Chapter Five: Manobo Of Mindanao
After living one year in Valencia we moved to the city of Davao on the southeastern coast of Mindanao. There we rented a large modern home in an upscale subdivision. That house became the base for OMF people working in tribal areas.
Let me clarify here that the following descriptions of tribal areas represent only a minority segment of Philippine life and culture. There are many large urban areas throughout the archipelago that are as fully modern as anything in the West.
Also, while residing in Davao, someone sent me my first copy of Robert Brinsmead’s journal ‘Present Truth’ (later titled Verdict) which at first sounded too much like Herbert W. Armstrong’s ‘Plain Truth’. It was my first introduction to a man whose essays would function as time bombs to explode my religious ideas and worldview over the coming years. And just like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and breaking into many pieces, so my religion could never be picked up and put back together again.
To The Mountains
Sometime in early 1977, while doing survey in the interior rainforested mountains of Davao del Norte, we discovered the tribal village of Kapatagan about 200 kilometers Northwest of Davao. B and I decided to locate there as it was one of the larger villages of the Langilan (or Ata) Manobo tribal group.
Kapatagan was about 4 hours drive from Davao City by private transportation. But it could take up to two days to reach by public jeepney and logging truck. The journey to the rainforest and back was always an adventure in its own class.
After leaving Davao, we followed the coastal highway north, occasionally seeing flickering views of the dark blue waters of the Davao Gulf through palm trees alongside the road. I came to especially appreciate one place along the highway where a coconut processing plant was located. It blanketed the adjoining area with the pungent though sweet scent of burning coconut. Kind of like the coconut cookies my Mom used to make.
Traveling along the highway we quickly gained an insider’s appreciation of Jess Kidding’s saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Never try to change the habits of an entire country. You will certainly go insane. Adjust to the driving habits of your host country.
A common vehicular confrontation went something like this: two large buses approaching from the opposite direction would follow each other closely while driving at high speed. The following bus could see us coming but would still pull out to pass the other bus, heading straight toward us in our lane. Playing chicken with a bus while riding a motorcycle was just not an option. We had a few seconds to pull over to the shoulder, if the cement road did not immediately drop off a foot or two from recent rain washout. Our only concern was to survive and drive on, sputtering and cursing silently to ourselves about the whole damn crazy culture.
Other times, we avoided the confrontation by riding the buses ourselves. Once, while riding a bus I had an experience of my own Fundamentalist intolerance and contrariness erupting into nasty confrontation with normal decent humanity. I was sitting beside an elderly Filipino man who started talking to me about religion. After responding to his questions about my own religious background, he smiled graciously and said, “You know, even though we have different religions, some Catholic, some Protestant, we are all brothers and sisters, aren’t we?” He was just a nice human being trying to be friendly and connect with another human being. But I stiffened firmly and responded Evangelically, “No, we are not brothers because you must be born again before you can become a member of God’s family”. I meant born again into Evangelical Protestant Christianity, which was the way Protestant Christians understood the term.
He eventually became upset with my stubborn insistence on being loyal to a narrow religious idea. I rejected his kind approach because I was putting faithfulness to my religious ideas before accepting and relating to him as a fellow human being. My harsh response required the inner suppression of my own sense of humanity but afterward I felt pleased that I had done my duty and been faithful to the ‘truth’. I took his displeasure with my harsh stubbornness as the sign of an evil unbeliever reacting to the truth of God. Surely, God would grant me extra blessing or reward for suffering such anger at the hands of an unbeliever.
We finished the bus ride in silence.
Another time a Catholic priest invited me to stop and chat for a while at his residence which was beside the main road. He graciously offered me a cold beer but I stiffly refused his generosity out of my sense of loyalty to my Evangelical lifestyle. I was obligated to resist such temptation to sin in order to be a good testimony to someone who I considered to be a lost unbeliever. Ah, the endless stupidity of placing religion before humanity.
An hour north of Davao the highway entered the provincial capital of Tagum. There we turned west inland onto the dirt roads that passed through the vast banana plantations and rice paddies of the Davao Plains. If a jeepney or truck were ahead of us and we were travelling by motorcycle, then we choked on the billowing clouds of dust that hung in the still air between the 15-foot tall rows of plantation bananas. Spray planes also sent their poisonous mists of yellow rain drifting down onto everything below. I learned to hold my breath till a safe distance beyond the falling spray.
