Philippines: My One-And-a-Half Day Whirlwind Tribal Immersion Trip

The Whirlwind Begins!

You get off the plane, on the tarmac, and immediately smell tuna being cooked! Welcome to the tuna capital of the Philippines.

The T’boli embroiderers & beaders. They don’t draw or baste or pin guidelines at all on the fabric, they just embroider designs straight on them!

Passing by the giant pineapple plantation of Dole Philippines. The town’s name (which I can’t pronounce) originally meant hunters and gatherers, for the ancient time when the area was a forest and the tribes who hunted, gathered, and resided here.

Having breakfast in Koronadal (formerly Marbel, in South Cotabato). So yummy! They didn’t have bulalo, but tried the balbakwa, which is cow skin soup. I ate the meat but not the skin part, was too fatty…

Driving into the tribal area, but stopping by the waterfalls and doing the zip line first!


The T’boli embroiderers & beaders. They don’t draw or baste or pin guidelines at all on the fabric, they just embroider designs straight on them! *Amazing*! I tried and wasn’t bad at it, but I just need reading glasses. Lol



Next on our list was to stop by a co-op by the lake who had some wares, and there was a couple there who were taking wedding pictures in traditional tribal dress. Super cool!

Also an interesting fact: This particular tribe had homes where you walk into the kitchen first, not the living area.


Next we had lunch at an amazing restaurant, and I had some Filipino food that I’ve *never* had in my entire life before: Fish that has been wrapped in cabbage and cooked with a curry sauce reminiscent of Thai panang, and another version with whole fish that is deep-fried in banana leaves, both so yummy! And something called a “pregnant chicken”, that’s stuffed with rice and a hard boiled egg. Interesting!

Met with weavers who had some open-loom weaving machines and some incredible goods. It’s amazing that hardly anyone is using their craft to get them out into the world. This is their livelihood and need to support them so that their culture doesn’t die out. ? I bought a bunch of their textiles for my fall collection, and some indigenous accessories to put on my online shop for holiday gifting. They were so happy, one of them almost cried, and said I just made their Christmas, they can now buy rice and presents for the kids.

After the co-op, we went to the T’boli museum, apparently the only IP (Indigenous People) museum in the country. It’s actually someone’s home, a Datu, or a ruler in that area. We met him as we were walking out. Meantime, in the home, there were objects that we learned weren’t indigenous at all, like the gongs used by the tribe, which actually are from Brunei. The tribes have a long history of trading. The Datu and his family even had Chinese porcelain! And again, as usual, you come into the kitchen first when you walk into the home.

At the end of a crazy, hectic day, we went home to our “long house”, a tribal hut (but a gigantic one!) belonging to one of the tribal elders. Can’t wait to shower and go to bed, haven’t had sleep since yesterday afternoon! Sooo tired.

After visiting the museum (or the Datu’s home), we went to a tribal brass caster. The family has been casting recycled metals including brass for generations. The process they used was still very primitive, using special soil from another area, and giant bamboo tongs to handle the scorching-hot goods. But I like the fact that they recycle metal junk and upcycle them into tribal goods.

Next we stopped by a weaving center. The leaves pictured are the ones they use to dye the abaca fibers black and red. The fibers are first tied before dyeing. The pattern is designed by ties. Can’t make sense of it until it’s done, but for the master weavers, it’s a creative skill that has been passed down from generations! And we don’t want to lose that.

The first rooster crowed at 3:45am. Then one-by-one throughout the town, others began to as well. Now there’s a chorus of roosters going on! #itsstilldark

Early morning hours in the T’boli hut. The sound of crowing roosters have been replaced by sweeping the simple cement foundation beneath the hut. Charisse Aquino Tugade thinks it’s calming.

Tribal Life Immersion

After waking up at the home stay hut (almost like a hostel, but you learn about the tribal culture etc.), we sauntered our way downstairs and was greeted by breakfast: rice with fried fish, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes (they have heirloom tomatoes here?), and eggs, nestled on a *lotus leaf* atop woven plates. Omg sooo yummy!

The home stay hut, named SLT (School of Living Tradition), is owned by a tribal leader and living master, or “oyog”, Maria Todi. According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), a School of Living Tradition is a “communal site where a living master, cultural bearer or culture specialist teaches skills and techniques of doing a traditional art or craft.” While her students are mainly T’boli, she also welcomes visitors who want to immerse themselves in their unique experience of life (like me!).

Maria Todi also has her face on a stamp. In June 2014, the Philippine Postal Service chose to print her image to commemorate National Heritage Month!

Then after breakfast, motorbike rides were negotiated (no Uber nor taxis here!) to get us from the hut to another tribal land, for a ritual in blessing of a land.


Hold on to Your Hats…or Headpieces

After breakfast, we took our motorbike rides to one of the tribal lands of another oyog (tribal leader and living master), Nanay Myra, for a ritual blessing. Funds are currently being raised to build a new T’Boli Heritage Center, similar to the SLT home stay. I’m planning on dedicating a collection to benefit the building of this new center. Stay tuned!

At the event, we dressed in cultural garb. The headpieces were heavy! I was so excited and in a hurry to go to the blessing that I wore my KINdom bamboo top backwards earlier that morning, and only noticed it later after I saw the pictures.

Meantime, the chickens were blessed first before they were cooked, and then we were treated to a rare glimpse of traditional T’boli storytelling, music & dance, with indigenous instruments made of bamboo and local wood. I wish the internet connection was better so I could upload videos! Note that the “guitarist” doesn’t have a guitar pick, she wraps her finger around some thread instead. Amazing!

During the actual ritual in blessing the land, the ritual leader (who traveled 7 HOURS to the location by foot, trike, motorbike) proceeded with the chant, while at the same time dug the soil with an indigenous knife in the ground, and placed some coins and tribal brass ware in the earth, and buried them. Then we went to the middle of what used to be a plantation field where the new center will be built, and the ritual leader did another chant and threw some beads towards the sky, and let them rain on the ground, to signify blessings to come. This is all to commemorate the breaking ground of the new heritage center that’s going to be on this beautiful hill too with amazing views, to keep tribal traditions and culture alive by teaching their new generation, as well as immersing visitors into their culture.


Oh the Art!

After the ritual blessing & lunch, we took a boat ride with the legendary master folk chanter, Y’egas Kafun (she has/had five husbands, ohhhhkay!). First we had some more tribal storytelling from Namay Myrna, then another traditional T’boli guitar and then bamboo flute session, followed by Y’egas’ mesmerizing folk chants.

It’s sad because the locals on the area don’t pay them enough and just use them as performers for the tourists who come. But these tribal artisans are masters of their craft and should be regarded with more respect and reverence than a mere tourist attraction. I’ll probably name some of my styles after them, at least, and tell their stories!

Bye Bye Converse

And that ends my one-and-a-half day whirlwind tribal immersion trip. So long Lake Sebu, until next time! And so long, Converse, may your next life benefit someone in need (I stepped in a big, deep cow poop and my chucks are unsalvagable). #leftitbythesideoftheroad

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