Saturday, June 19, 2010

Among us

“HILAN” and “dakit” are Cebuano words I renewed an acquaintance with, following the June 13, 2010 accident in Balamban, which killed at least 20 people and injured other passengers of a bus that plunged off the Transcentral Highway in Balamban, Cebu.

Aside from focusing on the tragedy and the probe to determine cause and culpability, some of the local and national media coverage included a detail that isn’t usually found in Western-set guidelines for news writing: the supernatural angle.

Local dwellers attested to the frequency of accidents occurring in that area. A driver plying this route said that, due to the spot’s notoriety as “hilan,” he and others always slow down and blow their horns whenever they pass.

According to, “hilan” alludes to a secluded place or one confined to the use of particular persons or groups. Sharing this association of being haunted are other Cebuano synonyms: “abtan,” “alabtan,” and “tao-an”.

A family who lives down the ravine said to reporters that vehicles plunging down that steep incline seemed to always halt before a “dakit,” the Indian rubber tree also known locally as “balete”. In his June 19, 2010 column, Sun.Star Cebu columnist Godofredo R. Roperos recalled: “Where the tourist bus fell last Sunday, or so I learned, there once stood a big ‘balete’ (‘dakit’) tree. It was cut down as it blocked the path of the heavy machines when the road was constructed some years back. The tree stood right on the curve of the road.”

Journalism is primarily about reporting what is verifiable.

In the Balamban incident, reports are rife with verifiable details: Sun.Star Cebu reported that Balamban Mayor Alex Binghay said drivers must use low gear in the Transcentral Highway, specially in descending roads; and Cansumoroy Barangay Captain Emilia Montecillo pointed out the railings and warning signs placed along the road due to Sitio C’s history of at least 20 vehicular accidents, excluding the June 13 mishap.

Yet, even from its high seat of Western rationalism, journalism can spot and report bits of local lore, what anthropologists call syncretism, the fusion of an imposed Christianity grafted on an older animistic religion.

Just as we accept that fairness and balance requires all sides, the juxtaposition of the verifiable and the unverifiable should, instead of negating the other, add to what we know. In 2008, the death of a Korean tourist in Kawasan Falls in Badian sparked investigations.

One of the official findings was that facilities constructed near the popular tourist spot did not have a municipal permit. The Badian Municipal Government also admitted it needed help from the Provincial Government in regulating the management of Kawasan Falls, particularly diving from the falls and rafting.

The tourist who jumped from the first level of Kawasan and fell on the raft boarded by another Korean was just one in a long line of tragedies tied to that place.

According to local lore, swimmers who drown or meet other accidents in Kawasan fall prey to the “mantalaga,” a giant squid that is believed to inhabit the depths of the pool.

More than a scare tale, the “mantalaga” explains why local dwellers know better than to drink and carouse while swimming or diving. The belief that we share this world and therefore must co-exist with others makes us more respectful, more cautious, and more scrupulous in observing laws intended to preserve human life and ecology.

The Water Code states that structures encroaching on a body of water cannot be given municipal clearance, a requirement for a building permit. Balamban police will prohibit buses and other heavy vehicles from entering the Transcentral Highway due to its risky curves and inclines.

Giant squids, vengeful tree spirits: from a certain world-view, they mean the same thing.


* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 20, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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