down with a cup o' tea and enjoy!
When we left off, my time in Cebu closed with bad news. Aunt Kathy boarded a plane to Seattle with butterflies in her stomach for what she was leaving behind and for what was waiting for her at home. My dear friend, Tony’s dad passed on. I, on the other hand, was ready to head south.
The southern islands of the Philippines are shrouded in mystery and pain. Throughout my travels I’d received warnings to under no circumstances visit the south. Foreigners have been kidnapped for ransom by mountain rebels, who fight amongst themselves and against the government. A nurse who works with my mom lost a son when they couldn’t produce the ransom in time. The Philippines is a very Catholic country, but the few Muslims who reside there are ostracized by much of the Christian population and relegated to “Muslim Autonomous Zones” within the southern islands. Also woven into the veil, however, is a sense of wonder – curiosity for the substantial fruits, arts, and indigenous culture that are exported to the rest of the Philippines.
I “risked” a visit to Mindanao for four reasons:
1.) I’m a musician and sound healer, so I had to visit the Talaandig tribe of artists, musicians, and peace-workers I’d heard so much about from the Inner Dance circle.
2.) I’m a raw foods expert so I couldn’t miss the famous Kadawayan Festival of Fruits in Davao City.
3.) The Philippine Eagle is my spirit animal, and the Philippine Eagle Foundation is perched in the mountains above Davao.
4.) Leave through Zamboanga
4.) Leave through Zamboanga
Two weeks before I left Cebu, a huge new ferry was Christened. I boarded that boat early in September feeling present, empowered, and brimming with wisdom to share with whoever was interested; but most of all, I took in my surroundings with every sense available to me. It was like the moment when Neo became “The One” and saw the Matrix from the inside out. I was pulled aside by security, who probably don't see many white tourists taking the "poor man's berth" on a boat from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao. A long series of gruff questions ended with, "What is your religion? You are Christian dibah?" I said, "No, I'm not Christian and I'm not Muslim, but I do believe in God." "Good. Very good," he replied. I found it funny The boat was 8 hours delayed, so I slept on the cement floor of the boat terminal along with everyone else. Then, with an expanded sense of "Matrix" time, the 20-hour ferry ride seemed to take forever and no time at the same time.
I disembarked at Cagayan de Oro before sunrise, took a jeepney to the bus terminal, and caught the morning bus up into the mountains. Just inside Bukidnon province was a huge junction, and I had to ask quite a few people to figure out which road and which combination of jeepneys would get me up into the remote region where the Talaandig tribe resides. I loaded up on some banana, papaya, chico, carrots, and rambutan, and hit the road.
After 20 hours at sea and ten hours on the road, I was ready to arrive. My final jeepney had been climbing a dirt road for more than an hour when it started to rain. I helped several others pull rain covers over the window openings. When a bridge crossed a river surging at maximum, I thought, “Wow, the rain must be strong upstream.” Five minutes later, the wind came. While still moving, I reached up and untied Josephine from the roof of the jeep and brought her inside the fuming jeep and let her take the seat of someone who had already been dropped at their stop. As soon as my guitar was safe inside, the clouds dumped on us. I can count by fingers the number of times have I been in rain like that. Totally unable to see, I was happy when the jeep finally stopped. But it stopped too late. I was at the end of the line, but the jeep driver had misunderstood where I wanted to be dropped off. He kindly helped me find a ride back in the right direction, and two jeeps later, I was headed up another dirt road - a brand new dirt road. Newly cut the day before, the dense, clay soil was totally exposed. Pop quiz: What do you get when you mix water with clay? ………………………. Stuck. Everybody gets stuck.
|big, bad excavator|
Rain dumping harder than ever, the excavator used a long arm to nudge us a quarter mile through the newly cut section of road to a section of decent traction. Not long after we bumped along by our own petrol, the driver dropped me off, pointed along a dirt road bordered by rice paddies and funny buildings and said, “Talaandig,” the word flipping off the end of his pointer finger like a chirping cricket diving into one of the many patches of water on the path beyond.
