29 March 2011


Tutor Tales, Volume 29

The summer holidays have started for Filipino school children, but I wanted to share one last story from the previous school year. It's actually a story within a story, because it includes an alamat.

An alamat is a folk story that falls short of being a proper myth because it doesn't feature any gods or goddesses. It usually explains how a plant or fruit came into being. I've found them wonderful tools for tutoring Grade 4 girls in Hekasi--and now I know from experience why Waldorf teachers insist on starting each new lesson with a story.

Angel Delight and Silver Surprise's last new lesson was the unit on the southernmost island group in the Philippines: Mindanao.

The western part of the island that looks like a brontosaurus (It does, doesn't it???) is the Zamboanga Peninsula.

The eastern part that wraps around the gulf in the south and part of the western coast is the
Davao Region.

Neither of these two tutees knew much about Mindanao when she started the unit. And to tell you the truth, I was in the same boat! It was while I was brushing up on my grade school geography, and learning that Zamboanga's culture and economy owes a lot to South Sea Pearls (now mostly grown in pearl farms) and Davao is famous for its fruits, that an old, obscure alamat from my childhood meandered back into my memory.

Here it is below, for your reading pleasure, featuring some brazen fabrications necessary to adapt it to my tutorials.

Ang Alamat ng Papaya
(retold by "Teacher Enbrethiliel")

There was a time--long, long ago--when everyone who lived along the coasts of Mindanao was a pearl diver. They had trained themselves to stay underwater for long minutes at a time, searching for the oysters which contained the most beautiful pearls. They would sell these to traders who came in ships from far off lands. The most prized pearls by far were the black pearls--but they were rare and very hard to find.

One pearl diver was luckier than most. Although he was still a boy, he had found the most black pearls of all the divers in his village--of all the divers who lived along the entire coastline. And soon the traders knew to visit his village for the best of these rare pearls.

But what honest traders know, wicked men also learn--and it wasn't long before a whole crew of pirates came to raid the village of its black pearls.

The boy's luck was still with him, and he heard about the pirates in time to run to his house and try to hide his pearls. Knowing that the greedy men would tear his dwelling apart looking for them, he tossed them out the window, where the dense jungle came very close to his house. And just as he had hoped, although the pirates did everything they could to find his pearls, they left angry and frustrated.

The next morning, instead of going to the sea to do more diving, the boy tramped into the jungle to look for his black pearls. He started with the area closest to his window but soon had to look farther and farther, because no matter how hard he searched, he could not find a single one! The next day, he brought a machete to clear the foliage so that he could see the ground better, and soon he had a nice clearing for a backyard . . . but there were still no pearls. After a week . . . he gave up, sick at heart.

So distraught was he over the loss of his beautiful black pearls that he declared he would never be a diver again. He would clear more jungle, he told everyone, and go into farming. But he took so long hacking away half-heartedly at the thick leaves and branches and not tilling or planting anything that, a few weeks later, the only thing growing on his land was a strange new plant.

Its huge, soft leaves and incongruously tiny white flowers caught his attention, and he realised it didn't look like any other plant he had ever seen. He watered it regularly and it grew so steadily, that a few months later it was taller than he was. And one day, when he looked up at its bushy crown of leaves, he saw it had begun to bear bright green fruit.

As the days passed, the green slowly turned to yellow, and a subtle, sweet smell started coming from the tree. He climbed up then and harvested the first of these new fruits. Not knowing at all what to expect, he slowly cut it open . . . and couldn't believe his eyes when he saw his lost black pearls nestled in the hollow centre of the juicy, yellow-orange fruit!

The entire first crop brought all his pearls back to him, but no more than that. After the last one had been recovered, the delicious fruit started yielding nothing else more spectacular than its own seeds. But now you know why the papaya's seeds have always looked like black pearls . . . and why all the best pearl divers in this area, which is, of course, Davao, turned away from the sea and became the best fruit farmers in the whole country.

It's not a perfect retelling of the alamat (and I'm sure there's a native of Zamboanga or Davao somewhere who will take issue at my creative liberties), but it served its purpose of making Mindanao--so full of unfamiliar places with names that are awkward on the Tagalog tongue--come alive and look wondrous to two nine-year-old girls.

Image Source: a) Map of Mindanao, b) Black pearls, c) Papaya seeds


cyurkanin said...

Love these kind of stories, but you had me at "pirates" :) I spent some time in and around Mindanao, always had a creepy feeling as if someone was watching me...

marie said...

Read it to my kids. Now we have to buy some papayas.

Enbrethiliel said...


C -- LOL! Even an alamat finds it hard to compete with a good sea story. (Is "sea yarn" the correct term?) Until you left your comment, I hadn't realised how very Mindanaoan this alamat really is: pearls, papayas and pirates. You don't find that combination anywhere else in the Philippines!

PS -- If I had known you were going to show up, I would have trimmed my retelling down to 300 words. =P

Marie -- Buy one whole, split it open, and let them make marbles out the seeds. ;-)

I'd encourage you to grow your own tree because they're easy to take care of, but they only do well in places without a trace of frost. =(

Salome Ellen said...

As I look out the window at the snow (it's been there for more than four months...) I sigh that I will never know what a REAL papaya tastes like. The have them in our stores, but who knows how long it took them to get here. I know from having had both shipped and local. grapefruit (when I visited in Florida) that fresh picked is infinitely better.

And I like the story. (Is "ng" Tagalog for "of"? Old memories...)

mrsdarwin said...

Love it. I had a feeling the pearls would grow into a fruit, but I didn't know what kind. I don't believe I've ever had papaya, sad to say.

Out of curiosity, what changes did you have to make for the girls? And have you ever considered writing a book of Filipino stories for children? I'd buy it.

Lesa said...

What a great folktale! Your students are so lucky to have you for a teacher!

Fresh papaya is delicious-- I gobbled all I could in Hawaii. My brother sent me a packet of seeds but papaya doesn't like Okla.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen -- Yes, ng means "of" . . . but also "from"!

You never know . . . Perhaps you'll visit a tropical country on holiday someday and get to taste a freshly picked papaya--and something I like infinitely better, a freshly picked mango! =)

Mrs. Darwin -- I put more pearl divers in Mindanao than there probably ever were. =P I really don't know if pearls were ever plentiful off the coast of Davao.

Ah, the last time I considered writing a book, I was twelve or thirteen. These days, I give it all away for free. ;-)

Lesa -- Have you thought of growing it in a big pot as a house plant? It depends on the size of your house and whether you have a skylight, but I think one American family has pulled it off! =)

When I lived in New Zealand, the only thing available for my papaya fix was the papaya-scented Body Butter from The Body Shop. (Sad, aye?)

Lesa said...

My house doesn't have enough light and is too chilly. If I ever get a greenhouse, I might try again.

Lesa said...

DeLynne's hub has a papaya tree and she hates it and wants him to cut it down. Can you believe it?!

there is something wrong with that girl!!

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, not everyone can love papayas, of course . . . but what do you mean she hates the tree?!?!?! =P

Lesa said...

Well, maybe hate is a strong word but she finds it a nuisance. critters drop papaya all around and make a mess.

It is a different variety that doesn't taste as good, I think.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ah, factor in the critters and that does make more sense . . . =P