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Jungle Survival in the Philippines

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.


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