TREK Iloilo: Getting to Know One of Visayas’ Gems

July 11, 2015 Voluntourism

The mountains of Iloilo cradle one of the country's richest treasures.

It is home to the Tumandoks, also known as Suludnon or Panay Bukidnons. They are renowned for their epic chants, the longest in Asia; their Binanog Dance, or 'The Way of the Hawk,' a ritual that mimics the flight of the mighty bird; and their intricate form of embroidery known as panubok. This cultural group also includes the binukot, considered a princess chosen to live her life in seclusion.

However, they have suffered neglect due to their remote location, and their art is dying due to a lack of attention. Progress eludes them.

So, our group, TRails to Empower Kids, decided to help them.

We targeted three Schools of Living Tradition – Masaroy, Garangan, and Agcalaga.

Masaroy School of Living Tradition

GAMABA Learning Center

Agcalagan School of Learning Tradition

The members of the cultural community were very conservative in their request. All they asked for was financial assistance for their feeding program, school supplies, and materials for embroidery.

Schools of Living Tradition

In these schools of living tradition, children learn not only Science, Math, English, Filipino, and Civics but also their epic chants. Their oral tradition, called sugidanon, uses archaic language and is traditionally chanted while lying down in a hammock.

The chants narrate stories about the legendary warriors of the cultural group and their heroic exploits. Tales include a dog with extraordinary powers, a strange-looking bamboo tree, a man-eating witch, and a hermit who accepts two girls as payment for a misdeed.

Children also learn the dance called “binanog,” a courtship dance that involves the use of scarves or a piece of cloth to catch or elude a partner.

Moreover, the children learn about the 48 phases of the moon, names for the constellations, how to read patterns in the sky, and predict the weather.

They also study the “panubok,” their embroidery, where each design has a story and meaning, reflecting the cultural group’s rich heritage.

The Outreach

Years ago, I met Elsie Caballero Padernal, Bato Balani Foundation’s The Many Faces of the Teacher honoree, who told me about these schools and her effort, together with her clan, to promote their culture.

Caballero showed me a worn-out notebook where she had written down every detail of her cultural group’s identity that she had learned from her elders.

She also shared with me their struggles as indigenous people. They, like other cultural communities in the Philippines, are not exempt from discrimination. They were branded as mangmang or ignorant because they have no Western-style education.

Caballero recalled that once a member called her attention for performing their native dance in public. That person thought it was better for them to blend in and not brag about their being indigenous people.

As their identity is also our identity as Filipinos, I invited our group to help them.

It was the first time we conducted an outreach program outside Luzon. Our group is not a formal organization, and we do not have a budget for logistical expenses. Whenever we go out, we take care of our expenses, so for a long time, we have been reaching out to cultural groups that we can reach by bus.

Fortunately, one of our most active volunteers, Ailene Mae Leal, is from Calinog’s neighboring town of Lambunao. She got her family and friends to help.

A local group called Kulas assisted us with logistics. We were also linked up with the Panay 4×4 Club, which helped us transport donations.

The Trek

The road up the mountains of Iloilo was not paved, and afternoon rains added to the challenge. No public vehicle operator would take us up the mountains.

We initially planned a two-day activity, but there were reports of ambushes in the mountains, so we decided to squeeze all activities into one day.

From Lambunao, we went to the first school on our program, Masaroy School of Learning Tradition, which was also the farthest. There was no electricity in the area, and most of the people there are farmers.

We were welcomed by the sounds of gongs and drums. I almost ran on the trail in excitement, except that I couldn’t because I was still recovering from an injury from a climbing accident.

We brought blackboards, teaching, and school supplies for the kids’ weekend classes. We also brought sewing machines, cloth, and threads so the kids could have costumes when they practiced dance.

We also brought tools for minor repairs of the classrooms and rice to help the community with its feeding program.

We also gave the community a mini-library of storybooks and gifts for the kids, including bags, hygiene kits, toys, and loot bags—all donations from our families, relatives, friends, colleagues, and people we met online.

We visited the place two months earlier to check its viability as a beneficiary and research on the needs of the schools.

Festive Welcome

That morning was about festivities. The kids danced while the elders led the welcome chant. And we thanked them for sharing their culture with us and handed them the gifts.

After the turnover, we rushed to Garangan, where Federico and wife Lucia Caballero reside. Federico Caballero is a Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan awardee or a National Living Treasure.

Immediately, the cultural group started the “panimo,” a ritual to bless the newly harvested rice.

The Panimo

Part of the ceremony was drinking rice wine, which I tasted for the first time. It was an honor accorded to the group that heeded the call for help in maintaining their school.

After the ritual, I was invited to lunch with the Caballero family. There were no fine linens and fancy china, but there was something a lot more beautiful—a table covered with grass cuttings and flowers.

Then, they served us binakawan, a traditional pork dish, and binakol, both cooked in bamboo tubes. They also served dinuguan.

They spoke Hiligaynon, which I could not understand, but I didn’t mind. We were all smiling and laughing. I understood enough.

After lunch, even with rain clouds darkening the sky, the cultural masters danced.


The cultural masters

The volunteers with the members of the Panay Bukidnon Cultural Community

By the time the program finished, the rain had started to pour, and we had to rush to our last stop, the Agcalaga School of Living Tradition. There, we barely had time to turn over donations, and I received two traditional musical instruments carved from bamboo as gifts from a fellow volunteer.

Last turnover

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