Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mountain Of Rubbish

The great advantage in travelling the way I do, with no fixed timetable, deadlines or impositions, is that I can change my itinerary on a whim and respond to new opportunities in a second as they present themselves. And so it happened whilst I was up here in the Cordillera region. During my stay in Sagada I was lucky enough to meet Russell, a Canadian artist who has been living in the area for the past two years. His speciality is transforming ordinary, everyday rubbish into art and usable objects; what is nowadays known as "upcycling". He works with local communities and people, mostly women, in small villages where he has been successful in designing small bags and purses made from discarded wrappers that the women weave in their spare time with a view to selling both abroad and locally to both increase the peoples' income and reduce waste. Thanks to him I drastically changed my plans in a way that allowed me to see and interact with local communities that would not have been possible as a simple tourist passing through.

Close up of the bags made by local women around Sagada using used wrappers. The one on the left is from Sprite labels and the right one from coffee sachets.

Russell is involved with various communities in the area on different projects and asked me whether I could help out by taking a box of donated books to an elementary school further north in the province. Since I was heading that way anyway I gladly accepted the little diversion, both out of altruistic grounds in that I could do something positive and helpful without going out of my way, but also as it would give me the opportunity to see an ordinary barangay (the local term for a village or small community) in the mountains that is off the tourist path. The place was a typical mountain barangay with a few jeepneys plying the steep, bumpy dirt road down to the district centre every day (from the village in the morning and back in the afternoon); the surrounding slopes are diligently cultivated with rice, yam and other vegetables; houses are pretty simple concrete affairs with roofs of galvanised iron; chickens cluck and scuttle between houses and small dogs growl and yelp as they laze in the shade.

View of some typical houses in the barangay of Guina'Ang. Note the characteristic galvanised iron roofs and walls.

The headmistress and teachers were certainly very grateful for the extra materials and invited me to do a little presentation in front of the older classes. Although it had been a while since I had been in front of a class I gladly accepted; again, the possibility of being able to interact with so many kids and to compare their world with mine was incentive enough. I decided to take the easy route and talked a little about myself and where I come from (although in theory this could be quite complicated, I restricted myself to Scotland - although I'm not sure I completely convinced them when I said that Scots are generally tall and fair, when I myself am short and dark). The classes were all generally well-behaved and the students painfully shy whenever I tried asking questions from them. Though when I did get some information out of them it was often quite revealing. I was particularly amazed to discover that even here, in a small, remote mountain village most of the pupils had family members who were working abroad, even mothers. Of course I knew Filipinos were famous for being domestic workers and nurses overseas (currently there are an estimated 10 million or more) but I had imagined them as mainly being from the urban lowlands. Instead the Cordillera folk are particularly prized as they are generally hard-working and diligent.I've also been surprised by the respect that reigns in the tight-knit communities of the Cordillera. It starts with terms of address like sir and ma'am (although such terms of address are common throughout the Philippines), especially of their elders, but goes much further than that. Any older member of the community can ask a youth to run an errand for them, from buying groceries at the local store, a little help with domestic chores or even doing the cooking. Of course the privilege is not abused and the youngsters all accomplish the tasks they are set diligently and without a word. I can't see that happening back in the West! 

The kids of the elementary school in Guina'Ang with their new second-hand books.

I was then invited by Russell to come and join him on another project of his. The community in which he lives is trying to open up their nearby mountain for responsible, sustainable ecotourism and he is helping out. Seeing as the previous assignment had been so much fun I came along to lend a hand and see what they were up to. The hard (and dangerous) grunt work of clearing the mountain of traps and blazing trails had already been done, but there still remained the small task of tidying up the campsite and finding uses for the small mountain of trash, in the shape of used gin bottles, that had been left behind by a couple of generations of hunters. This was, of course, Russell's specialty, and he had me making myself useful (something I hadn't experienced for quite some time) cleaning bottles and converting them into various everyday objects, such as glasses, jars, ashtrays, lamps and even tables. Although I'm not creative in the least, I do know how to clean stuff (even though I don't always want to) and can be persuaded when it's for a good cause. It was also pleasant to spend some time out in nature. Along the trails the guides pointed out the remains of the fields and huts that the locals used during the wars against the Spanish and Japanese when they retreated from the main valley.

Russell surveying his raw materials to make a table.

Although the town is on the main road connecting Sagada to the south and so many tourists pass through, few ever stop. Naturally the people would like to capture some of that market, but at the same time they arevery conscious of wanting to limit the impact of tourism so as to preserve their culture, environment and traditions. It's a fine line to tread and I admire their determination to try and keep a foot in both modern and traditional worlds. Not that modernity can ever really be kept at bay. Even in such a remote, rural corner of the country people are not as provincial as one might suspect. During a conversation with one of our guides we asked him if he had a farm (many people are subsistence farmers and have secondary sources of income to supplement their agricultural endeavours) to which he replied, "yes, I have a Farmville".

Me pretending to be Superman. Not really. Just showing off my sand-fly bites. I counted 120 on my upper right arm alone before losing count. All in the name of saving the world.

I'm not really a big fan of voluntourism and feel that, although people enter it with the best intentions, it is often hollow and exploitative. However I really warmed not only Russell's idea of turning trash into something valuable (thereby killing two birds with one stone: reducing waste and increasing income) but also that he is very much ploughing his own furrow. I hope I was able to help, if only in a very limited fashion, and hope also that the idea gains traction, expands and becomes a success as it is a truly worthy one.

1 comment:

The Nomadic Pinoy said...

Thumbs up for taking your time beyond the usual tourist path and getting involved in some way improving people's lives. Whatever amount of time one has to offer, voluntourism can still generate an impact. I can already see that in the wide grin of the kids with their books - you just made their day!