As our plane descends for Davao city, I am looking at this aunt of mine who has fallen into her perpetual somnolent state. Nothing about this phenomenon has changed. Except perhaps an increase in frequency over the years. Her eyelids slide shut, her head sways in half circles, until finally, body solidly in seat, her head slumps forward or back or to one side, and she is asleep. Out cold until someone wakes her.
It is the beginning of our three-week visit to the Philippines and she will fall into these sleep modes so often that I will wonder about her dream life. Does she have one? And if so, what does she dream about? We have not traveled together since my high school group trip to Europe she chaperoned over twenty years ago. I snapped her photo standing proudly in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace. Now, she has become this image of a queen displaced from her court. After losing her husband this past winter to a long illness, Clara is alone and in need of a travel companion to her nursing college’s fiftieth anniversary in her native Mindanao. She asks me because I am the traveler in the family, someone who has lived and worked abroad, and had the summers off as a teacher.
It is a double-edged offer, generous and exciting on the one hand, and questionable and risky on the other. I know her as a sometimes-difficult personality—competitive and prone to biting comments, yet I am drawn to the opportunity, curious to meet my father’s side of the family. I have been in search of my father these last few years or rather I’ve been looking for traces of his past life, his life before he had a family. I was either too young or too ignorant to ask him about his past of which he offered few details when he was alive. Ours was a contentious relationship whose marquee could have read “Old Stubborn versus Young Stubborn.” Then, when I was curious, it was too late. He died of congestive heart failure at the age of seventy-nine. I was in college, spending my junior year in France, discovering what the world had to offer, and in the next moment, take away.
Since then, I find myself wanting to recover this part of my father like a set of lost keys. I look for him in places he used to live and in people who knew him, a glimpse of another life in a story or in a house on an old street. I am anxious to meet the families of his siblings on this trip to Mindanao. They live in a region where Muslim separatists have been known to bomb crowded, commercial areas and kidnap Western tourists. Their history so different from my own peaceful, American upbringing makes me curious. We are alien to one another, yet the blood that runs through our veins and the name we share beg to differ. My aunt is the thorny, dubious bridge to this place, but a bridge nevertheless. I accept her offer.
“Hey Auntie Clara,” I nudge her arm, “we’re landing.”
I was eight when I learned that my Aunt Clara came from Mindanao. What did I know of Mindanao then? Nothing. I thought it some vague region in the Philippines, when in fact it is the second largest island in the country. Of my parents’ native country I was just beginning to take notice like a young bird awakening to the fact that it is part of a flock.
“Mindanao is where the Moros live,” a family member once told me, “and the Moros are a fierce people, capable of cutting off your head.”
As she made the remark, this relative sliced the air with her hand like an axe meant to scare and amuse me. I did not laugh. Moro is a Filipino word for Muslim. I did not know that then, nor did I know what a Muslim was. I wonder now if she was trying to tell me something about my aunt. Not that Clara was of a different religion, because she is Catholic, but that when you are around her, you had better keep your guard up.
Aunt Clara ran the family restaurant, the Diaz Café, where my father played cards in the backroom well into the night with his old time cigar-smoking compadres from the Philippines. It was her second career. After twenty-five years as a nurse, she put away her white uniform for good and donned a shoulder to knee-length floral print apron, replacing her mother-in-law in the business. She became the new “Mama Diaz”, the perfect job for someone outspoken, for someone who liked being the center of attention. As if it were part of the restaurant’s service, Clara doled out advice to friends and family members alike. No need to ask. It came free with the meal.
During her breaks in the back of the restaurant, she would fall into a predictable napping mode, sitting upright on the sofa. These fits of sleep knocked her out as if she’d just inhaled anesthesia. My mother believed she was exposed to too much of this gas while working in the surgery room. Sometimes, Clara would snore loudly, waking herself with a start.
A memory I have as a teenager comes to mind. In this memory, I am in the small back room of the Diaz Café, waiting for my parents to finish chopping vegetables in the restaurant’s kitchen. I am watching television, the volume turned low so as not to disturb Aunt Clara who is napping on the small sofa. She mumbles something in her sleep. Then, the mumbling takes on a panicked edge. I look over once or twice, thinking she is having a strange dream. She wakes up startled, then realizing she is no longer where she believed herself to be, breathes a sigh of relief.
