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Published: January 2nd 2009
October 2008, Busuanga Island, Calamian Group
"There are four main groups of tribes in the area near Signapan," told us Bruno, a retired French anthropologist, while sipping his fourth pastis since we had met him at 11:30 am. "The most well-known is the Tao't Batu, but there are also the Konoy, the Tao't Daram - cannibals, watch out for them - and the ones I call the Tao't Arib."
"Which ones are the most remote, the most traditional?" I pressed.
"Well, the Tao't Arib I guess, they live furthest from the road, but they're not always friendly to outsiders."
"So how long does it take to reach these groups?"
"To the Tao't Batu it's a six-hour walk. For the Konoy you need about six days. For the Tao't Arib - maybe two weeks! Anyway, get to Signapan, that's the closest Tao't Batu area to the road, and find Tumihay. Tell him your a friend of mine and he'll take you anywhere."
"What about the Konoy, or some really traditional group, can you give us the name of someone there?"
Bruno scrawled something on a piece of paper. I looked down at it and saw the name "M*******" written there.
this guy," Bruno said. "He and his people live really far in the mountains, they're really funny." Unsure what exactly he meant by "funny" I took the piece of paper and thanked him very much. The pastis flowed freely and the conversation drifted from the fifteen years he had spent trekking around South Palawan, to the years he had worked for the dictators Pinochet and Marcos, to his years as an antique hunter then as a tourist guide, to the four months he had spent in prison in Cagayan de Tawi Tawi, a Philippine island group to the north of Borneo, so remote that white people never make it there and where he had been suspected of being a spy, to the revolution he had tried to start in South Palawan, to his bomb maker friend who lived there who he recommended us to stay with. We left not entirely certain of the veracity of his information but determined to seek out Tumihay, and, if possible, M*******.
December 15th, 2008, Rizal, Siuth Palawan
"The Konoy? I don't even know if they exist," Bojie told us. "As for the Tao't Daram - again, I don't know if
they're real or not. I think it's like something the Tao't Batu tell their children - don't go to far into the jungle or the Tao't Daram will get you." This went against what we had heard from Bruno, who had claimed that the Konoy and the Tao't Daram both definitely existed, but was in line with what I had found on the internet; there had been no mention of the Konoy and two of the Tao't Daram, one of which claimed they were extinct and the other that they were just a legend.
December 17th, 2008, Signapan Basin, South Palawan
Tumihay had proved relatively easy to find, after a total of 36 hours at sea from Panay, followed by eight hours on a terrible bus on terrible roads by the end of which my behind was so numb I could barely sit, followed by another hour and a half in the world's smallest jeepney where the need to bend almost double caused me to develop a serious neck cramp, followed by six hours' walk through muddy jungle and over the steep mountains that formed the edge of the Signapan Basin. On questioning our porters during
the trek about the Tao't Daram they had told us that they were cannibals; however, Tumihay denied this, saying that and in fact the Tao't Batu and the Tao't Daram had fairly good relations whenever they came into contact. The ones to watch out for, he said, were the Tao't Arib, who would kill anyone who came into their territory without permission.
Tumihay lived with one of his two wives and his seven children in a small house completely tied together by cord produced from some jungle vine and built high on stilts with walls on only three sides, leaving the others completely open to the elements. The Tao't Batu are particularly prone to respiratory diseases because there is a serious lack of decent building materials in the area and their houses afford little protection from the wind and rain. When it gets really bad, in the rainy season, some but not all families move into caves in the cliffs and mountainside to sit out the wettest months, occasionally venturing out to collect sweet potatoes and cassava from their fields which they supplement with a diet of snails and bats.
Tumihay showed us the instrument they used to catch bats,
a long wooden pole with a large number of thin spikes protruding from it. "We go in the cave, to the place where the bats will fly in the evening to go to where they sleep, and we wave this around in front of them so they get caught on the spikes."
Everything here was worlds away from the Bukidnon villages we had visited in the interior of the island of Panay; while they had had some minor luxuries such as metal roofs, toilets, soap and radios, here there was none of that. Everything was far more traditional and there was little sign of manufactured objects or indeed anything much from the outside world other than the people's clothes. Tumihay's family all wore Western dress, with the exception of the small children who were either naked or wore a loincloth. When we asked whether any Tao't Batu still wore the loincloth every day he said that only his father did but that anyone would be happy to dress up for a photo if we paid them.
