Tuesday, July 01, 2003

from the forrest

I check out from the Pension House early morning. We head to an outlying barrio known as Mat-i that sits on the edge of Surigao. There is a brand new festival here, the Banwahon Festival in celebration of the Santa Cruzan. They are the first baranggay to have their own festival, usually it's just cities and towns that have festivals.

Apparently, Surigao is really into festivals and street dancing. Banwa is a word meaning forrest. Groups of mostly young people line in costume. The rules of this performance is that they are to have costumes made of natural material and that they use only a handful of colors. Many of the costumes are dried leaves or grasses. We head up along the crowd to where the judges are sitting. The groups are required to do a choreography in the street then one in the gymnasium.

Jun tells me the beat the drummers are playing is distinctly Surigao. Surigao is recognized for its street performances and has won the open division of the Sinulog in Cebu several times.

There is one group in particular that Jun and his students have been working with, they are called the Memanua. They are the indigenous group of this area, also known as the Aetas of Mindanao, they share similar African features: tight curly hair, darker skin, etc. Many of them have become a part of regular Philippine society. Many are Christian and they are slowly losing their language and rituals with each passing generation.

Jun and his students go to these areas with pen and paper trying to document the memories of elders. In order to find out what their dances and rhythms were, he simply lets them play and move. Even when they say they don't know how to dance, he just tells them to move. And somewhere there is a rhythm that emerges and a way of moving that comes through. I can see how they need to be careful of not influencing what this movement is or what it should be. They have to do a lot more listening. Jun tells me their rhythm is quite distinct and I can hear it in the drums as their group is set to go for the street performance portion.

Each group does various choreography. Some of them raise each other up on shoulders. There is always one, usually a woman holding the cross. At one point, she shouts, "Viva Santa Cruz!" and the rest shout "Viva!" sometimes while bowing low before the cross. There's a part of me unnerved by this. I am struck by layers of emotion and contradiction. Part of it is because as an American, I'm just not exposed to religion on a constant basis. Part of it is this uneasy feeling about bowing so low to a religious icon. Though I am catholic, God for me is not a deity to be bowed to or strictly commanded by. For me, God is intimate and surrounds me.

It's the feeling I get when I can't reconsile what seems to be exclusive opposites. It is simply irony that I am not accustomed to.

After watching a few of the groups, we proceed up the road to the gymnasium where the stands are already packed with folks. Jun score us some folding chairs and we sit on the more priviledged stage side of the gym. The heat is getting to me and I'm literally falling asleep. I manage to stay awake enough to watch the Memanua's healing ritual. Their Babaylan dances around the "sick" child while holding a bowl with fire, then with the cross in hand. A Memanea man wearing a priest's robes, starch white, carries a bible and simply watches from the side.

It's almost noon. I've been up for 6 hrs. We leave Mat-I and need to catch a ferry to San Jose Island for a beauty pageant that Jun is judging. On the way back we stop at a chapel. There are some kids playing see-saw in an old canoe shell. I take their picture having fun.

Inside the chapel is a statue of the Santo Nino. This one is black. They tell me that 25 years ago it was stolen and sold to the Ayala family. This barrio was able to retrieve it because it's unique. This Santo Nino has got what a Ken doll doesn't, it has a penis. When they located it, it was naked. In the chapel it is fully clothed. They say that when it was lost it took the good luck away from the barrio. With its return, it has brought great fortune.

We get to the ferries at 2. There are numerous bangkas, most that are marked to hold 75-80 persons, but I don't know if they calculate all that cargo weight in that total. The bangkas go to many of the outlying islands. The closest ones are still part of Surigao City, the rest are part of the province. We are heading to San Jose, Dinagat Island.

We board one boat. There are tightly packed wooden benches inside. You have to climb bent over to get to a seat. Let me tell you, in an emergency, there ain't no quick exit. After getting situated, Jun finds out it's the wrong ferry. We quickly get off. Two ferries down we find the proper one.

Once seated we wait. Wait for the boat to fill. Wait for the cargo to come on. While we wait, we watch as the coast guard boards the ferry next to us and orders people off the ferry. It's overloaded. Some people get kicked off. Because of this, we wait again, so the Coast Guard can check our ferry to make sure it's not overloaded. I don't mind this kind of waiting, I'd rather not make the evening news. (A week after I return to the US, there's news of a ferry accident in Manila Bay. Overcrowded vessel.)

Jun tells me that the beauty pageant is run by the Philippine Beneveolent Missionaries Association. I've never heard of them. Nearly everyone in the town is a part of this organization. He chit-chats with some of the women on board. He tells them I'm from San Francisco, they ask if that's San Francisco, Surigao del Norte. He answers, no, San Francisco, CA, USA. About 10 minutes north of Surigao is a city called San Francisco. In many ways, I'm not too far from home.

We are finally off. Back on the water again. My whole trip has been spent near or in and around the water. It's been great!

About an hour later we reach San Jose. I quickly follow Jun. He doesn't speak much, tells the officer in the port that we are judges and we proceed past him. We ride a motorbike, otherwise known as habal-habal. He takes us to an elementery school where we are greeted by Jun's friend Ben, a fellow teacher.

There's an hour before the show. We have merienda. The mosquito repellant is wearing out. While I eat the sandwich, the mosquitos are eating me.

We are asked to write a short introductory bio. I find out that I will be judging as well. I'm not sure how qualified that makes me, but I'm game. Usually, I have a lot of political issues with beauty pageants, including how and what they promote as beauty. But, I can't refuse my curiosity at seeing one in the Philippines.

The only beauty pageant I ever attended was one for Miss Trans-World. A pageant for transgender and transvestite women in San Francisco for Filipino Task Force on AIDS. I highly recommend it!

We are seated at the judges table. There are video cameras taping what will be broadcast throughout the island. They own the cable company and do their own programming. The other 3 judges are 2 doctors and a pharmacist who grew up in San Jose. There are maybe about a hundred people in the audience.

They serve us each a bottle of coca-cola. There is a folder with score sheet and pencil. This will be the talent portion which will count for 10% of their overall score. We stand for the anthems. The show is about to begin...

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