“I had a bad dream,” she says, her eyes squinting to identify the other person in the room with her. She sees me, sees that she is safe. She recounts her dream of her drunken father who chased her around a fire, a butcher knife clenched in his hand. Is this true? I wonder. Was her father an alcoholic? Why would he be chasing Clara around with a knife? Had Clara done something to provoke him or had he tormented all his children this way? She has never before spoken to me about her father or about her past life for that matter. For a moment I am a disembodied visitor, being led through the thick walls of my aunt’s concrete personality to a secret place. I listen quietly, no questions asked so as not to disturb the memory of this dream, before the secret disappears in her next breath.
“My father used to weave our clothes,” she would recall as we walked along the main road that ran through her Mindanao village, “and make my shoes out of wood.”
When Aunt Clara speaks of her father on this trip so many years later, it is only out of admiration. He was an industrious farmer, constructing simple mechanisms out of bamboo to water the land, and providing for his family with meticulous care. I listened to her story, her reconstruction of the past, alert to the large trucks speeding dangerously by us. The father in her dream is nowhere in sight.
At the start of our journey, while waiting for our transpacific flight at the Seattle International Airport, I asked Aunt Clara how we were related, a long-accepted fact that had been confusing to me since there were many people whom I addressed as “Aunt” or “Uncle”, but were not blood relations. She informed me, as I drew stick figure representations on a napkin, that her mother and my father’s father were siblings, which made us second cousins. When I asked her about my father’s immigration to the States she recalled facts I’d already known: that he’d arrived in the 1920’s or 30’s and that he picked asparagus and onion as a fieldworker in California. I felt her gaze of jealousy as I scribbled notes in my pocket notebook. When she heard I was writing a book, my Aunt, never one to be outdone, took on a literary project of her own. With the help of a local newspaper reporter, she wrote a small book about being a pioneer nurse in our hometown and had it self-published.
“Is there anything else you remember about my father’s past?” I asked.
“Ask your relatives in Mindanao,” she answered curtly, having grown impatient with my questions. I was reminded of my parameters.
Before Clara Noble was born in the early 1930’s, her family of poor Ilocano farmers was part of a great migration from the northern island of Luzon to the “Land of Promise” known as Mindanao. The promise was location. The island lies below the typhoon belt creating ideal year-round cultivation of mangoes, pineapples, and a bounty of other tropical crops. The Nobles and Novenos settled alongside other Catholic families to cultivate their plots of land into vast rice fields in the frontier areas of the island.
Clara was the youngest of eight children. She and her siblings attended school in the Muslim city of South Cotabato an hour away from their small village. Clara was the only one in her family to attend college; a nursing school called Brokenshire College in the city of Davao. She was in its first graduating class. The year was 1956. After two years working in the college hospital, she left for the United States with the help of her cousin, my father, Benito, who’d become an American citizen.
“When I arrived in Seattle, your father had a special dinner in my honor,” my aunt told me during our twelve-hour flight to the Philippines, her memories released in a sudden, warm flow, “It was my first time to taste goat meat.” She recounted how her small floatplane from Seattle slapped down onto the black waters of Southeast Alaska, water spraying up to the windows.
“I thought the plane had crashed.”
I am surprised by this revelation of her past, a scene suddenly come to life of someone I’ve never known, my aunt, young and vulnerable. Clara became one of a handful of Filipinas in the community and one of the four nurses at Ketchikan General Hospital. These pioneering nurses treated fishermen and lumberjacks who lost limbs. It was brave, noble work. Yet, it did not stave off the loneliness Clara felt in those first few years on the island.
“Your father hid my boyfriend’s love letters,” she claimed. I wondered if this were true. I pictured my father secretly slipping envelopes into his coat pocket. Was he afraid Clara would return to Mindanao? Or was Clara just making up an excuse for why she hadn’t received any news from her sweetheart back home? Had she stayed, I imagine she would have married this boyfriend and lived the rest of her life in Mindanao. Instead, Clara had the opportunity to attend Johns Hopkins University to study surgery nursing. When she returned to Ketchikan, she was introduced to Manuel, the stepson of my father’s good friend whom he met as a migrant worker in Seattle. Joe had persuaded Ben to find work in the salmon canneries in Alaska. Joe had married “Mama” Diaz, a windowed Filipina restaurant owner with three children. Manuel, the second child, was an American-born Filipino with a stutter and an easy laugh. Manuel and Clara married and had two boys.
