Leeches are pretty amazing creatures. The way they can inject an anticoagulant enzyme into their hosts is incredible … but it was hard to fully appreciate their evolutionary biology as I plucked them, squirming and fat with my blood, off my feet and ankles.
The day-long hike up to the park staff’s biodiversity monitoring campsite was slippery and steep, but that was the fun part as we slowly rose from rice fields and coconut farms at sea level to secondary forest in the lowland hills.
About halfway up, I paused to rest and wait for the others at Haguimit, a community of indigenous people (or “IPs” as they are informally called here). It looks like any other rural, poor Filipino community: the few scattered houses were mostly huts built out of local materials; a sad basketball court had a beautiful view overlooking the valley we had climbed through; and dirty, adorable children with very little clothes ran up and stared at us.
My attempts to talk to the children in broken Tagalog were met with confused looks, and when the others arrived they explained that most of the people in this community speak a different dialect than the Filipino national language.
As we ate crackers and rested, Andy – one of the Mt. Guiting-Guiting park staff who is from the lowland town where we began our hike – chattered away at some of the community members who had emerged from their homes to greet the group. He and Rebecca, a forester working for the park, introduced me to a friendly-looking guy by blunting stating they had cited him for illegal logging – one of the biggest threats to the park, as poor people constantly are trying to cut down trees to sell for money or to use to build their own homes. The man’s accomplice was AWOL, as he had already been cited once and therefore was facing a fine or court case for a repeat infraction.
The sun had already set by the time that we reached our campsite and we hiked the last part with headlamps. This was also the part where leeches were prevalent, so we sat and pried them off our feet while our three IPs guides set about cutting vines and poles with their bolos in order to construct impromptu benches, provide firewood, and cleared areas for the tent and hammocks. Meanwhile Pboi, our cook who hauled a cast iron pot up the mountain, set about making dinner that consisted of a giant mountain of rice and pako, a local edible fern. We added canned tuna and ate as Rebecca blasted music – a random collection of American pop music, electronic remixed versions of American pop music, and some Filipino tunes. Since we would wake up at 5 am the next day to begin the bird monitoring transect, most people curled up in their hammocks after dinner except for Andy and the IPs, who set about polishing off a bottle of brandy (in essence we were paying the guides in rice and alcohol for their help). Not exactly serene camping in the woods, but I was tired enough to pass out pretty quickly.
To be continued …