|Child's rubber sandal doused while I waited for the elders|
Time with the Talaandig
|Lugaw-stewin', coffee-brewin' kitchen|
At a break in the rain, I was brought to the home of the lead artist, a beautiful two-story structure made with care by his own hands from hardwood, bamboo, and corrugated tin. He offered me a bowl of “lugaw” – a hot rice porridge fresh off the fire that I seasoned with salt and pepper. At other times in my travels I had put aside diet restrictions when I felt propriety demanded it. This was one of those times. As a raw vegan, a cooked porridge of glutinous, white rice was a go-to food, as it were. But after the long boat ride, all of those buses and jeeps, getting stuck in the mud, and arriving in a cool rain, lugaw made with open love was a meal I remember as particularly special.
|Monkey skull bamboo chimes overlooking the neighbor next door|
|Front door to my home for 5 days with the Talaandig|
|Living room walls decorated with Japanese bamboo.|
|Kudlung and windows from branches|
I spent most of my time inside because the sky continued to weep softly off and on for several days, and because the men who owned the house are the music instrument makers of the village. My host, the eldest, specialized in drums, another was a master flute maker, and yet another specialized in the “kudlung”, a peculiar two-stringed instrument. I am a percussionist, flautist, and guitarist with a particular interest in earthy-sounding native instruments living with indigenous instrument-makers and soil painters in a natural home high in the misty mountains. I was in heaven.
|Canvasses ready for carving|
|Soil painting above my sleeping mat upstairs|
These amazing people are also famous for their art from different colored clays, a medium called soil painting. The Talaandig are making waves throughout the Philippines as they use music and art to transmit messages of natural wisdom, peace, and Filipino empowerment in the face of globalization. Deep cultural themes, stories, and messages come out through their art, and one gets the sense that below that layer of clay, the inspiration for each painting goes much deeper than what anyone born outside the tribe could understand.
|My host carving drums by hand. The drum head is tanned by hand as well...|
|View from the second floor|
|Bathroom at the house decorated with |
soil paintings rejected by their maker, my host
|All of the paints used are clays of different pigments|
The sun rose bright in the morning, and everyone’s spirits rose and fell in tangible waves of vibrant love and murky sadness. Eight men including my drum-carving host and flute master Oliver carried the tiny casket on their shoulders with all of us in procession behind. After winding through the dirt streets of the village and breaking trail down a steep hill into a marshy field, we finally arrived at the cemetery. It was a forest of reeds and Japanese bamboo that obscured small markings where the dead were buried. You had to know exactly where your loved one was buried or you might get lost and add your own corpse to the forest fed on human remains. It was beautiful actually. Her place was specially chosen and prepared. The path to the grave was marked with several sticks and smoking herbs that must be stepped over, similar to the smudge at the threshold of the vigil house. The funeral was presided over by a spiritual leader who was also ordained as a catholic priest. I could tell that his words were well spoken and touching by his alternating fluidity and faltering, and by the reactions of the 50 of us who were listening. I was tucked away in the reeds, tears oozing out, but also feeling blessed at being able to observe with expanded awareness the beauty of life.
|This painting was too precious to be sold by the artist.|
It tells many stories important to the Talaandig,
stories rendered with exceptional skill, basic tools, and clay.
|More soil paintings|
The next morning, Oliver presented me with the flute I’d asked him to make and was absolutely blown away by the craftsmanship. It was made of bamboo, holes were burned in by a hand, microscopically detailed carvings done with a small awl, colored with ash from the fire where we cooked each day, and coated with coconut oil to seal the ash in the grooves. He was trained by the last flute master of the village who’d died of old age less than a year before. With his typical luminous smile, he traded me his masterpiece for enough money to buy seasonings and clothes for months. I asked him how old he was – 22 years old. My heart nearly broke at that. He was wiser and more skillful than any “educated” American I had ever met. In a culture more full of heart than most of the rest of the world, this young man shocked me with the electric power of his endless love. I’ll remember him until my mind breaks or death clasps my hand like it did his sister’s.