As we fly under the clouds, I catch a glimpse of Davao city, green and lush right up to the white coast. Just when I think we are ready to land, the plane follows the U-shaped coastline and I observe as if through a magnifying lens the long pointy palms of the trees and the sandy beaches, unlike the smog-filled, billboard-stacked landscape of urban Manila in which we landed the day before. The plane touches down on the runway lined on both sides by dark walls of vegetation.
Last year, a bomb had gone off in the Davao City International Airport, killing twenty-one people. I was in the Philippines at the time, visiting relatives on the southern island of Luzon, a safe distance from the tragedy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a politically separatist, supposedly anti-terrorist group was responsible for the bombing. This shocking event only added to my impressions of the place based on relatives’ stated fears and actual reports of killings in the past. As I watched the grievous news unfold on the television with my cousins, I envisioned walking through a hostile Muslim community, who could smell my American scent, and being kidnapped and killed. Any interest I had in going to Mindanao was cast aside for the moment.
Aunt Clara and I make our way through the newly built airport relocated from its original site. It feels like I have entered a large sculpture of metal and glass. Clara has put on her custom designed red baseball cap that reads on its front, “Brokenshire College—Class of 1953”. She had a dozen made for the classmates she knew would be attending, classmates who started reuniting over the past ten years. We haven’t walked far when a woman wearing bright red lipstick runs up to her. They both cry out in recognition and hug. Suddenly, Clara is being whisked towards a group of women holding a large welcoming sign, “Brokenshire College / celebrates Golden Jubilee Anniversary / 1953-2004”. Between profuse hugs and cries, a round of photos are taken, while I stand by smiling. Then, after a brief wait for our luggage, we step out of the airport.
Warm air surrounds us as we climb inside the van that takes us to our hotel in downtown Davao. I feel less like a tourist on this island as I listen to the conversation of a young French couple from the back of the van and take in the view from my window, similar to what I’ve seen on the island of Luzon—a lush, dark green vegetation, roadside stands of grapefruit-like pomelos and mangos, crude wagons drawn by water buffaloes, Nissan pickups with tinted windows, and people crammed into the uniquely Filipino mode of transportation called jeepneys, long-ended jeeps painted in the owner’s vision, an often flashy design and a side or front placard with the name of the vehicle (often a family member’s name) or a religious pronouncement like “God is here” or “Save your soul.” As we approach the city and the streets become congested with cars and trucks, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like when Aunt Clara lived here and during the years of my father visit. I imagine a scene taken straight out of a black and white photo with fewer wheeled vehicles and unpaved roads. I scan the city for any signs of Muslim culture or people and spot one mosque amongst the buildings.
For the first two nights, we stay at the large Chinese-owned Grand Men Seng Hotel, before we transfer to the new alumni house or “bahay” alumni built on the new college campus. Brokenshire College had recently relocated from its original building damaged by fire to its present hilltop grounds overlooking a dense forest of palm trees. Compared to our spacious hotel room with a king-sized bed and a front room large enough to park a car, our alumni room is cramped, no bigger than my own 8’ x 10’ childhood bedroom that I shared with my sister. Are you kidding? I think to myself as Aunt Clara and I entered. In it are five slim twin beds with enough space between each bed to slide a suitcase in sideways. I notice two beds with clothes piled on them and two closet doors ajar. I peek in the closets and see clothes hanging inside and suitcases on the shelves. Suddenly, I feel like I’m a character in a children’s story, a composite of Little Red Riding Hood and the old woman in the shoe. I look out the slated windows to the garden below, and then begin to unpack wondering if all the rooms are this small and how much smaller these beds are than the standard twin-size in the U.S. and how I have lost my space for the next week or more, but will not complain because I refuse to be a spoiled American.
