LETTERS of Marius John from BAAO

LETTERS OF MARIUS JOHN FROM BAAO is an article compiled from the archives of Sterling Gazette. Marius John was a Thomasite (American Teacher) stationed in Baao, Camarines Sur 1901 to 1902. The following were his letters to his hometown, Sterling, Illinois, was printed in the newspaper, Sterling Gazette, published by his father, Chalkly John.


Baao, Ambos Camarines, P. I. November 14, 1901

Marius John Writes of Early Trials of a Schoolmaster in the Camarines.


Natives Surprised to See Order and Beauty in the Teacher’s Home– Vivid Description of Life in the Islands.

The Filipino life is not without its charms. While we were soldiers it was dead; there were no charms, no ambitions, nothing to look forward to but discharge. There was nothing to do but to lie down under the hot tin roof and tell each other how many days we had yet to serve and to feel badly when some one had completed his enlistment and was going home.

When I was discharged I felt free for awhile until I got a house of my own with stealing and dirty “muchachos” to train and a bunch of commissaries which they knew not how to cook but knew well how to steal. Then there are certain things to buy and the Filipinos, mistaking the teachers to be as easy and reckless of money as the soldiers asked two prices and sometimes six.

It was not until I had shaken several such into fright, from the president down to the laundryman that they began to realize that they had better ask the proper price. I watch them selling to other people before I purchase.

There was, when I came there, a disorganized school to organize, worthless unassisting town councilor; and school masters to be trained to their work; there were ignorant children to teach, who with their fathers and grandfathers knew nothing but the catechism. No books, no schoolhouse, a strange language, and yet numerous reports were expected from my hands.

I wished for the stewards to make out my reports and to buy my commissaries and vegetables; the lieutenants to do my organizing and above all, the old easy life with the boys where the dinners came as easily and as idly as the days.

But everything is changing now. My house is straightening out, my “muchachos” are learning to be clean, and afraid to steal. My commissaries are gone, and necessity demands the use of what is in the market. The “muchachos” bring home fish, chickens, birds, eggs tomatoes, oranges, bananas, limes, camotes and cancun (kangkong) and other roots from the mountains.

Camotes are a root like sweet potato, and cancun is very much like spinach. On these I can live with none of the stomach disorders that brought so U. S. soldiers (ration eaters) to the hospital.

By dint of frightening, persuading, and getting on the right side of the Curate, school-houses are going up with benches and tables in spite of the worst town council on the island. The children are slowly learning and will soon know more than their masters. They have received no books yet, so I run, jump, walk, show them things, do things and have them do them and name the acts.

It amuses them and they learn. We can teach the common branches to the few who understand Spanish but most of the children are too young.

When I come home to my house my cook has dınner prepared and I am ready for my afternoon siesta. Through my half drawn window of mica come the fresh breezes from the ocean. Sometimes from the China sea, and again between spaces from the Pacific, fluttering the curtains and the palm tree and banana plant in the room; the sun shines through, not hot, but pleasant; it is hot out doors, but I have become acclimated. All through the town the hens cackle and the roosters crow like they use to do at home at the barn in summer. Natives come into the house, and their eyes open wide in admiration and astonishment.

The army’s numerous inspections taught us not only polish our buttons and to burnish our pistols, but to scrub the floor, arrange the disarranged and to polish the pots and pans. It is easy to boss those jobs now. In the center of the front room is a young palm of beautiful proportions in a large earthen jar; in one corner is a banana plant, and in another a little tree with green, red and yellow leaves which are as numerous and finer than those of the bamboo or weeping willow. In the other corners are a small palm tree and a plant as red as blood form stalk to leaf top. In the windows are a number of flower and plants. I found them all in the palm groves; I have not yet learned their names; the tree grows the sunshine, while the blood red plant hunts the shade and moisture. These same natives see my mahogany bed and its canopy curtained with the stars and stripes.