My friends and I flagged a jeepney, gave each other tearful goodbyes, and turned to what lay ahead.
Side note: If you're interested in commissioning a painting, it can be done through the tribe's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Talaandig-soil-paintings/164676080218380
Then I met with Baba’s Foundation, which was partnered with the Cebuana
friend who connected me to her brother Dev in Davao. They soon had me giving
Inner Dance sessions at their new wellness center. On the first day, the
speaker they had was broken, but they had a rusty toy guitar! I mustered all of
my training in music improvisation and the basics I knew on the guitar, I
facilitated an hour-long Inner Dance session by walking among the bodies
sprawled out on the floor and playing and singing along with the energy of the
space. I facilitated a series of Inner Dance sessions for a week, and the music
situation improved with each input. When discussion closed on the final day, I
descended the stairs and was surprised to see another dance happening in the
large open entryway; the candle dance. Here's an example:
The weekend after I facilitated Inner Dance, Dev took me out to an
island they work at called Maxima resort. The deal went like this: if he fire
danced on the weekends with his partner, Christian, then he could run a stall
to sell his sculptures, necklaces, art, and hand-painted T-shirts during the
day. It was such a fun time. There was a huge water slide into the ocean,
snorkeling around a vibrant reef, and one of those blob things you use to
launch people into the sky by jumping on the other end. After hours in the
tropical waters, I cooled off by swinging in a hammock under some trees and
hand-sewing a pair of loose yoga-type pants. On the last night, a Sunday, I sat
on a floating dock and played drums behind Dev’s and Christian’s fire-twirling.
In the middle of a dance, a sea snake slithered up onto our dock. It was one of
those super-venomous, white-and-black banded snakes you’re only supposed to see
on TV. But this one was really sick. A healthy snake would’ve swam off to
another respite once it realized we were there first, but this one seemed to
lack the energy to swim another stroke. When I touched it or tried to nudge it
away from the drum, it wouldn’t even react. It seemed barely alive. For me, the
drumming and fire dancing was channeled more towards healing the poor snake
than entertaining the middle-class Filipinos who had gathered outside their
cabins to watch this spectacle on the water. In the morning, we hitched to the
port on a delivery truck, ferried back to the mainland, and then hitched back
Philippine Eagle FoundationI’d intended to leave Davao by heading West to a port in Zamboanga and south to Indonesia, but in my final week there, fighting broke out between rebels and the government in that region, and bus transport was suspended. So I changed my plans. I booked a flight to Singapore from Cebu City, and hopped a bus north to catch it. On the way, I had to stop at the Philippine Eagle Foundation, which I’d passed on my way. I came to the Philippines for four reasons: to explore my roots, to spend time with my best friend, to find myself, and to see the Philippine Eagle. Three down, one to go. I wasn’t going to miss it.
Side note: If you're interested in commissioning a painting, it can be done through the tribe's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Talaandig-soil-paintings/164676080218380
Davao City: Kadawayan Festival of Fruits
Several jeepneys later, I was on a bus to Davao City on the Southern Coast of Mindanao. The highest mountain in the Philippines, Mt Apo, crests the mountain range of southern Mindanao. On the way up, our bus stopped at a cluster of stalls. A small delivery truck was parked on the other side of the narrow road, several people scurrying back and forth through traffic to sell rambutan to us on the bus. I bought a huge bag and it was so good I ate the whole thing by the time we reached Davao. It was only a taste of the fruit gorging to come. Crossing over the mountains, we passed a huge sculpture of a Philippine Eagle, and I reminded myself that I have to stop there when I leave Davao. Several friends from Cebu had connected me with cousins and friends of theirs I could stay with in Davao. They were expecting me.
