We All Have Our Eden
by Martin Benedict Perez
My road to Sitio Target began in April 2007. During a planning session with our school’s social science unit, we listened to the stories of a social worker about her attempts to make a difference in two sites in Pampanga. First is in a clinic for children with cerebral palsy. Every Tuesday and Thursday, a team of volunteer doctors conduct therapy and deliver miracles; several children who were once in vegetative states can now roll, play and hug their mothers. Though deeper than their ailment is their history; these are toxic waste victims whose mothers once lived on toxic camp water when they were relocated to old US bases after the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo. Call it altruism or activism, but this social worker has a clear advocacy that only became much clearer when she began talking about her second site, this small Aeta community outside of Clark — Sitio Target.
It was her story that I basically echoed in my well-circulated post, The Myth of Gawad Kalinga, a title we coined together throughout our conversation. She is clearly in the sights of GK and Antonio Meloto; she has actively written letters and vehemently called for fora to halt the development of the site or to at least listen to the side of the Aetas. It is because of this that she encouraged me to write, though she prefers to remain anonymous. I however, don’t mind a little controversy as long as it brings certain truths to light.
Little did I know at that time that this road to Sitio Target would reveal so many other truths. It all definitely began with a profound interest to understand the shortcomings of GK in the area, and it evolved into a thesis on modernity which I share with my students. But shed all these intellectual pretenses aside and what we’re left with is something far more simple and powerful. My overnight immersion in Sitio Target reminded me a lot about family, happiness, the world we live in and the God who made it. Not quite what I was looking for, but then this place has its way of hitting your target.
It took us at the social science unit several months before we finally got to visit the sites introduced to us in April. We all had our curricular commitments to fulfill in a school that requires much dedication and sacrifice inasmuch as it inspires them. It was October 10 when I accompanied our unit head, Tina Bawagan, and in turn we were accompanied by the social worker and her partner to Sitio Target and the cerebral palsy clinic.
It was then when I first met Pastor Philip, his wife Melva and their children Aaron, Myla, Aarot and Aram. We arrived at Sitio Target around 10:30am and he entertained us until noon before we moved on to the next site. While still there, we toured their community, the GK site, and he told us about the Aeta way of life. Converted to Christianity by South Koreans in the early 90s, Pastor Philip is now the de facto spiritual head of the community. He welcomes all the visitors and holds much influence over most of his neighbors — who are mostly his relatives too, anyway.
Pastor Philip (right) and his cousin, Mang Fernando (left). I will always remember Pastor for his hospitality, wisdom and his simple, unfettered sense of humor. And Mang Fernando, ah. Beware. This old man is faster and stronger than us city kids. They both eventually housed our group.
At great length, he spoke to us about their people, their heritage and their ties with nature or God. Then he mentioned that a group of Benedictine sisters and college students from St. Scholastica would visit them often and that at times, some students even stayed for two days. And then it hit me. Could I do the same with my students? Suffice to say, the idea was enthusiastically welcomed by the school — who at that time was represented by Ma’am Tina and I. We marked down a tentative date for December, then went back to Manila with the hopes of a first ever immersion for PSHS students in an Aeta community.
When I formed AKSIS in the beginning of the school year, Sitio Target was actually a major selling point. During a lecture on civilization, I told them about the Aeta way of life, the GK case and then I introduced them to my thesis on modernity: that societies develop at different paces, and that when one way of life is violently imposed over another, we end up with invasion, war and imperialism. Ultimately, these forces create divisions in society which can either make or break whole civilizations. So bringing the question back to the ground, what can we do for the Aetas? It was this question that brought on board a lot of my current students to AKSIS. And to them were added the best of my previous students and our organization was formed. AKSIS was born.
With all things considered, fourteen participants eventually made their way to Sitio Target on December 11 to 12. Nine AKSIS members, three student volunteers and two teachers (including me) rode the PSHS bus to Dau and from there rented a jeep to Sitio Target in Sapang Bato. For some of us and all of us, it was an adventure, a dare, a mission. It was an immersion. Not the kind where you get your feet wet first but the kind where you take the high dive into the deep end.
But for me it was just another day.
Perhaps, that is why I began the morning of the 11th on a shameful note.