For the next week, Aunt Clara and I share our tight sleeping quarters with three other women, two of her former classmates and one classmate’s sister who all flew in from the United States or Canada. “Mami”, as everyone calls her, is the reputed leader of the group. She and her sister, who is also a nurse, arrived a day earlier. Mami, I learn, married for the first time a few years ago at the age of sixty-six. Until then, the thrifty woman who claims her nickname growing up was “ugly duckling” had been working to support her other siblings. I think her a saint. Later, our fifth roommate arrives, a silver-haired, sultry-voiced woman from Daly City, California has left her ill husband at home to attend this big reunion. The women are ecstatic to see each other and their perfume and stories of their flights and arrivals fill the air in the room that evening.
The women get up at the rooster’s crow—4:30am—every morning. When I join them and other alumnae downstairs for breakfast later in the morning, they are almost always finished eating. As I serve myself to eggs, toast, pineapple slices, and coffee, I am transported back in time, listening to stories of their college days when they lived in rooms with ten beds in a row and washed their soiled uniforms in a long sink located outside behind their dormitory. These sixty and seventy-year old women transform before my eyes and become their mischievous, playful twenty-something selves who pulled pranks on one another and on their professors. They laugh, they shriek. Not yet wives or mothers, they are students again until one of their husbands or the reunion director pops her head in the doorway and reminds them of the day’s schedule. Then, everyone piles out of the dining area and returns to the present day.
The “reunioners” have a busy schedule and I accompany Aunt Clara to many but not all of the events-- an opening reunion ceremony, a tour of the new hospital, various luncheons with guest speakers that include doctors, nurses, and city officials, excursions to see Davao’s gardens and beautiful homes. During the opening ceremony, an outdoor “Filipiniana” evening, all the guests wear their traditional Filipino clothing, women in their Imelda Marcos butterfly sleeve gowns and men in their translucent Barong Tagalog shirts. We are entertained by traditional singers and dancers costumed in mixtures of indigenous and Spanish styles. It is all so formal and familiar, an event I recognize from growing up in Filipino-American community that taught their children the dances and the music of a country and culture removed from their everyday American existence. At the beginning of the festive dinner, everyone stands to sing the national anthem.
“That was a nice sounding tune,” I observe to Jerry, a friendly white-haired Filipino-American gentleman from North Carolina who is sitting next to me. His quiet, stern-looking wife is an alumna.
“I don’t know the words,” he tells me in his happy-go-lucky American English. He sees the look on my face and tells me that he joined the Navy as a young man and traveled the world. He and his wife came to the Philippines four months ago for his brother-in-law’s funeral and had been touring around the island before the reunion. I am not sure what surprises me more: Jerry’s American-ness or his ignorance of the Filipino national anthem. It seems we have more in common than I first thought. His independence, his love for travel and for America, remind me of my father, a man who only bought American-made cars in which we took family road trips through British Columbia and down the California coast.
The ethnic Chinese couple that I met earlier has joined our table. The wife is the youngest of five children of a prominent Chinese businessman. Her mother had died at her birth and the Chinese businessman asked Mami, who was working at the local hospital at the time, to take care of his daughter. She came to know Mami as her own mother so she and her husband, a tall, light-skinned man with a moustache, dutifully attend all the reunion events with Mami. During the dinner, I learn from the husband that their family originated from the Fukian province of China. They both attended Chinese school in Davao, speak fluent Fukian, and have visited China. While the musician on stage sings traditional Filipino ballads, the husband teaches me a few greetings in Fukian. I admire how the Chinese maintain their culture and language abroad.
“But I am Filipino through and through,” he grins proudly, throwing a wrench into any conclusions I was forming in my mind on identity and culture. Or perhaps he was confirming something I already knew, that place can define you more than skin.
During a two-day break between the college reunion festivities and the grand finale, Aunt Clara and I attend our first family reunion at a simple beach resort in Davao. I am anxious to finally meet my father’s side of the family. Under a large open-air pavilion with the ocean’s surf a short distance away, I encounter what seems like a small city of Clara’s relatives and some of my relatives who have come from near and far to see Aunt Clara and this mystery cousin from New York. I watch as Clara and her two older brothers hug each other and laugh. I take a digital photo of Clara, pale and chubby, between her two thin, dark-skinned brothers and dub it the “oreo cookie” photo. They speak English with a seeming propriety and a lack of self-consciousness unlike some of the younger distant cousins whom I meet later.
