Lake Sebu

Lake Sebu: Getting there and staying there

My fifth time in Lake Sebu and I still continue to love the place. Of course, I’m biased ūüôā because this continues to be my research area as an ethnomusicologist and I continue to work with its musicians and dancers. The last time I was here was in 2014 for the Helobung Festival in November and so much has changed. For one, it is so much easier to get to now for Manila-based travellers. For those who have not yet visited this wonderful gem of a place in the Soccksargen region, here’s my nifty little guide.

p.s. I only ever come to Lake Sebu from Manila so this is for folks coming from there. I know there are routes from Davao and other Mindanao hubs but I’d rather let those who have done those routes speak for them.

Getting There

GenSan Airport-Marbel-Lake Sebu

Arriving at the GenSan International Airport, the most direct route to Lake Sebu is to take the Yellow Bus from the airport to Marbel (also known as Koronadal). It only costs Php 150 and the ride is just a little over an hour. Look at their FB page for the scheds.

Artriving at the new and modern Koronadal Integrated Transport Terminal, head to the parked vans at the other end. There are blue signs hanging from the ceiling announcing the different destinations. Just look for the sign that says “Lake Sebu” and get a seat at the parked van. Take note that they pack the van to the brim with 4 people sharing a 3-seater row. Your luggage either goes under the seats or at the small space at the front row. If you have a large pack or bag with you, I suggest you pay for an extra seat. Of course the best spot is right in front with the driver.

Fare: Php 150 (GenSan Airport-Marbel)

Php 80 (Marbel-Lake Sebu)

Travel time: 1.5 hours (GenSanAirport-Marbel).

1 hour (Marbel-Lake Sebu)

Hours: All day. Leaves when full or (in my experience) at least when half full (in the case of the vans to Lake Sebu).

Surallah-Lake Sebu

With the Marbel-Lake Sebu van, there really is no reason to ride a bus from Marbel to Surallah (30 mins) just to take the van to Lake Sebu.

GenSan Bulaong Terminal-Lake Sebu

According to the conductor of the Lake Sebu-GenSan van I rode, the first trip out of GenSan is at 9am as the van originates from Lake Sebu. Honestly, I’d rather take the bus to Marbel as I wouldn’t want to be in a cramped van.

Fare: Php 150

Travel Time: 2 hours

Hours: All day starting at 9am

GenSan Bulaong Terminal-Marbel-Lake Sebu

I always take this route because I prefer buses over vans. You can take your pic of bus lines at the terminal–Yellow Bus Lines, Husky, and Mindanao Star. Preferably, ride the one that goes non-stop to Marbel. There are signs on the bus platforms and on the buses themselves. Alternatively, just ask any of the bus conductors and they’ll steer you to the right one. As always, the bus leaves when full.

Fare: Php 110

Travel Time: 1 hour

Hours: All day

The bus will drop you off at the Koronadal Integrated Transport Terminal where you take the van to Lake Sebu.

Arriving There

All vans whether coming from GenSan Bulaong Terminal, Koronadal Integrated Transport Terminal, or Surallah Terminal will drop you off at the new Lake Sebu Terminal which is located near the School of Living Traditions (more of that later) and not at the center of the poblacion (where the old terminal used to be). There are habal-habal (motorcyles) that can take you to your accomodations.

Leaving from There

Leaving Lake Sebu, the terminal you arrived at is where you’ll also ride the van back to either Surallah, Marbel or GenSan. Just turn up. The vans leave when full. The GenSan-bound van drops off passengers at the Surallah and Koronadal transport terminals and anywhere along the highway. It doesn’t wait to pick-up passengers, though which means that travel time is still 2 hours and from Koronadal to GenSan, the van will probably be nearly empty.

Transport to other places such as Tboli municipality (for Lake Holon) are also here.

Staying There

I cannot stop recommending the Lake Sebu School of Living Traditions and Homestay which is just a few meters (about a 5 minute walk) from the terminal. Yes, you can stay in one of the concrete resorts but that would be boring and so ordinary. The homestay is not only atmospheric but is an experience by itself. It’s basic and communal but you get to stay in a Tboli longhouse that’s really nice and clean. Besides, the interaction with Maria Todi, a Tboli cultural worker, and her family is priceless. This is where I always stay and I can totally guarantee how wonderful this place is. Check out the FB page of the homestay.

Tips While There

1. Be patient. Service at the local eateries are always not as quick as you want it to be.

2. Buy Tboli crafts and music instruments from the artisans themselves or at Tboli shops such as COWHED so your money goes directly to them.

3. Learn to play Tboli music instruments such as the gongs, learn to dance, or to make beads at the Lake Sebu School of Living Traditions.

4. Hire Tboli people as guides to tour you around.

5. Spread your money. Eat at different places. Shop at different shops.

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Transitions: Lake Sebu to GenSan

I’m seated at the lobby of the pension house after having lunch at SM. Yup. That’s S and  M in capital letters. A place I’m not normally associated with.

I arrived here in General Santos city (GenSan) just before noon.  I could have stayed another day at Lake Sebu as I don’t fly back to Manila until tomorrow afternoon but I need a day to transition from the quiet of Lake Sebu to the chaos of Manila. GenSan is my half-way house. 

I could also have stayed a wee bit longer looking out of Oyog’s bamboo veranda to the lake waters. However, as I sat on the porch of the big bamboo house while all around me the family members who have since become my friends after many visits went about their business, my heart began to break. I had to make my exit. I wondered how Martha, the Taiwanese guest, felt upon leaving?