I often stopped for breaks at roadside puroks, which were similar in construction to backyard gazebos. Filipinos often sat during the heat of the day, drinking tuba (coconut wine) and telling jokes. The more off color, the better. Once, a man resting at one of those roadside rest stops told me about the time a Filipino man had sex with an American woman. His shoulders heaved in laughing spasms as he gasped, “For once the Philippines was on top of America. Ha, ha, ha, ha”. That was the delightful humor of a people long used to US domination in every area of life.
But I did not join him in his fun. Instead, I frowned in disgust in order to maintain what Dad had always called ‘a good testimony’. Sex was not funny, it was bad. And yes, over the years, as I began to leave my religion, I also began to enjoy normal humanity once again. I am telling you about things long past. But still embarrassing to relate.
Another time, while taking a rest stop to chat with plantation workers, one of them said with a vengeful tone in his voice, “The Americans send us their banned poisons to use. We spray the poisons on these bananas and send them right back for the Americans to eat”. People at the bottom, feeling abused by others, find ingenious ways to get back at their perceived oppressors.
Plantation workers also dumped rejected bananas- those that were either too long or too short for export- in huge green piles along the main roads running through the plantations. Local farmers would take the bananas from the piles and feed them to their pigs. They were the same species of bananas that are sent to us in North America and they are one of the least desired of the some 35 varieties available in the Philippines.
Rice was the other prominent crop that was grown in the areas that we traveled through. The shades of green in rice paddies could be stunning depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun. The green was especially brilliant when the morning sun reflected on the densely packed sections of young rice seedlings before they were transplanted throughout the rest of the fields. I took numerous pictures, but the developed photos never captured the beauty that I could see with my own eyes.
Another uniquely notable thing along the route was the fact that many small rural towns had cement sections of road starting just on the outside of town and running through to the other side. Public funding provided for only a short strip. But those short sections of cement road were a nice break from the dust and spine-thumping potholes.
Roughly one hour after leaving Tagum we would turn onto the logging road that led up into the forested mountains in the center of the island. The early section of that road passed through deforested hills where lowlanders grew cacao, corn, coffee, and citrus crops on steep slopes. The only flat areas among those hills were little patches here and there along river flood plains in the valleys.
Farmers along the road spread their cacao and coffee seeds out to dry on woven mats placed beside the road. It required a watchful eye to avoid running over those mats. It also took a peeled eye to avoid pigs and chickens that would panic and dart across the road. I hit a few pigs broadside and one time a puppy. A few liters of rice were necessary to appease the owner of the dead puppy. I believe the pigs survived but I never stayed around to find out.
Once a chicken panicked and started to run along in front of me, wildly fluttering back and forth across the road with its wings spread and dragging along the ground as terrified chickens do. Instead of slowing to let it find an escape, I gunned my motorcycle in an effort to scare it out of the way. In a feather-shedding panic, it squawked and flew over a small dirt embankment and down the mountainside into the valley below. There was nowhere to land on the steep forested slope and the last time I looked back, the chicken was just a little speck still gliding down into the valley below. That was nasty.
Every once in a while I came upon snakes on the road. I never knew which ones were poisonous and assuming that all were, I would pull up my knees close to my chin and drive right over them. But the knobby tires of my bike never killed any of them.
One afternoon as I rode to the top a hill, I came across a huge monitor-like lizard stopped perpendicular across the road. He stood a foot off the ground and was about 7 feet long. His body markings were a mix of green, yellow, and orange, similar to the colors of a python. I stopped the bike and waited, somewhat taken aback because of his size and wondering if he might charge me. He eyed me for several moments, then ran double bow-legged up the bank and into the forest.
On most trips to the mountains the brilliant, deep green foliage of rainforest trees, vines, and bushes induced me to stop, stare and try to absorb it all. It was nature- free, complex and diverse to infinity, reflecting a creative spontaneity, and just plain Oh, so beautiful. Logging roads slashed through the greenery and exposed the reddish gray ferosols and acrisols just below the surface.
