Her sketch, my tattoo

I finally got my very first tattoo. On the left side of my back, you can now see a doodle of people and a dog with a squiggly rectangle boxing them in. The lines vibrate with simplicity; the positioning and distance of the stick figures reveal a lot about the artist’s feelings toward her significant others.

The original plan was to seek out sketches of artists, Pablo Picasso and Antonio Saura. A forgotten Spanish Civil War anarchist painter, Saura is a personal favorite because of his politics and his profound reinterpretation of Don Quixote, while Pablo Picasso, well, is picasso.

Here are examples of Saura’s sketches:

Another tattoo concept I entertained was one that is science-based. This idea came about after viewing cool tattoos of avid science fans and professionals. I would’ve wanted something that’s a homage of sorts to the years of working with rhesus macaques and, in the past, tarsiers and long-tailed macaques. I’m clueless as to what the design would have been, but I figure that the idea should be similar to this:

After several years of backtracking, I finally settled for something more personal–a stick figure drawing by my daughter, Gabriela Lualhati. We went to Harisumi Tattoo Parlor in Condado and met with Blen, the artist, to have the tattoo done. When we arrived there, Blen didn’t start right away. He talked to my daughter first and allowed her to improve the sketch before running the needle on my back.

Talking to a tattoo artist is a big deal for my daughter, since she loves to draw and paint. Her kindergarten teacher said that although Gabriela is creative and a bit advanced for her class, she has problems with shyness and sensitivity. In part, my decision to get a tattoo from one of her sketches is driven by the desire to boost her self-confidence, to coax her out of her timid self, and to show the world that her drawings are beautiful and great.

I know that I will not pass as some badass Sons of Anarchy type with a stick figure tattoo like this, but I know it’s worth the pain and the skin.

Harisumi Tattoo Parlor

Blen at Work

Gabi and her work


How Lolo Pedro Swatted a Toratora and Died

While browsing the internet, I chanced on a science news article on the genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia among Han Chinese. The Nature article revealed  two independent studies that identified “sections of the human genome that, when deleted, can elevate the risk of developing schizophrenia by up to 15 times compared with the general population.” I won’t go into the details of the article because, aside from my lack of expertise on the subject matter, the popular version of the two articles is good enough for non-technical readers like myself.

This blog article however will share a cultural correlate to the science news article. While mental diseases are biological, these are expressed in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I take the medical anthropologist’s cue therefore of differentiating disease, which is biological, from illnesses, a cultural concept. It is within this light that I share my maternal relatives’ reckoning with pagkabuang (roughly translated as insanity). All behaviors or mental states that deviate from the “normal” is considered buang in Cebuano. Psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, dementia, etc, are all subsumed under this general word category.

The family lore goes that at least one member, usually male, of every generation will succumb to a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a biological basis to this story or whether a professional diagnosis was availed of (except for one), but as far as my mother is concerned, our “schizophrenia” simply runs in the blood–no need to question it, you just keep the grip on what’s real and what’s not and you won’t lose it. This story has been used as a warning to all my relatives to not overdo things or do drugs, because “we got craziness in our blood,” one slip and off we go to Lalaland.  Like us, my mother’s generation too had been told time and again to fear this supposed “genetic tendency” and thus must learn to negotiate life’s challenges with calm and ease. I believe this is not simply an old wives’ tale that older relatives concocted to keep us in check. Aside from the logical fact that they could’ve just scared us off with the usual monsters and the roasting pits of hell, my maternal relatives saw how a grandfather, an uncle, and two cousins were blighted by this illness.

The origin of the “schizophrenia” myth started with the unusual death of my mother’s maternal grandfather who was shot by Japanese soldiers in the dying days of World War II. When the villagers heard that the soldiers were on patrol, they fled to their mountain hideout except for Lolo Pedro. The soldiers spotted Lolo Pedro on top of a coconut tree cursing at toratora or zero fighter aircrafts flying overhead. He also brought with him a long stick to swat at these flying jetfighters, flaying at them everytime they passed by the coconut tree. He was an easy target for the patrolling soldiers. They trained their rifles towards Lolo Pedro, placed him in their rifles’ crosshairs, squeezed their triggers, and took the crazed man down from the tree.

