Wing-Tips in the Mire

Tough Parables

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

I'm trying to remember all the wonderful gear I carried with me on a hike I took into the bush in Mindanao, in the Philippines, to interview a rebel leader, or dato, named Mantokan. The dato, who had been subsisting on pilfered livestock and meager tribute in the jungles of the big southern island for a dozen years, led a ragged pack of Muslim separatist guerrillas who took potshots at whatever and whoever represented the government at the time. It was a slow, simmering uprising that had never quite been put down, not even after an all-out bombing campaign during the latter years of Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship, in which tens of thousands of Mindanaoans perished.

I had what I needed to make it in and out comfortably, or so I theorized. Nothing very fancy: a Ziploc bag holding a pound of my homemade instant energy drink (equal parts powdered milk, Nescafé, protein powder, and chocolate-flavored Nestlé's Quik), a few ounces of powdered Purex laundry bleach (for disinfectant), notepads made of rainproof paper, and even a NASA-designed pen that could write in zero-gravity conditions, just in case. I had a sharp hat, too, one of those Australian hats with a brim that snaps. And I was in shape. I'd been training for months, lifting weights and backpacking in the hills of northern California. Days before boarding the plane for the Philippines, I'd taken a five-mile trail with a full pack over mountainous terrain in under an hour. Never before had I been so fit, and never since.

The plan seemed simple at the time. I'd made arrangements to hook up with a pair of guides in a tiny mountain hamlet called Ang-gaan, which was a ten-mile hike from my base of operations, the village of Damulog, in central Mindanao. On the first day I would have to carry everything I'd brought with me to the islands, not more than 20 pounds in all. Once I reached Ang-gaan I would shed a few pounds before starting the hard part, a long march further into the mountains. As it turned out, I trudged through such a succession of tropical downpours and encountered so much mud in that first, putatively easy ten-mile stretch that I felt obliged to discard my canvas hiking shoes in Ang-gaan and put on my dry ones, a pair of street shoes. Wing-tips, as a matter of fact. The next morning I hiked into the jungle hills prepared for any social occasion.

My guides were Roberto Saliling, the headman of Ang-gaan, and Siawan Mantawil, an uncle of Mantokan. The old uncle had the flat, weary features of a very wise Eskimo. Both he and Roberto were shrunken and nearly meatless—almost, you might say, like animated mummies. They were each close to 60, but still they moved right along. Roberto carried a liter-size Coke bottle full of water on a string, and Siawan carried a spear. They brought nothing else.

Judging by a map I'd bought in Manila at a store where women sat at tables drawing them out by hand with colored pencils, my rendezvous point with Mantokan on the Polangi River lay 25 to 30 miles away. The jungle people we met were curious about where I was going. "Don't go to the Polangi River," they all told me. "You'll meet vampires. Witches. They have malaria and diseases. You can be kidnapped by the Tad-tad"—a twisted Christian sect whose name meant "chop-chop." I didn't worry about any of this because I trusted my guides to keep me safe. And anyway, I'd lived in Manila for half my childhood without getting bit by malarial mosquitoes or vampires.

For the first five miles, we hiked along a wide path beaten smooth by carabao hooves. It narrowed gradually until we were holding our arms to our chests to keep from being sliced by thorns. Soon the path became a figment in Uncle Siawan's mind. No getting away from the thorns now, and the blood ran down our arms. The general rhythm was up and over one small mountain after another. The ground was an aggressive and savage red muck as fully alive as the plants growing out of it, really maniacal stuff that clung to my shoes, building up under the soles, clambering over the sides and engulfing me up to the ankles. It didn't dissolve in water and couldn't be swished away in a creek. I struggled along with my wing-tip footwear encased in two massive red cakes as heavy as concrete. Meanwhile Siawan and Roberto, barefoot, floated along like a couple of ghosts.

About 12 miles in we waded into a sea of chest-high elephant grass with a six-inch-wide path cut through it, somewhere in the region of our feet. Now, in addition to the mud underfoot, we had the sun overhead. I perspired in torrents. My khakis were sopping, my pockets full of sweat. I filled my jug at every creek, and still it was always empty. I knew I was drinking too much—it was making me queasy. Siawan and Roberto took only an occasional mouthful from their liter bottle and spat it out.

"You shouldn't drink from the streams," Roberto told me. "There are people using the stream for bathroom."

I wasn't listening. If it did kill me—good! A little rest!

Coming up a rise not a mile from the camp where we were to meet Mantokan, my legs suddenly turned to mush and I collapsed and fainted. The two 60-year-olds hoisted me upright, got my arms around their tiny shoulders, and dragged me up the hill to a level spot where I could lie down and recover while they stood around chatting and smoking cigarettes rolled from some foul leaf.

I got no article that trip. I made the last mile, but Mantokan never showed. We spent three days and nights in a barn with two dozen emaciated young Muslim guerrillas, at least half of whom were down with a vicious strain of malaria. Out behind their makeshift barracks were 30 or 40 fresh graves.

With the help of Roberto and Siawan, I made it back to Damulog, and by a series of lucky flukes I snagged buses, jeeps, and jets in quick enough succession to get me home to northern California before the intestinal microbes struck. While waiting for pills in a local clinic, I got the chills. Then I discovered I was pissing blood. I spent nine days in the cardiac care unit of a Santa Rosa hospital with malaria, hepatitis, and dysentery. It was a good three months before I was able to get out of my sickbed and start looking for fresh ways to embarrass myself.

Denis Johnson is the author of Jesus' Son and Fiskadoro, among other works. His new novel, The Name of the World, is out this month from HarperCollins.

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