Driving further into the mountains, the signs of lowland civilization eventually became fewer and further apart with only the odd shanty or cornfield every kilometer or so. Soon we encountered patches of tribal slash and burn or swidden agriculture.
We were now at the ends of the earth. I had visualized such forested mountains in National Geographic articles on the Tasaday tribe, which were published back in the early 1970s. I had been there many times before in my daydreams of green forests and clear mountain streams.
Kapatagan means flat place. The village was located on an uneven hilly plateau which was spread across the top of a mountain ridge. The plateau was about a kilometer wide and several kilometers long with steep cliffs dropping off one side and a more gradual mountain slope on the other side. The entire area was covered with rain forest except for the cleared village site and patches of crop fields nearby. Most of the exposed soil was reddish clay, while a few areas were brown.
Some 40 plus huts were scattered around the village site. There was no discernible order to the huts- many were irregularly placed along the logging road that ran through the center of the village, others were set back in the bush.
Most of the houses in Kapatagan were small one room structures (roughly 8 by 10 feet) set on four poles which were only 2-4 inches thick. Many were about 5 or six feet off the ground; others were set higher on poles with the floors up to 10 feet above the ground. Some houses rested on available stumps. Not including the support poles, the main house structures were about 5 feet from floor to roof and consisted of a low wall of bark strips overhung by a grass roof. Entire houses were held together with rattan strips.
The floors were made of inch wide strips of split bamboo with roughly half-inch spaces in between. The spaces in the floors made it convenient for dropping leftover scraps of food to the pigs and chickens below. Slat floors were also convenient for kids to deposit their droppings through. A little water was all that was needed to wash down whatever missed the cracks.
When rainstorms moved through the area, belongings inside the houses would become soaked as rain sometimes blew in sideways through cracks in the bark. It could get quite cold and miserable especially if the storms occurred at night.
The village site was criss-crossed with fallen trees, which were left just where they had been felled. Villagers chipped away at the high quality mahogany logs (the same wood used in pricey export furniture) for their daily firewood. We used to joke that we had very expensive tastes because we burned Philippine mahogany as firewood for cooking. It burned slow and long.
Some of the local trees earned the right to be called ‘iron wood’. It was not possible to drive nails into those species of hardwood as the nails would only bend. We sometimes snapped the blades of our bolos when we were not careful to cut at the right angle.
The weight of the iron wood species felt close to that of rock. I once cut a small tree to use for repair work on the porch of our house. The section I cut was about 10 feet long and 4-5 inches thick. I consider myself fairly strong from years of weight training in my teens. But with that tree on my shoulder I could barely stagger a few dozen feet at a time, stumbling along as though it were a rail tie.
One unique local tree had wood that was black with streaks of white throughout. That species made exceptionally beautiful carvings.
The forests of Mindanao were not at all like those in the Tarzan movies we had watched as children. I noticed immediately that the forest was relatively silent except for the low background buzz of gadzillions of insects. There were no incessantly screaming monkeys or parrots. They were there but we rarely heard them. The only attention-grabbing sounds were those of the odd pigeon or hornbill during the day and something cricket-like which chirped during the night. There was also the infrequent “Ribbit, ribbit” of frogs.
Off the logging roads, foot trails meandered through the surrounding forests. The trails never seemed to take the easiest route but would sometimes go straight up a mountainside and down the other side. I would have rerouted the whole system to follow proper slope contours.
Some sections of the trails on mountainsides dried out during the days when the sun shone on them. Other parts, mainly down along the flat areas by the river, were permanent mud wallows. In addition to the mud, a few people in the valley owned carabaos and did not yet practice cleaning up after their pets. We sometimes had to walk knee deep through mud mixed with what President George Bush once called doo doo. He found himself mired in that stuff more than once during his presidency.
And walking barefoot on trails, even with the threat of hookworm, offered the best traction. We learned to mimic tribal people and dig our toes into the mud for good grip.
Under the forest canopy only scattered flecks of sunlight pierced through to the forest floor. It was a bit cooler there than in open spaces, but still tropically hot. The dominant smell at ground level was that of rotting humic material (leaves, branches, logs).
While it was beautiful in a tropical way, I missed the temperate coastal forests of British Columbia where there were almost no thorns, and no poisonous snakes or biting bugs. I also missed the incomparable sweet smell of evergreen sap.
