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During the two days I spent in the community of 200 people, only a handful of metal pots and machetes betrayed the fact that the year was not 5000 B.C. There were also three T-shirts but these were so ragged and dirt-encrusted that they were almost indistinguishable from the grey and brown strips of woven tree bark that the women used to cover their breasts. I later discovered that the men wearing these T-shirts were among the few members of this community, a sub-group of the Batangan Mangyan people, who had ever been down to the lowlands to barter goods with the less isolated Alangan Mangyans.
An invitation into a house provided a longed for respite from the punishing, merciless ball of fire high in the sky which, without a cloud to challenge it, had relentlessly scorched us during the long walk here and the wait outside the village while H****** sought permission for us to enter. He was an Alangan, but the Batangan had elected him one of their leaders and their representative in the lowlands, one of only two outsiders they allowed into their territory.
Inside the house was dark and luxuriously cool. I sat cross-legged on
the floor and wallowed in the mild breeze that drifted through, rubbing the sweat from my face and relishing its lack of instant replacement. The bolder members of the tribe had followed us in and were sitting around the edges of the room, gawking silently at us, some of them with an open-mouthed, frowning look of puzzlement on their faces that I came to be familiar with over the next couple of days. Others less confident remained outside, peering in through the doors and windows in large groups united in silent observation.
"They're all very afraid," the most confident of the Batangan told us, sitting a few feet away in a hammock so tiny that only a new born baby could have slept in it. He spoke to our companion C*****, a Batangan from another community who had moved to the lowlands to live with the Alangan and who in turn relayed his words to K******, an Alangan who, having had her education sponsored by missionaries, spoke intermediate English.
"We've never seen white people before," he added.
"Do they think we're ghosts or people?" I asked.
"We think you're people, but we just don't know where
you're from. Our parents always told us that if ever we saw someone wearing clothes we should run away from them or they would eat us." In the absence of H******, who was away negotiating terms for our stay in the community with its leaders, the man looked towards M*****, another of our Alangan companions who had come with us with his wife N***** and son F*****, raising his eyebrows as if asking whether or not what his parents had told him was true.
"No, don't worry," M***** blurted, "my parents told me the same thing but it's not true." His lips, stained lipstick red from constant betel nut chewing, and his almost total toothlessness lent him a curiously old-womanish aspect that contrasted starkly with a loud, laddish voice and regular uproars at his own voluminous flatulence.
The Batangan man nodded, sighed and lowered his eyes to the shadows of the bamboo floor in consideration of M*****'s reply. After a moment he looked up again.
"You know when the sun or the moon goes black? Our people believe this is because some very big people eat them." He looked over at us then back at M***** and
C*****. "They're very big. Is it they that eat the moon and the sun?"
Here it was K*****, the English-speaking girl, who took up our defence as she proceeded to give a detailed explanation of how the solar system worked, using various small objects to represent the main planetary bodies and throwing in an explanation of where on the planet Lizz and I were from in relation to Mindoro. The Batangan man nodded in understanding.
"It's strange," he said, "we always thought the sun went round the earth."
I wondered whether he really believed K******'s explanation or whether he was just thinking something along the lines of 'Yeah but how do they really know that they're right and we're wrong?'
M******, to whom the laws of the universe were also apparently news, was staring at K****** in astonishment, his red lips quivering. "Do you mean if we start digging from here we could reach England?" he demanded in an almost outraged voice.
We had no time to answer because the Batangan man slid in with another question that confirmed my suspicions about his suspicions about our ability to authoritatively explain every aspect of the universe
down to a T: "So if the world is always turning round, why does the door of my house face that tree all day every day?"
H****** returned after around an hour. On the journey here, despite the broad smile that had inflated his face every time I caught his eye, despite M******'s sense of humour and rowdy jokes so unusual in a Mangyan, there had been a vast distance between us, the Westerners. and them, the Mangyans, with K****** acting as the only bridge, an intermediary between the worlds, belonging to theirs but with a strong footing in ours. Our arrival in this community had, however, turned all that on its head. We - Lizz, K, H. C, M, NF and I - were all outsiders here, we all had at least some knowledge of the modern world and we had all made the long, arduous journey to get here together. Suddenly the distances between us had narrowed and and a new chasm had opened up between us, the visitors and them, the locals. Even H, the gentleness of his good-natured teddy bear face marred only slightly by his slanted, squinty eyes, his loincloth bulging at the
front with its securely-wrapped contents and tucked neatly into his bum crack at the back, suddenly felt like someone I could have taken to a tea party with my grandmother.
