Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Culion: A Morning at the Museum, Reframing the Past and Putting into Words Things Largely Unspoken

Culion - Museum Wall Close Up
Wall of memories
Ah, you can get used to the quiet.  The only sounds we woke up to were the intermittent rumble of tricycles in the distance and the trilling of birds in the trees just outside the window.  Not to say that Coron is that much noisier than before, only that Culion is the quintessential tranquil town, perhaps helped by the fact that electricity is rationed at the moment.  No blaring radios, no out-of-place western pop to mar one's impression of the landscape and seascape -- it's a scene oft-missed by daytrippers, one worth staying a day or two for (longer if we had the time and resources at the time).

Choosing to wake up well after sunrise is a luxury savored well after the generator goes off at 5:30am.  We didn't have time to make arrangements for transportation to get to a good sunrise vantage point the night prior anyway.  But book a guide to the island's interior down south we did, scheduled for the afternoon.   That meant we had the morning free to see a bit more of the town.  Should be the museum, for no guest should leave Culion without seeing it and knowing its significance.
Culion - Museum I
Bright and airy inside with light-colored walls that speak of health and healing
After an unharried breakfast, we revisited the La Immaculada Concepcion as it is located just at the back of the hotel.  The good weather continues to hold; however, grey clouds loom in the horizon.  Must be the rain clouds the locals were waiting for for months now.  We ventured to the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital perchance to visit the Culion Leprosy Museum and Archives located within the compound.  Most museums showcase art but the one in Culion is a testament to a people's indomitable spirit, not at all a gallery of the grotesque.

It wasn't open but Mauricio, the friendly caretaker, unlocked the doors for us as well as switched on the lights and ventilation in the particular areas where we are, switching them off when we leave (speaks volume on how valuable electricity is in the islands).   The walls have a fresh-looking coat of light-colored paint (barely a year old, Mauricio tells us) which gave the museum an airy and light feeling, perhaps conveying the message that yes, leprosy once was widespread on the island but has now been vanquished and relegated into the history books.
Culion - Museum III
Installations and pictures conjure images of life back then
It's simply not possible to go to Culion and not be the least inquisitive about the topics of leprosy and the museum for both bridge the island's history with its present.  Google "Culion" or open a history book and search for the island and you will inevitably be referred to it as a former leper colony, the largest in the world at that.  Later in the afternoon, our conversation with Culion guide, Hermie Villanueva, will stray into the topic of the island's history and how at one point, some in the local government would want to ignore it for fear of turning off tourists.  But can you really pretend 100 years of being a leper colony never happened?  As archivist and one-time museum curator, Ricky Punzalan, said in his insightful article, "All the Things We Cannot Articulate,"Culion is a community bound by its association with disease and segregationPast practices of forced isolation produced a population with an ethnic makeup unique from other communities of the Philippines".

Ricky further points out that "a majority of the present-day inhabitants of the island... can directly trace their lineage to former patients, if are not former patients themselves.  Others link their roots to the pioneer doctors, nurses, staff or administrators of the former leprosarium."  (A longtime friend, I will later found out, was the grandson of the colony's  Chief from 1920-25, Dr. Jose Basa Avellana; his mother was in fact born in Culion).
Culion - Museum Pictures of Healing
Photographs and memories of healing
Established in 1898, the island was the world's largest leper colony by the 1920s. The hospital was created in 1906 with the passing of the leper segregation law by the colonial government and the arrival of the first batch of 370 patients from Cebu.  From being a place of segregation where the afflicted can live out their remaining days, it became a laboratory for finding a cure as well as a "social laboratory" where different people were identified not by ethnicity or culture but by their medical condition.  Moving from room to room, we see photographs and clippings that speak so much on how life on the colony was like back then.   There were images and captions/stories on how sex and marriages were discouraged for fear of bringing up a new leprous generation but went on unabated anyway.  The pictures of weddings and funerals are particularly poignant, records of the triumph of love and the acceptance of mortality in the face of a much-feared disease.

Upon reaching the landing at the top of the stairs, one cannot help but notice the bust of an actual patient, his face disfigured by the malady.  We were quite taken aback when our guide, Hermie, told us later that he knew the man and up to now, can imagine him speaking whenever he sees the bust.   On the second level, there's a room with an assortment of  equipment -- wall-mounted telephones, huge dentist chairs, and a multitude of stuff from a bygone era.  Apart from the visual records, there are written records that reveal so much of what transpired here.  Curious that in the individual records, "patients were referred to as 'inmate', and any subsequent release from the facility was termed a 'pardon'," perhaps owing to the literal criminalization of leprosy at the time under The Segregation Law of 1907 passed by the colonial government. 
Culion - Museum V
"Curiosities" room on the second floor
Nowadays, Culion can be reached by a two-hour banca ride from Coron which is still a stretch for some guests.  Back in the early days of the colony, it must have meant being isolated and banished somewhere far, far away (as Ricky Punzalan notes, "out of sight, out of mind").  Rough Guides even quoted a 1920s travelogue as saying that "Culion as practically an independent nation" as it even had its own currency. 

A cure has been found decades ago and the island is no longer a segregation place but rather, a municipality of second and third generation descendants.  However, I guess the stigma persists as Ricky writes, "In Philippine contemporary memory, Culion still connotes affliction and banishment to an 'island of no return.'  It also gained a more sinister reputation as an 'island of the living dead.' " Not surprising why eager tourists flock to Puerto Princesa, El Nido or Coron but totally skip Culion or just make a brief stopover.

The importance of the museum goes beyond the superficial reason of just having one.  The museum and its archives are part and parcel of the collective memory.  The records are proof that "not all patients in Culion were brought there to die; many lived almost normal lives, got married, had children, and were productive citizens who contributed to the development of the community."  Ricky Punzalan further writes, "the Culion Leper Colony records became the centre of attention for a community seeking for something tangible that could articulate and embody its collective heritage and symbolize its hundred years of existence." 
Culion - Museum II
Installation at the first level -- bed with mosquitero
Perhaps, Dr. Arturo Cunanan, the chair of the centennial celebrations in 2006 who himself was raised in a family afflicted with the disease, said it best, "The archives is the symbol of all the things we cannot articulate about our past, about our need to heal in the present and about our desire to foresee a great future." 
On the way out, I asked Mauricio what his complete name is.  Instead of replying, he pointed to a plaque at the entrance, a commemoration from a Japanese humanitarian foundation that included his name, Mauricio Leal.   From what we will gather later, he is the son of a former patient and has been serving in the hospital and the museum for over a decade.  Apart from the visual and written records, he is a living link to the past, among the few who are selflessly keeping the memory of this former leper colony alive not to relive the hurt of the past but to heal, to find its way into the future.
Culion -Christ the Redeemer and Agila II
The Agila emblem on the hill was created in 1926 by leper patients using coral stones
Info: Entrance to the Culion Leprosy Museum and Archives (CLMA) is P50 (roughly US$12) per person; just inquire at the first building upon entering the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital compound or look for Mauricio Leal 

References and attributions:  Notes and quotes culled from an article by Ricky Punzalan, archivist and curator during the museum's centennial (2005-06).; RoughguidesRecommended reading:  Culion:  A Leper Colony's 100 Year Journey Toward Healing authored by Yasmin Arquiza and published by the Culion Foundation, 2003, ISBN-13: 978-9719264309 • Tourism guide Pastor Hermie Villanueva conducts walking tours of Culion town as well as elsewhere on the island; he can be reached via mobile: 0921-3947106

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