Making Lemonade out of Life‘s Lemons

Chapter 1: Discovering the source of our strength.


Lolo Femio, the father of my Mom, was born in 1916 in the deepest corner of a tropical jungle on the island of Leyte (Philippines). He was born to a big family, typical in those days. What is not typical is the fact that all members of his family could play European musical instruments like the flute, the clarinet, guitar or the violin. With his seven other siblings, they would play music at home or play in one of those Ensayos, a kind of operetta that was a big entertainment event in those days. The southern part of Leyte is kind of special because it was this part of the country where the Europeans first set foot on. Yes, Ferdinand Magellan, that Portuguese guy who was the captain-general of one of those Spanish expeditions tasked to find the spice islands. If you are European, you probably learned from school that this guy was some kind of a rockstar: a brilliant sea captain, a famous explorer, and one of the very best ocean navigators in history. From Spain, he and his crew crossed the Atlantic Ocean, stopped by Brazil to get fresh supplies and sailed-on through a passage in South America that allowed them to reach this other big ocean which he apparently named Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean). And why? As they were sailing through this great ocean from December 1520 to February 1521, it was apparently peaceful i.e. it was not typhoon season.

So this guy Magellan was really smart and highly respected but when he was in the Philippines at this time in history, he made several bad assumptions that turned-out to be deadly for him and a good number of his crew. That was largely because when he first landed in southern Leyte and neighbouring Samar, he was greeted by very nice and friendly Datu’s (Tribal Chiefs). This caused him to lower his guard and gave him confidence to venture further out to the other islands in the region. The Island of Zubu or Cebu was interesting for him because it was a big trading port in those days and he needed fresh supplies. Again the locals were very friendly. They were so friendly that Raja Humabon and a few other Chiefs in the area even converted to Christianity and swore allegiance to the King of Spain. However, Lapu-Lapu, a proud and most likely a tattooed Datu from an island called Mactan close to Cebu did not like this at all. He told Zula, the other chief in the island of Mactan that he will not have any of this. It’s pretty understandable because one, he didn’t know the King of Spain and two, he didn’t know this guy Magellan. He was an independent thinker, a man capable of resisting peer pressure and not afraid at all to voice a different opinion i.e. a really awesome guy! The other chief Zula, however did not have much backbone and told Magellan that if he can’t follow all the things that Magellan asked him to do, it was because of Lapu-Lapu but, if Magellan could send him a few men, he will fight Lapu-Lapu and subdue him. Magellan probably saw this as an opportunity to show off European-style fighting, so he decided to even personally lead this battle with about 60 men. He assumed that Lapu-Lapu and his people would be pushovers and that heavy European armour and weapons were far more superior; all wrong assumptions. I mean, fighting with heavy armour on a tropical beach? And fighting against 1,500 lightly-clad warriors that were running on the beach barefoot, and according to a historical account of the incident were springing from one side to the other to avoid gunfire while throwing arrows, javelins, spears? What was Magellan thinking? So in the middle of battle on that fateful April day of 1521 on that beachhead of the island of Mactan, a bamboo spear flew up in the air, hit Magellan on the arm and the rest of course was history.

For the people of the Philippines, the rockstar of that historic meeting of east and west was of course Lapu-Lapu. The only thing is, we know very little of him. Our only source of information about LapuLapu was from the writings of the historian who was travelling with Magellan as part of his crew. Our ancestors of course would pass-on stories from generations to generations but none of them in written form. We still kind of do this today and I really think we should change this. Otherwise someone else will be writing our stories from a totally different point of view, or worse, nobody will be writing them at all! That would be a pity, wouldn’t it? How would the next generations of Filipinos get the full picture? How will they know how we actually lived, fought and loved? Do we want our stories to be forgotten?

Anyway, after five attempts, the Spanish eventually colonised the entire archipelago and stayed more than 300 years. This explains why many families in the country have ancestors that are Spanish. Lolo Femio’s father for example, was part Spanish: he was a relatively tall and robust man with big ears, thick eyebrows and pink skin. Anyway, Lolo and his family earned their keep through jungle farming which was nothing less than the slash and burn kind. However, when he was a young man in his 20’s, he found work as a helping-hand or a gofer for a Japanese photographer. No one really knows how he communicated to his Japanese boss but since Lolo went to school and learned to speak English, they most likely communicated in English combined with maybe a number of hand gestures. Because of this job, Lolo was able to travel around and visit the other islands nearby. That must have been quite an adventure for him! From the wilderness, he went out to see big and exciting cities! This was in the 1930’s and the Japanese guy was taking pictures all around like some kind of tourist. One day, when they were in Butuan, which is a big town in the province of Agusan del Norte, on the island of Mindanao, the Japanese photographer mysteriously disappeared leaving my Lolo with no employer and no money to travel back home. Because of this very strange disappearance, one might suspect that the Japanese guy was a spy doing some kind of reconnaissance work for the Imperial Japanese Army years before the war. It’s highly plausible but we will never know for sure.