They return to their own houses, probably better than mine, to see a weaving frame tossed in the corner, children scattered on the floor, no curtains and plenty of dirt. They are too lazy to go out into the grove to bring a part of it in to adorn their homes. There were no such flowers in Pangasinan where l was stationed so long before coming here. I have seen a few clean houses, although of bamboo instead of mahogany But I can see but little difference in the people. They are all content without aim except to eat, without ambition except to beat each other or their rulers, to hear the church bell and to find a place in the unknown cemetery beyond the town. Most of the Americans it seems prefer to be in the gold mines and blackberry bushes in Benguet. But if I can start a garden in the lot by the house, and persuade the owners to build a veranda on the shady side of the same under the banana and bread fruit trees, I can probably gulp down two years of teaching school, but I am very anxious to get home and am homesick to see you all.

Marius John
The Sterling Evening Gazette
Volume 30
February 14, 1901


Marius John Relates Interesting Trip Among Volcanos in Camarines Islands.


Ruined Cities Destroyed by Lava and by War– Difficulties of Passage Through Roadless Country–Hospitality of the Natives.

Marius John who is a government teacher in the Camarines Islands writes the following interesting story of a trip made on his Christmas vacation;

We were scarcely out of our own town when we came to a deep bridgeless pool. After making all sorts of fruitless efforts to cross, a fisherman came along and loaned us his boat. At half-past ten we landed in Libon. Half of the houses to this town stood vacant by reason of war and ravage. The road from Libon to Oas is surely a “has been.” Weeds twice as tall as a man filled it full, and we were compelled to wade through mud and swamp until we came to the river. A person can tell before entering a town whether it has or has not soldiers in it. If it has not he can see the weeds from afar.

From Oas we went to Ligao where they had had an immense Christmas festival and the remains of decorations were still extant. At regular intervals of about two rods bamboo poles were planted; the green bark shaved down at different places along them to make fancy tassels. So there was a strip of green, a strip of white and stripe of fancy tasseling. Then red and white table cloth or U.S. banners hung from the windows of houses. Ligao is the separating town between the rice and hemp country. From Ligao to Legaspi hardly a bridge remains over a single stream, but many ruins remain of elegant bridges built in Spanish fashion. One bridge sets high and dry on dry land. Between Ligao and Guinobatan darkness overtook us.

Just after sundown we came to another bridgelees river. Everything was as silent as death. The woods were fearfully dense and through them not a leaf stirred. We were in the middle of the stream with this dense foliage on either side. . To our left a twilight bird suddenly commenced calling. It was an ominous sound! Looking in that direction there loomed up before us and frightfully the black ruins of an immense stone bridge, and just beyond the bridge stood the gigantic and almost perfect cone of volcano Mayon. Not a cloud surrounded it, but out of its crater issued a column of steam and vapor. It was black and awful! The silence of the forest — the rippling of the river — the screams of birds and sudden appearance of the ruins and volcano! I believe really my hair stood on end. The road became darker, and the woods silenter! Only now and then a bird would give a most mournful scream deep in the woods! At about half past seven the moon rose and half an hour later we arrived at Guinobatan.

We stayed with the lieutenant of police of our own town, Baao, who was visiting his son at this place. He fairly danced with joy when he met us — embraced us, and proudly told every body who came in that the schoolteacher, their own schoolteacher, the school teacher of Baao had come to see him. The next morning who should be going down the street but the old doctor who had tried often to get us court martialed and to put us in the guard house.

I only saw his back as he was going down the street, but I believe that I could recognize him at the distance of half a mile. I met him the next night at a ball at Daraga. I introduced him to my friend Mr. Williams, an ex-George school boy who said, “Yes, I have heard of you through Mr. John.” The doctor replied, “I am afraid you heard nothing good.” Williams did not answer, because he had his history.