You see, the tiny island of Po’o at that time was right smack in the middle of the largest naval battle in world history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the naval war when Allied forces first witnessed Japanese toratora planes diving straight at enemy warships and gunboats. The Allied Forces however routinely defeated the Japanese forces in less than a week. For older island residents, the impact of this war was such that time and history were only divided into three episodes: before the war (wala pay gera), during the war (panahon sa gera), and after the war (pistaym). Personal events, like birthdays, are remembered more along this organizing principle of time than the actual dates.

The war was a shock to many island residents. From a sleepy fishing village, the place had been converted into a battle zone. The villagers were rounded up and their movement monitored and restricted. Many were subjected to abuses. Rumors reached that children were flung to the air and then stabbed with bayonets. Some of those who escaped the encampment were pursued and killed. A relative of mine, who was then a child, escaped a gruesome death when she pretended to be dead after getting stabbed with a bayonet. With her guts spilling out of her abdomen, adult relatives sneaked the child out of the island on a canoe. They traveled a full day to the neighboring island of Leyte where she was nursed back to health.

Coconut Fiber Dress. My grandfather didn’t quite sew something as grandiose as this, but yes you got the point of him sewing clothes from coconut fibers.

Those who escaped the Japanese garrison fled to mountain hideouts. While there, they lived a semblance of a normal life, far from the reach of the occupying forces. My late maternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant tailor (whose timberland-owning family scampered out of China because of the Nationalist Revolution of Sun Yat Sen–yet another interesting story to pursue!), remembered sewing clothes from coconut fibers for the refugees (see photo on the side to give you an idea). The violence spiraled that whenever there was a chance for retribution, the island residents grabbed every opportunity for revenge–Japanese soldiers, who survived the naval battle and found themselves beached on the island, were routinely attacked and killed.

If you’ve been to the island of Po’o, you would not imagine that this place had once witnessed so much bloodshed. Your day starts with a rooster’s call and ends with the warmth of bahalina down your throat. Yet World War II was a crazy time. And, apparently, we still feel the insanity of war in our “genes.”

Tarsiers For Sale and then some!

The selling of tarsiers is still happening in the Philippines despite the numerous laws and administrative orders banning this practice. I chanced on a seller over at sulit.com.ph, a popular online market site, advertising the sale of a pair of tarsiers for PhP9,000.00/USD 205.20. Apparently, the seller has already sold three pairs of tarsiers as per his comment on the online ad he posted: “Sold 1 pair to LEI of Antipolo. Sold 2 Pairs to Keen of Forbes park. These people can afford to take care of these lovely pets. They showed me the place where they will keep and nest them.”

In the Philippines, Tarsius syrichta is considered as a “specially protected faunal species” through Proclamation 1030 released by the President Ramos administration in 1997. The proclamation prohibits the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away, or possession of tarsiers and the destruction of its habitat. It also encouraged the establishment of sanctuaries “to preserve and protect the species.” In 2001, the Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act was passed to conserve the country’s remaining wildlife resources and their habitats, including the tarsiers. Several other ordinances were enacted at the provincial and town levels to stem the capture and live trade of tarsiers.

The apparent disconnect between state policies and the actual practice points at the need to rethink the conservation strategies for this primate. As I understand, the dominant conservation framework remains to be ecotourism, which is aimed at increasing revenues for the ‘community’ and, at the same time, conserving ‘nature.’ But with reports still coming about the sale of tarsiers, it would be worthwhile to investigate whether this framework has instead led to more species endangerment. Elsewhere, ecotourism has “accelerated the endangering of the survival of fragile and endemic species” (Honey, 2008)–most likely true also in the Philippines.

