What Desa Bengkala Taught Me about Language, Access, and Interpreting

This is a re-post from the Facebook note of one of my dear friend Vanessa Urbantke who is currently doing a swell job helping deaf people in Bicol, Philippines. I requested her if I can put it here in my blog and she gladly accepted. 🙂


Bengkala Community

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting a small village in northern Bali, Indonesia. The place sparked my interest after a Google search the previous evening, where I read that those living in the village carried genes that gave rise to hereditary deafness and a rather large population of deaf people. I wanted to see this community and learn about their own unique sign language, Kata Kolok (Deaf talk), which was used by the Deaf and hearing alike. I did not know that my experience would be so much more enriching that previously anticipated, and that my experiences with hearing people along the way would help me understand the linguistic complexities facing the Deaf community.

I am not a sign language interpreter, but I have many Deaf friends and sometimes, I am called to help get the message across. Over the years, I have been witness to their struggles and even started to think I had come to truly understand their situation. There are times when I find the ignorance and indifference of hearing people hurtful and offending. Yet there is nothing more effective than learning from experience. I would like to think that if we all had a chance to be different for a day that we would be more accommodating as a society for people with disabilities and for people who are from minority groups.

As a multilingual hearing person with English as my first language, I never experience difficulty in accessing information in my own language the same way the Deaf do. When I ask a question, I usually get a good answer. There is always someone around who can explain things, and always someone I can talk to. When someone does not understand me, it is usually quite easy to find someone who does. My friends are not as fortunate – very few hearing people know any sign language beyond the common gestures, which has adverse effects on employment opportunities, quality of education, and also limits the depth of friendship outside of the Deaf community. Just as I had trouble connecting with the hearing Balinese when they did not speak English, the same goes for a Deaf person in a hearing society. This tragedy means that we miss out on each other. A hearing mother who never has a meaningful conversation with her Deaf daughter should be something we can all lament over. A deaf student who sits for years in a classroom with hearing pupils, never having experienced the richness of Deaf friendships and what it means to truly understand should be something we all disapprove of.

As a hearing person with many Deaf friends, I deeply enjoy the community and sense of belongingness that when with them. It is a special feeling to be in the silent crowd yet also be connected to those around you, however unknowing the others may be. Yet this feeling of isolation, what I deem as special, is an everyday reality for my friends. I never realized how difficult of a reality this really is until recently. Perhaps it is because I have forgotten about my early days in the Philippines, which was a half-baked experience as it was because of the widespread prevalence of English in all aspects of life.

I learned a lot more than a handful of Kata Kolok signs and Indonesian words in Desa Bengkala. My experience has helped me to reflect on my years of working with the Deaf and has enabled me to understand their struggles in a completely new light. To be misunderstood is one of the worst feelings in this world. It is a dehumanizing feeling, one that leaves us hurt and angered yet helpless to express any of those feelings. To be shut out of the lives of others, to remain on the fringe of family affairs and public life simply because of differences in language is an immense tragedy. From the standpoint of English, even in a place where people do not speak it, the language itself still gets respect. But in the case of the deaf in the rural Philippines, sometimes their language is dismissed altogether. Language is what makes a people, and for the Deaf, it is Filipino Sign Language that they hold pride in, it is what gives them their identity and it is the language in which they can best access information and express themselves. Failure to recognize Filipino Sign Language has a negative impact on all aspects of a Deaf person’s life, whether at school, in the workplace, or at home. Of course, a day in Desa Bengkala did not allow me to experience all the complexities of language access, but it did help me feel more empathetic towards the Deaf community.

Reflections on Interpreting

When I arrived at the village, the first thing the motorbike driver did was to help me find someone who speaks English. We went from house to house, and in each house I stood in the doorway or sat on a floor mat completely lost in translation. I would not have been able to tell if they were plotting to poison my drinking water or were truly sincere in helping me. Luckily, it was the latter. After a few tries, we found a guy who knew a few more English words, not just “no”. We did not very far though, and soon I decided it would be best to hang out with the kids since playing was more of a requirement than talking. I really went to the village to visit the Deaf people, who at the time of my arrival were at a funeral. I did not have anything really important to say to any of the hearing people, so failure to find a decent interpreter was more of a nuisance and not a big deal at all.

