Unesco Rice Terrace Trekking in the Luzon Province – Part 3

Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

My trek in the Luzon province was thankfully the last of my trip and while rewarding and beautiful each winding river came with a grueling climb, each rice terrace meant potential peril and the village of Batad with some of the best rice terraces in the world was only accessible by hundreds of steep concrete stairs and no hand railings. The final climb, to the Batad Saddle Junction where we would catch our ride back to Banaue brought more stair climbing at a difficulty level of 9 for ten straight minutes.

But, we had some more trekking to do before my final escape, passing the mountain wood carvers who spent their days in tents carving animals for tourist markets. The air was so silent you could hear the grass rustling and the occasional dog announced visitors. The occasional scent of pine took me back to Canada, comforting me in my melancholic state.

We passed a small hut hanging off the wall of a rice terrace with a 30’ drop (below). In it sat an elderly gentleman who controlled the pulley system raising the arms of several strategically positioned scarecrows on the mountain protecting his rice paddies. I’m a big city person myself and while I like the occasional vacation with nothing to do but relax I was amazed how someone’s existence entailed nothing more than raising a family in the mountains, growing crops and harvesting rice paddies. My guide and I ended up discussing this in length, what the man might think about every day, what he did for fun as he lived the same life day after day, year after year, for an entire lifetime. I mentioned I’d probably drink a lot if I was he and Jess Tony agreed saying that many did. They’d make their money and other than their essentials they’d spend it on alcohol when they went into town on market day. As I write this I’m aware that this moment will likely have a lasting impact on me. If you’ve ever been bored at work or have taken your life for granted perhaps remember the man whose job it is to sit in a hut all day and manipulate his scarecrows. Day in, day out. 

We also discussed health matters on the mountain and what happened when people became sick. The response again and again from those I asked was that the doctor would massage it until it was better. I mentioned broken limbs and again the answer was massage. “And if the problem didn’t get better?” Massage it until it did. I brought out the big guns and gave the example of a broken bone coming out of the skin. “Ok,” they said, a sling and massage. I gave up. The mountain doctor performs rituals and sacrifices are offered. The more severe the illness, for example cancer, the bigger the sacrifice like pigs or cows until the sickness is cured.

I could see signs of civilization as we approached Cambulo, where we would spend the night. The rice terrace wall had a fence to protect us from falling and there was a bridge to cross the river, however, with the average height being 6”-12” shorter than me the bridge came up to my thighs and offered me little comfort.

We settled in to the four-room inn, I napped and then JT and I had dinner. He brought out his bottle of whisky, threw some outside the door for his Ifuago ancestors and we enjoyed a simple meal of rice and vegetables since meat is only available the days following market day. Soon after dinner the children came and requested to do their program, something the guides came up with. In exchange for candy the children perform for tourists and the tourists can meet locals, experience some of the culture and be entertained.

I was the only tourist there that evening and I spoke with a few women my age who were the mothers of the ten children who came to meet me; all spoke English well. A few children at a time would perform and I found myself joining in on songs I hadn’t sung since I was either in camp or in nursery/Sunday school. Such favourites as Farmer in the Dell, Yes, Jesus Loves Me, Head & Shoulders and songs in a variety of languages taught to them by tourists to Cambulo. Interestingly enough their Ifuago “National” song is in English and has no Filipino words that they know of. I reached into the depths of my camp song repertoire and came up with Fire’s Burning, a song they could sing in a round. I wrote the words down and they practiced again; still hearing the tune being sung as we departed the next morning. 

Next, some of the children changed into their native costumes and performed the Ifuago traditional dance. It was simple but a bit weird as it illustrated men’s seduction of the village women, the promise of provisions, stability and family. The women answer saying a dowry of pigs needs to be paid and parental permission granted in order to become engaged. Seeing children performing such an adult dance was weird but it’s normal for them. I often learned of instances found to be natural for them which would be questioned by Europeans/North Americans. Perhaps we have lost our ability to trust in our neighbours, to believe the best in people?

