Tabi-Tabi Po (May I Pass?)
Friday 2 – Saturday 17 December
Opening Event: Friday 2 December 6-8pm
Tabi-Tabi Po draws upon personal experiences of Filipino superstitions and voodoo, which then serve as a metaphor for the subsequent sensations of displacement, rejection and acceptance.
The story I’m about to recall is true. I am a witness within whom all details reside, locked in my memory. I stand by this testimony, even if my natural disposition is to distance myself from the inexplicable, the mysterious manner of things, and your skepticism means you’re disinclined to believe in the paranormal. I’m very superstitious now… I always light candles when I tell this story of being close to sixteen, on holiday in the Philippines with my family. I usually find these trips intolerable: the humidity is oppressive; the familial obligations can be boring; it’s simply too easy to lose both enthusiasm and drive.
I walked into the kitchen at Lola’s house, scratching the bump over my right eye, to find Nanay and my cousin Ate Kay deep in conversation. While not a particularly melodious language, Tagalog makes even the most mundane conversations sound compelling, and there was a certain tone to this one that further drew me in.
Ate Kay had been complaining about a sharp pain in her stomach that seemed to occur around the same time each day. Suspicious of the ailment, Nanay probed further, questioning its exact nature and occurrence.
“Ano yon, araw-araw?”
Ate Kay reiterated that every afternoon she was overcome by a stomach ache so painful it made her job of tending the local market stall difficult. Nanay offered a list of possible causes; something she ate for lunch, her menstrual cycle, perhaps a gastrointestinal condition. Each prospect was rejected by Ate Kay, who finally revealed she had been suffering from this daily stomach pain for months, starting at midday exactly with no obvious cause and no means to relieve it until, precisely one hour later, it would end by its own volition. Baffling.
“What?” I emphatically joined the conversation and momentarily forgot about my own unpleasant eye-itch.
“No way, that’s too weird! How can you have a scheduled stomach ache?”
I looked towards Nanay expecting a similar reaction. Instead, with complete composure she stressed the words “Pahilot ka sa albularyo.”
Nanay was suggesting that Ate Kay she should be ‘healed’ by the barrio witch doctor. “You come with us,” Nanay gestured towards me. Intrigued, I was happy enough to come along: it wasn’t as if I was otherwise predisposed or preoccupied… well, except for the persistent need to scratch above my eye.
Nanay recruited Tatay to drive us to the albularyo, my father’s skepticism and brief protest being met with Nanay’s firm “tsk!” accompanied by a swift shake of the head. That said, for my father the outing was also an escape from the familiar routine of spending time around the house.
Ushering us together, Tatay walked behind us under the shade of the big mango tree’s canopy and down the driveway. “Do you know what an albularyo is?” he said to me grinning, making sure we were out of Nanay’s earshot.
“A witch doctor?”
“Yeah? You believe in that?”
Tatay loaded us into the jeep, drove out of Lola’s front gate and was swept into the heavy torrent of traffic. The complete disarray of the roads and the constant beeping were strangely liberating and intoxicating, and the side streets filled with people, culture and noise entertained the senses. I was lost within it until we abruptly pulled over, next to a house with an ornamental metal gate.
“Tao po?” Nanay called for the resident as we approached and then waited on the steps of the marbled front porch, adorned with hanging pots and their plants with long draping leaves. The front door was propped wide open to reveal a curtain shrouding the entrance, behind which muffled voices arose and then a shuffling of feet before finally, a response. “Pasok.” The voice had told us to enter though the tone was unclear: was it demanding or inviting? Soon, the side of the curtain drew up slowly and from beneath it emerged an old man with dark skin and white hair. His eyes were both kind and firm, and his expression somber yet calm. He was dressed in pambahay yet carried an air of dignity. He had a slender frame with a slight hunch but did not appear to be frail. Nanay stood and introduced us all to the albularyo and, thereafter, polite pleasantries were exchanged. Once stories of family members and curiosity of Australia were exhausted, the albularyo got straight to the point: what brought us to him, he asked. Scratching my eye, I wondered how this would unfold.
Nanay gestured towards Ate Kay. With hesitation, Ate Kay began describing her condition, the pain, the timing and the duration. He listened intently till she concluded her account. Giving a slight nod and refraining from speech, he stood up and disappeared behind the curtain. We heard the tinkering sounds of drawers opening and closing, the rustling of plastic and the clinking of glass against glass. The curtain lifted to announce his return, fingers uncurled to reveal two items previously buried in his fist. These he examined carefully. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I leaned forward on the edge of the bench to peer into his palm: nestled there was a small white stone and beside it something that resembled a root fragment enclosed in twisted plastic. He selected the stone and balanced it on top of Ate Kay’s head. He looked into her eyes and asked her what it felt like.
