A Manobo Morning

“Eat more!”

I laughed and took another spoonful of rice, vainly fighting off the hungry ants who were sharing my plate. Breakfast in Tagpo had an air of busyness. Far away from the sticky humidity of the Filipino lowlands of Mindanao, this Manobo mountain village buzzed with energetic bugs and rustled with the
sound of the dense banana and palm leaves. Little Marmar stumbled up the muddy slope with today’s buckets of water; he had clearly been awake long before I had. My sleep had only been disturbed once Madonna had made her first appearance of the day on the village karaoke machine.

Bel was the perfect hostess, realising that ‘in my culture’ we do not take seconds without permission, so her frequent entreaties to “eat more” had become a running joke between us. She was taking me on a trip today, but I barely understood where or why.

“Do you have a hat?”

I produced the floppy British sun-hat my mother had lent me. I think she must have smirked but I didn’t notice at the time. She wore a much smarter tennis cap over a pink bandana, and as the rumble of a motorbike sounded outside we made our way down. Despite my determination to appear
comfortable with my first ever motorbike ride, I was slightly alarmed that she insisted I ride at the back. What happens when we go uphill? Surely they’ve thought of that? With three of us squeezed on to the ‘motor’, and me precariously perched on the back, clutching Bel around the waist for dear life,
we set off.

It was only as we navigated the treacherous dirt-tracks and deep flooded potholes through farming towns and villages that I realised how conservative our equipage really was. Countless motors laden with entire families, chicken cages and enormous sacks of corn tottered past us. Little did I know that in three weeks’ time I would be one of them, happily sharing a backseat with my suitcase, or a pair of drums, not to mention my fellow-passengers!

Having stopped once to retrieve my hat, which had fallen victim to the wind (I soon realised its uselessness), and finding ourselves far from the mountain towns we had passed, a wide and brown river came into view. There was a rope connecting one side of the river to the other, where a hamlet
of Manobo houses could be seen. On our side I spotted a little wooden boat, half filled with muddy water itself, which was providing a versatile climbing frame for the young boys bathing in the water.

The motor stopped.

“We get off here,” Bel said, and she led the way down to the riverbank.

J Heath

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