Oracle Production Assistant Marlow Gum has been spending the summer in the Philippines with his father, hoping to start a paper-making cottage industry for the villagers of Batad. Here’s his latest report on the progress he’s been making:
Batad: June 18th- July 5th
It’s been more than three weeks and I’m still alive in Batad, Philippines after suffering a weeklong fever, several painful sunburns and injuries from falling off of steep and slippery trails. I’m getting used to the cold bucket showers and giant bugs, and the scenery here is exquisite. There is nothing like waking up to the lush green jungle-covered mountains of the Philippines’ Ifugao Province.
Appropriately, the nickname of my Camelbak backpack is “Cloud Walker.” Often, the mist blankets Simon’s Inn, making it seem as if hikers are literally walking in the clouds. The jungle below my bedroom window surrounds Batad’s famous “amphitheater-like” rice terraces. Batad is now entering the rice harvest season. Many mornings I hear gongs and see villagers getting drunk off of rice wine as part of the traditional rice harvest celebration.
Living here has been a challenge. The Ifugao people are strong in all the places I am weak. They have incredible physical strength and balance like I have never seen. One day, my father and I followed a six-month pregnant woman down a trail carrying a full backpack and two bags of groceries in each of her hands. She was friendly and walked the steep, narrow path with the greatest of ease. Shortly after we began our walk, we were forced to tell her that we would have to meet her at the end of the trail because we couldn’t keep up with her. Nothing has illustrated how weak I am more than getting physically outmatched by a six-month pregnant woman carrying three times more baggage.
Simon’s Inn has been undergoing construction since we arrived. Carpentry is another modern marvel in Batad. None of the carpenters use power tools, and nothing goes to waste. Every piece of rebar used to reinforce concrete structures has to be cut and bent by hand. Every wooden board is nailed together by recycled rusty nails that have been straightened and re-used.
The sand for the concrete comes from a nearby riverbank and has to be carried on someone’s back for a kilometer straight up a mountainside. Sometimes a carpenter will make the back-breaking trip for concrete up to 25 times a day.
I admire the people here for their strength and engineering ingenuity. However, they have a few cultural and personality traits that I despise. The Ifugao men are known for being drunkards. Alcoholism is such a big problem here that certain hard liquors such as gin have been banned from the entire region. Ifugao men drink for the ultimate goal of getting drunk. They tell jokes and tease each other until one thing leads to another, and a fight ensues. These drunken fights can be dangerous and sometimes fatal since it’s common for Ifugao men to carry a bolo – a foot-long blade made from the steel of a car’s springs.
Chewing betel nut is another unsettling bad habit that both Ifugao men and woman share. A betel palm, the tree on which betel nuts grow, is essentially a thinner, taller version of a coconut tree, and they are abundant in this province. Although it possesses mild hallucinogenic properties and causes cancer, betel nut is not illegal in the U.S.
While many Pacific island cultures chew betel nut in different ways, the most popular way to chew betel nut here is to remove the husk from the nut, wrap it in a Hapid vine leaf with a generous amount of lime powder – made from burning and grinding the shells of snails found in the rice terraces – and then shove the whole thing in your mouth. Chewers of betel nut must constantly spit. It makes their saliva blood-red and stains their teeth, lips and gums. Seeing several Ifugao chewing betel nut can be disgusting because they look like they are bleeding profusely from their mouths. The trails, roads and sidewalks are stained red as a result.
Despite a few nasty traits and habits, the Ifugao people have been a big help in our paper-making operation. They bring us fiber to turn into paper, and we pay them per kilogram for their contributions. In some cases, we trade wind-up rechargeable flashlights – not easily found in the Philippines – for 8 to 12 kilos of fiber. Since there is no electricity, fires are normally the only source of light at night in the lower village.
In the next few weeks, we will try implementing solar battery-charging stations in the lower village so that they will be able to charge their own batteries. For now, batteries are charged at Simon’s Inn and exchanged for dead rechargeable batteries. Most of their power comes from energy-efficient LED lights.
We’ve hit several obstacles in our paper-making process. Before leaving the States, my father shipped a box containing many important paper-making tools and ingredients. We’ve finally received it, but until we did, we had to improvise by finding natural ingredients to replace chemical elements in our paper-making process.
After two weeks of experimenting with various local plant fibers, we’ve settled on using two fibers in particular; the Huah (WHO-AH) and straw from the harvested rice. These fibers will make fine handmade paper once we refine our process. We’ve even experimented mixing the two with excellent results. We’re very excited and have high hopes of teaching paper-making skills to the locals and someday turning this small paper-making venture into a successful cottage industry.