Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Day I Nearly Disappeared in the Mountains of the Philippines

Sagada, 1978

He’s going to kill me, I thought.

The man gave me a cold hard stare.

What are you doing here?” he barked.

“I came to visit the falls,” I said, my voice quaking.

“You’re not here to see the falls. You’re here to spy on us!”

I eyed him with alarm. I felt the blood drain from my face and pool in my nether belly where it started to do a queasy minuet.

The man seemed to have just arisen from a bad sleep. He was pale, thin and unkempt. Pockmarks cratered his face. Scars ran down his arms. There was a black gap where his front teeth should be.

He stood in the middle of a group of Igorots, natives of the area. Some of the Igorots were standing while others squatted. They looked at me curiously. I had stumbled into some kind of a meeting.

I leaned mightily on my walking stick.

An elderly Igorot man gave me an inscrutable look.

“You have to sacrifice a chicken to the gods of the falls,” Scarface barked at me again.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

I was aware though that in the past month a Swiss backpacker went missing in these mountains, high up in the north of Luzon island. He went off one evening to have a special dinner, reportedly featuring dog on the menu. He was never seen again. Police searched for him. His brother flew in from Switzerland to join the search, made a fervent appeal for his recovery. It was all to no avail. The man simply disappeared.

Please God, let me not be next.

A small brown dog shuffled by. It stopped to regard me with sad, rheumy eyes and feebly wagged its tail. Wrapped around its neck was a wooden contraption that looked like the cage of a tennis racket. What it was for, I did not know.

That I was here being confronted by a wild-eyed man surrounded by Igorots was the unforeseen consequence of a decision I made to journey to the newly-discovered vacation spot of Sagada high up in Cordillera Mountains.

I had read about the beauty of Sagada in newspapers and caught glimpses of it when a hotshot director used it as a setting for a hip, coming-of-age movie. Evidently foreign backpackers, not Filipino tourists, discovered this heavenly spot.

Reports were that the rice terraces in Sagada were prettier and more spectacular than those of Banaue. Add to that karst rock formations, hanging mummies, limestone caves and its remote location and you have all the ingredients of a place where the sights spelled “exotic” even to a Filipino. I had to visit Sagada. I was vaguely aware of the missing Swiss, but that did not deter me from going. I was a Filipino. I was confident that nothing would happen to me.

On the long Holy Week weekend of 1978, I packed a duffel bag and boarded a bus for Baguio City. The trip from Manila to Baguio City took four hours. I was able to get a room at a motel for the night. Very early the next morning, I boarded another bus for Sagada, three hours distant from Baguio. This is the only economical way to get to Sagada. The bus rolls to Sagada via vegetable farms, mountain passes, single-lane roads, and army checkpoints (there were communist rebels in the area, though they didn’t bother the riding public. Rockslides and detours were not uncommon.

Benguet pines sprang from the rocky hillsides. An agreeable scent pervaded the air. Waterfalls tumbled down rocky precipices. Large portions of the mountains were bare of trees, the result of unabated logging.

For a large portion of the journey, the bus followed a highway that ran beside the turbulent Chico River. The road was paved only in part; most of it was gravel and sand. Our aged bus broke down once. A comfortable ride it was not, but the scenery was breathtaking.

It was 1:00 in the afternoon when the bus chugged into Sagada. A German backpacker who I met in a roadside stop had suggested that I seek lodging at St. Joseph’s, a hostel run by Anglican nuns. The bus stopped right by its gates. The hostel was a two-storey American-style wooden clapboard affair. My room was small, serviceable and cheap (10 pesos). When I looked out the window, I saw a panorama of pine-clad mountains and curious rock formations, white and jagged like dragon teeth. The scene was so alien to me that I could swear I was in a country other than the Philippines.

