Camp Kamagong, San Pablo-Dolores Road, Laguna-Quezon Boundary: The campmaster and his son tidied up the felled bananas, neatly separating leaf and trunk for easy disposal into the surrounding brush which demarcated the boundaries of the campsite.
They used my heavy bolo along with their own carry blades, and had similarly happy grins when they were done. I took my son aside to rehydrate with the camp’s sweet spring-fed tap water, as his melee with the bananas had taken a bit of wind out of him. It was now time to plunge deeper into the jungle towards the other future campsites, for which the faithful camp dog magically reappeared as if out of nowhere, eager to accompany us on our little hike.
Blade-lust wears off less quickly on the inexperienced, it seems. For a while my son trudged on somberly and inattentively through the treacherous jungle trail, watching the campmaster on point with his drawn blade, who so often had to slash away at the various tropical plants obstructing our path. Not mildly, I scolded the boy to pay more attention to his footing, to step cleanly over the entangling foliage instead of wading through it, but he remained sullen until I figured out why.
I drew out the small curved knife, and promised to hand it to him every time he spotted a wild gabi (yam) plant that happened to have its big handsome leaves blocking our way. After that, he was more mindful and sure-footed, ever on the lookout for his next mark. He would cut the offending stalks but leave untouched the others which were not impeding our progress, with a polite bow to placate any indignant spirits of the forest, just in case. He also practiced our usual habit of pointing at wild things and curious spots with the pinky instead of the index finger, again with the intention of causing less offense. We excused ourselves profusely (“Tabi-tabi po…!”) when we had to take a piss into the undergrowth, this of course being the proper protocol for the nitrogenous offering to be accepted back into the nutrient and water cycle.
On we went, with our valiant little camp dog guarding the flanks. Across the canopy, a big blue kingfisher (kasay-kasay) flew past, his proud raptorial screech echoing the majesty of his great predatory cousin, the eagle. We reached one of the future campsites on a bluff overlooking the nearby peaks of Banahaw and San Cristobal shrouded in rainclouds, and further on another campsite nestled in a sheltering valley, well-protected against the ravages of any tropical storm. The other campsites shortly proved inaccessible, as the monsoon rains had swiftly choked off many of the trails with overgrowth, too thick to cut through within a day’s work for our small number. Only a tall stately mango tree in the distance served to mark their location.
The trees! Oh, the trees: Mango, tamarind, jackfruit, narra, lanzones, the coddled invaders mahogany and Madre de Cacao, the myriad types of banana, a small coffee tree we suspected as being of the rare and noble Liberica variety, and so much more I had yet to learn about.
In contrast to the neat, sequestered ordering of the all-organic plots and orchards downhill, here they grew in dignified randomness, each mighty tree holding court amid a smattering of lesser companion vines, herbs, and bushes; each plant with its own name and purpose in the jungle ecosystem, each one holding such wondrous biochemical potential for cure or injury, sustenance or exploitation, depending on the knowledge and character of those humans who dared venture into this savage kingdom.
In humility and jest, I often refer to myself as a cowed lowlander (taga-patag) whenever I find myself among the various Igorot and Aeta peoples, and to my hefty brass Madonna as the heavy burden of organized religion weighing down tightly ‘round my neck—protecting my weak flesh not against blades or bullets, only temptation. No machete-toting outdoorsman or martial arts enthusiast should ever assume an air of superiority or civilization when among these indigenous peoples, if one is ever to learn anything to improve one’s skill. Theirs is undeniably the superior culture when it comes to the natural environment of this archipelago supposedly ours, more sensible and sustainable than our unrestrained consumeristic lifestyles.
For example, of all the new and unfamiliar flora our campmaster taught us, only two names stood out in my memory: the dreaded lipa (stinging nettles), the lipang-aso and lipang-kalabaw, as they are called in the vernacular. Yet, I could not quite retain any of the distinguishing features of these plants, nor their English names for easier Googling later on. I might very well brush up against them in the future and become aware of it only as the infamous burning sensation spreads across my skin and deep beneath it. I only hoped my son did better in remembering their appearance.