But Mindanao’s forests sheltered fascinating things that we would never see in the forests of BC.
For instance, the residents of Kapatagan would tear apart rotting logs in the forest to find huge moth larvae, which were a local delicacy. Once a young kid approached and offered me a huge white grub that protruded from both ends of his hand which encircled it. I thought of biting into all the puss-like material inside and felt too nauseous to accept it. I told the boy, “You go ahead”. It was a treat for him and he was just being polite, so he only asked once.
We were told that in the Philippines we should refuse offered things at least 3 times before accepting. That way we would know if someone really wanted to give something to us. If they only offered once or twice then we could assume that they were just being polite.
If allowed to mature, the grubs became moths growing wings each as big as a man’s spread hand.
The diversity of trees, bushes, vines, flowers, and smaller plants in Mindanao forests were overwhelming. Some rhubarb-like plants had leaves fully 6 feet long by 3-4 feet wide. We sometimes cut those leaves to use as umbrellas when we were caught in rain-showers while walking in the forest. Banana and hemp leaves also served as good umbrellas.
There were also more thorns in Mindanao’s forests than anywhere else on earth. Some were needle-like and lay flat against the side of small tree trunks. Others were short three-pronged barbs densely packed along snaking vines that reached out and grabbed our flesh and refused to let go until we backed up, picking them out one by one. Going forward after being hooked would only tear out little chunks of our skin and leave us bloodied. During the Second World War, soldiers called those forests the ‘green hell’. It must have been the thorns.
We saw little wildlife when walking along the trails but if we stood still for a while, then animals would appear. Troops of monkeys would drop from higher trees, arms and legs spread out, to land in a flurry of desperate grabs on the outer leaves and branches of trees below. In the lower levels of trees, disturbed parrots would sometimes burst out in a mad green flutter of wing beats to find the next safe perch as soon as possible.
I once walked within several feet of a hairy brown sloth hanging onto the trunk of a tree at chest level. It rotated its head in slow motion and looked at me not with fear, which is a quick emotion, but more with unease and uncertainty, which are slower emotions. Too afraid to make a grab at it, I ran to the village to find someone who could help me catch it. When I returned a few minutes later it had already climbed to the top of the tree and seeing me again, it jumped off, body spread like a flying squirrel to sail over a cliff into the trees below. It had just broken the tree climbing record for sloths and destroyed the myth of sloth as meaning slow.
Some days we would go along with villagers to help in their fields or just to explore the forest. While walking up some small streambed with exotic foliage hanging over the banks I would often get the strange feeling that I had been there before. The only way I could explain that feeling was that it must have looked similar to the National Geographic pictures that I had daydreamed over when I was younger. My actual experience in the forest was stirring old daydream memories.
At one location we stopped at a New People’s Army checkpoint where the friendly rebel soldier told us there was a unique waterfall to see just around the corner of a low ridge. We followed him to view a National Geographic type scene. The waterfall- some 50 feet high- split at the top into one wide and one narrow channel. The result was two falls shaped like tall elongated triangles which created a soft misty photo op. Those were awe-evoking sights that regular tourists would never get to see.
On our forest hikes we also saw a variety of bugs that have probably never been classified before by bugologists. There were brilliant green and blue spiders, butterflies with wild splashes of color, and many other bugs that I have never seen before in any book.
One of the most amazing of all forest experiences occurred only rarely near a village. I was privileged to see it twice in my 11 years in Southeast Asia. On certain nights, thousands of fireflies would congregate in a cluster of two or three closely-proximate trees. Some would flicker on and off rapidly, others would blink more slowly, and some would maintain a steady glow. Many would fly around while others stayed perched on branches or leaves. The sight of those multiple thousands of fireflies in a huge moving mass of blinking light was absolutely breathtaking.
We caught about 10 fire flies in a jar one night and took them back to our house to use as a reading lamp. Just before going to sleep I tossed them out of the jar and then lay on the floor watching them blink silently around the dark room.
Other nights when the flying ants emerged like a plague to clog the night air it was more of a breath-holding event. On such nights we had to guard our mouths in order to keep from inhaling the bugs.
We also discovered other forms of organic light. Local kids brought us brightly glowing tree sap that we could actually read by. The sap felt rubbery to the touch. The kids also took us out at night to show us glowing grass hidden back in the bush.
