Tribes, Treks and Life Stories with Indigenous Aetas in the Philippines

Every time I got up from my hammock, I regretted downing all those Jack and Cokes the night before. I was at a beach hostel in Zambales, Philippines, and by Saturday morning, it felt like I could barely make it down the bamboo steps for a five-kilometre hike.

But I’m glad I pulled through, because that day turned out to be one I would remember forever.

Tribes and Treks to Zambales, Philippines

Going on adventures that matter

I learned about MAD Travel through Facebook, as many people these days find out about things. Having worked in the hospitality industry for over 10 years, I had a strong interest in social tourism – and the idea of traveling with the intent of giving back to communities directly, in the Philippines, was something I had to try.

Through the lens of food, especially – remembering how many communities in the Philippines are built on and survive on local agriculture – I had many questions prior to the trip. Many people my age, across the globe, were starting to ask the same questions around the sustainability of our current food systems, exploring and celebrating our heritage cuisine, and identifying our foods and food products in all its forms. As a balikbayan, I knew we would visit the indigenous Aetas on their ancestral lands, but what would we find, I wondered?

Respect for tribes both old and new

The province of Zambales is on the northwest coast of Luzon island, about a three-hour drive from Manila. Past the summer capital of Subic Bay – land of American barracks-style housing and the region’s red light district – lie tranquil beaches, excellent surf spots and dozens of coves that locals love to camp in. Zambales is also known for producing some of the sweetest mangoes on earth, thanks to its geography and climate. In 1991, when nearby Mt. Pinatubo erupted, vast swaths of this area were nearly wiped off the map.

Everyone we met from the Yangil tribe (a subset of the indigenous Aeta population) greeted us with the warmest sincerity and the biggest smiles – from the youngest kids to elders in the community whose ages are undefined. These kids’ smiles, and more importantly, attitudes – absolutely melt your heart.

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I noticed that the “nanays” (or elder women) who prepared and served our lunch called everyone “madam”, and a few others noted this too. It didn’t sound forced in any way, and I imagine that perhaps it’s a sign of respect or gratitude on their end towards visitors who have made the decision to visit. In return, the very least we can do is extend this recognition of respect and value, by showing others that this model of tourism works – where both the travel company, community and visitors’ goals of experiencing Philippine destinations in new ways are met.

All of this hits me so hard, and is really what makes this particular trek so memorable. Certain lessons and realizations only come after you’ve experienced the challenges that lead you to going on this kind of trip across the world in the first place – and seeing how other people handle much larger problems than what you think are earth-shattering. Like surviving after a volcano erupts – and weathering that storm with belief and faith that things will work, along with the hard work.

Crossing one of three rivers (Photo courtesy of MAD Travel)

While the Yangils are a more “traditional” tribe, the other consisted of people who joined in Life Stories workshop, organized by MAD (which stands for “Make A Difference”) Travel in collaboration with Where To Next, an online community of adventure- and story-driven creatives. Their co-founder, Ayen, came with us on the trip, and shared that Where To Next really started with a selling a travel planner – and grew into so much from there on.

In this “new” tribe, people start the weekend as strangers who meet in the city, hop into a van, arrive someplace in the middle of the night, and set off on treks to places they’ve never seen. Immersing yourself for a full weekend of doing fun stuff, experiencing new things and meeting people is totally a reason why travel (especially in the Philippines) can be so rewarding.

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In our group of people in their 20s to 30s, we had a couple of software developers, people who worked in advertising/marketing, the corporate world, two French guys whom I previously met at the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, a psychologist, people just finishing school, two British girls backpacking through Asia, and myself. We already had a lot in common through hearing about this online, because we follow organizations that we identify with and support. Meeting these folks, listening to their stories, sharing my own, and talking about what brought us here, was in a word: irreplaceable. (And later that night, so was the best drinking game ever!)

The trek

We left our hostel at 8:00 am then hopped into a jeep for a 45-minute ride to our jump-off point. I knew we would be crossing several waist-high rivers, so I wore shorts and a breathable t-shirt, ready to get wet. Looking out the windows of the jeep at the mountains and fields, I was already super excited, despite feeling pretty hung over.

At our drop-off, we met the chief of the community, waiting for us with a carabao and cart in tow for supplies.

Yangil chief telling his stories

It was HOT – and not just the “I’m sweaty and this is uncomfortable” kind of hot, but the “burns and beats down on your skin” kind of hot. Before becoming a tour leader for MAD, our guide Paula said that when she came home from her first trip to the Yangil community – alongside the life-changing questions she then asked herself (i.e. “Is sticking with my career worth it?”) the one thing that stuck was the tan lines from her shorts, which have never gone away.

