(Written for The Flame, the official journal of the humanities [UST Faculty of Arts and Letters], back in 2004, but this article never saw print. Photos taken with a Canon AE-1 camera, Kodak Max 400 film. Had the negatives scanned just this week at Digiprint, so decided to post some of the photos and the article here.)
Thick jackets at noon in the middle of September, and it wasn’t raining.
A group of students stood by Halsema Highway, the highest point in the Philippine road system. In a few minutes lunch would be served, and the first among many veggie meals would make its way down the students’ gurgling stomachs, which earlier had only feasted on Ding Dong, Jellyace, and Skyflakes.
It was the senior Sociology students’ last community immersion, after Puerto Galera, Isabela, Sablayan, Moncada, and Liliw. This time, we were in Atok, Benguet, two hours away from and several hundred feet above the Pine City. The Globe subscribers were groaning and going pa-text naman o to the Smart people. I was looking at the horizon over at Mt. Pulag, saying to myself that I’d climb that big chunk of earth one day.
The municipality of Atok was mainly a farming community. As indigenous people belonging to different tribes, they nonetheless share common beliefs and practices regarding planting, death, and religion.
Walang istroberi rito
Atok’s main source of income is in agriculture, specifically vegetable/crop-planting, which was introduced by Chinese settlers. The climate is too cold for strawberries, but perfect for cabbage, potatoes, and lettuce. A prevailing threat to Atok’s planting industry is the rampant smuggling of imported vegetables in Manila. These imported produce are cheaper and last longer in the market, so the local planters and traders do not sell as much. Some farmers, owing to the fall of the industry, decide to just leave the vegetable gardens be instead of h
arvesting, which would require them to pay the harvesters and for the other fees. Or worse, this sentiment when cabbage prices dropped to three pesos a kilo: “Bagsak ang gulay, magtanim na lang ng marijuana!” They were kidding, of cour
se. They planted flowers instead.
Weaving is another source of income. At PhP 1,750.00 per tapis dress, the weavers earn more than enough since the thread was bought cheap. The buyers are mostly people from Atok and foreigners who bring the weaving to Manila. The weavers of Atok also bring their products to Baguio City, where they are made into bags, purses, and pouches.
A tale of two tribes
The Ibalois of the north and the Kankanais of the south converged in Atok. These two tribes were actually from a single main tribe, the Ifugao. Although they are divided into 2 tribes, it is alright for a Kan
kanai to marry an Ibaloi, and vice-versa. In making decisions that will affect the whole community or when one has a personal crisis, the tribe elders are consulted first. The ritual of kanyaw, usually practiced by affluent families, is also known as “pudit” by the Kankanai and as “peshet” by the Ibaloi. It is practiced during weddings, burials, and other celebrations. Traditionally, cows and pigs are butchered, but chickens may also be sacrificed. It has a maximum celebration of fifteen days.
I was lucky to have a northerner classmate for a buddy. Primrose, half-Ilocano, half-Pangasinense, taught me how to say ang lamig dito in the local dialect, as well as some other useful phrases (Awan ti danum meant we needed to fetch water or else we wouldn’t be taking a bath. Not that we needed one, because we our sweat hardly ever broke then.) Primrose would later bargain at the nearby market for a sweatshirt I was in desperate need of, and translate into Ilocano a letter of thanks we’d
written for our foster parent Tatay Ben Taquio.
Kuya Marlou, Tatay Ben’s nephew and whose house we were staying in, informed us during dinner that the next day we’d be attending a burial with our other classmates. Two pairs of Thomasian brows shot up. Saan po? “Doon sa bundok.” I looked around. Uh, which mountain?
Sure enough, in the morning we went on a trip—a short ride up one of the many mountains and a long walk on the path leading to the burial place. We formed small clouds with our breaths as we
trudged, admiring the green beauty of the landscape. When we arrived at the house of the deceased, we paid our respects and asked a lot of how’s, what’s and why’s. Summoning my courage and swallowing my bile, I asked if I could take a picture of the deceased, close-up. “Sige lang,” answered the daughter.