I left my Filipino companions in Guinobatan taking my cook with me to Daraga. Mr Williams’ cook had borrowed five dollars of him that morning. and gotten credit all over town in Williams’ name and left for parts unknown. He said I would have starve there now, but I told him that I had prepared for such an emergency and brought my cook along with me. So we fared well. Daraga is an interesting town. It stands at the foot of the volcano, and its church is beautifully located on one of the high hills that are so numerous near volcanoes.

In 1814 the old town of Daraga then called by another name was buried by the molten lava, but the tower and a little of the roof of the old church, and a few other buildings still appear above the lava. The church was buried too withın five feet of the eaves. These buildings are so overgrown with vine and shrubs that we had to force our way from window and door in order to explore them. One building had many large rooms which we decided belonged to the convent, another we decided was a school house.

To one of these ruins, there is growing a large tree with broad leaves and a smooth white bark. the tree has scarcely a root reaching to the ground but many clinging to the stones of the destroyed buildings. From the tower window can be seen the inside bottom of the tower. Soldiers had told me that you could enter the tower, go down a stairway and see the church as it was before the eruption. I expected to go down there and find skeletons of the congregation at worship, but those soldiers bad imaginations as big as their falsehoods. Daraga like Baao was burned down during the insurrection and the stone walls of what appears to have been an elegant city remain. The Insurgent general burned it. Also Albay the provincial capital was burned. Daraga, Albay and Legaspi are only three miles apart. Legaspi is on the bay, and is so low that high tide floods the town. From its port is said to be shipped more hemp than from any other port in the world.

After spending a few days in Daraga a part of us started along the beach and across the lava beds to Tabaco. It was not pleasant walking across the lava beds. Huge rocks vomited from the volcano in the eruption of 1898 lay around. Rains had washed deep ravines in the lava, and at times we became separated, none of us were able to see each other. The pony which we brought with us to carry our clothes and to carry us across bridgeless streams often went far down out of sight. After dodging up along the ledge rocks by the seashore — jumping from rock to rock between the crash of the waves for three hours we reached Libog. This town is situated terribly near the last mow of the volcano, and can only be reached by crossing the roadless foot of the mountain or by sea and is therefore reputed for its hospitality.

We were separated on arrival and was collared at a fine house, as a strange American in town is as rare as a Filipino would be in Penrose, and I was not permitted to leave until I had partaken of all the hospitality that the house could afford. When they found I had companions they sent out searching parties, and had them brought in, and also the school teachers of the town. Wine was poured, and much to their bewilderment not a school teacher partook.

I must now in these descriptions pass by much that is full of interest and touch at Tiwi which is the most interesting and most dangerous town in the province of Albay. It is famous for its pottery, and dangerous because it is near one of the most active volcanoes in the world which is likely to do evil things at any time: it is on the sea shore and a tidal wave like the one which followed the eruption of 1814 and destroyed Legaspi may occur. Opposite the town is a mountain in of the top of which there is an inactive crater. In this inactive crater there is a lake. One solitary stone holds this lake in place. Some day the earth will shake, the stone will be displaced and Tiwi will be washed away. Just in the edge of town the fires of the infernal regions are so close that in the springs thereabout the waters are so hot that you can boil eggs in them. Dr. Zeller says they are the most wonderful in the world. People are always anxious to walk around them, but more anxious to walk away from those bubbling, boiling caldrons. At least I was. We passed over host sand-stone which pealed off in layers and appeared to be only shells of rocks which covered the boiling water below. We felt our way carefully as we advanced. The rocks were hot to our feet through our shoes.

Marius John
Teacher of English in the Camarines Islands

The Sterling Evening Gazette
Volume 21, Number 26
March 31, 1902

Trip to Buhi

Letter from Marius John

Who is Government Teacher in the Camarines Islands.

