Memories of Mindanao: Part Three – Lake Sebu

by Conrad Benedicto. Posted May 25, 2024

Is there anything more magical than a lake in the sky? After several hours in the hot countryside, we drove up into the green, wet mountains and there it was. At the crest of a hill behind the crowded lushness of the forest you catch a glimpse: bits of turquoise peeking through the dense foliage until the whole expanse opens up before you- a little ocean cradled by peaks. Wisps of fog retreat from its shores making the wistful notion that the lake has just now emerged from time tug at your imagination.

Lake in the sky

We came to the shores of Lake Sebu via an exhilarating but concerning “habal-habal” ride down to the lake. A habal-habal is a motorcycle with an extended back seat designed to let two passengers ride behind the driver. I partnered with Gabrielle to be the passengers of Ronald who motored into the parking lot of our mountain inn with an entire posse of riders wearing racing gear of chaps and bandanas instead of cowboy hats. No helmets, if you please.

When we arrived at the lakeside, we were greeted by the tell-tale signs of resorts and souvenir shops. Beyond the gauntlet of stalls, a tour boat awaited us down a steep staircase trail. When we got on the vessel, an elder named Auntie Myrna was waiting to accompany us along with a handful of other culture bearers. Auntie Myrna told stories and sang songs about the lake while her companions played the hegaglon(boat lute) and t’nonggong (dear skin drum) as our boat drifted along. She sang of the long haired woman who discovered the waters of Lake Cebu and of the husband who tried to save her. She told stories of the T’boli people sharing the lake and how in her childhood her father would come down to its shores in the morning and head back up the mountain at the end of the day with fish for his family. She spoke of the old days, when disputes could be settled by tribal law. The longing in Auntie Myrna’s voice slowly grew until she could no longer keep her tears.

Auntie Myrna is smiling second from right

Lake Sebu is in the lands of the T’boli people but sadly in the hands of developers. When a T’boli person has a dispute with a developer, they must hire a lawyer that they cannot afford. Now landless, many of the people become poor and like poor people everywhere, they run into the law, which is no longer tribal law but property law that wrongs them. Auntie Myrna’s stories contrasted starkly with the Bangsamoro, who- although faced with conflict still- did not tell theirs from such a disadvantaged position.

Besieged by development, Lake Sebu’s ecosystem has also lost its autonomy. Its waters have become too eutrophic, so thick with frills of algae in some spots that it seems unlikely any oxygen is left for fish. Still, there are egrets prancing along the shores and, in the more remote ends of the lake, the wooden dwellings of common folk, which unlike the resorts have roots in the silt, persist. Still, the surrounding peaks encircle the lake in a lush arboreal embrace.

Homes away from the tourists

That morning Tribu participants prepared offerings for Lake Sebu. Some made beautiful arrangements of orchids and bougainvillea nestled inside woven blades of iris. I placed a tiny handful of rice and a lock of hair inside the not so pretty pouch I had constructed. Once we reached the middle of the lake, we carefully placed the offerings on the waters and watched them drift away between the lotus leaves and onto the realm of Bawulan who created the lake by collecting water using the long strands of her own tresses. Swallows flew above our boat as if to guide them.


In the afternoon we got back on our habal-habals and vroomed along a mountain road until it became a dirt lane and then a muddy trail. Instead of horses, a herd of motorcycles conveyed us into the heart of the forest where sits the “Gono Lmingon,” or Chanter’s House, the home of a renowned T’boli chanter whose English name is Rosie.

The dreaded habal-habal ride

In a small but beautiful space with thatched windows that opened up to the misty mountainside, Rosie received us with cups of delicious coffee, steamed sweet bananas, and rice cakes. Hanging on the walls of the room and laying on her bed were many beautiful woven t’nalak fabrics of the famous T’boli dreamweavers, colorful bead necklaces, tinkling brass bracelets and anklets, and musical instruments. The pleasantries were delightful and soon many of the items on display were inside the backpacks and purses of the turistas.  At last, it was time for Rosie to sing. If I had been a swallow flying overhead, I surely would have stopped to perch myself on a tree branch just to hear the mournful voice resonating from this tiny home amidst the trees. Indeed, it felt as if the whole forest was leaning silently toward the Chanter’s House as Rosie sang.