Alternatively, it would be interesting to investigate how ‘ecotourism’ is interpreted locally. A cursory visit to various tourist sites in the Philippines will show that ‘wildlife’ tourism is one of the country’s main tourist draw. In fact, some viewing stations display “wildlife” (with DENR permits) to encourage tourists to visit their place for a fee. In Albur, Bohol, for example, one of the tourist stops is a “mini-zoo” of various endemic and migratory animals. Thus, if the cages for birds, flying lemurs, grass owls, and macaques of this town are indications of what ecotourism is at the local level, then there is indeed an urgent need to understand more the dynamics of tourism, conservation, local community, and the environment.

Here are some photos from the viewing station in Albur, Bohol (photos courtesy of Lori Fields)

Juvenile long-tailed macaque (photo courtesy of Lori Fields)
Flying Lemur (photo courtesy of Lori Fields)


Let me also share this section of our paper (with Carla Escabi–Time Travelling’s other “us“) on the early days of hunting for tarsiers in Corella, Bohol:

The 1980’s saw some changes in the hunting techniques of the Corellanos. Hunters developed a new set of hunting techniques for tarsiers. Dogs (ayam) were trained to hunt (pangayam) for tarsiers. The dogs pick up the scent of a tarsier and chase it. As a response, the tarsier climbs to the highest reaches of the branches. The hunter then follows the dogs’ barks and captures the tarsier with a net or with a piece of cloth, usually a shirt. Often the tarsier dies, especially if the plant that it is clinging to is within the reach of a dog. Yet the use of dogs for hunting tarsiers is not widespread in Corella. Neither have specialized traps been developed for tarsiers. Corellanos saw tarsier traps only when scientists came and used mesh nets to capture them. Interestingly, Dagosto et al. (2003: 249) solicited the help of “trained guides with hunting dogs” in their study of tarsiers in Mount Pangasugan on the island of Leyte.

Corella hunters pursue tarsiers using their “knowledge of the forest.” They notice that a tarsier is “near” through its smell and calls. One informant describes the tarsier’s smell as having a stench akin to that of a bat. Recounting his experience in catching tarsier, he relates:

One needs to approach a tarsier in a certain manner. I silently get closer to it, one step at a time. When the tarsier is not looking in my direction, I make one little step. Watching the tarsier from the sides of my eyes and keeping my head down helps, because the tarsier will not feel intimidated by this body position. Once I am near to where the tarsier is grasping, I try to read its movements. Knowing these is important, and especially how its body is positioned, because these will indicate to you the prospective twig or branch that it might jump to. You can grab the tarsier then and there or, if not, you can force it to jump to the prospective twig and then sway the twig so that the tarsier cannot reach it. Once it falls to the ground, it can easily be captured.

Another informant says:

If I find a tarsier infant, all I do is wait for the mother to come. The mother usually tries to make you follow her so that you will get her instead of the infant. And when you do follow her, you will lose sight of her as she heads for the bushes. I discovered that the mother usually comes back once the threat is gone. So one time I grabbed the infant and put it under my shirt to make it relax. It is the beating of the heart that calms it. Suddenly the mother jumped onto my back, searching for her baby. I took pity on them and just left them in the wild.

Tarsier hunting in Corella in the 1980’s came about as a response to three factors: a) external demand for live tarsiers, b) external demand for tarsiers for taxidermy (embalsamu), and c) the practice of keeping tarsiers to show to or lure tourists. Tarsiers have become visible in the money market as a commodity. Spielmann and Eder (1994: 318), writing about the hunter-gatherers, made sense when they said:

…if hunter-gatherers are intensifying hunting to participate in an exchange system, the organization of the hunt and/or species targeted for the hunt will probably change from the pre-trade situation. The ethnographic record contains numerous references to differences in hunter-gatherer hunting techniques and technology that are attributed to the demands of exchange [emphases ours].

The live tarsier trade for export in the Philippines started on October 17, 1850 with Amsterdam as the receiving destination. Fitch-Snyder (2003: 278-282) recorded that a total of 130 tarsiers from 1850 to 1986 were exported from the Philippines (see her table on p. 279) with the United States, Europe, and Japan as top importers. Thirty-nine percent were exported from August 1981 to November 21, 1986. Most of these tarsiers ended up in universities, zoos, and museums. Although the number of tarsiers that reached a target destination was relatively low, this may not represent the actual quantity of tarsiers exported. According to Cowlishaw and Dunbar (2000: 263-264), “There is a substantial additional loss associated with mortality during capture, storage, and transport, and this may ultimately be the greatest source of population loss.”

