An unusual evening round the campfire. Definitely not an experience we actively looked for, but one for the books.
In late 2019, we encountered members of the NPA on a camping trip. No harm done, apart from cutting short a perfectly good trip, but I’d still like to tell the story for the benefit of fellow local travellers.
For those unfamiliar with the NPA: it stands for the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. They are locally and internationally categorized as a terrorist group, and use guerrilla warfare as a form of long-term revolution against the government.
Planning the Trip
We planned a three-night riverside getaway for the Undas weekend, spanning Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. We had the perfect spot in mind, given the following factors:
- Ideal campground. Open grassy hills and a calm winding river.
- Familiarity. We’d been there in summer 2019.
- Relative security. We were in contact with the nearest city’s mountaineering organization.
- No NPA activity that we knew of. This is truly a relevant question, which we had asked the last time we were there. The area was known to be clear. But of course, things change and often not even the locals can predict NPA activity.
To get to this place from Metro Manila meant a 3-hour bus ride to the town center, then a 2-hour ride via rough road to the village. From there, the campsite was a thirty-minute walk away. I’m leaving the place anonymous for our own peace of mind.
On the afternoon of October 29th, 2019, we arrived in the village just as a pickup truck was leaving. As the barangay officials welcomed us, they told us cheerfully that the people in the pickup were representatives from the DENR, surveying the area in order to build a new dam. Red flag #1.
We asked for our previous guide, and was told that he wasn’t in town — he was now a construction worker in the city. This was red flag #2, and it saddened us. Our old guide is a senior citizen and really shouldn’t be working anymore.
In any case, the guide was just for the thirty-minute hike to the campsite. The teenage son of one of the barangay officials accompanied us instead.
When we got to the campsite, we paid our young guide a little extra for his trouble, and told him we’d be back in not more than three days. He went home. In retrospect, we were very glad we sent him home immediately.
There were four of us: myself, my husband Mao, and our two friends.
The campsite was a sandy area near the fork of a river. Behind us was a small thicket of low trees, with a few crisscrossing trails. All around us were grassy hills, not more than 400m high. It was like a little stadium, and we were at a bottom corner.
Every ten minutes, a couple of vegetable harvesters would cross the river on the way home; this happened twice before the NPA appeared.
We were hammering our last tent pegs in at around 5:30 PM when they arrived. They simply emerged from the treeline behind us. I was instantly alert, because they were obviously not hunters.
Hunters hunted solo, with long brown shotguns and deadpan faces, just going about another day in the forest. These were young people, perhaps in their early twenties, in a group, which was instantly weird. Their friendly, engaging expressions were also weirdly out of place. They wore faded, threadbare, long-sleeved shirts of the same color, battered flip-flops, and sacks for backpacks. Most conspicuously, slung across their chests were not old wooden shotguns, but loaded black rifles.
“Magandang hapon, mga ka. Kami’y mga miyembro ng NPA.” (“Good afternoon, comrades. We are members of the NPA.”)
They shook hands with us and introduced themselves cheerfully. They invited us to sit down and talk, and how could we say no?
During our conversation, any of our doubts as to whether they were really members of the NPA evaporated. Their main concern was to identify us. They were on the lookout for the army and officials from the DENR. Mainly, they were against the building of the dam.
And now I have to state red flag #3 and our largest risk factor: we were probably the first tourists in the area during that season. During the dry season, this area, though not well-known, hosts a healthy amount of camping, hiking, and mountain biking activities. Because of the threat of development that would adversely affect both the environment and the livelihood of some of the “masa” or indigenous people, the NPA had moved in, in protest, during the rainy season. The result was that they were hella surprised to see us, just as we were surprised to see them.
Anyone would say that ours was a friendly encounter, and we sort of agree. It’s just that they were armed, and they did demand to browse through our phones, check our IDs, and take note of our names, numbers, and addresses. The conversation, too, was sometimes quite threateningly interrogative, because many questions were repeated, probably in order to catch us if we were lying. Questions such as what were our jobs, what were we doing there, were we really not with the DENR, and so on.
We talked for four hours; they stayed until way past 9PM.
They made a little campfire for us to sit around. It was quite chilly, so I was pretty happy about this, and sat near the fire. I also kept offering them snacks, which they would mostly decline.
Only four to six of them ever engaged with us. But there were many, many more. One of the most unnerving things, when night fell, was the way flashlights started flickering on and off, all around the little valley. Like little ants, many of these lights crawled downward, towards us, but the lights would switch off a hundred meters away. There were more of them than we could count, more of them than we could even see, just sitting in the darkness. We were surrounded.
I’m sure they were mostly reassuring themselves of our harmlessness, and I also think that, had they been absolutely sure that we were civilians, they would probably have never approached.
The thing is, we were all young people in our early to mid-twenties, mostly college-educated, so conversation came to us quite easily. We talked about the marginalization of the indigenous peoples, agreed that there were greener ways to generate power than to stick dams in places, that progress could oppress people such as they did our elderly former guide, et cetera. We joked about Marx and about how Mao’s name is Mao (this excited them), and we talked about the necessity of activism in art (one of the dudes was a theater guy). Of course, if you know about the NPA and their methods, there is really a huge area for disagreement, but — it was a chilly night in the middle of nowhere. There was a campfire, and there was conversation. You just make the best of it, even when you’re quaking in your boots.
When it was over, I stood up, brushed sand off my legs, and offered them lots of Milo, Bear Brand, and instant soup. I meant it. Terrorists or not, these were kids younger than me, walking endlessly in the mountains, and food was surely an issue.
They refused at first. I insisted, saying, This way if we didn’t get to eat together, at least we’d have the same things to eat. I was honestly babbling at that point, but to my surprise, this made them smile, sincerely, and accept. Thank you. We’ll share this with our comrades tonight.
Of course, instead of staying for three more nights as planned, we left immediately the morning after. They had melted into the night so quickly it was frightening. I just knew they were still around.
The barangay officials were surprised to see us back so early. We told them we’d just decided to spend All Saints’ Day with our families. We were asked if we’d enjoyed the place — that was precisely where the new dam would be! We looked at each other, like, well, that figures. We kept silent about our encounter. Besides, at that point, we didn’t know who was with whom anymore.
So we spent that morning bathing in the river, which also ran through the village, and went home that very day, October 30th.
Plans are just plans
I’m publishing this in March 2020, quarantine season. We miss travelling, so we decided to dig up unmentioned memories like this one. Not all trips go according to plan. This was one of them. Hell, not all years go according to plan, and 2020 so far has been a prime example. Stay home, folks.
I’m writing this because when we got home from this trip, I kept googling stuff like “NPA encounter tourist Philippines” and I don’t see stories like this. It’s not a thing travellers commonly talk openly about, but as a tourist in my own homeland, I think there should be more open discourse about the possibilities of the outdoors. Anything from dangerous terrain to dangerous strangers.
We were lucky not to have been caught in a crossfire, which is what most news articles are about. That was a huge reason we left so quickly — we had no quarrel with anyone there, not the NPA, not the local government, but if hostilities were expected, it was not a good place for a camper to be.
So, when COVID-19 finally decides that we’re free to travel once again, I wish you safe travels, readers! The world is proving, by the day, more dangerous than ever, but I hope it doesn’t stop us from enjoying what beauty we can.