Jungle Survival in the Philippines
Published: May 2009
By Jeff Wise
A night in the jungle, with nothing but a canteen, a knife, and a sleeping bag?No problem. <b>Jeff Wise</b> signs up for jungle survival school in the Philippines
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.
The other reason I'm grouchy is that I'm thirsty. I'm out of water and sweating like gangbusters. No worries: If the jungle can turn up a cup of coffee, why should drinking water be a problem?Julio thunders off into the bush and returns with a four-foot pole of zigzaggy bamboo. He lops off the end of a section and decants a stream of crystalline water from its hollow core into my newly made cup. I chug it down gratefully. To my surprise, it tastes exactly like bottled mineral water.
1215 HOURS I think we're off the tourist trail now. For the last few minutes we've been climbing a faint path that winds up a wooded hillside. Julio, I'm happy to say, seems to have exhausted his patter. We hike mostly in silence, the sweat running down our faces. As we traverse a ridge, a crashing sound reverberates in a thicket below. "Monitor lizard," Julio declares. To my relief, we make no effort to turn it into lunch.
A few feet farther on we stop at a plant he calls an edible rattan. It looks just like the palm in my living room, except for the spikes at the base of the trunk. Out comes the knife. In short order Julio has whittled a six-foot frond into a six-inch-long, pencil-thin segment of pith. I taste: it's tender, more bitter than an artichoke heart but similarly soft and stringy. Happily for the shrub, we decide not to make a whole meal out of it.
1315 HOURS Quite suddenly the shady forest canopy opens into a clearing, and it feels as if we've stepped into a brochure for a tropical paradise. A gentle brook runs between rounded banks lush with ferns, and bright orange butterflies flit around a lone banana tree. Julio plucks five-foot-long leaves off a philodendron plant and uses one for a basket as he gathers fiddlehead ferns from the stream bank for lunch. He folds another leaf into a hat-a Robinson Crusoe hat, he calls it-and makes me wear it, rather more for his amusement than mine, I think.
1330 HOURS We reach our campsite for the day, a sandy space under the spreading branches of a tea tree. A sunlit tangle of undergrowth surrounds us on three sides. The fourth drops 20 or 30 feet to a circular pool overhung with bamboo and fed by a plunging waterfall. It's a minute before I figure out my sense of déjàvu: this is a scene straight out of the "Happy Talk" number from South Pacific.
There are no bathing beauties to cavort with, however. Instead, we occupy ourselves with an even more compellingly primal male activity: making fire. Specifically, making fire the excitingly old-fashioned way, with nothing more than a few pieces of dry wood. Julio's Dancing Machete goes to work, and in a matter of minutes he has rigged a contraption that would put any of the Professor and Gilligan's inventions to shame. One section holds a fleecy wad of tinder to a fire-hole with a bamboo-leaf spring; another contains a trough with a razor-sharp edge. With great vigor he rubs the two together until tendrils of smoke begin wafting up. Then he rubs even more feverishly, sweat popping from every pore, until he nearly disappears behind a gray cloud. Deftly plucking out the tinder, he blows on the red ember until it bursts into a tiny flame. Soon our bonfire is roaring.
Next, I try. A few minutes of purposeful whacking produce only a pile of fractured bamboo. Never mind. I reuse Julio's fire machine, my elbows furiously punishing the pieces of bamboo. A wisp of smoke appears."Harder! Faster!"Julio urges, with what I can only hope is entendre-free earnestness. More wisps of smoke appear. My arms are turning to macaroni. More encouragement. A few more wisps. I give up.
1430 HOURS Have I mentioned that bamboo is a material of infinite uses?But wait, there's more. It also makes handy cookware. Julio whacks a few larger-bore pieces of green bamboo into three two-gallon water carriers. After a half-hour nestled in the fire the first one is boiling madly, its moist pith protecting it from the flames. We set it aside to cool for use as drinking water, and put another in its place to make jungle tea.
