The Philippines in a Nutshell
By “Awake?” correspondent in the Philippines
LIKE a string of pearls spilled in the ocean, the Philippine Islands stretch out north and south for 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers), forming a lustrous boundary between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea. Nobody knows exactly how many islands there are—spewing volcanoes constantly create new ones and crushing waves of the sea destroy others—so it is simply said that there are “over 7,000.” Only about 4,000 of these are inhabited. Many others have no names or are yet to be trodden on by man.
On these countless tropical islands live forty million people who speak over eighty-seven dialects and are of no less than eighty-one distinct ethnic groups! American, Spanish, Malay, Chinese and Arab influences have all left their unmistakable mark on these diverse and interesting people.
Few of us have the time and money to spend months acquainting ourselves with the people and culture of another land. But those who are able to stop for even one day here in the Philippines can get a quick glimpse of life on the entire archipelago. Only a stone’s throw from Manila International Airport is the eighty-seven-acre Ang Nayong Pilipino—the Philippines in a “nutshell.”
A cluster of six fascinating “villages” depicts the basic regions of the Philippines: Muslim, Visayan, northern Luzon, Mountain Province, Bicol and Tagalog. Each village displays the architecture, landscape, arts and crafts that one finds in an actual native village in a particular region.
As we enter the park, a choice of typically Philippine modes of transportation confronts us—the kalesa and the jeepney. The kalesa is a colorful horse-drawn carriage reminiscent of the nineteenth-century period of Spanish rule. Though it has been fading out in the larger cities in favor of motorized vehicles, the recent fuel shortage and price hikes have brought more and more of the time-honored kalesas back to crowded village streets.
But we will take a relative newcomer, the jeepney. Jeepneys caught on after World War II when a lack of mass transportation vehicles paralleled a surplus of American army jeeps. Enterprising Filipinos found that adding a longer body with two long seats in back created a four-wheeled minibus that could tackle the roughest muddy roads and rain-swollen streams with ease. The little jeepney’s capacity for passengers—human, animal and vegetable—seems limitless. And often it is driven with fierce abandon.
Easy to spot, these homemade buses are painted with vividly colored designs and further personalized with equally colorful signs such as “Forever Yours,” “True Love,” or “Sweetheart” on the hoods, sides and bumpers. Inside, a Bible text may decorate the dashboard, such as “Prepare to meet thy God.” Add a half dozen or so brightly chromed mirrors and horns, and you have the jeepney, a fascinating blend of practicality, durability and folk art.
The Tagalog and Ilocos Regions
Our jeepney here in Ang Nayong Pilipino whisks us first to a replica of the Tagalog region in central and southern Luzon—the rice granary of the Philippines. This mostly flat, well-watered and fertile land brings in three bumper crops of rice in a good year.
Climbing out of the jeepney, we find our attention at once fixed on several picturesque thatched-roof houses built on stilts about six feet off the ground. While heavy rains are good for growing rice, flooding is frequent, and elevated homes keep family and property high and dry. Slatted walls and floors as well as ample window area permit maximum movement of air, if not maximum privacy.
We climb the stairs and enter a farmer’s hut. The floor sinks with each step. After a few anxious moments, though, we realize that the slatted bamboo floor will not break. Inside we find that the rice farmers make good use of the time between their three annual plantings and harvests. On display are very fine, almost sheer piña cloth made from the pineapple plant and jusi cloth made from banana fiber, intricate embroidery, ceramics, and leather-work made from carabao or water-buffalo hide. Beautiful tables and chests of native wood called narra (Philippine mahogany) are delicately inlaid with carabao bone. Such handiwork often graces expensive furniture stores around the world. So widespread is this so-called “cottage industry” that it has become one of the major industries of the islands.
As we pass by a small lake, noisy with the quacking of ducks, we are reminded of the main industry in the town of Pateros, Rizal: balut. Balut is a duck egg that is incubated for about two weeks and then cooked just before it hatches. Street vendors enjoy a booming business selling balut to hungry passersby, who relish eating the whole duckling in one mouthful, complete with feathers. Most Filipinos consider balut a real delicacy, but few foreigners acquire a taste for it.
Making our way over to the Ilocos region, we pass by some of the over 300 Philippine banana varieties and the closely related abaca plant, from which world-famous Manila hemp is produced. Industrious, thrifty Ilocano people of the narrow valley just north of Manila retain the formal, sturdy architecture of Spanish days. The large home we see here in Nayon was transported brick by brick from its original site in the Ilocano region.
A scale replica of the 8,000-foot (2,438-meter) Mayon Volcano dominates this area, as the volcano itself does the Bicol region. Mayon is said to have the most perfectly shaped cone in the world. In 1814 its explosive fury buried the entire town of Cagsawa under twenty feet (6 meters) of stone and molten lava and destroyed several other towns and thousands of people. A solitary church steeple pokes through the hardened lava to remind us silently of that cataclysm. “Yes, the volcano is still active,” we are told. It last erupted in 1968 and, like many of the fifty other Philippine volcanoes, still gives off its share of steam.
In the middle of the stormy typhoon belt, screaming winds are so much a part of the Bicolanos’ lives that they jokingly remark that a storm is not a typhoon unless it can flip a halved coconut onto its back. The winds are feared even more than floods, so homes must be firmly anchored to the ground, able to stand up against 125-mile-per-hour (200-kilometer-per-hour) typhoons. Even though storms inevitably destroy all but the strongest homes, the happy-natured Filipinos just gather some readily available native building materials and begin all over again.