The self-appointed MC for the evening, a comical middle-aged cousin with a missing front tooth welcomes Clara and me to the reunion repeatedly, announcing the different family members as they arrive and the names of the families represented: “Noble” (Clara’s maiden name), “Noveno”, “Soriano”, he says over the microphone again and again.
I am unmoored in this sea of faces, until I come face to face with a Noveno. Two Novenos in fact. Someone introduces me to my first cousins, Victorina and Ibing, petit dark-skinned women in their late 50’s who have my father’s smile and dimple. I grip their hands gently, in recognition, as if to say At last, you’ve arrived. They speak little English and I speak scant Ilocano so we rely on smiles to communicate this newfound connection. A distant cousin with an excellent memory for family names translates my questions and their soft-spoken responses. I write down names and dates and other small familiarizing details in my notebook to finally replenish the empty branches of a family tree.
While we gather to eat under the pavilion, which the family has rented along with the cottages where some of us will sleep, clouds start to gather above and it is dark when the family “program” begins.
“Please tell us about yourself, daughter of Benit Noveno,” the announcer keeps unknowingly shortening my father’s name, Benito. I ask if they understand my English, adding that sometimes I speak quickly. They all nod eagerly. After an explanation of who I am, where I grew up, where I live currently, and what I have been doing in the past few years, the drunk cousin announcer asks the dreaded question, “Are you married or single?”
From my past visits to the Philippines, I’ve grown defiant and impatient with this question. In a country where women my age are already married and have teenage children, I feel alien.
“Single,” I reply.
“Do you want to tell us more about yourself?”
“I’d be happy to answer anyone’s questions personally,” I say, cutting off any possibility for further public inquisition. Better to handle it one on one.
It starts to rain when Clara and I are asked to sit up front for a session of picture taking. After the first photo with the first set of families is taken, I stand up to return to my seat.
“No, stay here, all the families will take photos with us,” Clara explains to me, laughing. Then, for the next hour, we sit like royalty as more families come up one by one and stand behind us. A representative of the family introduces each member and then our group photo is taken. Clara and I keep a royal-like composure, our hands crossed on our laps. I am flattered and amused for the most part, but also feel as though I should be someone more important.
Then, Clara’s turn arrives. In front of this curious, eager family audience, Clara is asked to tell her story. At first she refuses, whispering to a nearby nephew that she will break down because of her recent loss. At the insistence of our drunk MC, Clara takes the mike and speaks of her husband’s passing.
“You don’t understand what it is like to be alone,” she says, her voice like a sudden burst in a quiet universe, “You are all lucky, you have each other.”
I shift in my seat, look up once to read any reactions from the audience, and unable to find any, look back down at my hands. Her familiar sharp tone rings in my ears.
“You have each other and I am alone,” her voice cracks this time. I shift in my seat again. After a moment of heavy silence I lean over to her and whisper reassuringly, “No, they don’t understand, do they?” wanting to convey a mutual understanding of the large, extended family in this country and how fortunate they are in their ignorance. I feel pity, not so much for my lonely aunt, but for these innocent listeners having to take the blame for her current emotional state and I think I shouldn’t be thinking this way because after all, she has lost her husband of more than forty years, but I do think this way because I see the familiar queen has returned.
The years have not softened so much as slowed down her bark. Her remark feels like a slap in the face. I scan the audience for other offended parties, but find not a hint. Afterwards, as I talk to individual relatives, I notice groups of people sitting around Aunt Clara, some leaning forward to talk to her, some bowing their head in reverence. A queen recovered. I wonder if the people in her court are just being polite.
We return to the Bahay Alumni the next afternoon, and I am feeling more at home on the island. While Aunt Clara participates in the last two days of her college reunion activities, I am happy to go sightseeing with an older cousin who volunteered at our family reunion to be my tour guide.
“I am always the last to know of Aunt Clara’s visits here,” he claims to me a few times during our tours and each time I shrug in ignorance. It seems the opposition has found me.