Our assembly time in the school was 7am and departure time was 7:30. I arrived a good couple of minutes before we had to leave, and that doesn’t usually happen. I am hardly ever late, especially for something as big as this. Another team was with us, but they’re all teachers now. The plan was that as one big group we go to Sitio Target and then they leave us there for the cerebral palsy clinic. Thus, it was a pretty major day and I was running late. Choke it up to the field trip the previous day, or that the MRT was already packed at such an early hour, but I was. No excuses were left to be made but only to make good on the promise that we leave by 7:30. Or thereabouts.
We arrived in Dau at 9:10am. There, we quickly took stock of everything we had and didn’t have. As a group, we quickly agreed to pool our contributions together (P150 each) plus some available club funds, and to buy enough food to survive the next 24 hours. Others also wanted to buy more goods for the Aeta. Together with the second team of teachers who also needed to buy their lunch, we all went to SM City Dau to buy our provisions. And wow, am I really proud of my students! Once we hit the grocery, some sort of hive mind took over everyone and we just grabbed water, bread, some canned goods and whatever else we needed in a very eerily coordinated manner. We checked out goods worth only P950 for 14 people for 24 hours, so do the math — these guys really are good at it.
Thereafter we boarded the rented jeep to Sitio Target located beyond the town of Sapang Bato outside of Clark. As we neared the site, I told my students to look out the right side of the jeep. Once they see the GK houses, then they know for sure that we have arrived at Sitio Target. At the entrance of the town was Pastor Philip who eagerly greeted our entire group.
Then we were ushered into their church which also functions as the town center. There we finally got to put down our things and make our formal introductions to each other. We wasted no time in pairing up the students with their foster families with one student per home. The Aetas escorted the students to their new homes, and I was escorted by Pastor Philip to our home. Not too long, I rejoined the group of teachers and together we went around the village to visit the home of each student.
As we passed each house, the students rejoined the group for a tour of the entire Sitio Target. It was a warm and delightful place, and the students were amused with the kids, piglets, puppies and chicks freely running around the area. Everything was simply part of everything else, and it was impressive how a sense of community easily and effortlessly ran through the entire place. Everyone knew each other and everything was shared. Families look out for each other, and that included us, their sons and daughters for the next 24 hours. No wonder the Pastor welcomed us by saying that these are our new homes, our new families. We had nothing to be worried about because we were home.
Once the entire group was complete, we headed to another part of Target. In this area, there were less trees, less animals and less people interacting with one another. Not much was shared because the Aetas in this area of Sitio Target developed a sense of ownership. While walking through this portion of town, I encountered two mothers who crept up to me and overtly asked what we were bringing them. I found it odd and could not offer a reply. Some vendors approached my fellow teachers, naughtily peddling them their wares until Pastor Philip shooed them away — that must have been the only time I heard Pastor raise his voice to people other than children. This area of Target felt like a ghetto — segregated, closed and unfree. The sense of community easily felt in the breeze in the earlier part of town could not break through the concrete walls here. This area of Sitio Target was the area razed and raised by Gawad Kalinga.
It was also the area of Target which we didn’t spend much time in during our immersion. Pastor did not want my students staying in them since the houses were small and hot. The only time he would offer them to guests, he said, are when all the native Aeta homes have taken in guests already. In reply, I teased and joked, asking why Gawad Kalinga gave them such houses in the first place. He cautioned me by saying that there is nothing wrong in giving, though you can give the wrong things.
I am aware that a lot of GK and CFC stakeholders are tracking my accounts of Sitio Target. I have visited your forums (such as this) and read what you have to say. My own blog is not complete without some lectures from the staunchest GK supporters, and I remember one passioned commenter challenging me once that I should pray for God’s guidance and examine my conscience for why I wrote the article in the first place. My answer is simple: my conscience told me to write it.
During one of my conversations with Pastor Philip, I asked him why he continues to refuse a GK house. His 5-year old child answered for him. “Kasi maliit.” It is small, he said. The kitchen, the toilet and the bedroom are all under one roof and that is not how Aeta homes are built. An Aeta home is basically just a large living space, a kitchen slightly cordoned off in a separate nook outside the house, and further outside is a patch of rocks for you to sully as you please. Even if the GK houses were free, Pastor believed that with his own hard work and with God’s blessing, he can build an even better house.
“This kitchen used to be our entire house,” he said while we were having dinner in a small room that housed a stone stove, a wire basin for water, and a table enough for the entire family (they are six). The rest of the house, which includes a receiving area for guests and a spacious bedroom that could fit my whole immersion group, was built on hard work. And for Pastor Philip, that hard work could be seen in two ways — either they sell gabi or papaya, or he receives support from his priest sponsors as long as he continues God’s work. Often, it is both.
