Rediscovering My Hometown Romblon 2012 Series

Paltak is A Painful Way to Become a Man and a Ritual That's Slowly Dying

Monday, May 07, 2012Ryan Mach

Some provinces in the Philippines still practice a traditional ritual that turns young boys into real men. In Romblon, we call it 'paltak', a circumcision rite that involves the use of sharp knife to cut the foreskin of a boy's jewel, pulpog (beating) style. I didn't know that it's slowly being eradicated until one sunny day in April when I went hiking to the mountain to visit a local 'doctor' who's responsible for every boy's rite of passage into manhood. I tagged along two kids from the neighborhood because I wasn't sure how I'd get to the 'doctor's' house.

These two young boys apparently knew the way to Sonny's house (Sonny is the local circumcision doctor) because it was where they faced the same ritual themselves. With a tripod on my back and a camera in hand, I followed the boys and we began the trek. It's just a short trek, roughly around 3 kilometers off the road in Sitio Deposito in Punta, Looc, Romblon but it was scorching even though it's only 8 in the morning so I decided to buy a couple of Jelly Ace for us from a small sari-sari store beside the road. (A habit I learned from trekking Pico de Loro and Mt. Pinatubo). I let the boys led the way and I slackened off a bit because I had to take pictures. To keep up, I would take a sprint and bridged their distance from mine.

 It was an easy trek, although there's a danger of tripping over pointed rocks sprouting along the narrow path, and a possibility of having slashed in the face by thorny twigs of overgrown plants, if you're not too careful. My shirt was already drenched in sweat when we saw an old nipa house nestled under canopies of indian mango trees. "We're here," the boys announced.
"Maayong aga," I greeted the woman who's feeding her child. They're perched on the elevated door of the house, their feet dangling and resting on a three-ladder stair. She regarded me with a stoic stare. The kids who were sitting beside her gave us a curious look. In the front yard stood a man in his late twenties, shirt-less, eyeing me with curiosity. Behind the rocks a few meters from us, a dog was still barking. The man, Sonny, hushed him up.

"I'm actually here to document the circumcision rite, if it's okay. I heard you're the one doing the process," I said in our local dialect. Hearing the pretentiousness in my own voice, I stifled a cringe. I didn't expect Sonny to be that young. I thought he's in his thirties or much older.
"Ay, owa ron takon, Yan, naga-paltak (Oh, I no longer do it)," he told me as I set up my tripod. "I was told by our local councilor to not do it any more. He said I can get in trouble in case the kids get an infection or something."

"Did something happen to one of the kids you did an operation on?" I asked, suddenly realizing the danger of this traditional practice. The thing is, I haven't heard any boys in the barrio who complained about an infection. Local boys prefer this method, primarily because they won't have to pay a dime. It's also a statement of bravery. 'Paltak' doesn't use anesthesia. Boy's will power and courage are needed in order for the operation to push through.
"Nothing like that but I don't want to be held accountable in case something happens to them. You never know." But a few kids can be stubborn, they won't leave without Sonny circumcising them. Uncircumcised boys are mocked and called 'puyong.' "I had to ask  them if they had permission from their parents." If they go unconscious during the operation, Sonny, who's a year old than I am, can be in huge trouble. Fortunately, none of his boys fainted.

"Did you ask permission from Mommy and Daddy before he cut you?" I asked my young companions jokingly. They gave me a sheepish smile. Sometimes, the foreskin goes back after a few week's time, and that means extra job for Sonny. He has to repair and perfect the cut by, well, cutting the foreskin again.
Sonny said he doesn't ask for monetary payment. A pack of cigarette or a bottle of gin does suffice.
"Can you show me the tools you use for operating?" I often wondered how they looked like. I bet they were extra sharp, but Sonny said he didn't have any. It's the 'patient' who brings his own 'labaha' (sharp knife).

I had a few more questions for Sonny but I felt like I took much of his time already. He still had some chores to do, I could tell, so I thanked him for his time and told him we'd be going. He suggested I should try and see the other traditional 'doctors' who also do 'paltak.'
Before we left, I threw a few pensive look at the clearing behind huge rocks where Sonny used to do the operation. I imagined myself shrieking from pain as the sharp blade cut my skin. I winced at the thought.

This post is part of Rediscovering My Hometown, Romblon 2012 Series

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