The Kids of Paluan

June 23, 2018 Voluntourism

In all the years I have been working with communities in the mountains, I have seen and done so much I didn't think there would still be anything that would shake me. But I was wrong.

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of TRails to Empower Kids (TREK) volunteers for a reconnaissance mission in Paluan, Occidental Mindoro, located at the the north-western tip of the Island and very near one of its gateways, the Abra de Ilog port.

TREK is a volunteer-based group that reaches out to far flung communities, mostly located in the mountains. I co-founded TREK with friends in 2007 as a way of giving back to the communities in the mountains. We owe to them the fulfilment of our hobby – mountain climbing.

We went to Paluan on the invitation of Richard Binagen, a teacher at Pinagbayanan Minority School in Barangay Harrison. He got to know the group through common friends, one of whom is TREK Board Member, Velle Bacolod.

It was not the first time I had visited the island. In fact, I have been visiting since 2005. TREK also has three communities on the island. Two are located in Calintaan, Occidental Mindoro, where Taubuid Mangyan students study. This is one of the ethnic groups on the island. The third community is located in Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, and caters to Hanunuo Mangyans.

There are eight indigenous groups on the island, however, the common name is Mangyan.  

The school that teacher, Richard, runs is the Pinagbayanan Minority School, and
 is for the Iraya Mangyans.

Richard warned us of the high waves that make traveling to Sitio Pinagbayanan difficult. Sitio Pinagbayanan is a coastal community that sits at the foot of Mt. Calavite. During the summer months, traveling to the community by sea takes at least four hours.  

We went there last month, in May, and it took us four and a half hours. There were, indeed, some terrifying moments, but most of the time, the waters were calm.  

Our boat didn’t have tarp cover for us to shelter under. This was to prevent it from being toppled over by strong winds. The result was that for the entire voyage, we baked under the hot sun.  

It was such a relief when we reached the community. We were hoping to rest and allow our bodies to cool, but Richard had a different plan for us. After serving us lunch and giving us time to settle in the homestay he had arranged for us, he asked us to board the boats again to visit a waterfall.

I wanted to just stay in the community, but Richard was insistent, so off we sailed for another forty-five minutes. Then we trekked a while to finally get to the falls. It turned out that Richard had been right. The cool waters of Tagbibinta Falls were just what we needed. 

When we left the falls, Richard invited us to walk to the small communities located near the falls. The beach was very inviting, and we couldn’t resist snapping a few pics, especially as the sun was already setting.

What was supposed to be a nice, leisurely, sunset stroll, turned out to be a disturbing glimpse into the hard lives of the communities Richard was hoping we would serve.

I saw kids with sad looks in their eyes. It was hardship staring right back at me from such young children. It was unsettling. I wanted to talk to them, but found I was unable to. I reminded myself that I needed to take photos for documentation, but I could not do that either. In the end, all I could do was just smile.

They reminded me of the kids of Calintaan. They were dressed in rags, smudges on their faces. Some didn’t have any clothes, nor footwear, and these kids were even sadder. I became worried that they were already taking on the look of people who had settled for their state of poverty.  

I wandered around for a while, then I saw a family sitting around a bonfire with two small fish on a makeshift barbecue. There was was clearly not enough food in the two small fishes for them, yet they still offered to give me some.

Richard told us of the discrimination the group faces. How some ‘learned’ people try to scam them.  

He told us of a time he had tried to help by selling their produce over on the mainland. But what the people there were willing to pay him was not even enough to cover the boat rental. In the end, he just returned the produce to the communities.

I remembered the song the kids of Calintaan had sung to us. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It told of the struggles of this indigenous people’s group. Apparently, the Mangyans have common battles.

Yet, they remain kind. The family that hosted us were actually from Batangas and had been adopted by the cultural group.  

They are also not greedy. They take from the sea, for example, only what they need.

Such good people, and yet they seem neglected.

When we got back to our base in Sitio Pinagbayanan, the community elders were there to meet us. We served them coffee and some bread I got at Davao Airport. They were thrilled by the fact that it had come from where the Philippine president lives.

Though both sides found it difficult to converse because of the language barrier, it was a joyful meeting.

A few hours later, the women of the community arrived with their kids. We were told they just wanted to see who their visitors were. It was fortunate we had packed some candy and were able to give it out right after we introduced our group to them.

The following day, we visited the school and the rest of the community. Compared to the pockets of communities we saw along the coastline, the residents of the sitio are better off, but still not as blessed as they should be.

I was told that Pinagbayanan had become a community center for the whole barangay. They had been forced to put in a convenience store so that the tribal members didn’t need to go into the town center and risk being bullied.

Before we left the community, we stopped to observe a feeding program being conducted. There is a very high incidence of malnourishment in the area and it is sad that even though the people have access to both the bounty of land and sea, they are still impoverished.  

Actually, both land and sea have also become hurdles that have to be overcome by both the community members and us, the people that want to help them. We promised everyone we would come back with whatever help we can gather.  

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