Ate Kay said nothing and closed her eyes. After a short while, she said the stone was spinning. I was startled by her response and found my eyes darting to the top of her head. The small white stone sat there motionless, settled against the black of her hair.
Ate Kay spoke again.
It was getting warm, she said. The stone was getting warm. And now hot! It was burning into her skull! Now, she was shrieking.
I sat watching in silent astonishment. What is happening? I looked at my parents to see if they shared my reaction. Nanay’s eyes were fixed on Ate Kay’s face, full of concern but with a glint that her suspicions had been confirmed. Tatay caught my eye and smirked, seeming to enjoy my bewilderment.
The albularyo swiped the stone from Ate Kay’s head. The relief from her pain was immediate. She fell silent. The albularyo then took a brown bottle from the porch ledge, twisted off the lid and poured out a small quantity of the liquid within. Rubbing his palms together, the sweet fragrance of coconut filled the air and entered my nostrils.
He asked Ate Kay her name. I was confused. Had he forgotten already? It was not long after our introductions and he even told Ate Kay that he knew her father. Ate Kay did not respond. He asked her again. Once more, she refused to respond. With the root-like item in his hand, he pressed it against Ate Kay’s foot gently, but she grimaced in pain. The albularyo continued. He asked her further simple questions; who her family was, what their jobs were, where she lived. Again, Ate Kay did not respond. These were neither difficult nor confidential questions: why won’t she respond? The albularyo continued, asking the same questions, calmly, patiently. Between each question, he would press the root onto her toe. Progressively she would grimace but she would not speak.
“Anong pangalan mo?”
Ate Kay would still not give her name. The albularyo would press the root onto her toe. Ate Kay would groan in pain.
“Saan ka nakatira?”
She would not say where she lived. She was in tears shaking her head.
The albularyo asked again, “why did she do it? “
Ate Kay was shrieking! The albularyo had lodged the root in between her toes. She was writhing in pain. Her eyes remained closed but she continued to weep.
The torture was unbearable and she finally relented.
In between howls, she gasped, “Sa selos!”
Out of jealousy? What was she jealous of?
She said she was jealous of the market stall. Whose market stall?
She was jealous of her own market stall? No. It suddenly became clear to me that the voice speaking from Ate Kay’s mouth was not her own, and that the albularyo was performing some kind of exorcism. I was horrified.
The albularyo continued his interrogation. He didn’t have to use the root as often now. She had surrendered. It all came tumbling out. She was jealous of the success of the market stall so she cast a kulam (a curse) onto Ate Kay, using voodoo she had learnt from her sister. Nanay’s ears were pricked and she sat up alert, leaning in closer to the albularyo: she had a suspicion as to who she was. This prompted more questions.
“How many children do you have?”
“Tatlo. Dalawang babae, isang lalake.”
“Where do you work?”
She doesn’t. Her husband works abroad.
With these responses I began putting it together myself. My cousins Gechi, Lizan and Davi were in the same order – two girls and a boy. Except their father didn’t quite work overseas.
The albularyo asked her what country he worked in.
He’s the cook on a ship.
It was Tita Pina.
A relative! I was shocked.
The albularyo asked her, “Are you Pina?”
She burst into tears, and nodded in total surrender.
In a firm voice, the albularyo told her to leave. Slowly, Ate Kay’s sobs became softer, quieter until she was no longer crying. The albularyo took the root from in between her toes. Muttering under his breath he rubbed coconut oil across the top of Ate Kay’s forehead. For the first time, she opened her eyes and slowly sat up.
Confused, rubbing the tears from her cheeks, she looked at her palms and asked “Umiyak ba ako?” She had no idea she had been crying.
In the wake of the ordeal, I sat silently, rubbing my eye, dumbfounded. Suddenly, I was thrust towards the albularyo. Nanay had requested that I be assessed also.
“What? No thanks!”
Nanay shushed me as some form of reassurance and I found myself sitting in Ate Kay’s place. I sat nervously, anxious of what I was about to experience. The small white stone that sat atop Ate Kay’s head was now sitting on top of mine. The albularyo looked directly into my eyes with an intense gaze.
He asked how the rock felt on my head.
The albularyo held his gaze.
“Wait,” I said. “It’s getting heavier.”
I felt myself struggling to hold my posture as the weight increased.
The weight was relieved in one quick swipe as the albularyo removed the stone.
“Okey. Let’s try dis.”
He picked up the small bottle of oil he had also used for Ate Kay and poured a small amount of its contents into my hands. He asked me to rub my hands together and then motioned for me to bring my cupped hands towards my nose.
