Listening to the Earth

Chady woke up to his bed shaking that Tuesday morning. He waited for the movement to stop, but instead, it took away his sense of balance. It disarranged sundries neatly lined up on his dresser. It made its way to his feet, until he couldn’t ignore it. He got up and walked out of the room.

There were no alarming sounds that would tell him something was amiss. No loud impact of falling objects. There were no cries from his board mates, no chatter about the movement they could not yet understand. Even Chady doesn’t say anything, allowing his feet to feel what was going on around him. It can be said that he might just be unusually calm. More accurately though is that Chady, like the rest of those in his boarding house, is deaf and, consequently, mute.

Of course, this scenario came more from my imagination than from his testimony. Chady shares his experience during the October 15, 2014 earthquake that wracked Bohol, in a flurry of hand gestures, of words made optical. The exchange of signals look like 500 words a minute in transcription, too fast for the ordinary person to keep up with.

Chady communicates in American English. “I was afraid the house might collapse.” he tells me, “so I went to a safe area.” This is the direct translation of signs taught to them by a non-profit organization called IDEA, the International Deaf Education Association, founded in Bohol over 30 years ago.

He will perhaps never realize that most “hearing people”, as they call counterparts, speak in a different dialect, and that there is no direct interpretation for words most used by his fellow Boholanos in ordinary life. Hoy. Kanang. Kuan bah.

Most deaf people in the beginning, a coordinator shares, do not even know the concept of names. As if coming from a different world, they are taught first how to correlate symbols to objects or loved ones.

He learns, first off, that the woman who has been tending to him all this time is called “mother” and the man who looks like an older version of himself is called “father”. He is taught especially that he too has a name, certainly not the ones his neighbor secretly calls him, misinterpreting his miscomprehension of the most basic things as abnormal, strange, odd.

He hears the sound for the first time in his head, a strange collection of reverberations somehow meant to represent him. Michael. Louie. Chady.

“Hi. I am Chady. Deaf.” a tag says. We are being entertained by Chady in a hotel called Dao Diamond in Dauis, Bohol where he works as a waiter.

While Chady cleans up, Deaf Wellness Coordinator, Lea Bagolor, gives a lively discussion at our table. She is so used to talking with her hands, signaling in succession while speaking verbally for our benefit, that she can barely touch her food.

Lea, whose own sister is deaf, says teaching beginners sometimes already in their 30s is always visually dominated. Teachers go out of their way to bring actual objects to classrooms. “This is a spoon. This is a fork.”

Leaving Chady to his work, we go around the hotel. The kitchen houses the usual clash of knife to chopping board, of raw meat to pan and of vegetables to running water. There is no human sound.

80% of employees in Dao Diamond including the chefs, housekeeping and construction laborers, who built the Polynesian-inspired hotel from the ground up, are hearing or speech impaired.

A sign plastered in its lobby all too seriously says, “Observe Silence.”

All the things that can’t be heard

In a corner in Tagbilaran where heavy traffic is apparent by the sound of horns and the screech of tires, is a Montana-themed restaurant called Garden Café. A sign outside says “Strictly no business transactions. No playing of cards. No pets allowed. No bringing of outside food.”

Beside the sign is a collection of souvenirs made in Bohol such as hand painted fans, tarsier stuffed toys, capiz clutches and jeweled handbags. On its wall interiors are memorabilia that came directly from Montana – framed cowboy photos, boots, hats, horseshoes, scythes and saddles.

It might pass off as any other restaurant meant mainly for foreigners, except for one unusual detail. There is a working phone in each booth that says “Dial 0 to order.”

In other restaurants, this could be a novelty ploy, but in Garden Café, its function is more utilitarian than anything else. Only one designated hearing person receives the order via phone, which he cascades to the rest of the non-hearing staff.

For those brave enough to attempt communication, there are symbols for basic orders on the menu like “Coke”, “coffee”, “chicken”, “bread”, “hamburger”, “pizza”, “fish”, “halo-halo” and “rice”. More specific orders can either be pointed to or written down.

There is a hand signal for “Thank you” too, somewhat prone to misinterpretation by those in the verbal world. IDEA’s founder, Dennis Drake, was faced with a flabbergasted customer once, complaining how “Your waiters are so rude.” Concerned, the soft-spoken Dennis asks the woman what the waiter did.

“He did this, you see!”, the woman said, and goes on to touch her hand to her lips while simultaneously touching the crook of the forearm with the other hand. She thought he was cursing her. Dennis goes on to explain how he was actually showing gratitude.

Being subject to misinterpretation is nothing new to them, shares Dennis, and this doesn’t just exist with hearing to non-hearing members. It does exist with non-hearing to non-hearing members too.

