Outside a small town south of Bacolod is a dirt road near a dormant volcano. It winds out of a small town and across a tiny stream. It weaves through sugar cane fields taller than the van and past a tree my uncle and aunt remember as reportedly being the home of an aswang. Is an aswang a demon? A fairy? My uncle and and conflict on the translation. I do, however, remember that my mom called me an aswang when I was a kid when I was being a brat. Regardless the translation, aswang ain’t good.
The road ends a river and we tumble out of the air-conditioned van into the heat. On the riverbank some farmers have laid out rice to dry in the mid-day sun. There’s not passage here except by the boatmen. My brother and cousin remember fording this river further upstream in my grandfather’s turquoise VW Beatle. The river came through the doors but they made it across. The river looks rocky and it’s hard to imagine a little car making it across, much less our large van. Perhaps my grandfather knew a secret.
We hunch our way onto the swaying boat and the men pull us across. There’s not paying the boatman here; this is our ancestral home. This is our farm.
More precisely this used to be my great-grandparents farm. Later, my grandparents lived here. My mother was born here in a large bamboo house. This is where my mother lost a brother and gained a sister. This is where mom went to first and second grade. The bamboo house, the old school, and much of what my mother remembers is gone. The trees and rocks she climbed might be the same but it’s hard to tell. My mother didn’t make this trip and my aunt is was too young to remember such details.
I don’t remember this place. The last time I visited I was at the age where the aswang was strong within me, no doubt. Few seven year-olds can suppress those demons. The last time I was in this part of the Philippines was 20 years ago. I’m separated from this place by time and distance.
But I’m connected in other ways, though. The school for the farm workers has grown thanks in part to the efforts of my relatives. I’m sure money that could have bought me a few pairs of Nikes growing up instead went into keeping up this place. It’s named after my great-grandmother, the founder, but it’s still here because of her progeny.
The kids greet us and follow us as we tour the remains of a demolished concrete home. Then they all line up and we pass out treats and toothbrushes. My cousin then demonstrates how to brush your teeth (in English with translation) as the kids follow along. The presentation just might prevent tooth decay but will certainly remind the students of the time the tall guy who talked funny made them stand in the sun and bare their teeth. Then, the kids sing us three songs in English. “My Life Is in Your Hands” rings around and reminds us all of our American colonial connection.
Afterwards, we successfully introduce frisbee to the kids. I imagine a full-fledged ultimate league in a few years minus the cleats and white guys. They play on as we walk around my grandparents’ portion of the farm. We go down a hill, back up, then back down again. We pass many bamboo houses and a cinder block and tin roof village where the workers—the parents’ of the students—live. Chickens run at our feet and mud gets in the tread of our shoes. We pass caribou and cows. We pass cleared fields, fields near harvest, and we cross dusty roads.
My grandfather’s old caretaker points to piles of rocks and says our grandfather had the field cleared to transition the farm from livestock to sugar cane and rice. He shows us the boundary and points out where our great-aunt and great uncles’ portions of the property lay. My uncle says that my great-grandfather’s farm is larger than the town I grew up in. The caretaker says it would take all day to circle on foot and that my great-grandfather would make rounds on a horse. The sun is hot. There are no workers out now. Just us crazy balikbayan.
As we head back up the hill to the school my uncle sees someone he remembers. He ducks into a bamboo home, sits and chats with an old woman and man and—in what will become a common occurrence—asks my cousins for some money. He squeezes the equivalent of a couple dollars into the frail woman’s palm, touches her shoulder, and we head off.
Back up the hill, back to the school, back across the river. Away from my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my mother’s childhood home. We climb back into the climate controlled van and head back to reality.