By David Haldane
Feb. 25, 2019
It was as if the sky had caught fire. The fog rolled in, the sun touched the horizon and, for a few moments – a magical instant in time – the elements intersected, bathing the world in pink. I grabbed my camera and frantically began snapping pictures as the ocean of color surrounded us, oozing in through the windows and doors, forcing its way into our house and everything in it including us.
I had never seen such a thing and wondered what it meant. As the fiery mist settled into the whites of our eyes and the moist empty spaces of our brains, it felt like a shift in reality. As if there were actually two realities separated by a thin curtain that had suddenly been pulled aside, thrusting us into the alternate space behind it where we did not live and had never been.
I thought of The Wizard of Oz, a movie I’d seen repeatedly as a child. There’s a scene towards the end where Dorothy, finally facing the much-feared Great Wizard, sees him as a huge flaming face barking orders in a thundering voice. But then a curtain falls aside revealing the source of the fiery spectacle as a small meek-looking man in a control booth pulling strings and speaking into a microphone. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” the Wizard barks, but it is too late because the reality behind the curtain has already been revealed.
Kind of like a visit Ivy and I once made to Socorro, a picturesque little town on the coast of a remote and enchanted Philippine island called Bucas Grande. The stop hadn’t been planned, but half way to our real destination – a magical cove where rock formations look like art and the jellyfish have no sting – our small boat sprang a leak and started to sink. We had almost given up hope when a kindly octopus fisherman gave us a tow.
Neither of us had ever been to Socorro, nor had we imagined being there now. But the boatman had a cousin in town who offered his floor for the night. And when we asked where to bathe, he pointed up the street as if the answer to our question were obvious. After a long and dusty trudge, we came upon a small pool carved into a concrete basin at the end of the street. A handful of people sat squatting around it, splashing water onto their faces and arms before erupting into broad smiles induced by the cooling liquid. We quickly joined them, thinking how odd it was to find a public bath in such an out-of-the-way place. It wasn’t until years later that we learned the story behind Socorro’s renowned bathing basin; that many local residents had died violent deaths defending it as a sacred place.
Constructed in the early 1920s by a “holy man” who regularly led followers to mass healing sessions there in pre-dawn torchlight processions, the bathing pool soon came to be regarded as the town’s prized possession. So it wasn’t surprising that, when colonial authorities ordered it destroyed in 1923, the townsfolk soon rose up in anger sparking a revolt – widely reported as a “religious war” – resulting in many causalities.
We, of course, hadn’t known any of this when we visited the place in 2013. Because, for us back then, all that history was still the reality behind the curtain, the alternate explanation, the unseen story that would have grandly changed our perspective had that curtain been pulled aside.
But it wasn’t, just as it isn’t for most of us most of the time. Living in Mindanao is kind of like that; you recognize the familiar while the strange and unknown remains invisible until the curtain gets pulled — or sometimes yanked — aside.
But here’s the thing; you never know when that will happen. And it is the anticipation that keeps you alive.
A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the ongoing chronical of that adventure.