Friday, October 29, 2010

Part 39: Reap the Wild Wind

Mindanao has a rich and colorful history, the Moro natives there as different from other Filipinos across the archipelago as the natives of Kiangan or Bontoc in the mountains of Luzon were unique to their region. Upon the arrival of Magellan in 1521, Mindanao was Muslim (as was most of the Philippines) or "Moro" as the Spanish called them. The Spanish were only able to gain footholds here and there along the coast, building stone fortresses to protect them from the natives who fiercely resisted the Spanish rule. By the time the Americans arrived 377 years later they still had no control of the island. The Moros transferred their war from the old master to the new. From 1898 through 1913 the US Army fought the Moros with 4,234 US troops killed.

Then in 1915, Dr Frank Laubach arrived in the Philippines. Initially trying to work in the Lanao Del Sur region, it wasn't till 1929 that the US Army felt it was safe enough for an American missionary to take up residence in the Maranao area of Mindanao. With Camp Overton in Iligan and Camp Keithly in Marawi and a small floatilla of gun boats on Lake Lanao it was felt that they could balance the disruption that a Christian missionary would bring.

The word
Maranao, means "People of the Lake", referring to the indigenous people who inhabited the lands around Lake Lanao whose principal town is Marawi. They are famous for their artwork, sophisticated weaving, wood and metal craft, and their epic literature. Realizing that he had to fundamentally change his western views of the Maranao and other Moro tribes he wrote:

"..I must confront these Maranaos with a divine love that will speak Christ to them, though I never use his name. They must see God in me and I must see God in them. What right then have I or any other person to come here and change the name of these people from Muslim to Christian, unless I lead them to a life fuller of God then they have now? Clearly, clearly, my job here is not to go to the town plaza and make proselytes, it is to live wrapped in God, trembling to His thoughts, burning with His passion."

Over the years he opened a school for Maranaos and he developed the "Each One Teach One" literacy program. It has been used to teach an estimated 60 million people to read in their own language. He was deeply concerned about poverty, injustice and illiteracy, and considered them barriers to peace in the world.
Laubach is the only American missionary to be honored on a US postage stamp.
(For a brief history of the Moro Wars:

Summer Vacation. Again. In contrast to previous summers I was really looking forward to this one. Norman Van Vactor, a fellow boarder at Brent, had unexpectedly invited me to spend the summer with him. I had known Norman since my first day at Brent; our parents worked for the same mission board and my father had been to their home before. I had visited Mindanao several times, had been to the cities of Zamboanga, Davao, Cagayan and even Cotobato before but I had never been to Marawi.

Marawi was situated on the shores of Lake Lanao. The Van Vactors were old hand missionaries, Norman's folks having first arrived in the Philippines in 1948. They lived in Cagayan de Oro from 1954 through 1967, then they were reassigned to Marawi where Dr Van Vactor served as president of Dansalan College.(Established in 1950, Dansalan College was opened to provide an opportunity for the Muslim young people to gain a higher education. At the time there was only one other secondary school in the area, a trade school.)

So after sweating it out for a week or two back home in Tacloban, I was packed and ready to go when we received a telegram. Norman's mother Maisie had become quite ill and my trip to Marawi would have to be canceled. I had been struggling to maintain my sanity and composure, but now the thought having to spend the rest of the summer at home seemed impossible. Then a week later I got a second telegram telling me to come on down!

So I boarded a plane from Tacloban to Cebu, spent most of the day waiting in the airport for my flight to depart for Iligan, which like Baguio's airport was notorious for getting socked in by fog and bad weather. Unlike Tacloban's tiny provincial airport, Cebu's Mactan Airport was large, sleek and modern. They even had TV monitors scattered around the waiting area and I watched "The Man called Flintstone" while waiting. We didn't even get any television reception in Tacloban, so I thought it was great! Finally, my flight was called and I was on my way! Norman met me at the airport at Iligan which was about the size of Tacloban.

The first thing we did after being met at the airport was to head to a barber shop. Norman told me that the locals took a real dim view of long haired hippies and he didn't want to attract any more attention than was necessary. I wasn't sure if he meant the PC (Philippine Constabulary) or the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), but at this point I was so relieved to be there I would have gotten a military style buzz cut and was telling the barber to do so when Norman said No, that wasn't necessary. Funny how I steadfastly refused to give my father his wish and at the drop of a hat I was more than willing to shave my head at the askance of a friend. So this is the cut I got. I felt like Samson after Delilah had his hair cut, as if my hair had been my strength.

From there we headed up the mountain to Norman's home. Marawi is nestled on plateau, 27oo feet above sea level. It was a long drive up winding roads and over rolling hills surrounded by tall Cogongrass. Norman nonchantly mentioned as we were driving that on this very same road the previous week a PC convoy had been ambushed by the MNLF. It was a perfect place for an ambush and it brought home the fact that the civil unrest so far removed from my life in Baguio and Tacloban was alive and well here on Mindanao. Norman explained that as long as we were off the road well before dusk we would be fine. We had some autonomy of movement because of the services and good works Dansalan College provided and the way the Van Vactors and the Laubachs before them dealt with the Manranao people. Still, it was more than prudent to be careful. Norman's summer job was running errands and picking up supplies for the college, so we would be driving this road weekly. (On one such trip we headed back home late in the day when we were stopped by a column of PC. They ordered us to haul them back to the army camp in Marawi. I was pretty nervous, as were the soldiers in the back of the truck, keeping their eyes peeled for MNLF soldiers)

Maise Van Vactor was propped up with pillows and wrapped in a blanket when we walked in the door, but she greeted me warmly. A beautiful woman, she had sparkling mischievous eyes and a matching smile. She held out her arms and gave me a vigorous hug. I knew right then that I was going to have great time there. There was the sound of rapid scampering feet and here came their dachshund Willy at full speed sliding around the corner. He may have been 14 years old but he still had a lot of energy! Norman showed me to his room where I could stow my bag and pointed out the bullet hole in the wall above his bed, a recent addition. He had been reading in his room and his mother was hanging up some clothes in his closet when it happened. That night we were on the veranda and I saw flashes of light on the horizon. "Look," I said "there is a big thunderstorm over there".
No, that is artillery fire.
Another grim reminder of the conflict, for the first time I realized that there was a "real" war going on here.