Our fieldwork in Corella supports Fitch-Snyder’s data that there was an increase in captured tarsiers in the 1980’s. In this period, Corella hunters specialized in tarsiers because of the orders of buyers from Tagbilaran, the provincial capital of Bohol, who in turn were commissioned by middlemen from outside the province. Petshop owners as far away as Manila bought Bohol tarsiers. Hunters were informed that some tarsiers were going to Cebu. Nong Lito participated in the capture of 15 live tarsiers for a certain Louis Weaver, travelling on the inaugural flight of an airline company bound for Chicago (around 1985). They were intended, he was told, for Chicago zoos and universities elsewhere in the United States. Patricia Wright, a primatologist, also “obtained and imported…tarsiers for breeding and for research purposes after surveying the Philippine Island of Bohol in 1985” (Fitch-Snyder 2003: 281).

A hunter recalled that hunting of tarsiers was profitable at that time for a single tarsier could fetch P50-P200 and orders sometimes reached more than 50 tarsiers. One of my informants remarked that the tarsier trade was so lucrative in contrast to farming that many hunters ceased to farm their lands and devoted their time instead to hunting tarsiers. “With farming, you have to wait for four months (referring to the harvest) before you can get your money. With tarsier hunting, you get your monetary rewards immediately,” he said. Thus for some Corellanos, the 1980’s heralded a shift to the commercial hunting of tarsiers.

But hunting Tarsius syrichta for the market also happened prior to the 1980’s. The earliest record of supplying tarsiers for buyers outside of Bohol is in 1930 when Professor Hegner from Johns Hopkins University obtained an anatomical specimen from the province (Fulton 1939). Back then, early tarsier researchers were confronted with the difficulty of locating tarsiers. Recording his exasperation, Fulton (1939: 566-567) remarked:

…nearly a week was wasted on trips through the inland jungles in search of a specimen…Nearly every native of whom we inquired had either seen a ‘maomag’ a few days earlier or knew of someone who had seen one. One day the trail seemed hot and a report came through that a native in a neighboring town was keeping one as a pet, but when we arrived we found only a dead and partly ant-eaten specimen…Others were reported at distant ends of the island, but we seemed always to arrive just after the animal had escaped, or after the neighbor’s dog had eaten it; and after many a frantic chase through the jungle of this incredibly hot and humid island, I was obliged eventually to fly back to Manila without having seen a living Tarsius.

Fulton eventually was able to procure some 30 tarsiers through a local hunter, Jorge Lumantao of Tagbilaran. In Corella, Cañete (2003: 187) records that “the collection of live tarsiers originated when Japanese sailors on vessels making stopovers at Bohol…began exchanging transistor radios for live tarsiers with the locals.”

Taking tarsiers from the wild also occurred on neighboring islands. In Samar, for example, Cabrera (1923:91) noted that “natives sometimes carried tarsiers for sale.” Cook, a retired U.S. army captain, found it easy to procure tarsiers in Davao. He bought 15 tarsiers for $1.20 each from the locals. He said that the tarsiers were “captured in daytime, but only one was caught in a tree. This was a half grown specimen, seen in a small tree just after dawn, and secured by cutting down the tree. One was seen on the tip of a stalk of tibgao, a tall and strong grass, and caught while making a flying leap. Others were captured in vines, hemp plantings, and in underbrush…” (Cook 1939:173).

La Perla Street Art

La Perla is a community right by the historic structures of Viejo San Juan. The houses sit in a slope sandwiched between the raging Atlantic Ocean and the centuries-old cobblestone road leading to El Morro, a Spanish-era fortress. Together with a friend, we coursed through the narrow streets and took pictures of the graffiti and mural painted on the walls. I took the liberty to take pictures for posterity’s sake, before these street scenes get painted over.

