My 16-year-old Filipino jungle master

I worked with a wonderful colleague in Vancouver, Canada and she is one of my sweet, generous and hardworking Filipina friends at the organization. Before I left a year ago, she told me, “If you want to visit our family’s farm in the Philippines and do outreach to children in the mountains, you can visit my brother.” At the beginning of this year, I took her up on her invite. I always warn people to be careful if they invite me somewhere because I most definitely will go.

Marinduque is said to be at the “heart of the Philippines” because it is an island right in the middle of the country. Of all the places I’ve been in Asia, this island has the biggest concentration of coconut trees I have ever seen. I will write another detailed post about our time in Marinduque, but I wanted to focus this post on an incredibly smart, kind and hardworking young boy I met named Ian. He is 16 years old and working on the farm of the people were visiting.
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When my friend and I first met him, he was very quiet. He doesn’t speak much English except for a few sentences and we don’t speak much Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in Marinduque. But over time, we all felt very comfortable to just be with each other, learn how to do our jungle tasks with him, dance with him and laugh with him. After being in Asia for awhile, you find ways of spending time with people and being comfortable around them even if you don’t share a language. People can share drawings, laughter, dance and use gestures to communicate.

During the first two days, Ian was quieter with us because he was just getting to know us. The first time we spent a longer amount of time together was during a short walk around the village. It was sweet the first time he called my friend and I, “Ate (pronounced “atay”) Meesa” and “Ate Zu,” meaning “big sister Meesa” and “big sister Zu.”

Every day Ian surprised me with a skill that I didn’t know he had. Not only can he use a machete a million ways in the jungle, climb coconut trees and make charcoal from coconuts, he can also do origami and feed babies. He’s constantly doing something productive, whether it’s working in the field or making a kite for himself with the materials he has around him. I’m amazed at how infrequently he takes water after a full day of work. If you drop a group of PhDs in the jungle, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of all the jungle tasks he does. School smarts vs. farm smarts.

He always tells my friend and I, “I will help you,” even when we don’t ask for help. Every time we need some thing or he can sense that we need something, he’s right here without hesitation. Every time I go in the field, my pants are covered with some pines that stick on that have to be removed manually. Ian kept trying to take it off for me after the day was done and I said, “No no, please don’t I can do it myself. Take a rest, you’ve been working all day.”

Possibly the best son ever. How many boys do you know who would paint their auntie’s toes?

Then when I went to sleep and was planning to clean my pants the next day, I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and went to say good morning to Ian and the first thing he did was hold up my pants and said, “Athe Meesa, finished.”

As we spent more time with him, we grew more attached to him and he was so much a part of our daily life. We enjoyed his company as we worked in the field in the day, even in silence. He would on occasion say short sentences like, “So very tired” or “So very hungry” when he would refer to himself, other the people or the water buffalo.

The first few days he was with us I could see he liked dancing but every time he caught me looking at him dancing, he would just stop. But after he warmed up to us, we would have a great time dancing together.

He’s going to be an amazing father one day if he’s already this great with kids at 16.

One day when I was visiting his cousin and the baby, the family was busy and just assumed I knew how to hold the bottle to feed the crying baby. So they handed me the baby, the bottle and left me alone. I didn’t know how to hold the bottle and thankfully Ian showed me how. On top of all of his jungle skills, he is so comfortable taking care of the baby at anytime.

On one of our last days with Ian, I told him I will miss him and he said, “I’ll miss you too. Rebecca (the water buffalo) will miss you.” He encouraged me to ride on Rebecca while he guided me and said, “Sit, it is your last time.” I told him he is a good boy and to keep being the way he is. I joked to his relatives that I want to adopt him.

Ian is called a lot by different relatives to help with different tasks. He helped me to start burning the coal so we could cook and I told him if relatives called him, he can go and help them first. He said directly, “I help you, this is your last night.” I was so impressed at his level of consideration.

On our last night we watched the movie Limitless and I wrote him a note that told him how good a person he was and to keep studying hard in school. When I asked him to pass a note to his cousin and asked if there was an envelope, he said, “No need” and used his origami skills to fold the note.

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Hanging out with Rebecca, the two-year-old water buffalo.

On the last night he drew me his dream house with his future family, which was really sweet. I told him he will be a great father. We had to leave around 4:00 a.m. to catch the ferry the next day. Ian told us, “Please wake me up at 3:00 a.m.” And I said of course I would.

When I went outside at 3:00 a.m. to wake him up, he was still exhausted of course. I told him to just sleep and I will just stay with him until we had to leave. I lied down beside him and we just sat in silence with our eyes open. My friend and I gave him a few hugs before we left.

When I talked to his cousin Ida a week after we left, she told us that Ian told her, “I miss them. I keep imagining Meesa and Zu are with me.”

Ian with his cousin’s baby named Rachel.

Learning yet another skill.

“Do I really need to be the jungle master for this idiot?”

Ian made a wonderful kite with string, plastic and a machete.

Flying his homemade kite.

Making charcoal from coconuts.

Grabbing a batch of bananas.

Would you like a coconut?

Ian can lift two heavy bags like this at once.

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