"They've agreed to let us stay but under certain conditions," he told us. "First, we must not leave this area of the village. They don't want us to contaminate the other inhabitants who have never been to the lowlands. We also can't wash here - they think we'll make the water dirty and they'll get sick. You two can't take photos of anyone who has never been to the lowlands. Unfortunately only a few of them have been down, but they think that this exposure to the outside world is enough to stop them from getting sick when you photograph them. Last of all, allowing outsiders into the village will anger the spirits, which could be dangerous for everyone, you included. You're going to have to buy a pig from them and sacrifice it to make sure there are no problems. These are just preliminary rules - they need to discuss it further tonight when everyone is back from the fields. That's when they'll decide when and where to
kill the pig too. They can't make any decisions without everyone being present, that's just how they are." He said it all in a matter-of-fact, emotionless way, totally devoid of any eye contact, that I was becoming familiar with as the mode of speech employed by the majority of Mangyans when community outsiders were around. Despite the warmth of heart and good nature that shone through cracks in the dry exterior after you had spent more time with them, they seemed afraid to show any feeling in public. When you saw them walking around towns they were always quiet, serious and kept themselves to themselves; it was as if dealings with the outside world were an immense effort to them, something to be completed as quickly as possible and requiring the utmost self-control, will-power and detachment. None of these were the reasons Gabriel was speaking in this manner now - he was with us voluntarily, as was everyone, and we were only paying them a miniscule amount that was just enough for them to be able to leave their families, animals and crops behind - but old habits die hard.
We moved over to an area where the whole
village had, prior to our arrival, been engaged on an extensive community project: the building of long houses that would last them through the rainy season. So far only the skeletons were standing, enormous meshes of long, criss-crossed tree branches that confused the eye with their constant overlapping and arrangement in such a manner that all appeared at once to be supporting, and being supported by, an equal number of others.
C, as a Batangan, and H, as one of their two elected leaders in the lowlands, were not considered hazardous in terms of infection of the community and would be allowed to sleep in people's houses. For the rest of us, however, two Batangan made a hurried effort to complete the floor of one of the would-be long houses then indicated that this was where we could sleep. We fell into slumber early that night, before the result of the meeting was heard, myself tickled by the fact that we imagine the jungle to be full of cannibals and diseases and yet here its inhabitants thought the exact same thing about our world. People fear what they do not know.
"When we come back from
the lowlands we're not allowed into our village until we've had a thorough wash in the river," one of the three Batangan who wore a T-shirt above his loincloth told me. We were sitting in the centre of the small cluster of huts near our sleeping area, the thump and rattle of rice being pounded and tossed punctuating our conversation confusingly. The people, these three in particular, were just taking the first steps towards overcoming their shyness and some of the very strict original restrictions that had been applied to us had been lifted after the previous night's meeting.
"If we're sick when we come back we're not allowed into the community at all. We have to sleep in the jungle for a day, a week, a month, however long it takes until we're better. Do people where you are from get sick often?"
"No more often than anyone else."
"What is it like where you are from? How is it different from here?"
I thought for a while, trying to come up with something that was different but still on a topic that he would be able to understand.
"Family relations are different," I
said in the end. "Young people can leave home as early as 16 if they want to and live and work on their own, away from their parents. It's not like here where everyone lives in one house."
He shook his head in wonderment before breaking out into a cheeky, narrow-eyed, teeth-baring laugh that he half stifled as if to prevent anyone else from hearing it. I laughed back in the same way.
"But do the young look after their parents when their parents become too old to work?" he asked when he had finished laughing.
"No, they usually don't need to," I replied. "The government gives old people money to live off." I do not know whether he had heard of the government, or whether Jenilyn even translated it directly, but whatever she had said he seemed impressed, amazed even, smiling but not laughing this time, quickly developing a mental picture of England as a heaven on earth where money and food were given away rather than earned by a hard day's work in the fields.
"And how many children do people have? Here we like to have ten."
"In England people normally have
"Is three OK?"
"Yes, it's fine."
"Hah! If someone tried to stop me having my ten children I wouldn't be able to!" M butted in. "I'd keep on doing it in secret!" I was pleased with this, as I did not want them to begin thinking of our world as some sort of paradise vastly outshadowing their own. I decided to cultivate the image of ours being a society deprived of things in which theirs was rich.
