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Published: March 1st 2009
The jeepney careered down the stony, bumpy, potholed track that stretched almost all the way around Mindoro's coastal circumference. Clouds of dust flew in through the windows and forced the passengers to clasp cloths over their noses and mouths; the sound of gravel and pebbles flying up against the vehicle's side, gradually eroding the outlandishly multicoloured paintwork, was ever-present. Occasionally one would fly in through the glassless windows but if this ever hit any of the passengers we never heard about it. As we were flung up and down in our seats, and searched desperately for something to hold on to, regular crashes and bangs could be heard from the underside of the vehicle as larger rocks were thrown up against it, making me wonder whether the jeepney's original use as a US military jeep had entailed an extra-sturdy design that prevented it from needing constant repair work. If not, how on earth did the owner make any profit from the pittance he charged as a fare?
Two benches led down either side, each so crammed with passengers that many of us had to sit forward and could not even lean back against the wall. The two rows sat facing
each other across a small gap that in another world might have been used for leg room but here was filled with boxes, bags, sacks of produce and more people, with a similar assortment to be found sitting on the roof and clinging to the back and sides of the vehicle. As provincial jeepney rides go it was really rather comfortable.
Our friend Demet on Sibuyan island, who had spent a great deal of time roaming Mindoro's interior during his work for the PANLIPI organisation, had told us that here the tribal people had preserved more of their culture than anywhere else in the Philippines. Some remote groups, he had told us, lived an almost Stone Age existence and refused all contact with the outside world.
The collective name for these tribes was Mangyan, although in reality they comprised eleven sub-groups who differed enormously in language and culture. Our aim was to go as remote as possible without upsetting anyone, to find the most traditional tribe with which we would be welcome to stay. Following Demet's advice, our current plan was to go to the offices of an organisation called the Mangyan Mission in the town of San
Jose and ask for their help.
Even during that first jeepney ride, evidence of the extent to which the Mindoro Mangyans had held on to their culture was all around. Even on the outskirts of the town of Roxas where we had arrived by boat from Tablas we saw a man in a loincloth wondering down the street, a large basket woven from some natural fibre slung over his head and full to the brim with produce. At his side hung a bolo, or machete, in a wooden sheath. Seeing a Mangyan man without one was, Demet had told us, a rare thing.
During two hours we saw ten similarly-clad people through the jeepney window, most complimenting their traditional garb with a T-shirt. What was it that had prompted them to retain the bahag, or loincloth, longer than any other people we had encountered in the Philippines, and to be unashamed of wearing it in the towns? Perhaps, the interior of Mindoro being bigger, more mountainous and harder to access than other places we had visited, some groups of Mangyan had simply had less contact with the outside world than tribal people on other islands and had thus
not yet had their pride in their culture squeezed out of them.
Rather than making the seven-hour journey round the island's southern tip all in one go we decided to break it in the sleepy fishing village of Bulalacao. Several days were spent there wondering the vast, empty, pristine, golden sand beaches that surrounded the town, swimming through the crystal clear waters to even more isolated coves and taking rest in the shade provided by the palm trees that fringed them. It truly was an undiscovered paradise and, temporarily at least, all thoughts of slogging through the mountains were left behind.
Our appetite for exploration was, however, kindled anew when we visited the nearby villages of Manaul and Bangkal on their market days. A good market is always something I enjoy and these ones were overflowing with all the elements that make them so appealing: the ecclectic mix of people, lowlanders clad in cheap import clothes from China and wild-faced, bahag-wearing Mangyans who had walked day and night to get there, their gums glistening bright red and their teeth jet black from prolonged betel nut chewing; the sounds of a hundred bartered deals going down all around, the
louder, brasher lowlanders most likely getting good bargains from the shier, less cash-savvy Mangyans; the smell of frying fish, grilling meat and the Mangyans' root crops, pulled freshly from the ground and lying all around, attacking the senses one by one at varying intervals; and, above it all, the sun, beating down and scorching all those present as they wondered among the stalls hoping to return home with as much produce and cash on them as possible.