We have indeed become strangers to our own jungles, and correcting that will take more than one generation. Pitching a tent in a picturesque eco-destination is probably not enough to instill in our children the kind of balanced and informed ecological sensibility that might just save them from our apocalyptic environmental mistakes. While there is time, we would do well to re-immerse our sons and daughters in the formidable rainforest, among our rural and indigenous brethren who still live in harmony with it, if they are to become better than us as stewards of the endless bounty of these emerald isles. And we must equip them adequately for the task; not just with the right gear and training, but more importantly with the right spirit.
Presently, we completed our circuit of the camp, and my son handed me back the small curved knife.
As we made our way back downhill and approached the main camp building, our hereto disciplined canine broke formation and surged ahead, no doubt excited to be back with her mistress. We caught the lovely smell of something stewing, and after passing by the quaint little outhouse to wash off the dirt of the trail, we sat down to a table set with steaming bowls of chicken tinola, cooked with sili leaves fresh off the garden, as well as firm green papayas which I found more palatable than the loathsome mushy upo (calabash) favored for the recipe by poblacion-dwellers.
Afterwards, we had big black cupfuls of a very strong local blend of Liberica and Excelsa; normally either one of these coffee varieties was formidable enough on its own. I had given in to another cigarette, and the campmaster had just told me that they would be going to town for the night to see their son off on the first bus back to the big city, very early in the morning. Just as I took that first deep grateful drag, he asked me, “Will you guys be all right spending the night here by yourselves?”
I took a moment to let the smoke wreak a little more havoc inside my lungs, before letting it out in a calm, steady plume. I fancied it a suitably dashing gesture worthy of the challenge ahead.
“No problemo, sir!”
They drove off to San Pablo proper in the afternoon, leaving us with the brave little camp dog, an entire garden, and a small orchard, yet to be explored. Brilliant green sunbirds (pipit-tamsi) flitted across the treetops, singing their sweet melodies down on us. The flamboyant male, his puffed up chest emblazoned in a deep navy blue, was much bolder than the plain little females of his small harem, as they went from flower to flower, fruit to fruit. Man, boy, and dog strolled happily among the neat little plots of oregano and okra underneath.
Rambutan was in season. We had passed by numerous trees laden with fruit along the highway, with whole families helping bring in the haul. The two trees in the orchard were well harvested by any standard, but there were just enough individual fruits were already in the right shade of red among the many yellowish ones. Picking them will require careful selection, as well as great skill in maneuvering a long heavy pole bending this way and that, with a hook dangling at the very top. It was an implement I had last used when I was just about the same age as my son.
With some difficulty, I plucked the reddest fruit from each tree, with my son carefully watching each one as it fell, and running to retrieve it before the fleeting nature of short-term memory for both child and adult made it indistinguishable from the other fruit scattered across the soft grass below.
When in doubt, I popped open the fruit in question and ate it happily, knowing that the sweetest of these were probably fresh windfalls chosen by mistake, and not the one I hooked off the tree. The wind was definitely a far more discerning picker than I. The hordes of marauding ants safely outside or beneath our boots certainly agreed, swarming over the older windfalls. So, rather than wait for the persistent little myrmidons to find a way past our defenses, we retreated after gathering just over a dozen confirmed picks.
I left my son to go by himself back to a few chili pepper bushes he had spotted earlier. It was his turn to test his grasp of the nuances of color, and I reminded him to pick only the ripest fruit. (Later on when we got back home, he would chomp on the reddest of these peppers with the same initially heroic expression we often saw Bear Grylls put on, when biting the head off a live squirming snake, along with the corresponding look of sheer horror and regret that immediately follows. Fortunately, my son was also having a bowl of extra cheesy corn and carrots, along with a cold bottle of chocolate soy milk, which quickly neutralized the fire of his perfectly ripe sili. My wife and I, spice-lovers both, chortled good-naturedly at his expense, but were inwardly beaming with pride. Only real warriors take this test voluntarily.)
I jogged briskly up the hill to our tent and back again, bringing the big, tough weather-proof bag that housed our polished bolos, the old workhorse blades as well as the gleaming new merchandise. The dog had wandered off once more, and I headed to an unfinished stone building near the orchard, well within spitting distance of my son.
