Day 1 out of 3!
25.05.2012 - 13.06.2012
So once again I had to leave Borneo on yet another visa run. Sad to leave Cindy behind I decided to travel to the Coordillera region in North Luzon, Philippines, where I had some of the most authentic and cherished experience I have had so far on this amazing trip. But first let me tell you a bit about Philippines.
A short flight from Borneo Philippines is quite different from the rest of South East Asia, about 90% of the population claims to be Christian of which 80% are Roman Catholic. They were colonized by the Spaniards for over 300 years and still today you have remnants in their Tagalog language, and it seems to be the most random words: cuchara, basura, guapo, abrelatas, plato, uno, dos, tres, Pare! To stop the jeepny… but other than that Tagalog seem as different form Spanish as any other Asian language.
There are also 11 regional languages and 87 dialects along its 7107 islands. Almost immediately after gaining the independence from the
Spaniards they became colonized by the very same ally that helped them defeat them: The United states. The USA ruled over Philippines for the next 40 some years, during WWII the United States and the Philippines fought the Japanese together sustaining heavy casualties before they prevailed. The devastation of the Philippines during WWII was very profound. The country was granted its independence in 1946. Today most Philipino can speak English, there’s quite a lot of American food, they have an American form of government (presidency, congress and senate), their electrical plugs are the only ones we can plug our iPod in without a converter, and basketball is the national sport. You will find
Basketball courts all over in their most creative forms and in the most unthinkable places (pasture land, on a concreate highway just before a curve, rims hanging from trees), and of course their national hero is Manny Paquiao! If it’s your first time in Manila, it’s easy to think that the Philippines has been completely westernized, but looking further you will encounter a unique culture still very true to itself.
After riding some twenty two hours by bus in the last two days I finally arrived to Bontoc. Described in travel books as the last western frontier and a place where local tribal men still came down from their villages to sell their products at the local Sunday market I was sadly disappointed to find a modern, very busy town, lacking charm. I checked in at the only hotel in town and set out to make the most of the afternoon before I left town the next morning. There was not much to see and you could not walk long before you found yourself leaving town, so I entered a local restaurant to have dinner before going to bed a lot earlier than I had planned. A man
at the restaurant looked at me.
-“Good evening"- I said
-“Good evening”- answered back the local with broken English-“Where you from?"
-“Ahh Latin America!”
-"Yes!"- I answered very surprised that he knew where Costa Rica was, as no one seems to know of Costa Rica’s existence on this side of the world (including immigration officers!)
-“Are you a vegetarian?”
-“No”- I replied, immediately regretting my answer.
-“Try, its dog meat. Very good, if you have girlfriend makes you very strong!"
I politely declined the canine aphrodisiac.
-“Where you going”- he asked, continuing conversation.
-“Banaue”- I answered (listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site for the millenary rice terraces of the Ifugao people didn’t seem a bad choice).
-“Ahh Banaue… Banaue- Sagada, Sagada- Banaue… That’s all tourists do! Very commercial. Not good."
-“Do you suggest I go another place?"- I asked, grateful for the advice of a person who knew the area.
-“You come to my town: All Natural. I show you real tribe, rice terraces more beautiful than Batad, old women with tattoo. I take two Philippine girls from Manila tomorrow, you can come”.
I was kind of expecting that Banaue or Batad would be quite touristy as amazing as it might be, so I decided to accept his offer. We would
meet the next morning at 7:00 am to buy gifts for the people.
I woke up early; my guide Francis Pa-In was nowhere to be seen. I decided to find breakfast by the market. It was Sunday morning and the
streets were busy around the Market. All sorts of fruit and vegetables were for sale and the meat laid unrefrigerated with the head of the
original owner hanging next to it. For the first time I noticed a group of old women, all wearing red skirts and colorful beads adorning their necks; many had their arms completely tattooed. This group of all women was trying to sell their weaved baskets to a man, and seemed to be negotiating intensely. I kept walking and more and more old women seemed to appear, always in groups or at least in pairs. I noticed a lot of them were completely bent almost at a ninety degree angle, going around their business supported on their bamboo canes as if nothing was wrong with them.
As I was heading back to find Francis an old man stopped me. He must have been over a hundred; there is no way I can know his age, but it felt as if I had never seen such an ancient person before: his body was weak and fragile, yet his eyes were not defeated. He spoke to me in who knows what dialect and I answered back in English that I couldn’t understand him. That didn’t seem to matter as he just kept trying communicate. In search of a translation to his unintelligible words, I concluded that he wanted to cross the road. I offered him my hand, which to my relief he took and we started to cross the main road slowly as the mayhem of tricycles and jeepnees made the crossing challenging even for me. When we got the other side, he wanted to sit on the sidewalk and that’s where I left him. As simple as it may seem that was a very intimate experience for me. This was a man that lived a tribal life in the headhunters' days! He had lived his life in a way so foreign for all of us, it was like I had travelled back in time for the brief moment I held his hand. There’s was more to this town than I had judged.