Slippery Sliding Snakes
Within months of locating in Kapatagan, I was getting my snake stories to wow supporters on furlough. Snakes were the most common form of wildlife that we saw after bugs and birds. Some were brilliant light green vine snakes, almost phosphorescent. One day at high noon one of those bright greens whipped across the road in front of our house. It seemed that it barely touched the ground as its twisting body flew to safety in the bushes on the other side of the road. I had no idea that any snake could move that fast. It was a discovery that ratcheted up fear of snakes a bit more.
The smaller black snakes were the most poisonous ones and the most frequently encountered. One Sunday as we were climbing back up toward Kapatagan along the muddy mountainside trail leading from a village in the valley below, I put my bare foot down almost on the head of one of the black snakes. It jerked its head back to strike, but inexplicably held that position for a moment, only inches from my foot. B who was walking right behind me hit the snake with a walking stick, killing it. Pumped with adrenaline, I climbed the rest of the way up the trail wondering how long it would have been before I would have died and how hopeless it would have been to go for help. It was still a half-hour walk uphill to our village and there were no logging trucks to make the one to two day trip out to the nearest provincial hospital.
Another time while we were sleeping in the headman’s house, B rolled over early in the morning to ‘shake the dew off the lily’ and was almost bitten on the end of his pecker by a snake. It was common practice to urinate through the slat floors during the night and the snake was coiled on a crossbeam just below the slats. The whole house awoke screaming and shouting as the brave men poked machetes through the split bamboo floor to kill the snake. B unconsciously held his hand protectively over his crotch.
I also had a urination/snake experience. I was driving along a logging road one midday and got off my Honda to take a leak. Just as I planted both feet on the road I noticed a long thick snake in the ditch (some 7 feet of length not including the curves). The snake could not climb the steep embankment at the side of the road so I ran ahead of it to block its escape along the ditch. Why I did that, I have no idea. As soon as I positioned myself in front of the snake I started walking slowly back toward it trying to figure out what it was.
It was a dark gray/green color with a very thick neck and head. It was big enough to have been a python but it lacked the green, grey, and yellow diamond-like patterns of pythons. I picked up a small boulder and threw it, hitting the snake just behind the head. Again, I have no idea why I did such a stupid thing. Instantly enraged, the snake lifted its head about a foot and a half off the ground, flared its neck and came straight toward me. In a wild flush of adrenaline panic I scrambled backward, tripping into the center of the road. It was a huge King cobra. Fortunately, it turned just before reaching me and slithered off the road into the bushes. Crazy Americano. Cornered and attacked animals always defend themselves.
Late one night I was returning along the logging road that wound through the mountains toward Kapatagan. My bike stalled every few hundred meters due to water spraying from the front wheel which soaked the exposed spark plug. Near Kapatagan, I was descending a steep hill toward a wood bridge when I saw at the outer reach of my headlight beam the last 10 feet or so of a very large python sliding down between the planks at the near end of the bridge. I accelerated the bike to race by the snake, but only a few yards onto the bridge it stalled again. Jumping off in the dark of the overcast night I pushed the bike as fast as I could toward the opposite end of the bridge. I know that snakes don’t chase people but would prefer to flee. However, alone in the dark that was of no comfort to me. As far as I was concerned there was a huge man-eating python right beneath my feet.
Another night while returning on the same road it started to rain heavily which prompted me to look for a tree beside the road to take cover under. I found a suitable looking tree and braked to pull over to the side of the road. I had gone too far and had to kick backward to pull the bike back under the tree. I then looked up to make sure that I was right below the protective cover of the branches. That was when I saw the python coiled on the very branch that I had stopped under. It was twisting around in its own coils panicked by my presence below. It looked ready to drop so I departed quickly.
Let me tell you one more snake story. Early one morning I was getting ready to mount my bike under the house for a trip back to Davao. I was just reaching over to grab the throttle when at the corner of my eye I noticed a slight movement on the handle. I immediately jerked my hand back. It had come within inches of grabbing a little viper wound around the handle and coiled in strike position. I killed it with a bolo and then examined the head on the porch. It had a very pronounced arrow shape head which Bob said was typical of the poisonous species. Adrenaline rushes from snake encounters were becoming our buzz of choice.