So instead of being surrounded by the happy sounds of children playing the t’nonggong, I am barraged by noise from tricycles. I inhale fumes instead of fresh air. I see grey not green.

My many visits to Lake Sebu has come to mean more than data gathering so I can earn a graduate degree and be respectable. Each time I visit, I feel I am coming home. It is an inevitable fate that a researcher’s life, if he has truly immersed himself in the community he studies, becomes intertwined with those of his subjects. Stone-hearted is he who sees informants and not people. Who gathers data and not friends. Who writes a paper and not a story.

So I need to transition from warmth to cold. From Lake Sebu to Manila. It is here in GenSan that I shed-off my aches so I can fly back home with my heart.
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A Homestay with the T’boli

Lake Sebu is more than the lake, tilapia, and the waterfalls. Lake Sebu is the cultural heartland of the T’boli people. They with their colorful clothes and beautiful music. The best way to experience this is through a homestay with a T’boli family.

I came across Maria Todi on the internet and has since become friends with her.  She has helped me a lot in my research,  introducing me to talented musicians and weavers, and more importantly giving me an opportunity to be part of her extended family.

The homestay consists of a cluster of bamboo buildings. 

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The dining area is fitted with a balcony. I’ve spent many hours here going through my  research notes.

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The traditional T’boli house is large and spacious and can sleep several people. T’boli houses have no inner partitions as everything is communal. It’s a fantastic way to interact with the family and other fellow guests.

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It’s very cool inside.

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More sleeping areas are being built. This is beneath the house and will have individual rooms for those who want more privacy.

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The large patio has souvenirs such as necklaces, traditional blouses and vests, and handwoven cloth for sale. They’re priced much lower here than in souvenir shops.

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The toilet and bathing area is downstairs a few steps away from the house. Don’t worry,  there’s a bucket-flush toilet so no need to squat. Hehehe. Expect to bathe the traditional way with a dipper and a bucket.

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You can choose to have your meals here and taste traditional T’boli cooking which uses fresh ingredients and  uses no-frills cooking techniques but is very tasty. At Martha’s last night of stay, we had a communal dinner.

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Maria, who also goes by her T’boli name “Oyog,” is a respected artist and cultural worker. Her homestay is attached to the School of Living Traditions which she set-up to teach T’boli youth their dances, music, and crafts.

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At any given time, children are practicing at their musical instruments.

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If D’wata smiles on you, perhaps there’s an ethnomusicologist in town (hint: me) who has invited a musician for documentation and you get to watch and listen.

She also hosts Barbara Ofong, a weaver. You can see her tieing her “t’nalak” designs and weaving.

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If you stay long enough and are lucky, you will be treated to a performance of music and dance courtesy of Maria’s family and artist friends.

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Here’s Martha, a Taiwanese guest, who was here for a week at the same time I was here.

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You can spend hours talking with Maria about T’boli life and culture.  She is very passionate with what she does and you will take away with you nuggets of wisdom and experience from what it means to be T’boli.l
                  

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You can also play games with the children. They will also gladly engage you in conversation.  Learn to say “heyu lafus” (good morning) or “t’bong s’ lmat” (thank you very much) from them.

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Of course, I’m biased and this is probably more of a promotion rather than a review but that’s because I really enjoy staying here whenever I’m in Lake Sebu. I also believe in supporting initiatives like this especially if these are by the T’boli themselves.

Staying with Maria not only gives you a glimpse of T’boli culture but you also help support the School of Living Traditions, a vital link to the promotion and conservation of T’boli culture.

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Maria Todi’s homestay is at Bgy. Poblacion, Lake Sebu. If you are on the public van from Koronadal/Marbel or Surallah, just ask to get off at SIKAT (the T’boli school). The homestay is right beside it on the left side of the road. You can simply drop by or call in advance at +639066345367 / +639129764041.

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Lake Sebu Beyond the Lake

Most travellers stay no more than a few days in Lake Sebu. Some even just opt for a day tour. This is my third trip here and have been staying for more than a week and I have yet tire of it.

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Admittedly, being here researching as an ethnomusicologist rather than sightseeing as a tourist has distinct differences. For one, I’m here for the people and the culture rather than the place and that can keep me occupied.
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Still there are others like Martha, a solo Taiwanese traveler, staying with Oyog at her homestay and who after being here for a week and leaving this morning still had not had enough.

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Perhaps, for both of us, Lake Sebu has come to be more than a place.
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It is an experience.
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It is verdant ricefields in far-flung baranggays.
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It is muddy trails that bring you to T’boli settlements which are home to master musicians.
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It is the sound of T’boli musicians proudly showing their music to anyone who would make the effort to locate and genuinely appreciate them.
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It is the sound of children laughing . . .
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and playing music they have heard from their elders.
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Of dances performed for you because you are their friend.
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Lake Sebu is a traditional T’boli meal prepared and communally eaten with friends in someone’s home.
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It is as pleasant to the palate as it is to the eyes as you gaze at the calm waters of the lake.
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Or at the beautiful clothes of the T’boli women.
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It is as much the rhythm of the t’nonggong
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as it is the rhythm of the boat rowers.
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And the rhythm of the weavers.
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Most of all, Lake Sebu is the wonderful T’boli I have met.
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If I stay here much longer I might just make it my second home.
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Facebook Fieldwork

Electricity finally returned to Lake Sebu at around 3 this afternoon, almost 24 hrs since strong winds and rain toppled a few trees by the highway causing the electricity yo be cut. Weather-wise, I didn’t mind as it was really cold in the evenings.  It also meant a break from all that videoke. What caused a major panic though was not being able to charge my gadgets used for documentation.  This was a more major concern than the lack of water due to the electric pump being unable to work.

