In Mount Pinatubo's Shadow

At 5:15 am, bats are feasting on tropical fruit in the trees above. It’s dark, but Manila’s congested streets are well-and-truly awake. My destination is just north of suburbia, but in a city where a competent jogger can out-run the traffic, that means a three hour journey. A local church minister has invited me to a village in the Province of Bulacan, where he and his team of volunteers regularly provide aid to the people many believe are the Philippines’ original ethnic group.

The Aeta (pronounced “eye-ta”) are unlike other Filipinos. Dark and petite with tightly-curled hair, they look more African than Asian, a difference that automatically makes them unpopular in a country that cherishes pale skin to the point where bleaching creams are sold at supermarket check-outs.

Not surprisingly, the Aeta live on the social edge. A Filipino volunteer named Jerry explains the situation: “People think the Aeta are lazy and uncivilised,” he says. “So they haven’t been given access to education, housing and healthcare.”

With Manila’s mania behind us, we find ourselves alone on a track of grey sand. This is “lahar”, Jerry says — volcanic ash that gushes from an eruption as fast as the average passenger train. Nearby Mount Pinatubo exploded into the record books in 1991 with the most violent land-based eruption of the twentieth century, smothering people and homes throughout this area. Jerry points to glimpses of remnant roofs poking through the ground. Life for the Aeta certainly hasn’t been kind.

However, as we reach the outskirts of our destination, it's clear the area has renewed in the intervening years. As we pass bundles of food and clothing from our van’s windows, people burst from homes made of bamboo and woven banana leaves. The size of my kitchen, an extended family squeezes into each one.

By the time we reach the village centre, word is out that the minister has brought two Westerner visitors, myself and Tim, an American engineer on a short contract in the Philippines. White skin is so rare here that adults gape. A few children hide behind a carabao (water buffalo) harnessed to a cart, while the more adventurous pat my freckled arms.

I try to be more subtle with my own curiousity, peeking at babies sitting with their bare bottoms in the dirt, men in traditional loincloths hacking leaves from crimson bananas flowers with machetes, and everyone with their feet splayed and cracked from lives without shoes.

After providing a meal of fish and rice, we give away more bags of food and clothes, especially to a few elderly ladies, whose rags barely cover their time-worn bodies. Tim fetches his guitar from the van, plucks at the strings and sings for the children, who are adorable, despite the flies sucking moisture from their dirt-smudged faces. A woman produces her own guitar — a home-made version with five strings — and her friends hoot and giggle as they grab our hands for an impromptu lesson in traditional dancing. Joy, I realise, has nothing to do with status and wealth.

Still, that doesn’t make it less touching when Tim pulls his guitar out again on our drive back to Manila’s mushroom-cloud of bustle and pollution. He sings 500 Miles by Peter, Paul and Mary: “Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name; Lord I can’t go a-home this a-way….”

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