23 Jul 2017 18:57 IST

Fire, sand and spa

The Aetas, a nomadic tribe in northern Philippines, have rebuilt their life around an active volcano

The Philippines was supposed to be all about leisurely swims in blue seas and relaxing naps on white-sand beaches. There was sand, all right, but it wasn’t quite the tropical dream I’d envisioned. Instead, I was lying in a trench dug in the sand, while a spa therapist shovelled hot sand onto me, immobilising me neck downwards. “You lie here for 15 minutes,” he instructed. As if I had a choice. I couldn’t even wriggle a toe.

The Puning Hot Spring and Spa in the Pampanga region, north of Manila, sits at the foothills of Mount Pinatubo. The Philippines is in the Ring of Fire — an oceanic belt prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Of the hundreds of volcanoes in the country, more than 20 are considered active today. While driving to the region, my guide Carlos says, “We eat disasters for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In 1991, when Mt Pinatubo erupted, it was one of the largest volcanic events of the century, destroying thousands of homes, lives, and livelihoods in the surrounding Pampanga and Zambales regions. The indigenous Aeta people were the worst-affected. Among the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago, the Aetas are a traditionally nomadic tribe who inhabited the forests and mountains in northern Philippines.

From the ashes of a natural disaster, the native community has slowly rebuilt its life, and relies heavily on tourism to sustain itself. The Puning Hot Spring employs local Aetas, and has created a wellness product out of the volcanic eruption.

On a bone-grinding 4x4 drive to the hot springs, we bumped along the lahar-covered dried bed of the Sacobia river, with only slivers of sky visible from the narrow gorges cut into the forest-covered limestone mountains. Years of geothermal activity has resulted in an almost lunar landscape.

After a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich volcanic hot pools, it’s time for the “sand spa”, which, to my mind, involves a vigorous rubdown with sand. Unsuspecting me has no idea that psammotherapy involves burying yourself in geothermal sand to relieve joint pains, muscle aches, and skin ailments. Ten minutes into my sand burial, I spy from the corner of my eye a lithe Aeta man hopping onto the person buried to my left, and walking over her. I’m next. What follows is a strange but not entirely unpleasant massage, and awkward eye contact between therapist and myself, as he massages my buried shoulders with his feet.

After I emerge from the sand after much wriggling, a 23-year-old Aeta girl named Meija rubs me down with volcanic mud. She’s a trained therapist, and lives in the region just outside the spa. Her slight frame and thick, beautiful curly hair are characteristic traits of her people. “We’re small-built, so well-suited for this kind of ‘walking’ massage,” she says.

While the Spanish, Japanese, and Americans all left their mark on the Philippines, the Aetas were never colonised. Instead, American military forces turned to them to learn jungle survival skills. Subic Bay was a former US naval base, but also the home of Aeta tribes, who lived in the Pamulaklakin Forest.

While they’ve now moved to a settlement outside the forest, Pamulaklakin is an ecotourism zone maintained by the Aetas. I meet Nestor, who was born in the forest, and now conducts guided tours. Nestor and his dog Whitey lead us through the clumps of bamboo, past century-old trees, and across shallow streams, to show us how the forest is both dispensary and kitchen. The pulp of the rattan berry is used to treat diabetes. Tangy vinegar leaves are used in cooking. With wild gesticulation, Nestor demonstrates how they catch birds and monkeys using clever traps fashioned from strong vines. He rubs the bark of the gugo tree between his palms with water till it lathers. “Jungle shampoo,” he says.

The grand old man of the tribe makes an appearance at the end of the tour. Tata Kasoy, or “Cashew”, is a tiny 67-year-old with grizzled white hair and missing teeth, clad in red loincloth and wielding bow, arrows, and sickle. With a spirit and humour inversely proportional to his size, he flirts with the women, regales us with tales of how he trained American military in jungle survival, and demonstrates his skills with bamboo. Using nothing but his hands and materials from the forest, he builds a fire, carves out a fork and a spoon, cooks rice in bamboo, and fashions a spear.

While the resilient Aetas continue to preserve the forest and their way of life, they have integrated with the modern world to earn a living. Kasoy is keen to show off his lifestyle, but equally curious about ours. At the end of his theatrical demonstration, he exchanges his arrows for a DSLR camera, which he slings around his neck as he poses for pictures.

Travel log

Getting there

Fly to Manila and drive three hours to Angeles city — a convenient base to explore Pampanga and Zambales.

Stay

Park Inn Clark at Angeles for easy access to shops and restaurants.

Do

Drive for an hour to reach Puning Hot Spring & Restaurant, where you can soak in thermal pools and indulge in unique mud therapies. Learn about the Aeta way of life at Subic, which is 90 minutes away from Puning.

Tip

Pick up bottles of organic honey harvested from the forest at Pamulaklakin.

(Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel journalist. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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