|Pack horse on the side of the road with crazy improvised saddle/harness|
|Selling snacks at a bus terminal. Happens all over SE Asia, |
but homemade goods are particularly special in the Philippines
My bus puttered along the coast through Friday rush hour-type traffic. The misty peak of Mt Apo fell behind us as we inched our way towards the heart of the city. I knew we had arrived when I smelled what I had come for: durian. The whole city smelled of durian. Durian is a supernutritious, utterly unique fruit. Called the king of fruits, it had very hard spikes around the outside, and was even attached to the ends of poles and commonly used as a weapon. It has a unique smell that some find revolting and others find mouthwatering. Durian’s yellow flesh-covered pods are sweet, rich, and creamy, and not the kind of thing you’d want to eat to top off a stomach already full from a cooked meal. There are two kinds of people – those to abhor durian, and those who worship it. I’m of the latter persuasion. The first time I tasted it, it was too much for me and my palate just couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. The second time, I was full when I tasted it. But the third time, my mind, body and soul said, “Who needs to eat anything else? This is the KING OF FOODS!” Davao must have been the main export route for the fruit to the rest of SE Asia, because it was practically buried beneath an aromatic, spiky, smothering avalanche of durian. The Kadawayan festival of fruits had ended a week earlier, but most of the vendors were still around. It was peak season for most fruits, and Mindanao was famous for the durian shipped from Davao.
Gail, a cousin-of-a-friend-of-a-friend I’d arranged to meet was waiting for my bus after work. In the dark, she led me down into a valley on the outskirts of Davao, where she lived with her fiancée, Donald, and friend-of-my-friend, Dev. The house was very small in a cluster of wall-to-wall houses broken up by narrow dirt roads. The building was only 3 meters wide, with a covered outdoor eating space in front, Gail and Donald’s 3x4 meter room attached to it. Down a narrow passage beside the house was a door to Dev’s room (mine for a while), which was scarcely larger than Gail and Donald’s. Farther down the passage was a covered C.R. (bathroom) with a ladle toilet/shower and a kitchen counter/sink under the same awning.
A lean-to made of scrap materials and a 30-year-old tin roof was snuggled up against the back wall of the building. My friend Tony’s partner’s Shiva’s oldest brother, Jun Jun still lived there where they grew up. Theirs was a tragic story. Jun Jun was the oldest, Shiva in the middle, a third whose name I couldn’t remember, and Clenton youngest. When Clenton was very young, their dad died. Their mom left them to fend for themselves, teenaged Shiva raising his brothers when he was still figuring out what puberty was. A typhoon caused a potable water shortage, and though the neighbors helped when they could, severe scarcity nearly destroyed them. Many years later, Tony is with Shiva in Cebu, and has taken responsibility for little Clenton’s living situation and education expenses. Jun Jun lives there now, snatching every labor contract he can get, and while by Western standards he would be considered the poorest of the poor, his intelligence helped him see how beautiful life is for providing for him. So there I was, visiting the place where it all happened. Gail, Donald, their daughter, Dev, and Jun Jun welcomed me, we ate together, and slept. I had planned for one week that soon became three, true to the pattern of the rest of my time in the Philippines.
Jun Jun and Dev
Jun Jun and Dev took it upon themselves to tour me around their home city the best way I could’ve imagined. We hopped on some kid-sized bicycles that were pieced together with spare parts and went on the hunt………. for fruit! We started with the malls and markets of downtown Davao. We bought mangoes, mangosteens, durian, marang, unusual bananas, and a host of other fruits that were in such abundance during Davao’s famous fruit harvesting season. We drank fruit smoothies at a street stall – mine was durian of course – minus the condensed milk and white sugar she was habituated to including in every blend. At dusk, we visited an eerie amusement park with weird sculptures, empty lots, and a life-sized memorial sculpture for Lolong, the largest crocodile ever captured. It always baffled me how a country comprised of 7,100 small, mountainous islands separated from the mainland by 800 miles of the South China Sea could evolve the largest eagle (Philippine Eagle), saltwater crocodile, bat (Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox), and others, and still contain thousands of undiscovered animal species.
