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Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday by Robin Hemley


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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You may recall the many stories about the Tasaday, from their discovery as a primitive, unspoiled tribe, to the stories that they were not really as represented. Robin Hemley, for whatever reason, decided to investigate and write about this, and the result is Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday. By the end of the book, a reader isn’t sure what or who to believe. One conclusion is clear: people have been exploited, and unraveling the exploitation involves lots of intrigue. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 20 (pp. 239-43):

Postcard from the Stone Age


I can understand the mad passion for travel books and their deceptiveness. "They create an illusion of something that no longer exists, but still should exist, if we were to have any hope of avoiding the overwhelming conclusion that the history of the last twenty thousand years is irrevocable.

—Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques


I didn't know why I was sneaking into the hospital. I just trusted that it was what we had to do, maybe because I wasn't family. Amy Rara said she looked like a doctor anyway,

and if we acted as if we knew what we were doing, no one would bother us. I walked with her past the guard, no questions asked, then through a labyrinth of streets and dilapidated buildings, halls and overcrowded corridors, dimly lit, in need of paint, radiating heat and humidity, until we came to the charity ward. One large room was crammed with beds and patients with arms and legs missing or in bandages, most of them with a designated "watcher" beside them. The hospital allows only one watcher per patient, and everyone needs a watcher, a kind of volunteer nurse in an otherwise stressed and difficult environment. The watcher stays with the patient day and night until the patient recovers or dies. The watcher is usually a family member, but Dul's watcher was a middle-aged woman from the Mandaya tribe named Helen Mabandos. Helen is an Elizalde loyalist who, at the age of twenty-one, was one of the few outsiders present when Manda's chopper landed at the edge of the forest in June 1971.

On the way to the room, Amy complained that Helen had been too possessive of Dul. She wouldn't let Dul out of her sight, and that was a problem because Helen snored loudly, and Dul could hardly sleep. It was also a problem for one of Dul’s companions from the Tasaday area, a wispy man named Joe lgid, who seemed to be courting Dul now that she was a widow, lgid had been a caretaker for some of Dul’s children and also a conduit for much of the money John Nance had been sending to help Dul and other Tasaday. I had met him earlier, at the Shalom Center, a Christian pension a couple of blocks away from the College of Medicine, where he and Amy had been sharing a room. He seemed harmless enough, if a little obsequious, but Helen didn't seem to trust him at all. She didn't approve of Joe and Duls budding relationship. Joe was already married, but that wasn't it. Even though he was a Christian, a pastor, he was also T'boli, so he could take as many wives as he could afford. Helen seemed to think Joe was after Dul's money (Dul was rich in the sense that she had an outside benefactor, John Nance, sending her money, and no one else had such an arrangeirient), and she took every opportunity to warn him that he was treading in dangerous territory, even lecturing him on the penalties for sexual assault in Manila. Amy was amused by Helens interference.

I had brought an offering, some grapes. According to Amy, that was about the only food in Manila that Dul liked. Amy had been "foraging" for Dul in Manila for the last week, trying to find anything that Dul, a picky eater, would find acceptable to her palate. At Robinsons department store in a nearby mall she'd located some rattan fruit, which look like tan golf balls, but the fruit was dry. The closest thing I to rattan fruit, according to Dul, were grapes.

Dul was getting treatment only now, fourteen months after Raulstabbed her. Nance was paying for her physical rehabilitation. She had her own private room, donated by the hospital, though it was pressuring her to move to more crowded quarters. The room was small and bare with a high ceiling and a noisy fan attached to it. Dul sat on the bed wearing a pair of flowery pants and a T-shirt with the aption "Mini-Olympics." Many of the tribal peoples in the area of South Cotabato borrow freely from one another, and in one of her ears she wore the multiple earrings of the Ubu. Her teeth were stained yellow and black from chewing betel nut. The hospital wouldn't allow her to chew betel nut, nor could she smoke more than one or two cigarettes out on a deck, so she'd taken to a substitute for betel nut, Bazooka bubble gum. She chewed bags of it and sometimes stuck the gum on the wall beside her bed.

"Kakay Dul," Amy said, smiling, when we walked in, "Kakay Robin has brought you some grapes."

I handed over my grapes. She took one, put it in her mouth, and shot a hand to her cheek, making a pained face. Dul spit out the grape into her hand. It was too cold for her sensitive teeth.

I had spent two years talking to various experts on the subject of the Tasaday and gathering armloads of documents. I had also visited the Tasaday with Joey Lozano in January 1999. Now, eight months later, if all went well, I would soon visit the same area with the "other side," including one of the original Tasaday. This was something no one had done before, and I thought it might shed some light on the conflicting perspectives. Early on I had become intrigued with the fact that I could have written two books, each with supporting "evidence," one showing that the Tasaday were a hoax and the other showing that they weren't. On a personal level, I had long known that memories are fallible, that two people often see the same event differently, but I'd never before seen the phenomenon on such a dramatic scale.

