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The Carmelo Hilton

Curious children peer through the windows in Carmelo village

Combination kitchen, building supply, laundry, and cemetary at the Carmelo Hilton

Village women appear at the door to pray the Novena

Praying the novena for Dona Remedios

My traveling companions, Tom and Chuchi

Roasting pigs at the Tuburan Saturday market, near Carmelo

Carmelo Children

Carmelo Elementary speech club

Building the chapel

Chapel workers with "Hilton" in the background

Three children bludgeoned by a madman with a machete

The Carmelo Hilton
by Jim Laurel

Prodigal son
6 November 1999 – Cebu City, Philippines
It had been more than 20 years since my last visit to the Philippines - twenty years since I’d seen the plantation, or "hacienda" established by my great grandfather over 100 years ago on the west coast of island of Cebu. When I visited the hacienda as a child, we stayed in a small grass hut affectionately dubbed the "Carmelo Hilton". We even had a small sign made to that effect and hung it outside the door.

Located on a small hill overlooking much of the hacienda, the Hilton was originally built in the early 80s in the native style, on stiilts with slatted bamboo floors and a nipa (palm) thatched roof. It was pretty modern by local standards, with a flush toilet and a running water system supplied by a large tank that was replenished each morning by workers who carried the water in from the local spring, about a mile away. Even though there was a proper plantation house from which my grandmother ran the operation, I always preferred the cool comfort and simplicity of the Hilton.

People who live in the Northwest have very little tolerance for heat, and the last 4 years in Seattle had thickened my blood to the point that even the Philippine cool season hit me like a thick, wet blanket. As we walked across a muddy airport parking lot to the car, familiar smells and sounds enveloped me. The incessant horns honking, the smell of diesel fuel, and strains of pop music wafting from cheap radios were all around.

The main purpose of this trip was to oversee the reconstruction of a chapel on the hacienda, which had been damaged a few years earlier in a typhoon. My grandparents were buried in the chapel, along with my great grandparents. It was that same typhoon that waylaid our plans to convert the plantation from agri to aqua-culture, so reviewing the recovery plan was on my agenda as well. My companions on this trip were my father's sister, Chuchi, who lives in Cebu and manages the hacienda operations, and his brother, Tom, who has also traveled from the US.

My father, an Air Force flight surgeon Colonel, often returned to the plantation with medicines and health supplies, an event that always generated quite a stir. Every morning at dawn, people from all over the plantation would line up to be seen by a real honest-to-goodness American doctor. He would spend his days in the Hilton, seeing patients, doling out medications, and caring for people he’d known in his youth. Now that he has passed away, I feel I have a duty to continue the tradition.

They tell me that my Dad would be pleased that we’re reconstructing the chapel. However, as a technologist, building monuments to the dead isn’t exactly my idea of a good way to spend money. I’d rather focus on the living. To me, expending resources on this building, while people in the village needed better health care and education, was ridiculous. Where were our priorities?

What I found on my arrival was a rather large construction project, complete with a bell tower and pew space for 100 people. Some 30 workers labored from dawn till dusk each day, pouring cement, digging coral rocks from the nearby hill to add to the mixture, and welding steel beams into roof supports. It was designed in the Spanish style, complete with wrought iron doors and stucco walls and would have looked perfectly at home on the plains of Andalucia.

The Hilton itself has changed dramatically. The original hut was destroyed by typhoons, and had been replaced by a rather large, multi-room affair with a concrete floor. I prefer the old building, with its simple slatted bamboo floor that let in the cool breeze at night. The large room on the eastern side of the new house serves as kitchen, laundry, cemetery, and building supply storage. It is where all the food is prepared and cement is stored. Twine stretched across the room serves as a clothesline and several wooden boxes on a raised platform house the remains of the ancestors until the chapel can be completed.

Shortly after our arrival at Carmelo today, the Provincial Engineers (the island's dept of transportation) decided to tear down a bridge effectively trapping us on the Carmelo side of the river. We went down to the river to talk to them about this and found that they were, well...provincial. We tried to explain that tearing down the bridge would trap us on the other side to no avail. As we stood there, the first of the rotten timbers were ripped from the ancient steel girders.

They don’t expect it to be repaired for at least several weeks, so we rushed to send our Nissan pickup back to the other side of the river. The water is too deep for it to cross. Now, getting in or out of Carmelo requires that we crawl across the steel bridge girders or wade across the river. Now, we have no choice but to get around the hacienda by tractor or a small, motorized tricycle contraption that has the throttle wired to the handbrake!