The deputy superintendent Wedgeworth, recently came to Baao and requested me to go with him to Buhi to serve as interpreter, so at the appointed time I went to Iriga to meet him. At the council meeting there the president (mayor) promised to have horses ready for us to proceed to Buhi to start before the sun should be up over the hills, so as to reach there before the intense heat of the day. The lieutenant in command of the post also promised one horse, which was bought saddled and bridled to Mr. Donaldson (the teacher at Iriga) door before breakfast . The two promised by the president came at one o’clock in the afternoon, and they had one of them saddled at three.

Mr. Wedgeworth and I started. Mr. Donaldson said be would come if they got the other horse saddled before we returned. He came, but with all our slowness and his fastness he
never caught up with us. With the loss of carabao, cow and horse, the sowing of rice is not very profitable now, but with hemp once sown is a source of wealth for time indefinite. A man procure land and procure contractors to set out the plant payable at ten percent at the harvesting of the first crop three years hence, can then (if he has enough land planted) sit down the rest of his life and watch himself get rich.

The hemp plant much to our surprise is the non-fruit bearing banana plant. Sometimes it bears bunches of bananas but they never ripen. It is very much like the pineapple from which is gotten the fine piña fibre which is used so much in these islands. This fibre is obtained from the staminate or non fruit bearing pineapple tree, the strength running into fibre instead of fruit. When the hemp is ready to be harvested the tree is cut down, the outside bark, which is worthless is pealed off; the neat layer is valuable hemp. After it is dried the fibre is separated by means of a fine-toothed knife. It is then dried baled and shipped. Hemp grows only where it is protected by larger trees from the sun, and best on the sides of mountains.

Nothing in doing more to uncivilize the Filipinos now than the lack of beasts of burdens. It is a pitiful almost horrible sight in the islands to see men going miles over steep mountains and terrible roads with a bamboo strap over the forehead and shoulders holdıng the weight of a bale of hemp, and then returning with a heavy sack of rice perched on the top of the head. In Baao alone out of 2, 000 head of cattle, 500 head of carabaos, and 1,200 head of horses there remain five cows, one hundred carabaos and no horses.

In the troop of cavalry here out of three hundred horses which they have had since their arrival in the islands only eight remain. Rudyard Kipling’s poem in McClure’s of November entitled “M. I.” (mounted infantry ) in South Africa might have a parody here entitled “D. C.” (dismounted cavalry) in the Philippines.

View of Buhi from Mt. Asog LETTERS of Marius John from BAAO
Aerial view of Buhi lake

There is a roaring mountain torrent between Iriga and Buhi; yet it turns not a single spindle. Mighty energy going to waste! Mount Iriga which looks so round and perfect from our side, proves on viewing it from this side only a half shell of of a mountain. The road leads us into a sunken crater long since inactive. Around the mountain there are heaps of earth of considerable size and appear to have been thrown up by some giant power. Buhi is situated in the loop of this crater and its only road leads to Iriga, but trails lead over the mountains to the ocean. Between the town and the mountain is a lovely lake, clear and smooth as crystal. Tradition says that several hundred years ago Mt. Iriga had its last terrible eruption – that its crater sunk, and then it was that Buhi lake was formed, which is said to rise and fall with the tides, but it has no connection with the ocean unless it is under the mountain.

We arrived in Buhi at sunset: its departing rays pictured many colors across the lake and
on the mountains when dark shadows extended to the water. This is a beautiful, but lonely place.

The presidente of Buhi is a Filipino most to my liking of any that I have seen. He is the only one who knew enough about the Americans as not to run to the mountains at their arrival. He carries out more than any other, the ancient Malay customs of being father of many families or patriarch from which originated the “cabeza” and finally the presidente. The other presidente’s are also fathers as far as authority and respect go, but this man seems to be a true father to the people of this lonely, isolated town. He begged for teachers and said he would repair buildings for school houses. We ate supper and returned to Iriga in the moonlight, Donaldson having arrived in time for supper.

Marius John
Teacher of English in the Camarines Islands

The Sterling Evening Gazette
April 5, 1902



Former Jordan Boy Writes of Life of Teacher Near Philippine lslands.