|Lolong, the largest crocodile ever captured, died shortly after placed in captivity.|
After those first two days, I wandered the city by foot, sampling fruit and conversation wherever I walked. Durian was everywhere. At one point, I was quite hungry (very unusual for me), and I wanted, I needed durian. There are so many varieties too! “Basketball” was one of my favorites, but everyone swears to a different variety. Other common varieties were “Puyat”, “Duyaya”, “Kod”, and “Aroncillo”. All are simply scrumptious to me. I bought some puyat durian, which the vendor opened and then spooned the pods into a bag for me. They’re such a delicacy and I couldn’t believe how cheap it was there at the source during peak season. I was in the front seat of a jeepney in traffic when we came to a long stop. Knowing how some people hate and some people loved the smell of durian, I asked the driver next to me if it was okay if I opened the bag and ate some of the durian teasing my nostrils from within. “You like durian?” He asked. “Love it!” I said. “Okay, no problem! There durian everywhere see?” “Yes, I’ve seen.” So I opened it up and ate one after another until I’d finished the whole thing. The other passengers behind me were split right down the middle. Those on the left couldn’t restrain their giggles at the sight of a white “Americano” stuffing his face full of the controversial fruit. Those on the right glared at me, restraining their own smirks, because they hated the smell of durian. I was so satisfied by the end that I really didn’t care. I was nourished with happiness bursting my seams.
|This is where donated shoes go - a store that sells them somewhere in SE Asia|
The candle dance is a traditional Philippine dance usually performed by groups of women but occasionally by couples. It is elegant, extremely difficult, and moving. These were girls aged 16-20 or so preparing for a competition the next day. The sun was down, the lights were out, and the candles were lit. Standing behind a crowd of supporters and passersby, I was captivated. With tall flames on their heads and hands, the danger element of Filipino dancing arts was masterfully displayed for all to see. The serendipity and serenity of those moments spanned less than an hour but seemed to mold space and time around those 20 girls. It was one of my more enduring memories of the Philippines.
|Jun Jun, Dev and Christian|
A few days later, I finally made it to Ponce Suites in an obscure neighborhood of Davao. I’d heard from my friend Pi about this 5-story inn run by an artistic genius. It took a few tries to find it, but I knew I’d made it because the street was littered with bus-sized sculptures before you even came into view of the place. Every inch of the place is covered in art that was constantly circulating, each piece making a profound statement about the human condition or power relations. The top floor felt like we were inside his brain, seeing how his mind worked in exquisite detail. Words won’t do it justice, so here are a series of photos:
|Inside a durian|
Philippine Eagle Foundation
I finally said goodbye to my hosts in the best way I could think to: over durian. I gave special thanks to Jun Jun and Dev. Jun had talked about wanting to rebuild the lean-to, so I invested in a high-quality hammer, nails, and good work gloves (things Filipino construction workers never see in their entire careers). Dev’s guitar was broken down and needed work. I’d bought parts and strings and fixed it up nice for him. I was sad to leave, but I had butterflies over the prospect of moving on to another country in SE Asia for the first time since I arrived in the Philippines 14 months earlier.
The Foundation was amazing in that they rescued and protected birds that were in trouble, but the sight of birds in a cage will forever make me sad. The Philippine Eagle is my spirit animal. I’d dreamt of it, studied and worn a pendant of one around my neck for most of my journey through the Philippines. Being able to interact with them and with other Philippine raptors was something really special. The merchandise vendors near the entrance seemed to sense my excitement and playfully tickled the reason out of me.
Tony was expecting me and played gracious host for a few more beautiful days. I said goodbye one last time, made my way to the airport, and, for reasons I’d rather not disclose in a public forum, nervously endured quite the adventure actually getting on the plane. But when I was on my way to Singapore, the tears of loss and joy trickled down nearly the entire 90 minutes in the air.