In a way I was in a different country. Everything about Sagada was different. The houses were not the breezy nipa huts of the sweltering plains. They had steep thatched cogonal roofs matted thickly for insulation against rain and cold. The Igorot spoke a language that might as well have been Greek to lowland Filipinos. Here an independent ancestor-worshipping culture had arisen and flourished for centuries. They had their own particular architecture, customs, literature, gods and deities. Later, most of the people converted, not to Catholicism, but to the Anglican faith. In fact, Sagada’s prettiest building was an English-style church complete with an English garden. A noble fir tree grew up beside it. Needless to say pine trees and their sweet smell were everywhere. Christianity, the Anglican variety, laid its mantle on the populace, but the Igorot cultural underpinnings lay strong and unmissable.

The most telling feature of the Sagada landscape was its karst formations. These are limestone rock that extreme weathering and erosion have transformed into organic- looking structures resembling pinnacles, bleached vertebrae and ruined castles. Their stark whiteness contrasted dramatically with the dark-green of the pines. Limestone being calcified sea creatures meant that Sagada, which is thousands of feet above sea level, was once underwater and therefore incredibly old. The whole area was honeycombed with caves, some of which the ancient Igorots put to good use by using them as repositories of their dead.

Herein lay another reason to visit Sagada, it's so-called “hanging” coffins. The ancient Igorots did not bury their dead. They mummified them and hung them on ledges on hillsides or inside caves. Burial of this sort continued till early this century when the American missionaries and officials put a stop to the practice.

I had immediately gone exploring Sagada town the afternoon I arrived. I had gone into a deep cave with two local boys as guides. Armed only with a petromax light, we had eased down rocky gullies in pitch-black darkness then clambered up slippery limestone rocks to get to a huge space they called "The Ballroom". The ceiling was heaving with thousands of bats. One of the boys threw a rock at the throng and brought down a bat with a little one clinging to it. I felt sorry for it and chided the kids.We clambered down again and presently found ourselves in a clear pool with a stone formation in it that resembled a crocodile. Then a further walk in the darkness brought us to a series of limestone steps down which a stream rushed and disappeared into a hole in the ground.

I had walked outside of town as far as I could go and found a series of majestic rice-terraces dominating the countryside, lushly green because it was the start of the planting season.

Back in the hostel, the Anglican nuns fed us boiled rice and sauteed stringbeans freshly harvested from their gardens . I had never eaten a tastier meal.

At the dining table,a guy from Tel Aviv told me about the waterfalls of Banga-an, a town about 15 kilometers from Sagada. He said they were magnificent.

This was the reason why the next day, I walked the distance to Banga-an, armed only with a walking stick, and now found myself being confronted not five minutes into my descent into the valley floor by an alarming looking man whose designs I did not dare imagine. The thought of the Swiss man who had disappeared in these parts a month previously had fleetingly crossed my mind. I leaned so heavily on my stick that it snapped in two, producing a loud "crack!"

The sound seemed to startle everybody.

"See," snarled the wild-eyed man,"that's how they do it, pretending to be tourists."

I had no idea what he meant.

An older and more kindly looking man addressed me:

"You should take a guide to the water fall. " He called out to two little kids, a boy and a girl, who looked not a year older than ten.

" Go with him to the falls,"he said in Tagalog. The wild-eyed man seemed to have calmed down and brought his gaze elsewhere.
It was understood that I was to pay a little bit of money to the kids for their guidance. Relief must have shown on my face when I gladly accepted the kid's services.

Off we went, down steep rice-terraces. Truth be told, I wouldn't have found my way down to the foot of the waterfalls without my little guides.

When I did reach the foot of the waterfall, I found that the water that rushed down from a great height was a mere trickle.

" There's not much water now because it's still summer. Wait till the rains come,"said the boy.

Still there was enough water in the river in which to immerse myself and take a mountain dip.

I was happy where I was, surrounded by cliffs and rice terraces, listening to the chatter of Igorot children. I was, in a sense, lost in a place where, despite the risks, I wanted to be.

(All accompanying photos were culled from the internet and not my own. When I trekked to Sagada, cameras were not digital so all the photos I took that time were lost to mold and time.)

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