Walking along, we can almost imagine being in one of Bicol’s scenic plantations surrounded by the king of tropical trees, the coconut. Even more valuable than money, the coconut palm is a cornucopia of good things for a Filipino family. The veins from the center of the leaves make fine brooms; the trunk can be a durable bridge, post, or an inexpensive water pipe; the roots provide an abundant source of firewood. Filipino housewives even place half a coconut husk under one foot and shuffle across their hardwood floors, leaving behind a beautiful shine! Coconut shells form kitchen utensils, guitars, carvings, charcoal and first-quality gears. Butter, soap and oil are derived from coconut meat.
Many farmers will plant six coconut trees when a child is born in the family. When the youth is ready for school, the trees are beginning to bear fruit, which pays for the youngster’s school expenses. As the trees get older, their fruitful products give the young man or woman a good start in life.
At the heart of the archipelago are the charming Visayan Islands, basking in the prosperity of a growing sugar industry. Seventy-five percent of all the sugar raised in the Philippines is grown here, particularly on the island of Negros. Spanish-style homes with trellised walkways give the visitor a taste of the way of life in years gone by.
The most densely settled island, Cebu, is the center of a vivid historical past. In 1521 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first set foot on the nearby island of Homonhon. At first he received a warm welcome, but heavy taxation soon wore out native hospitality. A battle between King Lapu-Lapu, the chieftain of Cebu, and Magellan’s army resulted in Magellan’s death.
Spanish settlers in Cebu later erected a large cross to memorialize Magellan for bringing Western religion to the Philippines. In time, superstitious people came to believe that the cross possessed curative powers. It even had to be protected in a kiosk or shrine from religious fanatics who wanted a piece of the “miraculous” cross. To this day those who believe in its powers pay professional dancers to light candles and dance before the kiosk. A replica of this well-known symbol of the Visayan region is displayed here at Nayong Pilipino.
Sighting the fascinating village ahead, we forget our tired feet as we wind down the path toward it. In sharp contrast to the less colorful homes of the other regions, this village appears to be alive with color. Homes decorated with brightly painted, ornate wooden carvings—some on stilts right out over the water’s edge—all encircle a white mosque with five red minarets. According to Muslim belief, the center minaret represents the Islamic god Allah, and the smaller ones at the corners, his four attendants. Inside the central mosque in each village, a large bronze disk-like gong is sounded at regular intervals each day. All the villagers respond by turning toward the mosque in prayer.
Years before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, Arab missionaries had traveled to the islands of Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu, making many converts. While today these people comprise only about 4 percent of the Philippine population, their customs certainly add a colorful splash. The men’s distinctive small velvet caps or turbans, called kopia, and the women’s long loose pants, or kantio, are an eye-catching part of the vivid display.
Some Muslims spend their entire lives on the water, either fishing or pearl diving, living in homes on stilts above the water, and even purchasing foodstuffs from regularly passing floating bancas or boats. Tatayas, plank bridges, connect the homes to one another, making visiting convenient.
But not all villages of Mindanao are built over the water. Many homes are built solidly on dry ground, like the ornate one here in Nayon. Muslims claim that those elaborate carvings around the eaves drive “evil spirits” away. But what about the other colorful carvings protruding from the sides of the house like giant butterfly wings? These olir publicly proclaim the superior position of the Datu, or Muslim ruler of the community, who lives here with his “sultan” sons. The two smaller homes nearby are where the Datu’s wives live. Muslim belief grants a Datu four legal wives and four concubines if he is able to support them. The eight wives must live in what is called “friendly competition.”
Muslim grave sites are striking too. Some object symbolizing the life of the dead one is placed over each. Over the grave of a fisherman, for example, might be found a boat. A woman’s grave is frequently adorned with a mirror, indicating vanity!
From the big southern island of Mindanao, we travel all the way to Mountain Province in the north of Luzon Island. It takes only a few steps here at Nayong Pilipino. High in the mountains of that province lives a hardy group who, amid untropically cool mountain temperatures and precipitous slopes, have created one of the wonders of the world: the famous Banawe rice terraces. Hundreds of years ago, simple tools, hard work and patience carved terraced rice paddy after rice paddy from the almost vertical mountainsides, each one watered by an intricate system of waterfalls flowing from one terrace to another. If put end to end, they would be ten times as long as the Great Wall of China, reaching over half way around the world—14,000 miles (22,530 kilometers)!
The thatched-roof homes of this region are built on four sturdy posts with a large round block of wood at the upper end of each to act as a rat guard. If one finds the ladder of the home down, visitors are welcome, so come on up. Inside, a fire is built, food is cooked and the family sleeps. During the heat of the day they spend most of the time beneath the house weaving and carving wood. Especially popular are carvings of carabao and of ancient warrior masks, reminiscent of the days when headhunting was an accepted part of life.
The house is small because the children do not live there for long. At the time of puberty the young men are transferred to male dormitories called atos and young women to a separate dormitory called an ulog. In time, a trial marriage is arranged, but if the couple proves to be incompatible or childless, it is not formalized. Only if things work out well is a formal marriage declared.
But now it is evening and time for us to leave Nayong Pilipino—we have seen the Philippines in a nutshell. Our minds reflect on the diverse and unusual things here on display. From the bustling city life of Manila to the tribes of Mountain Province, one cannot but feel the magnetic charm of the simple but fascinating life in the Philippines.
[Picture on page 17]
A home typical in the Tagalog region
[Picture on page 19]
Homes of the Mountain Province