Curious, I asked him who was the most successful one. He laughed at the question but he knew what I meant. Under the evening sky, he took me for a walk to another end of town and brought me to a house made of hollow blocks. A student of mine was already sleeping within a house raised by selling gabi. “Their father was a very good farmer. For seven months a year, he would wait for his gabi to grow and after waiting, he would sell them to the market. For 70kg, earning P2,200 is already small. He was very blessed by God,” Pastor recounted.
And the GK houses, are they not blessings? I asked.
“God gives us what we need. For me, it is my family from whom I get the strength to build a better house.” Then we walked back to his house.
“We Aeta don’t ask for what we don’t have. Every day is a blessing and everything we do is for God. When we eat at the end of the day, we think of all the hard work we did and use the energy from the food we eat to restore what we spent. We don’t think about what we’ll eat tomorrow. We sleep, we wake, and then we think of what to eat. We don’t ask for blessings in advance because like mana from heaven, they just come. But you must be ready to gather them when they do.”
We entered the house as he finished that thought. His wife greeted us. “Our greatest treasure is each other,” she said, seemingly completing her husband’s thoughts. “So you must get some sleep now. It will be cold.” She handed me a comforter and a thick blanket since she felt that the banig and cotton blanket I brought is not enough to shield me from the blistering cold that would come in the morning. I joked that a person of my size is naturally protected against the cold, and we all shared our last laugh for the night. I thanked her and her husband and bid them good night. We had a long day ahead.
After the teachers left us on the first day, I decided that my group needed less time together and more time to bond with their families. A lot of my students were still too comfortable being with each other and so I told them to go home first, get to know their families, and get some rest before I call again around 4 or 5pm.
By five, we gathered in the church to divide all the goods we brought into fourteen equal packages which we would bring home to our families for dinner. With all the packages made, we parted ways again. All this time, I would consult with Pastor as to what would be the best thing we could do during certain times of the day. My guiding principle all throughout was that we shouldn’t interfere so much with the Aeta life; the less deviation from their normal routine, the better. Pastor and I then decided that it would be best that we join the Aeta as they head up to the mountains in the morning. Knowing how exciting that would be for my students, I agreed. Thus, the two of us went around the village and dropped by each student’s home, telling them to be awake and in the church by 5am. It would take us a good hour to walk to the mountains and it would be best while the sun wasn’t as high yet.
But as young men and women from the city are wont to do, they began entering the church by five in the morning but we weren’t complete until around six. We left Sitio Target at around half past six and true enough, the walk did take an hour. But it was definitely a breathtaking hour.
We trekked through a low valley that was once a flat gray desert; the mountains were stripped naked because of Mt. Pinatubo’s lahar flows. It was ’94 when the first Aeta families returned to Target and in an attempt to win back the land, they replanted the first trees. By ’95, Pastor Philip and the other elders decided that the land was habitable now and soon the families started returning from their evacuation in Nueva Ecija. So over a decade since then, what greeted us was simply a miracle of nature.
We walked through what was once a powerful river, but whose life ended when the lahar came. Yet there was a quiet trickle running through the sand, and at times it grew into a small river. The Aetas were actually leading us to its source and that was their treat for us guests of theirs.
If you noticed, there are actually tire tracks running through the lahar. This area is not totally alien since it is part of an adventure trail to Mt. Pinatubo. A Korean spa rests just outside of Sitio Target, but it is only the gateway to a 30-minute four wheel-drive ride to the famous volcano. It is a spot frequented by Koreans who love to bathe in the volcano’s majestic hot springs, and the Aetas are often hired as ‘local guides’. It has given them some added income; there are on average about thirty trips a day where they can earn P300.
Far we may be from Pinatubo (a walk takes two days and one night), the Aetas brought us to a natural hot spring that remains untouched by greedy tourists. The water here had been tested for cleanliness and Pastor Philip told us that if we had a bottle, we can sell it as mineral water. It is not often one can say that you can drink in the water you bathe in but this spring is an exception. I haven’t had a bath or a drink in almost a day, so this was a great way to do both. I was actually nearest the source so I can unashamedly drink. The others however, may not be as sure. 🙂
We worked our way back to Sitio Target after about an hour in the water. The walk back, as usual, was faster because of the absence of anticipation and the benefit of familiarity. We got back at around 10am and had a good hour before our rented jeep arrived to pick us up. During our last moments, we wrote thank you cards and handed out gifts. They too blessed us with papayas and warm prayers. The goodbyes weren’t teary, for we both found happiness in each other’s company. Moreover, there are no tears because I am sure that within each one of us is the quiet promise to return.
