Welcoming Guiuan

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    ‘Too bad COVID keeps us from going to Guiuan to witness the many activities the town had prepared to mark its role in the Quincentennial Commemoration of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines – and the first European circumnavigation of the globe.’

    NOT very many people (unless you’re from Guiuan) know that this southernmost town of Eastern Samar played an important part in our history in March 1521 – six hundred years ago – when Ferdinand Magellan and his ships arrived on our shores from Guam.

    Guiuan, due to its location, achieved a level of “fame” in 2017 by being the first LGU hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda. While it did not suffer as much damage from storm surges as was inflicted on Tacloban City, Guiuan still looked to me like a mini Hiroshima when I flew into the town on November 12 with a planeload of PGH doctors and some medicines. Almost every single structure was leveled to the ground, and trees were either uprooted, or bent in half with their top parts as if pointing towards Tacloban.

    Happily, Guiuan quickly recovered from that unprecedented disaster, and under the leadership of current Mayor Annaliza Gonzales was booming with diminishing scars from Yolanda right before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Like the rest of the country Guiuan is today doing its best to balance between the needs of the economy for interaction by the public, and the need to remain conscious of health and safety protocols to keep the virus at bay.

    In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guiuan this week is marking its historic role in the early stages of the colonization of the Philippines six hundred years ago.

    Imagine it’s March 1521, and you’re onboard one of the three remaining ships of Ferdinand Magellan. There were five ships when you left Spain in September 1519; but by the time you get to Guam one had been lost and one other ship had turned back. You got to Guam on March 6, but the Chamorros were not very friendly: and so shortly you set sail again, westward.

    It’s been almost ten days since you’ve set foot on land. Soon you notice birds circling overhead – always a sign that a body of land is near. And then the watch excitedly points to something in the distance – an island! Yahoo!

    The first island which Magellan and his men set eyes upon was Calicoan island, today a major surfing destination. But Magellan did not land there, perhaps because the waves were too strong, and so they continued sailing and sighted a second island, Suluan. Again Magellan did not land there because the Spaniards noted how the islanders fled upon seeing their ships. So they sailed on until they reached Humunu (today’s Homonhon) where they finally dropped anchor on March 17 and went onshore to see if they could replenish their supplies.

    First contact between Spaniards and islanders happened the next day when nine residents of Suluan got into their bancas and rowed towards the huge ships, bearing coconut, fish and tuba. We wonder what the Spaniards gave the natives in return, but on March 22 the natives were back. On March 25, a week after setting foot on land, Magellan and his men set sail again – only to meet a grim fate in Mactan island a little over a month later.

    What strikes me about this story is the “welcoming” nature of the natives of Suluan, a characteristic that carries on in the Guiuananons of today. The first natives to engage with Magellan clearly were not of the martial kind, or quick to take offense at new arrivals.

    Instead, bearing gifts, I imagine the Guiuananons of 600 years ago filled with curiosity and the desire to know more about the fair skinned strangers who arrived in big ships.

    It’s the same mix of hospitality and curiosity, I guess, that must have embraced about 6,000 white Russians who had to escape the civil war and communist victories first in Russia and then in China in the 1940s, finding refuge in the warm welcome of Guiuan.

    Too bad COVID keeps us from going to Guiuan to witness the many activities the town had prepared to mark its role in the Quincentennial Commemoration of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines – and the first European circumnavigation of the globe.

    But beneath these two occasions worth celebrating, let’s not forget the welcoming character of the Guiuananons and rejoice that it is a trait that lives to this day!