On ethical debates: How much do we want to screw with nature and the order of things?

Boatman feeding whale shark

I went on two ethically debatable trips lately, one was to go back to the whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, (plus a guided tour of the Aguinid and Da-o falls in the same vicinity) and the Buscalan tour in Kalinga. They are ethically debatable because I personally know a few people who are against these tours, the former for its impact on the whale sharks and the environment, the other, for the commercialization of an almost forgotten art.

They were both beautiful in differing ways. The first were to be able to have a chance to commune with such beautiful animals, the whale sharks are really gentle giants, hoovering meals of small shrimp with a boatman “leading” them to the right direction. The argument the environmentalists (see arguments here) are behavioral modifications and the like are sound, I have to admit.

 

Human interaction will inherently change how whale sharks, an endangered species approach us and their way of life, but at the same time, it was hard to take this way of life for a few hundred people and a community away from them. I left with a feeling of awe and guilt as I showered away the smell of the ocean and the vision of that huge mouth vacuuming away at the fish it was getting for feed. That is not a sight you forget in your lifetime. Whether it’s because of fear or just feeling like this creature should be revered and taken care of so it’ll thrive, I left there wishing this provides more awareness of their situation so future generations can still know their majesty.

 

Going up level 2 (not me)

We also went to the Aguinid falls (see tripadvisor link here) as an alternative to the now banned canyoneering in Badian. We thought we were just going to trek up a few minutes to look at beautiful  falls. When we got there we found out it was an adventure tour of five levels (up to eight!) of falls that you had to rope, climb, shimmy up on. It took us a couple of hours, but we got up the eight levels (the guides offered to take us all the way to the top) and it was more beautiful each level up. Water was cool, there wasn’t as much people as Badian, and it’s definitely less of a thrill ride (see, no jumping off 10 feet into water to start) than canyoneering but every bit as beautiful.

The guides were funny, very knowledgeable, even told us that they had grown up in the barangay, and that only people from the barangay can serve as guides. Tip though, if you’ve  gone to Badian, don’t expect any safety equipment besides your guides and your abilities. There are no helmets, no safety shoes, no life vests. There is a rope to go up one really steep part up where there are falls beating down on you, and your guides will bodily lead you up the other parts, but other than that, no regulations, no safety precautions, no way of getting you to a hospital fast if anything should happen.

I applaud this community for sharing their secret with the rest of the country, as the guides said, these used to be their playground, their own personal backyard, and now, to help with tourism and income, a lot of the teenagers are there are guides (100+ males and females 16 and up) to people who want to see what they’ve been able to enjoy their whole life. They set you up for every picture opportunity possible, provide reassurance humor to the trip. I hope that they figure out how to make sure it’s safer for everyone involved, and keep the falls clean and beautiful.

Cebu is definitely a treasure trove of things to do and places to see, at a pace anyone can match, and budget most everyone can afford. I am aware I am sounding like an ad, but the more I go outside the city and see more than the food (porky goodness), the more it’s growing on me (and the more it makes me grow).

 

On to Kalinga. We went with my boyfriend’s cousins to Buscalan in Kalinga, to visit Whang Od, the legendary mambabatok (tattoo artist). Documentation of her age and life vary. Her age online ranges from 92-98 as of writing. It was quite a trip 14 hours in a van one way from Cubao, Quezon City. There is a 45 minute hike from parking to the village of Buscalan, and for those who do not

Whang Od tattooing

Whang Od tattooing

trek at all, it’s a steep hike with a sharp drop. Prepare to bring your own things, see beautiful scenery, and freak out a bit on a high single person bridge with no railings. We were actually in a hurry to go before another group we had encountered in the market during breakfast, knowing they were there for the same reason, to get tattooed by the legend. One of the boyfriend’s cousins actually told us that there are days when Whang Od doesn’t feel like tattooing, so we might not get tattooed by her, but one of her two granddaughters, Grace and Elyang, the only two people she taught (tradition limits that she only teach those of her lineage or the tattoos will get infected). The issue about the tattooing was fine with me, as I set off not wanting to get one, as I had not been able to donate blood (I have an agreement with my mom to get that done first before getting any ink) beforehand. I was happy to just observe and see Whang Od in person, as I had seen her in photos and the tattoos in photos and found them fascinating and beautiful.

Again, the experience was a mix of emotions. You can tell that she was the queen of the village and most of the income came from people flocking in wanting to get tattooed by her and her granddaughters. The rest of the village provides homestays and serve as guides. They are all very nice and accommodating and have a trove of dad jokes with props even to share with the tourists. They are all very welcoming, the view is breathtaking anywhere you look. It’s a simple village set in the mountains where the air is fresh, the water is clean, and there are native pigs lying around like dogs as pets. When we walked a little outside the village where the rice terraces were, we had to take a ton of photos because it felt like something out of a nature magazine.

There is also the flip side that the village is now overrun by tourists that we encountered four or five kids that just kept repeating “Pera! Pera! Pera!” at us while we walked back into the village. The tattooing area was so full I had to take a break to get some air. This tiny lady in all her 90+ years just being stared at by more than a dozen people at a time, waiting for her to finish so they can get some of her art. I can see that her grand daughters were feeling the fatigue too, so I can’t imagine what she feels after a full day of tattooing and doing the same repetitive motion with her arms raised the whole day, the sound of her sticks tak-tak-tak-ing away almost like a heartbeat in its gentle rhythm.

I know that it offers the whole community a ton of income, and the three of them enjoy a special status in the community, and know how to handle the influx of tourists coming in. Our group was actually able to stay in Grace’s (one of the three artists) home and have a couple of drinks with her, she is a magnetic, confident woman who has these light brown eyes that are no doubt beautiful. Elyang, while a little more shy, is coming into her own, joking around with our group after tattooing the three in our group one after the other, dealing her own fiery humor after she got comfortable. Whang Od, though she does not speak any Tagalog, had her (male) translator blushing and refusing to translate something about the tattoo one Spanish tourist was getting. These are women that control their own fate, and know what they’re doing. It’s not feeling sorry for them that’s the issue, it’s the balance of how the community will be dependent on them, the culture and meaning of the tattoos now that people no longer need to earn them but pick them off a board or a magazine, and the simple thing of giving these women the choice to say no when they don’t want a certain tourist to take their photo or stare at them, or who gets to be in their company all day.

So i guess I need your opinion on this dilemma. What do you think we should do as a culture to help the arts and nature thrive without throttling their very essence and life? Would you go on these trips yourself?  What measures do you think need to be in place to keep them in check?

While I treasure these memories, not just because i got to experience them, but who I experienced them with, I want to leave a place better than I did going in, and not have a twinge of guilt after I do. Maybe we need longer term measures, and not just go for the sake of going. I am a lucky woman to be able to tell my future grandbunnies that I got to do this, but I want future generations to be able to as well.

So much for relaxing and leaving your brain on vacation eh?

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