A small stand in the corner had a hot-water thermos on it and a metal tray with some leftover institutional food, a piece of desiccated chicken foremost among the morsels. Dul had a small alarm clock with big numbers on her bed and a stack of magazines and books, a calendar, an old PANAIWII~ brochure, and a notebook. This was all part of John Nances "literacy program." He wanted her and the other Tasaday to be able to tell time, to read a calendar, to learn to sign their names. For Dul, this was important so that no one could withdraw money in her name. Right now she could only make a thumbprint as a signature. I recognized on the bed the National Geographic from 1972 that had made her and her small band so famous. As we chatted, she flipped through the magazines, unmistakably nostalgic.

Sometimes she'd smile and point and say the name of one of the other Tasaday or Manda Elizalde, whom she called Momo' Dakel. The lights in the room stayed on all night, and Amy said that Helen had awakened that morning at two to find Dul sitting on the bed flipping through a copy of The Gentle Tasaday. Memo's spirit was in the cave, she told Helen.

We talked for a little over two hours as nurses popped in and out of the room, checking in and taking Duls temperature. Amy said the nurses and doctors thought Dul was remarkably healthy. She also said the nurses and doctors had been skeptical at first about Duls presence. The doctor had said to Amy, "I thought the Tasaday were a hoax," but Amy, unflappable, simply treated the doctors skepticism by presenting her with the physical evidence of Dul—not the most indisputable scientific evidence, but it seemed to satisfy the doctors and nurses at UP. Some had taken their pictures with Dul, and she was being treated a little like a star. It seemed to suit her just fine.

Her hand was much better now. Proudly she wiggled a couple of her fingers. Now she could pinch her thumb and forefinger together and that was all she needed. She'd been in Manila long enough. The last time she'd been here had been ten years before, when Manda sued Professors Bailen, Salazar, and others for libel. When she'd arrived in late July, her hand had been atrophied, and she couldn't move any of her fingers. She told me that Momo' Dakel had come to her in a dream the night before her rehabilitation started and asked what was she doing here. "You don't need to be here," he told her. He flexed her fingers and massaged her feet. "You'll be cured, but then you have to go back to the caves because I have something there for you." There was a place in the caves where he was pointing. Inside there were many different colored stones. This was his gift for her. When she returned to the caves, she said, she was confident she'd see it there.

She hadn't seen Momo' Dakel in person since the libel trial, but he still seemed to be the primary figure in her thoughts. Even in death he exerted a great influence on her.                         She needed to return home for another reason. There was something on her mind. According to her, and as strange as it sounded, she had heard that ex-Father Rex was planning to go to Tasafeng in search f platinum. She didn't know what platinum was, but she knew the rocks in some of the caves were special, and she wanted to keep outsiders away.

I asked her if she could take me to Tasafeng. She said, "I know how to go there. There's only one way to Tasafeng."

Pascal Lays, the Belgian chemist who had lived with the Tasaday on and off for the past seven years, was the only outsider I knew of who had gone to Tasafeng. Having become so ill with hepatitis he'd had to be evacuated, he was now back in Belgium, writing a treatise on the Tasaday. Dul adored Lays, but Amy was more than a little annoyed with him. He had sent more than two hundred plants from the Tasaday rain forest to Belgium in diplomatic pouches. He said he didn't trust the National Museum to identify the specimens properly, understandably infuriating the Botanical Department when it got back to them. In the Philippines and other postcolonial nations, the issue of biopiracy is serious, and Amy worried that Lays might turn out to be another exploiter.

But in an article in his hometown newspaper in Liege, Belgium, Lays seemed as ardent a supporter of the Tasaday as Nance was. He had stumbled upon the 1972 issue of National Geographic, and it was "love at first sight!'" Even after he had trekked in to see the Tasaday, through torrential rains and encounters with scorpions, snakes, and leeches, his romantic image had not dissipated: "As early as my first contact with the Tasadays, I found everything I saw in the National

Geographic: the sweetness, the complete absence of aggression, their innocence-filled gaze. The Tasadays immediately welcomed me, asking me to stay with them. I brought them some gifts, especially in the form of medicine."

Lays reported that the Tasaday were now eighty-six in number, but that as many as thirty-five hundred Manobo and Tboli shared their reserve. The Tasaday, though they lived now in small huts, had not abandoned the caves; they still brought children there to be cured when they were sick. What further intrigued me about Lays's report was that he recounted the same story, more or less, that Reid had elicited from Belayern about the origins of the caves. The first man, Bibang, had carried the caves on his back to the place they now stood. They had started off as small stones but had grown into large rocks in the story Lays had been told.

The young Belgian, who had lived with the Tasaday longer than any other outsider, sounded rhapsodic in his admiration for the Tasaday and their fabled gentleness: "What is extraordinary is their joviality, their good humor. There is never any frowning, or shouting, or expressions of anger. When they witness disputes among the Tbolis, they are shocked. In the heart of the Tasadays, there are never any conflicts. . . .It was truly an enriching experience. I believe we have a lot to learn from them,"

There’s more than enough intrigue in Invented Eden to keep a mystery lover in suspense, but unless your interest in anthropology, the Philippines, or mysteries is strong, you’re likely to view this book as nothing more than a curiosity.

Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Eden.htm


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