"It's not because anyone stops us from having more children. It's just that lots of people can't afford to. In England you have to work very hard all day every day to earn enough money to live, both the mother and father, often paying someone else to look after your children. It's very stressful, very unhealthy and people are less happy than they are here."
People were shaking their heads in horror, the brilliant, shining light of an earthly paradise quickly winking out in their minds' eyes. These poor English, who had to stop having sexual relations after only two or three children because they couldn't afford any more! What a twisted society they must have thought
we came from - we had enough to spend what would have been a month's wages for poor lowlanders on the pig, but at home our own society's values were so upside-down that we could not even afford to have enough children!
"What about marriage? How old do children marry?" The T-shirt-wearing Batangan, filling up one of the pipe's that almost everyone here smoked with an air of smug nonchalance that suggested he was now convinced of his own society's superiority over ours.
"Any age they want to from 16 onwards. You can even marry at 50 or 60 if you want to."
This confused them. "But at 50 it's already too late to have children!" M cried.
"Some people where we're from never have children. What about here, what age do people marry?"
"Any age. Five or six if the parents are OK with it. You see her?" he asked, pointing at a child only slightly too old to be termed a baby who was cradling her new-born sister in her arms. "Someone wants to marry her. But we're going to wait a year or two. Normally people get married as soon as they
go through puberty, but if someone's husband or wife dies then they find a new one who's very young, usually about eight I suppose."
"But do they sleep together as soon as they're married?"
"No, they wait until puberty. If the couple have both already gone through puberty when they get married, then on the first night they each bring one male relation and one female relation to sleep in between them. If anyone has a bad dream, or if anything falls from a tree when there is no wind, or if the girl menstruates, then we take it as a bad sign from the spirits and the marriage is canceled."
"In the Alangan it's different," K told us in English. "On the first night the couple have to sleep together. The whole family watches to make sure they do it. If they don't then it shows they can't care for each other and the marriage is canceled."
Two men led our procession over a hilltop and down to a sweet potato field, carrying between them a long, thin tree branch from which an unhappy, upside-down pig, its feet bound to the wood with
jungle vines, squealed and struggled enough to make the most devout carnivores among us think twice about our upcoming meal. The sacrifice took place next to the field and was something of an anticlimax; a group of men stood around the poor beast, still attached to the branch, and one sawed several inches into its neck with a machete, the sudden exposure of the bright red beneath somewhat shocking in this landscape otherwise coloured only in browns, greens and other less outlandish colours. A metal pot was placed beneath the wound to collect the blood which flowed for a minute or so while the animal spasmed a few last times.
We traipsed back to the village. I imagined that everyone was feeling, as I was, a little downcast about what we had done to the pig, but in reality I suspect they were simply looking forward to the feast that would be an of-course-entirely-incidental bonus of the sacrifice. Either way, people were quieter on the way back to the village than they had been when walking to the field.
A small fire was built and lit by means of a metal flint. When the flames had picked up
some size two men held the pig over it for a minute, allowing its hair to darken slightly, before throwing it to the side onto a tablecloth of enormous, bright green banana leaves. As soon as the pig was on the leaves another man whipped out his machete and began violently scraping it along the side of the dead animal's body, taking of much of the hair off as possible. Suddenly he shouted something and the other two men ran forward, grabbed the carcass at either end and held it over the fire again. The whole process was repeated urgently several times until all that remained was bald, yellow skin with a dirty appearance due to the blackening caused by the fire. The head lolled to one side, the red of the inner neck that had previously stood out so much now dulled to a congealed brown.
A man was designated the job of carving up the pig and separating all the different organs and cuts of meat. This done, everything was taken away and prepared somewhere out of sight from us.
We feasted together in the afternoon on pork and rice. Banana leaves were laid
out on the ground and food dumped unceremoniously onto them. Some people ate straight from these leaves, grabbing gargantuan handfuls and ramming them viciously down their throats, a few grains sticking to their lips or falling reluctantly down their chins and onto their laps, while others tore off a small patch of their own to use as a plate. The community echoed with shouting, laughter, burping and slurping; the decibel level was almost infinitely higher than it had been at any point since our arrival. Meanwhile, a large crowd of all those who had never been to the lowlands and therefore could not risk infection by approaching us stood watching enviously from the edge of the clearing. Once I strayed too close to them and several turned and fled from me, the same unmistakable, undiluted terror on their faces as would be visible on mine if I was being chased by an alien, disease-ridden cannibal. I returned guiltily to the main area of the feasting and mentioned the incident to a T-shirted Batangan.