However, on the bus ride back to the south, I had an encounter with the bus driver. He was coming onto me, asking me constantly in the only broken English that he knew, “you, me, hotel later.” I brushed it off at first, until he started pushing up against me physically and staring at my chest in the cramped seat. I knew that we were headed to a desolate bus terminal at the end of the line, and he knew that I did not know my way around. People on the bus were looking at him in a very disapproving manner, the women almost upset yet not ready to speak out. No one spoke English, and I found myself limited to gesture in trying to explain the situation. When I did this, the man would laugh and talk over me, and people would answer back. I understood nothing beyond the tone of their voices and the looks exchanged, and it was enraging. After a day in the village, I was armed with only a few fitting words that had stuck in my memory: “gila (crazy)” and “Saya tidak mau kamu (I don’t like you)”. Correct or not, I was understood. Yet simply calling this man crazy and telling him that I did not like him was not even close to what I wanted to say. I was not expecting a good English speaker to pop up out of nowhere, but had one been on the bus, it would have given me a lot more power and made me a lot less weary of the whole situation.

This is exactly what many Deaf people experience in their daily lives – the lack of skilled interpreters disables them. Without a decent interpreter, proper exchange of information is not possible. Oftentimes, I am hesitant to interpret. I do not refuse, but I somehow always feel that I will not do justice to the job. But now, looking back at my experience on the public bus in Bali, perhaps I should put more effort into it – not many hearing people know sign language where I live.

And just to let you know, I ended up getting off of the bus before arriving at the terminal, and I never saw Agong Rai after that.

While being unable to speak Indonesian was a disadvantage, I really only spent 3 hours with people I was not able to exchange a decent word with, and that pales in comparison to those who endure this for a lifetime. Yet even though it was for a mere few hours and the experience rather enjoyable and interesting, I looked back on it the day after and thought to myself, “now this is what my friends have been telling me for years – this is how they feel”. Comfort in Community

Ultimately, it was the Deaf residents of Desa Bengkala with whom I connected with the most. Language barriers across different sign languages are a lot easier to overcome than those in spoken languages, so it was not that difficult to have a decent conversation. Even if some was downgraded to gesture, at least it was a colorful mime of sorts that was well understood and enjoyed.

Many Deaf families took the time to bring me to their houses, to let me peak into their daily lives and share a cup of tea. I watched the sun rise while seated on a wooden bench outside the kitchen, a fire burning to cook the day’s rice. I visited the school of their children and sorted fragrant cloves with the women under a tarp in the early morning sun. It was a short and sweet visit, one pleasant enough for me to hold it in my memory as an idealistic community where the Deaf were included and respected.

One of my most memorable moments from the village was when we shared a juicy red watermelon on the living room floor. I was sitting there with six deaf people from three generations. They were telling me about an upcoming Hindu festival in October and how I should stay for it. One girl told me, “We will all go the beach and take pictures together with your camera!” In a moment of silence, we all glanced up at the television. The woman next to me asked me, “do you understand that?” I said that I did not, and they laughed for they did not understand it either.
There is no need for us to remain apart, separated. We all have our own abilities and disabilities. Being deaf is only a disability because most people can hear. When a hearing person is placed amidst a group of signing Deaf people and their eyes fail to understand the words dancing in the air, they become disabled. Disability is a social construct, and if such differences would become widespread, we would eventually adjust and emerge as a more accommodating and accepting society than what we are today. And so it is, in the hills of northern Bali there is a small unassuming village that we all have a lot to learn from.

Interpreting for WFD President? Wow!

I attended the UN World Report on Disability Symposium hosted by the University of Sydney from December 2-8, 2011. Actually I wasn’t there to participate, but rather to interpret for the two very devoted and hardworking deaf ladies I ever knew, Maffy Gaya and Weng Rivera. They are the officials of Filipino Deaf Women’s Health and Crisis Center. We were all sponsored by Australian Aid (AusAid) including interpreting service fee courtesy of Ms. Badette Cariaga.

