Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Tribe

In 2004, a young journalist named Christine Robles traveled to northern Luzon to live with the Aetas of Zambales for a month. Her assignment was in a forest near Pundaquit in San Antonio, which can be reached only through hours of walking from the town proper. Pundaquit is a small fishing village known for its calm and pristine beaches; and being within a three-hour-travel proximity from Manila made the coastal town a favorite spot for nature lovers and intrepid travelers.

   The Aetas are generally less than five feet tall, broad headed, with kinky hair, big round eyes and dark skin. Many of them have held on to their ancestral customs. Like most indigenous groups, the Aetas were hardworking folks with almost no cash income. The men hunt, gather, farm or trade for a living. The women were skillful in weaving. They have a vast knowledge of not only the edible fauna in the forest but also of over a hundred medicinal plants and their applications. They worship Apo Namalyari, whom they regard as the supreme deity and creator. They use no contraceptions and they build only temporary shelters. The Aetas are not warriors, but they do not trust people from other "tribes" easily.

   After two weeks in Zambales, Christine became bored by the languid way of life. Each day appeared to be an exact copy of the day before. On her twenty-first day, after interviewing some members of the tribe, she fell asleep again, sleeping because there was nothing else to do. It was almost five. In a few hours the ritual dance would start, then dinner, then darkness. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. The creek was too low and stagnant to bathe in but there was a deep well for drinking and laundry. 

   Christine, who writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, is a petite Filipino-Chinese with a sleek, short bob haircut. Eleven years ago, she wanted a break from modern life. She wanted to escape. Her plan was to quit her job, move to California with her parents, work in a vineyard, marry John Mayer and travel in her spare time. But for some reason, the newspaper wanted to pay her to live with the Aetas and to write something about her experience. The 26-year-old Ateneo graduate wanted to discover herself, so for thirty days she traded the frills of her affluent Makati existence for the elemental basics of tribal living in Zambales.
   
   On March 30th, 2004, Christine packed a few things in the trunk of her old bimmer, a five-passenger, four-door sedan she'd owned since college, and left her two-bedroom apartment. She felt good. She felt free. After a four-hour drive and a two-hour walk, she found herself dwelling with 256 Aetas — some clutching bows and arrows, others with babies on their hips.
   
   She spent her time understanding the tribe, getting involved with their everyday tasks, listening to their hymns and tales, and even helping them find and grow food. Her guide hardly spoke Tagalog, but he never hesitated to smile or to respond her questions even if he had no clue of what she said.

   Twenty-nine days later, Christine did not look her beautiful and fashionable self. She wanted to go for a long, brisk walk to settle and clear her mind, but her lower back hurt too much to move. Her experience with the Aetas was life changing, and she felt like a new person. The bonds she made with these people were truly indescribable... but she knew the city was where she belonged.

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