The need for a fine-detailed print at low light demanded for a small aperture setting at slow shutter speed. I never thought I’d have the willpower to keep the camera steady for a second, my eye fixed on the subject which was silently staring out its coffin. “Smile, Itay!” said his daughter.
Toes pointing upward
A dead person’s body is not embalmed—it was believed that, if embalmed, the deceased will not be welcomed or accepted by his/her ancestors (ninuno) in the afterlife. Wrapped in a white blanket, the body is placed in a pine coffin. It must not wear clothing with buttons or zippers. If there is no other choice, the buttons and zippers will have to be taken out of the garments first. There are two cloths that are placed over the body as blankets in burial, a white and a red (or blue) cloth. Red is a symbol of prestige. Traditionally, the cloths are wrapped around the body.
In the burial we attended, the eyelids of the deceased were open—this was believed to be a sign that when the deceased was alive, he was waiting for something to happen or someone to come but didn’t, until the person’s death.
On the burial day, the family of the deceased kills pigs and cooks the meat to be served to the guests. It is customary that the pig’s organs such as the liver, heart, and some other parts of the sacrificed pig, duck, or chicken are placed with the corpse—these are believed to be the dead’s sustenance in the afterlife. These organs are important especially for the elders, and are also believed to be replacements of the dead person’s organs in the afterlife.
The meat (“atang”) of the sacrificed animal, cooked some distance away from the corpse because it is believed the spirit of the dead might get in to the meat, is to be eaten by the guests. It is served with rice, with only salt to taste. No food must be left on the plates. If, however, the guests are too full, they may take the food home.
In earlier times, the dead was placed in a sitting position. This indicated that the dead had prestige and a high status in the community. If the seat was elevated, the dead was of the nobility. The mambubunong’s presence was a must—he serves as the minister on the rites of dead. The mambubunong was a pagan priest, an elder in the community. As a mambubunong, one had to undergo challenges such as killing 24 pigs, and making and drinking rice wine (tapuy), among others. Not everyone could be a mambubunong—it was passed on from one generation of mambubunong to another.
Since they have no cemetery, the dead are buried in niches in their own lands, or their relatives’ if they do not have lands of their own. It is normal to see niches dotted around a vegetable field. In the Ibaloi tribe, the males are buried facing east; the females, west. On the other hand the Kankanais bury the males facing west; the females, east. East and west were where the sun rises and sets; they will all meet at 12 noon.
It is also believed that a person’s burial rites depended on that person’s family status. If he/she is considered elite, the atang should be a cow. After 9 days, a prayer (“padasal”) is offered. After 15 days, a pig or a cow is to be butchered. Ibalois prefer odd numbers in choosing a burial date (for example, the deceased was buried 3, 5, 7, or 9 days after death). For the Kankanai tribe, it is the opposite (even numbers).
The extra challenge
After the burial, our leftover atang in small plastic bags, we headed for the grotto. A natural rock formation, it served as a site for masses, and a gathering area. There, a test was being brewed by our foster parents. We sat cross-legged on the cold cement, and our uneasiness grew with every knowing smile they gave our way. Finally, they turned toward us. “Dahil sinabi ninyong gusto niyong malaman ang tungkol sa buhay dito sa Atok, kailangan ay talagang maranasan ninyo ang mga gawain dito.” Uh-oh. I think I know what’s coming.
“Mamayang gabi ay matulog kayo nang maaga dahil maaga rin kayong gigising. Magbaon kayo ng pananghalian. Magsuot kayo ng sumbrero dahil mainit at magdala kayo ng botas dahil maputik. Ito ang challenge namin sa inyong mga estudyante—magtatanim kayo.” Gulp. I haven’t planted anything since fourth grade. My tomato plot then looked devastated by a typhoon, and when the school year was over it had overgrown. With weeds.
