Amina and Zulfiqar Alikhan from College Station, TX are some of the most strident supporters and well-wishers of Comfort Aid International. So when they requested that I take on their son Aabid with me to the next ‘safe’ CAI expedition, I had no qualms about it. I invited him to visit the Philippines with Sohail and me when we visited the first week of January 2020. CAI donors are extending a helping hand to educate about 150 poor indigenous tribal people around Mount Pinatubo. Aabid is a determined young man; he flew 19 hours from Houston to Manila with an additional 9 hours break in Taipei. The following is his take on the 3-day adventure in his words. Enjoy!
As I woke from a three-hour slumber, I felt a shot of adrenaline from the anticipation of the journey ahead. From Metro Manila to the Aeta tribe at the base of Mount Pinatubo was a more than seven-hour journey through remote villages and past the tourist towns of the Philippines. We left our modern, comfortable, WIFI-enabled Airbnb to join our driver, Tine, in the van that would navigate us over the next two days. Along the road, we stopped for Fajr at a Shell station along a highway, ate chicken adobo and hummus with pita at a 7-Eleven, and were able to learn about the Aeta people from several locals who accompanied us to the village. After approximately six hours of winding roads taking us through rural towns, we arrived at Camp Kainomayan. At this spot typically reserved as a tourist destination, we switched into a military-style oversized 4×4 truck to take us the remainder of the way. For more than an hour, we journeyed across a dry riverbed filled with volcanic ash that created a dust storm as we drove through it. My hair was caked with sand almost immediately. After traversing a river, grassland, and being assaulted by more dust, we finally arrived at the Burgos Elementary School in Botolan, our final destination.
It was the most remote community I had ever witnessed. More than a day away from civilization and with no running water, the existence of the Aeta people was incomprehensible. The people looked a mix of Aborigine and Filipino descent. The children ran around barefoot or in flimsy sandals. Their homes were made of a mix of mud, bamboo, and leaves, yet somehow they had solar panels on the majority of homes. There was no real activity going on in the town, and everyone had congregated near the school, presumably because of our visit. The landscapes were beautiful and the whole community was tucked in at the base of the mountain they worshipped.
Between us and the people of the tribe, there was a massive language barrier because we could not speak Tagalog, and even though the local school was supposed to be teaching in English, not a child could converse with us. This, however, was the least of their concerns. Inside the school the untreated wood had become a feeding ground for termites, the desks were sized for preschoolers, yet they were to be used by students of all ages, and there were pieces of feces of giant frogs on the floor. It was falling apart before our eyes. The school was to serve more than 200 students of all ages, but there were only a few faculty on staff. Even the most basic needs were going unmet. Since their local well has broken, they have been forced to trek two kilometers for the nearest source of clean potable water. The bathrooms were a hole in the ground and there was no means of sanitation at all. How could it be expected that children could focus in class, learn a new language, and behave themselves when it is an everyday struggle to survive to eat or defecate? It was a notion that seemed, to me, ludicrous.
Two of the sisters who came with us from Manila were Victoria and Fatima. They arranged our meals, accommodations, and ensured that we were taken care of. In addition to that, they also brought apples for the children. Each child lined up and waited their turn for an apple, saying “Salamat Po” in thanks for their treat, rarely making eye contact in the process. The children were meek and seemed unsure of us. They watched us from a distance but rarely came close. I’m not sure how many other times in their life they had seen visitors that were not from the Philippines, but there was no doubt that we were out of the ordinary. As a local, Fatima took the lead and used this as an opportunity to speak to them about the work CAI does and give them pamphlets in Tagalog.
When it was time to eat, the preparations were elaborate and beautiful. Several varieties of scaled fish were stuffed with vegetables and cooked whole on a makeshift grill on the ground. Our plates were long banana leaves that ran the length of the table at which we sat. After Zohr and Asr prayers we enjoyed an incredible meal of rice and fresh fish. It was a brand-new experience to eat fish whole for me after being so privileged that I had no concept of how to debone one. I was proud that I managed to only get one fishbone lodged in my throat, but it quickly made its way down my gut.
Our time with the Aeta people had come to a close, but the work ahead had just begun. The immediate projects were drilling a new water well and constructing the bathroom. After meeting these basic needs and creating a rapport with the local contractors and communities, it will be possible to revamp the school and find ways to improve the overall education system. I left the village with a sense of longing. A longing to serve these people and also more communities like theirs across the world. There is a long journey to help the Aeta people, and an even longer journey ahead to reach people just like them across the world. I am ever grateful to Comfort Aid International for this experience and Yusufali and Sohail for taking me in as one of their own. I am confident this trip will be a springboard for my future of service. Salamat Po, Comfort Aid, Salamat Po.
Aabid, Sohail and I took advantage of our time in the Philippines and climbed the now almost-defunct Mount Pinatubo up and down the next day. Quite an adventure. However, I’m glad we left the Philippines when we did since a neighboring volcanic mountain, Taal, spewed destruction and death a week later.
CAI is open to chaperoning young adults as we explore the world beyond us. This will open their minds and paradigms way beyond expectations and equip a young personable, accepting mind for a quality future insha’Allah. All we ask is that they be self-funded and planned well in advance.