Fortunately,  being a Sunday, I decided to just stay put and give both Joel and me a break. It was such a relief when Oyog announced that electricity was back.

This got me thinking how technology has changed fieldwork. More than a decade ago, I used to go to communities with packs of batteries to power-up my camera and recording devices. If those ran-out, I did on the spot transcriptions of music and interviews.  Now, my pack is lighter as I just need 2 sets of re-chargeable batteries and a power pack. All is good until a long brownout, in this case,  almost 24 hours, occurs and my power pack only supplies up to 4000mah. (Note to self: I should have bought the 6000mah power pack instead. Boink!). Suddenly, I feel helpless.

Beyond the need to keep gadgets powered-up, technology has allowed other quirky practices such as Facebook status posts and even posting pictures and videos of fieldwork data. I even get to write a blog!

Cataloguing has changed too. Photos no longer need to ba labelled with film roll numbers. Music and videos are simply labeled with numbers with no need for tape numbers. Really simple now and much cheaper now. Not yo mention lighter for the backpack.

My current fieldwork is as much an eye-opener on T’boli culture for me as much as it is an eye-opener on my work as an ethnomusicologist as it is for me.

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Return to Lake Sebu

I still have not adjusted to the slow pace of life here in Lake Sebu since arriving last Tuesday. Time moves so slow when you just have the entire day to head to small baranggay to seek out musicians or music instruments makers.

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The slowness of time though cannot hide the quick pace in which modernization is coming. On arriving, the first thing that greeted me as I alighted from the van I took in Koronadal were the new bamboo structures lining both sides of the road near SIKAT. Oyog, my T’boli informant, and whose house is near a row of thatch houses of a restaurant being built,  tells me there is now a sealed road to Tasiman where Ma Fil, the hegalong player lives.

Already, I am afraid of the costs of the Bisayanization of Lake Sebu. I am all for sealed roads and new structures only if they bring development to the T’boli first and foremost and not an increase in lowland excursions.

In the meantime, I have been getting all the data I need to finally write my master’s thesis on the t’nonggong. So far so good. I’ve met and spoken with different instrument makers and musicians including those related or have known the “legends” like Bendaly and Ganlal. I would not have known them if it weren’t for my excellent guide and informant,  Umag, who himself is acknowledged as the best t’nonggong player and is also the son of Genlal.

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Lake Sebu Day 4: Back to GenSan

There was nothing more to do in the morning except to pack my stuff hoping everything would fit.¬† I have become an expert in packing musical instruments from all my trips abroad.¬† It’s easy if you’re packing stuff and heading straight to the airport.¬† Getting on land transportation is a little more tricky as it means less space and more carelessness in handling and stowing luggage.¬† Double all that when you need to get on a beat-up mini-van with about a dozen more people than it normally carries.

I had brought my Lowe Alpine 75+15 backpack which is quite huge but stashing my klutang there was out of the question.¬† In came the two sludoy wrapped in my used shirts.¬† I had already marked and removed the frets¬† so there would be less chances of the fragile strings snapping should it something heavy be placed on top of my pack.¬† The kumbing and sloli were wrapped in the tubao and placed between the sludoy.¬† I had brought my overnight bag as back-up bag in case the pack becomes too heavy and I go beyond the 15kg limit.¬† The klutang was wrapped in used straw sacks.¬† Mel had assured me when I called her that it wouldn’t be illegal to be transporting a small piece of wood.¬† I had become apprehensive that the DENR might call my attention to it as it seems just like any piece of cut wood. I would have to go through the entire process of explaining that it was in fact a musical instrument and why I have it.

Goodbye Lake Sebu!

I had an early lunch of what else… sugba na tilapia and instant pancit. When I asked for my bill, Elmer said I need not pay as they owners who dropped by yesterday and who I chatted with had told them to feed me as I were their first guest.¬† The couple who owned the Green Box, a doctor-wife and an engineer-husband who are based in Insulan, Sultan Kudarat, were really nice and gracious.¬† If only for that, I’d give a 5-star rating to Green Box and would stay again and even recommend it to others.¬† Sometimes you can forgive not-so-good facilities for really wonderful hosts.

The van to Surallah passed by past 12 noon already and fortunately there was still an available seat and the luggage space behind the last row of seats wasn’t full.¬† I was really lucky to have taken that seat as I was to discover on later in the trip as passengers hopped on and off, they really did fill it beyond its capacity as even the space where the engine was is used for seats!¬† When the entire van was full, the conductor road outside hanging dangerously at the back.

Surallah was a mere thirty minutes away and we finally let out at the bus station.  A Marbel-bound bus was pulling out just as I arrived at the bus bay so I got on an empty bus that filled in about 15 minutes.  There was no air-con but the cloudy weather made everything.

As I sat by the window looking at the gorgeous countryside of rolling hills and flat plains, the conductor swang by to collect my fare.¬† I gave him a twenty-peso bill and four one-peso coins.¬† He looked at me puzzedly and said something in Ilonggo which I of course, could not understand.¬† “Tagalog,” I told him.¬† He was asking how much I had given him.¬† “Twenty-four,” I answered. He moved on.¬† He must have forgotten the twenty-peso bill I gave him.

The middle-aged man seated beside me struck up a conversation  (translated in English here).

“Is this your first time here?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you from?

“Manila.”

“Didn’t you get scared coming here?”

“(smiling) No.”