Tropical Disco
9 November 1999, Carmelo Plantation
Tom has always been a hi-fi fanatic, and this time he’d brought a full array of audio gear with him from the States, as the plantation now had electricity. Each night, he puts on dance music and Uti dances. Uti is kind of like the village idiot, having suffered some sort of developmental disorder in his youth. But he’s a good-natured fellow, and a real pleasure to have around. We're all very fond of him. He does odd jobs around the Hacienda, digging ditches, fetching supplies, feeding animals, etc. Tonight, Uti has put on his jeans and a shiny blue shirt and some sneakers that would make any American inner city kid proud. Last night, Tom actually had him singing karaoke as well. This whole karaoke and dancing thing eventually became our standard entertainment, with people gathering from the nearby village to watch the nightly spectacle.

The other thing about Uti is that he loves to learn English phrases. So, of course, we’ve been teaching him all the useful ones: "son of a bitch", "tequila", "bullshit", "what the hell happened!" and so on.

The meals each day are simple. There just isn’t much variety out here, but what we get is fresh and delicious. We usually have a ration of "otan", which is a soup made from cabbage, chicken, and a squash-like vegetable called "sayote" for starters. (Just be sure to ask for "OTAN", and not "OTIN", which translates to "penis") Combined with rice, fish, and a little fried pork, what else do you need? The water comes from a well just outside the house, and seems to be of good quality – certainly better than the municipal water supply in the city. Even so, we have been filtering the water with MSR ceramic pumps, which seem to be doing a great job keeping the bugs at bay.

The Novena
10 November 1999, Carmelo Plantation
The chapel construction continues, despite intermittent rain & dwindling supplies. Today, the workers will use the last of the cement and there’s no way to get any more until the river level lowers enough to get a truck across, or the bridge is completed.

An afternoon trip to the Carmelo fishing village was the highlight of the day. Once the local children got over their fright of the horrific farang that had descended on them, they clustered around excitedly, touching us and posing for pictures. Every time I start photographing someone, another group calls out for me to come over and photograph them as well.

We met Marma Lape, a teacher at the Carmelo Elementary School, which sits on land that was donated to the village by my great grandfather many years ago. Marma promptly informed me that speech choir was in need of uniforms for an upcoming competition in Bacolod and followed up with a formal letter later that day. We were invited to hear the children practice their speech, which was sort of a cross between the pledge of allegiance and the government’s vision for a technological future, with a dash of Philippine nationalism thrown in. The uniforms will cost 150 Pesos for each of 36 children. That amounts to around $100 (amazing), and we readily agreed to donate them to the school.

Tonight, a group of three women appeared at the door to pray a Novena to the virgin Mary for my grandmother, Dona Remedios. By candlelight, they prayed and afterwards Tom showed them a videotape of the whole affair. Bizarre. Of course, he roped the Novena ladies into an extended karaoke session. It seems this whole Novena business works like this: Women from nearby, in this case, hacienda workers, go to a series of houses in succession, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and a picture of Jesus. The statue and picture stay in the house for 24 hours and the move on the following night.

11 November 1999, Carmelo Plantation
Rain. River still in flood. We found out that some young boys are collecting a 1 Peso fee from students on their way to school in order to cross the river on small wooden footbridges they'd built. Good for them, I thought. I love to see the entrepreneurial spirit in action. But Tom flew into a rage over it and demanded to see the "Barangay Captain", a minor municipal post akin to a village mayor. We waded across the river in our shorts, with Tom hurling insults and threats in the local language, then hopped into our pickup to go and roust the Captain. Poor guy, we got him up at 0630 and had him slog through a tropical downpour back to the river with us, only to find that the footbridges had been pulled up. The boys were still standing there and shrugged their shoulders unknowingly as the Captain questioned them. They should be congratulated, if you ask me.

Vampires, witches and the Holy Ghost
12 November 1999, Carmelo Plantation
Leave it to my Dad to have the foresight to leave critical equipment here. I had forgotten my small short-wave radio and was eager to hear news about the DOJ’s misguided case against my employer, Microsoft. Local news wasn’t reporting on this story in any kind of detail, so I was overjoyed when I found an old (ca. 1960) Zenith short-wave left here by my Dad some 25 years ago. Some fresh D cell batteries had it crackling to life in no time, and before we knew it, I’d reeled in the BBC!

Tom and I have always joked around together, and on this trip, we’ve been outdoing ourselves. He now claims that he’s under the spell of an "Ungo", a sort of witch that eats human flesh and has the capability to shape-shift. Chuchi, normally a very reserved woman, continually cautions us not to tempt fate by joking around about the Ungo and other supernatural creatures. She claims not to believe in any of it as she is a good Catholic, but she still carries "Lana", small vials of oil from the neighbor island of Siquijor, that are supposed to protect one from evil.

