Words and Images by Chaela Canlas—–
The experience I had with Project Liwanag PH and the indigenous Aetas at Tarlac is something that I will always keep dear to me. Far from the city, high up in the mountains, live several indigenous Aeta communities from the Aeta Mag-Antsi, Aeta Abellen, and Aeta Hungey tribes. Never would I have imagined that there were these huge, flourishing communities in almost what seems to be the middle of nowhere! I, along with the Support and Services Group of St. Luke’s Medical Center— Global City, had the chance to meet some of these Aeta communities, namely Sitio Settler and Sitio Tarucan. We were there simply for an outreach program, but the experience turned out to be so much more than that- it was an eye-opening and moving encounter with our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Coming to the trip, I was really looking forward to the journey going to these communities: we were told about riding an off-road vehicle through rugged terrain, crossing gushing rivers, and trekking the mountains. The entire group was excited as we boarded our vans and met up with the Project Liwanag team— a group of young, inspired individuals that went into social work for indigenous communities straight out of college. It was a two-hour trip to Tarlac from Manila. When we reached Paidyanan, the Aeta dormitory run by the Holy Spirit Aeta Mission, we got onto the 4×4 off-road vehicles and made our way to the mountains. It was breath-taking to be surrounded by the huge and vast Tarlac mountain ranges. This is the place the Aetas call ‘home’.
After the community meeting, we moved onto preparing the giveaways for the community. We prepared goodie bags for each household and had their family heads step forward to receive it. Their eyes glistened as they took the bag and smiled for a picture-taking. It was quite heart-warming to see them so happy. We had a boodle fight lunch together with the community after. Each one from the Support and Services group got to bond more with community members and ask about their daily lives. It was a meaningful sharing of each one’s lives and learning about the joys, pains, struggles and triumphs of the Aetas living in the mountains. What we learned is that their limited access to basic needs is what makes life in the mountains challenging. Despite this, they still choose to stay. The connection they have with their land is something indescribable. Land is for Aetas, and it is something we must respect.
1.) Sitio Settler
Around an hour had past, and we arrived at the foot of the mountain that we had to trek to reach Sitio Settler. Eager and inspired, we quickly hopped off our vehicles and made our way up the mountain. We traversed the path made by the Aetas and was later greeted by children running down to help bring up our things. Midway, I got really tired and took a break. Beside me resting was one of the community members who were carrying two sacks of rice, which we brought. He looked so happy to see us, even if he was exhausted from carrying several kilos of rice on his shoulders. After around 15minutes, we continued on. It took us a total of an hour and a half tor each the community. I saw the quaint, little houses coming into view and the people staring and smiling at us.
It was such a wonderful feeling being able to make it to the top and being received warmly by the community. We took a rest inside one of the houses and then prepared for the formal meeting with the community. Guiding us was the chairman of PAGMIMIHA, the people’s organization of the Aeta Abellen and Aeta Hungey tribe. He brought us outside the house, and there waiting were the rest of the community members, eager to meet us as well. Gathered around in a circle, the meeting started off with their traditional cleansing ritual, a dance around the bonfire. Each of us from the Support and Services Group danced what they call the ‘Taripi’. Shortly after, we introduced ourselves and exchanged a few messages of thanks and appreciation for accepting us in their village. There was no feeling of being an outsider, we were warmly received. Their eyes looking at us intently and inquisitively, yet happy. Strangers, all the way from Manila, popping up their village and still, very much welcomed with open arms.
2. ) Sitio Tartan
By afternoon, it was time to head back down. We bid our farewells, which was difficult as we are going to miss the community. But at the same time knowing that we would be back again in one way or another. They graciously accepted us in the community, and allowed us to be part of their story and journey. With a heart full of love, we went back down the mountains and boarded the off-road vehicles to go to Sitio Tartan before leaving fro Manila. Like in Sitio Settler, we were welcomed once more by all members of the community. We got to see the communal solar PV system that was installed with Project Liwanag PH and were also able to give away goodie bags to the members of the community. Before departing, I was able to give a short message of gratitude. Then after, the chairman of their people’s organization, LAKBAY-KU, gave a touching speech about their life in the mountains and how thankful they are for the groups that go all the way extended their reach to those who need it. I realised that this simple outreach is just the first step to join them in reaching their dreams and goals. It is through forming relationship with the communities that we, from the city, can really do great things for and with them.
The entire experience opened our eyes and moved us in a very human way. Giving time, a listening ear, and hand to hold someone who needs it most is love put into action. To love another person, as they say, is to see the face of God. And through these Aetas, by being with them and reaching out, I felt and saw what the quote was trying to say. This trip to the Tarlac mountains taught me that it is important to be open and let experiences speak to you. The trip may have been short, but I know that this is just the beginning of a fruitful and meaningful relationship with these people. It was an honor, along with the Support and Services Groups of St.Luke’s Medical Center- Global City, to have been able to get to know some of our indigenous brothers and sisters.