OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS OF BEING AN ANTHROPOLOGIST (that we were not told in college)
By Astor Wong, Palawan, Philippines

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It feels like I have been around for much longer, but in fact this trip to Palawan was indeed my third time on a CERS expedition. I was never the athlete type; I have trouble walking on concrete without tripping over my own feet. CERS’s explorations, as far I was told, would not be trekking-oriented. Yet somehow someone frail and physically inept like me wound up on three expeditions that involved hardcore hiking. And the five-day expedition to the source of Maoyon River was by far the most strenuous one I have ever participated in. Allow me to briefly outline my outlook on anthropology as a discipline, so as to explain my role and expectations for this fieldtrip. The beauty of anthropology is the ‘bottom-up’ approach that we adopt in academic research. Unlike other social sciences that are more preoccupied with grand narratives and theories, anthropologists celebrate cultural diversities, appreciate deviations from ‘norms’, and reflect upon and challenge “the ordinary” embraced by mainstream society.
In short, anthropology strives ‘to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange’. As a serious academic discipline of course anthropology also has its own elaborate theories and diverse schools of thought. Yet, what makes us different is the way we arrive at and apply those theories. Anthropology centers upon fieldwork, our research data mainly come from The Batak village – Kayasan participant observation, interviews and ethnographies; we emphasize gaining personal experience and insights from local people through prolonged interaction, so that mutual trust and deep meaningful relationships can be formed. Instead of imposing overarching theories on the subjects we intend to study, in anthropology, we try our best to blend in and let stories unfold from the inside. As an anthropologist, my major assignment for this expedition was to interview the indigenous Batak people, a tribe with less than 300 individuals. Minimal research on the tribe has been done previously by anthropologists, thus the conservation and documentation of their culture are becoming imperative, especially as their customs are decaying day by day with the intrusion of market economy. –My first encounter with the Batak dated back to the CERS Palawan expedition last March. For my second visit I was hoping to achieve a more in-depth understanding and a chance to build ties with the people by staying at their village for a longer time. My expectation, however, was constrained by the duration of the expedition – a mere five days.

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Worse still, I was told the day before the start of the expedition, that, due to logistical arrangements, I had to follow the rest of the team treading to the source of the Maoyon River, instead of staying at the Batak Kayasan Village for interviews. I had been with CERS long enough to learn to adapt to spontaneity and to improvise. Little did I know that I was completely forgetting my wobbly and clumsy body. I used to think of hiking as a sport of perseverance – I thought that even for someone for whom the athletic gene seems to be absent, it would be possible to complete any hike with enough endurance. But we were, quite literally, ‘cutting’ across the forest, as the Batak slashed a way through the bushes and vines with their machetes. There was no road or path of any sort to start with. Finding ourselves walking at the very brink on the mountainside, one could tumble down the valley with any slight inadvertence. But the ultimate challenge was definitely the countless river crossings. We needed to stride through the slippery riverbed, which required first-class balance skills. I couldn’t help but consider myself a huge burden to the team, as I could hardly manage to cross the stream without the help of at least two Batak. At first, I insisted on changing into my slippers every time I cut across water, as my trekking shoes got extremely soggy and heavy once soaked in water. However, into the third day of the expedition, I gave up and decided to walk in slippers in order to save time and effort.

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After all, the Batak, who helped us to carry all our supplies and baggage throughout the expedition, were wearing flip-flops all along – some of them even trekked bare foot. Of course it did not end well; they were much more competent than I was at trekking – it’s in their veins through years and years of practice foraging in the mountains. As for me, I struggled all the way in my slippers, hopping over boulder after boulder, striding across raging streams with my worn out, sore body. This was undoubtedly one of the toughest journeys in my life. In university, we were told to expect to stay at remote locations with poor hygiene standards and without modern technology, but what I went through in this expedition was way beyond my worst apprehensions. One of the major setbacks of such a physically demanding expedition was that I was completely burnt out by the trekking itself; focusing all my energy in merely surviving. So I was not in my best shape when I conducted interviews and carried out participant observation, and at any rate there was not much time for carrying out research. Despite all the hardship and limitations, I do regard this expedition as extremely fruitful. On a personal level, the sense of achievement upon conclusion of the expedition was truly immense, as I had managed to conquer, not nature, but the weakling inside of me. As for the research, roaming in the land of Batak enabled me to interact with the more secluded tribal people that would have been out of reach if I had stayed only at Kayasan Village.

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Kayasan can be considered as the frontier for the Batak people, the gateway for them to connect with the outside world. For that reason, most of the Batak that resided at Kayasan were more integrated into ‘modern’ society. In fact, some of the Batak, like Annalisa’s father, who is an indigenous healer, retreated to the mountains renouncing adaptation to ‘modern’ livelihoods. During the five day expedition, we witnessed Batak practicing spear-fishing and assembling bamboo rafts; we were told about local myths by Batak elders, and passed through lands of enigmatic taboos. I also had my palm read by our local guide Solio, who is said to have spiritual powers. We could also see that the practice of shamanism and belief in animism are surprisingly alive, undeterred by conversion to Christianity. In one instance, Annalisa asked for a piece of ginger to protect her child from evil spirits that might attack on their way home in the dark. We were also told not to touch or even question about seven peculiar trees in the woods, most probably related to some kind of local taboo. Still, one could ignore the signs of modernization. Even deep in the forest, Batak were wearing modern clothing and smoking cigarettes bought from the city. The changes of traditional customs and beliefs in the midst of fast-paced modern development deserve further examination, and there is much work to be done. Anthropology can be strictly academic and still profoundly meaningful.

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Anthropologists put their hearts and souls into documenting and analyzing culture in hopes of contributing to a deeper understanding of humanity, not just in pure academic terms, but also in a broader ethical sense – to increase compassion of humankind through understanding and appreciating differences. As the renowned anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said, ‘the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences’. Scattered around the world in the most cloistered territories, living with otherwise inaccessible tribal groups, attentively observing and tirelessly documenting, taking a piecemeal approach to slowly progress towards grand ideals. While the moral obligation will require generations and generations of dedication and commitment, anthropology can also be more practical, with more measurable and concrete results. Applying anthropology to development management enables us to devise more culturally sensitive and community- based developmental plans, which can not only help indigenous people to improve their quality of life, but also contribute to conservation of cultural and natural heritage. The Batak are facing a dilemma that is faced by many other indigenous tribes all over the globe – the struggle in the modern capitalism-driven world. One disastrous impact is that the need for money cannot be eradicated once created. They now ‘need’ to consume coffee and smoke cigarettes and they ‘need’ to wear modern clothes, and for them to fulfill such needs, they need money. It is no use looking back to when they could still sustain themselves solely from forest resources, agriculture and bartering; there are now needs that cannot be satisfied by nature anymore. How can they survive better in the market economy? The commercial foraging that the Batak are engaging in nowadays, including almaciga and honey collection, are not reliable sources of income: the government has banned almaciga collection in certain seasons and the market for honey is quite irregular and unstable. Fortunately, from this expedition we saw vast opportunity for the Batak; from ethnic and eco-tourism to traditional craftsmanship. Although the expedition could not be considered formal anthropological fieldwork, it enabled me to make a preliminary assessment of their current way of living. I think there are quite a few ways that CERS might contribute to helping the Batak to improve their own livelihoods through long term projects.