Take an adventure that makes you MAD!

If you were too caught up trying to live and put food on the table, would you still sing and dance?

The Aeta community was hit with extreme poverty when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991. Left with infertile soil, damaged crop lands, and the will to survive, the Aetas in Yangil stopped singing and dancing so they can focus on making it in life. Traditions can wait; hungry stomachs cannot. Forced to look for other means of livelihood, they resorted to kaingin (slashing and burning of trees that are turned into coal), which left the mountains barren.

Now, one seedling at a time, trees are being replanted in the Aetas’ ancestral domain, and in the process, plants seeds of hope for the community.

MAD (Make A Difference) Travel organizes Tribes and Treks tours, which take local and foreign tourists to more meaningful travel adventures off the beaten path. In Zambales, its main goal is to help reforest the 3,000-hectare ancestral lands of the Aetas. The eco-tour social enterprise goes “MAD” because it believes that travel has the potential to change perspectives and inspire others to build a kinder world.

Tribes and Treks Zambales takes its guests to Sitio Yangil where they get a glimpse of the Aeta way of life. They also plant seedlings for them. I joined a group of nine trekkers composed of guests from Sweden, France, Germany, and Manila. The day started with a briefing at The Circle Hostel in Liwliwa, where we were taught how to properly interact with the Aetas. We were specifically told not to engage in “poverty porn” – photographing or filming the dire conditions (i.e. crying children, hunger, poverty) of the community to elicit sympathy. Instead, we were encouraged to portray them in a positive light by showing them happily interacting with each other as they go about their daily lives. After the orientation, a 45-minute jeepney ride took us to the jump off point, where the trek began.

The trail was flat, but the open space was unforgiving. We did the trek when there was a looming typhoon in the Philippines, in the cool December climate. While the cloudy weather was a welcome alternative to a sunny trek, the winds brought in “sand storms” that pierced through our skin. We learned to take cover in patches of tall grass when available. If not, we would shield our eyes and offer our bare skin for the sand to pound on, until it passed. We had to change our course because the winds were so strong, that the local guides felt it was not safe to bring us to the nursery which is in an exposed, open area. We crossed a few calf-deep rivers, but according to the locals, these can swell during rainy season, so big that the Aetas are not able to cross lest they’ll be swept. Children who go to school in the lowlands need to walk this trail and cross these rivers everyday.

Tree-planting is the first agenda of the day as soon as we reached Sitio Yangil. The Aetas readily welcomed us with big smiles and warm greetings, as if we are returning members of the community. We were taught how to properly bury seedlings in little packets of soil. Our group was able to plant close to 300 seedlings, which will then be transferred to the nursery and will be cared for until they are ready to grow as trees. The reward after was a simple lunch of local Filipino fare (tinola, adobo, fried fish, locally grown fruits, and ice candy – yes, possibly your childhood favorite treat!), that was made special by sharing the meal and exchanging stories with the Aetas.

After a short rest, we were ushered to the community hall for cultural exchanges of singing and dancing. Mt. Pinatubo eruption hit the Aetas hard; when they were too busy looking for livelihood, they almost lost their heritage when they stopped celebrating in their traditional songs and dances. Now, the younger Aetas can freely and easily perform these traditions, and we had the honor of singing and dancing with them. The highlight of the day for most of us was learning traditional archery from Lolo Doyong, the resident super-archer who hunts wild animals for food using their bamboo bow and arrow. Aim, point, and shoot! It sounded easy but it was actually hard to hit the target.

Because MAD Travel promotes creating livelihood instead of encouraging dole outs from the guests, the locals showcased their produce and handicrafts for sale – honey, organically grown fruits, bamboo straws, handmade bracelets, bamboo whistles, and mini bow-and-arrow sets. The company also helps the community get access to the market, especially in reaching corporate accounts for their bamboo straws, which provides steady source of income for the community. The day is capped with a dinner at the home of the head chieftain of all nine tribes.

The experience definitely seared into the memory of the guests. We planted seeds on that day – seeds that will someday turn the barren mountains into a lush forest; seeds of hope for the Aetas who can look forward to life in abundance; and seeds of responsibility in everyone, making us realize that our small ways can have big impacts in shaping our future world.

It’s amazing how one small company is able to provide an adventure that matters, one seed at a time. It’s time to be MAD – it’s time to make a difference!

The trek involves walking through lahar covered valleys and rivers

The first activity once reaching the community is the planting of seedlings

Guests are taught native archery using bamboo bow and arrow. Aetas are hunters and foragers and use the bow and arrow to catch wild animals.

The chieftain shares the tribe’s music with the guests

Guests from France, Baptiste and Aya, share a French song with the kids

Aeta kids mingling with the guests

Aeta kids teaching the guests a traditional action song

Jonna Baquillas is a Doctor of Business Administration student at the De La Salle University. She takes adventures with a purpose – earlier, to discover the world, and lately, to make a difference. She currently engages in research on sustainable tourism and green consumption. She can be reached at

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