Thursday, June 26, 2003

batcave, guerillas, and war

I had dinner the previous night with Jun and some of his former students who had come back to help him with the arts summer program. Surigao is a relatively small city where just about everyone know just about everyone else. It's part of the reason that June decided that if he was going to live here, 15 years ago, better to be totally out about his sexuality. We eat at a seafood restaurant on the coast. That's essentially all I've been eating. And why not? The seafood is incredible here! We order kilawin: fresh fish "cooked" in a marinade of vinegar, onions and some pepper.

They discuss where I should go the next day. His students have heard of a cave nearby that a lot of the locals have been going to. Sige! game!

At 6am, they pick me up at Tavern. I bring my stuff with me. Most of my big luggage I leave at someone's home and only take a bag of stuff for the remaining days. I've switched to the nomad life, only taking what I need. We take a tricycle out to an outlying barrio, quite a ways out of town. Even here, Jun has former students. Even this far away they travel all the way to Surigao High School. The distance is so far that they must get home soon after school or else there are no more rides up the hill.

Surigao was the first place that the flag was raised after the war. I'm not exactly sure which war they mean: Philippine-American or WWII. These caves we are heading to were where the guerillas used to hide out in. There are 28 in all.

We go to the baranggay captain's home and pick up a couple of local guides, who bring along a kerosene lamp and flashlight. It's a 15-20 minute walk into a forrested area. Not too dense, the locals have trodden a path through, though there are some areas that we must scamper over rocks/boulders. I can barely keep up with the rest of them. We reach the mouth of the cave, which is huge with the stalagtite and stalagmite teeth. Our guides tell us that this is a much harder way to get through, better to enter from the other side, so we trek some more.

We reach the second entrance to the cave and enter. It's still damp and I have to be careful not to slip, the rocks are quite jagged and razor like. We are lucky it hasn't rained it would be much slippier then. I'm wearing my Tevas, but everyone else is either going through in tsinellas/flip-flops or barefeet. It's completely dark except for the lantern and flashlight spots. The ceiling narrows and I have to bend lower.

We reach a large cavern, about 2-3 stories high. They point the lights to the ceiling. There are bats, hundreds of them! On the ground layers of guano. Sometimes the farmers come here and bring the guano back for fertilizer. I'm not usually scared of things, but I'm a bit scared now, as a bats wings whoosh past my ear. I keep telling myself that the bats can "see" better than I can and that they know what they're doing. They really don't want to run into me either.

Jun says, "They say we should get out of here. There are many ants." Now I'm really creeped out. Everyone starts to swat at their legs. He later adds, "no, not ants, what's the translation, cockroaches, there are many cockroaches there." My skin is shivering from the thought. I recall all those PBS specials I had seen on bats, that yes there were all sorts of bugs that feed off of the guano as well as pick up any sick or dying bats that fall to the ground.

We trek a bit more through the caves. I am so concentrated on the ground, I actually hit my head on a rock above. Fortunately I have a hard head. I got to remember to duck.

We enter another cavern. We take pictures next to a curtain of rock, like water frozen. It's no wonder the guerillas hid here. It's a huge maze. Soldiers would have never wanted to traverse so deeply into these places.

Another cavern produces more bats. On the ground we see a couple of pink hairless bats, then look up. It's a nest of baby bats. There must be hundreds of them squished into a packed rectangle above the floor. On adult bat sits in the center, while several other adults manage the edges. There are 4-5 of them on the floor, these must be the weak or sickly ones who could not hang on. They are left for the bugs to claim. Jun picks one up and places it in his palm. I'm very ok with not touching it. There are a mix of emotions: fear, sadness, disgust. The urban American side is coming out of me. The need to separate myself from actual nature and animals. That's why we love Discovery channel. Unlike the scuba diving experience in which I felt like I was at home, this is much more overwhelming. I do what I can to calm myself.

Along another path, we run into a relatively dormant snake. I'm not too scared of it. It's cool in the cave, so he's not moving too fast if at all. We take a picture and move on.

Another larger cavern we take pictures next to what looks like large crystallized boulders. They glisten and sparkle. Quite pretty! We reach another curtain of rock and near the exit. Near the entrance is a small hole in the rocks that the bats fly through. Really amazing! The hole is not much bigger than their bodies with wings closed yet they pass through effortlessly.

We carefully climb over the jagged rocks. Various guides lend me a hand to get me through. I am not too sure footed in these caves. Ay, salamat sa Diyos! We're out! Most of our legs and some of our shorts are covered in the ultra fine volcanic mud. We hike back to the barrio and stop at a laundry area where water from a cold spring is channeled through.

I joke with Jun that this is like "Survivor" or those other reality tv adventure shows. I will tell folks back home that I went through Jun Pilapil's Surigao Survivor/Survival Series.

Jun keeps telling them that I'm a model from the U.S. I tell the younger guide that that's not true. He asks me if I work for the military. I say no, I actually work in computers at a university. He tells me in Tagalog, here in the Philippines it's hard. You work alot but receive so little for it. There, at least, you get dollars, enough to buy something with it.

I have heard this over and over. The desire to leave and get out of the country. The more middle class people I have met usually have either a banking job or work for an NGO (non-governmental organization, ie non-profit) that receives funding from other countries. The NGOs don't pay a whole lot either but tend to pay more than a lot of other jobs. It's part of the reason almost everyone has a store out of there home. Everything is a hustle, a deal. If you ask enough, everything has a price. This becomes more complicated when we begin to talk about indigenous groups and their cultural/historical artifacts, but a post on that later.

We return to town. They drop me off at a new place called a Pension House, kind of like a hotel or inn. It's cheaper to stay here. For $5 US a night, you get a small room that fits a bed, a shower and toilet and a tv, no window, but with air conditioning. I've learned that I could care less about a window so long as there's aircon. They let me rest here. They'll fetch me for dinner this evening.

I'm too tired to even change and just lie down and sleep.

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