A ‘living museum’ in Boracay is one of the island's best kept secrets

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The Motag Living Museum in Malay, Aklan, is the cultural alternative to those seeking to explore less of the province’s island beaches and more of its agricultural past. Photo by JAMES BEN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the other side of Boracay lies a living museum.

It’s “living,” because it’s the first interactive museum in the Philippines, a time machine which transposes you to another era when the island was known more for its quiet farming communities. It “lives,” because forgotten traditions and vestiges of a fading culture are brought back to life by those who still remember.

Lola Nemia Flores welcomes us to the the Motag Living Museum, located at Bgy. Motag in Malay, Aklan, a 30-minute ride from Caticlan. Dressed in patadyong, a warmly-checked dress typical of farming attire, Nemia reminds us what the island was known for years before: a main producer of dried and salted fish, tobacco, rice, and kopra. The kopra trade died out, she says, because of the real estate boom. “They were not able to plant more [coconut] trees in replacement for those lost because of commercialization,” she recalls. A livelihood based on farming, and of course, tourism, is what remains.

The museum, built around one hectare of land, is less a display of artifacts than a home of a hospitable host eager to please. The “hosts” also double as performers: Malay Municipal Councilor Nenette Aguirre-Graf, who conceptualized the museum along with project manager Louise Henwood, says the museum takes cues from theater, as well as from living museums in South Korea and the Open Air Museum Ballenberg in Brienz, Switzerland. The museum employs mostly the elderly, thus giving them both a source of income and a means to express their knowledge and culture.

Farmer costumes complete and enhance the performance of the hospitable guides. “Once naka-costume sila, you feel their sense of pride,” says Graf. The pride, as one enters the museum, stems from a collective sense of heritage as remembered by those who lived it.

Inside the museum, women grind rice into powder. Lola Felisa weaves a basket for storing rice. Photos by JAMES BEN

Inside the museum, women grind rice into powder. Lola Felisa weaves a basket for storing rice. Photos by JAMES BEN

You are greeted by a bahay kubo made with bamboo tadtad upon entering the Motag Living Museum, flanked in front and on the side with an old-fashioned well, palikuran, and a kariton carved from wood: nondescript places and items which would never be accorded a second look, if not for Nemia’s enthusiasm to tell you all about them.

The first stop is a well, which is also the beginning of the requisite education about Aklanon heritage and culture. “This fetching of water from the well was the duty of children before,” she says, as a young girl steps up to scoop water from the deep well. “It was one way of helping the parents.”

A few steps away is an old-fashioned toilet, though Nemia is quick to remind that in fact, there used to be a considerable distance between toilets and wells decades ago. The toilet is not only old-fashioned for being a hole in the ground to be covered in ash: Nemia shows a coconut husk and asks us to guess its purpose. “It’s toilet paper,” she exclaims, “the more rough it is, the better. [But] other people soak this in the water para malambot siya.” Apart from coconut husks, people also used leaves, she adds, picking a leaf of himelina from a nearby blossoming tree.

We are led next to the bahay kubo, made of bamboo tadtad. Nemia explains how tadtad is made as material for shelter, and how finely it may be woven so as to provide insulated walling for the kubo, built in 2014. The house stands on its own — without nails — only supported by bamboo fibers.

Seventy-seven year old Lola Juanica rolls tobacco into fat cigars, and in the local language, is called a "dobea" (pronounced "dobla"). Photo by JAMES BEN

Inside the kubo, feet rest on a mat made of baliw, a kind of palm tree that grows locally. “Why they call it baliw, I don’t know,” says Nemia. In the middle of the kubo is a hammock. “If the family has a baby, they put him in a duyan. It’s another way of using the patadyong,” she adds.

Sitting by a window is 77-year-old Lola Juanica, serenely rolling leaves of tobacco into cigars. We mill around her as she stoically goes about her work, before smiling and putting a roll of tobacco in her mouth, letting out smoke that slowly surrounded her face.

