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In a place of ghosts and spirits

August 20, 2011

I saw a ghost  at the dormitory on my first night in Surigao City.  I was prone to such an experience after a conversation I’d had with a friend about Filipino mythology.  My mind had been opened to the possibility of the devil roaming the mountains in Mindanao, so I looked for him on our way from Davao.  I kept my eyes to the hills, and waited for what might come.  Armed with my camera, I was unafraid, but for all of my vigilance, I saw nothing in the daylight.

At night, however, the island was transformed.  Passing through a concrete courtyard, I joined the life forces that emerged in the relative coolness.  The bushes and trees were filled with sound: Lizards and insects pierced the humidity with their high-pitched cries.  I gave the darkness the gift of my body, offering my calves for the mosquitoes’ feast.

I turned the corner to the labonan, and the ghost was waiting for me.  She floated in front of the trees, a white form in the blackness above the concrete and below the sky.  My own presence stopped, and I left my self to merge with her.  She told me to leave in silence, to not disturb her in her evening’s work.  I quickly hung my laundry on the metal clothesline, and went back inside.

Some of the people say that the spirits dwell in the mountains.  They, and the little people (elves), hold the devil at bay in what is the constant battle between good and evil in this land.  The people have a part- they give gifts to the spirits and make offerings to ancestral ghosts.  Regarding Satan, the people tell their children stories of warning, and cast spells to protect the more vulnerable souls from the evil that wanders the mountainside.

And yet, now the devil walks in the lowlands.  The morning after I saw my ghost, we visited a large-scale mining site in Surigao del Sur.   “This is the evil,” a sister said to me, gesticulating at hectares of destroyed hills.  I watched the mounds of erosion washing into the bay.  With nothing left to absorb the rain, the lowlands have begun to flood.

The people cling to what is left.  High in the mountains that remain untouched, we saw smoke rising every few kilometers.  The indigenous people remain above the flooding.  They live in a way that binds them to the land, while the rest of us destroy the planet below them.  Who knows how long they can stay there?  Those mountains will be zoned for mining, too, and there may come a day when even those high peaks will be underwater.

I dare to believe that the spirits are in mourning.  The elves are in distress, and the souls the dead cannot find rest.  So maybe that’s why ghosts come into the cities now.  In their fear for the people, they can no longer sleep, and, restless, they wander through places where foreigners, like me, might see them.

The morning after I met the ghost, I returned to the laundry area to collect my dry clothes.  My ghost was there- a pure white habit suspended in the early morning sunlight.  I gathered my laundry quickly, and left.  Because I have seen what the devil  (foreign greed) can do here, I do not let my Western logic pacify me.

It is not so hard to believe in ghosts and spirits.  Not in this place, anyway.

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