After what seemed a much longer trek, we reached our first stop – the plant nursery. Looking at the sands we crossed, and up at the mountainsides surrounding the valley we were in – it was beautiful in a sparse, Icelandic kind of way, if the Nordics were in a tropical region. You could see the curves of the mountains clearly, especially on clear days like that day.

Ancestral lands of the Yangil tribe

Beautiful as it was, though, it wasn’t natural. Walking with the chief, he talked about how this area used to be heavily forested, and how their tribe had subsisted for generations on hunting, gathering/foraging, and small-scale farming. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted, everything was covered in sand and what is locally known as “lahar” – mudflow and debris made of rocks, water and boiling lava that flows downstream, along pretty much every river in the surrounding provinces, approximately 8,700 square kilometres buried in slow moving lava. For scale: that’s the equivalent of the city of Los Angeles, seven times over.

How do you bounce back from that? I can’t even begin to imagine. Here, really, is where resiliency shines through, as a character trait exemplified by many Filipinos so well.

We planted black eyed peas next to seedlings they already had growing in the nursery for local ferns and mango trees. We broke into groups, stuck our hands into the soil, and sang Ed Sheeran songs. After planting, we had lemongrass tea and sweet potato chips as a snack. They were delicious.

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On our way to the village, at a river crossing, Paula invited us to plop ourselves into the water for our first Life Stories session. She talked about how she got here – working overnights at a call centre for 7 years, feeling the distance from people who mattered to her, knowing there was a growing sense of discontent and uncertainty with where her life was going, experiencing depression. All of these are things that I, and many people I know, can personally relate to.

River hangs with the Life Stories crew (Photo courtesy of MAD Travel)

As we entered the village, we started to see thatched huts here and there, then kids hanging out on a tree (literally) and finally a cluster of structures next to a cemented building. After some introductions, we gathered around a long table made of bamboo, passed around woven plates with a banana leaf, and settled in for lunch.

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We invited the community to eat with us, and though I felt a little bad that they insisted we go ahead, realistically we were sitting on the table where they normally ate and as we were guests, as Filipinos insist – guests always go first.

After lunch we retired to some huts around the back to rest. All this while (with the exception of having lunch) kids in the community were all around us. This one girl in a yellow dress was the sassiest of them all (in a good way) and had just the grandest time bouncing up and down a tree branch turned into a seesaw. It’s a cliche, but it really does stop to make you think about the simple, little things that can make people happy.

Some of the elders led us on a tour of the village, pointing out plants that were used to relieve stomachaches and treat minor wounds and bruises. Unfortunately, I’ve failed to note the plant names, many in the local dialect. There is so much to learn about how indigenous groups have utilized plants for medicinal purposes, as these treatments have worked for the Yangil (and many others) for generations.

And because I’m always keen to check out local foods – here are some of the Yangils’ favourites, grown right in their backyard, a.k.a. the valley.

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Our next set of activities included a quick lesson on archery, using a bow and arrow constructed of more bamboo and vines. The Yangil have long hunted (often birds and wild boars, I’m told) and while most young people in the community no longer hunt regularly (given the ease of buying canned goods), it is still part of their identity.

The takeaway
One of MAD Travel’s goals that I fully support is the idea that providing a steady, sustainable source of income for indigenous Philippine communities actually helps them – and in many cases, is probably the most effective actionable step – towards preserving their traditions, culture and foodways. But how?

Think of it this way. If you lived in such a community – cut off from the nearest road by a two hour trek through the sun-drenched plains (even more during the rainy season, when the rivers we passed overflow and water levels rise up to 10 feet deep) – much of your day to day existence revolves around that: simply existing.

Many young people leave to find work in the city, with a preference for call centre jobs because it’s seen, especially in the provinces, as a very good way out. (Remember this the next time you angrily call your credit card/power company/cell phone provider anywhere in the world, as you will likely speak to one of these Filipinos.)

For those left behind, life becomes hard enough as it is – with very little arable land, deforested mountains, unreliable weather conditions brought by global warming – that farming, as their ancestors have done for generations, becomes nearly impossible. Day to day efforts, naturally, then fall to simply making ends meet – and for communities like the Yangil tribe, it goes even before that, to simply surviving using what’s around you.

Keeping ancestral traditions, culture and foodways slip because the amount of effort you expend to doing ANYTHING means you do what’s easiest and delivers what you need – we are human, after all – and this means that traditional dishes made with crops that no longer grow here are lost; indigenous dances that only elders know how to do are lost to the kids whose older siblings who come back from the city, show them downloaded YouTube videos of top 40 hits on their phones; knowledge of natural herbal remedies using plants that grow in the valley are lost to indifference and expensive treatments prescribed by the doctors in town.

If one way we can show indigenous communities the value in preserving and helping their traditions, culture and foodways flourish, is by participating in these kinds of trips – then I am all for it, and I hope you are too.

This carabao and I see eye to eye.
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