La Perla

What remains of Casa de los Peluches, a building across La Perla

Surfboards Somewhere in Old San Juan

Siempre Maria Bike in Old San Juan

Street artists painted murals and graffiti on the walls and houses. Here below are some of their obras:












At the end of the road is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. In this cemetery, Reba Stewart’s tomb has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for tourists, artists, and pagans because of its unusual design. Some Puerto Ricans call her tomb, La Tumba de la Bruja or the Tomb of the Witch. Reba Stewart was an American-born artist who had spent time studying Taino art and symbols. The fortress at the back is El Morro, one of the oldest Spanish fortresses in the world. For  more info about Reba Stewart and the popular belief surrounding her, please click here and here.

Reba Stewart’s Tomb

Local kids posing with the tomb

If not for this book, Christopher Columbus couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic

One of the books I am currently reading is Martin Dugard’s The Last Voyage of Columbus. In the light of today’s celebration, I want to share these excerpts from the book:

In the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemy, a scholar at Egypt’s Alexandria library, undertook his comprehensive study of the cosmos, Geography. Ptolemy evinced a certain arrogance, fortified by his immense knowledge. He once wrote a tome on mathematics with a lengthy title that he shortened to Almagest–the “Greatest.” He was just as zealous about propagating his world knowledge in Geography. Ptolemy ruminated over the text, exhaustively analyzing and rejecting many widely held theories about the earth in his attempts to make the book definitive. The final result was a work of genius that still influences mankind nineteen centuries later. It includes a world map, more than two dozen regional maps, and a comprehensive listing of the earth’s known cities by latitude and longitude. His world map was the first to be oriented north and showed a planet of three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.


Ptolemy’s map of the world, however, was also horribly flawed. The Atlantic and Indian oceans were too small. The Pacific was nonexistent. Asia was shown to be far broader than in actuality, covering more than half the world. The coast of China ran south and west until it connected with the African coast, totally enclosing the Indian Ocean. Grievous mistakes all, based on speculation and the deductions of “world” travelers. Ptolemy’s map, however, was accepted as fact.


When the Roman empire fell, the Alexandria library was looted, and its museum destroyed. In AD 391, a mob of Christian agitators, believing all things secular and intellectual to be evil, burned the library’s contents. Geography was among the books lost. A copy had been spirited away before the fire, which was a lucky break for later generations, for as Europe settled into the Dark Ages, cartography became a dead science. Ptolemy’s work was dismissed as pagan propaganda and then forgotten altogether. Once again it became popular for Europeans to believe that the world was flat. Most maps drawn during this time were speculative, more interested in showing pilgrims the way to Paradise than serving as an accurate outline of land and sea.


…..Meanwhile, Geography was quietly making its presence felt in the non-European world. Throughout the centuries Muslim Arabs had used it to produce their own detailed map of Africa and the Indian Ocean. In the fourteenth century, just as cartography began a European revival, a Benedictine monk came across a rogue copy of Geography while prowling through a used-book store in Constantinople. He purchased the book and took it back to Europe, where, despite the astonishing amounts of forgotten knowledge on its yellowed pages, it languished for another century. In 1478 it was rediscovered yet again and translated into Latin. Thanks to the birth of the printing press, it was finally disseminated throughout Europe…


…For mariners like Columbus, who had seen the dawn of maritime maps that showed the European coastline in minute detail, Geography’s long lost guide to the planet was a godsend. That its information dovetailed with Marco Polo’s accounts gave Geography the gravitas of biblical truth.


Oliver Sacks on Humans and Myth-making

Oliver Sacks. One of the best science writers, hands down. It is always a pleasure to hear, much more get to see, someone I only meet through dog-eared book pages. I even followed him in his Oaxaca fern expedition despite not knowing anything about plants save for photosynthesis! So, here is the face and the voice behind those insightful books. Click away!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

El Morro: A Sentry’s Graffiti

After months in Puerto Rico, I finally decided to visit one of the island’s main tourist draw, Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This Spanish-era fortress sits right at a promontory facing the Atlantic Ocean. Viejo San Juan, the old city center of the island, is a few meters inland and is connected to the fort via a thin stretch of road that slices through a sea of green grasses.

