Originally published January 23, 2012
‘Hi Laura! Come in, come in! How are you? How have you been? What are you doing in Talisay?’
It was as if two old friends had just reunited after a long time apart. Not like two strangers who were brought together through a set of random moments in a random encounter.
Neneng didn’t even ask me about how I’d met her sister who gave me her number; she handed me slippers, sat me down and asked me about my time in Negros. Some five minutes after my arriving her phone rang, she spoke about two words and handed me the phone ‘It’s my other sister, from Manila, she wants to talk to you.’ And so a friendly voice on the other end of the line greeted me and invited me to stay at her place when I go to Manila.
I was introduced to the lead characters of my weekend. Rosalie, a young girl (my age) who lives with Neneng, and her mother who cooks for Neneng. Another lady whose name I forget helps Neneng during the week. Anyone who is slightly better off has help, there is always someone busying around peoples’ homes cooking and cleaning. This lady’s niece, Sarah, joined us and stayed with us for the rest of my time at the Hacienda.
Neneng is a warm lady, I reckon in her 50’s, she talks slowly and calmly. I had called her the day before, asking if I could come by and she said yes, anytime, and instantly told me what all we were going to do while I was here. She invited me to spend the night and when I said I hadn’t any sleepover gear with me, Rosalie came out and handed me a pair of white shorts and a pink t-shirt to change into.
Just like that.
chapel of cartwheels
We set off for our first visit, The Hacienda. First I was shown the probably most prominent tourist attraction on the island, the chapel made out of cartwheels.
Neneng’s cottage is next to it. And literally, the chapel is made out of cartwheels, placed in a circular frame, making it an open round church. The benches inside where made out of robust wood planks, by the community, I was told. The altar was a big stone, from the beach. The candlesticks where parts of a mill that used to grind corn. The mosaic in the cartwheel windows was made out of bits from glass bottles. Very pleasing, quaint, inviting.
Then we walked across a grass patch, past two horses. Past a pond, in which two carabao (national animal, it’s an ox) were bathing and snorting loudly, to the Monseñor’s house, the ‘big house’.
The big house is a huge old mansion built in 1913 and remained in the Gaston family ever since.
Father Gaston is the head of this community of farmers who all work on the sugar plantation that belongs to and is run by the family. They all speak very dearly of him. We walked around his house and it was impressive, like stepping back in time; massive verandas, high ceilings, dark wood, grand staircase, creaky floors, faded pictures… I half expected to come across house ghosts, and I feel they would have been friendly! It was quite a change of scenery to the other places I’d seen on this trip; one can tell that it used to be very majestic and obviously marked by the Spanish Era – as is the vastly spread Catholicism.
The hacienda is a sugar plantation. Sugar cane is, with rice, a main product of the Philippines. The farming of the two, as well as the logging industry that doesn’t replant trees taken down, are responsible (so some people have been telling me) for the fact that the dense rainforests on the islands have been deforested down to 3% of the mass they had just 100 years ago.
The farm workers and their families live on the plantation. They all have their own houses with little yards, some have animals, all have coal barbecues to cook on and have their washing out on Saturdays. I noticed that, although very basic, these homes all looked very tidy and clean.
As we walked past the neighbouring house we met Rosalie’s mother, who was weaving a gorgeous basket in her doorway. Next door, another lady was weaving placemats. At this point Neneng explained that the people, often the women, of the community do a lot of handicrafts to help them be sustainable in the low farming seasons.
The products are sold in their own little gift shop at the entrance of the Hacienda, where Sarah works, and in a larger shop in Bacolod. They even export the goods through a network that the Monsenor’s nephew’s wife has set up.
sugar cane plantation
We walked through the sugar cane plantation on a footpath to the ‘hanging bridge’ which had been built across a stream not all too long ago, connecting this community with the neighbouring community owned and run by the mayor of Manapla. This hanging bridge now enables the kids from Rosalia to walk to the school of this community.
We went to the school, which I will say, was pretty nice and from what I can tell, well equipped. Colourful and with open windows, lots of flowers and, like in all the schools I’ve seen in the world recently, lots of drawings.
I tend to visit schools. Such as the playschool in Bella Vista, Bolivia, for the kids from the mountain communities, the one in Wirrabara, South Australia, for farmer’s kids from far away homesteads and the one in Mission Viejo, Southern California, where my friends Emily and Ethan go to school. I liked the feel of it; again, simple, but complete.
There was commotion in the village. Little kids were playing on the sports field next to the school, women were sitting around them, many tricycles and mopeds were parked at the entrance of the village and loud men voices and rooster cries were to be heard.
Saturday is the day of cockfights, I learned; I had earlier learned of this “sport” in The Philippines when we went to the cottage in the North Negros forest.
Men and boys were perched on bleachers made of bamboo, around them there were many drink and barbeque booths like at any fair.
I chose not to go any further. A choice I already regret as it would have been such a unique tradition to experience, but at that moment I had no desire to see a cockfight. Also, I was kinda the talk of the town, a woman, and blonde… I just didn’t fancy that kind of attraction while watching something quite as cruel as roosters made to kill each other.
My hosts were relieved, neither Neneng nor Rosalie enjoy cockfights.
As we walked back, from the houses of the village I could hear the unmistakable sound of karaoke – little did I know that just about everyone has a karaoke machine (of all the things you chose to have) and little did I know that, just a few hours later, I would be blaring ‘Never been to me’ into a crackling microphone myself.