Lola Dominica & Lolo Femio

You might wonder what happened to my Lolo Femio at that point. Well, he kept his cool and looked for a job in this “foreign” town that he was in. He found work again as a helping-hand but this time for a chinky-eyed patriarch with 4 sons and 5 daughters. Lolo stayed with the family for a while, charming them all, especially the daughters with his smarts and musical talent. A few years later, the patriarch became his father-in-law. So instead of saving-up money for a boat ride back to Leyte, he ended up sticking around in Butuan to start a family with my very beautiful Lola Dominica.


My Lolo Serafin or Lolo Apin, who is the father of my Papa, was born in 1906 in the province of Abra, which is a mountainous and landlocked province in the Ilocos Region. Like Lolo Femio, Lolo Apin was also born to a big family and legend has it that he was the most notorious child. When he was around 20 years old, he got into a big fight with one of his brothers that escalated and escalated and eventually ended with Lolo threatening to hit back with a big bolo or machete. That did not go well with the family so my Lolo ran away and travelled for months to the island of Mindanao, first by truck to get to Manila and then by ship landing on the ports of Cagayan De Oro. He wanted to get away as far as possible. Upon arrival in Mindanao, he put himself through school at the Managok National High School in Malaybalay, Bukidnon. That must have been strange for him being in a new place and among people who did not speak his native language (Ilokano). All was not lost however, because like Lolo Femio, Lolo Apin learned English at school. How did this happen? Well, back then, the Philippines was being run by the Americans. This happened after that strange Spanish-American War that started in Havana, Cuba and ended with a Treaty of Paris in 1898. In this Treaty, the United States paid our Spanish colonisers 20 million dollars to give up the Philippine territory and to basically go away. Two years later in 1901, the United States Government with approval by the US Congress, sent hundreds of American teachers to the country. These teachers travelled to the islands on board the United States Army Transport Ship (USAT) Thomas, which explains their nickname, the Thomasites. They were volunteers and their mission was to establish a public school system and train local teachers using English as the main language. They built universities, high schools, elementary schools all over the country. They did this very well so by the time my grandparents went to school, English was already the medium of instruction. It remains the medium of instruction of the country’s schools to this day.

After finishing school, Lolo Apin eventually found a job in the newly opened American-owned Del Monte Pineapple Plantation also located in the province of Bukidnon. He was really one of the pioneers and was part of the team that planted those wonderful trees that are still standing today around the Del Monte Golf Course in Kawayanon, as well as those beautiful pine trees around the grass-covered plaza in Camp 12. Let me take a minute to explain the Camps of the Del Monte Plantation. The American Expats, who started the Del Monte in the Philippines, designed the big plantation such that its workers could travel to work from their homes in the shortest possible time. So they built Camps from the ground up, building basically small villages with cute wooden houses painted in different colors. Each employee would be assigned to a house where he could live with his family for free, inclusive of water and electricity. These camps were scattered around the entire plantation and they were simply named with numbers like: Camp 1, Camp 3, Camp 12 and so on…

Anyway, Del Monte was great for Lolo Apin because it employed quite a number of folks from the Ilocos Region. He could speak Ilocano again! He could freely express his thoughts, his feelings and tell jokes fluently without screwing-up the punchline. Every one of them thought the same way so they naturally gravitated to each other and helped one another out. In Lolo Apin’s case, they also helped him find a spouse. At this point, Lolo Apin did not really contact his folks again in Abra. He heard news that his brother moved to America, etc but was not too bothered to get more details. He had a steady job working in the pineapple fields of Del Monte, had just got married and was now really being his own man! He was experiencing this high, this sense of optimism. Despite starting from zero in places new and unfamiliar, things were really going well for him and his own family was growing fast.

Then, World War II broke-out.

Lolo Apin (seated in the middle)

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