Back when El Morro was an active military fort from 1539 onwards, it was a bastion of strength for the Spaniards, guarding the important trade routes that connected the outlying colonies to the Spanish Crown. Galleons loaded with silver, gold, spices, and other items of high value from the Pacific and Latin America passed through the Carribbean, making this island prone to attacks from pirates and other colonizing powers. Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and Roberto Cofresi made themselves legendary in these waters. Yet despite the repeated invasions, the fort was so strategically located that it was only overtaken in battle once in its centuries of history (by George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland).

Similar to the construction of the Spanish-era Philippine fortresses, Spanish military engineers filled the walls with sand and gravel and not of compacted blocks of rock. This allowed enemy cannonballs to easily penetrate the wall without destroying the structure completely. An alternative explanation could be that these sand and gravel fillers are good deterrents from collapse during earthquakes since this provides room for movement, as some Philippine local historians contend. Whatever the reasons might be, El Morro’s centuries of warfare is written on its walls.

And I am saying this in the literal sense. While casually walking about, I chanced on a conquistadors‘ graffitti. It was not on the tourist information kit so I believed that I stumbled into something nice and exciting. I was about to scream Eureka but then again, I googled “el morro graffitti” and found two sources about it. According to Rivera-Collazo, there are at least 400 ship drawings in El Morro, most likely from the 1700s to the first half of the 20th century. Personally seeing the graffittis however was very rewarding in itself, touching these etches was like doing Braille on what could have been on these conquistadores‘ mind.

I chanced on the graffittis when I walked in the tronera, a few meters from where the brass canyons were wedged. The tronera is virtually a vertical hole carved into the wall just enough for one sentry to wiggle through. The info posted near the tronera says the following:

Armed with a musket, a sentry stood guard at this post. In the event of an attack, the sentry could scurry down the narrow tunnel to a concealed firing position. Here he could fire his musket and reload under cover.

While sitting in this claustrophobic hole, I looked down and saw the first evidence of the sentry’s presence. Etched at the base where the gun might have been put were two line scratches and a hole. I thought that although these looked like Wolverine’s claw marks, there should be a  plausible explanation for this. I figured that the small hole could have been where the metal balls and gunpowder were placed while the two “claw marks” were used for striking a fire.

The hole and the “claw marks”

When I saw this, I started looking around and saw non-utilitarian graffiti written on the walls. I surveyed the walls and found three of the more than 400 ship drawings in El Morro. There were also religious symbols, badges, and outlines of a face.

Sketch of a Ship 1

Sketch of Ship 1 (same as above)

Sketch of Ship 2

Sketch of Ship 3

These three ship drawings were only visible from the digital camera’s screen. It is barely visible if one is looking at it with the naked eye because of the darkness and the burrito-like situation inside the tunnel. Aside from these ship drawings, there were other interesting sketches too:

Sketch of Face 1

Sketch of Face 2 (with only one tooth)

Catholic religious symbols and outlines of coat of arms were also found in the tronera. Which could be interpreted as visual evidence of a deeply religious sentry or a frightened conquistador. There are stories among Puerto Ricans too (or at least my partner believes it) about ghostly apparitions in the fort. These symbols might have been used as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Or alternatively, the sentry might just have been bored and doodled anything that crossed his mind to while away time in a dreary wait for the next shift.

Sketch of a Marian Rose

Sketch of Cross 1

Sketch of Cross 2

Outline of What Appears to be a Coat of Arms

Drawing of a Heart?

These drawings are windows into the mind of the Spanish Crown’s foot soldiers. I am sure sketches can also be found in Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Fort San Pedro, and other Spanish-era fortifications in the Philippines and other former colonies. All we need is to wean ourselves from written documents and investigate the past in novel ways.

As it is, history books are often written from the point of view of the power elites of the era because historians use their official records and documents. There’s an inherent bias in choosing which sources historians rely on thus making historical interpretations perilous.  The squiggly scribbles of lowly sentries are thus critical in understanding the colonizing process, if only to provide a well-rounded interpretation of what has happened.

The time has come indeed to cast a light on the doodles of the past.