About four hours from Baler, in the Philippines' province of Aurora, is a place called Sitio Dalugan in Bgy. San Ildefonso, town of Casiguran (the closest airport is Manila). Going up the winding mountain trail, the weary traveller is treated to an ever-changing scenery — lush forests, stretches of green paddy fields and the shimmering royal blue of the Pacific.
Protected by a natural cove that stretches as far as the eye can see, the area is inhabited mostly by the Agta Dumagat, the indigenous people who live in the shelter of the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range.
The Agta Dumagat are hunter-gatherers who lord over land and sea. They are known for their speed and accuracy in shooting down wild animals and birds with arrows and spearing fish while riding the beruto (a small boat made of curved wood).
the cool natural coral pool formation - a break from the pounding waves of the Pacific
Though a gentle people, the Agta Dumagats have nevertheless been influenced by the rough civility of the locals around them. They mingle, but keep a distance from the townsfolk. For many years, they have been fighting for their land, a piece of their history and their rightful realm. Several non-government agencies have helped their cause with some success. The Agta Dumagat area is protected from illegal loggers and poachers.
The landscape the Agta Dumagat call home boasts weather-beaten rocks which seem to have been placed by a celestial architect.
The rugged topography seems in harmony with the harsh splendour of the sea. The ever-verdant forest of the Sierra Madre cloaks the craggy terrain with its canopy of coconut trees and old hardwood. Pebbles abound, shimmering and smooth, providing a majestic garden of palm-size enchantments that make you want to build your own granite oasis. Several leafless trees recall autumn.
Jukka and Erik take a break from the Pacific sun
A huge rock formation dominates the coastline, looking like an indomitable fortress rising from the seaboard. The sharp edges of the rocks allow the prying explorer only minimal access to the cliffs. This formation also serves as a natural diving platform to a coral garden. The pool offers a cool respite from the blazing Pacific sun.
The royal blue of the Pacific turns aquamarine when the waves lap the shore. The waves dwarf surfers with their might and magnificence.
This sea is a hazardous playground for surfers. The surfer must move away from the coastline, a safe distance from the jagged rock formations hidden by the waves.
Where the river meets the ocean....
For three days and two nights, we set up camp in that region, our tents and hammocks juxtaposed with the makeshift nipa huts which provide the Agta Dumagat shelter. There, night descended early. Over bonfires, the Agta Dumagat recounted their lifestyle. Our modern way of life stands in stark contrast to theirs, which has been passed on from one generation to another.
The Agta Dumagat children are just like those anywhere else — pure innocence and joy shines in their bright eyes. They are bashful, yet playful. Once trust is built, they cling to you like they have known you all their life. They brought us wood for a fire and were shy to ask us for anything.
But a bar of chocolate brought out the happiness in their eyes.
Erik with the Dumagat matriarch
On school days, the children collect in the mornings in a tribal hall built for them by the government. In the unfinished structure, they are taught to read, write and do a little arithmetic. The instructions are designed to allow the Agta Dumagat children to cope with the townspeople in their line of trade.
After the morning classes, the children go back to their playground, the vast coastline, and their homes, where they help their parents with chores.
The intrepid traveller will not hesitate to come back to this part of the world. The allure of nature and the desire to see the native dwellers again is too strong a pull to resist.
Erik Roque is a freelance travel writer
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Information courtesy: The Holiday Lounge by Dnata