"Yes, even us now we know you, probably if we saw you walking towards us alone in the fields we would run away from you. It's
what we've always been taught to do by our parents."
"My grandparents taught me the same thing," K said. "Back in the War the Japanese used to kill people, or cut off their arms and legs to eat, I think that's what started these beliefs among our people."
"If you go any further into the mountains," the Batangan man told us, "everyone will run away from you. No one there wears any clothes, not even T-shirts like this, and they never go to the lowlands. They'd be angry with us if they knew we'd let you stay. There's even one group there that lives in a cave and doesn't let anyone come near, not even other Batangan. They have no clothes, not even a loincloth, they just go totally naked, and they have no tools, just stones. They don't grow any crops, they just gather fruits, vegetables and sometimes animals. They kill anyone who goes near their home with stones."
"How many families of Batangan live further in the mountains and never go down to the lowlands?" I asked.
"Thousands," came the reply. At ten children per family, that worked out as tens of thousands of
people living completely in the Stone Age, man living in a natural state that had only existed in Europe milenia previously.
The next morning we left because, as H had said, we were proving too much of a distraction to the Batangan villagers. Our arrival had had such an effect that nobody had been able to work properly during our stay, many of them instead sitting around and watching us eat, talk, sleep, drink, or walk, their faces keen with interest and their mouths gaping in astonishment at our every move. At first I had found this amusing but later chided myself upon realising that we had been doing exactly the same thing to them and taking photos as well.
My head was still reeling from the whole experience and the knowledge of such a huge population of people unknown to and isolated from the rest of the world. I was also thinking back to words of the missionary Sister Patricia who had put us in contact with H:
"There's a mine, operated by a Norweigian firm, Crew Mining, but it's using a sub-company owned by the husband of the President of the Philippines. It's
mining from a mountain where the four main rivers in Mindoro begin and if it continues it will pollute them; all the Mangyans living in the mountains will be affected. One of the rivers has already turned black and the people who live near it are getting sick and dying - they have no other option but to drink from it, wash in it and use its waters to irrigate their fields. The mining company has paid off all the local government and even given money to several Mangyan chiefs to make them support its cause. One of our priests went to Norway to talk to the company but they just said they had not known there were any indigenous people in Mindoro . They say its just exploratory mining, but it's been going on for twenty years now and people who have seen or worked at the mine know that it's more than exploratory."
The Mangyans have never been a warlike people. They have always retreated
further into the mountains away from new waves of settlers rather than fighting for their lands. The language of the Batangan contains no words for "war" and cannot express the concept of hurting someone physically. I could not help thinking that they would rather die out than stand up for their rights against the mine. Thoughts of the potential devastation the mine could cause, laying waste to tens of thousands of people living in primordial innocence, among the last of their kind on the planet, saddened me, as did something else: I could not help thinking that it would have been better if we had not come at all, that the Batangan would be safer if they continued to believe that outsiders carried sickness and ate people. Could the things we told them, the things we showed them - plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, photos of themselves - encourage a move towards a more materialistic way of life and more frequent trips to the lowlands to procure plastic and metal, gradually diluting their culture?
I have spent almost four years traveling the remotest corners of the world - desert, jungle, mountains, swamp, Arctic tundra, Pacific atoll - in search of
the most different, untouched cultures on the planet. This I will continue to do, but one childhood dream that has accompanied me since the age of twelve will now be laid in the dust at the wayside and forgotten about - the desire to visit an uncontacted Stone Age tribe. I had come close to achieving this dream in Vanuatu where I had stumbled upon a community who had no clothes, not even any T-shirts, but who had more plastic and modern-world products than the Batangan, as well as having been visited by Westerners before. In the Batangan sub-group I had achieved the goal of a first contact but with it had come the realisation that this was at best less rewarding than my experience in Vanuatu due to the shyness of the people and at worst possibly even harmful to the people themselves.
This decision will come with a surge of relief to certain members of my family and I too feel in a way freed from what had become something of an obsession. I will move on and concentrate my energy on other forms of travel. I have come as far as it is possible to sensibly
go in my hunt for the ultimate tribe.
Click here for advice on visiting Mangyan people
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