He openly expresses his disappointment with Clara and how she once promised to bring him to the United States. After piecing it together, I come to think that Clara’s marriage and starting a family probably distracted her from any promises she might have made while she was on one of her visits back home in Mindanao. This cousin had been a hopeful teenager at the time. I didn’t realize until much later that he probably viewed me as the last chance to somehow connect him or one of his grown sons to Aunt Clara and life in the United States, a life he’d dreamt would make him a millionaire
He tells me stories of local scandals and notable residents as he drives me to the Philippine Eagle farm an hour away from the city in the mountains to see the once-endangered species with the punk-like feather-do on its head and as we walk around a hilltop resort with an impressive view of Davao city and Mt. Apo, the second highest mountain in the country and an active volcano.
One day, after a morning tour of a local museum, Tour Guide cousin and I join my aunt and others for lunch at the Grand Men Seng Hotel. When we arrive, the large group has just finished eating. We sit ourselves at a half-occupied table and I try to catch the eye of Aunt Clara but she is asleep. After eating, I finally manage to get her attention.
“Where have you been?” she asks in an admonishing tone.
Stunned, and feeling like a child, I stammer out my reply. She had not mentioned before needing company and seemed fine with me touring separately for the past two days. In an attempt to impress her, Tour Guide cousin begins listing off the places we visited that day.
“I don’t care!” she cuts him off and says to me, “I brought you here to be with me, not to go off on your own!”
I am speechless. Tour Guide cousin is speechless. One of her classmates attempts to defend me by saying something about how I need to enjoy myself too, but Clara won’t hear it. As Clara joins her departing party, I rise from my seat in humiliation. I discover that Clara is having a hard time moving around, her feet have become swollen again. Even though others assist her, she is still angry with me and doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. I feel guilty for not being the attentive niece, but am shocked by her response. A dark cloud threatens to loom over the rest of our journey together, and I just want to escape it.
Fortunately, what vexes my aunt dissipates with the arrival of the reunion finale, a glamorous dinner and awards ceremony at a large hall of a municipal building. Before the event, back at the bahay alumni, a group of makeup artists of “bakla” or gay men transform my Aunt Clara and her classmates into Hollywood beauties, coating and layering them with hairspray, eyeliner, powder, blush and lipstick. They are all in high spirits. Once they don their beaded and silk finery, I barely recognize my retired roommates. Aunt Clara’s graying hair has been swept tight up to the side and cemented with hairspray. In her red sequined gown and red shoes, she resembles a celebrity of sorts.
“You look like Nancy Reagan!” I say and the name takes affectionately with her and her classmates.
On the spacious stage, professional singers croon the latest American and Filipino songs, nursing school alums and administrators perform humorous skits, and a set of three older couples affiliated with the nursing college slide smoothly through the tango and various ballroom dances. The spectrum of ages of alums are represented, honored, awarded, and cheered during the formal announcements. I feel like I am watching a talent show turned roast.
While waiting in the dinner line, I stand behind one of Aunt Clara’s former classmates, Jainab. She is Muslim, one of two in her graduating class, from the city of South Cotabato on the western side of the island some six to seven hours away by car. She is the first Muslim I talk to and I begin to wonder how she felt going to school with her Catholic classmates. She wears a sequined cap on her head that covers all of her hair and bright red lipstick. She is matronly and handsome and has a deep voice of conviction when she speaks. I secretly nickname her the Filipino Maya Angelou.
“I lost my husband two years ago. He was shot and killed.”
“I’m so sorry,” I’m taken by her openness, “What happened?”
“It was politically motivated. My husband’s younger brother is the mayor in our region…he was killed by his brother’s enemies. The ones that don’t like his politics.”
“Why would they shoot your husband?”
“These enemies believed that my husband told his brother what to do. That the mayor was consulting his big brother.”
“Do they know who did it?”
“Has he been caught?”
She shakes her head in defiance, “At large.”