On visiting Tumihay's father the day after our arrival in Signapan we found that he and one of his sons still wore the loincloth.
They, however, asked me for 100 pesos to photograph them. I agreed but realised that these people were now fully used to seeing tourists and I understood that we would find no really genuine experience here in Signapan. Walking back to Tumihay's house I asked to take a picture of a small village built onto the slopes of a hill which we passed through. The inhabitants again demanded a payment. This was not what I had come so far for. We could have decided not to re-visit Palawan and avoid the 36 hours from Panay to Palawan followed by another 36 from Palawan to Mindoro, our next destination, via Manila, instead taking a short, direct, boat from Panay to Mindoro. Coming here had meant going MASSIVELY out of our way. But I had a hunch, from all my research and from speaking to Bruno, that there was still something special to be found here in South Palawan.
On returning to Tumihay's house I was reminded of Bruno's note from two months previously, and of having written down the name of someone who we might be interested to meet. At first I could not find it but then, reminded of the
fact that it had got wet some time ago and I had put it into a plastic zip bag to preserve it, I located it in the side pocket of my backpack. Torn, creased, with blurred ink and about to disintegrate, I was just able to make out the name "M*******" on the piece of paper.
We had already mentioned Bruno, who was clearly very popular here and good friends with Tumihay, whose house he had helped to build. However, this had not seemed to do much in our favour and we were still being treated as tourists rather than friends of a friend. However, when we mentioned the name M******* everyone's faces broke into looks of surprise then smiles.
"M******** is a good man, a happy man," Tumihay told us.
"Can we go and see him? Bruno recommended we visit him."
"I haven't seen him in many years, actually since the time of Bruno, and he lives two days' walk from here. But I suppose we could walk to Gadlihan's area and stay at his house for the night. Maybe he or one of his family know where M******* is."
So that's what we decided to do and the
next day we set out for Gadlihan's house. We crossed the Signapan Basin very quickly and were soon climbing the mountains on the other side. The trail was considerably worse than the one to Signapan had been, often disappearing without trace or leading to an abrupt end at a high rock wall that needed scaling. We rested at the top after a few hours of climbing and Tumihay pointed to an enormous cliff across the valley from us, several hundred meters tall. "You see that house on top?" he asked us.
I squinted and strained and could just imagine that I could make out a tiny hut clinging to the cliff edge, right at the top.
"Who lives there?" I asked.
"My brother-in-law. Bruno went there with me," he said proudly.
After getting out of Signapan we descended the other side of the mountains through dense, virgin jungle full of ancient trees with bases the size of small houses until we arrived at a wide, deep, extremely fast-flowing river. It was so wide that there was a very large area of clear sky, not hidden by jungle, stretching above it, and up into this sky on either side of the
water towered some of the most enormous trees I have ever seen, absolutely dwarfing even the biggest boulders that littered the area surrounding the river. Here we rested while Tumihay darted back into the jungle, returning twenty minutes later with a man who looked slightly older than him and was wearing just a loincloth and what looked like a pair of very old-fashioned airplane pilot's goggles.
"This is my brother-in-law," Tumihay introduced us. "He was working in his field nearby and I had to get him because only he knows where you can cross this river. He'll go first, take the backpack across then come back to help us. If you want, you can give him twenty pesos, just if you want to."
"Sure. Where did he get those goggles though?"
"He made them himself," Tumihay said, laughing.
"From what, though?" I wondered to myself. I supposed he must have found the materials somewhere or bought them from a market near the coast.
Tumihay's brother-in-law began wading into the river, slowly but surely, occasionally stopping to get his balance or stare into the water ahead of him, trying to find the best place to put his feet. Worryingly, even he
had a few moments during the crossing where he wavered and looked as though he might fall but eventually he was on the other side, unloading the backpack and wading across to us. This time he and Tumihay took across the rest of our luggage before coming back to help Lizz cross. I, much more out of stupidity than any sort of machismo, decided not to wait for them to come and help me but began wading across on my own, only to find that it was so fast-flowing that I was pretty much paralysed fairly quickly, unable to raise a foot and put my leg forward for fear that it unbalance me and cause me to be swept away. Eventually I found that if I leaned in a certain way and raised my foot just very slightly I could continue and after that the worst of it was past.
On the other side, having shaken hands with our helper, we paid him his twenty pesos and gave him a tin of sardines as an extra present. The smile that lit up his face on receiving the can was quite spectacular and he jumped forward to shake our hands for
a second time, unable to believe his luck, saying, "Thank you so much!"
