I came to Coron way back in March, when President Duterte announced the lockdown. I remember it was a Thursday; I was with my friends, and we were waiting for the announcement together. Covid-19 was just starting to blow up in certain countries, and when the announcement came for the Philippines I felt—well, I guess everyone felt—scared. I knew right away that it was a big deal: they started closing shipping ports and airports, and opening up checkpoints.
Although I live in Makati Poblacion, and I love the city life, I knew then that I needed to go to a place where I could be around nature. I can’t spend the lockdown in my apartment, I thought.
Fortunately, I’ve traveled a lot because my work as a freelance creative always takes me places. I asked a friend of mine, who runs Red Carabao in Coron, if I could stay with them. I had been there last November and I was able to spend some time with the Tagbanua community. Now, I’ve been in Coron for about six months. I’ve basically moved here.
In total, I probably spent two months on Coron island. I knew so little about the Tagbanua before this—for me, at the time, it was a very mystical idea. The first time I visited Coron was in 2009, and just looking at the island itself was nothing like I’d ever seen. The island, the tall mountains... we would just be passing through, and I would always see, from the mountains, this little patch of white sand and a little bahay kubo, the secret lake. “Who lives there? Why can’t we go there?” I asked.
That’s when I was told: That’s where the Tagbanua live.
The more I learned about the Tagbanua, the more I saw that we were very different, yet very similar at the same time. I couldn’t fully grasp it, because prior to this trip I would only stay with them for a few days at most.
As a social enterprise, Red Carabao has partnered with a Tagbanua family. The Tagbanua are also employed as staff members; they prepare the beds, they cook, they manage everything.
A lot of us watch National Geographic or Discovery Channel, right? We watch the indigenous tribes—how they go on with their everyday lives, how they hunt, where they live, and what food they eat. I was always interested in those things, and fascinated by all the photographs from the magazine and from the show. Actually being here, it’s a weird feeling. It’s like I’m watching the show, but I’m actually there. Like a little kid—just mesmerized with everything that's going on.
I think when we say “paradise,” at least for me, I always have this picture of pristine waters, white sand, maybe a piña colada. But during my stay here, I felt something. It’s magical, yes—the stars are brighter, the sunset is more beautiful, the coral reef is so healthy. I guess it’s still what I was thinking of when I thought of “paradise.” But it’s different, because when we think of paradise, we think of ourselves, right? But this is paradise with people, with the Tagbanua.
I saw them living peacefully with nature. It’s hard to explain. But they were the ones that formed this paradise.
Freedom and paradise, they are kind of correlated to me now. When the Tagbanua need food, they swim. They spearfish and get the freshest produce possible. It’s freedom—the freedom to co-live with nature without harming nature. The Tagbanua don’t have a fridge, so they don’t overfish. When they need to eat, they fish and then they cook. Maybe they’ll get an extra two to salt for the next day. But that’s it. They take what they need.
Freedom and paradise, they are kind of correlated to me now. When the Tagbanua need food, they swim.
It’s fascinating to me because it’s so different from how I lived in the city. I had all the comforts, all the entertainment, but I never asked myself if I really needed all these things.
It’s not all paradise either. They have to work. Spearfishing, diving for sea cucumbers, that’s work. They leave at 6 o’clock in the morning, and they get back as late as 1 o’clock in the afternoon. But that’s their life.
When one family isn’t able to catch as much fish, another family shares. They’re confident that when they need it, nature will provide. They know that maybe today there isn’t a lot of fish, so they’ll paddle to the next cove and ask for papaya. They really depend on each other. They harvest together. They still keep their own, but they do it as a unit. I didn’t understand this just by watching the indigenous groups on television.
Sure, a lot about it is marvelous and maybe that’s what we look for in the images. They’re almost like superheroes: how deep they dive, how long they can hold their breath. But it’s just a spectacle. I guess most of the time, that’s what we look for, right? Still, at the end of the day, the thing that really stuck to me is the strength of their community.
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