I was surprised with this.¬† But he must have been more surprised at me traveling alone in this part of Mindanao.¬† I didn’t feel nor see anything out of the ordinary as to invite fear during my entire course of travel here.¬† I felt I was just like in any other provincial town.¬† He¬† introduced himself as pastor who was heading to Marbel with his wife for some errands. They were both very nice and we talked until we reached the Yellow Bus Line terminal.

I loved how the bus connections were all so easy and quick.  There was a waiting a/c bus at the bay and I took an aisle seat beside a young guy in office uniform.  I had an hour to get a some shut-eye.

The multi-cab chocked streets of GenSan greeted us as we pulled into the bus terminal.¬† I already missed Lake Sebu.¬† I must have had a sign on my forehead reading: “I’m new here” as porters and trike drivers swarmed around me.¬† One particular brusque porter kept grabbing my bag and was about to carry it off to the trike I had negotiated Php 70 to bring me to the hotel in the city proper. I let out at loud yell and he took off.

I had truly come back to realty.

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Lake Sebu Day 3 (evening): An Evening with the T’boli

I had come to Lake Sebu not to seek out the lake but the people whose home it is. ¬†I have been fascinated with the T’boli since I was in high-school and saw a documentary on the T’boli made by the Sta. Cruz Mission. ¬†Resplendent in their traditional garb of handwoven textiles and colorful plastic beads and brass bangles, they caught my imagination. ¬†Their dances using the tubular cloth which hang from their necks as they whirled feverishly around in circles while their feet lightly tapped the ground was amazing. ¬†Their lute, the hegalong,¬†had also taken on iconic status for me. ¬†I knew that one day I would make this trip. ¬†It did take decades before I finally set foot in the ancestral domain of the T’boli. ¬†Progress has inevitably altered their lives and lifestyle and outside the tourist industry, finding their culture was quite difficult. ¬†I was really lucky to have met Oyog. ¬†She not only got me the instruments I needed but more importantly, she allowed me to set foot to glimpse their world of dance and music.

Returning from the trip to the falls and the T’boli Museum, Oyog had ¬†dropped me at the Green Box to rest while she went to a village to seek out Joel. ¬†She assured me that he was one of the best musicians and he could make me a dwegey, a sloli, and a t’nonggong. ¬†About an hour later, she returned to tell me that she had gone to him in the fields where he was working on a ploughing machine and that he would come in the evening to make me the instruments and to play! ¬†I was really excited about it as I have never seen a “living” example of a dwegey before. ¬†She also assured me that in the evening there would be dancing. ¬†The moto driver would fetch Joel at around 4.

I had more than ample time to go back to Kehelingan as I was interested in the t’nonggong I had seen the previous day. ¬†The doors were closed to the main shop but someone in the restaurant called a plumped middle-aged lady that could pass-off as anyone’s gracious mother. ¬†She opened the doors and we went in. ¬†She was Nida Bacalang who was head of the foundation which was an umbrella organization of different craft-making associations. ¬†She was very patient and answered all my questions and even let me try the different blouses and vests on display. ¬†They were really beautiful and could cost up to Php 7,000 depending on the intricacy of the designs and the beadwork. ¬†One of the simplest ones cost Php 800. ¬†I tried on a big one and it fit me though it hang half-way up my torso. ¬†If it had been long enough, I would have bought it even if it was a woman’s blouse. ¬†A complete T’boli outfit consisting of a blouse, skirt, and all the accessories including head gear costs Php 7,000!

I bought one of the sludoy¬†on display for Php 250. ¬†I could have gladly bought the bigger and heavier one which was only ¬†Php 100 more but I didn’t think I’d have space for it. ¬†The instruments looked like the real thing and didn’t seem to have been made for the tourist market which most of the souvenir shops had. ¬†I couldn’t help taking my eyes off the red square fabric hanging on the wall. It was a head gear worn by T’boli women minus the frame. ¬†The fabric alone cost Php 500. ¬†Attached to the frame so it could be worn properly on the head, it cost Php 800. ¬†With beads hanging down from the edges, it costs Php 1,000. ¬†She got one hanging from the restaurant and showed it to me. ¬†I manage to persuade her to give it to me for Php 500 as it was quit dirty having been on display outside the restaurant’s dining area.

I spent the rest of the afternoon packing my stuff as I was leaving the next day. The instruments would have to be packed the next morning as they needed more time to dry out under the heat of the sun.

The moto driver came knocking on my door past at around 5 to say that Joel had arrived! ¬†I quickly shuffled to Oyog’s house and there he was, cutting the bamboo to be used for the dwegey while his teen-aged son was removing the meat from the coconut which was to be used as resonator. ¬†It was dusk and there wasn’t any light on Oyog’s tribal house. I had to make do with the flashlight on my Blackberry just so I could continue documenting his crafting of the instrument and also of that of the sloli. ¬†Upstairs, Oyog’s youngest daughter was practicing on the¬†t’nonggong.

With her younger cousin, a cute little boy, they practiced the warrior dance while another girl beat out some rhythms on the drum. ¬†It was fascinating and really fun to watch them as they were really intent on their dancing and playing. I was really taken-in by Oyog’s daughter and her natural love for the arts. ¬†After retrieving my flashlight from my room, I chanced upon her practicing on the bamboo tubes which her cousin held upright. ¬†She was continuously exhorting the others to play and play and play.

Night had fallen and a couple of young girls, students of Oyog, had arrived in T’boli garb. ¬†They were fully made up and looked so pretty. ¬†Oyog had told me earlier that there would be dancing and they would be in their traditional wear. ¬†Seeing the young girls, I knew the evening would be really special.