As stated in a previous letter Ligao is the separating town between the rice and hemp districts: here the rice ceases and the hemp begins. The difference can be seen in the size of houses and general wealth in appearances. Entering the town bordering on the rice country the houses are poor and shabby, while leaving it on the other side that borders on the hemp lands neatness and comfort are noticeable To save the growing rice from bırds, native ingenuity has been taxed to concoct schemes to preserve it especially the heading rice. Near Baao the people put up a little tower in the center of the field with a nipa covering in which a boy presides. From this tower extends in every direction a system of bamboo bark like so many telegraph wires, dried banana leaves are arranged along these, and the boy if sees birds venturing dangerously near pulls this system of Bamboo leaves by which the birds are frightened away. Many other systems are in use, one is the Spanish flag which the Filipinos consider the most effective of all, thinking that if anything will drive the birds away.

Between Ligao and Legaspi acres of hemp are going to waste for want of transportation. On a high hill in Albay there is a large square tower from which the Filipinos used to watch day and night always, for the coming of the Moro pirates who inhabit the Zulu archipelago. When these watchmen in the tower would sight the sail of a strange ship In their harbor, they would descend into the city, call the people together by the beating of the drums, and flock to the shore to defend their town. These pirates never killed the people, but exacted tribute.

Later we went while in Libog (that in our party went) to the house of the two American teachers and having crossed the dangerous lava bed to get to their town, we were objects of curiosity to the people. Their door was crowded with the town people from the time we entered until we left.

We took from the wall the guitar and sang every song any that any of us ever knew, to add to the attraction of the show. We thought of asking a fee, but then we knew that there could not be a penny in the whole town.

On New Year’s day we walked into Tabaco, and on reaching there were captured by Captain Young and sent to New Year’s dinner with the troops; this was an elaborate affair with artificially decorated quarters. Of the twenty-one colored men who have been appointed to West Point only three came out with commissions in the army and only one reached the rank of captain. Who is this man Captain Young? He was appointed by McKinley but his road to captaincy was full of thorns. Other officers were bound to push him to the wall, and to do this placed upon him such burdens as were intended to make him rebel; but he knew their scheme, filled their unjust orders and murmured not. Today, he is one of the most respected officers in the army. He has an elegant little house and in it the choice literature of the world. He is cultured, a good musician, a first class entertainer, and a great admirer of Booker T. Washington, but he says he would give a whole month’s salary if Washington had not dined with the President. It is his opinion that both Washington and Roosevelt will lose supporters by eating together. Captain Young insisted upon our imposing upon his hospitality during our sojourn in his town which is another hemp port.

While on this trip I learned for the first time that Baao (my town) is noted for the finest weaving in the world, and also for the carving of carabao horns.

We next visited Tiwi, it is the end of semi-civilization on the sea side of the world. Buhi is the end of semi civilization on the valley side of the world; between them are mountains and the Negritos. But even here I found an American teacher. Tiwi, as I stated in a former letter, is famous for its pottery. In the hills near by is an abundance of red clay. One hill near is thickly spotted with potter’s houses, also is, the seashore for mıle. The pottery work is done by the women who gather the clay into heaps mix it with water, then put it through the sun process, and place it on round boards which they turn with one hand and mold the pots into shape with the other. getting it round without fault. Then piles of these are put through a fire process, a fine red pot is the result. This clay seems ta have the peculiarity of crabs and lobsters — turning red on being cooked. Nearly every town has its particular commodity. yet a person might live in a town here for a year and not know what this town was noted for, but going to another town a long distance away, the fame of this town will come to his ears. While on this trip I learned for the first time that Baao (my town) is noted for the finest weaving in the world, and also for the carving of carabao horns. There is a woman here in Tiwi who once took a prize at a world’s fair for the excellency of her carving. Tabaco is famous for its bedsteads, yet thousands, of her people sleep on floors, Almost as soon as I had fairly settled in Baao, I heard of the Tiwi hat; I said that if I ever landed in that town I would get one. They are made from the stalks of the cocoa and look like an old Roman shield with a crown and bunch of horse tail in the center. The teacher had been here several months but knew nothing of them. So we searched the town over and finally found an old man bent and gray just completing one, which added to my serving boys’ already heavy bundle.