And now for the serious part of jungle survival: finding food. Julio descends to the stream in search of nutritive creepy-crawlies. After a long interval he comes back with his catch: one prawn, one crab, and two snails."I caught a frog, too, but it got away," he reports sadly.
As impressive as Julio's menagerie may be, it really doesn't add up to a meal, even by barely-surviving-in-the-wilderness standards. But since this is only an introductory course, we get to cheat a little. From his backpack he produces a bag of rice. It goes into the rice cooker, and by late afternoon our bamboo plates are piled high-perfectly cooked grains topped with fiddlehead-fern stew and a side dish of assorted invertebrates. Hunger, as they say, is the best sauce.
1600 HOURS Now that we have filled our bellies, the afternoon stretches languorously before us. Julio, I realize, is one of those lucky few whose job requires doing the same sorts of things he would be most happy to do anyway-poking around the forest, whacking at things with his knife, making idle conversation. Without any sense of haste he pieces together a sleeping platform (out of bamboo), teaches me how to rig a snare for catching monitor lizards, and collects leaves for another batch of tea. He demonstrates how to mash a piece of vine bark against a rock in the stream until it makes a soapy mass of suds, and we take turns bathing in the waterfall pool.
Thank God for jet lag. Despite the early hour, I'm already sleepy as the sun sets. Soon only the glow of our fire keeps away the enveloping darkness. Julio talks about his father, who grew up in this forest wearing nothing more than a tribal loincloth. Julio too spent much of his childhood in the jungle, playing with friends and occupying himself the way any small boy would. Whether it's from a full belly, the refreshing bath, or the simple relief at not having been attacked by a 26-foot python, I've finally begun to relax and enjoy myself. Which, I now understand, is the point. For those of us who understand the jungle, even a little bit, it's not really a question of survival at all, but one of enjoying a rich wilderness that, despite its dangers, has been home to generations of people.
While Julio beds down by the fire, I climb up to the bamboo platform and spread out my sleeping bag. The darkness is punctuated by the glow of fireflies. Overhead, the full moon stares down through a roof of bamboo fronds. Somewhere out there the creepy-crawlies are scurrying about, doing their thing. And soon I am doing mine, fast asleep in the cool night air.
For those who want their jungle experience tempered with a healthy dose of postmodern "realism," look no further than Malaysian Borneo. The government has turned the island of Pulau Tiga, featured on the CBS wunderhit Survivor, into its newest holiday spot. The 80-bed resort there, which was already in the planning stages when the island was chosen by Survivor location scouts, housed the crew and support staff during filming last spring.
The island itself is ringed by white beaches and lush coral reefs, but developers know the real reason American tourists will hie themselves to this remote spot: they want to play Survivor. I survived pulau tiga T-shirts crowd the shelves at the resort gift shop. Though the set's Styrofoam boulders have been hauled away, some props remain, such as that replica of a B-52 bomber fuselage—to add authenticity, presumably. Manager Bonnie Alberto plans on holding Survivor-style contests, in case guests get bored with, say, shooing the jungle rats out of their cabins, avoiding poisonous sea snakes, or secretly voting on which fellow vacationer they'd most like to face-paint and dress in a sarong. Will guests have to eat giant larvae and use a pit in the ground as a toilet?Alas, the verisimilitude extends only so far. The cabins all have private bathrooms, and some rooms are even (gasp!) air-conditioned. Oh, well. Maybe they'll catch Survivor reruns on satellite TV. Pulau Tiga Resort, Pulau Tiga, Sabah, Malaysia; 60-18/989-9779; doubles from $79, including all meals.
The Subic Bay Tourism Department 63-47/252-4123, fax 63-47/252-4194 can arrange custom jungle-training packages, including overnight stays, for $15 per person, with a minimum group size of 10. In the United States, Rajah Tours International 800/392-3345 or 415/397-0303can book full-day visits from Manila, which include transfer to Subic Bay and a JEST survival class, for $282 per person.