By David Haldane
April 25, 2019
At the center of everything lies the pool.
To members of the Atoyay Farmer’s Association of Bucas Grande island in northeastern Mindanao, its waters are sacred. It is the holy water that they drink and in which they bathe. And it is next to these enchanted godly waters that they make their homes and live their lives.
Today the placid blue pool is shaped like a heart fed by a swan-like fountain, but it wasn’t always so. Once, in the picturesque town of Socorro on the island’s wayward side, a smaller version served as the object of frequent candlelight processions by local townspeople who believed that bathing in its blessed waters cured their earthly ills. And it was the arbitrary destruction of that pool by colonial authorities in 1924 that led to the infamous “Colorum Uprising,” billed in America as a bloody rebellion by religious fanatics resulting in hundreds of deaths and the torching of the town.
About 3,000 descendants of those so-called fanatics now bathe in a new and improved holy pond located at the edge of a 2,300-hectare homestead they call Dizon Village. Recently I paid them a visit to personally explore – and, if possible, experience – the mysteries of that historic water.
I should probably explain here that, perhaps still smarting from the memory of indignities suffered nearly a century ago, these people don’t encourage visits from strangers. In fact, the only way I scored an invitation was through my friendship with noted historian Fernando A. Almeda Jr., who wrote about them in his classic, The History of a Province: Surigao Across the Years, and subsequently became a protector. So, it was with some wonderment that I boarded the boat they provided to take us to their island home.
The first thing you see is the pool. Fed by natural spring waters propelled by gravity through a series of higher ponds built pleasantly into the mountainside, the thing sports an unearthly sparkle that makes you want to blink. They put us up for the night in a building referred to as “the mansion,” a majestic hotel-like structure that isn’t a hotel at all but a place for their friends. And it was there that Prince Jerrymie Piao, a young man who – like most residents – says he was born here and intends to die here, picked me up for a tour.
In addition to the mansion, there’s a courthouse, large room for gatherings and worship, the house of the community’s matron who they call Mommy Lucy and obey without question and even a school serving more than 300 students ranging from kindergarten through high school with a few university classes thrown in. Its main claim to fame: that it’s Mindanao’s only institute of learning known to teach the indigenous pre-colonial written form of the local language.
The community supports itself primarily through farming, fishing and carpentry. Though decidedly Christian, its members do not consider themselves Catholic. The main difference, according to my guide: no priest-like intermediaries required to intercede on a worshiper’s behalf. And, indeed, the residents’ individual and group prayers were clearly bountiful, wafting in the air both day and night.
But I had come for the water and wouldn’t be dissuaded. At the town’s outer end, we knelt at a stream and my host bade me drink. The liquid was clear and cool, eagerly flowing down my throat in a soothing waterfall of sensations. But was this the water of God, or, like any water, simply rife with the relief of a nagging thirst quenched after a very long walk?
And then it struck me like a monsoon thunderbolt seen from the comforting wetness of that lovely heart-shaped pool, first distant and then up close; all water is the water of God. For without its nourishment we could not survive and without its flow we would surely be lost. My father once told me that if ever I found myself alone in the wilderness, to follow the water; As it is in wilderness, so I believe it is in life.
Before returning to the mainland the next day, I spent some time sitting by the sacred pool with my eyes closed, trying to feel its healing powers. I’m not sure whether I felt them or not. But the sound of the seawater lapping at the nearby shore was mesmerizing and the soft ocean breeze cooled my skin like a healing salve.
I don’t know whether this pool is holier than any other. What I did know then and still know now, though, was that I had found friends living and evolving on its shores. And that, yes, they had captured my heart. I can hardly wait for the next visit.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.