I recently spent six weeks dwelling with inhabitants living in a remote community near the Blos River in Northern Luzon, Philippines. This particular region is located within the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, which is the largest protected area in the Philippines, as it covers the last undisturbed lowland dipterocarp rainforest. Access to this region is limited, as there is no major road network that connects the coastal communities to mainland Luzon. There is no electricity, running water, cellular or Internet connection. Inhabitants living near the Blos rely heavily on hunting, gathering, and small-scale agriculture for their livelihood. However, in the summer of 2012, the Filipino government approved the construction of a major highway to traverse the Northern Sierra Madre Mountain range.
Often, road infrastructures are seen as a social good; however, it is important to consider the ways in which lives and resources will be impacted for the good and the bad. In a world where speed is at the core of modernization and immediacy, I think there is a lot to be learned from lifestyles of differential speed and (im)mobility, as they offer viable alternatives to the contemporary culture of acceleration.
We stand on the shore of the river. “Does this thing backfire?” I question, holding a three-foot spear in my left hand. Laughing hysterically, Melody replies, “It’s not a gun.” “Phew,” I say naively, imagining the spear impaled through my flesh. I grasp the spear, less than an inch in diameter, with a thick black rubber band wrapped around it, and aim precisely at a rock. Feet firmly planted, I pull back as though I am getting ready to shoot an elastic band. I count to three, and let go. Damn, I missed. “Good thing we’re not relying on you for lunch,” Rodel says jokingly, as he strips down to his maroon brief-style underwear. I am encouraged by his humour, because for the first few weeks he was so shy he would barely look at me and wouldn’t dare eat in front of us. His goggles are made from the plastic of buoys that were collected after being washed ashore. “Ma’am, I made these ones in 2001,” he says casually, as he slips them over his eyes. I am not sure if I am more in awe of his ingenuity or his thriftiness. Even more impressively, he was only nine when he made them.
It is overcast, and the water is cold. Rodel and Sam stand knee-deep in the crystal clear, turquoise water, looking for fish. Like they are bobbing for apples, they duck their heads in and out of the water between breaths. Tucked in their underwear is a small piece of a palm leaf used for hanging the caught fish. Bent at the hips, heads submerged, spears in one hand, they use their free hand to flip rocks, looking for eel. Strong and unpredictable, the river’s current pushes up against their lean, naked bodies. Balancing, they try to keep their bare feet planted on the uneven rocks of the riverbed, constantly readjusting. Lunch depends on it.
Emerging from the river, Sam and Rodel skip skillfully across the large rocks. “So?” I ask. Pointing to their hips, they show off their fish. I fill a small pot with river water, while Sam and Rodel look for driftwood. By scratching a nail against the blade of a machete, they make fire. There is something special about the taste of fresh fish. Perhaps it’s a combination of the reward of catching it and the freshness of its taste. As I enjoy my shore lunch, as we call it back home, I appreciate the sheer skill and knowledge that it requires for us to share this meal.
A foreign country changes you the minute you step foot in it. The alternative landscape and culture shock force you to re-evaluate and readjust as you negotiate your way through the interwoven lines that represent the life worlds of these foreign places. Like a wayfarer, you are reflexive in responding to the ever-changing conditions, fully grounded and aware of your surroundings. Dwellers in rural communities are attuned to the environment as they make their way through it. Inhabitants dwelling near the Blos River have learned how to skillfully run across the river’s shore and predict when a storm is rolling in. They rely on the skills and knowledge attained from years of living here. Being removed from the mainland has allowed these inhabitants to become uniquely knowledgeable, and cultivate distinct and viable alternatives to the contemporary culture of acceleration. By the same token, inhabitants endure unique challenges as a result of their removal from large-scale networks.
With the continued pressure to construct a major highway to traverse the Northern Sierra Madre mountain range, it is important to consider that road infrastructures are not inherently good. The notion of a road as a conduit that cuts like a knife through the verdant, vast and dense ridges that are rich with species and habitat is a fitting analogy when we envision what will happen to the landscape and the resources these communities depend upon for their livelihood.
Guest Author Bio
I am currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Professional Communication at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Travelling and photography are two of my passions in life. Travelling is another way for me to learn and widen my perspective; it enables me to gain a broader worldview and embrace new cultures, while photography is my creative outlet and complements my passion for travelling. I enjoy capturing portraits of people; I am captivated by the courage, dignity and spirit of the people I meet through the lens of my camera.
Blog / Website: Kathryn Thompson Photography