From 1992 to 1994, Jessica Bryan visited the Philippines four times as the guest of Rev. Filomena "Mely" Naces, a faith healer who is now deceased. She was profoundly changed by her experiences with Mely at the Faith in God Spiritual Church in Vacante, Binalonon, and she is writing a book about her interesting adventures. The "working" title of the book is "SOUTH OF THE TROPIC OF CANCER: Psychic Surgery in the Philippines: A Memoir" Jessica hopes for publication in the U.S. and the Philippines in early 2006. This is Ms. Bryant's second excerpt from her work in progress. (See: The Wake)


Ms. Jessica Bryan's The Wake and The Filipino Elvis Presley are chapters off a book that has finally gone into publication: Psychic Surgery and Faith Healing in the Lowlands of Pangasinan — a fascinating account of her recurrent excursions to the Philippines, wading into an unfamiliar culture as she explored its alternative healing practices, and in the end, becoming the "reluctant healer."


Ti arac managrabrabac.
Wine creates a jovial atmosphere.

THE FILIPINO ELVIS PRESLEY 

 Since early morning, the man known locally as the "Filipino Elvis Presley" has been stirring the contents of a large pot over an open fire, just across the irrigation ditch. He was given this nickname because of the emotion that pours from his slight, angular frame when he sings. It is as if every cell of his body is lamenting "Heartbreak Hotel." Although he is blind in one eye and has a large gap in the front of his mouth where he is
missing a tooth, he is quite attractive. This morning, however, he is not singing, but rather intently stirring.

When visitors arrive, I am distracted from thinking about "Elvis." Descending from several jeepneys parked in front of the church, they are dressed in their Sunday clothes, the children scrubbed until their faces shine. The adults are carrying packages bound with twine, including bedding.

"Today we welcome our Brothers and Sisters from Maria Aurora," announces Mely. "They have traveled many hours to be here for the weekend celebration of the church anniversary."

Everyone drifts to the back patio, where the packages are piled on a table. The visiting women, who are wearing nylon stockings even in the heat, sit and begin to fan themselves. They resemble a bouquet of drooping flowers as they rest from their journey. Mely welcomes each person individually and, as usual, I do not understand most of the conversation. They are from an isolated, mountain province far to the east and do not speak English. So, I can only observe as Mely and Billie bring out tall glasses of sweet, tepid tea and cookies. After awhile, the women retire to the house to begin cooking and the children disappear in the direction of the basketball court.

My gaze begins to wander once again across the irrigation ditch. Most of the men have gathered in front of Buyat's nipa hut. They are sitting in a large circle, laughing and singing, and appear to be drinking from a shared bottle.

Drawn to their laughter, and to "Elvis" and his pot, I balance myself carefully on the log crossing the ditch the same log the children and Auntie Buyat cross all day long. Inching my way slowly, I arrive at the circle of men. At first, they seem disconcerted by my presence, and it occurs to me perhaps a Filipino woman would never so bold as to join in the camaraderie of men.

But then Joseph smiles. "Jessica, sit here with us," he says, motioning to a chair beside him. "I will give you a taste of basi, sugarcane wine."After pouring some of the clear liquid into a small glass, he hands it to me. All eyes are on me, the joking silenced, as I join them in the ancient ritual of sharing wine. I take a sip and begin choking violently. Gasping or breath, I nearly fall on the ground because basi is as strong as straight vodka or tequila. Continuing what feels like an initiation, I
quickly drink the rest of wine without further difficulty.

A cheer and wild applause ensue from my male companions. For them, this is a great joke, and it seems that once again I have provided the entertainment. I imagine it must be better than watching television.As they return to their drinking and gossiping, my attention is drawn back to "Elvis," who is a short distance away, still stirring. Unnoticed by the others, I quietly approach him.

"What are you cooking in your pot?"

"Ah, Jes-se-ka, this is very special. This is soup of the head of the dog."

He says this with great reverence, as I gasp and recoil backwards from him and the pot, my American love of pets standing in stark contradiction to the Filipino habit of eating just about anything - for example, consider balut: fertilized eggs containing the partially-formed bodies of ducks, which are boiled and eaten. Incidentally, balut are also believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Unable to come to terms with either the idea of eating the family dog or the mystery of male Filipino virility, I decide it would be better to return to the more reasonable activity of cooking with the other women.

Later in the afternoon, when a feast has been spread out on long, outdoor tables, everyone comes together again for food and conversation. Soon night
comes, and "Elvis" and the other musicians begin to make music. Everyone starts dancing women with women, old with young. There are no social reservations here in this large, extended family of "Brothers and Sisters," where all are loved and respected equally.Satiated with dinner consisting of lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and pancit (fried noodles) I leave and wander towards the basketball court, where some of the men have begun to play ball. Many of them are still drinking
wine and they are all smoking cigarettes "to keep the mosquitos away." Picking up a guitar, I begin to sing "Lovers' Moon," a song I learned from Joseph. Glancing over my shoulder, I see Luna standing behind me. She has the face of an angel, and my breath catches in my throat because I have never seen anything so beautiful. She moves towards me and wraps herself around my back for warmth, because it has become chilly. We sit together in perfect contentment and watch the players. They are moving shadows illuminated by moonlight filtered through a fine, ethereal mist. The tap, tap, tap of the ball as it hits the cement, the squeaking of shoes, and Luna's soft breath in my ear are the only sounds to be heard, and it occurs to me: nothing needs to be any different than it already is.


Jessica Bryan's Blog Address: www.psychicsurgery.wordpress.com



SALMAGUNDI