Bullets and Bolos; 15 years in the Philippine Islands by Col. John R. White

Chapter VII

A Provincial Idyll

HIMAMAYLAN is a small pueblo strung along a sandy beach under shady coco palms. The Himamaylan River, little more than a lagoon, throws into the straits that lie between Negros and Panay a crescent sand-bar behind which shelter fishing bancas (canoes), trading paraos, or occasional sugar lorchas (small schooners) from Iloilo. An eighteenth-century stone church with a connecting monastery fronts the sea. The monastery, known as the convento, furnished quarters for myself and men. The Spanish Recoleto friars had been driven away during the insurrection and had not yet returned. The building had been looted, but there remained a few articles of solid furniture. Until recently Inspector Smith had occupied the quarters and had left there a detachment of five soldiers who now went to swell my foot-sore score.

An American teacher also lived in the convent – which was big enough to shelter a dozen men and give each separate quarters – but he was a reserved individual who preferred to live and eat alone rather than pool with the only other American present. Smith had told me that the school-teacher knew the price of eggs, chicken, and rice better than a Filipino and boasted of living on twenty centavos a day. How we Constabulary officers laughed at the parsimonious pedagogues!

Like the ex-soldiers that we were, we scattered our money right and left; the school teachers, fresh from the economies of life in small American towns, saved three fourths of their pay. They were the wise virgins, even if their stinginess did occasion unfavorable comment among the Filipinos. It was not good to see an American living and eating like a tao. Harsh criticism we of the Constabulary thought and voiced at that time; yet now, now that the mellowing years have passed, I can see that those teachers were not necessarily avaricious. Who knows what debts and mortgages on little farms back in Iowa and Kansaswere paid off? Their pesos were hard enough earned, God woe, for they ran risks of death by disease and outlawry without the compensating excitement of the chase that we had. Maestros, we called the teachers; and the female of the species was known as maestra.

The presidente (mayor) of Himamaylan was a young Filipino with a dash of Spanish and Chinese blood, by the name Serafin Gatuslao. From the beginning he was the best friend of the Constabulary in Southern Negros. At his house I took my meals; from him I quickly learned of all the malhechores (offenders) in and around the pueblo. Although married and father of several children, Serafin was little older than myself. During the intervals between drilling and instructing my detachment I found him a boon companion. Together we went shooting to near-by rice paddies and ponds and loaded the little brown boys who were our retrievers with duck, teal, snipe, parrots, cockatoos, and I know not what other strange tropical birds.

On these expeditions we would talk intimately of provincial politics, of the babaylanes in the mountains, and of the cattle-stealing gangs in the lowlands which were beginning to be a more serious problem even than the babaylanes. Serafin was an exception in that I rarely found his counsels interested. The wealthier provincial Filipinos have so many parientes (relatives) and friends that their advice on conditions in their own localities must often be discounted. But although Serafin administered a hacienda a mile or two from town, he had few political ties in the South; his relatives and friends were in Northern Negros, and marriage to a girl of Himamaylan had brought him here to administer his wife’s property. He had first been made presidente by the military authorities and later was elected by the people as a tribute to his honest administration.

Sometimes we would go on a picnic – a sunsuman, as the Visayas call it – up a river to Serafin’s hacienda. The presidente’s wife, some pretty girls from neighboring haciendas, a few youths, Serafin and myself, made up the party. Embarking in bancas, we were paddled by Visayan boatmen up an estero (tidal creek) under overhanging mangroves through narrow passages where nipa palms fanned our faces. At the hacienda landing our lunch was waiting, the piece de resistance a suckling pig done up in banana leaves, all ready for the roast. Beyond the landing we neared the hills; the estero became less swampy and soon our boatmen poled us up a clear stream that rippled over a rocky bed. We found a smooth spot beneath a mango tree and there the suckling pig was roasted whole. The liver was removed, pounded up with the leaves of a bitter herb growing near the river, and stewed into a sauce to pour over the roasted cracklings. The taste of those cracklings can never entirely melt away; and the scene after lunch is easily recalled: the boatmen squatting in a circle around the remains of the succulent porker, the Filipina girls showing shapely legs as they paddled in the creek with many-colored skirts drawn up to knees, the young Filipinos splashing and flirting with the girls; beyond the bickering water a bamboo grove traced like giant maidenhair fern against a cobalt sky over which fleecy cirrus clouds drove with the steady northeast trades; a raucous-voiced, red-billed kingfisher perched on a waving frond of bamboo or diving to a pool unheedful of the picnicking crowd. And beneath the umbrageous mango Serafin and I, smoking innumerable cigarettes, the cares of office not even lightly resting on our brows.

It was at such times as these that I learned to know the Filipinos and their kindly traits as one may only know them by life in the provinces, isolated from other Americans. A man might live twenty years in Manila and know less about the Filipinos than by a few weeks’ residence in Himamaylan. Yet living in Himamaylan he must be simpatico – he must have sympathy with the life of the people. That Spanish word simpatico is hardly translated by its English equivalent “sympathetic.” When a Filipino says of an American that he is simpatico it means that he does not strike false notes in dealing with people of other races. A man might be sympathetic, yet full of race prejudice; but if simpatico he is free from it; a Filipino can give an American no higher praise. A man may be able, honest, hard-working, and full of assorted other virtues, yet quite unable to get along with the Filipinos, if lacking in that touch of humanity which enables one to

Be to their virtues very kind,

Be to their faults a little blind.

Often in after years I thought what a pity it was that some American officials I came to know could not have had the privilege of enjoying a sunsuman picnic with Serafin at Himamaylan. It might have made them simpatico – which they surely are not.

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