I had yet not witnessed the ferocious, sword-wielding Muslims of my dark childhood imagination or as reported at the airport, in the markets, or on the streets. In fact, the first Muslims I meet are the quiet, scarf-clad women selling pearls in the alumni hotel’s garden. Jainab has made me privy to her corner of the world, where Moros are not only fighting and killing Western tourists or their Catholic neighbors like I had feared, but also each other. I run out of questions, but the conversation takes another turn as Jainab invites me to her hometown where she says her daughter, a city worker, will be my guide and bring me to the city’s museum with a collection of interesting Moro artifacts and costumes.
“I will give you my daughter’s number,” she says, urging me to call her if I make it to South Cotabato. I feel like I’ve just been handed the keys to a private kingdom.
When we reach the buffet table covered with savory smelling dishes of chicken and fish, vegetables and rice, I notice that Jainab, in following her religious practices, doesn’t take any of the young suckling pig, which has been served at every formal dinner I’ve been to so far. Although the unappealing appearance of this creature, roasted whole until its skin is brown and unusually shiny doesn’t make it appetizing, I know from dinners past what’s underneath and fork out chunks of the soft, juicy, fatty meat.
The night is full of flashing lights from cameras, award speeches, and dancing to the electric slide, disco and swing music. This is a special night for the college and its well-heeled alumnae. I know the rest of my trip on this island of oppositions will not look anything like this.
When the cousins come to pick us up at the Bahay Alumni, Aunt Clara and her classmates are saying their goodbyes and planning to see each other at the next reunion in two years in Las Vegas.
The drive to the cousin’s town is just under two hours on a well-paved road. As we leave Davao, the view of the ocean gives way to plantations of pungent-smelling durian and sweet mango trees. The fruits are sold in neat piles in small shacks or tables on the side of the road. We stop to buy some, eat one in the car, and continue on. The mountains draw near and then disappear in the distance.
“It used to take seven or eight hours to travel on these roads before,” Clara remembers. These days the travel time has been cut in half. She credits the former President Marcos, a man of grand deeds and scathing misdeeds, exiled from his country, for the paved roads and electricity brought to the then-hard-to-reach areas of the island.
We arrive at a small city and stay the night with the talkative cousin who had become my translator at the beach reunion. She lives with her husband in a simple, spacious home on walled property on which she maintains an impressive garden of over two hundred potted plants and some fruit trees. She insists on showing me each one, pinching leaves and fluffing up dirt with her fingers.
“I heard Clara was mad at you for leaving her alone at the reunion,” she says. Word has traveled to the countryside, and Clara’s reputation, or rather mine is being tested. I shrug, wanting to convey a mixture of innocence and indifference.
“You know Clara,” she responds, and I nod in relief.
It is the first night on this trip that I do not have to share a room or a bed with Aunt Clara or wake up to her mumbling in her sleep. I relish my time alone before dinner, listening to the rain scattering across the metal roof.
We continue our drive the next morning. Small, wood homes dot the side of road and beyond them lie vast rice fields. After an hour, we arrive in Pikit, my Aunt’s birthplace, more recently known as the conflict zone. We turn onto a narrow dirt road and into a graveled driveway. At the end of this long driveway stands a big wooden house, the house where my Aunt Clara grew up. Two years prior to our visit, Muslim rebels attacked this small village, killing Christian residents. The Noble men guarded the property with rifles just outside its chain-link fence and the women and children stayed inside the three-story house. The road became the dividing line. Rebels invaded and occupied the other side. Anyone unfortunate to live on this side had to abandon their home in the evenings and find shelter with others on safer ground or risk being shot and killed.
The conflict between Muslims and Christians in the area stemmed back to land disputes and claims by the Muslims of unjust treatment by the government in the 1950’s with the influx of immigrants from other islands, like my father’s and Clara’s families.
Islam first arrived on the island of Mindanao in the 14th century after spreading from neighboring Malaya, Borneo, and the Sulu Archipelago through traders, missionaries, and teachers. Its opportunity to expand to the rest of the country was cut short by the arrival of Spanish colonizers and their Christian faith two centuries later. The different Muslim groups on the island united to resist these colonizers for the next three hundred years, continuing their resistance against the American forces.
The signs of war are pointed out to me— mortar holes in the road, bullet holes in houses, the building of a makeshift church on the other side of the road so it is closer to the Noble residence, the widows and mothers who lost their husbands and sons. Instead of fleeing their homes altogether, the cousins of Pikit, fiercely attached to their land, chose to stay and guard their homes and farms.