On the jeepney ride home, I began to write. Of all the thoughts swirling in my head, I had this to say first and foremost:
Ever since I began teaching, I always imagined myself climbing the Great Wall or trekking through the ruins of Ayutthaya. Though my years in Pisay can be counted with the fingers of only one hand, I’ve already done them both. I’ve also been to the heart of the Flat World and visited Hong Kong Disneyland when it opened. Though wearing the guise as leisure and luxury, these bastions of capitalism are lessons in themselves — How can the rest of the world have so much when everyone else has so little?
Yet, I never imagined that I would end up here. In this place so simple and yet so elusive to the volumes of books I have lining my shelves. It is this place that intrigues me most now. This is Sitio Target. And if its name is to mean anything to anyone, it is that it will help you find what you’re looking for.
I know I did. We all have our Eden.
Gawad Kalinga remains active and alive in Sitio Target. However, gone is my will to urgently expunge GK from that place. But this is not to say that I renege on everything I’ve said against their presence there — that remains unchanged. In many ways, the work they’ve done in Sitio Target remains a myth to me. What has changed however, is that I now believe in the Aetas above all.
Gawad Kalinga can either be a blessing or a curse. Neither destiny is for us to completely judge, but it is for the Aetas to decide. Their society may be divided, but they remain whole. They may be welcoming to everyone, but they know how to say no. In learning about the Aetas, it is inevitable that one comes to respect them.
Yes, they may need our help in protecting their indigenous culture, but this doesn’t mean that they are powerless. It is quite the contrary; the Aetas are an incredibly powerful people from whom we have a lot to learn. They may not command large armies, control votes in elections, establish influential religions, or dictate the rise and fall of the stock market, but they know how to live. They know what love means, and they don’t even have to utter the word. They care for each other, they look out for one another, and they live for things ultimately beyond themselves. It is in realizing this value that I hope that everyone who encounters them or at least reads this, comes to value them as a great treasure we must help protect.
Gawad Kalinga? They just give houses. And a home is not just a house for the Aeta. GK, if it is true to its message, will decide its own fate in Sitio Target, a land that ultimately does not need them.
But that is only one half of the revelation. Furthermore I am glad to say that in Sitio Target, I also rediscovered something far more primal.
Pastor Philip used the words panginoon or Diyos in a manner that came so effortlessly and free. Faith for him came so easily that it was impossible not to speak his language. At one point when he told me the history of how he became a pastor, I reciprocated by telling him how I became a teacher. He easily told me that my talents, my wisdom and my passion are all blessings that God gave me, and that like mana from heaven, I am harvesting them. I should be proud, he says, for God works so powerfully in my life. Even if he brought us together for just a day, there will be marks and changes in our lives that will last a lifetime.
And yet, don’t expect me to suddenly embrace the mass or give my confession. I won’t be living my life according to the Bible nor will I be toting Bible verses in my blog or in my class. Indeed, Yahweh is the one true God, but so is Allah, Brahma and Buddha — for those who are so inclined to viewing him as a God. I still find the greatest sense in the Tao, or the all-encompassing Way, which transcends all notions of God and religion (including atheism) which I find too limiting and narrow.
What Pastor Philip has helped me achieve instead, is a heightened spirituality. The Aetas live their lives in such a way that everything they do is a prayer, a devotion and a blessing. They live in the here and now, and are infinitely thankful for everything given to them. While their faith may respond specifically to their subsistence ethos, what is our life if not a journey we take on each day? Therefore, everything I do now is a prayer, a devotion and a blessing as well. Whether it be blogging, or teaching, or being a good friend, co-worker or son, I don’t think of what I’ll do tomorrow without making the most of the moments I have today.
Eventually, these moments will lead me back to Sitio Target. I promise — I will return. Whether it be with another group of students, another immersion, or even a simple one-day outreach, it doesn’t matter. When the chances come, I will make my opportunity. And when that happens, I hope that Ellie, Franco, Gerald, Guio, Criselle, Christian, Gaby, Gorio, Jet, Joaqs, Merlynn, Sheena and Shella join me.