A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Nine

Hanging in the Bontoc Museum, a map of the Ifugao and Mountain provinces of northern Luzon, Philippines

Hanging in the Bontoc Museum, a map of the Ifugao and Mountain provinces of northern Luzon, Philippines

Continued from
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Eight

It’s safe to say that the-cave-and-coffins mountain town of Sagada (“sah-gah-dah”) wasn’t my favorite part of this epic sojourn, but the drive from Banaue to Sagada was pretty darn fascinating.

Along the way, I learned very little about what I saw (and am in fact still researching now) but as a person practiced in the art of observation, I can attest to the fact that the mountainous regions of northern Luzon can be a drop-dead gorgeous trip through time.

The only drawback? The sorry shape of the one major road to, in and around these parts, and the fact that it probably won’t be finished before 2018.

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Banuae Public Market, the heart of town

The market in Banaue (“bah-now-way”) is the heart of the action, where entertainment includes a brand new gym, drinking sugar-fermented liquors and chewing betel nut. The latter, the fibrous nut of a skinny, palm-like betel nut tree, is dried, wrapped in betel leaves and chewed like tobacco by (seemingly) just about everyone in Banaue; called momo, this drug of choice provides a near-hallucinogenic boost of arecoline, stains lips red and slowly rots the teeth of the citizenry, young and old. It’s cheap lipstick for the ladies, an energy boost for rice farmers, and a horribly insightful glimpse into the early roots of dentistry.

Banaue Public Market is where you come to gaze upon produce porn (this soil isn’t just ideal for rice), book a tricycle ride, change dollars to pesos, and purchase charity-donated clothing that’s being re-sold. It’s got a couple of scruffy Wi-Fi cafes; a few electronic shops that don’t look at all like they’re selling stuff that fell off a truck; a handful of random dry goods shops selling penny candy, cigarette lighters and Pringles; and a few bakeries selling birthday cakes with technicolor icing.

It’s also home to the comforting Sanafe Lodge & Restaurant, which feels like a friendly person’s house which just happens to offer great views and a delicate chicken curry. One of Noni the Van Driver’s favorite spots, this is where we sat out on the back deck — overlooking rice terraces, a high school and a rope bridge — and had one of our tastiest lunches of the week. If you’re headed up Banaue way (even despite my tales), this clean, calm, rustic spot might just be your best bet for local lodgings. 

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Banuae’s Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featured on the Philippines’ 1000-peso bill

The nearby Banaue Rice Terraces are the grandaddy of Cordillera Mountains attractions, spiked with a freeway’s worth of faded UNESCO signs. No one I’ve asked — not even the Philippine Department of Tourism — has much information to offer on them, but I didn’t exactly get a chance to speak at length to a rice farmer or visit an agriculture school. Collective opinion (online, anyway) suggests that these 2,000-year-old stair-steps were painstakingly hand-dug out of sheer necessity in steep terrain where flat land runs scarce. 

Then why, you may ask, would one choose to farm here? Well, it’s hard to get to (obviously, she drawls, her voice fairly oozing with sarcasm), making it hard for your enemies to find and kill you, and the soil here is iron-rich and loamy, perfect for growing just about anything. All you have to do is stop into the public market to look at the sexy vegetables tended ’round here, and you’ll get the idea in a heartbeat.

(The enemy thing may require a more dramatic presentation.)

The two-fold irony of this elaborately terraced landscape? Rice isn’t exactly super-nutritious — it’s just a starchy, sticky belly-filler throughout the scattered landmasses of Asia. Since new-fangled harvesting machines have yet to be created, rice still has to be farmed by hand, all while stooping shin-deep in muddy water. Some elderly women up here are literally bent in half from decades of terrace toil, shuffling their feet and presumably asking younger folks to get stuff for them off high shelves. 

And when Ifugao tribesfolk can no longer tend rice but still need to make a living, choices are few. This is why you’ll see a lot of elderly people clustered by rice-terrace viewpoints, clad in traditional tribal garb; you can take their photos, with or without you in them, for a barter price. The 82 year-old Ifugao gentleman pictured above smiled with few teeth and milky eyes beneath a fancy feather headdress, suggesting that he pose in front of the rice terraces where’s he’s lived his entire life. I’d never paid someone to take their photo before, and was a bit uncomfortable — until he shared that he met General Douglas MacArthur in Banaue during the Second World War, and beamed with the glow of a young man’s memory.

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Life on the Chico River, up in the Mountain Province, where rice is grown in flat beds

Winding ever upwards on a still-unfinished, sometimes-scrabbly road where few people travel, the Ifugao Province gives way to the Mountain Province. Rice terraces become increasingly gentle, undulating at lesser angles until they lie entirely flat, hemmed in by stones and farmed with the help of water buffalo.

Where the brown Chico River meets the blue-green Siffu River, the blend is stark and quick. The Chico River irrigates the western half of the Mountain Province, and is criss-crossed in places by elaborate bridges or wide stepping stones. 

The best thing about having someone else drive while you’re gaping at this waterway: you won’t careen off the barrier-free roadway when you hit potholes, rubble or fallen boulders. 

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Near Bontoc, capital of the Mountain Province, some things are still done the old-fashioned way

The fairytale quiet of the past bumps right up against the construction-site melee and close quarters of Bontoc, the capital of the Mountain Province. An oasis in reverse, it’s a riot of sound, color and machinery, a sprawl of rubbly modern life on either side of the mud-brown Chico. Water buffalo graze next to building cranes and scaffolding covers semi-high-rises, while overstuffed storefronts crowd each other where the road snakes and narrows.

Wedged at the back of a parking lot beside a vividly-painted community center, the Bontoc Museum was created by Belgian nuns who saw as far back as the late 1970s that local tribal life could be trampled by the march of progress. On display are photos, artifacts, costumes and miniature model houses of the area’s major tribes — Bontoc, Ifugao, Benguet, Kalinga and Apayo — as well as the life-size re-creation of an entire Bontoc village. The stories told here are compelling and foreign and violent and sometimes even worth a chuckle.

However, the museum ultimately amounts to a slightly dusty preservation of cultures by outside oppressors, a time-capsule created by missionaries who came here seeking to upend these tribal lives. 

Flat rice beds outside Bontoc, Mountain Province

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To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Ten

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