A bonfire had been built in the center of the tribal house. ¬†By now, Joel had finished making the dwegey and the sloli. ¬† I would have to wait until my next visit for the t’nonggong¬†as deer skin was unavailable. ¬†He did bring his own drum which he would play later. ¬†Oyog had wrapped some rice and the left-over fish we had for lunch in the leaves of the lemenge tree which she distributed to everyone. ¬†The dinner of clams which I had asked Green Box to cook for me was brought over together with the tilapia chicharon¬†I ordered from the nearby eatery. ¬†We squatted on the floor with the food parcels before us and ate with our fingers. ¬†We washed it all down with orange juice.

Communal dinner by bonfire

After clearing the dishes, the performance started. ¬†And boy, did I have a fantastic time watching them dance and play. ¬†Oyog annotated the performances and during the dances she would coach the three girls. ¬†Joel was a true master musician who showed excellent playing of the t’nonggong . ¬†It was captivating to watch him coax vibrant sounds from such a small drum. ¬†One playing style consisted of him flinging his left hand in the air after a few strikes. ¬†At times, he would also touch the floor. ¬†His son had apparently also taken after him as the boy also played the drum very well.

Accompanying Joel ¬† was Oyog ¬†on a flat slab of bamboo which had been attached to a small low wooden bench. ¬†This substituted for the floor. ¬†The special “instrument” had been made as a portable floor which could be brought anywhere there were performances, especially abroad.

Joel playing the “sloli”

Madal tahu,¬†one of the most difficult dances due to its fast rhythm was performed by Oyog who told me that whenever Joel plays the drum one can’t help but dance. ¬†It really was true.

I felt so privileged to have been treated to such a performance. ¬†I could not thank Joel enough for his time and the instruments he had made for me. ¬†Shyly, he asked for just Php 200! ¬†I gave him double that as it was too low. ¬†I also gave him an advance of Php 500 to make me t’nonggong and a tambul. ¬†Deep in my heart, I knew he would not renege on his promise.

Playing the “kumbing”

It was past 10 when the performance ended. ¬†Joel packed his stuff and bade good bye as he had to walk back home there being no motos available. ¬†I stayed to just chat with Oyog but had to leave when her sister-in-law came by to say that her brother had been rushed to the hospital due to difficulty in breathing which didn’t seem to be such a big problem basing it on their conversation.

That evening as I lay down on my room I knew I had found my thesis to finally complete my MA. ¬† Lake Sebu would be my “home” and the T’boli my “people.”

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Lake Sebu Day 3 (morning): The House on Top of the Hill and the Water from the Top of the Mountains

Oyog begged off in the morning as it was Sunday and she was going to church.  I had made arrangements with our moto driver to go boating in the lake and hike all the way up the hill in the biggest island.

Around 8 in the morning, he came promptly down from the hill where Oyog lived bringing with him the klutang that Ma Fil had delivered.¬† The wood hadn’t fully dried yet so I ¬†left it underneath the sun.¬† The nylon cord had also been replaced with abaca.

We hired a large traditional dug-out canoe for Php 200 with the moto driver rowing.¬† Come to think of it, I never even knew his name.¬† Punta Isla had motorized outrigger boats that take tourists around the lake.¬† It had a cover to keep the sun out and life jackets.¬† My canoe was powered by the strong arms of the driver who paddled slowly across the tranquil lake as I sat on a really low wooden bench.¬† There was no cover but I welcomed the sun’s warmth.¬† I would take the canoe anytime.¬† Not only is it more environmentally friendly but it really is the traditional way to go around the lake.

I had asked for a large canoe as seeing the smaller ones made me doubt my ability to balance in such narrow boats.¬† I marvel at the T’boli’s skill in being able to sit precariously on the edge of the small boats as they cast their nets on the water.

Our canoe skimmed the water and we went quietly past water lilies and fish pens to the middle of the lake.  If it were not for that radio or videoke blasting from one of the resorts, it would have been oh so still.  A few were already up and casting nets on the lake while others had water jugs with them presumably to fetch water somewhere.

Out in the center of the lake, life seemed so far remove from that of the mainland.  I was surpised how large the lake truly was.  It did  smell very fish though maybe because of all those fish pens.  Such a pity.

According to my moto driver/boatman, a canoe that size costs around Php 3,500 (cheap!) and could fit up to eight people.¬† I said I wanted to watch the boat builders and have one made. For that, he said, I would have to go to the mountains where the T’bolis who live there make them.

We reached the shore of¬†Isla Tebowol¬†and disembarked.¬† My little day pack partially fell into the water as I had failed to wear one of the shoulder straps.¬† Fortunately, my stuff inside didn’t get wet.

Someone was preaching in a small shack where about a couple of dozens of locals listened.¬† The trail was muddy and quite steep especially near the top.¬† Fortunately, steps had been carved out of the hill in the last few steep portions.¬† I was a little sweaty as we made it to the row of corns planted on top.¬† The small patch of land and the little hut was owned by the driver’s brother who was nowhere to be found.¬† The hut stood quietly empty as the corn leaves fluttered in the morning breeze.

The House on the Hill

Past the rows of corn, we exited to a patch of newly-tilled land.¬† This was the hill that we could see from the mainland.¬† On top, referred to by the T’boli as telutot, was a small shack with sacks as walls.¬† A couple were tilling the land while children played.¬† They were also related to my driver.

