Sunday, January 6, 2013

Greetings from Mindoro!

My sweat soaked shirt stuck like cellophane to my back and chest as I
squatted under the eaves of the little hut. It was the only shade for a
quarter of a mile. The man in the house had taken pity on me and let me
close enough to rest there while we waited. It was the first time I had
ever been in a highland village.

A week earlier my friend Sandy had shown up on my porch one morning,
wondering if I could lend him a little rice for a project he had going. I
gladly obliged and when I handed him the bag I casually asked what he had up
his sleeve. "Oh," he said non-shalontly. "We just heard that everyone in
the closest highland village is sick, and we thought we'd go see if they
wanted you to come treat them. It's only an hour and a half to two hours'

"Great," I replied. "I'll be praying for you as you go."

To be honest I wasn't too hopeful. Lots of similar opportunities had
presented themselves, but someone or something had always blocked them. The
last time I wrote you (which was way too long ago, I sincerely apologize!) I
was about to leave on the second half of the survey expedition. The day
after I wrote, the trip was delayed a week. Then it was delayed a couple of
weeks. Then they said, "Right after Christmas, we won't even wait until New
Years." As I speak, the expedition is still on hold. It is supposed to
start up this January, but I'm living one day at a time and not holding my
breath. Nonetheless, that warm December morning I knew that someday, in
God's time, the opening would appear, and I prayed that if it was God's will
that it would be that day.

Late that evening Sandy and his two companions arrived back in Balangabong.
"Everyone was sick," he reported. "Lots of people want your medicine, but
the chief wasn't there and we couldn't find him. They sent us on a wild
goose chase. We'll try again next week."

It was a pretty typical story. The people in the highland villages can't do
anything without their chief's approval. The chief typically holds power by
wielding his ability to kill, bring disease, or heal disease, all through
the power of the spirits. Anyone who breathes a word against him suffers
the immediate consequences. The chief, on the other hand, when approached
by outsiders, finds it most convenient to simply disappear rather than be
forced into the embarrassing situation of flatly refusing to allow anyone to
contact or help his people. His people will lie till they're blue in the
face to protect him, so no one ever gets anywhere.
The next week, I talked with Sandy and the church about their next visit to
the little village. I was about to leave to go visit Kent and Leonda
George, our AFM missionaries on Palawan, to spend Christmas with them and
pick up some desperately needed supplies in Manila on the way. I wouldn't
have time to wait for the village's response and then go treat them. "Why
don't you just come with us this time?" Sandy suggested.

"What do you think, fufuama Lito?" he asked, turning to Lito, the village
elder who is a church member and our link to the highlands (fufuama means
"elder" or "grandfather").

"Sure," Lito replied. "If the chief gets mad we'll just respectfully leave
and hopefully it won't become a major incident."

It was agreed that we had waited long enough for the system, and for the
highlanders. It was time to slowly and cautiously make the first move, and
start putting a little bit of pressure on. Tomorrow would be the day. I
fell asleep praying.

It was a long hot hike. I had just recovered from three weeks of being sick
with some mystery disease that laid me out flat, and I was still weak.
Anything was worth it to reach my people, though. As we made our way higher
and higher, the air itself seemed to be on edge, as if tainted with the odor
of fear. I knew that there were people very near, we even walked through
fields that had obviously been abandoned moments before, but I saw no one
and heard nothing.

As we passed through one highlander's mountain farm, I noticed an ancient
tree that had been felled to prevent it from shading the crops. It split
into two trunks at the base, and each trunk was easily fifteen feet in
diameter. It had been cut down by hand, with a machete, and my companions
estimated that it had taken upwards of three weeks to do it. I was tempted
to pull out my camera so that I could prove to you that I wasn't making this
up, but I knew that if highland eyes were watching, that one move could seal
my fate.

We cautiously passed three different highland huts where the chief was
supposed to be, but we never saw a soul. Finally we met a group of highland
women who hadn't noticed our arrival, and very nervously assured us that the
chief was down in the lowlands. They wouldn't tell us anything else, and we
knew they were just trying to deflect us from the village.

