1

THE healed tears on her earlobes reminded me of a cock’s crest: soft to the touch but arresting to look at. They reminded me of little deaths, the kind I have to live through, to live with every day. Three nomongs dangled from her rugged ears. They were light and made dry little sounds when fondled.

She must have spent the whole morning on her farm behind the range, and was on her way home when she passed by a crowd gathering at the unfinished barangay hall—a structure with a concrete floor, tin roof, and pieces of metal sprouting like unsightly twigs of a dead tree. She still had her fuchsia brim hat on, secured by a blue strap under her chin. She looked as graceful and beautifully aged as her lmimot—a necklace in yellow, black, and red beads—that caressed her neck. She found our fascination with her fascinating. Three cameras were aimed at her—Alexa’s, Aldo’s, and mine. She broke into a toothless smile when Aldo showed her the photos. With mouth agape, Fayat Dalugan looked at her own face on the screen.

I was embarrassed of myself.

I was aware I saw her as someone organic, someone whose identity was both disappearing, yet necessary to the place. I saw her every moment as a piece, a hint of a story, the ruckus behind the stillness of the lakes, the lakes that made her place popular, the lakes that cannot be seen from Tasiman, a place an hour or so away from where the lake is. I was aware I dismissed the woman beside her, who smoothed and combed her oily hair, who wanted to be included in the selfie and be taken as interesting. Almost desperately.

My hunger for the authentic is as strong as the locals’ for the unfamiliar. Or perhaps my authentic and the local’s unfamiliar navigate on the same terrain guised under two different names. Like Fayat’s granddaughter’s. She who had escaped and wanted to prove to the outsiders that she succeeded in doing so.

I could see the hunger in her, the kind of hunger I have for her birthplace.

She looked a lot lighter than the rest; her hair—as stiff as it was rough to look at—was dyed the color of corn hair adorning the mature fat cornstalks on some hills on our way to Tasiman. Just like her grandmother, she wore a pair of dangling earrings like pieces of hanging thread, but hers were made of gold, the same kind my five-year-old niece had. She became our bridge across the little worlds within Lake Sebu: she could speak Tagalog, some of the people around us, especially the ones I wanted to talk to, could not understand any other language beside theirs.

She envied our fascination towards her grandma. And perhaps, she felt betrayed. Perhaps in the back of her mind, her stories were more interesting to tell.

She wanted to talk about the lives outside the mountains. She had been working in Manila and insisted she was here in Lake Sebu for a short vacation, that all of these—the language, the never-ending ranges, the seeming pastorality twinned by naivety—were just passing and should not be taken as integral parts of her life.

“Malayo ba ang Boracay sa Cebu?” she asked after I asked her grandma’s age.

“Medyo. Mas malayo ang Lake Sebu,” I answered.

“Nakapunta na ako do’on,” she informed.

“Maganda ba doon?” I played interested.

“Oo, ang ganda. Ang dami naming nakitang artista.” I forced a smile, my lips pressed tightly together.

“Siya, anong taon na siya?” I asked, while looking at a skinny short-haired girl behind her grandmother. There was something odd about the girl’s hair. There were many baby hairs growing near the crown. Perhaps she had this weird habit of pulling out strands, like I do when stress bugs me. Fayat’s granddaughter asked the girl with a disinterested tone.

I wanted to know; she detested playing bridge.

After saying, “17. May asawa na siya,” she picked up where she had left, “Nakita ko si Angelica doon.” No matter how hard I tried to wheel the talk towards a different road, she would always go back to where she left off.

I found us funny: she who talked about Boracay; me who was interested in her grandmother; she who beamed about Manila, me who wanted to know how many girls at Tasiman married and got pregnant in their teens (there were at least four of them in the gathering)—a custom allowed by the tribal laws; she who force fed her life in Manila, into our conversation, me who snobbishly dismissed her capital stories as not as important.

Both of us were arrogant and naïve in some ways.

Since she could not understand the language around her, Fayat Dalugan stared at the nearby mountains—she must have been thinking about the earth she seeded with corn, waiting, hungry for January rain’s arrival.

2

A talisayon was slaughtered behind the makeshift school.

A local man removed the feathers of the slightly boiled, native young male chicken with the expertise of a father who has done this countless times on his kids’ birthdays.

The killing is always done behind the house, hidden, to spare everyone from the necessary death, from the brutality of slicing a chicken’s throat and letting the blood gush out. Behind him, a young man prepared a massive kaldero for the rice.