The view was amazing from where I stood.¬† The lake shone below while the famous “three fingers” contour formed by land that jutted out from the mainland.¬† It was really very beautiful and it was not surprising that other visitors who had come had expressed a desire to stay and perhaps spend the night on the hill.¬† But amidst the natural beauty was the depressing poverty of the family that lived there.

Their only means of livelihood was to plant corn on the small patch of land where they lived.  The harvest would be sold for about Php 30/kilo in Surallah.  Their last harvest only yielded 15 sacks.  The rest of the hilly field were planted with root crops for their own consumption.

¬† Of the five kids, four went to school as one of them had been born with a non-functioning right arm that hand limply from his body.¬† To confound the problem was the young boy’s inability to speak.¬† It was so sad because he had a really cheerful disposition and smiled and posed gamely when I motioned to him that I wanted to take his photograph.

The eldest boy was an incoming third year high-school student but he was too short for his age.¬† He had gone through a lot to put himself to school, having worked in his school canteen in GenSan.¬† Asked where they get their drinking water, he pointed to an opposite island.¬† They take a steep path down the hill, cross by boat, and get water from a spring storing them in plastic gallons and return the same way.¬† Their living conditions were really deplorable.¬† But amidst all these, they welcomed me with warm smiles and even apologized for their condition as they were embarrassed with their shack.¬† I told them I would buy the kids school supplies and they could go pick them up at my driver’s place.¬† It was the least I could do for them.

My driver found me a long bamboo pole to use as a trekking pole as I didn’t wanna risk slipping on the steep trail on my way down.

As I made my way across the lake back to the mainland, I couldn’t help but think of the kids and their hard life.¬† I wished kids who had more in life would realize that there were other kids who were not so lucky.

Back at the mainland, we went to a general supplies store in Poblacion to get some notebooks, pad papers, pencils, and crayons for the kids.¬† While my driver brought them back to his home for safekeeping, I went to withdraw at the atm at the local bank beside KDatu Souvenirs.¬† Wonder of wonders, the atm worked!¬† One of the most magical moments in traveling is when you’re in an area where you least expect an atm and you find one and it actually dispenses money!¬† This was one of those moments.¬† I’ve had similar ones in Sagada and in Sapa.

My driver had returned and we motored back to the Green Box to wait for Oyog who still had not returned from church.¬† Maybe the sermon was long, I told my driver.¬† To kill time, I headed to the Kehulingan Craft Foundation a few meters down the road beside a restaurant that apparently was affiliated to the store.¬† The spacious store had beautiful T’boli wear for sale and other crafts such as baskets and a few musical instruments including a drum with a torn skin.

I want this drum!

¬†I could have easily spotted any of the small items such as the beads because no one was there.¬† Fortunately for them, I wasn’t that kind of person.¬† I took photographs instead of the pages of a small book on T’boli music published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics.¬† On the small store out on the side of the road were small t’nonggong on display but whoever was in charge was probably busy at the restaurant as there were some people lunching there.

It was almost twelve so I decided to just head to one of the restaurants (if you could call it that) where I had dinner the previous night and ordered a tilapia chicharon.  Oyog and the driver soon arrived so I just told the server who was already cleaning the freshly-caught tilapia to just reserve it for dinner later in the evening.

Oyog had not yet lunched so we decided to just eat at the waterfalls even if it was way past lunchtime.¬† I had some bananas and junk food at Green Box so I wasn’t really hungry.

 Waterfalls

A stone-and-gravel road led up to the hills where the falls were.  It was a little bumpy but we managed to hold on to the moto.  The second falls could actually be glimpsed on one section of the road.  We chose to go to the second waterfalls first as it will be easier to go down the 700+ cemented steps leading to the first falls rather than hiking up.

The First Falls: Hikung Alu

Past the registration area where I got in for free courtesy of Oyog, a cemented pathways ¬†led to the first falls known by its T’boli name: Hikung Alu which means “passageway.”¬† Is it because it led to some netherworld that only the T’boli who first glimpsed know about? ¬†To get up close and personal with the falls, I took the short trail leading to it but stopped short just before it as it was quite slippery. ¬†Bathing in Hikunh Alu isn’t allowed probably because of the strong current. ¬†Oyog joined me on the short walk back going down the banks to try to get some small clams to show me but there were none. ¬†“Maybe because the water is too strong,” she explained.

We took the 700+ concrete steps that led to the second falls.  It gently spiraled down through the forest and made for a nice albeit knee-tiring walk.  We heard the falls before we saw it.  It really was spectacular.  It was  high and cascaded in torrents down below.  So powerful was the water that a perennial spray of water hang around the swimming hole where the water plunged down.  It was really beautiful. 

I’m always mesmerized with waterfalls.¬† The volumes of water that drop over the cliff face look so magical and it is awe-inspiring when you think of how powerful that water is. ¬†I’ve always considered waterfalls as one of the most potent symbols of the majesty of God’s creation and that of nature. ¬†It must have been even more awesome when the surroundings were in its natural state— no infrastructure, no pathways, no nothing.¬† Just the falls and nature.¬† I wonder how the first T’bolis who stumbled on those falls felt the moment they laid eyes on the crashing water.

The falls were really beautiful and it’s just right that they be promoted in a big way as one of the natural attractions in Lake Sebu. ¬†I just wished they were better managed and had more upkeep. ¬†The cottages really looked old and quite dilapidated and there were some litter on the trails.