The night before the family reunion at this large weathered house, a group of men transform the parking shed into an assembly line butchery. They set up tables and build a fire to prepare to kill and roast two enormous pigs and a goat. I am familiar with these rituals. I had witnessed them before in my childhood in Alaska when my father and the other Filipino men would gather in our yard, hold the animal—a pig or a goat-- as still as possible while someone would pry open its mouth and pour vinegar down its throat. As the creature guzzled, its throat was sliced and out gushed blood and vinegar into a big silver bowl. This blood would be used to cook a thick soup called dinaguan.
Here in Pikit as I speak to relatives in the living room sitting in front of the TV and videoke machine, I hear the hair-raising screech of pigs being killed and afterwards, chopping sounds that last all night. I go out later to take photos of the happily liquored assembly of workers and a huge silver bowl of animal guts. The smoke from the fires, which act as a natural mosquito repellant, spare us the swarms of mosquitoes that fly into the house on the other late evenings. They enter freely through spaces between the roof and areas of wall that do not meet. These short walls I can only guess were built prior to the era of ceiling fans, allowing air to flow in naturally and keep the house cool. The fans do little to keep the mosquitoes away.
Aunt Clara’s eldest living brother, white-haired, pale and homebound because of his weakening legs, becomes teary-eyed when he recognizes his sister. I notice how the Noble brothers differ in temperament from Clara. Like his other darker brothers whom I met at the reunion on the beach, the eldest is quiet and good-humored.
At the big family reunion in Pikit, I meet members of my family’s namesake who are practically thrown at me once they enter the house.
“Here is another Noveno,” they say excitedly, bringing the innocents by the elbow to me. I take pictures of them in groups and pairs, and I write down names, ask what they do—farmer, student, wife. There are no revelations about my father in my meetings with these strangers. Most of them are of my generation and thus had never met him.
My cousins Victorina and Ibing also make an appearance and we smile at each other from across the room. Our exchange is limited to my complimenting their beautiful part of the island.
We eat pork and goat and steamed rice and vegetables. I take more pictures. Outside, a man is turning the spit on which a large pig is being roasted over an open fire. I ask if I can take his picture. People begin to laugh and joke with the man. I smile along not knowing why people are laughing. Then, someone tells me that this man is Muslim, that he won’t be eating the pig that is roasting over the fire. Oh, I say, and the man smiles.
In the next few days, I tour the village on foot, visiting people’s houses, and meeting neighbors. I notice the neighbors who are wearing small caps and vests. I know they are Muslim. They look at us as we pass. I hear stories of how the Muslims do not want to do any work on the land and think about the man roasting the pig at the reunion.
I meet Aunt Clara’s childhood friends who have jet-black hair and deeply wrinkled skin darkened by the sun. One of them has returned from cutting grass out in the fields. Another one recounts the story of how she managed to escape the rebel attack.
“They would have to shoot me if they wanted me to leave,” she says bravely.
I admire their fortitude. They are young compared to Clara who appears so much older and slower despite her comfortable American life.
With the sweep of a hand, I am shown the other Noveno households hidden behind trees beyond the rice fields, too far it seems for us to stroll that I can only wonder about them. It occurs to me then that this was the jungle someone referred to when I was younger and was told that my father’s sister lived “deep in the jungle.” Certain things will remain just out of reach. In the quiet surrounding, between the laughter of my family guides, the memories of war have been replaced by stories of youth.
Sunday late morning, we attend the new makeshift church down the road. The original cement brick church, which is located on the rebel side of the street, is riddled with bullets and boarded up. The pleasant priest is from the island of Bohol and conducts mass in Cebuano and Tagalog. I realize my search here will not reveal more than I already know, but it is enough to see what my father saw too. I understand the mass in bits and pieces. Accustomed to this holy celebration, I do not need to know the language, something beyond the words and rituals seeps in. In bits and pieces. This is how I will understand life in Mindanao and my Aunt Clara, both possessed with a complicated duality. This too is how I will understand my father’s history that is becoming my own.