At Manaul market I approached a small group crouched on the ground near the back who were selling betel nut, for which I had developed a certain fondness during my travels in Micronesia, from a smaller version of one of the large woven baskets I had seen hung from so many Mangyan heads over the last few days. I hovered around, feeling somewhat embarrassed about buying the nuts, the chewing of which most lowlanders viewed as a filthy habit. I was hoping the Mangyans would hold some out to me and shout their price as the lowlanders usually did with their goods, thereby saving me from the shame of actually asking for the stuff. I had no such luck however, as the
Mangyans made an effort not to notice me, all looking away in different directions, cheeks bulging with their own supply of the stuff. Eventually I had to crouch down in front of them and ask the price. One red-lipped woman glanced at me but hurriedly looked away again. No one said anything so I asked again and this time there was no reaction whatsoever.
"Hey, what's wrong with you, he wants to buy some betel nut, don't you want his money?" A nearby lowland woman suddenly shouted, grinning slightly at my situation.
She bent down and began fussing, trying to help both parties complete a transaction. "How many do you want?" she asked me.
"I don't know," I replied, "how much does it cost?"
"How much does it cost?" she yelled at a Mangyan, who muttered something quietly in response without looking anyone in the eye.
"It's ten nuts for one peso !"
I asked for twenty nuts and handed the Mangyan woman a ten peso coin but she just shook her head, eyes fixed firmly on the coin. I understood immediately that she had no change even for this miniscule amount. She
had walked for miles to come here to sell her betel, had perhaps a hundred nuts remaining but had not yet sold enough to be able to give me eight pesos change.
By the time we hopped into a jeepney headed back to Bulalacao I had managed to procure the nuts, the leaves in which to wrap them while chewing, but not the lime powder used to burn the inside of the cheek and aid the absorption of the nuts' drug into the bloodstream.
In the jeepney I ended up sitting next to an old Mangyan man, reminding me of the time in West Papua when I had been sandwiched between two naked Dani tribesmen in a minivan. This time, however, I did not feel quite so restricted in my sphere of cranial movement - the man, after all, had all the most offensive parts of his body covered by his bahag - so shortly I turned to him and, to his obvious delight, offered him a few of my nuts. I then prepared a nut of my own and, when he brought out his lime powder, asked for a dab. I popped it into my mouth, began
chewing and soon the familiar feeling of relaxation while at the same time being very alert and awake came over me and kept increasing for several minutes until I was in no doubt as to the fact that this was by far the strongest betel nut I had tried anywhere. Soon the whole jeepney was laughing as my mouth filled up with bucket loads of red saliva which my inexperienced technique occasionally permitted to dribble down my chin and required spitting out of the jeepney window, adding new designs to its already flamboyant artwork.
As the Mangyan and I chewed happily together a frenzy of sharing ensued within the jeepney, as if provoked by my giving away of betel nuts, and by the time we left I was in possession of bananas, two bibingka (rice cakes), more nuts than I had started with, a wrap of lime powder and a pink grapefruit.
Before moving on to San Jose we decided to visit a Mangyan village called Benli that nestled in the nearby foothills and was tenuously connected to Bulalacao by road. The hour-long journey up a steep, stony track that sometimes almost disappeared altogether involved more than
one case of both passenger and driver falling off the motorbikes that were taking us there.
After the shyness I had encountered among the Mangyans at Manaul market I was somewhat uneasy about the sort of reception we would receive in the village, but one of our drivers, Michael, assured us that he was a good friend of the Barangay Captain and all would be well.
Benli turned out to be a fairly large cluster of traditional Mangyan houses complete with a school and a church. Lizz and I waited next to the motorbikes as Michael and the other driver wondered off to find the Barangay Captain and ask permission for us to enter the village. While we waited, a few people walked past, affording us only a fleeting glance before fixing their eyes firmly on the ground before them.
