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The Haunted

I was haunted inside, but not by ghosts. I was looking for something that I already knew but could not name. A kind of knowing.

I live on a land where nothing is as it appears.  What seems inanimate houses spirits, and regarded with fear; and though Church authorities frown upon this belief, I know that errant spirits are not necessarily what need to be feared. Fear has always played a dominant force in my life—don’t play on the street, you might get kidnapped; don’t let men touch you, for you now bleed and can carry children; don’t go there, in the dark, where other unspeakables lie.  To lie on the grass, sunlight on my skin, the sweet air caressing my hair, lulling me into a dreamless sleep, was an elusive prize.

Yet the narrowness of my world could not quell my imagination. Wisps in the corner of my eye were simply a prelude to the recognition that would leap in my heart upon encountering Things of ineffable truth. I was haunted inside, but not by ghosts. I was looking for something that I already knew but could not name. A kind of knowing.

The midday sun can burn through ghosts, they say. Yet what of the spirits that we are, housed inside our temporal bodies? Would human skin behave as a prism or a blindfold when exposed to blinding light?

It was a visit to a community of Aetas in Pampanga, a requirement for Theology class, that would bring me in touch with the beginning of an answer to my yearning.  We were a group of about 15 Manileños from a private Catholic university. The government had “gifted” the displaced Aetas with hollow-block houses, each 40 square feet, the bathrooms made of mud walls and ceramic toilet bowls without running water. At the hot and dusty Madapdap resettlement area, we were supposed to experience what it meant to be “rural poor”.

We were divided into pairs, each pair assigned to an Aeta household. We gamely got to know our Aeta family: Nanay Erlinda, Tatay, their daughter Cathy and her husband Randy, the grandchildren Raymond, Rachel, Rosemarie, Rosalie and Ruel. They were unbelievably tiny, bird-boned and malnourished. Rosemarie, who was seven years old, looked like she was barely two or three. She was weak because the entire family had not eaten in two days. I broke the rules and gave them the canned goods and rice that we were supposed to present to them on the last day as presents. I felt guilty, but not because I broke the rule. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. When I handed them what I thought was a paltry offering, their eyes momentarily lost the faraway, haunted expression. Being reminded of their bodily needs pulled them back to the realm of the living.

Living under the shadow of Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption and the most recent “occupation” by U.S. Clark Air Base (can you taste the irony?), they spoke Kapampangan and Tagalog and called their own language by the lowlander’s terminology for inferior: Baluga.  Baluga was also katutubo (native), and katutubo was “other”.  Their inferiority was a foregone conclusion and I blanched at their noncommittal acceptance of this label.

Labels crept into all areas of their lives: their katutubo spirituality was “bad,” their community watak-watak (fragmented), their hollow-block homes too “dirty” for lowlanders to visit.  Our presence invited much interest, for “Why would rich Manileños deign to visit those dirty, uneducated, inferior Balugas?” sneered the unat (straight-haired) population.   Their regard was a barely concealed contempt for these tiny people who stood barely 4 feet, these miniature Shirley Basseys with big brown eyes and lashes so long they touched their upper lids, hair wildly curly, mahogany skin burnished by the sun. 

Even more than a decade after the eruption, the earth looked raw, the ground ripped into swathes of grey and black in wetly green countryside.

And yet we were all, as the concept of nation dictates, Filipino. On the surface, the sun with its three stars determined our identity. Looking into their eyes, I felt that I was looking at a past life I didn’t know I had. In the shadows of our uncommon history, I sensed something deeper, under the ground, deep where I could no longer see or smell or hear but simply feel, a time when foot placed before the other was the way to travel, over land bridges, over mountains and plains, until they traveled over time into the present, arriving untouched by my blood, eyes wide open before me, guileless and surprised, mouth smiling underneath. They looked back at me, slightly awe-struck by my fair skin and Oriental eyes and round shape, and felt, as I have many times in my life, “other”, yet for once I knew that this was no rejection, simply novelty. I had obviously traveled here, too, from somewhere else. We were all travelers, I realized. One foot in front of the other.

