The Philippines in a (Coco) Nutshell

Splayed out like a shattered jade dinner plate across the South China Sea, the Philippines is home to nearly 8,000 islands, many adorned with stunning white-sand beaches and breathtaking landscapes, and a population of just over 100 million. Weathering generations of bloody conflict, political upheaval, destructive earthquakes, and severe flooding from seasonal typhoons and hurricanes, the Philippines has always been a country under constant change and renewal.

Beginning with Magellan’s arrival (and death) here in the 16th century, it fell under Spanish rule for some 300 years, with Catholicism becoming the dominant religion that remains today.

Coming under US rule after the Spanish-American war, tribal uprisings that saw an opportunity to take over the country were suppressed - defeats that paved the way to a collective national renaissance. These past influences remain evident in their daily lives and language - predominantly Tagalog - but colloquially, a mix of English, Spanish, and Tagalog - some locals call it ‘Tanglish.’ Each are used in casual conversation - and all three are often spoken in the same sentence, even in on-air news reporting. 

Hospitable and friendly, the men and women here get each others’ attention with clicks, hisses and knocks, providing a fair amount of amusement. But, it is perhaps the hard-working, industrious, and self-reliant rural inhabitants that I encountered that best embody what the Philippines is all about. People like Romeo Dulpina. 

Every day for the past 35 years, he has gotten out of bed at 5:30 AM to make his way to the grove of coconut palms behind his home in the village of Lambog on Siargao Island. At 57, he is in search of tubâ, the palm wine that these trees produce. Without any harnesses or support, he scales the towering giants with only his machete and a plastic container as if he is in his twenties to collect the thick, pink-ish sap drank throughout the Visayan Archipelago. 

Already fermented, the tubâ can be consumed directly when it’s collected. The longer it’s kept, however, the more potent it becomes. Often taken straight and passed around in the same vessel, it is also prepared in kinotil cocktails (chocolate powder and a raw egg), or used as a vinegar base in cooking. With a flavor that is tangy and light, and tasting far better than it smells, tubâ is an important fixture in maintaining social bonds in these rural areas. 

Romeo harvests five gallons of tubâ each day, and sells his weekly collection at the market every Friday at Dapa port, about 20 kilometers to the south. His coconut palms support his entire family at a rate of 110 pesos/gallon of tubâ (about US$2). He and his wife, Amilita, raised their two daughters and look after their nephews in the very home Romeo was raised. 

The Dulpinas represent the backbone of the Philippines, and despite often impossible odds, exemplify the spirit and determination necessary to make this country work…and well-worth visiting.  

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