I was invited to stay with the Tagbanwa, an aboriginal tribe that lives in the remote jungle mountains in the Philippines. I spent a number of days teaching art and working with the children of the village, living among them and according to their traditions.
Time Moves as Fast as You Do
Things move slower up on those mountains, and not just because of the long climb up. There’s no way to hurry water over an open fire, and if I’m honest, it took me a few days to acclimate to the slowness of life.
The road to the village crossed sixteen rivers, and motorcycles were the only vehicle that could handily make the trek. All the village’s supplies, which included construction materials, rice, and school supplies, was brought slowly on the backs of carabao, or water buffalo.
All buildings were constructed by the villagers themselves. That included the bahay kubo, or bamboo huts, as well as the larger lumber structures such as the classroom, and the town hall which was only just begun while I was there. This building would take a long time to build since the concrete for the footings would all be brought from miles away—one bag at a time—by carabao.
One of the only rules the guides gave me when I first came to the village was to not eat anything in front of people without offering food to everyone. At first, I thought this would be a real inconvenience when it came time to eat those chocolate biscuits in my backpack. And when my guides set out a large meal for us, the villagers mostly looked on warily from their homes.
Then one morning, an old man came and partook a bit of our food. He wore around his neck a small Spanish bell that the guides said had been dated to about 200 years old. I’d have never heard the story of that artifact eating cookies alone in my bunk.
Baths were in the form of a small pail of water and scoop. Learn to take a bath with less than three liters of water, or risk pumping water wet and soapy. All the village’s water needs came from one pump, a mile away from some houses. Needless waste meant needless labor, for yourself or someone else.
The Past and the Future Can Coexist
The last night, the tribe held a small ceremony. They demonstrated traditional dance and music, and the chieftain talked about their way of life. Their primary source of income was a tree tar they sold to be refined into lacquer.
While they value their ancestral ways of life, they are not as guarded as, for example, the Amish in the US. He talked about their study groups of young students, who worked at translating literature such as the bible to their native tongue as a means of preserving the language.
Though the homes had often less than four walls, and few villagers wore shoes, nearly everyone seemed to have a cell phone, and I was shocked—and relieved—to have cell service. It seemed a little odd to me that in a village where tradition rules daily life, I spent my evenings working remotely through labor hire thousands of miles away.
Sometimes the Past is Best Left Alone
Maybe the most jarring juxtaposition came when my guide pulled me aside and told me a tale about a wedding that is said to have taken place in the village. Supposedly, there wasn’t enough food in the poor tribe for the feast, but somehow they came up with enough meat. It was only when the visiting tribe noticed a tattoo on the meat that they realized what they were eating. The guide assured me that those days were long gone, and the last recorded incidence of cannibalism was in 2008.