We had lunch at the house; it had been miraculously prepared while we were about. A lush cooked meal of Filipino delicacies. I had been pretty steady on a raw food diet for about a week and Neneng was out to treat me to the real local cooking.
to the beach
Now I’d been on this island for almost two weeks. Talisay and Bacolod appear to be seaside towns, when looking at a map, but I had not yet seen the sea (Simone told me they were horrible harbour fronts).
Literally, in the plane I sat on an aisle seat so I didn’t even see the sea through the window. So yay, I was going to see the beach, finally!
We took our own tricycle; I was introduced to ‘boy’, our driver. He also lives next door. Everybody lives ‘next door’. I like it, it is that omni-present sense of community, the sense of ‘next door’. And everybody knows each other. He drove us to another next village (villages are also ‘next’ door, or ‘next-down-the-road’) five minutes down the dirt road.
This village lives off fishing, seafood. Again, this little community was out and about, boys were playing basketball on the central ‘place’, everybody else was sat around, watching. Watching me as we appeared. There were now four of us, Neneng, Rosalie, Sarah and me, and we were joined on our walk by a gentleman I forget the name of. He still plays baseball, I was told by Neneng, ‘at his age’ – he was in his 70s, so why not!?
the beach was a dump
The beach was AWFUL! Awful! Now I like to look away from things I don’t like, I will not glorify the bad. But this just needs to be said. The beach was a tip. A dump. Full of plastics and papers, wrappings, containers, fishing nets and tools, flip flops (it’s the national shoe and apparently it retires here).
A LOT of education on household trash needs to happen. That said, I am not entirely sure if trash IS collected at all… I must research it.
But c’mon, surely anyone can see that the beach doesn’t look nice like that!?
‘Boy’ then took us to the next town, Victorias, on the tricycle. I’d only taken the tricycle to very close destinations, here we went about 10km. On the main road. Hairy. Loud. And gosh, the pollution! I must think to pack my scarf to put around my nose and mouth in these situations.
We shopped for dinner at the main market, for everything but the crabs that we’d selected at the village earlier in the day. So far I had paid nothing. I was being treated like a princess, like a very important visitor for no apparent reason except spontaneous generosity.
I was happy to be allowed to pay for some of the food…
Back home, we karaoke’d, as mentioned above, until dinner was ready.
The cottage was made of concrete walls and a tin roof, that weren’t connected to each other. So it was, in effect, an open cottage. At one point I counted 10 geckos of all sizes crawling on the walls. Interestingly, I didn’t mind so much, I must be getting used to them…
After our meal of crabs that we brought along from the beachside community, I was presented with pristine pink silky pijamas to wear and a fluffy towel.
The shower, like the one I described in the mountains, was a big bucket of water. But either I had acclimatised or it wasn’t so much the bucket itself as the mud brought in from the rain around it in Patag that had disturbed me, but taking a ‘shower’ here, out of a bucket, was the lushest of moments. And how good it felt to wash off the pollution, the dust, the sunscreen and the mosquito repellent before going to bed. BED! I got to sleep in a proper bed. Granted, it was still a piece of foam, but it was on a frame; it was the first time in two weeks that I wasn’t on the floor.
Neneng and Rosalie shared a bed that night; I slept in Rosalie’s bed in the same room.
Mass is at eight. ‘We leave the house when we hear the opening song being sung’.
I like going to masses in different places, and of different religions, too. The vibrating gospel mass with my godmother Sally in LA two weeks ago and this one semi-open air with guitar and song just show how a catholic mass can be quite uplifting, too. I can’t get over how dreary and sad they are at home. What’s different?
Maybe our sense of community as a whole…
meeting the Gastons
Keeping up with the massive spontaneous generosity I was receiving, we were invited to brunch, together with the padre, to his nephew’s house after mass. I don’t know how I hadn’t seen their house when I arrived; it is a big farmhouse revealing that these people are of a different social calibre.
I am happy I got to meet Joey and Ina. He’s the business man, the head of the plantation; she is a designer and runs the arts & crafts business.
I enjoyed talking to him, he explained how sugar was ‘made’, which I didn’t know yet (so, the juice is extracted from the cane, the juice is boiled and boiled and boiled in four different containers, until it turns to syrup. This again is heated and constantly stirred as last liquid evaporates and crystals form. This leaves raw brown sugar. In a nutshell.).
He told me about the farm, the sugar industry, and the tragedy of the deforestation (because I asked).
All in all I got a lot of basic information a visitor wants know about, it was a very good exchange, a kind I had actually been missing so far. Simone and Ramke have been telling me their own stories; they are both so passionate about earth and what Western economy does to it that it was hard to get a bigger picture from them. I like their picture, don’t get me wrong, I definitely share it, too – and it surely has a great part in my view that has now been completed a bit more.
They all want to meet Simone; I told her about her community projects and interest in helping them produce and sell their crafts for an income. I think this contact would be a great one, if they do get together and find agreements. I will certainly promote their meeting while I am here.
The padre gave me a ride back to Talisay in the evening; he was going to the Archbishop’s birthday party.
Back at Chyd’s, the band was rehearsing in the living room for their concert. And I felt home again.
What a weekend. My weekend!
What an experience, I can’t describe how grateful I am to have made that one random encounter in a random moment.