“It seemed that I had stumbled upon an isolated, virtually forgotten, and culturally untouched group of Hanuno’o.”
By Carl Hoffman | In 1984, on the strength (or weakness) of a newly minted PhD in cultural anthropology, academic expertise in the tribal peoples of Southeast Asia, two years of fieldwork experience in Indonesia, and no hopes of gainful employment whatsoever, I joined the Peace Corps. They sent me to Mindoro, a Philippine island whose mountains are home to a remote, rice-farming hill tribe known as the Hanuno’o.
The Hanuno’o have an oral tradition of having once lived in big happy villages in the flat lowlands along Mindoro’s southeastern coast. Fear of being kidnapped and enslaved by “Moro” pirates from Mindanao drove their ancestors into the mountains during the 18th and 19th centuries, where they spread out into widely dispersed hamlets of no more than two or three closely related families, in stilted bamboo and grass houses that were often invisible from a distance. As a result, the Hanuno’o who awaited my arrival in 1984 were often hard to get to, and sometimes hard to find.
For that reason, they were an anthropologist’s dream. Their traditional tribal culture was not only intact, but thriving. Their very appearance was magnificent, like something out of a travel book published a century-and-a-half ago. Men wore their long hair tied up with colorful strips of homespun cloth. They covered their bodies with loincloths and shirts elaborately embroidered with their own abstract designs. The even-longer-haired women wore those shirts also, made from their own locally grown cotton, dyed blue with native indigo, and woven on traditional handlooms. Both sexes wore hand-strung bead necklaces and bracelets, and everyone filed their teeth, which were constantly stained red from the almost incessant chewing of huge mouthfuls of betel nut, mixed with pepper leaf, lime powder, and tobacco.
Soon I was living happily among them: clad in my own loincloth, my arms festooned with bead bracelets. Contentedly spitting red jets of betel nut-colored saliva, I wandered around the mountains from hamlet to hamlet, developing something that vaguely resembled a muscular physique, since no two steps in any direction ever seemed to be at the same level of altitude. Over there, you either go up or down.
Does it sound exotic? I suppose. But the quotidian requirements of having to eat, drink, sleep, wash, dress, and go to the bathroom—and deal with headaches, chest colds, stomach cramps, jock itch, blackened and broken toenails, and a host of other maladies—tend to bring even the highest-flying forms of exotica crashing down to earth. And in time, of course, your “exotic tribe” gradually stops being exotic and becomes instead simply a group of friends and neighbors you see every day, with personalities and personal problems like those of people everywhere else.
In this way more than two years passed. I lived in a house in a hamlet called Dagum, overlooking the Malang-og River. And it was while I was taking a bath and washing my loin cloth du jour in this river one afternoon that I happened to idly look up and notice a Hanuno’o house I had never seen before, far up on a hillside, almost at the top of the ridge.
This was not especially unusual. The Hanuno’o, who still have enemies to fear, like non-tribal land-grabbers and illegal loggers, deliberately build their houses to be inconspicuous. One discovers a Hanuno’o dwelling serendipitously, by inadvertently looking in its general direction at just the right time of the day, when the sun hits it and makes its blond-brown grass roof glow brightly for just a moment.
But I had been bathing right here every day, and had somehow never seen this dwelling before. When I asked my neighbors about it, they stared blankly or shrugged their shoulders. One or two people stated flatly that no one lived up there now.
The next day, at precisely the same time, I was washing in the river again. I was in perfect position to see the house, but somehow it was not in position to be seen by me. It simply wasn’t there. Nor was it there the following day, or the day after, or ever again, no matter what time of day I looked up to find it.
After a while I shrugged my shoulders, decided that my neighbors had been right, and forgot about it.
Until, about six months later, I saw it again.
I glanced up—inadvertently, I swear—and there was the same light-brown grass roof shining briefly in the afternoon sunlight. Overcome with curiosity about a house inhabited by Hanuno’o I had never met or seen before—and smart enough not to mention my repeat sighting to my Hanuno’o, who insisted that no such house existed—I finally set off on one of the narrow foot trails that crisscrossed the area.
I climbed. And climbed. The houses and gardens of Dagum slowly gave way to rice swiddens, which soon petered out into stretches of green fallow fields. These finally disappeared into forest that became thicker and darker as I got closer to the top. The little ribbon of a trail disappeared too, leaving me to pick my way slowly upward, through thorny wild plants and rocky underbrush.
I heard them before I actually saw them. Some bits of indistinct conversation, some singing or chanting in a voice that I guessed belonged to a very old woman, and the familiar Hanuno’o sound of rice being pounded with a wooden mortar and pestle. I stepped forward very slowly—using my patented “weird-looking bearded white man approaching unknown group of Hanuno’o” walk—until I saw the house and three people.
A middle-aged man and woman stood on either side of a wooden mortar, alternately raising and plunging their club-like wooden pestles down into unhusked rice. An old woman sat some distance away, winnowing the newly husked rice in a tray woven from strips of rattan. Both the winnowing tray and the mortar-and-pestle were noticeably darkened by use and time. The old lady was indeed singing: intoning Hanuno’o oral poetry in a style and cadence I had never heard before. The whole scene looked like something out of a diorama in a museum of ethnology.