We spent the weekdays plying between Iligan and Marawi, picking up lumber, building materials, groceries and other supplies for the college. Weekends we toured the town and its markets: shiny brass urns, pots, platters and gongs, wavy bladed kris swords, hand woven and dyed fabrics; I picked up some cotton batik for my mom. I thought about buying a Malong. Here most men and women wore malongs, a traditional "tube skirt" like the sarong worn by peoples in Indonesia and Malaysia. The most beautiful are made by Maranao, Maguindanau and T'boli weavers. They can function as a skirt for both men and women, a dress, a blanket, a sunshade, a bedsheet, a hammock; most of my friends used them to sleep in.

There were around 20 waterfalls in the Iligan area, I don't remember which ones we went to but I do know we went to Maria Christina falls, where we swam in the cold water. We also boated and swam in Lake Lanao. When Norman and his family moved to Marawi in 1968 he had to leave his beloved banca (outrigger canoe) behind. So he found plans for a English style punt in Popular Mechanics and the maintenance shop of the college built it for him. It was 18 ft boat powered by a Johnson 4 horse engine, great for the calm waters of Lake Lanao. I was in the water swimming when Norman crawled back in the boat and started up the engine, and took off across the lake. He was just a speck on the other side and I was beginning to wonder how long I could keep treading water when he began heading back towards me. I was pretty tuckered out by the time he got back to pick me up.

Besides the truck, we also drove his families Toyota Crown. Crown was Toyota's top of line luxury model, it came in coupes, sedans and station wagons. In Japan the sedans were used for limousines but for some reason Toyota never really tried to market the Crown very strongly in the US. The Van Vactor's Crown was only a lowly station wagon, but underneath the unassuming hood was a souped up hot rod! Due to the increasing violence in the area it had been decided that, in case of an emergency, the already large engine should be modified for quick get-aways. A Hurst speed shifter and a Holley 4 barrel double carburetor had been installed and that wagon could fly! We would drive the "old family wagon" when ever we could. Norman would depress the accelerator and you could hear the click of the Holley kicking in. It was quite a sight to see a plain old station wagon burnin' rubber! The 26 mile drive from Marawi to Iligan that normally took us around an hour or so in the truck could be be cut down to 20 minutes if there was no traffic! Norman really loved to put the wagon through her paces. He had been given some evasive driving lessons (including controlled braking and 180 degree spins) and was eager for any excuse to practice. Decades before the term Tokyo Drift came into common usage, Norman was busy on the mountain roads honing his shifting and braking skills. One night we flew down the mountain, reaching speeds up to 124 miles an hour! I swear I could feel the front end lifting off the road!

One of the services the College provided was a clinic. Part of Norman's job included driving the nurse to villages in the area. One night Norman, his brother Ross and I were parked in front of a Datu's (Chief headman) house, waiting for the nurse to finish her work, it was getting late and we were eager to get back home. It got darker and then I heard Norman hiss:
Whatever you do, don't make any sudden moves, keep your eyes straight ahead!

Then a dozen or so heavily armed men came filing by on either side of the car. We kept still and pretended they didn't exist. They went into the house and we continued to wait. Finally, Norman said I guess we had better go see what is going on. I had strong misgivings about getting out of the car but didn't want to sit in it alone either so followed him into the house. We were greeted and welcomed into the Datu's living area and were offered refreshments. As the servant went through a door way that was blocked off by a large batik curtain I saw an astounding sight: dozens of shiny new M-16s, a 50. caliber machine gun, rocket propelled grenades and box after box of ammunition. I quickly averted my eyes thinking to myself, "We're all gonna die", but half a hour later, we finished our snacks and were on our way home. I gained a lot of empathy for these people whom I now saw were just farmers trying to hang on to their land and way of life from the ever encroaching land grabbers and speculators. This did not necessarily make me feel any safer, but at least I was able to begin to see their point of view.

Then it was time to head back to Tacloban.
It had been a wonderful summer, the best in so many years and I was so grateful to the Van Vactors for letting me come in spite of her illness and told them so repeatedly, but I was surprised to see tears in her eyes when Mrs Van Vactor hugged me goodbye.


  1. thanks for this informative post. I never really knew the man behind Laubach Road, which was perpendicular to our house along Yangco Road in Baguio City. I had always thought he was some German or European settler/prospector in the Cordilleras.

  2. I always enjoy reading the newest installment -- you write so well, both of your own recollections, but also explaining the background and history. Great account of the struggle in Mindanao through the eyes of a teenager.
    I too remember a trip our family made to Mindanao, visiting friends in 1976 or 77 to Pagasinan (I think!), and we heard artillery fire late at night... What is the situation now -- is there still a MNLF?

  3. Still there (although perhaps under a different moniker), Mindanao is still a volatile province.

  4. Waldo -- you're way too nice, but you should have pointed out the error on my last comment! Obviously I got the name of the city wrong -- I meant Pagadian, (Zamboanga del Sur, Mindanao)! (this has been bugging me for a good week -- Pagasinan is on Luzon, silly girl!)