When Michael returned we walked for fifteen minutes up a hill to find the Barangay Captain working in a field at the top. He stopped working when he saw us and came forward to shake our hands before leading us over to a place where two long bamboo benches sat facing each other near the field. He
said something to Michael.
"He's asking what your purpose is here," Michael told us. "I think he's worried you might be here to look for gold or exploring for a mining company." This was something we had come across time and time again in the Philippines - the stories of lost reserves of Spanish gold or treasure buried by the Japanese before they had been forced to retreat. It seemed the Barangay Captain was educated enough to worry about resources or riches being extracted from land that legally belonged to him and his people.
"Can you tell him we're interested in Mangyan culture, the way they live, work, dress, everything. If it's OK with him we'd like to take some photos and ask some questions."
At this his face broke into a smile and he nodded happily, reassured. I was quite impressed by him already; often, telling tribal people that you want to "learn about how they live" is met with blank stares, being a concept totally alien to them, something absolutely outside their sphere of thought or experience.
We sat down and began talking through a mixture of basic Tagalog and Michael's interpretations. As we
chatted, the word of our arrival somehow spread through the community and the bamboo benches filled up with a steady flow of villagers curious about what were, as we were told, the first white people ever to come to their village. Soon there were around forty people taking a respite from their work, many covered in earth from their work in the fields, the men unashamed of their near-naked bottom half with buttocks exposed but almost to a man covering their top half with a T-shirt.
"You know, Sir," the Barangay Captain said, "here we are of the Hanunoo tribe. We and the Buhid are the only Mangyan groups with out own alphabet."
"Really?" I asked, although I had heard of this before. "Can I see some Hanunoo writing?"
The Captain wondered off and returned after a few seconds holding a thick green cylinder of bamboo. He sat down, took out his knife and began etching on it in characters that reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Once finished he held it up to show me.
"What does it say?" I asked.
"It says thank you," he said.
Perhaps the Barangay Captain's friendliness with us
or the fact that people knew our reason for being here made them less wary of us, but either way the impression I had of these Mangyans was utterly different from the ones we had met at Manaul. Everywhere voices chattered in surprisingly aggressive tones while red lips parted in broad grins exposing black teeth and emitting raucous laughter. People shared around their filthy-tasting Mascada tobacco that they rolled in strips of newspaper, demanded us to take photos of them and, of course, chewed and spat. Some women went into a nearby hut and, over a period of an hour or so, prepared two huge cauldrons of rice, taro and cassava which everyone helped themselves to, those who had them eating from plates and those who did not using banana leaves. Suddenly, after an hour-long din of merriment and banter, silence fell on the entire group as they wolfed down their food as if this was one of the hardest tasks they had faced all day and required the utmost dedication.
After the meal it came up in the conversation that we were going to San Jose.
"You know you can walk there from here through the mountains?"
The Captain asked. "If you want, some people from here can go with you and you can sleep in Hanunoo villages along the way. It should take two days."
Lizz and I glanced at each other and smiled - this sounded like a much better idea than catching the jeepney.
"What about NPA?" I asked, referring to the anti-government, supposedly-Communist New People's Army rebels known to lurk throughout Mindoro's interior.
"Your guides are your security, and anyway, the rebels stay far away in remote places," the Captain told us.
"But what if some rebels come with guns and rob us?"
"Your guides will take you a route that has no NPA. They know how to avoid them and in any case they will not leave you."
So like that it was decided. We left Benli on the arrangement that we would come back the next day having stocked up on food for the trip and that Michael would come with us as an interpreter.
"Are you sure it's safe?" I asked Michael.
"Yes, NPA are not bad people, they're kind," he replied.
"But how do they survive up there? I mean,
they must get money somehow."
"I don't know, maybe just taxing some big businesses or something."
Back at our lodging house in Bulalacao I asked the owner the same question.