The structure was fairly new, but the masonry showed the excellent highland workmanship of some migrant Kankana-ey laborers from one of the neighboring hill-farms, who were always willing to accept odd jobs during days off. The weathered stones, along with the verdant moss that carpeted their rocky surface, made for a compelling antiquated background that contrasted nicely with my more recent work, the bolos to which I felt my usual carefully-lighted setup at home did not do justice.
But I snapped just a few hurried shots, anxious to get back to the more real labor of harvesting with my son. For all the pride I took in my work, there was something more immediate, more alive, in working with the infinite grace and bounty of nature, mother to us all.
In a moment of reflection, I flexed my perpetually aching right thumb, the price paid for grinding a hard steel blade onto a rough stone all day and all night; then flexed my perpetually aching right forefinger, the price paid for clicking a mouse marketing and distributing said steel blades in the digital marketplace all day and all night. The folk expression “kapit sa patalim” (grasping at a naked blade for dear life, rather too literally) came to mind, and I smiled wistfully.
What if I could just pick fruit and run up and down mountain trails with my son and wife and daughter, bravely hacking through wayward vegetation all day, and sitting contentedly together by a warm cozy fire at night?
But that is to be for another time. First, a man fights. Only afterwards is he free to buy the farm.
A fully grown brown shrike (tarat-pakiskis), another seasonal vagrant from the Asian mainland, shrieks his boundless fury atop the tropical jungle, cowing all the local songbirds unto submission. I half-consciously rolled up my shirt-sleeves, indignant at the brazen display of foreign domination, although admittedly my outrage came more from the fact that his shrieks signified the end of the day, and that our visit to this idyllic little hill-farm was almost at an end. I gave my son a brief manly hug, then with the curved knife cut a fresh clump of fragrant citronella, and bagged it along with the rest of our harvest in order to keep the determined army of ants at bay.
We went back uphill to our campsite, and I set him to skewering a half dozen Chinese sausages for our dinner. Affecting the combined bravado of Bear Grylls and Michael Hawke, I gathered the driest twigs and branches from the moist jungle floor. These I carefully stacked in the fire pit, along with a few dependable half-burned logs, atop a generous cluster of charcoal and torn up bits of dried citronella. I placed my clever little jar of oil-soaked cotton balls beside me, as well as an almost full butane lighter, previously used to light just two or three cigarettes bummed from the campmaster’s weekend stash.
It was already pitch black, except for blinding flashes of lightning that lit up the deepening night.
I crawled out of our tent, and quickly zipped up the mesh doorflap to try and keep out most of the unseen legions of nocturnal creepers and crawlers eerily making their presence felt all around us. I squeezed my amulet, and shook my almost empty lighter, still hot from repeatedly igniting all of our tinder. In my other hand I clutched protectively a little box half-filled with crumbling old safety matches, along with a small bottle of ethyl alcohol stolen from our first aid kit. I was ready to throw it all onto the few dying embers that might yet be desperately aglow underneath my pitiful little teepee of damp wood.
Heading back to the fire pit, I was puzzled at the sight of the camp dog joyfully wagging her tail, and by the glorious aroma of sausages roasting merrily. I saw my son squatting at a spot opposite my original position, fanning with fierce determination from a lower angle, driving a continuous flow of oxygen onto the waiting fuel which was now sandwiched by sufficient heat from the other side.
A roaring fire blazed steadily from the magnificent pyramid of burning wood.
(Part 2 of 2). Go back to the beginning here.
About Camp Kamagong
Camp Kamagong offers basic and advanced bushcraft workshops, as well as classes for jungle foraging, and site hosting for basic mountaineering courses. They are located close to the “back door” of Mt. Banahaw, just off the San Pablo-Dolores Road, which branches off from the Pan-Philippine Maharlika Highway (AH26).
HOW TO GET THERE: Commuters may take any Lucena- or Bicol-bound bus line (₱130-150), alight at the Bato Springs signboard past San Pablo City proper, then charter a tricycle (₱100) all the way to their farm gate. They may also be found using Google Maps. Please contact Fernando Cao or Dr. Meo Santos-Cao via Facebook to schedule your visit.
They also offer organic teas and herbs as Camp Greens; their superior ground and loose leaf stevia, lemongrass, Mexican tarragon, Jamaican oregano, and wild pandan may be ordered online via Lazada.
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