A quick pan de sal grab at the barangay bakery and my morning ritual of coffee and a few minutes of reading (right now juggling Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country and W.S Merwin’s Migration)and I was off to the office before 6am. At 6, the world is lit in that sort of pale way where everything takes the same blue or grey hues before the sun actually touches anything, the bats are already settled into the upper canopies of the trees, and the small streets of Almeria are still devoid of school children, who within the next couple of hours will make their way to their classrooms (mostly) in all manners of velocity. I met Kuya Brian at the Municipal Hall, our steps as fresh at the bread in my bag as we began our walk. We were going to a meeting with the Mamanwa.
I was excited and feeling very fortunate to have this opportunity through the office. The Mamanwa are one of the oldest tribes in the Philippines, and are believed by many anthropologists to be descendants of the original settlers of the islands here, the aeta having arrived later. Mamanwa means “first forest dwellers” according to the internet, but I usually prefer to learn about a person from that person, so more on what it means to be a Mamanwa later.
In Almeria, the Mamanwa live in a village called Palayan, a part of the barangay Caucab, which I visit frequently on runs after work. It would be a long walk, supposedly 15 kilometers in one direction, but Kuya Brian is young, athletic, and keen for mountain adventures. The first question of the day, we could take the main road, but is it ok if we take a short cut through the jungle? I cackled gleefully, ta na, let’s go. Kuya Brian took me through pathways parallel to the main road, we walked along fields of kalabasa, kamote, pipino, okra, (squash, sweet potato, cucumber, okra) and underneath lubi trees all the way (coconut). The day wasn’t warm yet, but we walked fast, beginning to sweat, which, we’d probably be doing even if we were standing still. It’s like that here. We passed by Caucab elementary were cute kids in school uniforms welcomed me with excessive giggling, whispers of hopefully nice things regarding amerikanos, and some tentative and shy helloes. Stares from kids never bother me, I smile and greet them back, stares from adults that are not accompanied by any kind of greeting are less happily, but just as commonly received. Though, even a blank stare is better than a Hey Joe, in my humble opinion. Many of these mountain barangays are seldom visited by foreigners, I’m probably an interesting or perhaps strange start to their day.
With Caucab behind us, we are beyond the last barangay we’ll come across, the last village until we reach Palayan. Kuya Virgilio waited just beyond here, having motorbiked as far as the pavement reaches. We rested for a bit before resuming our climb, Kuya Brian seems to know all the single-track shortcuts, and I busily checked out unfamiliar plants and flowers (yes, nerd).
I asked about a pretty violet flower, belonging to the lag-lag plant, which is a native shrub that produces a small rasberry like fruit that can be eaten. Overhead, a mixture of living trees and snags reached for the clouds that had accumulated over the mountains. I commented that these trees, even the snags, were quite beautiful. It was explained to me that it’s a failed government restoration project, an Indonesian species, not native. I felt like one of those people who visits Montana and points to a field of purple flowers saying “what a pretty prairie, the flowers are beautiful”, and then is told that they’re looking at a monocrop of spotted knapweed. I decide to keep the “pretty” comments to mysef, let us keep things scientific. The sounds of the jungle are still pretty foreign to me, but one that stands out is the seemingly gleeful call of the kok-kok bird, which I am hoping to spot one day. I am told that it’s larger, like a chicken almost, and is thought by more supersitious folk to be a guardian of sorts for the paranormal, the witches and ghoulies that are basically found everywhere in the Philippines. I think of a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder, decide that I’ll need a kok-kok at some point, to ride with me as my guardian. Watch out, that Kuya has a kok-kok on his shouder…maybe?
Cresting over the hill, we began our descent into the valley where Palayan village sits between Mt. Panamao and the Tres Marias. I slipped and slid my way down muddy, clay pathways, the reddish-brown jungle soil (I’m not going to say it’s an oxisol, but it looks like an oxisol) caking my Chacos and ankles. I offer up something like “Now this is a good day in the office”. Kuya Brian doesn’t miss a beat, “But Sir Dov, we’re not in the office”. Giggle, clackle, slip-n-trip. Here I see my first glimpse of the village, currugated tin-roofs reflect the sun and terraced rice fields rise up the base of the mountain across the other side of the valley. The village is nestled between two mysterious, mist-shrouded mountains, blanketed with green growth, idyllic. We greeted the folks peaking out from houses and walked towards the small elementary school, which we discovered is staffed by four teachers that often travel from the barangay Caucab that we passed earlier.
We found the house of the Mamanwa chief, a handsome young man that I’ve met in the office back in the Municipal Hall. Benches and a table are quickly set out for our meeting. The village seemed quiet before, many closed doors, the one “store” seemingly shuttered and closed for business. There are only 17 families here. I don’t know where everyone came from, but came they did. Mothers began to show up holding small babies, men leaned against the porch beams or squatted on the grass nearby. The window facing us in the next house over was crammed full of curious faces. The Mamanwa don’t look Filipino in that Filipino way I can perhaps best describe as a blend of Asian and Spanish ancestry. The Mamanwa people are darker skinned, with curly black hair, full dark eyes, and high cheekbones. I found their faces to be different than any I’ve seen, beautiful and expressive. Being colder in the mountains, I noticed the women were wearing heavier clothing, some wore thick cotton dresses with overcoats. It seemed overkill to me, but we’d just walked all morning and I’m still enjoying the fact that I’m not experience a Montana winter this year.
One of the main purposes of our trip was to encourage the group, already locally registered as the Mamanwa Tribe Association, to officially register on the regional level in order to be eligible for programs through the Department of Agriculture. Kuya Virgilio and Kuya Brian took attendance and led a discussion of this. Eventually I was given an opportunity to ask questions too, which mostly focused on their use of forest products, their gender roles in using natural resources, and hunting trends. My interest in reading tales of socioanthropology seemed to pay off (thanks for the constant stream of books Debra). The Mamanwa grow abaca, uway (rattan), cultivate rice, corn, cassava and other vegetables. They are also subsistence hunters, suggesting to us that they (the men) must now travel three to four hours to find the wild baboy (pigs) and ungoy (monkeys) in the mountains. Larger human populations and increasingly severe storms have pushed wild animals further away. Once again I note to myself that the closer a people lives to the land, the more they are connected to its seasons and its patterns. That the trends and changes become more obvious, more visible.
Perhaps the most interesting questions centered around the local deer population. The Visayan Spotted Deer, now one of the most endangered deer species in the world, is thought to have previously lived on Biliran, but now be gone. I’ve been hearing rumors about their presence for a while now, and well, I just couldn’t handle a good mystery involving a nearly extinct mega-fauna. It reminds me of one of my father’s favorite film scenes…this deer being, mostly extinct and all. I’m aware of how astonishing it is that there may be a living population here, but the villagers were very casual in saying that they’d seen one as recent as five years ago and see other evidence (prints, droppings, etc) of the deer all the time. They were able to point to where they expect most of the population to be roaming (a hard to get place, of course). Needless to say, I am experiencing a high level of stoke about all this, and Kuya Brian and I have started to discuss a future expedition.
My last question for the Mamanwa was more cultural. “What does it mean to be Mamanwa?” It’s always fascinating to know how people consider themselves, how they understand what it means to be them. The question turned out to be as elusive as the spotted deer, difficult to translate in a way that kept it’s purpose. The answer, however, was provided quickly and easily. To be Mamanwa is to be a people of the forest. There were nods of agreement. A second person then added, to be a people of the mountain. From my seat on the porch I looked out over the valley and forested mountains rising into the clouds. True enough.
Lag-lag berries and sharing the roads with Kabaw, carry on