The two-day event would be very tiring for me as a lone interpreter so I was accompanied by the Dean Nicky Perez of DLS-College of St. Benilde School for Deaf Education and Applied Studies. Ms. Badette told us that somebody commented about why the dean of a college and a director of another college would accept a position of just an “interpreter”. But we just shrugged off the issue. For us, interpreting is an exciting yet rewarding work. Besides, we don’t want to pass an opportunity in going to Australia for free!

WFD President Colin Allen chats with FDWHCC's Maffy Gaya

Actually we were only tasked to interpret for Maffy and Weng. Newly elected World Federation of the Deaf President Colin Allen was invited to attend since it was held in his country. He also brought with him two interpreters from Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association (ASLIA). Nicky and I was referred to AusAid by ASLIA’s Philippine counterpart, the newly formed Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI). But since the two of us are signing alternately, we were sort of like, also interpreting for Colin.

I'm in front of the stage together with ASLIA interpeter.

Dean Nicky (right) with Jasmine of ASLIA

At first, Dean Nicky and I were having butterflies in our stomachs because of two things; one was interpreting in front of an international symposium for the first time, and the other was interpreting for the President of the WFD! Pressures, pressures! What if our signs were not clear? What if we experience a sudden mental block? Interpreting for “The President” is a big challenge while at the same time a truly great honor for us.

After we were properly introduced (Maffy and Weng were already familiar with Colin since they already met in other international conferences), we started to work. Nicky opened the signing, then me. We followed on queue with ASLIA interpreters in switching places after every speaker and not every 20 minutes since each lecturer has a different length of time. Imagine looking at two distinct signs in front of them; Filipino Sign Language/American Sign Language and Australian Sign Language. Once in a while, Colin glanced at us smiling and nodding. We were both relieved. He was truly a remarkable and accommodating person. 🙂

Photo opportunity with WFD President Allen together with ASLIA interpreters
Photo opportunity with WFD President Allen together with ASLIA interpreters

Later, the organizers congratulated us for doing a swell yet tiring job of interpreting for the whole eight hours straight with only a few breaks. After that, we enjoyed the tour of the beautiful city of Sydney including a trip to Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House. The city was truly amazing. And since we are already there, we were able to contact the Deaf Society of New South Wales and paid them a visit together with meeting with ASLIA officials.

Although the experience was awesome, I observed some interpreting issues that I raised with ASLIA Representative Sheena Walters. One of the issue was if the deaf person is not looking at the interpreter, would you continue signing or not? But I will reserve that story on my next blog, including the observations I raised.

Thank you very much to AusAid for the wonderful opportunity, WFD President Colin Allen for bearing with us, ASLIA for your generous support and of course the City of Sydney for the very exciting travel. 🙂

Discovering Deaf Worlds Video Interviews MCCID

Here are the videos uploaded in YouTube by our former Deaf Trainor Ma’am Tina Malay, a Gallaudet alumna. It’s about the visit of Davin Searls to the old building of MCCID College of Technology in Cubao. Davin is the Executive Director of Discovering Deaf Worlds (DDW) and had an interview with Sir Ervin Reyes. Enjoy! 🙂


Ma’am guided Davin Searls to visit the old building of MCCID College of Technology in Cubao. He is Executive Director of Discovering Deaf Worlds (DDW) and had interview with Sir Ervin.


Ma’am Tina guided Davin to meet Mr. & Mrs. Esposa at the Registrar’s Office. Ma’am Beth volunteered to interpret the conversation between Mr. & Mrs. Esposa and Davin.

Country Sign Name


Index finger points to ear, then to mouth
The word DEAF in Filipino Sign Language

Index finger points to ear then close "B" hands
Another Sign Variation of the word DEAF (not commonly used)

Every time I had a chance to visit various countries here in Asia, I always see to it that I meet the local deaf people and their communities. Just last September, I attended the two-week Web Based Networking for Accessible Information and Communications Technology in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with deaf Edmond Guzman, my former student and now the trainor of MCCID’s newest branch in Quezon province. We were able to chance encounter young local deaf group chatting in signs at a McDonald’s restaurant.


