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  Field Notes From
Hotspots: The Philippines

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On Assignment
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From Author

Priit J. Vesilind

On Assignment

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From Photographer
Tim Laman

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jodi Cobb (top), Tim Laman 

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Hotpots: The Philippines

Field Notes From Author
Priit J. Vesilind
Best Worst Quirkiest

I joined biologist Danny Balete on a hike up Mount Isarog in the southern part of Luzon, habitat for 150 species of birds, more than 30 species of mammals, and some 3,000 species of plants. Danny is a skinny young guy with steel springs for legs. He practically pulled me along. We hiked through the rough, degenerated lowland forest, past carmine spears of aromatic wild ginger, lacy umbrellas of tree ferns, and fishtail palms endemic to the Philippines. Everything seemed to be of some use. “The hearts of these palms can be sautéed with sardines,” Danny mused. He was foraging like a wood sprite as he hiked, picking raspberries, guavas, begonia leaves, figs. “I just nibble when I’m in the forest,” he said. “Can’t go hungry.” And when it rained, he simply tore off a few large banana leaves to cover his head. Soon I joined him, sampling my way along the path as if it were a buffet line. A couple of Kipling’s Mowglis we were.

One night photographer Tim Laman took me “frogging” to catch and photograph amphibians and other nocturnal creatures. We trudged up a stream with flashlights on our hats, wearing long sleeves and long pants to protect ourselves from opportunistic insects and leeches. It was pitch-black and humid. The stones in the streambed were slippery, and the water varied from three-foot-deep (one-meter-deep) mudholes to swift ripples. Branches, vines, and driftwood were entangled in the water, and the low canopy forced us to bend as we slogged along. Soon my notebook went soggy in my pocket. Our bodies were soaked in sweat and moisture, and we itched all over.
Well, I thought I had things under control. After all, discomfort makes good copy. But I lost it halfway through. While fording a stream, I reached across to grab what I thought was a solid vine that I could use to pull myself over. It was a young rattan, completely covered by inch-long thorns. Dozens sank into my hand, but if I let go, I’d tumble willy-nilly into the water. So I stood there, straddling the stream, and pulled myself over by the thorns in my palm. We didn’t even find any frogs.

I arrived in Manila in early November, and Danny Balete took me to lunch. After the November cold of home and the air-conditioning of the jetliner, the air was unbearably hot. I was drenched in perspiration and suffering from jet lag, contemplating my sour shrimp soup in an outdoor café and wondering if I could finish it. Suddenly I heard the unmistakable sound of Bing Crosby singing “Jingle Bells” over the restaurant’s loudspeaker. I turned quizzically to my host and asked about the choice of music. “Oh, yes,” he smiled. “It’s already the Ber months.”
“Ber months?”
“September, October, November, and December,” he said. “The Ber months. In the Philippines we start our Christmas celebrations in September, and they go right through to January. In the Philippines it’s Christmas all the time.”

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