ANGER is a language I understand well. A woman stormed in and out the meeting at the makeshift school. Angry, she punched the table and demanded for the promises of free shovels and hammers. It had been delayed for a month or so, she claimed. After venting out her grievances, she walked down the slope and resumed her job—to plant corn.
Interested, we followed her down. From a safe distance, the unfinished building looked exactly like what it was: ugly and incomplete.
The woman and her fellow parents bored a hole on the hill, dropped a single binhi—a corn seed—bored a hole again in the midst of the thriving camote vines, and dropped a seed again. Out from this seemingly random act came the corn’s uniform thickness growing on some hills.
The nearby slope was weedless, clean, the soil as dark as my hair. Only kaingin could achieve such an instant clearing. Nanay A said, the rainforest was gradually disappearing. The T’Bolis were pushed farther and farther away from their ancestral domain.
She pointed to the forest S and I looked at earlier.
“I’m convincing the T’Bolis to protect that.” She tugged my arm and brought me to a corner where we could see the forest. She looked straight into my eyes, her eyes mirrored the tone of her voice: desperate. Until now, I wondered why she sounded and looked so. Was it because she knew it was my task to write about her and her works, and I needed convincing? Was it because deep in her heart, she knew her single act of philanthropy would not really change much? Did she sense it: my wariness and doubtfulness of everything?
The land near the forest toiled by the T’Bolis was now owned by a lowlander—a word used for people, mostly Ilokanos, who made their home within the territories of the T’Bolis. The lot, the farmers warned us, also housed tungaw: the invisible blood-sucking monsters that could find their way to nether regions.
Here, the people knew what grew on their lands. Here, they felt what they could not see. Here, they asked what tribe you were from. Because they know what and who they are: T’Boli.
“Ikaw? Anong tribu ka?” was a question I did not see coming.
“Bisaya?” I answered with the certainty of doubt. If the woman pressed further, she would have found my lack of faith. It was too vague an answer.
Year after year, the T’Boli, the original settlers, were pushed farther to the highlands, away from their lakes. As of 1991, 68, 282 T’Bolis in Socckssargen were recorded in the National Museum census. It has been more than two decades.
“Ang iba kasi sa kanila, mangmang,” Nanay A said while crying. By mangmang she meant, too trusting, too kind to the point of gullibility.
Here, the people did not know the wealth of their land. Here, they accepted, as long as there was a place for them to be pushed, they would be fine. Here, they did not understand the idea of land titles.
But they knew the land was theirs. They knew.
It reached me through Facebook, a place too virtual, too intangible, too infinite compared to something so finite and final: death, her death.
After we finished our verifying task, before we left for General Santos, we decided to drop by her place.
It was raining hard, I remember, and the baby in the duyan—a blanket tied to the roof braces—was sound asleep; while the women’s hands in the weaving house were fully awake: pummeling the woven abaca, stitching a delicate design, rubbing the pummeled abaca with a seashell.
She arrived in her traditional costume, which she purposely wore for the visitors. We, the outsiders, wanted to see her that way: Lang Dulay, the dreamweaver. An illusion that her culture was not dying yet; that everything was all right, she was still wearing her tribe.
But of course, we knew what the real course was. She became a tourist attraction, someone visited by the outsiders, someone to have a selfie or a portrait with.
Some knew she was an icon without really fully knowing what she was an icon for, but facts like these are just a Google search away: President Fidel Ramos awarded her the Manlilikha ng Bayan in 1998.
She sat by the window, obviously old and tired, approachable for photos, yet seemingly detached. I hugged her like a kid and kissed her temple to make her feel I was interested in Lang Dulay, the woman, the mother, the grandmother, the dreamweaver. She giggled—a sign perhaps that the detachment, the wall between us had cracked.
Days after our visit, she was rushed to the hospital for a serious stroke and was admitted for 40 days. Showing no sign of recovery and with a mounting bill to think of, her family decided to bring her home, where she hung on for two more months before her body finally gave up on her.
Lake Sebu is one of the exotic destinations in the Philippines, said a blog entry I saw on Facebook. I wondered what was so exotic about Lake Sebu. I must ponder the word exotic here. The Lake Sebu I have read about online, the photos of Lake Sebu I saw online and the Lake Sebu I have experienced may have some resemblance, but in retrospect, they are not the same.
Nobody told me there were many resorts skirting around the lake already, mostly owned by lowlanders. Nobody told me the habal-habal drivers were slowly adapting the tourists’ rate: the P10 fare becoming P20.
I am wary. I am wary of words like exotic. But perhaps it takes tourism to preserve Lang Dulay’s culture. A friend said, the culture has been long dead, long before her death. None of the locals are doing the t’nalak for the sake of safekeeping. Everyone does it for money, perhaps to buy formula for the baby sleeping inside the showroom, next to his mom pummeling the rough fabric. It takes five women to finish the intricately designed t’nalak table runner. It takes them more than a month to complete one. The handwoven fabric is meant to be sold to us, the outsiders, who most of the time, do not really have a thousand pesos or two to spare for a table runner.
I bought a kala, blonso, and t’sing to assuage the guilt.
I lost the blonso. The t’sing, a spiral brass ring, was split into two. I wore the other half on my right thumb, the other missing. Or dead.
Egrets abandoned the coiling branches by the lake and took flight. An old man’s owong pained the stillness of the early morning water. The reflection of the massive tilapia sign was as still as the January sky. At the edge of the lake, the ranges were of two shades of light and softness: this is the Lake Sebu everyone had—serene, as serene as the pink lotus floating on the lake.
Before joining everyone for a tilapia-filled breakfast, I walked by the lake, once with Aldo to take photos of the lake skimmed by the fog and soft light. Once I crossed the dirt road alone and followed a small path to the lake on the left. I followed the shrill of happy voices and soon found the source: three girls jumped from the owong and splashed each other with the icy lake water. The water rippled, the pink lotus danced on the surface. A mother duck guided her brood to the other end of the lake.
If there was one thing I wished, it was that Lake Sebu never forgets to live—it is this very scene of innocence and simplicity.
I left the scene with the thought of the two young sisters who danced onuk to the tune of hagalong up in Tasiman. On the wall of the makeshift school, there was a poster providing a brief lesson on body parts: an arrow pointing to a blue eye and stated “eye”.
But the kids were oblivious to this: these little details I often see—the I who eyes, ‘miseyes’, ‘overeyes’ things. So, imitate they did a bird I did not know.
Dance. Dance. Their feet took tiny steps, never missing the beat. Taking the lead, the snotty-nosed older sister wearing a faded Barbie dress turned around and encouraged her shy younger sister to do the same.
As long as these two young girls and many others celebrate their birds, their rivers, their lakes, their trees, everything will be fine.
*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.