Edmond signs with Deaf Community in Thailand

At first, it was difficult to introduce ourselves because of the sign language barrier. But when we got the hang of it, we let loose our signs. We were able to penetrate their conversations and understand their signs. All in but a few minutes of “getting to know” them.

When we finger spelled them that we were from the Philippines, they immediately countered with their own sign name of our country. However, it was entirely different from our accepted sign. We sign our country name as

Middle finger of “P” hand circles above palm face down “S” fist then touches the center of the “S” hand.

The reason behind this sign is that, we initialized the first letter of our name which is “P”. Then we circle it on “S” hand face down mimicking the sign of “ISLAND”. Our country is composed of 7,107 islands. The local deaf community incorporated that information into sign language.

But the Thai deaf signed it like this:

Open “5” hands touch the shoulders then pull out and opposite into flat “Os”


Imelda Marcos wearing a Butterfly Dress
Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos

The logic behind this is that it outlines the shoulder cloth commonly seen Filipino National Costume of “Butterfly Gown”. This attire is always worn by our Former First Lady Imelda Marcos as her signature dress.

American Sign Language signs our country name a little different. Instead of circling the “P” around the S fist, it just taps it twice.

You may see the video of the sign here in MOV format.

To know more about other country signs, visit this very comprehensive and nearly complete listings from ASL Resource dot net. See if your own country sign name is listed there. 🙂

Puerto Princesa Underground River, One of the World’s Wonders

I promised myself, “I have to blog this place!” This splendid river is purely awesome! This is God’s wonderful creation in progress!

Underground River
When Sister Sarah Sta. Ana, the lovely hearing wife of Deaf Pastor Isagani Sta. Ana texted me inviting me to conduct sign language training in their province from August 19 to 22, I immediately said yes. I could not let this pass. She personally asked me to teach sign language to the faculty, staff, social workers and other special education teachers in Puerto Princesa City.

From left: Me, Ptr. Isagani and Ma'am Sarah Sta. Ana
From left: Me, Deaf Pastor Isagani and his wife Ma'am Sarah Sta. Ana

She apologized for the abrupt invitation but she countered that their school in partnership with Christian Blind Mission, will sponsor all of my expenses including plane fare and hotel accommodation. However, she explained that I won’t receive any remuneration from the training. I said, it’s not a problem. But I requested that my deaf brother Ervin Reyes would accompany me while I pay for his plane ticket and tour expenses. That, we both agreed.

Off to Palawan

Zest Air
On board Zest Airways, we arrived Puerto Princesa City airport after nearly an hour. There, we were happily greeted by Ma’am Sarah. At first glance, Puerto Princesa is a clean and orderly city. There are porters roaming outside the parking area taking their share of work in assisting travelers for a fee. But they are very cordial and organized. The airport is new and well-ventilated. You won’t feel threatened. The place is comfortable for tourists.

Puerto Princesa TricycleThere were unusually few taxicabs lining up. What caught our attention are tricycles that looked like mini-cars complete with two headlights protruding on its main nose. Its inside is uncrowded unlike some filthy and unkempt tricycles we have here in Manila.

Palawan Map
Palawan is a long island southwest of Manila. Considered as the last frontier of the Philippines, this majestic island is shaped like a folded umbrella. It is bordered by South China Sea on the east and Sulu Sea to its right. Puerto Princesa is its capital city. It’s now the largest city in the country in terms of its land area. It’s also very clean and orderly. You can see green-painted garbage cans in every few meters and it’s strictly prohibited to just throw your wastes anywhere. The place is also very secured. Ervin and I went outside of our hotel even at 2 o’clock in the morning without fear of being mugged.

Off to the Mangrove River

The following day, we headed to the world famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It’s some 80 kilometers on the other side of Puerto Princesa City even though it’s still part of greater Puerto Princesa. It’s located at St. Paul’s Bay connecting through the South China Sea. There were nine of us in a uniform tourist van including the tour guide. We were informed that the tour package fee is the same in every travel agency. This is in order to protect the tourist and give every tour owner a chance to make a living without going into bad business tactics.

mangrove parkMangrove Paddleboat Tour
After nearly two hours of travel time, we have reached St. Paul’s Bay. Although it’s not part of our itinerary, the tour guide asked us if we want to add the Mangrove Park in our tour package. We simply add P150. All of us agreed. We weren’t let down.