The next generation of culture bearers

Like Auntie Myrna, Rosie is burdened with the troubles native people encounter when they are encroached upon by foreigners who have the law and armed government on their side. We could have been sitting inside a roundhouse in California during the Gold Rush or a Sundance ceremony on the Great Plains of America after the Civil War. Rosie’s songs and troubles were the same. But so was the persistence of culture and memory. Six children came to the house after their dismissal from school and shared the songs and dances Rosie taught them. Their voices were hopeful and happy. There was also a young man who played the mouth harp, flute, and kulintang like a budding master artist. Inside the Gono Lmingon’s cozy little room, traditions lived on, and the land grabbers were far away. Here, some lasting beauty of T’boli culture was sustained as if by an enchantment woven from Rosie’s songs.


We left the Chanter’s House with full bellies, riding through the forest behind our motored cowboys, bouncing up and down on the rocks and ruts of the muddy trail. A strong drizzle turned up my anxiety as we re-emerged onto the now slick concrete. However, Ronald conveyed us with expert skill and we were soon at our next destination-a community school led by another woman whose English name is Maria.

Maria’s school is also inside a gonong, which is an upraised dwelling. The smooth ground underneath this structure functioned as the kitchen and dining area while the top floor served as the classroom/recital hall. We were received in the dining area first where another sumptuous feast awaited even though we had eaten at Rosie’s not two hours ago. I was greatly surprised by what I saw as I was taking my seat. On the wall, here in the mountains of Mindanao, was a banner featuring the Medicine Wheel. An elder by the name of Eagle Sun, may he rest in peace, taught me the Medicine Wheel so that I may teach it to my students in the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC). It was inspiring to see that thousands of miles from Turtle Island, Maria was using the Medicine Wheel too.

At Auntie Maria’s Community School

The similarities between indigenous peoples in the U.S. and the Philippines had been hitting me all day. The T’boli of Lake Sebu are going through a similar dispossession to the one the Washoe of Lake Tahoe experienced one hundred and seventy years ago. The issue of over-eutrophication is also a parallel. The T’boli dances here are so similar to the prayers I have witnessed in the roundhouse at Chaw’se back in the Sierra foothills of California. They even have a monkey dance which serves the same comical teaching purpose as a special coyote dance that I once saw, when WALC was first invited to the Big Time celebration at Chaw’se. That poster was proof that indigenous people around the world communicate, commiserate, and share wisdom and inspiration with each other.

The unity of nature, art, and tradition is the cornerstone of Maria’s program and the success of it was very evident in the teenagers who performed the songs and dances. It was heartening to see T’boli teenagers, not just little children, taking up the sacred work of culture bearing. Again, what we witnessed were budding master artists able to mimic horse trotting rhythms on the drum and add complex interlocking counterpoints on the small agong and thick bamboo. Of course there was also the kulintang, which in the mountains, has an entirely different melodic persona.

The Native American Medicine Wheel in the highlands of Mindanao


The roar of two-stroke engines announced the coming of the Habal Habal posse. Around the bend of the mountain road, the single yellow headlights peered through the pouring rain. The prospect of riding on a motorcycle with two other people in the dark, during a downpour back to our resort was, well, terrifying. All I could think of was how to possibly dismount and somehow skid on my backpack without hitting my head on the concrete road if Ronald ever lost his grip as we rounded yet another slick corner or revved up an upcoming incline at twice the speed. Gabrielle and I were very talkative on the previous legs of this habal habal journey but our mouths were shut this time. The only communication between us were my fingers digging into his shoulders. We had also ziplined across a several thousand feet deep ravine the previous day. That was nothing compared to the terror of this last motorcycle ride. Finally, Ronald put his boot down on the muddy parking lot of our resort to steady us and I breathed a sigh of relief. I gave that man a big tip.

Is there anything more magical than a lake in the sky? Near the Daguma and Talahik mountains there is such a lake. Its waters were collected within the sinuous dark of a mythical woman’s hair. Its lore is preserved by a powerful circle of women’s voices. In the woods and valleys that surround it riders guide their iron horses through the night rain. One day when you come upon it at the turn of a mountain road and it appears before you as it once did emerging from the mists of time, may its people be free.

The land remembers


Author’s Bio: Conrad J. Benedicto is a teacher, author, and kulintang musician who studied with kulintang master artist Danongan Kalanduyan from 1997 until his passing in 2016. Conrad was Danongan Kalanduyan’s apprentice through the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ apprenticeship program in 2007 and again in 2013. In 2018, Conrad received an individual artist grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to compose original kulintang music for his project, “Kulintang Dialect.” His album by the same name was released worldwide by Gongs Away Music in 2020. Kularts, the premier presenter of tribal and contemporary Pilipino Arts, published Conrad’s debut novel “Musalaya’s Gift” in 2021.

Featured Image:

Mirroring the clouds