Monday, June 02, 2003

Blind Women and Fishermen: Kali the first day

Ros and I get to the plaza across from City Hall. There is a stage, some concrete benches and tennis courts. The Vice-Mayor is into sports and promoted tennis for a bit, so there are several tennis courts throughout the island. The sound system is getting set up. There are groups of men sitting in different areas around the park. Some of them have brought sticks. The whole thing is running late. The Mayor's assistant tells us that we are waiting on the mayor and the vice-mayor is out of town.

I ask Ros if she has a bolo. I need to find a way to impress them and there's nothing like a woman swinging around a knife that gets people intrigued. Bolos and large knives are standard tools particularly in more provincial homes. They use them to clear out vegetation, open coconuts, split wood, etc. Many Philippine swords are not exclusive military weapons: bolos, barangs. The wavy kris and the large kampilan are two of the few real military swords. We take a motorella (a tricycle shaped like a jeepney) down the road to the blacksmith and pick out a bolo there then head back.

It's now 3p, an hour after the scheduled start time. We decide to just start. There's a prayer, opening remarks, introduction of Ros, introduction of me all on a scratchy PA system for maybe 30 people. I say a few things about the lineage of my kali school in the best hackneyed English-Tagalog I can come up with. Then I do a demonstration with the bolo.

3:45pm Time for the snack break and we haven't even started class! The deal is that I get to stay at Tarzan's, teach for free, and the town gives afternoon snacks, usually a juice drink and ensymada or sandwich snack. Filipinos always go where the food is. Ros goes and talks to more mayor office people, while I sit by myself with a soda and sandwich. The Tanods form several groups sitting amongst themselves. There are so many things that set us apart. I only speak English and bad Tagalog. They speak Visayan. I'm this college educated American. They are farmers and fishermen. They are my elders. I'm a woman who is here to teach them what I know about Philippine martial arts. These things: language, region, oceans, gender, education are ways in which Filipino class structure is often separated.

In my past journeys here, I have seen how these things divide people. I have been kept behind the same bars myself. So, how am I to cross these borders, people have told me in the past are not permeable?

I've seen Filipino men freak out when I try to play basketball with them and I'm supposed to teach martial arts?!?

My mind is racing to find a bridge. Find a way to connect us past stereotypes and preconceived notions. In a kali demo I've done with my students, we start with a story that goes, "In a time before time, our people were once warriors, but they were also farmers and fishermen, healers and midwives..." This is not a time before time, but these are the farmers and the fishermen. I feel like I know nothing.

After break I get them form a circle, pick up sticks and teach them how to twirl. It gives me a chance to see all their faces. They're all between 31 and 40 (per the letter from the mayor's office) except for Abe, he looks to be late 40s, peppery hair. He's head of the Tanods. He carries a whistle. Ros tells me he's the one that can get the rest in gear. They listen to him.

I teach them a few more techniques, get them to pair up. I demonstrate striking on one of them. First hitting their stick with mine, moving slow but hitting hard, so he can feel the sting through the stick. Next I strike to the arm looking like it will be a powerful blow but touch with the softest of graces. I don't know if it's convincing.

I pair them up to practice more techniques. Some of them are starting to sit out, watch the others do the techniques. I'm losing them, I'm thinking. I check my watch. It's only 4:30! I'm already worn out mentally. I'm not sure what to teach them next. The mayor's secretary doesn't quite understand the teaching style. He asks me if I should go on the stage and demonstrate and maybe have them line up and follow my movements. Classic Philippine education. Follow, copy. I tell him, it's ok, I want them paired up. There are a few, including Abe, who look like they've picked up a stick before. 4:48. It feels like the heat has slowed down my watch, 5 o'clock doesn't come fast enough.

We finally end the class. I get them to form another circle. Instead of bowing towards me, I simply have them bow to the center of the circle to each other. As they exit out of the circle, everyone shakes everyone elses hands. "Sige, sige, brotherhood." says Abe, referring to a previous explanation I made of clan and the ties that bind them to each other, to their communities. It's my first real affirmation that some kind of communication has occurred. It's going to be a very long week.

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