When the village kids discovered that B had a biological background and was interested in wildlife they started bringing us small pythons, parrots, and flying sloths to keep as pets. The parrots were easy to love. One little green and blue fellow would sit on our shoulders and tug playfully at our earlobes. At mealtimes he would fly down from his wall perch to land on our plates and help himself (or herself) to rice.
B kept a variety of snakes, some extremely poisonous. Often, just as a joke, he would bring the caged snakes out onto the porch where local people were sitting. On seeing the snakes the visitors would then scream and leap off the porch in a hysterical panic. As full-grown adults they would have preferred to walk slowly down the steps with the proper sense of respect befitting their age but unfortunately they believed the snakes were evil spirits and their fear of the snakes overwhelmed their sense of dignity or propriety. B always had a good laugh at their panicked jumping and watching them gather themselves back to normal adult propriety at a safe distance.
Once B asked me to hold two green vine snakes while he cleaned their cage. I guess I was holding them improperly because one of them bit me on the stomach. People standing around started backing away and screaming, “Ogkamatoy Ka (You will die)”. I shouted in panic at B, urgently asking him if they were poisonous. B laughed so hard that he couldn’t answer me. It was a frightening few moments until he confirmed they were not a poisonous variety. But local people called them the busow (evil spirit) snake and were convinced they would kill.
B also tried to keep a sloth as a pet but he made the mistake of giving the cute little guy a bath. It died shortly after of a cold.
To me the most frightening forest monsters were the black ‘killer ants’ (my personal label for them). They were Mindanao’s version of the army ants of Africa that I had read about as a kid. The Mindanao ants had scythe-like pincers that closed horizontally across the front of their heads. I had infrequently come across solo ants of this species and had poked straws at them, then watched them angrily grab the straws or little sticks and break them with a snapping sound from their jaws. They were vicious and they could smell my fear.
Early in February of 1978 the men of the village planned a village workday to cut down forest for the new planting season and they asked us to come along and help. Accompanying a group of the men, we had just moved off the logging road and were following a trail into the bush when I suddenly felt a sharp stinging pain on my right foot as though someone had stuck two large needles into my skin and were pulling the skin out. I shouted and lifted my foot to see a huge black ant (well, about an inch long) bent over in an arc and pulling up a little mound of my skin between his pincers. Afraid to touch it, I slapped at it until it fell off.
The bite point immediately started to swell and itch. The rest of the morning I did little tree chopping. I danced from foot to foot afraid to let my feet rest longer than a microsecond on the ground. The men laughed at me but I did not want to be bitten again. After that mass attack by an army ant I never again felt safe walking in the forest and I would carefully check the path right in front of my feet for ants. Walking through cogon grass areas was especially unsettling as the waist-high grass leaned together to cover the trail and we had to push our bodies through it, not able to see if there were ants or snakes where we were stepping.
Stinging plants were distant cousins to the stinging ants. I brushed against one of those plants and suffered three days of stinging, itching skin. Some flora harbored other species of stinging insects. One morning while walking up a riverbed my arm brushed against a leaf on a low hanging tree branch. The sudden stab of pain felt like someone had stuck a knife there. I checked the stinging area and found nothing visible so I went back to the leaf and looked underneath. There I saw a small multi-colored caterpillar that I had brushed against. The stinging poison must have come from the short hairs on its body.
During our first term an OMF missionary named Hazel Page invited B and me to visit her mountain top hut on the island of Mindoro. Hazel was a past-era missionary who wore long skirts and a permanent bun in her hair. At the language school where she was an instructor, she would stay up till 2 am in the morning memorizing words from the Cebuano dictionary. Those extra mile exploits became part of her legend as a hardworking and unstoppable laborer for the Lord.
It rained the entire day of our hike up the mountainside and we had to cross innumerable streams. All along the muddy path there were tiny inch-long leeches standing on their suckers waving their wet black bodies in the air like sensors. They were quick to fasten onto whatever passed close enough. Some stood on the ground; others attached themselves to branches and leaves beside the trail. All of them were waiting for blood-filled creatures to pass by.