"You'll have no problems with the NPA," came the reply. "They're all good people and they've never kidnapped any tourists." This last part at least I knew to be true; unlike the Abu Sayyaf Islamic fundamentalists and MILF rebels in Mindanao, the NPA had never engaged in tourist kidnapping. Political assassinations and attacks on military personnel had originally been the game of these one-time Communist ideologues but, from what I had gathered during my stay in the Philippines, the movement had by now degenerated into common banditry and extortion. The only thing I was worried about, if by some unlucky chance we did bump into any NPA, was having my money and camera stolen.
The next day we set out on our trek into the hills of Southern Mindoro. I was very quickly drenched in sweat and remained so all day as there was very little forest here to provide respite from the sun that beat down on us all day from a cloudless sky.
In the evening we arrived at a cluster of huts called Sannigo that was spread out over a large grassy hilltop. People stared at us with wonder as we passed them, sometimes exchanging a greeting with our porters, or, in the case of children, running away shouting to their friends. Our porters took us to the hut of someone they knew, explained our presence and took us inside where we thankfully dropped our bags and collapsed on the bamboo floor. The hut was almost empty, not just of furnishings but of anything at all. There was a not-quite-separate kitchen area with an earthen floor of perhaps four square meters and a small ladder leading up from that to the main sleeping area. No food was visible other than a few pieces of cassava.
After a few minutes conversation between the Mangyans I could not resist butting in with the question, "Are there any NPA near here?"
"No," the owner of the house replied without smiling or looking me in the eye, "there haven't been for a long time."
Darkness fell and we sat, very tired, waiting for our dinner of rice and cassava which Michael was
cooking. The only light came from candles made from the resin of local trees and did little to illuminate the corners of the hut or even people's faces but caused shadows to dance around whenever a gust of wind came in. I shifted constantly from sitting to lying positions, seeking comfort in vain and thinking only of sleep.
After an hour another man entered the hut and sat down with us. He was perhaps fifty years old, wore shorts, T-shirt, a cap and carried a backpack. His face twitched nervously all the time as he spoke and he had an unsettling habit of blinking constantly at you. And he spoke a lot; for the rest of the evening the conversation ran between me, Lizz, Michael and him, the owners of the house looking on from one end of the room and our porters whispering amongst themselves at the other.
"What are you doing here?" he asked us.
"We want to learn about Mangyan culture," came our standard reply. "We're walking to San Jose."
"If you want to learn about Mangyan culture you need to spend an entire day in one village, get to know the people,
maybe in the evening they'll dance and sing for you. Come to Yabat with me tomorrow, it's a village of the Buhid tribe a few hours north of here. They never go down to the lowlands because they're afraid of a spirit that lives in the roads; once a week they have a market in their area where they barter with the Hanunoo for goods they bring from the lowlands. People come from all around!"
"That sounds great!" I replied. "Can we get from Yabat to somewhere near San Jose after the market?"
"Yes, it's maybe six hours' walk."
I asked Michael and the porters if they agreed to go to Yabat and they said it was fine. The rest of the evening was spent talking with the new arrival about Yabat, the market, the Buhid people and himself. It turned out he had family on other islands and had traveled quite widely in the Philippines. Strange, I thought, maybe people from here have more contact with the outside than I had imagined.
As we were eating dinner another new arrival came in, this one stinking of alcohol. "Me Joe!" he told me in almost incomprehensible
English. "I not from here but I here now thirty years with Negrito people. I not from here but I from here with love."
I finished my dinner and could stay awake no longer. I felt rude not staying and talking to the new arrival but I had no energy left to piece together his fragmented English. It annoyed me as well that he was referring to the Mangyan as Negritos (small, black, frizzly-haired people who inhabit some parts of the Philippines). How could he have lived here for thirty years and not know the difference unless he had really had almost no contact with the Mangyans and simply did not care who or what they were? Maybe he just thought Negrito was the English word for tribe...