“Amuyin mo ito. Ma bango o mabaho?”
I was unsure as to why he was asking me whether the coconut oil smelled nice or unpleasant since he had used it just moments ago. Nevertheless, I brought my hands up to my nose expecting a pleasing scent. Instead, I was repulsed by the strong odour! I was confused. This was the same oil from the same bottle that he used on Ate Kay. I began to rub my eye with the back of my hand. The albularyo moved my hand away, preventing me from scratching. He stared intently into my eyes once more.
He looked towards my parents and said, “Tingnan ninyo ang mata niya. Kulay brown, hindi itim.”
I wasn’t sure what relevance the colour of my eyes had. I didn’t even realize that my eyes were a lighter brown than most Filos.
The albularyo quickly jumped up and disappeared through the doorway and behind the curtain. He returned with a small red pouch and a pencil. He turned towards my parents asking my full name. Then, he wrote my initials on the red pouch. With the safety pin attached to it, he pinned it to my shirt. He poured another small amount of oil into my hands. He motioned for me to repeat the process and rub the oil over my hands and smell them once more. This time, the oil’s sweet fragrance had returned. The albularyo awaited my confirmation.
“Smells nice now?”
Confused, I replied “Yeah….”
The albularyo turned towards my parents, asking them if there was a mango tree at Lola’s house. There was indeed, right at the front of the driveway. Suddenly it all made sense for Nanay.
“Aaaay, may duwende don.”
“What’s ‘duwende’?” I asked.
Collectively, Ate Kay, Nanay and Tatay, along with the albularyo explained the folklore about dwarves that live beneath mango trees, mischievous and territorial creatures who cast hexes on those who displease them. They are curious and are drawn to those with brown eyes, common lore my parents acknowledged though sounding ridiculous to me.
The albularyo concluded, “You hab to ask permisyon to pass by. You sey ‘tabi-tabi po’ ebry time you go to your Lola’s house.”
“Okay,” I agreed though uncertain if I was actually going to do it.
“And always wear dis kalmen to protek you,” he said pointing to the red pouch pinned to my shirt.
As we zig-zagged along the road dodging stray dogs, street vendors and tricycles, Tatay called out to me, “So, the duwende got to you hey?” I was unsure whether or not he was being sarcastic.
We turned towards Lola’s house and I could see the flourishing mango tree peeking over the wall. As we drove through the gate and down the driveway, Nanay reminded me, “Make sure you say ‘tabi tabi po’!”
I drew my hand up to my right eye to scratch the persistent lump that had afflicted me since my arrival.
It was gone.
I examined the kalmen pinned to my shirt.
“Tabi tabi po.”
Concise Guide to Filipino Mythical Creatures
Duwende Mischievous dwarves or goblins who cast hexes, take your belongings, and laugh while you search for them. They generally live underground, often beneath mango trees or termite mounds. Passersby must ask permission by saying “Tabi-tabi po” so as not to disturb or displease them.
Aswang A shapeshifter that can alternate between human and animal form, often taking the appearance of a large black dog. It usually appears at night to harass humans and prey on unborn foetuses.
Manananggal Typically female, she appears human but at night separates into two halves, the upper body growing bat-like wings and preying on the blood of unborn foetuses with a long sharp tongue. In order to destroy her, the lower half of her body must be found and salt, garlic or ash should be thrown on the exposed flesh preventing her from becoming whole in human form. The upper half will be destroyed at dawn by sunlight.
Tiyanak Babies who have died before receiving baptismal rites are transformed into evil spirits. Their cries are heard through the forest to lure their victims.
Kapre A cigar-smoking giant who lives in or atop the tallest trees. The smoke from the cigar can give away its presence. Not generally feared, it often plays pranks on humans by making them lose their way. Kapre are known for befriending humans, and allowing that individual the ability to see the kapre in its entirety.
Kalmen (2016), studio paper scraps, second-hand toys, storybook pages, fabric, thread, safety pins, dimensions variable
© 2016 Marikit Santiago
Tabi-Tabi Po recounts a personally poignant cultural experience that unlocked, perhaps for the first time, a sense of marvel in my cultural heritage. The story also serves as a metaphor for the shifting position of my perceived ethnic identity. In some way, each character embodies my own traits, beliefs and experiences, and represents the framework to my practice which examines the subsequent sensations of displacement, rejection and acceptance.
Ate Term of respect for older, female relatives or close friends. Kuya is the male term.
Albularyo Witch doctor
Pambahay Comfortable clothes worn around the house
Tabi-tabi po May I pass?