After a few meters of walk by the Daluyon shore, we were led to a beautiful yet tranquil mangrove forest. We rode a small banca and was toured by volunteer workers who protect the sacredness of the forest. We saw wild lizards, snakes and even worms that are endemic to Palawan. At the middle of the mangrove river, the tour guides got us to hear their lullaby anthem. 🙂

Off to the Underground River

Filipino DishAfter a sumptuous meal of Filipino dish in buffet style, we all headed to where we came for, the famous Underground River. We first rode a mid-size motorized boat which brought us near the mouth of the cave.

Motorized BoatAfter nearly 30 minutes, we stepped on the sandy beach of St. Paul Bay. We then traversed a man-made pavement for nearly 10 minutes. Lo and behold, the main cave entrance was in front of us!

Underground River Facade
For safety purposes, we were asked to wear life vests and helmets. I know that life vest is essential, But what is the helmet for? They explained, in order to protect our heads from bat poops! Ah ok. 🙂

Inside the Cave

Protective Vest and HelmetThe seven-man passenger alighted the small banca. Ervin sat in front and was given the chance to hold the battery-operated light and navigate the cave. Then, he got scared. So I volunteered to replace him and sat in front. Woooo! Scary!!!!

The main man, the one paddling our tour, started his work. As he paddles us inside the cave, he tells us of many stories about the cave and what we expect when we go inside.

Bell-shaped Rock FormationAs we go deep into the cave, everything is in pitch black. So I turned on our light. The place is so damp and cool yet dreary and eerie at the same time. The waters were so calm while the ceilings were so noisy with the chirping sounds of bats and what other beings that we can’t see. I know everybody is scared although we were too careful not to show it. A panicking passenger would turn our banca upside down.

As we traverse the whole 1.4 kilometers of dark, damp and dreary place, the main man, was pointing into rock formations, stalactites (limestones that fall from the ceiling) and stalagmites (limestones that are collected at the floor). The highest ceiling was around 10 meters. We saw many familiar figures like a huge lizard, some popular vegetables like carrots, pechay and cabbage. We also find rock contours of a lady with long hair, the Nativity scene, Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. You can see almost anything as far as your imagination can figure it out.

There were other tourists whom we crossed as shown by the beacons of their lights. As we make our way deeper, my mind plays dirty tricks on me. Since I was seated in front, I can’t help but think, what if a sea creature would just appear from beneath us and eat us all alive? Sounds like a scene from a horror Hollywood film. But the main man calmed us about these things. He said that he never saw a live crocodile inside the cave. The only living creatures that live inside are bats and small blind fishes. Animals with clear eyesight can never survive that pitch black cave except of course, Batman. hehehe

Out of the Cave

Cave mouth from the inside looking outThe whole river stretch is around 8 kilometers. The end tip flows directly to the sea. We only traveled nearly 1 and a half kilometers because the rest of the river has a very small opening. Our boats cannot pass through those. But there are some tours that go as far as 4 kms.

Main Man and Me
Main Man and Me
As we see a dim light shining in the horizon, we are getting more excited and relieved that we are nearing the end. I believe claustrophobic people must not go to this place. But for the rest of us, this is a challenge and a great place to be.

Invitation to Visit and Vote

I congratulate the sincere efforts of Mayor Edward Hagedorn and the local government unit of Puerto Princesa for successfully transforming this majestic place into a tourist haven. The pavement leading to the river was 90% cemented. The people were very cordial and helpful. The volunteers were really doing a swell job in protecting the diversity of the place.

If I were you, I invite you to come and visit Palawan. It’s a great place to be! Aside from the river, there are other equally attractive places where you can go. There is the El Nido beach, the Honda Bay, dolphin and whale watching site and many more.

I also encourage you to come and vote for the only Philippine entry that made it as one of the top finalists in the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World. You may vote for it at New Seven Wonders of Nature. You may promote this wonderful God-given treasure from the Philippines and help boost our tourism. “Huwag maging dayuhan sa sariling bansa.” 🙂

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