In “enemy” territory

The author's photo of Palaui island.

The author’s photo of Palaui island.

Where do you go for a thesis research project when you’re a Dutch student finishing a master in tropical nature conservation? My challenge in 2005 was finding a country in the tropics where I could do a meaningful research. At the same time, have some fun and travel a bit.

I found the answer at Leiden University. It has a field station in the Philippines which is a co-operation with Isabela State University (ISU). Together with two friends and a professor at the university, I planned a trip to the Philippines to study the biodiversity of bats in the Sierra Madre mountains. We were told that the area is generally safe, and that the rainy season doesn’t mean that it’s raining all the time. With that in mind, we arrived in our destination in October 2005.

Before going to the Sierra Madre, we were advised to register with the army, to make sure we would not be mistaken with NPA rebels. To our surprise, the commander asked us why we wanted to do research in the area. He told us that Palawan is much nicer and safer. That was our first clue that it wasn’t as safe as we were told.

But we didn’t have any time to waste, since we had to acclimatise and get settled in. So we decided to brave it. Our first immersion with the locals was going to the karaoke bar and trying some San Miguel beer and Red Horse. Two weeks later, we were ready for our fieldwork in the Sierra Madre.


One of our expeditions took place deep into the forest. To get there, we had to take a jeepney, change into a loggers’ truck and finally hike for one day. We brought quite some equipment which meant that we had to hire 10 porters for our hike. One of the porters accidentally packed the formalin on top of the rice. When we arrived at the remote destination, we found out that the formalin had started leaking.

Without rice, we resorted to eating food from the jungle for three weeks. Our snare traps would catch chickens. Sometimes we’d make do with bats. They are just as edible as any other flying critter.

It was the wet season. We had at least ten minutes of dry weather during those three weeks. The constant rain and the high humidity caused some bodily inconveniences. At the end of the expedition, my left foot had the size and shape of a jack fruit, making my left shoe useless. And lucky me, we only had to travel by foot for one day back to civilization.

Just before arriving at the place where we could get onto a truck back home, we found out that the river which we had to cross had grown three times its normal size because of the continuous rainfall. Swimming is not really something that I’m very good
at, so I was a bit nervous crossing the raging waters. However, the thought of being back to civilisation made it easier. All of us made it safely to the other side of the river. After three weeks in the forest, even a chair was considered a luxury. Being able to sit and have a proper meal were the best things about coming back to our student home.

During our expeditions, we met the friendliest people in remote areas. I remember staying in a sitio with only a few houses. The villagers invited us to have diner with them even though they only had enough food for their own family.

In another village, we were told that the area was infested with NPAs which made it unsafe for us to go out at night. I thought the communist rebels were fearsome warriors walking around, heavily armed eager to shoot anyone in sight. I soon found out that the opposite was true.

One night, we went out looking for some frogs (yes, biology students are not normal people). Suddenly, we were shining our headlights at an NPA camp, waking some of the members. What followed was a short conversation and we were given some cigarettes. We continued our walk afterwards. This obviously changed my view of the rebels.

A few weeks later, we experienced a fight between the army and the NPA. Luckily, we got out unscathed.


The best part of doing research in the Philippines was of course the opportunity to travel and to get to know the culture. During our Christmas break and in between expeditions, we were able to visit some of the many islands that the Philippines is known for.

One of the most memorable trips was a weekend trip to Palaui Island in the north of Luzon where tourism is not developed and hotels are almost absent.

Another one was our trip from San Jose in Occidental Mindoro to Busuanga on a ramshackle boat. The crossing, which we surprisingly survived, was made worthwhile when we spotted a shoal of dolphins rounding our boat.

Even though I have come back to the Philippines many times since then, the first time was a very special visit. Because of that I will keep coming back. The experience has also changed me quite a lot. For example, I nowadays prefer rice for breakfast and I randomly ask people if they have eaten yet.

robinAbout the author

Robin Kuijs decided to stay in the Philippines after his research ended. He worked as a photographer for two years before going back to the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, he works as an IT professional and has his own photography business. He is also the creative director of the Filipino Expat magazine.

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