Noong unang panahon, families [had] tobacco plantations at the backyard, dahil mahilig din sila magtabako, and that is also for their own consumption,” says Nemia. “‘Pag more than na sa kanila, they can sell it to other people.” Smoking cigars was also a way to relax after eating, wherein smokers would sit on a bench, the lone furniture in the kubo.

This is how Lola Juanica rolls tobacco: She chooses a wide leaf, stem removed, and puts the small leaves which cannot be rolled inside, after which the wide leaf is folded into fat cigars. Lola Juanica, in the native language, is called a dobea (pronounced “dobla”), reminiscent of or parallel to Kalinga tattoo artist Whang-Od’s mambabatok. Like Whang-Od, Lola Juanica is a guardian of an art that may soon be forgotten, if not for efforts to preserve it.

A patadyong used as a duyan hangs in the middle of the hut, where Lola Juanica assembles her wares. Photo by JAMES BEN

Lola Ipay weaves coconut leaves into mats used as roofs, windbreakers, or wall fixtures for cottages. Photo by JAMES BEN

The Motag Living Museum thus finds it charm — and its raison d’etre — in its depiction of a rural heritage, as it earnestly seeks that you, as a visitor, listen, understand, and most importantly, experience a life overtaken by the rush of the island’s rapid urbanization. To have that life explained and illustrated, in real time, by the island’s elders is to partake in some kind of communion, as one generation hands over its memories to the next.

Outside the kubo, young girls, Sheila and Pearlie, point to certain herbs and explain their traditional uses. There is a carabao out in the sun, manning the field along with several farmers who tend to the rice saplings. A bao of refreshing coconut water is offered by Kuya Johnny and Ate Malou after the brief walk around the fields, and a woman atop an elevated wooden platform, Ate Rosa, is threshing rice with her feet.

"Noong araw, ang nilalagay nila diyan, ‘yung mga nagliligawan, kasi nag-de-develop ‘pag andun na sila,” shares Nemia. “Productive sila dati,” someone laughs. The act is sometimes accompanied by music, Nemia adds, the chore transformed into a romantic dance.

Next to Ate Rosa, Lola Ipay weaves coconut leaves into mats used as roofs, windbreakers, or wall fixtures for cottages. The process is called pagsusulidap. It yields an intricate work of art in the hands of a woman who grew up practicing it, a thing of beauty which finds practical utility as well. A few feet from her, three women grind rice with long, wooden pestles until it yields a fine powder, while another pops rice in a pan, making healthy popped rice sans the salt and the artificial flavoring.

Elders weave various items, some of which are sold as souvenirs in the museum. Photo by JAMES BEN

Toys made from buli (or buri) palm hang from the hut, as performers sing in farewell. Photo by JAMES BEN

The Motag Living Museum becomes alive because it is, largely, a work of women. In one of the huts, the elders sit and weave all sorts of things: toys, crowns, bags, necklaces, and baskets, among others, all made from the leaves of buli (or buri), a native palm tree.

Lola Felisa Flores sits among this group, weaving buli into a bag. She learned how to weave from her father, she says, and has been weaving for as long as she can remember. She weaves a bag where dried rice grains are stored, in order to prevent them from rotting.

The oldest of the elders is 93-year-old Lola Rosing, who just celebrated her birthday in March. She does not have a white hair on her head, says Nemia, because she uses coconut cream for her scalp. A child — the same one who slept in the duyan inside the kubo earlier on — now loiters around the hut, playing with a woven ball made by his elders.

At the culmination of the visit, the elders gather in the hut and sing a farewell song. It’s a native song sung during festivities, says Graf, one that has been ringing in fields and houses even before she was born.

In many ways, the living museum is more than a glimpse into Aklan’s farming community, more than a rare look into an island’s quietly historic past. When one speaks of heritage, one immediately thinks of fading architecture, or maybe forgotten songs, works of art, or literature. In Motag, however, that heritage is found in the lives of the women, men, farmers, and fishermen, all joyfully inviting you to come inside, take a look, join the experience, as if to say: this is how we revive a memory. This is how we keep a culture alive.


The Motag Living Museum is located at Bgy. Motag, Malay, Aklan. For details on how to book a tour, visit the museum’s Facebook page.