Monday, February 20, 2012

Slivers Of Quicksilver

For most visitors to the Philippines there are two main attractions that draw them to the tropical archipelago: the beaches and associated diving and snorkelling activities on the one hand, and the mountains and tribes of the north of Luzon on the other. Seeing as I was already in Luzon, and that I'm not a huge fan of beaches, the decision as to where to head to after Manila was really a no-brainer. North to the mountains it was, with a little side-trip to the beautiful colonial town of Vigan on the coast, which still displays some faded splendour of bygone days. My little detour accomplished I finally made it to Baguio, the self-styled capital of the Cordillera.

Cute kids vying to have their photos taken by the beach in Vigan.

Baguio was founded barely more than a hundred years ago by the new American imperial masters (the United States gained control of the Philippines after defeating the Spanish in 1898 and remained the colonial masters for almost 50 years until after the end of World War II) who were seeking a cooler place to retreat to during Manila's hot and sticky summers. At an elevation of 1500m has a cool (arctic by Philippine standards), pleasant climate and is snugly ensconced amid pine-clad hills. It has, however, managed to import some of the happy chaos of Manila. The town is the gateway to the mountainous Cordillera region that remained largely unexplored and independent throughout the Spanish era and it wasn't until the Americans came stomping through that the tribes of the mountains, collectively known as Igorot, and the outside world were properly introduced. When the Westerners penetrated into the heart of the mountains they were amazed to discover primitive tribes that practised headhunting, mummified their dead, hung their coffins on cliffs and built stupendous rice terraces that reached all the way to the sky (not that this was all done by a single tribe mind you, but several different ones). Many of the more esoteric practices have since been snuffed out by the inexorable advance of "civilisation" and evangelisation, but it is still possible to see some of the vestiges of such traditions that are so alien to us.

A more traditional photo of Vigan, with the quaintly cobbled Crisologo thoroughfare and its emblematic carriages.

In Baguio I found myself some travelling companions in the form of Anna and Tom, a couple from St Petersburg who are not just fleeing the harsh Russian winter, but also the Putinisation of their country. Together we made our way north into the heart of the mountains, stopping off to explore age-old burial caves of the Ibaloi, who were unique in the world for mummifying their dead without removing the internal organs - the process could take over a year as the body would be slowly smoked over a gentle fire. They don't do that anymore but it is still possible to view the mummies, curled up in a foetal position, stacked in coffins wedged into alcoves in the mountain. Along the way to the caves we would pass smiling descendants of the mummies, now Christian, tending to their terraced farms or potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables. It could have been Europe, but for the 800m drop down to the valley below.

At the end of our road was Sagada, a small town at the end of a steep, bumpy dirt-road nestled amid the mountains a mile up. Sagada is famous for the strange burial rites of the locals, who hang their coffins half way up the side of the surrounding cliffs. Different cliffs are reserved for different people and causes of death, but interestingly the practice is still very much alive and upheld, although in smaller measure. Not because of religion, as the locals proudly admitted to following both Christianity and their old, pagan beliefs, but because of the cost: a hanging "burial" will set you back 20 pigs and an equal number of chickens (not to mention the price of the coffin as well) for the associated festivities, which is not negligible in this part of the world. Another attraction that brings in the more adventurous tourists is the limestone caves just outside town. They may not be as large or have as many fantastically shaped (and named) rock formations, but they are far more "hands on". Not only have they not bothered to put in paved, even walkways, or even any illumination, but you also get to wade through underground streams that connect caves whilst ducking through narrow, claustrophobic nooks and crannies.

Spelunking in the caves around Sagada, wading through underground rivers in my boxer shorts and trying to avoid the guano. Here we are stopping for a ciggie break, as you do when you're in the middle of a mountain (ciggie for the guide, not me - hence the cool smoky effect in the picture).

But the undisputed apogee of any trip in northern Luzon is the rice terraces around Banaue. Ancient Sumerians and Babylonians built stepped ziggurats in the plains of Mesopotamia to resemble mountains. The Igorot instead turned their mountains into ziggurats. Built some 2000 years ago using only the simplest tools they are not only a colossal feat of ingenuity and engineering, climbing the steep mountainsides as they do, but also a spectacle of indescribable beauty, where one of the rarest things ever occurs: man manages to enhance and add to the splendour of nature. The work that must have gone into the planning, construction and constant maintenance of these steps is truly awesome. Furthermore they are not just a sterile, lifeless monument awaiting the next camera-wielding tourist, but are the bedrock of the livelihoods of the local people who still farm the terraces like their forefathers millennia ago. Currently it is the run-up to planting season (the planting time varies from terrace to terrace depending on its altitude and location) and people are reinforcing the mud and stone walls for the upcoming cycle. The plots are generally flooded, the still water perfectly reflecting the sky above and in the overcast environment looking like so many slivers of quicksilver. In some seedlings are ready for replanting, whilst in others little fish and snails that will eventually end up on the menu can be spotted (rice paddies are fantastically efficient that way). And despite the influx of visitors traipsing around their fields and taking photos of everything, the locals are still constantly polite, friendly and welcoming, never failing to respond to a "good morning" in kind.

The rice terraces around the village of Bangaan, with the village itself sitting in the middle like a bijou spider in its web.

 The local travel brochures tout the terraces as the Eighth Wonder of the World, a rather hackneyed and over-used term that I have come across all too often, but in this instance I don't mind too much, as they are truly stunning and meandering along the looping, circuitous walkways, with a constant beatific grin as each new vista opened up to me, has been one of the joys of the trip so far.


The Nomadic Pinoy said...

Your observations while traveling in northern Philippines are spot-on.
If only security isn't an issue, there's also lots to see and experience down south.

Erik said...

Thanks for the comments Nomad. I'm always pleased when locals can identify with what I have written.

I am also looking forward to checking out Mindanao (albeit in more limited scope than I would like) in a few weeks time. Cagayan, Camiguin and Zamboanga are on the list.

The Nomadic Pinoy said...

I'm actually flying to the Philippines this week and my first destination - as always - is my hometown Davao in Mindanao.