Hazel had us soap our exposed ankles and lower legs in order to keep the leeches from biting those areas. But repeated crossing of streams throughout the day washed the soap off and the leeches then went into our shoes, between our toes, and up our bodies to find soapless patches to suck on. Their anti-coagulant injections made a bloody mess that looked far worse than the actual bite.
At one place high on the mountainside, Hazel stopped and asked us to turn away for a moment. We wondered what had happened and glancing back we saw her reaching into her bra to pick out a leech. Yuuuck. I could only imagine how gruesome it would be if one had gotten into our groin area. Leeches were slippery and it was not possible to grip their blood-swollen bodies and pull them off. We had to get our fingernails under the lip of their suckers right next to the skin and scrape them off.
Chickens, Pigs, And Goats
Living close to nature provided a lot of insight into animal behavior. Chickens were regulars at every house. Anthropologists note that tribal people do not have banks, money or freezers and so accumulated wealth is stored in such things as livestock. Chickens as RSPs (Retirement Savings Plans). I could imagine a Manobo calling out to his neighbor, “Hey, have you seen my investments? Its 6 o’clock and they aren’t home yet”.
The chickens would sleep at night perched on the top of the walls of houses and facing outside which was lighter than the interiors. I tried turning many of them around to prevent their defecating inside, but they always reversed my decisions within seconds.
A word of advice in regard to chickens- don’t you ever believe the fairy tale that roosters crow at dawn. They crow any damn time they feel like, whether at midnight, three in the morning, or any other time in between. There is nothing quite as grating on the entire human psyche as a rooster screeching close up. One night while we were settling in to sleep as guests in another man’s house, I heard the low “buckbuckbucking” of chickens on perches just under the split bamboo floor. In what I thought was a smart proactive move, I took the roosters and tiptoed through the bush outside to place them on a stump in a nearby field. Distance would lessen the decibels a bit.
Just as I got back to the house and announced my smart move to B, the roosters started crowing out in the field. The owner who was staying in a nearby house recognized his roosters and ran out to the stump, asking loudly, “What are my roosters doing out here? How did they get here?” He brought them right back to their perches directly under my sleeping place.
Another time while we were sleeping in a borrowed house, the roosters started going off around 4 AM in the morning. In a barely controlled rage, I wrenched them off their top-of-the-wall perches and threw them outside to the ground. They quieted down instantly. Roosters are smart enough to know that the ground is where snakes crawl. So shut your craw, big red.
In one village we visited, a rooster also went off far before dawn and right below our heads. Remember, those huts had split bamboo floors that do not block sound waves in the least. In the heat of another pissed off rage, I grabbed a long hunting arrow hanging on the wall of the house and started jabbing at the bugger through the slat floor. The point glanced off his feathered back and he had the sense to do a quick two-step back and forth on the perch.
Once, I actually allowed a rooster into my living space at Kapatagan. It was a Texas fighting cock (the most prized variety) that was given to me as debt payment by a man who had borrowed money from me. I often tried to get an afternoon nap but the rooster would go off with disturbing regularity just as I went to sleep. So I tied one end of a string around its neck (slipknot) with the other end tied to my finger. Every time it started to crow, I would yank and cut its cockadoodledoo in midstream, “Cackacackaaaaaagh…”. It died a few weeks later of some disease where chickens stumble around with their heads dragging on the ground. It could have also been neck damage.
Roosters did not always annoy. Sometimes they were very entertaining.
Nothing is funnier than a horny rooster dancing around a hen with his one wing splayed out full stretch and dragging on the ground (some dragged both wings). They dance in tight circles with the wing that is dragging on the outside (B got very good at mimicking this dance). The dance is done with tight little high-jumping steps, like a runner high stepping in place. Every once in awhile, looking exhausted and panting for breath with one wing still dragging on the ground, the roosters would stop to see how impressed the chicks were. The hens appeared to completely ignore the whole show and kept darting their heads up and down looking for scraps on the ground and buckbuckbucking like ever-anxious mothers who can never relax in the vigilant search for food nor bother with horny mates. Some women are like that.
Living cheek to jowl with animals also led to a better understanding of why Muslims do not eat pork. Pigs snort around with their snouts to the ground slurping up any garbage they find, including feces. I once went into the bush and was caught in the act by a huge belly-dragging black pig that seemed intent on coming right up to me while I was still squatting. I had to beat him back with a stick while shouting all the nastiest pig names I could think of.