I made a cursory attempt to catalogue some of the more commonly held supernatural beliefs in the area. It’s amazing how these beliefs can persist given that these people are strict Catholics, but I suppose its not unique. All over the Catholic world today, you will find bits and pieces of the old religions mixed in with Christianity. I guess Microsoft didn’t invent the "embrace and extend" concept after all.

Ungo: A witch. Suffocates victims with her long hair. Flesh-eating. Shape shifter. Ungo are generally quiet, unassuming and solitary. Typically the children of Ungo become Ungo themselves.

Ana-Nangaal: A type of Ungo. The head and stomach of this creature fly around at night looking for victims, which it attacks by snaking its long tongue through thatched nipa roofs. Like the Ungo, it is also feeds on human flesh.

Sigbin: Usually in the form of a goat. It is often accompanied by a "Amo", or leader, which directs the sigbin to eat other animals. It sometimes bites people, but is generally harmless to humans.

Incantada: The local people claim this is a legend from Marmol, a nearby town with a curious supernatural history. However, I suspect this is a legend adopted from elsewhere, as the very term "incantada" is a Spanish word meaning "enchanted". The local incantada is a fanged manifestation called "Maria Tang-An". It is such an old legend now, that even the old folks don’t really remember how it got started. The word, Tang-An is derived from "Tang-ngo", which means fang in Visayan. Apparently, Maria Tang-An lived in Marmol many years ago and had a boat. When the river overflows, local people claim to hear her boat passing by with music playing, on the way to Negros, a neighboring island.

Maria is thought to have been a living person, but the details of her life are lost in time. Similar legends exist in other parts of the island. Locals believe that you can go to Maria Tang-An’s cave in Marmol, ask to borrow things (like silverware or a plate), and the items will be in the cave the next day.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to get someone to take me to Marmol to investigate this Maria Tang-An legend. People I ask about it act as if we’d be taking our lives into our own hands by tempting Maria’s wrath. However, beyond the supernatural problems of poking around in Marmol, there is the problem of actually getting there. Apparently, the road leading to the village lies right along the bank of a river that’s currently in flood. Everyone says that the rain has covered the hard pack trail by now and that flash floods are a real hazard. Maybe next time.

Voices from beyond
14 November 1999, Cebu City
"Killer is a Boy", "A beast did it". For the past few days, the island paper has devoted front-page coverage to the murder of three small children in a nearby village. Tragically, they were found in a ditch, hacked to death with a "bolo" (machete). It turns out that the murderer is their own cousin, aged 13.

The murderer, one "Arnel", told police "wa ko sa akong huna huna" (I wasn’t in my right senses). You got that right, Arnel. He also talked of hearing whispers from "laing tao" (literally "other people", but the implied meaning is "beings not of this world". He said these beings told him to use the bolo to chop up the children.

Rather than commit this maniac to the loony bin post haste, the village community was quick to jump in and support his story. Arnel’s parents explained that an "Agta", a mythological beast, prompted the boy’s rampage. Villagers talked of Arnel disappearing for days in the company of supernatural beings who live in the "atabay" (deep well). Other children had been taken ill after falling into the well or drinking the water, they reasoned, so surely an Agta must be involved.

I’m fascinated by all these old legends, but never realized that members of our own family would believe such things. After all, we were educated landowners, right? But it turns out that my grandmother conducted several ceremonies to pacify incantadas around the hacienda in order to keep the workers happy.

Apparently, incantadas can be appeased with offerings of roasted pig (without salt) and chewing tobacco. One of these ceremonies was conducted at our prawn farm before breaking ground, in response to complaints from some of the old folks who insisted that incantadas would otherwise cause trouble. It doesn’t seem to have done much good, because today both of our Caterpillar payloaders got stuck up to their axles in deep mud while digging out a drainage ditch, and several of the workers now say an incantada is to blame. They even claim to have seen her standing atop one of the Cats, and to have heard her wailing last night.

Another of these ceremonies was done at a building site on a nearby hill. As the site was being leveled, the grader hit a rock that just could not be moved. After an offering of roast pig and tobacco, however, it yielded. According to the story, as the rock was overturned, a swarm of flies rose up into the sky in a perfect column. Wonderful story, but more likely, it was an excuse for the construction workers to get some free grub.

Sadly, I have to leave this place tomorrow. It’s back to Seattle and Microsoft where there’s no room in anyone’s day for incantadas, Agtas, Ungo, or anything else that can’t be quantified and analyzed. The following day, as I watched the cold November rain stream down my office windows in Seattle, I couldn’t help but wonder if there isn’t more to the world those things we can see and rationalize. I had returned from a land of myth and legend, and brought back a part of it with me. I slipped the little vial of protective lana into my pocket...just in case.

Be sure to check out the the photo exhibition, Carmelo - Legacy of the Hacienda, now open in the Gallery.

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