Magtanim ay di biro
Armed with rubber boots and wide-brimmed hats, packed lunch getting frozen by the minute, the socio students headed off to a wide parcel of uncultivated land. Kuya Anthony, one of Tatay Ben’s sons, showed us how to prepare plots. When the plots were ready, small holes must be made where the seedlings (“semilya”, do I have to tell you the etymology?) were placed. The real perk was getting handfuls of fertilizer and placing them by the newly-planted semilya.
At first, we looked like drunken golfers hacking away at the green. We got the hang of it soon enough, and by noon stood side by side twenty-two plots each measuring 2 by 30 feet. Daming pechay nu’n. We learned that we were planting the vegetable’s scorpion variety, ready to be harvested by December. Arms and backs started aching but no one wavered—we were up to the challenge. We joked and sang loudly until small bits of soil got stuck between our teeth. Lunch was hearty; we were proud of our work. Of course, we made sure to wash our hands first or else we’d also be eating dung.
I want my mummy!
We couldn’t go back to Manila without paying homage to Benguet’s great ninunos. The Timbak Cave Mummies had earlier been featured in National Geographic and ABS-CBN’s The Correspondents, by Abner Mercado (and which would later be part of the Kathmandu Documentary Film Festival). Mt. Timbak was second to Mt. Pulag as the highest northern peak.
After logging in (tourists came from as far as Switzerland, I think), we went down a long flight of stone stairs. The only difficulty in this was that we’d have to climb the same flight going back. It was a good thing that we had a fine workout during an earlier immersion. A trail led to the caves. According to our guide, the mummies were mostly of the Ibaloi. There were around fifty caves of different sizes around the mountain, and several more yet to be discovered. A team of German anthropologists had studied the mummies, dating them to be at least 700 years old. The mummification process involved making the person who was near-death drink a salt solution. After death, the body was “smoked” to remove all moisture without damaging the organs. And voila, you have a mummy.
Upon arrival at the caves, we made a small offering—a short prayer where our foster parents “introduced” us to the mummies, telling them that we meant no harm. We also brought along some cigarettes and good old San Miguel. As I bowed my head I thanked the spirits and wished them a peaceful afterlife.
In the cave that we went to, there were twelve mummies and ten coffins. Bad, bad men stole a number of mummies in the past decades and sold them in the black market. I was able to enter the cave and I literally felt swallowed by the structure and transported back hundreds of years. There, carved into the mountain, was a resting place of the ancients. I walked along the trail they used all those centuries ago, and smelled the same sweet pine. Wow.
Last night on top of the world, or, my first taste of pinikpikan
Our last night in Atok was a big festivity. The students and the community prepared food and a short program. The elders danced the tayaw, their native dance that was usually conducted in some rituals, especially during kanyaw. The instruments solibao, gangsa, and tiktik or taliktik were used. Then it was our turn to dance. We danced not only our version of the tayaw but also all-time favorites Spageti and Otso-otso. We were rewarded with loud applause. We presented a skit about our experiences in Atok, and realizations during our stay. We called our foster parents and presented them with small tokens of our appreciation. We were grateful to have such caring Tatays and Nanays and we were all sorry to go so soon. But we could always come back, they told us. You still have to harvest your vegetables. Oo nga pala, ‘no?
Then came the best part—the preparation of the pinikpikan. First, the live chicken was beaten to death with firm, steady strokes using a stick (I congratulate my classmates Jigoy, Nina, and Rolan for this great achievement). The neck and wings were battered, then the death blow to the head. The limp bird was taken to the fire to remove the feathers. Then it was chopped and cooked. Yum.
There and back again
For the students, to be considered an “Atokian”, aside from walking around in slippers, you must be able to take a bath without heating the water. Since Prim and I took our baths in the evenings when the temperature dropped several degrees, we were considered aliens.
The time for goodbyes was particularly difficult because we had grown to love the people and the place. We looked forward to going back sometime. Prim and I carried a small box o’ taters each, carefully packed by Kuya Marlou. I looked at the mountains one last time and took a long breath, filling my lungs with the cool, clean air, wishing I could take some of it back home.
look at that lovely green! :)