I met Francis and went on to buying the gifts. Gifts consisted of matches. We bought about a U.S. Dollar worth of matches which bought us
around forty five boxes. He explained that the people smoked a lot. They smoke tobacco and grass (meaning marijuana) and they need it to make fire for cooking and burning the fields before planting them again. After packing our matches and meeting the two girls from Manila, we made our way to the Jeepney.
-“Its full”- I said, stating the obvious.
-“Lots of room on the roof”- was the answer I got.
-“Oh yes, the roof looks pretty empty”- I replied sarcastically.
We climbed to the top of the roof and by the time we left it was not empty by all means. With about twenty four people on the roof we set off,
dodging the electrical cables was a scary feat but after leaving the city it ceased to be a concern.
It was a beautiful sunny day, clear blue skies had few white puffy clouds. The insanely overloaded Jeepney drove on what must be one of the most scenic and terrifying roads I have ever been on. The road is barely wide enough for the jeepney and it is a small cut in the mountain’s winding edge. From the roof you could not see at times the road beneath you, just the 400 meter abyss; every few hundred meters there were landslides that had recently been ”cleared” to open the path, and huge boulders larger than cars were common on the road. The signs of “Caution: rocks falling” were almost a joke! What was I suppose to do on the roof of a Jeepney to prevent a huge bolder from squashing me? But if your petrified eyes looked further you witnessed amazing rice terraces, beautiful rivers and humongous mountains which, naked from thousands of years of agriculture still remained beautiful.
-“Do you ride on roof in Costa Rica?”
-“Very beautiful. You put it in your diary tonight”
-“I might”- I said, laughing at his quite accurate assumption of tourists
-“Besides it's better, because if bus falls you jump to other side”
I was not laughing now. This is what I had been thinking all along but to know that the locals were thinking about it did not help my nerves!
Almost three intense hours later we arrived at our last Jeepney stop and quickly started our way up the mountain following a small trail. I was prepared for cold weather as this is pretty high in altitude, but the clear blue sky posed no resistance to the striking sun which I felt hotter than ever. About three hours into our hike we met two women that belonged to the tribe we were headed for. They were wearing beautiful colored beads that I learned later to be heirlooms passed generation to generation and quite expensive to get in these times. Both women where probably in their thirties. They striked me as beautiful, with feminine features yet extremely strong hands, arms and fingers. Hands that without doubt had worked hard for many years. They were each carrying a twenty five kilo bag of rice, which I naively offered to help carry. They did not want the help, and I was lucky because it saved me from big humiliation as it was clear minutes later that I could barely walk with what I was carrying! To my surprise both women picked the bags up and placed them straight on their heads, where they would carry them all the way to the village, most of the time without touching them with their hands. I was surprised at how easily they seem to carry 25kg on their neck while keeping their balance up and down a trail that was not more than a foot wide and had at many points almost vertical drop-offs the kind you would not survive if you were to fall. An hour after we had met the two women we arrived at a beautiful waterfall between two huge mountains were many kids of all ages, completely naked, jumped from rock to rock before plunging into the pool of water. We made a stop here to take some pictures and regain
energy as the two women disappeared in the distance with their heavy loads.
“We are almost here! This is the village of Buscalan tribe we only need to get to the top”- said Francis enthusiastically.
Taking a look at the brilliant green rice terraces ahead, I could easily see the top was at least 3000 steps up. We had to stop every twelve minutes to catch our air and let the pain from our burning legs dissipate.
Finally we made it, and as soon as some kids saw us they came running to us, asking our names and if we had candy. I was sorry not to bring any with me. Francis lead us to the house where we were going to spend the night and presented our host, a ninety two year old woman.
“This is Wang- Od, the last tattoo artist”.
I thankfully said high to the woman with long braids, full arm and neck tattoos and a jovial smile that caught my attention. We stayed on the
top of the hut on a wooden room with not a single piece of furniture.
I left my things there and immediately asked Francis were I could fill my water bottle. He recalled a pipe we had passed not five minutes before getting to Wang-Od's house and I made my way there. As I approached the water I noticed a fully naked young woman taking a bath where I was supposed to refill bottle. She was probably in her late teens or early twenties, very beautiful, her full and firm breasts were the last thing I had expected to encounter! I stopped short and not knowing what to do, pretended to take pictures in the opposite direction while I waited for the water pipe to become available. A minute latter a couple of other women came and I decided to leave as I was not familiar with their customs.
We decided to take a walk around the village. This is one of the few villages where not everyone has replaced their Cogon grass roofs for
corrugated iron. Small wooden two story huts gather closely one to another. They have a breed of pig that’s very small and all black and these little guys are everywhere. As you walk between the huts you need to climb small fences made out of sticks that keep this livestock close to their owners home. Even though everywhere you looked there were chickens and pigs it did not smell at all.
As I was walking by the narrow walkways between the huts, Francis stopped to speak to a woman. I waited for Francis when I realized I
was steping on a grave. I was scared it might be very disrespectful and jumped to the side. I was later explained by Francis that the dead are traditionally buried in front or next to the house, since in that area the houses were pretty close together they bury them on the walkway. I
was to find dozens of these graves around town. It turns out it's not disrespectful to step on them.
