At first, Grace thought it was play money since she’d never seen crisp, new $100 bills. But, just in case, she brought the envelope to her supervisor immediately, who confirmed that it was real money. There was $1,000 in the envelope, but no other writing or information to help locate the passenger it belonged to.
Grace was officially commended for doing the right thing with the money. She could have just as easily pocketed the envelope – almost half a year’s salary for her – and not one single person would have known. (To be honest, I’m less than 100% sure I would have done the same thing!)
What makes her story even more remarkable is that Grace is an Aeta (pronounced "eye-ta"), the native indigenous group here in the Philippines with direct ties to the Aborigines in Australia.
How the Aetas got to the Philippines still confounds anthropologists. The popular theory is that they came over in hunting parties that migrated across the land bridge extending from Oceania to parts of Southeast Asia. Indigenous tribes with similar characteristics exist along that path, in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and New Caledonian. Eventually, they walked all the way to the Philippines archipelago through the elongated island of present-day Palawan, around 30,000 years ago.
While that land bridge was covered with rising oceans around 5,000 years ago, the Aetas still inhabit the Philippines. They live in makeshift bamboo huts deep in the jungles or high in the mountains, living off the land.
Aetas used to scar their bodies as a form of art like tattoos, a ceremony where they were wounded and then made to scar with fire or lime. They also would chip away or filing of their teeth when they were teenagers, and then dying them black soon after.
During the Vietnam war, the largest American naval base outside of the U.S. was established in Subic Bay in the Philippines, strategically close to the Aeta village of Pastolan. There, G.I.s learned jungle survival and warfare skills from an Aeta elder named Manifacio De La Junta Florentino.
Still, to this day, Mr. Florentino teaches a jungle survival course (but now, just for fun) outside of Subic. The walls inside his humble abode are decorated with well wishes, letters, and memorabilia from U.S. soldiers, thanking him for teaching them how to stay alive.
They did return, and many now inhabit the volcanic region again today. But Aetas are also scattered across some of the central and southern region’s jungles and mangrove swamps. Today, it’s estimated that only 15,000 Aeta still exist in the Philippines (in a country of 110 million), although I’m not sure how accurate that number is or how they’d even go about counting. But, I also read that between 10% to 20% of the Philippines has some Aeta blood.
During my quick research before meeting Grace, I was shocked to read that the life expectancy of an Aeta born today is just 16.5 years. Only one-third of all Aeta children live past 15 years (at which point, their average life expectancy rises to 27.3 years). That's hard to believe until you realize that most Aeta are born at home or with the help of a midwife, never see a doctor or take medicine in their lives, have no medical care or proper education at all. They also are subjected to many of the same addictive predispositions and vices that befall Aborigines and Native Americans, cutting short their tragic lives.
Sadly, these First People are not even second-class citizens in their own land, as they’ve been largely forgotten and constitute the poorest of the poor here in the Philippines. They mostly live within their own isolated tribal communities, where there are scarce few jobs (Grace told me that the men carve wooden flutes that are sold as souvenirs, earning $1 per flute), opportunities, or chances for a better life.
The Aetas haven’t even received recognition or restitution for their plight by the government, such as the Aborigines or other First People around the world. In 2001, the Philippines government did pass the Indigenous People Development Plan, which awarded them ownership of their homelands – in theory.
But, tellingly, the plan was drafted in English – not the Aeta native tongue or even the national language of the Philippines, signaling that it was mostly just for optics. Their lands have been stolen or raped through logging, slash-and-burn farming, or outright annexation.
That is, until I saw her photo and the headline on Facebook. I was so inspired by her story that I reached out to a local friend, who was able to track her down. We found out that while Grace was happy just to do the right thing and not asking for any recognition, her three kids couldn’t even get to school most days in the rainy season.
On a gray Saturday morning so humid you could almost ring water out of the air like a washcloth, I was instructed to meet Grace and her brother at a Jollibee (the popular fast food chain) in Mabalacat, an industrial town that served as the “other side of the tracks” to the tourist hub of Clark, where she worked at the airport.
Squeezed inside a trike, I breathed exhaust and tried in vain to get my bearings as we sputtered and sped through traffic. Finally, the driver pulled into a Jollibee, allowing me to get out of the trike's sidecar and unfold my legs. But it was the wrong Jollibee’s, I found out after furious Facebook messages back and forth, and there was another one, much further in the depths of the city.
I got back in; we continued on; and soon, we were in parts where I didn’t see one other foreign face for hours. We found the correct Jollibee, and it wasn't hard to spot Grace, as she was standing out front scanning the street so not to miss us. Grace also introduced me to her older sister, Lea, who was accompanying since her brother couldn’t make it. They had been waiting since 7 am (for our 10 am meeting time) since they were so excited and didn't want to be late! More Filipinos should take note of that time management!
Next, we were on a mission to find a great discount store that offered all of the things the 75 school children needed. There were four of us now occupying one motorcycle trike, so, with our gangly Filipino driver, Jun, kick-starting the engine, Grace and her sister sat comfortably in the trike’s sidecar, while I was left to ride side saddle hanging off the back of the motorcycle seat behind Jun.
It took us about an hour in traffic, bolting back and forth across town to three different stores like that. All at the same time, I shifted my weight when my limbs lost circulation, ducked down so I wouldn’t bang my head on the metal roof overhead, and tried not to lose a flip flop as they brushed the street below – or get a leg ripped off by a truck that passed too close.
We spent the next couple of hours there. Amid gleeful chaos, the sisters navigated up and down the aisles, picking out things the children needed, negotiating five transactions at once with the store’s eager-to-please young staff, who were dispatched to find us 75 white t-shirts, raincoats, umbrellas, and backpacks in various sizes, colors, and with a host of cartoon characters, Disney princesses, or superheroes printed on them.
Once they found out who Grace was and what we were doing, they recognized her instantly since her story had gone viral. Even our driver, Jun, who surrendered the rest of his afternoon to be our personal chauffeur, knew of her.
Soon, it became a community activity, as other visitors to the store wanted to chat, people out on the street stared as we took photos with the Aeta woman, and others stopped to pitch in. When the store ran out of rain boots in kids sizes, the manager made a phone call and a man soon arrived with two massive grain sacks filled with about 100 rubber rain boots, all dumped on the floor in piles so we could go through and get what we needed.
Once the calculator came out, it was the time of reckoning. I was sorry to see that we’d blown past that 15k budget and were up closer to 25k. I chipped in the last Peso I had in my pocket (minus that I had to pay Jun), and we managed to get just about everything (except the white shirts) for less than 19,000 Pesos.
We even took photos with the store workers as we said goodbye, and the manager gave us her number to call ahead next time. The haul was loaded and strapped into a second trike outside.
Grace and Lea invited me to come along and present the things to the school kids. But it was only Saturday, and with a Muslim holiday on Monday, it wouldn’t be Tuesday until the kids got their new rain gear and school supplies, and I’d already be back home to Manila.
But I promised them that we'd all stay in touch and I'd visit next time in the dry season when the roads are passable - with the missing white shirts!
I found out later that he couldn’t go all the way up to their mountain village, so Grace and her sister had to actually start carrying all of those things – including two huge sacks of boots almost as big as they were – straight up the mountain road! Luckily, a couple came along in a sturdy SUV that could handle the incline and offered to drive them the rest of the way.
The crazy thing is that they, too, had heard of Grace, the Honest Aeta!
Check out these photos and videos of the kids receiving their new stuff and thanking Lifted International (or, something that sounds close enough!). And if you'd like to make a donation to help these kids, just go to LiftedInt.org.