As I got closer, they saw me and stopped cold. They stared with an unfriendly silence that literally chilled me. I smiled, even bowed, and began to introduce myself, softly speaking my best Hanuno’o in my most diffident tone of voice. After what seemed like years, the man quietly replied that he knew who I was and where I lived. When I asked why I’d never see them before, the woman replied that they never go down to the river or mix with the Hanuno’o who live there. The old lady stared at me intently as the man repeated, “Never.”
The man and woman glanced at each other for a moment, and seemed to have come wordlessly to some sort of decision. The three of them then told me their names and motioned for me to join them inside the house.
Hanuno’o houses are almost always sturdy, and kept scrupulously clean and tidy. The house I was ushered into now, however, was dirty, even dilapidated. There were gaping holes in the grass roof that no doubt let in copious amounts of rain. Many of the bamboo floor slats were broken. The walls appeared to be blackened, as though the house had once been partially burnt and never repaired.
Presently four more people turned up: two young women, one old man, and a girl of about 10—the only child I was to see that day. I asked if there were other houses and people up this way, and the middle-aged man darted his eyes around quickly at the others before finally saying that there were. And then no one said anything else.
I introduced myself to the newcomers. They stared at me for a while and then told me their names. I asked for a drink of water. A young woman flitted out and returned a moment later, handing me an age-darkened bamboo cup full of water from a nearby spring. I reached for my little rattan basket and brought out betel nut, which they all requested, grabbed, and fervently began to chew.
And as they chewed, murmuring in low voices, I was struck by a peculiar feeling: they looked somehow ‘more Hanuno’o’ than any of the Hanuno’o I knew.
My Hanuno’o neighbors and friends lived traditionally, but they went down to the lowlands occasionally, where they worked for small amounts of money and bought things from lowland markets. Some had sporadic contact with traders, missionaries, and government officials. Others had already begun to send their children to missionary-run elementary schools, while a few even made their way to local town hospitals when they were very, very sick. A number of the younger people had simple, battery-powered portable radios, and many were already eating their native rice off of plastic dishes instead of banana leaves, and drinking their spring water out of discarded plastic Cal-Tex motor oil containers instead of hollowed-out coconut shells.
The people I was sitting with now seemed to be dwelling in a proverbial Land that Time Forgot. Glancing around, I could find nothing that wasn’t authentically, aboriginally Hanuno’o. For example, the abundant necklaces my neighbors wore were always made from plastic beads, mass-produced and imported to the Philippines from somewhere in China. The beads in these peoples’ necklaces were made of polished stone, which I had seen only around the necks of a few very old men and women, in very old books, and once in a museum. Indeed all of their possessions were traditional to the point of being historic.
And while my command of spoken Hanuno’o was reasonably good, I found that I could barely follow these people’s conversations. The cadence of their speech was somehow different, and they were using words and expressions I had never heard before. It seemed that I had stumbled upon an isolated, virtually forgotten, and culturally untouched group of Hanuno’o.
The hours passed, and the afternoon sunlight began to wane. As the first shadows began to appear on the hillside, the middle-aged man took a very deep breath, looked down at the broken bamboo floor, and told me I should head home before it got too dark. I smiled, thankful for his concern. But as I reached into my basket for more betel nut to offer them, the man raised his head, looked at me sharply, and in an unmistakable tone of warning told me I had to leave at once.
So I did, carefully making my way downwards through the lengthening shadows, until I finally found myself on a more or less visible trail. I reached Dagum a little after nightfall, greeted with relief by neighbors who had spent the afternoon wondering where the hell I’d gone.
My audience became hushed and quickly grew larger as I happily began to tell them how I’d spent my day. It may be a cliché, but I actually saw their complexions go white as blood drained from their faces while I repeated the names of the people I had met. I was asked—ordered, in fact—to relate again and again the precise route I had taken. I was told to recount, repeatedly, exactly what I’d seen and heard. I was questioned, with evident alarm, whether I had eaten anything while I was up there. And I watched them almost recoil when I told them how I was warned to leave before night began to fall.
After a moment that seemed so quiet I imagined I could hear the earth rotating on its axis, Dagum’s headman cleared his throat and said, “Carl, those people are from the time of my grandparents. They were some of our people who were killed during the big fiery war the Japanese fought here long ago against your people, the Americans.”
He let that message sink in before concluding, “Carl, you have been with ghosts.”
Thirty years have passed. Do I believe his contention? Do I believe that unhappy spirits with unresolved issues continue to haunt the places where once they lived? Of course not.
I might add, however, that I never saw that house again—not at any time of the day, or at any season of the year. Once again, it was gone.
Carl Hoffman G’76 Gr’83 is a Tel Aviv-based freelance writer whose articles appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post, and an instructor of English at The Open University of Israel.