As I drifted off to sleep I saw a gust of wind throw light from the candle on to the owner of the house and his wife, looking on with frightened, silent faces.
Leaving the village the next morning, Lizz and I walked ahead while Michael and the porters stayed behind for a few minutes and talked to the two men who had arrived late the previous evening.
Ten minutes later they caught us up but the two men were not with them. We did not think to ask why.
Two hours later we passed through the village of Ogiung. "Go that way," the Chief said, pointing ahead of us. "There you will have no problems with angry people."
Slightly mystified by this, I asked, "Which way is it to Yabat?"
"That way," he said, indicating with his hand that the path left the village from the way we had come then looped round in another direction.
A minor argument then ensued between us and the porters who seemed to have changed their minds since the previous night and no longer wanted to go to Yabat; the route was too hard, they said, and it would take too long to get from there to San Jose. We, however, insisted that we did not mind walking a hard route and that we would pay them for any extra days it took.
They took us aside, away from the Chief and the villagers of Ogiung, and whispered, "those men last night were NPA spies. They work for the government, officially handing out medecine to Mangyan people, but they want to take you to an NPA camp near Yabat."
"That's what they were telling me when we stayed behind this morning," Michael told us, "so we told those guys we would meet them in Yabat but that we wanted to visit Ogiung first. They were very angry."
Suddenly it all became clear. The fear of the owners of the house, the man's insistence that Yabat was the place for us to visit, telling us that we should spend a whole day there, even the way he had talked so much with us compared to the Mangyans.
"Was he a Mangyan?" I asked.
"No, a lowlander." The poor lighting had prevented me from recognising the difference in his facial features from those of everyone else.
Still not sure what to believe, whether or not this was all part of the porters' not wanting to take the hard route to Yabat, I asked the Chief of Ogiung, "If we go that way, to Yabat, will we have problems with the NPA?"
He glanced around him then lowered his eyes to the ground and said, "No, no problems." It was absolutely clear from his response that he was afraid to say anything against the NPA and that, by implication, there were NPA spies or sympathisers right here with us now. I was reminded of the almost identical response that had come from everyone I had asked in Bulalacao about the NPA: "They are kind, good people."
"What do you think, Michael?" I asked.
"I don't know," he replied, "I'm scared."
"I thought you said the NPA were kind people?"
"Yes but now I don't know. One of the porters said he was robbed by an NPA once, and another said his brother-in-law was shot in the arm and had his goats stolen."
That decided it. We agreed that we should walk as fast as possible to the village of Naibwan where we had originally intended to end our trek and from where we would be able to catch a jeepney to San Jose.
All along the route I was thinking of those two men; would they wait for us, realise that we were not coming then try to find us? I voiced my thoughts to Michael.
"It will be OK," he replied, "Yabat is a long way from Naibwan and anyway, they're too scared to come to a place connected to the road."
As he said, everything was OK, but at one point we heard the clear, unmistakable rattle of machine gun fire in the distance. One of the porters pointed to an area of forest with smoke oozing from its canopy to produce large cloudy forms that hung above the trees like ghosts. "Look - the NPA are fighting the military."
The Chief of Banig's foot was swollen to three times its normal size and his leg was completely devoid of any muscle or fat. It was as if his foot had sucked all the substance out of his leg, leaving only a thin layer of skin clinging to the bone.
"It's local politics," he said, smiling. "Someone's jealous so they put this spell on me."
"Who did it?" I asked.
"I went to our medecine man to find out and to try to heal it. He told me that the spell was so strong that it couldn't be cured and that it was impossible to find out who did it. He just said that someone followed me and put some poison into one of my footprints."
"Have you been to the hospital in San Jose?"
"No, there's no point. The medecine man said it can't be cured." This distrust of medecine saddened me; I was no doctor but surely the hospital could have helped what looked like it could turn into a terminal illness. The belief in traditional healers was prevalent throughout the Philippines, not just among tribal people but even the most educated classes of Manila, many of whom would choose psychic surgery over conventional medecine any day. It was as if, despite being devoutly Catholic, the national psyche harked back to earlier pre-Christian times and beliefs.