Our hosts took us on a trek through mountainous forests, in search of a waterfall. Taking hired jeepneys full of children and packed lunches into Clark Airbase, we passed by abandoned US military houses overwhelmed by ash fall and hardened lahar, disappearing slowly as the fertile earth reclaimed them. We parked at the start of the trail, and soon we crossed over a wooden and steel pedestrian bridge hanging over a river of lahar. Even more than a decade after the eruption, the earth looked raw, the ground ripped into swathes of grey and black in wetly green countryside.

As we walked uphill through the forest, I heard some of them muttering under their breath. I asked them what they were saying, and they immediately said, “We should not do this, for it is forbidden by the Christians and Mormons, but we cannot help ourselves.”

“Please, don’t let me stop you,” I said.  “It doesn’t bother me.” Not me, who sees shadows from the corners of her eyes.

My reassurance encouraged them to speak their truth. “We need to ask permission from the spirits to pass through the forest. Something might happen if we do not ask.”

The sun, its rays diffuse behind thick cloud cover, still communicated its warmth on our stiff, citified bodies. We grunted up the hill, sweat trickling down from under baseball caps and neat ponytails. The Aetas, unencumbered by fast food fat and the luxury of three square meals a day, flew up the mountain. Soon we encountered a set of concrete houses, a school. An Aeta community had gone back to the mountain with the help of foreign funding. These mountain dwellers regarded us with deep suspicion, asking our guides why they were taking strangers up to their land. “Are they going to do anything? Will they help us? Or do they just want to gawk at us?” Hot words between the Aetas were thrown, lowland and mountain Aetas marking their respective territories.

“They are good for nothing if they will do nothing for us.”

The lowlanders led us further, but shame briefly veiled their eyes. The labels had followed us nimbly up the mountain.

We moved as one, using signs and sounds only we could decipher, signals that warned danger or called for celebration. Justice was meted out fairly, an eye for an eye.

Then we arrived at the waterfall, and clothes were quickly shorn to feel blessed cool water on steaming skin. Several banana leaves were laid out on the bank of the creek that proceeded from the waterfall’s pool to create a natural buffet table. Our treasures were soon laid out upon it—cooked rice, tinned food, bread. I only took a small portion, mindful of the fact that most of our companions had not eaten regular meals in God knows how long. I’ll eat when I get back home, I thought. It struck me at that moment that this was their reality, this lack, the hardship and hopelessness and malnutrition. I was simply taking a sojourn into their experience. I was taking a walk in their dream.

Conversations meandered through the group. Tatay Dodong, one of the respected elders, described how they felt as a people before the mountain erupted. His white hair stood stiffly from his faded leathery skin, his eyes deep and black and penetrating. We did not own the land; the land owned us. We moved as one, using signs and sounds only we could decipher, signals that warned danger or called for celebration. Justice was meted out fairly, an eye for an eye. We harvested together, ate together. Our dead were kept under our houses. But this way of life is no more for those who have chosen to stay in the lowlands.

Watak-watak. Makasarili. They had learned the ways of the lowlanders too well.

And, as if to prove a point, he asked for two hundred pesos after he told his story, for jeepney and bus fare to Manila, he said.  His eyes shifted as he asked for this, the expression hardened, needy. And I, burdened with Catholic guilt, colonial guilt, gave him the money. Was I doing it to him, or was it already happening anyway, before the volcano blew? When did the seduction begin? Was this corruption the inevitable conclusion of things, or could we reverse it, bring things back to how they once were? Was innocence, once lost, irretrievably so?

On the trek back, I was quiet and subdued. My mind contained a picture of that Utopic oneness that Tatay Dodong described. In those moments before his eyes turned cold, I could see all of them—feel them—in their ancient domain: free, blessed by sun and earth and rain, knowing who they were, their oneness a way of beauty. I saw myself with them, in this dream that once was, wanting without wanting, knowing every song was of innate worth.

 A crack appeared in the dense, gray sky, and the mid afternoon sun burned more hotly on my skin. My sneakers squelched into the soft earth, my inner thighs swishing through wet clothes. I did my best to absorb the wildness of our surroundings, not knowing if a trek such as this would ever happen again. I surrendered to the burning sun, to the mosquitoes and the grass. For a while, I lost myself, let the heat flay my skin until it burned my body away, until all that was left of me was heat and light, until I knew that there was no difference between my self and the sun.

© Lissa G. Romero

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