I spent many years performing folk dances and some of my favorite ones were from the T'Boli tribe, with their intricate brass and beaded ornaments and colorful jackets and skirts. They can certainly pull off print on print!
(All credits to the Philippine Collegian for this photo taken during the UP Filipiniana 80th Anniversary Dance Concert!)
So a trip to South Cotabato had long been on my wish list, but it was seeing a picture of Lake Holon that sealed the deal. A trek had to be on the itinerary!
On the morning of the trek we left our resort in Lake Sebu at 4:30am so we could make it to the T'Boli Tourism office by 6am to register and hire a habal-habal (one of those elongated motorcycles that could seat up to 4 passengers) to take us to the jump-off point for the trek.
That habal-habal ride was incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable, plus we had no helmets (they're not allowed, apparently), but we rode through these vast banana plantations, and it was amazing that we actually made it down steep rocky slopes without falling off the cliff that was just one foot to our right. Well...we made it to the jump-off point in one piece, so we waited to be oriented and to be assigned a guide and had some breakfast: hard-boiled eggs and coffee. What was great about this simple meal is that likely those were pasture-raised eggs (the chickens were literally just nearby, pecking at worms in the ground) and the coffee came from the nearby rainforest: harvested and roasted by the locals, and then pounded using a mortar and pestle.
We purchased a couple of hand-carved walking sticks (check out mine below!) and humming to the tune of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, off we went to Lake Holon via the Kule trail.
Our guide, Win-Win, was a 21-year old T'Boli local who told us stories as we made our way up and down the narrow Kule trail. Being a tour guide was his livelihood. He would earn P600/day and only got to do this twice a week. But I loved his attitude: he was saving up to complete his schooling and get better work, because he said, "it isn't your fault if you're born poor, but it's your fault if you die poor."
About two hours later we came upon Lake Holon.
It took another 45 minutes or so to skirt the lake and reach the boats that would take us to the campsite. Such a pretty view:
We reached the campsite at around 11am, and the people we were with started pitching their tents. My husband Dex and I didn't have time to stay overnight, so the plan was to have lunch, take photos, rest for a bit and be out of there by 1pm.
We weren't very prepared for this trip at all, but we did know that it was possible to buy tilapia from the campsite. What was great about it was that the tilapia here is wild tilapia that feeds on lake plankton, and the T'Boli simply jump in, catch a few large ones with their spears and chargrill them for you. They said that as soon as you enter the water, the schools of fish are right there, so fishing is easy and just a matter of picking out the largest and fattest tilapia you can find. Apparently when they have celebrations, they sometimes trek to the lake, catch fish, and are back in the village within an hour or two (whereas it normally takes 4-5 hours on average for tourists to get there via Kule, and 3-4 hours via Salacafe). Win-win jokingly calls the lake their "grocery." Back home we are lucky enough to have a supermarket right beside where we live, so this really puts things in perspective.
When Win-Win came back with our tilapia (5 pieces for only PhP50, and we were supposed to pay another PhP20 for the firewood but the guy who sold it refused to take our 20 bucks). This must have been the best PhP50 meal I'd had in my life!
We didn't have any plates or utensils, so we used banana leaves as plates and ate with our fingers. We had brought some herbed pili nuts with us, so that became our side dish. The fish was so fresh it didn't leave any fishy smell on my hands!
There was a little sari-sari store there as well manned by a little girl who must have been no older than 12. She was the cutest thing and very efficient: she would serve everything to hungry mountaineers from rice to coffee to soy sauce and cup noodles. We purchased two cups of T'Boli coffee (at 10 pesos per mug!) to round off our meal before heading back out.
The way back was via the Salacafe trail, which was shorter and wider than Kule. After the first 45 minutes of steep rocky going, the path flattened and widened out, and there were horses available at the rest area for a ride back out to the road. We opted to go on horseback for PhP400 each and had a grand time. I loved that I could appreciate my surroundings more because I wasn't focused so much on the trail. Dex calls it "glam-hiking".
We were back at the jump-off point by 3pm and got on a habal-habal once again to the municipal hall. It was perfect timing because any later than that and we might have run out of daylight.
Whew! It was an awesome trek. I can't wait to go back with the kids and bring our tents so we can watch the sun rise together over that beautiful lake. Thinking about it makes me realize that while the T'Boli may not be rich folk, they are blessed with a land that provides all of their basic needs in terms of food and drink, clean air, amazing views -- a nourishing environment that understandably would be conducive to the creativity they exhibit in the arts and culture they are known for. What a wonderful experience.