We continued on, past fields of people tending piles of earth underneath which burned wood that, after several days of 24-hour attention, would turn into charcoal they could sell in town. Logging trees for this purpose was illegal but it was also one of the only ways many Mangyans could earn any money. "We just tell the government that the trees fell over on their own, or that we had to cut them to clear a field," told us one old man, wreathed in smoke.
The next morning's jeepney ride from Naibwan to San Jose was the worst public transport experience of my life. Or possibly that is not true; the 75-hour bus ride from Lima to Buenos Aires on a tiny non-reclining seat squashed between other passengers on either side of me was worse in terms of the whole experience, although three hours on it would have been fine. But the sheer minute to minute discomfort (which by the end of the trip it would not have been an exaggeration to call agony) of the three-hour Naibwan-San Jose jeepney was really something else. Even four hours would have been far too much: for most of the trip and the whole of the last hour, I had to steel myself against the urge to just get out and find some other way into town. The problem was not that there were too many passengers, although there were quite a lot. In fact, there simply would not have been enough space for as many passengers as there had been on the Roxas-Bulalacao jeepney because this one was piled to the roof with sacks of produce. Young men had to sit on their coccyx with their legs stretched upwards and their feet resting on top of the cargo. Eighty year old women sat hunched up in positions that no Westerner of that age could have managed. My mindset was at first one of grim determination but, as my cramps got worse and worse, it transformed into shameless self-pity and I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from screaming when the driver stopped to load up with more passengers and bags. On arrival in San Jose and I almost fell out of the back door of the jeepney in my hurry to escape.
The town was about as far as you can go in terms of development in Mindoro. That is not to say it had any high-rise buildings - in fact I do not think it had any buildings over two or three stories - but it had a population of 100,000, a small airport and shop-and-eatery-lined streets into which an endless stream of tricycle taxis belched their black, poisonous fumes. The Mangyans looked starkly out of place here and you could tell they did not feel at home. They were quiet and unsmiling, silently following us around town.
We found a hotel where we could dump our bags and paid for a room. "Come upstairs," I said to the Mangyans.
"No, we'll just stay here," said one, and the three of them squatted down on the floor in the lobby, seemingly unperturbed by the stormy scowl thrown at them by the neatly-dressed receptionist.
Having dumped our bags we all went out for a farewell lunch in a small eatery. We told the Mangyans to order whatever they wanted but they opted just for simple fare that they knew and trusted - rice, taro leaves, chicken.
On the table next to us three men were drinking Tanduay and singing karaoke with the volume turned up to an outrageous level. After finishing a song one of the came over to our table and leaned down towards us. "Where have you come from? What are you doing in Mindoro?"
Paranoia exploded in both of us like a firework the stranger had lit with his questions. Who was he? Why did he want to know this stuff? Was he NPA? 'Be careful in San Jose,' I remembered a girl in Tablas telling us, 'there are many NPA in the town and the mountains.' I felt Lizz kicking my leg under the table.
"We just went to visit a Mangyan community in the hills," I said, concentrating on my food.
"Are you working here? Researchers?"
"No, just tourists."
Walking round town it was amazing to think that any of these seemingly-normal people could be spies for the NPA. I thought back to the kindly hotel-owner in Bulalacao and his sister who had cooked us our dinner every evening. "You'll have no problems with the NPA, they're all good people," he had told me. Surely he was not...
It took a while for us to get back to normal, to begin to trust once again the Filipino habit of assaulting foreignors with a barrage of questions as soon as a conversation has begun. The experience had taught us a lesson that we needed to coordinate our treks properly, probably with the Church, so that was where we headed for help with our next excursion into the interior.
Click here for advice on independent travel in Mindoro and how to visit Mangyan people
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