After we left him behind we had to climb out of the river valley but after completing that stage of the trek the rest was comparatively easygoing although the jungle remained thick until shortly before Gadlihan's house, where we arrived just before nightfall.
We were welcomed into his house despite having arrived unannounced and began cooking our evening meal. As darkness fell, some of his children, ranging between about two and seven years old and naked as the day they were born, finished running around and playing outside the house, came in, took some dried wild tobacco, rolled it up in leaves and began smoking it. Gadlihan and his father soon followed suit.
"The children smoke to keep away mosquitoes," Tumihay explained. This area was one of the most malarial in the world; a few years ago a team of journalists had died in Signapan from the disease and for the local people it was a constant blight.
Over dinner I asked Gadlihan, "So do you know where M******* lives?"
"I saw him two months ago, he was living in his caves, but I've heard that since
then his brother died in the cave so they've had to move house. Every time someone dies, even a small child, they move to a new place to get away from the sad memories. I know the area he lives in, it's behind that mountain over there, but I don't know exactly where he is now."
"What about if we walk in that direction, can we find someone who knows where he lives?"
"Maybe. We can try."
The next day we set out into the jungle again, and it seemed that this particular stretch of the path was a favourite haunt of a certain large, black and yellow spider which was apparently very poisonous and which had a nasty habit of spinning its web across the path. On countless occasions I stopped only just in time, noticing out of the corner of my eye the black shape down at my stomach or chest level, jumping back and shouting to the amusement of the Tau't Batu.
After some time the path came to a river which we walked along for over an hour, crossing it more times than anyone cared to count. Having somewhere along the way picked up a
man who knew exactly where M******* was now, we left the river at a completely unmarked point and headed back up into the jungle.
Around four o'clock in the afternoon we broke out into a small clearing on the top of a hill that was populated by five small huts. At first we could see no one there but we neared, walked up to the huts and found that there were some women and children inside. Something strange we had noticed about the women round here was that although they all wore T-Shirts, they absolutely weren't ashamed of their nudity either and would happily roll up their shirt to breast feed in front of everyone, even leaving it rolled up after they had finished suckling the child. It was as if someone had told them they should wear clothes in order to be "civilized" and they had done so without fully knowing why, or feeling the need to cover their nakedness. Indeed, one had to question how much of a good idea it was for them to wear clothes in this environment - none of them had any soap, and everything they wore was in rags and dirty. I drew
some parallels between their understanding of clothes and their understanding of time. Most people we had talked to did not know their age, would just say something like "When I was born that tree over there was very small and it was the rice harvest time of year." Others, particularly Buano, our guide from Ransang, the village we left to start our six-hour trek to Signapan, and the only Tao't Batu able to speak English, had understood that the question "How old are you?" should be answered with a number, but could not grasp the idea that this number should be the same every time you quoted it. "I'm 78," the old Ransang man had told us. "I'm 87," shortly afterwards and "I'm 88" on a different occasion.
M******* was not currently around so we sat down on the ground to wait for him. The other people all seemed very shy and stayed inside their houses apart from a twenty-something young man in a loin cloth who sat near us and began playing a locally-made type of guitar with two strings made from wild pig hair.
After around half an hour M******* appeared out of the jungle, hobbling slowly along
aided by a stick and accompanied by two other people. His appearance was something of a surprise to me; due to his reputation as something of a local legend, the exotic sound of his name and the fact that we had been journeying so long to find him, I had built up a kind of mental image of him as being a huge, proud warrior king, running through the jungle and spearing wild boars left, right and centre. I had not really believed that this image would be accurate but still, the small, skinny loin-clothed man with a shock of dark hair shooting off in all directions was not what I had been expecting.
As M******* approached I stood up, smiled at him and held out my hand to shake his. Instead of shaking it he took it in both of his, bowed and pressed it against his forehead before doing the same to the others. He sat down with us and called out to someone in one of the houses to bring him a betel nut. A woman appeared and handed him one which he popped into a small wooden mortar he had been carrying and began grinding it
with a pestle.
I watched M******* talking to Tumihay and Gadlihan. Although I could not understand most of what they were saying I found myself developing a liking for the man just by watching him. He had an attentive way of listening to whoever was speaking and his voice was always full of a certain energy and enthusiasm. Often his face would break out into a cheeky but genuine smile - not big, not beautiful, but you knew by looking at it that something was really tickling him inside. As he talked he ground his betel with the pestle and mortar, occasionally taking a piece of the red mess out and popping it into his mouth to suck.