The eateries surrounding the parking lot were without food anymore as it was way past lunch time so we just headed to one of the eateries overlooking Lake Seloton for tilapia chicharon and sugba.¬† Judging by how many vehicles stopped to buy the live tilapia swimming in wooden rectangular tanks, you’d really think that people love their tilapia in this part of the world.¬† The eatery we were at even ran out of the fish when a truckload of people stopped and bought kilos of fish.

A truckload of tilapia enthusiasts

“Hey that’s my tilapia!” “Noooo! That’s mine!!”

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Lake Sebu Day 2: T’boli Crafts and Music

At around 6 in the morning, with the mist still hovering over the hills surrounding the lake, Oyog and I made our way to the slew of huts we had visited earlier.¬† It had rained in the wee hours of the morning so the trail was a little wet with a few slippery parts.¬† Nobody stirred as we passed quiet huts.¬† Only dogs came out to greet us with their barks.¬† I hurried down the trail on the heels of Oyog as I didn’t want any dog following me around.

As we turned a corner, up on a low hill, we espied the family of brass casters who were all up and at work on their little kiln.  The molds had already been baked and they were just waiting for the melted metal to heat up at the right temperature before it could be poured.  It was hot as smoke rose from the bonfire where the metal was heating-up to a fiery orange color.  Finally, the man who had made my bell the previous day, using a long iron tong, lifted the container and poured it on the molds.  I understood why they went to work so early in the morning.  The smoldering heat of the kiln would have made work unbearably hot in the middle of the day.

About fifteen minutes later, with the metal finally cooled and set, he broke the a flat mold apart revealing a shiny belt buckle.  The rest of the molds were cone-shaped revealing beautiful bells with filigreed designs.  They all glinted in the rays of the morning sun.

Molds waiting for hot melted metal to be poured

 

In the meantime, the women chiseled newly minted little bells using small metal chisels which they pounded with to remove excess metal bits.  Children milled around helping around.

On the other side were a group of women who were also chiseling little bells.  One of them brought out a basin of bells and said they had been ordered by somebody.

It was so early in the morning and yet these people were hard at work already.

Back at the Green Box, I slept a bit as there was still a bit of time for some shut-eye before heading to our next destination —- a village to visit a musician.

I was really excited about this day as we were heading to the house of Ma Fil, a master musician who was going to make me some instruments.  We hired a moto and a driver for the day (Php 500).  The bike had none of the seat extension like what the other motos regularly used for commuting had so the three of us were squished together with me between Oyog and the driver.  I was literally breathing down his neck especially downhill when we would all slide forward.  I was quite worried that with all the weight forward the moto would topple.  Core training was put to good use.

The ride was on the main road that followed the ridge overlooking the lake.¬† Parts of the lake that didn’t have any tilapia cages andresorts were quite pretty.¬† Small souvenir stalls with woven baskets and beads hanging out front were picturesque.¬† From the turn-off to the village, the road had become rocky but it was all very manageable.¬† I understood why Oyog had wanted to hire a moto driver she knew as a lot of the motos were just wheezing pass us at almost breakneck speeds.¬† An accident was the last thing we needed in this part of the world.

Leaving the main road behind, we entered a world of green with verdant mountains and hills and undulating fields.

We finally stopped at a small clearing where we parked the moto.¬† We went up some steps carved onto the compact soil and up a small plateau where a large traditional T’boli house stood.

Ma Fil the Musician

The view was gorgeous as we could see the other side of the lake and fields as far as the eyes could see.  A few kids were playing basketball on the small dusty field on the far right of which stood two small huts.

It was very cool and shady in the T’boli house.¬† Solid logs held the house aloft which was accessed by a short flight of stairs.¬† It was one big open space inside.¬† The stove was on near the right corner of the house while on one corner right by the doorway were folded mattresses and blankets.¬† Bamboo slats as flooring made everything very cool.

Ma Fil, the owner of the house and my reason for coming soon arrived.  Hanging on a beam above the stove was a sludoy, a 5-stringed bamboo zither.  He took it and began playing.  Soft sounds emanated from the instruments as his fingers deftly plucked the strips of bamboo that had been cut and raised to serve as strings.  He played a few more pieces for me.

It was in the hegalong, the iconic T’boli 2-stringed lute that his mastery as a musician truly shined.¬† Laying the instrument he himself had put together and designed, horizontally on his lap, his right pointer finger played the strings with a plectrum while the fingers of his left hand went up and down the neck of the lute on the frets.

One piece imitated the sounds of a wood pecker.  In this one, Oyog struckthe strings with a pair of very thin almost straw-like sticks which resulted in some sounds being damped.  It was a really unique way of playing a lute, something I have not seen before.

It was a magical moment sitting on the floors of the house as the sound of the hegalong embraced me.  This is what I had come to Lake Sebu for.

The performance ended and Ma Fil went off to get a node of bamboo to make a sludoy for me.  I was willing to wait the whole day just to watch him make the instrument.  A lot of people can play but few can make instruments and one of the signs of a master musician is his ability to craft instruments.  I was going to seize this opportunity.

He returned with a newly-cut node of bamboo which he smoked on the stove to dry it out.  He put it out under the searing heat of the sun as he wove rattan strips to make a ring around both ends of the bamboo.  Retrieving the now dried bamboo, he put the woven rattan ring and then with a sharp knife, carefully cut out strip of the skin which would be the strings.  Small flat pieces of bamboo were wedged to raise the strings.  A small hole was also cut out on both ends to allow the sound to resonate from the instrument.

Ma Fil constantly shaved the strings until it was the desired thinness.  He then returned the instruments to the stove to smoke it some more.  Another round of plucking and listening to the strings.  Apparently dissatisfied with one, he broke it and made another one.  Testing the sludoy again, it became obvious it had passed his quality control when he finally started playing.

