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Published: April 5th 2009
I shivered below the layers of blankets piled on top of me. For the first time in six months I was waking up in a room full of really chilly air. It reminded me of a feeling so familiar as to be instantly recognisable but at the same time one that had not been felt in such a long time as to be quite exciting: that of waking up in my room on a winter morning in Oxford. As consciousness trickled into my mind and the first blurry images of my surroundings filtered through the slits of my eyes, I was overcome by the certainty that if I stood up and looked out of the window everything would be covered in snow.
Wrapping a blanket around me and testing out my idea I was, of course, instantly brought back to reality. I was still in the Philippines, but the view that greeted me from my window was unlike any anywhere else in the country. This was Sagada, a small village on top of a mountain whose peace, tranquility and beautiful setting make it one of the Philippines' main drawing cards for tourists. Quiet streets lined with large, colourful houses and
restaurants serving dishes such as yoghurt, fruits and muesli, unheard of anywhere else in the country, form a large settlement surrounded by towering peaks, forests of pine trees and jagged limestone cliffs. After a long time of pushing "off the beaten track" travel to its extremes, this seemed like a good place to finish our exploration of the Philippines and recuperate before moving on to Tibet.
Sitting in a cosy log cabin restaurant and eating a BLT sandwich and chips for breakfast in the hours before the sun had managed to warm up this little slice of the world, I noticed that one of the walls was covered with black and white photos of indigenous people. Wandering over I discovered that they were taken by Edouardo Masferre, son of a Spanish soldier and Filipina girl born in Sagada. From the 1930s onwards he had spent much of his time documenting the native culture of the Cordillera which he had had a premonition would soon disappear with the advent of industry and education.
Most of the photos were from Mountain Province and Kalinga. The people of Kalinga pictured here were all near-naked, clad only in traditional clothing. In this
sense they were unrecognisable from the people I had encountered in that province but in another they were all too familiar - they had the crazy eyes, the stark scowl and the menacing demeanour. Of the hundreds of photos, only a few pictured smiling faces, just as of the hundreds of people I had met in Tanudan, Kalinga, only a handful had ever laughed.
The photos served as a reminder of what the Cordillera had lost in terms of traditional culture. We had come here expecting to find the most diverse and colourful tribes of the Philippines but in reality found that the local people had preserved the visible aspects of their culture such as houses and clothing less than almost anywhere we had been in the country. Granted, we had run out of time and only spent two weeks here in comparison to the three months we had originally intended to spend and in such a short time it is impossible to really assess other, non-visible aspects of local culture; granted, we had not visited the really remote communities that we had wanted to such as the Aetas of Mount Pinatubo and the Sierra Madre or the more
isolated parts of Mountain Province or Ifugao; granted the local hospitality was incredible and the scenery more jaw-dropping than any other area of the Philippines; nevertheless, North Luzon seemed to us one of the more Americanised, more developed, more educated and less traditional parts of the Philippines.
We set out on a hike in the area surrounding Sagada in search of remnants of the traditional culture. Twenty minutes out of town we saw what we were looking for: a sign pointing to Lumiang burial cave. Descending steep steps several hundred meters we arrived at the entrance to a huge cavern that was piled up with coffins. While a few had a cross on them, others had reptilian designs perhaps representing older, animistic forms of belief. I imagined the place would have felt quite eery if it were not for the presence of two Filipina tourists and their guide snapping photos of each other. While the tourists were otherwise engaged I took the opportunity to question their guide.
"When was the last person buried here?"
"1986." My heart sank. So this tradition had died out too. What we were looking at was no more than a museum.
"But on the limestone cliffs there are lots of hanging coffins. Elders are still buried there. One was buried there last year and I think they will continue to do so. Of course some are also buried in the cemetery. That's due to the influence of Christianity."
"It's expensive to be buried in a hanging coffin?" I asked.
"No, almost the same as to be buried in the cemetery," he replied.
"Why did people stop being buried in this cave?"
"The government banned it for hygienic reasons. Before, people could make a choice - the cave offered more protection from typhoons but the cliffs were better against grave robbers. Now it has to be the cliffs."
We returned to the road and shortly spotted a number of hanging coffins in a hole high in a limestone cliff perhaps a hundred feet to our left. In front of them sat a whitewashed human skull as if to warn off any entrepreneurial intruders.
We continued down the road until a small track branched off and up to the left just after a small primary school. For two long, sweaty hours it wound up the slopes of
Mount Ampucao before disappearing. We followed one of many small paths that led further up, huffing and puffing until we emerged at a small hut surrounded by fields of crops. Approaching the hut, outside which two children were playing, I called out, "Excuse me!"
The children froze then ran inside. I heard the words "Americano! Americano!" Moments later their father came out and gave us permission to cross his land, pointing us in the direction of a path that led up to the summit of the mountain. It turned out to be a near-vertical half-hour slog but eventually we emerged from the undergrowth onto a wide, flat, grassy peak. We sat down and took out ham, egg and cheese triple decker sandwiches and munched them in silence, taking in the 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. The houses of Sagada spread out over only a small portion of the visible landscape; elsewhere, in more remote and less prosperous villages, the metal roofs twinkled in the sun like minute diamonds strangely out of place on the vast, rolling, patchwork quilt into which they were studded and whose myriad shades of green, even the brilliant emerald of the rice terraces, seemed dull in comparison.
Had this been the mountains of Mindoro, South Palawan, or Sibuyan none of those winking metal gems would have been visible, the houses in those areas being entirely traditional. I sat back and wondered if those areas would any day soon be overtaken by the changes that had come to Mountain Province and Kalinga. I thought about Tibet and Mongolia, our next destinations, and all the unknown successes and disappointments that lay in store for us there.
Soon it was getting late and dark clouds were appearing on the horizon, so we stood up, dusted down and set out on the long walk home.
Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel to the Philippines
, with a focus on much wilder, more exotic and further from the beaten track places than Sagada.
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