"I've got no lower teeth," he told us at one point, explaining why he had to grind the stuff rather than chew it.
Two different families each brought us some cassava to eat and as we did so, Tumihay explained to M******* that we were friends of Bruno and that he had sent us here. At the mention of Bruno, M******* looked very surprised and said that he had not seen him for many years and that since Bruno they had not
had any visitors at all.
"Where is he now?" he asked us.
"He owns a restaurant in Busuanga."
"And how is he? Is he married? Does he have children?"
"Yes, he's got lots of wives and children." This was true - from what Bruno had told us it seemed as though he had a wife in almost every country in the world.
"When's he going to come back here?"
"He doesn't know - he's getting old, you know, and has a big belly now! He's also quite busy but he said maybe he can come back here in a couple of years."
"Bruno!" Tumihay said, shaking his head with just the faintest hint of a smile touching his lips. "I wish I could stay with him at his restaurant in Busuanga so that I could get a big belly too!"
Our first encounter with M******* ended up being a brief one. It was late already he had to walk to a spot two hours away where he was clearing an area of jungle to make a rice field, as all Tao't Batu did after the end of the rainy season. Before he left we gave him a present of several
tins of food. Everyone else we had met had treated canned food as a serious delicacy - Tumihay even filled the empty sardine can with water and drank it to get every last little bit - but M******* looked at it with a puzzled, almost annoyed look on his face and asked, "What's this?"
"These are sardines - they're delicious! And this one's pork," Tumihay informed him.
"How do you get inside?" M******* asked.
Tumihay demonstrated with a machete.
M******* nodded and put them into his bag but I got the impression that he was not overly impressed by our cans.
The next day, during the hours we spent communicating with M******* through poor interpretation and hand gestures after he came back from his rice field in the early afternoon, he told me that I reminded him of Bruno and that he expected I would have at least three wives next time I came back to visit, even offering to help me build a house for them in his community. I laughed and thanked him very much but said that one "wife" was quite enough for me. Changing the subject quickly, I asked him about Bruno's activities in the
"Last time Bruno was here he went into the Tao't Arib's teritory with my son. It's a two day walk up that mountain," he said, pointing to a very high peak. "They let him in because he was with my son."
"Would it be possible for your son to come with us to visit them?" I asked.
"No, no one can go with you now. Everyone's busy with their rice fields."
It seemed as though we were well out of the land of money and materialism - whereas Tumihay and Gadlihan had been willing to come with us, leaving behind their work and family in return for small payments, it seemed that here that was really not a possibility.
I was surprised that in such a remote area only two of the nineteen people in the community still wore the traditional loin cloth, and commented on this to M*******.
"Yes," he replied, "ten years ago everyone wore it but now there are only a few of us. I always do though because my parents told me never to use clothes, and anyway, if I did, I wouldn't be able to sleep with my wife!"
Slightly confused by this comment, I laughed anyway. I was somewhat surprised that his parents would have known about Western clothes - I had imagined that when he had been a child the Tao't Batu had been living in complete isolation without knowledge of the outside world.
"How old are you?" I asked him.
"I'm one hundred and eight," he replied, although he did not look a day over fifty. I nodded my head, assuming that here, as people really had no idea about their true age, those who did think in even vaguely numerical terms simply gave a number based on their status in the community.
After a short silence I felt the need to express a sudden wave of happiness that came over me and made me feel amazingly privileged to have come here. I said to M*******, "Anyway, this is a really beautiful place. We're very very happy to be here and to meet you."
For an instant it seemed as though M******* was about to burst into tears and, apparently overcome by emotion, he grabbed the nearest adult chicken and held it out to me.
"Take it, it's a present for you," he said.
Never having held a chicken before and somewhat flustered, I looked to Tumihay for support. He indicated that i should hold its claws with one hand and its body with the other and I did so, smiling at M******* and expressing my thanks.
When the afternoon was beginning to get on, M******* announced that he had to leave.
I'm so sorry," he said, "but I must go. I have to walk to my rice field and tomorrow I have to go even further - there's a dispute in another community and I'm the one who always has to sort these things out."
He took each of our hands and pressed it to his forehead before starting off with two of his relatives into the jungle.
Click here for advice on independent travel in South Palawan
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