We continued to walk about, passing two topless women washing their clothes, a young kid pounding rice with unexpected strength and
determination, children running around. We got to a hut were three very old women lived; the three of them had tattoos but one was very proud of them and wanted me to take a picture of her tattoos as she showed them to me with a wide, toothless smile. She kept talking and laughing and I kept asking Francis what she was saying but all I got was that one day I will have white hair too…
On our way back the rain started to pour and we foudn shelter at the blacksmith's hut. There three men were working on making beautifully
crafted knives. They make the metal blade but the wooden case is were their art can be best appreciated. The blacksmith was working on a
case giving it form with his knife while his three year old rested on his lap. It was interesting to see this guy so concentrated in his work
and yet having his kid sleep on his lap for hours while doing so. One man was putting together two pieces of wood and was applying a sort of
glue. When I asked about it they explained that it was a natural glue they use; it comes from a plant they called Lituka, probably from the ginger family, of which they use the roots (rhizomes). I was amazed at how strong the bond was on the wood and asked if I could see the
plant. They explained that at this moment the plant is inside the ground but that it grows when there is lots of thunder (probably
meaning the rainy season). I also asked about their red smiles: the three of them were chewing betel nut. Basically they use the nut of a
palm, a leaf from a vine and crushed snail shells taken from the rice fields and put under fire then crushed until the final product is a
white grey powder. The combination turns your mouth into a vivid blood red and the effects are similar to that of chewing tobacco and
the practice of constantly spitting out red spits. How on Earth did someone find out that the combination of the leaf of a vine, a nut
from a palm, and the shells of the snails would be something to try?!
As we walked back to Wang-Od' house two very old women walked by, both of them completely bent like the many I had seen at Bontoc. I asked Francis about this and he said it was from years of planting rice and carrying heavy loads. It was shocking to see so many old ladies, many with this condition, yet I encountered few old men.
We arrived to ther hut; it was getting dark and Wang-Od was starting to cook the rice that would become our dinner. I sat by her side just
watching her in the dark kitchen start up a fire, carefully weaving some green leaves to serve as the base of the pot to prevent the rice
from sticking to it and mixing in a bit of the native red rice called Unoy. Kalinga has four varieties of Unoy red rice: Bolinao, Mimis, Gomiki and UPL – which are known for distinct aroma and taste.
Wang-Od's sister came to visit her from a near hut, holding a splint of a native pine tree that burns slowly yet produces a bright flame. She
entered the hut and stared at me, then with a smile greeted me in her dialect as Francis came in and made a joke about her natural
flashlight. I sat there quietly listening to both women speak in their native tongue, the flames casting shadows on their faces. I was
mesmerized by the two women. They have lived this way for almost a century. When it was done we had the rice in a cake-like presentation. We ate in our room, sitting on the floor and drinking coffee harvested from the nearby enormous Robusta trees. A few minutes later Wang-Od came back and with a big gesture, she offered us some Carabao meat. Lucky for me (I find it very hard to try new meats), the huge pieces of bone had pretty much no meat in them. It was pretty dark and I picked the a bone that was pretty much clean... by the end of the meal you could not tell I hadn't touched my protein serving.
It turns out that Lars Krutak, a recognized tatoo anthropologist had met Wang-Od a few years ago and had written a Book titled "KALINGA
TATOO, Ancient and Modern Expresions of the Tribal". And I began to read laying in my sleeping bag and using my head lamp. From the book I learned that Wang -Od learned the art of batok (tatoo) from her father Oggay and started tattooing at just 16 years old. Over her life she tattooed more women than men, mainly for two reasons: one was that for a man to get a tattoo he had to be a Head Hunter, something that didn't happen all that often, the other was that the payment for the chest tattoo was very expensive and sometimes it took weeks or months to raise the necessary funds to pay it. It narrated the first time She tattooed her first warrior, a young man named Sagmayao from
Buscalan. The marking of his chests and arms took four days and she said she was really nervous, not because it was her first time
tattooing a warrior but because of his fierce reputation as a Mingor. She also explained that it took only one kill to be able to receive a
full complement of tattoos, because the Americans sought to abolish the tradition early in the twentieth century and the traditional rules
associated with it were no longer in place. In some regions Kalinga warriors were even ordered to give up their head-axes to the American
authorities because they had been outlawed altogether. Wang-Od recalls that she might have tattooed two dozen men in her life.
Women got their tattoos early, many before puberty, as they believed that once the hormones kick in the tattooing became more painful. It was a thing of beauty and even believed to increase fertility. Some women could receive additional marks if their male relatives received some
for success at war.
I kept reading more and more, about the way the tattoos were made, how they believed that when you died you leave everything material on
earth before going to heaven and the only thing you take is your tattoo, about the village wars between tribes and their sacrificial
rituals... As my eyes were closing down I realized how lucky I was to be sleeping in the floor of the Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist.