0900 HOURS Its a jungle out there, baby. And I mean the real thing: vines, monkeys, squawking birds, scurrying critters. I'm sitting in a Quonset hut in what was once the largest U.S. military base in Asia, Subic Bay in the Philippines, 40 minutes by air from Manila. During the Vietnam War, servicemen came here, to the Jungle Environment Survival Training (JEST) Program, to learn how to save their skins if they were ever shot down over enemy territory. Their teachers were members of the Aeta, an aboriginal tribe that has made the surrounding forest its home from time immemorial.
Then the war ended. And in 1992, after years of bickering with the Philippine government, the U.S. military finally pulled out of all its bases. Compounding the loss of the regions major employer, ash from the Mount Pinatubo volcano had blanketed the area, clogging streets and collapsing roofs. The jungle school was stuck in a quandary: How to make a living when the only employer has left town?Aiming for the tourist market seemed, at first, an unlikely answer. Who'd pay to wade through a sultry, teeming rain forest for fun?But then, as luck would have it, the eco-adventure craze hit. That's why I'm here: for a 24-hour experience with a real-life Man Friday, learning to be one with the forest.
0945 HOURS While I'm waiting for my guide to arrive, a tour bus pulls into the parking lot and several hundred Filipino high school students pile out. Though JEST offers one-day to two-week forays into the jungle, the vast majority of customers are short-timers like these kids: they come for a few hours, take a walk, listen to the spiel, and go home. For their sake the jungle school has added some rather unmilitary features, such as an open-air gift shop selling key chains, woven hats, and wooden ashtrays carved in the shape of water buffalo. I'm starting to feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, where he goes crazy waiting to head upriver.
1000 HOURS My guide shows up, looking a bit sleepy. Julio Benito is 35 and built like an olive-drab fireplug. What had I expected, a gentle creature of the forest with a grass skirt and a bone through his nose?Uh . . . sort of. Well, never mind.
We start with a tour of the animal cages, where visitors can get a good look at jungle creatures usually hidden in the undergrowth. There's a trio of young pigs, a 26-foot python, and a peeved-looking civet sharing a cage with a white-breasted sea eagle--"an endangered species," Julio boasts. Next door is a three-foot-long monitor lizard that smells like my gym bag after I forget to open it for two weeks."Tastes just like chicken," Julio says. "Most Filipinos, it's their favorite."
1015 HOURS Enough chitchat; it's time for the real stuff. Julio leads the way down a steep trail into the forest. Every few minutes he stops to pluck a new kind of leaf from the undergrowth. There's the vinegar plant, whose leaves lend a tasty zing to jungle cooking; the iodine plant, whose sap can help cure cuts and burns; and the coffee tree. "My friend," says Julio, with the glee of an infomercial pitchman, "this is the coffee tree. Scattered on the ground you will find black pods. Inside the pods you will find beans. Roast them over a fire, then boil them in a bamboo container, and it tastes just like coffee. We also have another plant that tastes just like tea!" Impressive. The jungle is a veritable 7-Eleven of goodies. But is this what I came for?I imagined I'd be clinging manfully to the edge of survival, not learning to whip up an impromptu latte.
1040 HOURS After nearly half an hour in the jungle, I'm exhausted. It's about 95 degrees, and the humidity has flat-lined at 99 percent. My shirt is soaked with sweat, and I've just about drained the hilariously inadequate bottle of drinking water I stole from my hotel. The trail levels off at a bamboo grove by a gurgling brook. Julio goes crashing off, eyeing a stand of three-inch-diameter bamboo. With a few whacks of his bolo knife-a short but sturdy kind of machete-he lops off three five-foot lengths. These he drags to a level spot a few feet away, and the splinters start to fly. A chop here, a chop there, and voilà :drinking cup. Whack, whack: A spoon. A fork. A plate. A rice cooker. His obvious delight at his own dexterity reminds me of a balloon-twisting magician at a children's party.
1045 HOURS Julio is waxing poetic about his people's ability to survive in the jungle. "My friend," he tells me-I'm beginning to think he's forgotten my name-"My friend, I could come out here and live for one month, even one year, without anything. Do you know why?Because of knowledge. If I didn"t have knowledge, I would not survive even one day. But with only knowledge, I can live comfortably here."
"What about your knife?" I ask.
"Yes. Knowledge, and my knife."
One of the reasons I'm irritable is that Julio seems to be treating this whole survival experience so jovially. I had hoped for a cross between Deliverance and Heart of Darkness. What I'm getting is Ernest Goes to Camp.