Still we pressed on until finally we could hear children playing among a
group of three huts. Fufuama Lito went on ahead to break the ice in
highland fashion, while the rest of us quietly waited just out of sight.
After a few minutes, Lito motioned for us to come, and we cautiously
proceeded into the village. At the sight of me, the three children who were
playing near the center ran for their hut. One of the kids was too small to
run, and his older sister dragged him up to safety. The village grew
strangely silent except for Lito who was squatted outside the largest hut,
chatting with someone he knew.

"So where's the chief today?" Lito asked. "We passed by the huts where we
were told he was staying, but no one was there."

"Oh, he's a long, long, long ways away today." Came the reply. "He's about
a day's walk farther upriver, you couldn't make it there even if you wanted
to try."

"Oh, ok." Lito replied, and continued to make small talk. Finally he
asked, "Do you mind if my friend here sits under the eaves of your house?
It is awfully hot out here."

The man eyed me suspiciously from the darkness of his hut, then nodded his
consent. I gratefully dropped my pack full of medicines, and squatted down
in the shade. Lito gave me a gesture, and taking the hint I started trying
to make small talk with the man in Taubuid, to show that I could speak the
language and try to break down some prejudices. I got a few quick surprised
looks when I first started talking, and then silence. The most I could get
from him were single word answers now and then. As Lito and I continued to
talk, though, I heard the man inside the house commenting to his family,
"Wow, he sure is respectful!" Praise God! Though I wasn't extremely fluent
in Taubuid yet, I had done my best to learn how to be respectful and polite,
and now it was paying off.

Encouraged, Lito and I chatted back and forth in Taubuid, biding our time to
see what would happen. I found out later that Lito was hoping that the man
was lying to us and that the chief would show up. As we continued talking a
head suddenly appeared above the brow of the hill we were perched on. It
took one look at me and froze, an expression of utter surprise etched onto
its face. After a few seconds, the man to whom the head belonged recovered
his composure, and cautiously joined the circle.

Lito immediately began talking cheerfully to the man, who turned out to be
the long lost chief, and his companions who also gathered around timidly. I
found it interesting that all the men swapped machetes around, and inspected
each others' knives very carefully, commenting on the quality of the metal
and asking how the temper was holding. While men in America sit around
talking cars, computers, or smart phones, the highland Taubuid do the same
basic thing with the technology that they have, machetes.

After warming up the conversation for a while, the chief spoke to Lito,
choosing his words very carefully. "May I ask what it really is that brings
you here to our village?"
Lito paused, looked at me, then simply said, "You tell him."

I had passed the test. The fact that Lito trusted me to speak for myself in
such a delicate matter meant that he felt confident enough, not just in my
language ability, but my ability to speak tactfully and appropriately in a
sensitive third-culture political negotiation. That's a bit deal.

Sending up a prayer like Nehamiah had done so long ago, I started, "We're
here to offer help. I heard from my friends that there were many people in
your village who were sick. My bag over there is full of medicines, and I
would be glad to help your village if you would like." It sounds so simple
in English, but it was a message composed of carefully chosen words and
precisely orchestrated body language.
Apparently I passed with the chief too. If I had offended him he would have
become angry. Even worse, if I had shown no knowledge of how to conduct
myself culturally he would have simply blown me off. Instead he replied
with the utmost care and politeness, "If that is the reason you are here, I
can tell you that while there were many sick people in the village, they
have procured their own treatment and are now well. We won't be needing
your help at this time."

We immediately accepted the chief's decision, and didn't push him anymore.
We continued chatting for a few more minutes, and then taking our leave,
started heading home. My companions were elated. No, we hadn't been
accepted. No, we hadn't treated anyone. But this was actually the first
time that the people of this area had ever even treated them civilly, and
hadn't angrily commanded them to never come back. The chief had treated us
with great respect, and almost a hint of friendliness. We hadn't been
commanded to never come back, and there was a definite chance that next time
they would accept medical treatment.
For me it was my first contact with the highlanders in their own territory,
even if just on the edge. It was also my first practical exam in the
language and culture, and though I hadn't been perfect, by God's grace I had

We are not in yet. In fact we're probably not even close to being able to
move in. But it was a big step in the right direction. I praise God for
it, and pray earnestly that He will use it in His time and way in His plan
to bring salvation to the highland Batangan.

Thank you for being a part of this. I realize daily that I would not be
here without you. Thank you for being a part of this team, and I pray that
I will be found worthy of this great responsibility. Please pray for me and
for the Batangan, we need it.

God bless,

John Holbrook