By HENRY EMPEÑO
SUBIC, Zambales — Sampaloc Cove is a lush but forbidding land. Located at the southernmost tip of Subic’s Redondo Peninsula where the tranquility of Subic Bay meets the turmoil of the open sea, Sampaloc is at once a hidden paradise of sprawling white-gray beaches stroked by the foaming turquoise sea and a remote habitat that tests the very survival of the indigenous Ayta people.
“It’s a hard life that we live here,” said Tom Romamban, a half-caste Ayta from San Marcelino, Zambales, who serves as the de facto leader of the Sampaloc community.
There is no road here, only a trail leading to the centro of Barangay Cawag, of which Sampaloc Cove is a part, and so the 84 families of mostly Ayta tribesmen and the few lowlanders with whom they have intermarried over the years lacked easy access to education, health services, and even to the bigger sari-sari stores at the barangay proper.
The people here subsist on kaingin farming and charcoal-making, and sell their products at the Subic town market about two hours away by motorized banca.
“Some families fish nearby, but we don’t have boats that are big enough for commercial fishing. So the local catch is mostly for dinner,” the lanky tribal chieftain Romamban said. “If we catch more than enough, we give our neighbors some.”
Lately, five teachers had come to Sampaloc Cove to teach elementary grades, but that was only after Romamban converted his own concrete house into a school building and built a hut at the beach for his own family.
He also built a smaller hut nearby where the teachers could stay for the five days each week that they conduct classes.
Life has always been difficult for the people of Sampaloc Cove. Marlyn Clemente, a diminutive Ayta woman from the Pastolan Ayta tribe in Hermosa, Bataan, who had married Romamban, said the first settlers here were Ayta scavengers from Olongapo City who made a living off the scraps left by the US Navy, which occupied then what is now the Subic Bay Freeport.
“Panahon pa ng mga Kano, ay nandito na ang mga Ayta (The Ayta have been here even during the time of the Americans),” Marlyn said.
At that time, the Redondo Peninsula was a military reservation and the US Navy used it for target practice for fighter planes, bombers and ship-borne artillery. It was generally off-limits to Filipinos, but the Americans hired some Ayta natives to gather spent brass shells and other waste materials for proper disposal inside the base.
Marlyn’s father was one of them. “Pagkatapos pumutok ang Pinatubo, nagpirmi na ang pamilya namin dito (After Mt. Pinatubo erupted [in 1991, and the subsequent closure of the naval base in 1992], our family settled here for good),” she added.
The isolation of Sampaloc Cove spelled difficulty and want, even as the Aytas tried to make a living from the bounties of the jungle that soon overtook the military preserve.
Over the years some people arrived to help the Aytas overcome their fate, and one of them is Pastor David Ebbay, a native of Candelaria, Zambales, who was among a boatload of tourists from Manila who arrived in Sampaloc sometime in 2015.
Ebbay said that meeting Romamban that time gave him a new mission to which he would since commit himself.
“Tom told me that they don’t have any church in the village, and could I help them build one?” the preacher recalled. He said yes, came back after a few months with some donations from Manila to start the church building project, and never left since then.
Aside from tending to the spiritual needs of residents, the preacher also taught them hygiene and horticulture. “We built a common toilet and showed them how to plant vegetables,” Ebbay said.
But he soon found out that it was hard raising vegetables and crops like rice or corn in the area because of its rocky soil. “So they reverted to trading in uling as their main source of livelihood, because while they live near the sea, only a few own boats and what they have are small,” Ebbay explained.
The church has a bigger boat that the pastor had allowed they Aytas to use in selling their produce at the market in Subic town, but that also conked out soon.
“If only they have a bigger boat so that they can catch more fish, then food won’t be scarce in this place,” Ebbay said.
Hope in Tourism
With the charcoal pits and slash-and-burn farms providing only hardscrabble living, Romamban and his tribe have lately turned to the beach and the sea to realize their dreams of a better life.
While hardly accessible due to its distance—about two hours by motorized banca from Subic, Zambales, and at least 45 minutes by speedboat from the Subic Bay Freeport—Sampaloc Cove is the perfect playground for tourists that dare explore its remote shore.
As some foreign visitors discovered during the time of the US Navy, Sampaloc Cove is perfect for swimming, diving, snorkeling, sports fishing, picnic and camping. And farther inland, past a forest of bamboo and tall grasses and after just a 15-minute hike, there is the Sampaloc Falls whose mountain spring water cascades some 12 feet down a sheer rock face into a swimming hole below.
This is a virtual paradise for tourists, and one foreigner has cashed in on this attraction by building a resort in the area. When the place was abandoned a few years ago, the local Aytas took over the trade, building a few beach huts that they rented out to visitors.
Romamban said their backyard tourism project had provided the Aytas an income of as much as P4,000 each week during peak tourist season, which is to say during summer months and year-end holidays only. This is from entrance fees they collected from visitors, as well as from the rental of huts along the beach.
However, there are times when they cannot force visitors to pay. “Nahihiya kami, lalo na’t mga Pilipino ang bisita. Kapag hindi sila nagkusang magbigay, hindi na kami humihingi (We become shy to ask for payment, especially when the visitors are fellow Filipinos. If they don’t volunteer payment, we don’t ask for it anymore),” Romamban confided.
The seasonal income mostly go to medicines for the community, supplies for a grade school that the locals have put up recently, and some allowance for the tribe members who keep the beach area clean.
In other words, it was not enough to sustain them through the year, Romamban added.
Keeping It Green
Faced with this problem, the Sampaloc Cove community is now learning from new friends how to make the area more attractive to tourists, to develop a more sustainable system, and establish its place as a tourist paradise.
This help is coming from groups of business-locators and sports enthusiasts in the Subic Bay Freeport, who have come to love the beauty and serenity of Sampaloc Cove.
“We’re teaching them responsible tourism—how caring for the environment would actually protect their place and make it a better source of income,” said Zed Avecilla, executive director of the Lighthouse Marina Resort Legacy Foundation (LMRLF) and also a director of the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce (SBFCC), who chairs the Tourism and Environment Committee.
The two groups had initiated a cleanup program in the area, conducted feeding projects for residents, and constantly promoted the place as an ideal tourist getaway.
Last month, members of the two organizations, along with the Subic Sailing Club (SSC), launched the “Ocean of Love” campaign to promote environmental awareness and responsible tourism by sponsoring an open-water swim from the Grande Island in Subic Bay to Sampaloc Cove.
The LMRLF and the SBFCC have also pledged to build five community toilets in Sampaloc to help maintain sanitation and keep the area visitor-friendly.
“Our responsible tourism campaign is designed to impress upon Sampaloc residents that tourism is an integral tool for development, and that it provides opportunity for growth and livelihood,” Avecilla said.
“At the same time, we urge the visitors to be travelers who give as much as they take from the places they visit; to form ties that bind, and to leave love that they will remember,” he added.
Romamban said the villagers are keeping their environmental lessons close to their heart.
“We’d like to keep this place as unspoiled as it can be,” Romamban said, adding that his tribe is averse to the idea of building permanent structures that will cater to the hoped-for surge in visitor volume. “This paradise is our home, and we have to take care of it.”