IN THE PHILIPPINES

by Jeff Finder

for Escrima Review, 1989

 

Traffic. It's different in the Philippines. An American wouldn't have a chance here. Drive down the street on the wrong side. It's o.k. And you can do it at night without headlights. That's o.k. too. Wanna run a red light? As long as you can squeeze through, feel free to try.

 

It's no wonder that the martial arts of this country are so good. The whole culture is geared towards keen reflexes and awareness. The flow here is not just a martial art concept, it's a pervasive energy that one experiences continuously in daily life. Filipinos don't rush like Americans. It is not the speed at which things are done, but the intricacy with which they are interwoven that marks the character of the islands. Walking, driving, fighting or just hanging out, Filipinos are always engaged in a dance with life.

 

I recently had the good fortune to visit the Philippines as a member of the 1st U.S.A. Escrima team. This affiliation was both a buffer against some of the more tiresome aspects of travel and and an entryway into the martial arts community. It is always more interesting to visit a place when the motives for going there run deeper than mere tourism, and the 1st World Full Contact Escrima\Kali\Arnis Championships in Cebu, Philippines provided just the kind of event to bring together a unique gathering of people with a deep common interest.

 

Delegations of players, coaches and officials from 11 different countries were in attendance. Some delegations consisted of only a few people from a single club, while the U.S. contingent, with eighteen coast-to-coast members, was the largest on hand and sporting the greatest diversity of participants.

 

This also meant that the U.S. squad had a unique challenge to pull together as a team. With most members arriving only days before the competition, there was time for only one full-squad workout, on Thursday. This was actually the first time that many participants had had a chance to meet each other. As the team passed through three hours of sparring and drills, people shared tips and insights on training, tactics and equipment. Gradually, as the gym grew hotter, one felt a growing sense of comraderie and anticipation. We began to feel that together, as a team, we symbolized something special: the first opportunity to represent our country publicly in the homeland of these arts. The international flavor of this tournament was not lost on anyone.

 

The wise guys on the team emerged during a long jeepney ride to Tambouli beach in the afternoon. As jokes and puns flew, people relaxed and took in the scenery. Good-humored ragging brought everyone together. By the end of Thursday evening, the U.S.A. squad had made a good start towards becoming Team U.S.A.

 

* * *

 

There are many fine teachers of the Philippino arts in the U.S.A., but in a country as large as ours they are somewhat spread out and hard to find. Furthermore, there are a few senior instructors, but for the most part teachers in the U.S. are younger, in their 30's, 40's or 50's. Like a kid in a candy store, I was surprised and delighted at the pre-tournament convention to find myself in a room full of elders of the arts.

 

The half-dozen or so grandmasters were outflanked by several times that many masters. The younger ones among this crowd had at least 20 years experience, the older ones 40 or 50. Some names, like Canete or Ellustrissimo, were already familiar to me, while others, such as Novales or Lema, were new. The depth of accumulated experience became obvious during the formal and impromptu discussions and demonstrations that took place.

 

Most of these men were as interested to meet their overseas guests as we were to meet them. The Friday WEKAF organizing convention was a business affair but the socializing felt more like the reunion of a large extended family. Everyone wanted to know the affiliations and styles of everyone else so that relationships could be formed. As barriers of nationality and age evaporated, some of us were practically adopted into various clans due to similarities or origins of our style of stick work.

 

The Friday convention was also the first formal meeting of the international competitors. There had been an informal mingling the night before at Cacoy Canete's 70th birthday party, but now with tables arranged by country, it was possible to begin sizing up the competition. Between the various foreign delegations there was a slight coolness, an unwillingness to drop barriers before the big event. Acquaintances were made, but these were mere formal introductions. The real friendships would begin in the ring.

 

Throughout the week preceding the tournament there had been a build-up of publicity in the Cebu newspapers concerning this event. The campaign peaked Friday afternoon with a motorcade through town. As the line of vehicles crossed and re-crossed the center of town, people crowded the curbs to see what was going on. At one point an old man rushed out of the crowd with a piece of scrap wood and skillfully began shadow-fighting alongside our truck. Comraderie ran high as teams waved, cheered the crowd and heckled each other. By the time the motorcade ended, we all had sore cheeks from grinning so hard.