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Cagayan Isabela Philippines Travel

The Dumagat of Isabela, of People Living Close to Nature

In the age where the world is getting smaller because of technology, the sense of authenticity in travel is also slowly diminishing. Part of the attraction of Eastern Isabela is its remoteness. Cut-off by the great Sierra Madre Mountain Range to the rest of Luzon, the region is a place where cellular signal is almost non-existent, electrical power runs at most 7-hours a day or none and where indigenous people are still closely linked to nature like the Dumagat of Isabela. Here in this remote land, I somehow found a sense of authenticity meeting these indigenous people.

A Dumagat mother and child
A Dumagat mother and child

In the age where the world is getting smaller because of technology, the sense of authenticity in travel is also slowly diminishing. Part of the attraction of Eastern Isabela is its remoteness. Cut-off by the great Sierra Madre Mountain Range to the rest of Luzon, the region is a place where cellular signal is almost non-existent, electrical power runs at most 7-hours a day or none and where indigenous people are still closely linked to nature like the Dumagat of Isabela. Here in this remote land, I somehow found a sense of authenticity meeting these indigenous people.

A Dumagat family in their Lean-to
A Dumagat family in their Lean-to

The Agta and Dumagat of Isabela

On our first day in Maconacon, we visited a Dumagat settlement living by the bay, 15-20 minutes away from the town centre. We caught sight of a few basic lean-to where a couple of families live. The Dumagat are distinctive of their dark brown skin and kinky or curly hair. Some have natural golden hair dyes because of the exposure to the sun and sea. They are a sub-tribe of the Agta Negritos similar to the Aetas on the western part of Luzon or the Mangyans in Mindoro. As a semi-nomadic tribe, they usually live in a lean-to since it is easy to set-up or disassemble when moving around. There are several versions on where the word Dumagat came from, some from the combination of words “Gubat” (forest) and “Hubad” (naked), there’s also “taga-dagat” (sea gypsies) and “rumakat” (to walk). Either way we call them, Dumagat or Agta, they answer to both.

Portrait of a young dumagat
Portrait of a young dumagat
Another mother and child Dumagat
Another mother and child Dumagat

The first group of Dumagat families we encountered were a bit shy but don’t really mind to have their photographs taken. One of the fathers told us he usually catch some lobsters early morning to sell at the town. Most of the Dumagat thrive on either hunting or fishing. I remember our guide telling us that there was this one NGO (non-government organisation) who thought the Dumagats how to farm and tender animals. They tried but didn’t last long as eventually they abandoned their lands and animals and went back to hunting and fishing.

A Dumagat kid with his pet dog
A Dumagat kid with his pet dog
A Dumagat family living by Blos River
A Dumagat family living by Blos River

Changing Way of Life

Old photos of Dumagats I saw show these ethnic groups in their old garbs, g-strings for men and women would usually go topless. At this time, I wasn’t expecting them to wear those anymore. While some men still wear their old g-strings, a lot of them now wear regular clothes which isn’t surprising. But with addition of clothes are the addition of chores for the women.

A mother looks after her young while doing laundry
A mother looks after her young while doing laundry

Next day, we visited the Dumagat settlement by the Blos River (Dicatayan River) about 25km away from Maconacon town centre, following the rough coastal road. We even have to cross the river via a raft locals use to transport their motorbikes on. On its rocky banks, some Dumagat women are doing laundry using the modern detergents which I’m sure they didn’t use years back. I’m just wondering on the impact the chemicals have on this very clean river.

A friendly volleyball game at Reina Mercedes school
A friendly volleyball game at Reina Mercedes school

Dumagat Education

It may seem that the Dumagats are uneducated, but it was a surprise that a lot of them already have basic education – they know how to read and write. Past Blos River, we visited a school at the second to the last Baranggay, north of Maconacon, which is Reina Mercedes. We saw students enjoying a fun game of volleyball and later they have a feeding program for the younger ones near the municipal hall. We learned that about 80% of the students there are Dumagats. I think its safe to say they are no longer a minority in this area.

Heading home from school barefoot
Heading home from school barefoot

A Simple Life Close to Nature

At Divilacan, the next town, south of Maconacon, we also met a few Dumagats at the Dicatian Mangrove Forest. I can clearly remember how a Dumagat fisherman proudly showed us his colourful catch of fish and eels while baring is nettle-nut stained teeth smil. Somehow, I envy how these Dumagats live. At first I thought they were living in poverty but in truth they are richer than us since they have the environment to live by. If there would be any major catastrophe that would happen to our planet, no more machines, internet or electricity, these are the kind of people that would survive since they are self-sufficient.

A dumagat with his fresh catch at Divilacan
A Dumagat with his fresh catch at Divilacan

If I had more time, it would be interesting to follow their lives for weeks just to see what its like. But for the meantime I’m must content myself on having a glimpse of their lives. I remember the kids running around with their dog, rolling on a pebble beach. Or the kids at Reina Mercedes, after a long walk from school to Blos River, they would immediately strip their clothes and jump straight to the river. Oh I envy their carefree life.

Best friends at Dicatian, Divilacan
Best friends at Dicatian, Divilacan

Note: For more about the Agta and Dumagat, I invite you to check out Jacob Maetnz exceptional work on documenting the Dumagat of Isabela. He stayed with the community for several weeks.

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