Goats had also been introduced into the area and had multiplied like rabbits. They would go anywhere and eat anything. Fencing off gardens never worked because the goats would find a way in somehow. At night they would come under the house and rub themselves against the poles, shaking the whole house. I tried to think of a way of convincing the villagers to slaughter and eat the whole herd of them, but they were also RSPs.
Male goats were always jumping everything that moved and humping away. They often got confused and even jumped other males. Their relentless drive to hump gave us a deeper insight into the phrase ‘horny as a goat’.
Manobo houses accommodated more cockroaches per square foot than it seems possible could exist. As I sat visiting one afternoon in a neighbor’s house I heard a steady rustling sound in the grass roof. Tiny black dots were falling into our hair and all over our clothes- cockroach droppings. The owner pointed to the poles of the house, which were crawling with the ugly bugs. He then opened a storage basket and showed me the bottom where there were hundreds of cockroaches of all sizes from tiny miniatures to full-sized roaches of several different varieties.
We slept overnight in another village with a heavy cockroach population and the next morning found them in our pockets, in our sleeping bags, and even under the speedometer glass on our motorcycles. A Manobo friend, Upak, bent over laughing as he watched a Swiss missionary pull his keys out of his pocket along with several cockroaches.
Cockroaches are not attack bugs, but if scared, they will spread their wings and fly blindly in a noisy flutter straight across a room. In the panic of a full adrenaline rush, it always appeared to me to be an attack. Adding flight to such a disgusting bug scared the shhhh…spit right out of me.
Huge three-horned coconut borers, looking like ancient tryceraclops would also sometimes fly in at night, attracted to lantern light. You could hear them buzzing in toward the house from the distance. Praying Mantis also flew in. Bob convinced me not to kill them because they ate mosquitoes.
Another terror-inspiring houseguest was one of the largest leg-span spiders in the world. These spiders were not heavy and hairy like tarantulas nor thin like daddy longlegs, but somewhere in between. After shooshing one off a wall, I measured the distance from where one of his legs had been to the opposite leg position. It was fully 6 inches across. What would the leg-span have been if the legs had been stretched out straight? When those spiders ran across a wall they did so in alternating arcs, as though the legs on one side were alternatively running faster than the other side.
They also had tiny pincers which I discovered when I put my hand into my hanging mosquito net one night. The bite was like little needles pinching my skin. We used the mosquito nets to keep the black and white striped malaria carrying mosquitoes at bay and to keep cockroaches from climbing into our mouths as we slept.
Another time a huge spider jumped out of a wash cloth onto my chest and ran across my bare abdomen, then jumped off leaving me adrenaline-drenched and shaken. I have an absolute, though baseless, terror of spiders.
I would never put on a pair of pants in the morning without first carefully checking inside the legs for hiding spiders or cockroaches. The same applied to shoes. My most horrifying trauma would be to have my leg inside my pants and then feel a big spider trapped in there also. Just thinking about it made me nauseous.
Little geckos, the see-through lizard, were also houseguests and in an effort to grab some bug on the ceiling they would sometimes fall off and land with a flap or smack on the floor. They would then pause for a few seconds to reorient themselves before scattering off. Once I was kneeling and praying when one landed with a sharp smack on my bare back. It had a cold rubbery feel on bare skin. But it did not interrupt my communing with God as I was only daydreaming of naked ladies anyhow.
And finally, let me introduce you to one more houseguest- the rat family. Rats wanted our rice, which we hung in sacks from the ceiling so they couldn’t get what both of us wanted. One night while many of us were sleeping close together in a small house a rat jumped off a hanging sack right onto my chest then scurried away making the squeaky little chitty sound that rats make. Later that same night I awoke to feel another leaping rat land on my thigh, then bounce onto my stomach and then next onto my mouth…, but no, it missed and landed beside my head. Throughout that night we felt other rats pushing between our closely proximate sleeping bags.
And yes, I have eaten rats. While chopping an overgrown field with our bolos one day, the men caught several field rats. We roasted them unskinned over a fire for lunch and I ate the hind legs of one. It tasted sort of like…. rat.