I will notice another item omitted in my letter during my visit volcanoes. As we were advancing carefully along, we were often startled on discovering alarmingly near us a scalding pool. In the bottom of the biggest and hottest of these there was a plant growing that had long leaves like those of a lily. Sıde by side among these strange springs there will be one boiling hot and another ice cold, and at places they will run together forming a medicinal bathing place. The mud about them is always steaming. According to Dr. Zeller the temperature of the water there, is 290 degrees Fahrenheit. The government intends to set them apart for a public park and ultimately to build a hospital here. The sulphur in the water is discernible to the sense of smell.

Leaving these springs we followed a stony bed of an ancient stream with banks higher than our heads, and its springs were dry.

We penetrated the woods to the Iggerole (Malinao?) mountains over which a trail leads to Buhi. A detachment of the 45th volunteers were once sent across on this trail and all landed in the hospital. Man is the only beast of burden that can travel over it. Progress is impeded by the frequency with which we have to pass him both coming and going — coming with hemp and going with rice. Before we reached the summit of the first range, the rain fell in torrents, converting the narrow trail that is cut through rocks into a rushing stream. At every step taken without something to hold to we would slip one-third of the way back. From the bottom to the top of this first range hemp was planted on every available spot except in the trail. A few Negrito houses were along the trail with small clearings planted in this country’s vegetables. After two hours of hard climbing we reached the summit of the first range. Occasionally, we could get a glimpse through the foliage of the towering trees, of the ocean. Here the hemp ceases and the woods become thicker and darker, and ferns taller and the rain heavier, all day long we would wound up and down between the two ranges, crossing numerous mountain torrents on stepping stones as the waters went dashing down to the sea. We would stop sometimes at Negrito’s houses for a drink which they handed out in coconut shells with bamboo handles, apologizing as they did so for the meanness of the drinking utensil. We passed numerous carriers of hemp and rice who did not look as tired as I felt.

The Negritos gather ferns and berries for food. They are a very mild people, curly headed and darker than the Filipinos of the rice paddies, and are very superstitious. Houses were found deserted. When a person dies in a house they leave it, and build another. No one will live in that house again. The fruits noticeable were berries, wild apples, red cranberries, wild cherries, very large and black. There were fern trees covered with a sort of fur appearing substance, trees with parasites and trees as big around as a wagon wheel. There were birds that screamed mournfully and birds that sang sweetly in their shelter out of the rain. The only monkeys that came in sight were along the Bicol river. they were very large. and minded their own business.

About three o’clock we were made happy by a mere glimpse of Buhi lake directly below us but soon the woods darkened again and we lost sight of it.

Now and then we thought that we were near the end of the woods, but for two hours longer we traveled on, and then at last we .came into the hemp lands again and knew that Buhi now was near, but darkness enshrouded us before we descended the mountain and the only light we had was an occasional firefly and a phosphorescent plant. We crawled on our hands and knees and often turned a somersault over a big slippery rock and landed in a pool of water at its base.

Many days before starting on this trip I had promised Jose (my servant boy) that I would take him with Legaspi. He was happy and each day counted the suns on the ends of his fingers until our departure. He is satisfied now to stay in Baao all the rest of his life. After reaching the bottom of the last mountain on this weary trip, we spent three-fourths of an hour of the time up to the waist in a slough before we arrived in Buhi where we were well taken care of by the presidente.

Marius John
Teacher of English in the Camarines Islands

The Sterling Evening Gazette
Tuesday, April 15, 1902

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