Sometimes, Dennis says, they just throw paper balls to get each other’s attention.  Dennis takes us to a large gymnasium built from the ground up by all-deaf laborers. It now also serves as work area for students learning ironwork, woodwork and other vocational courses. A member, a few meters above ground, was busy welding parts of the metal beam. The other was busy repairing a cabinet in the corner. Another was making the start of a bed. The combined noise generated was disturbing but not one looks up. In times like these, with employees isolated in their own worlds, only paper balls might work. Street smart mechanisms are developed on the ground because there are just pragmatic matters a classroom quite can’t teach. Communication in itself perhaps is still instinctual.

Nevertheless, this system of formal education and pragmatic work makes IDEA an intricate web of self-sufficiency with very little outside help.

There are now about 443 students, a good number of which they’ve set up dormitories, lodging and full scholarships for. From formal schooling through their Bohol Deaf Academy, most of the students are then employed in the different social enterprises. Apart from Dao Diamond and Garden Café, IDEA has a manufacturing company with over 50 employees which exports fly baits, small copies of insects used for fishing, which they export to Canada. They also have a construction company which employs around 60 mostly-deaf to build mass furniture such as cabinets, chairs, beds, desks and the like.

Overall, these IDEA enterprises ranging from manufacturing, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, welding, baking, housekeeping and landscaping employ about 1,000 deaf mutes in over 5 municipalities in Bohol.

The connected Hearing Clinic, one of the most advanced in the Philippines, is always well-stocked with hearing aids ready to be given a way to those who can’t afford them. At one point, they were able to give out almost 1,800 hearing aids in just 2 days, a far cry from the long queue of beneficiaries that other hearing institutions in the Philippines have.

All of the enterprises in turn, from the restaurants down to the construction company, contribute monetarily to the overall goal, deaf mute education.

“We’re not a hotel or restaurant business. These aren’t our focus. It has always been education.” says Dennis.

Yet there is almost a quiet, excuse the pun, elusive stance on how the group operates. There seem to be no pats on the back or racket about its success as if being self-sufficient amidst special conditions should be a pre-requisite, as if to say, this, in any circumstance, should be the normality.

Even Dennis, who came to Bohol over 32 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, talks about the workings of this inner community as if the whole thing was nothing impressive. The system is somehow defined by all the things that cannot be heard.

The closest form to pride perhaps is when Dennis, introducing his very first student from over 30 years ago says, “I’m a grandpa now.”, his earliest mentees now with kids of their own.

Such quiet efficiency was especially apparent during the earthquake when the Deaf Association was amongst the first to respond in the relief and rebuilding efforts of Bohol, and continues to do so almost a year after the earthquake.

In IDEA’s gymnasium during our visit, pre-fabricated panels for about 100 houses are stacked on top of each other, ready for delivery to the heavily-damaged municipality of Sagbayan.

“Those should be out as soon as the rain stops.” Dennis says, and moves on to show the next project.

The More Accessible Route

The Deaf Association might very well be a microcosm to how Bohol is rebuilding itself after the earthquake. While it has gladly accepted the support of long-term help from international non-government organizations such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and USAID, its private sectors have rebuilt fast enough that a year after, it now has the ability to help the rest of its island, and it has done so with very little noise.

“There was no clear direction on where we were going.” the Governor of Bohol said of the Province before the earthquake. Now most certainly, the small island is set to tackle not just its face lifting efforts with plans to rebrand itself other than just a heritage site but a thriving eco-cultural and agri-industrial powerhouse. It also plans to tackle the dirty side of progress as well, especially with a pending domestic airport in Panglao underway.

The islet of Panglao itself, seemingly pristine with its white sand beaches and clear waters, produces six to seven tons of garbage a day in average. During tourist season, this increases to about nine to ten tons a day. It had no clear plan as to how to dispose toxic and residual waste. The whole province didn’t have a designated dumpsite as well.

But community members in Panglao are set to change all this.

“Ma’am, naa moy trashcan?” I ask a woman, wanting to throw some leftovers upon arriving in a seemingly-industrial facility. She looks at me with a knowing smile that initially escapes me.

There was an organic garden in front, with budding lettuce, tomatoes and eggplants. Upturned wine bottles serve as dividers to the different plots. I quickly assume it was a stopover to an eco-tourism area.

Soon after, a woman in multi-colored jacket and boots greet us.  Leonila Montero, the Mayor of Panglao, tells us with a smile that this is Panglao’s solid waste management facility. She, along with an organized woman’s organization, is keen on cleaning up their 4th class municipality.

I realize I had never seen a waste facility so organized and odorless. To the right of its structure are rows and rows of solid waste in white sacks. Biodegradables are composted and sold as fertilizers. At the back is a new shredding machine set to cut down Panglao’s waste down even more.