I wanted to speak to the children, to learn from them, to see what their hopes and dreams were; are they different than they were for their mothers who were educated and chose to return to the village and have children? Nothing could have prepared me for the first answer when I asked Kaira, a 3-year-old girl what she wanted to be. Her answer, ”a gay.” Everyone began laughing and I did not know what to say. I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly and so I asked again. Yes, she wanted to be “a gay.” When I asked for clarification “a gay” meant she wanted to do hair and nails. “Wow, ok.” The boys wanted to be a baker (which also elicited a few laughs) a janitor, a police officer and a naval man. The girls didn’t have much to say; the mothers suggested a nurse or a teacher.

Their last gift to me was a song they sing as a thank you to visitors. “Thank you very much, thank you very much for the gifts you gave us. We will pray for you, we will pray for you. Good luck, good health, God Bless you.

We love you, thank you, thank you, thank you very much, thank you, THANK YOU!” I was really good at the shouting of the final “THANK YOU,” we enjoyed that. The photo below is of the children enjoying their sugar high.

After they left the whiskey flowed and JT opened up to me about him and his family. One of the blessings of being mixed race and adopted is that my family story always comes up because I sometimes confuse people when saying my father is Jamaican (almost always because of my skin colour) but my parents are both Caucasian, that I was born in Canada and grew up near Toronto; it all can get very confusing. Often when I travel people like to talk to me about it because adoption is not as common or as accepted and many find it fascinating, often opening up to me about their unique family situations and family dynamic. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn and also for the people I meet; how each society perceives family. I’m reminded of the successful family sitcom Modern Family that so accurately replicates many North American families today. Earlier that day JT told me he had a four-year old and a two-year old and he and his mother were raising them. The mother of his children came from the Visaya Islands and did not want them and he felt she was brainwashed by her parents into believing that JT was not good enough for him. It struck a chord with me having been given up by my mother at 5 ½ years old; and what it takes for a mother to give up her child(ren). JT’s story was emotional for him and he told me how his father would go off and work a month at a time while he stayed at home and looked after his younger brother. Wanting a better life he left at the age of eight with his brother while his father was away. They had no money and jumped onto the back of a jeepney heading to a bigger town. Kicked off repeatedly they finally reached a town and he did what he had to do to survive. Six months later his father found him and took them to some distant family. Later JT became a porter for his uncle, a guide and then learned the trade, bringing him to me. One of my biggest life lessons first occurred in 1994 when I left my cushy life in Canada and went to Kenya. Realizing, no, understanding that there are so many people worse off then us, and experiencing far worse tragedies, helped me persevere – although a therapist has told me a time or two to nurture my child within. Easier said than done. I’m glad I could be there for JT, well, both the whiskey and me.

All in all my two day trek was 32 kilometres long, I passed on the falls in the home stretch – I do live near Niagara Falls after all and just couldn’t fathom gorgeous falls viewed from the bottom which meant a strenuous climb all before the last climb to my ride home.

I want to say that this province was easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen on this earth and yes, it is but I simply cannot keep up with the beauty that is this part of the world. We hear about and read about the Philippines but we are disconnected from the sadness they incur during Mother Nature’s madness. The Filipinos are beautiful people, working hard and struggling like many of us. A little more empathy and the smallest amount of money would make both a huge difference in their life and ours. I really felt for them.

Next up, Sagada’s Hanging Coffins and Headhunting Past.

2 Responses to Unesco Rice Terrace Trekking in the Luzon Province – Part 3

  1. Hi Julie,

    Loved the part where you sang with the children. You are a truly empathetic person.

    Did you know that farmers in Canada also perform the same work day in and day out, seven days a week, year after year, to produce the food we eat? No wonder everyone leaves the farm.

    Joanne November 23, 2011 at 8:18 AM Reply
    • Lol, I do know that. Much like many people who do the same thing day in and day out. With this guy there was something about not moving from that tiny little hut all day. Thanks for reading!

      juliemunsch November 23, 2011 at 1:21 PM Reply

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