The preparation was for us. Outsiders, ironically, get the meal the locals rarely have.

“This was one of the many insurgents’ trails,” S pointed to the edge of the forest, on the right of the man who prepared our meals. Unlike the man, S looked so regal with his uniform and M16.

A thin cloud ascended and stilled over the ranges. The only sounds I could make out were the distanced silence and the noises inherent to gatherings: old women’s murmurs, kids’ shrills. Nearby, two young armies assayed the slope with lollipops in their mouths.

I wondered if our four escorts really entertained the possibility of an encounter. Or did they just oblige because we were the so-called media on assignment: the four of us—Aldo, Alex, Che-che, and I—were tasked to verify Nanay A’s works for the Indigenous People.

“Ang mga tao dito takot sa uniporme,” he said while accompanying us to a group of farmers planting corn by the nearby slope. I wonder which uniform he was talking about. Theirs? Or the other party’s? Or were the people here scared of the archetypal message it conveyed regardless of the party represented: intimidation, authority, danger, fear?

“Narinig mo ’yong lalaki kanina? Sabi nya, ’salamat, NPA.’ Di niya sinabing ‘PNP.’” He was referring to the only man who joined the women farming by the slope.

S’s boots squeaked with every step he took. I just walked beside him, my steps as light, as silent, as my gaze fixed on the imposing mountains behind the ugly building.

I always find danger real, yet so overrated. I have not experienced danger too terrible that I can claim I have undergone something terrifying. The dangers I have seen involved some others’ lives, mostly framed by media’s trained eye. Every time I chance upon news from Mindanao, I find myself wondering what kind of life there is outside the chosen angle?

The only thing murdered on our trip was a talisayon whose soup always reminds me of cornfields, a centuries-old mango tree, and a duyan tied to a molave that has been long gone. Childhood.

3

I did not entertain death. My mind could only process the possibility of scrapes and punctures.

The dirt road to T’nuos doubled as a river. Constant floods drilled the roads. Concerned about my safety, the habal-habal driver kept on asking if I was all right, if I was scared, after all, the motorbike navigated through a narrow, slippery path as wide as an anaconda’s back I saw slithering on the NatGeo channel, after all I was a woman in a regal flowing pink skirt, after all I was a woman.

“Anad na ko,” I said. I trusted the drivers. The roads, in all their corrupt states, must be one of the few things they knew by heart, like a poem. They knew every pothole; they memorized every curve.

I’m used to navigating through these ill roads anywhere in the country, but haven’t accepted their very existence.

The road to T’Nuos was very telling. It tells the state of the elementary education kids get: rough and inconsistent. Inside the classroom, a nipa hut, whose wide windows’ thresholds were anchored at the bottom, Dunisa—a young volunteer teacher—taught the kids the English equivalent for greetings like hyu h’lafus.

T’Boli is the main medium of instruction, the language everyone can talk and understand. It is a language full of words trapped in the throat. The letter f’s wide use in northern Luzon and southern Mindanao languages must be one of the reasons of its inclusion in the current Filipino alphabet.

Armed with her own language, the confident Dunisa pointed to the words she wrote on the board and guided the kids in their pronunciation.

Far from her hometown, she stayed with a local family and went back home on weekends.

An hour or so later, after a class demonstrated especially for us, Aldo posted a photo on Facebook with the kids and Dunisa in her kgal nisif and suwat lmimot with this caption: Dunisa and some other volunteer teachers of the Indigenous People program in the area offer an inspiring insight into the true meaning of passion as they dedicate their lives to the upliftment of the lives of these tribesmen. Imagine, they only get paid P500 a month! Way below that of average school teachers - and they’re not even complaining. They’ve found real joy and satisfaction in their work.

They are not even complaining. They have found real joy and satisfaction with their work. I wondered how much of this was true. Dunisa was aware we were from the “media,” a term I distrust, mainly for its imperfections and limitations. She knew we were verifying the philanthropic works of a fellow teacher, someone she admired a lot. Oftentimes, her salary arrived late, a salary donated by a T’Boli councilor.

I wonder if Dunisa talked about joy and satisfaction once she got back home with nothing but some dirty clothes.

*Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and is a slave to two cats. She is scared out of her wits about traveling five Asian countries this August. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona or on her blog Backpacking with a Book.