Montero says she recently released one multicab per barangay to collect waste but segregation at the source is another problem. “To educate takes time.”, she says, not wanting to resort to incentivizing what should be a supposedly-automatic process. While she started waste segregation a long time ago in her own resort, the concept is hard to catch on. “Mahirap. I am not a teacher.”

To go back to the earth perhaps is the more accessible route, something that requires very little teaching. Montero says that although waste management is just starting, the Woman’s organization has already gained a bit of profit from selling the vegetables they planted in the periphery to hotels and decorative plants to tourists, and they continue to plant even without pay. One takes out a new harvest of fresh lettuce, and asks us to get a leaf or two. Notice, she says, how sweet it was.

 “Pawala lang gud sa kasapot”, one of the women gardeners say when I ask her why she was so dedicated. It was her therapy, she says, after a long argument with the husband but apart from that, “Lahi ra jud kung green ang naa sa imong palibot.”

The Silence of an Earthquake

A stocky man with an austere face, Governor Chatto of Bohol, says with candor, “Bohol was not ready for an earthquake. We were more prepared for typhoons.” After the many storms that passed, with Bohol being in the center of the Philippines, he felt like they were and would often be spared of disasters.

But who’s to blame him? The noise wrought by incoming storms, oftentimes with official names that mark them throughout history, can oftentimes be prepared for. But something as nameless and soundless as an earthquake can only be force majeure. Until now, unlike the strong marks of icons like Yolanda, Frank or Ruping,  Boholanos can only refer to that fate-given moment as “katong linog.”

Whatever made Chatto create the Quick Response Team called TARSIER 117 (Telephone and Radio System Integrated Emergency Response) years before the earthquake, he was glad that he did.

“First rule hours after a disaster, go to the Command Center.” the Governor shares. When he went to the designated post minutes after the quake, his Tarsiers were already there.

He emphasizes that they served as important relay instruments of the type of damage experienced per municipality. This first and foremost is the Tarsiers’ first role.

Because of the Quick Response team, Chatto was immediately able to declare that Bohol was under a state of calamity the afternoon after the earthquake.  This resulted to being able to feed citizens in the evening, open malls for immediate aid, open the municipality’s bodegas as well as the cultural centers for relief packing and distribution. Preparedness, like in Dennis’ and IDEA’s part was key to a quick rebound. The Tarsiers became the ears of the Governor that “captured the many stories of the earthquake.”

These days though, there seems to be a lull in the province, not the type of silence of one who isn’t doing anything, but of that severely focused on a task. Chatto stresses that this silence after the rumble is a temporary setback. When constantly asked about what his damage assessment on the island is, he always says “I was in Bali a month after the bombing and in Phuket after the tsunami. I was expecting this (the setback).” They even use the delay of tourists and investment, he says, to further prepare for the eventual influx.

Chatto has lots of plans for his beloved Bohol. Like someone with a teleprompter in his mind, he fires off strategy after strategy, parts of his EATT at Bohol Program. EATT stands for Environment, Agriculture, Tourism and Technology. Bohol, he says, is a province with so many assets, and while they are set on rebuilding as part of BBBB (Build Back Bohol Better) with its heritage churches being top of mind, he is also set on building a New Bohol as well because “Bohol is more than just its heritage sites.”

He mentions plans for cruise ship ports, fiber optics, solar panels and communication cables. This is really all in preparation for what will eventually be a steady stream of eco-cultural tourists. It’s a redundant term, he says of “eco-cultural tourism”, but he firmly uses it because he emphasizes the “strength in not just in the natural attractions but also the strength in the people.” Chatto believes, he says, in Bohol’s “culture of tourism with our penchant for festivals. We celebrate it with gusto.”

This is true, especially for himself perhaps, as after the interview where he extensively answers each question with the ease of someone who knows how to execute, he takes off his formalwear and dresses as a datu, brown sash on his head, a gold organza vest, to celebrate with his constituents at Bohol’s colorful Sandugo Festival.

With only 12 participants this year, it isn’t quite as big as other festivals. They were unsure of how the festival itself would go a year after the earthquake, if they should celebrate it even. But Chatto says next year’s celebration will be better. Standing on top of a float for hours, he waves to hundreds of people, some of whom do a double take, unused to the non-formality of the man. “Si Governor na?”, they ask.

“Bohol is coming in for a very big surprise.” he says before going, as if he too is more of a receiver than the giver of it.

In the sudden bareness after the dancing, the streets of Tagbilaran are a scattered mix of sound and sight. Half-dressed dancers still with face paint sit on the sidewalks. Tempura vendors with nothing to sell anymore prop up their feet on carts. And in an avenue somewhere is a trail beat of a snare.

It takes on a slow cadence, an intimation of some long-lost refrain. The sound is like the end of a rumble from the earth, who was speaking a different language all along, and in the quiet stages that follow an aftermath, one is finally able to hear it.


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