By this time, the little boys he had sent out to bring a trunk of a lemenge tree had returned.  Ma Fil then proceeded outside to cut and remove the bark from the wood until its pale white flesh showed.  He cut shallow notches on both ends to which he tied black nylon strings he had found and taken from a used coal sack.  The notch would prevent the string from sliding off the instrument when hanged and played.  He was soon done and getting two bamboo poles, he stuck on them ground to which he hanged the log of wood.  Taking two short sticks he had also cut from the one of the branches, he began playing.  The klutang was done!

 

My “klutang” and “sludoy” drying in the sun

While waiting for the klutangtod¬†dry under the sun together with the sludoy¬†, he still had enough energy left as he took a discarded piece of wood and started carving a mini hegalong for me.¬† “Sample,” he told me with a grin.¬† It was wonderful how he was able to carve out the graceful curves of the lute from the wood.

Ma Fil making a mini “hegalong”

It was way past lunch and we had not brought any food for us as we had not anticipated the long time we would be spending with Ma Fil.¬† My stomach was grumbling but I wasn’t complaining.¬† I was too much engrossed on what I had been watching, listening, and learning.

I paid Ma Fil Php 500 for the sludoy and klutang he had made.¬† It was a small price to pay for his efforts.¬† Oyog later told me that Ma Fil had been working in the fields to which he was being paid a measly Php 100 per day!¬† His son had told him to hurry-up with what he was doing as he needed to return to his work in the fields.¬† Php 100 matters a lot to a family with no other source of income to feed them.¬† But Ma Fil had told his son that he had to finish making the instrument as I might want to buy it.¬† I think instrument-makers like him should be encouraged to make instruments to keep his craft going.¬† As the tourist market gets flooded with imitation instruments that look good as display pieces only, real music instruments from real makers should be patronized.¬† He used to play at Punta Isla before but being paid only Php 150 per day with no meals and no transpo allowance, he has since stopped as it wasn’t enough.

I was shocked to hear this as the resort could have at least given him free meals.¬† Transpo to and from his place to the Poblacion costs Php 80 per day already, so what would be left wouldn’t even be enough to buy a kilo of rice.

We only brought the sludoy back with us as it was impossible to bring the klutang.  I just gave Ma Fil 50 bucks to get a moto and bring it to the Green Box.

We motored back to the main road and went to one of the roadside eateries for a lunch of what else…. tilapia!¬† The chicharon tilapia was very good but even better was the lagpang.¬† It was charcoal-roasted tilapia that had been cooked in a sourish soup. It was tasty and good.

Next stop was Lang Dulay, the dream weaver.

The Weavers

Located in a small village past the area where the recent cyclone wreaked havoc, we reached the small school established by National Living Treasure, Lang Dulay, where she teaches the younger generation the ancient art of t’nalak weaving.

I first came across Lang Dulay in the Dreamweavers video and I have since been fascinated with her and her craft.  Unfortunately, I had come at the wrong time.  It was a weekend and the school was closed and the grand old lady, now in her 80s and no longer weaving, was in Poblacion.

We went up and took a look around the school was just a wide area in the stilted house where t’nalak was i the various staged of weaving.¬† Soon, some of her students arrived.¬† They were all very nice and answered all my questions.

Apparently, due to her age, Lang Dulay, fondly referred to by her students as “Lola” no longer weaves.¬† She still teaches, though, and at present has 16 active students, all female as it is taboo for men to weave t’nalak.¬† The women are all involved in the process of making the cloth from the dyeing to the knotting and the weaving. They say that the weaving is actually not very difficult.¬† It is the process of dyeing the threads and tying the knots that take a lot of time.

All the designs are done by Lang Dulay as she is the only one who knows up to a hundred designs, all coming from her dreams as the T’boli believe that the designs of this precious and almost sacred cloth must come from dreams.¬† Lang Dulay starts the initial knots for the first set of designs which are then continued by the students.¬† For an entire bolt of t’nalak that had been personally tied by Lang Dulay herself from top to bottom, the cost would be Php 1,500/meter. The actual weaving is done by one of her students though.¬† A bolt of cloth done by one of the students is priced much lower from Php 600-700/meter depending on the design.

Unlike the cheaper ones at Php 350/meter sold at the souvenir shops, those from the school of Lang Dulay only uses natural dyes which means a more permanent coloring and the designs are truly beautiful. Only the traditional colors of red, brown, and natural are also only used. Those knotted by Lang Dulay bear her signature woven at the end of the bolt.  Also, it is only Lang Dulay who makes cloth with as much as four different designs in a single bolt.

I could only afford a 2.5 meter bolt woven by one of her students.  It was a keepsake well worth the price.

Storm clouds had again gathered and we made a quick exit to beat the rain.  We arrived back at the Green Box just as the clouds let loose with a torrent of rain.

Travel Tips

1.¬† T’nalak cloth is generally sold in bolts of 5 meters unless they were made in bolts lesser than that such as 2.5 meters.¬† Because of the designs, you cannot simply ask them to cut.¬† The bolts would have a “blank” edge between the designs to signify the end of one entire bolt measuring for example, 5 meters.¬† It is only at those “blanks” that the cloth could be cut.

2.¬† Bring cash of course.¬† Don’t expect to pay with a card.

3.  You can order a bolt and have them sent via LBC to you.

4.  The school is open Monday to Friday only.  But the people are nice enough to open it and talk to you if you wanna look around.  At the very least, buy some cloth for their effort.

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