heeding the calling of kalinga: a hallowed week in the villages

i have said some very unflattering things about the province of kalinga. on my first visit in 2006, and upon first laying eyes on the village of tulgao in tinglayan, which was perched high above non-descript mountains, i described it as having been "plucked from a dreary worlwide campaign for third world aid." i was rueful about the conditions of the roads, and over 3 years after my return, even the driver (himself a resident of tabuk) of the box of tin on wheels that ferried us to our jump-off complained about the one that led to the village of lubo in tanudan. it was in such a sorry state of disrepair that 6-wheeled trucks rescued (or stolen) from the military make the not-so-regular 5-hour trips to and from these upland barangays, which is southeast of the capital of kalinga, which, since 1995, has been administratively severed from apayao, by itself an independent and separate province. and yet, even the monster engines of these trucks struggle through the savage terrain that water needs to be replenished every few kilometers to prevent it from overheating. and on rainy days, chains need to be wrapped around wheels. on very bad days, which are often, the trucks don't make it at all, and residents who need to travel do so on foot.

but what i did not mention while complaining about the lack of access to most basic commodities such as indoor plumbing and electricity was that despite the gnawing poverty, its villages, clumps of unpainted houses surrounded by giant staircases that are either green or golden depending on the season, are charming and uniquely special, and its people, the gentle and proud kalingas are the most generous i have encountered since i first visited batanes. they are unbowed despite the weight of difficulties, and although they are exceedingly shy, they showered us with so much hospitality, it was almost embarrassing.

on our first night in the village of dacalan, which shared a border with mountain province, elders insisted that we spend the night inside a house. we were not allowed to pitch our tents. we were served coffee, biscuits, and dinner, for which they slaughtered a native chicken. its meat was black, its texture rubbery, and the soup was bland, but i was deeply touched by the gesture, considering that on most days, their meals consist of tubers, leaves, and insects. we were served huge helpings of giant ants, beefed by ants' eggs and larvae. i must confess that i was neither too hungry nor too adventurous (and maybe a little ungrateful) to have either of the freshly brewed kalinga coffee, or the bowl of ants.

the path to dacalan from lower lubo passes through a stone riverbed, which itself is a study in the unique geology of kalinga and the rest of the cordilleras. we passed by the village of gaang until we found ourselves fording a shallow portion of the river, one of the tributaries of the chico river. from there, our guide informed us that it was not 15 minutes to the village. 15 minutes later, night had fallen completely as we sat to rest in a shed which he described as the village gate. it was another 30 minutes till we reached the hamlet, which i could not spot in the darkness. there was but one faint light that guided as as we figured out the path on the riprap of the rice terraces that led to the village. this failure of expectation taught me not to measure the length of my journeys according to the estimates of the locals: they had a different sense of both time and distance, which they reckoned according to the movement of heavenly bodies, or according to either the width of their fingers, or the number of their strides.

the following day, we woke up early to distribute slippers to the villagers and flashlights to the barangay officials. it was an early day: children still had sleep in their eyes and snot on their faces. the stoned paths had blotches of crimson from the chewed betel nut. native pigs, black and hairy milled around along with lean dogs and hens with their chicks. after breakfast, we proceeded with our trek towards mount binaratan, which was separated from dacalan by a river. to get to the other side, we had to cross a deep part of the tributary along a monkey bridge: two spans of rattan, the diameter of two fingers. we had to hold tightly onto one with both hands, while our feet glided along the other. the locals hardly had any difficulty, but we all treaded with some amount of fear. at the river, several kids and teenagers crossed along with us, some of them carrying heavy firepower. we had been warned about the guns in these parts and i was not very concerned. i was unsure at first where they were headed. i was informed that we would only have 2 guides. one boy ran through the trail with a plastic bag clanking with pots, while others had bags loaded with rice.

from the river, it was a never-ending assault to the campsite, with only brief moments of rolling terrain in between. for over an hour, i hounded sky and the lead pack. the heat was oppressive, and i was searching for wind. i was losing more water than i was drinking, and by the time we reached the forest, i was already close to the sweepers, and had suffered a dizzy spell. i had carried heavier loads, crawled up steeper trails, and endured more punishing heat. but i was clearly not myself, so much so that when one of the armed teenagers offered to unburden me of my pack, i didn't decline. i wasn't embarrassed about it, and i had no intention to hide the truth. i was so not myself that when we traded bags, i even remarked how heavy it was despite its size. another boy offered me his pack instead. during the trek, we concocted stories about how i would explain the situation: the boy had been wanting to know how it felt like to carry a pack, one as solidly-built and crafted such as my osprey, and who was i not to grant his wishes? but i will not resort to euphemisms or sugarcoated excuses for my own weakness: i was not my usual self in that fleeting moment through the forest, and i so easily caved in to an imagined, if not exaggerated weakness. after lunch, i returned the small pack to the little kid, thanked my porter for helping me in my time of distress, and loaded my pack for the remainder of the trek. i had found myself again.

in fact, it was no more than an hour and a half to the campsite: a small clearing where the locals duped us into biting the trunk of a tree: a ritual, they said. at half past 3 we marched to the summit, where there was a window to the view of other mountains. it was not spectacular at all, save for the unique character of the forest: it was populated by giant almacigas and in parts became enchanting, although i did not manage to take a single photograph while i was not myself. the summit apparently was disputed. the next town, which was already part of mountain province, claimed it to be the border, so much so that they planted a mohon on it. the people of dacalan thought otherwise, and they expressed their disagreement by uprooting the concrete post and breaking it apart. binaratan is also known as silent mountain, so-called because there is a part of it close to the summit where nothing could be heard, not the hiss of cicadas nor the calls of birds nor the rustle of leaves. but i didn't experience it because the fall of our boots and the sound of our breathing were enough noise to swarm the silence.

back at the campsite we worked on our dinners. nearby, the locals cut down slender trees to fashion emergency cots. they cooked rice over an open fire and stewed mushrooms and ubod collected on our way there. we regretted not having brought extra food enough for all of them, but we were outnumbered, and their company was unexpected, although we shared what we could. the previous day, while having socials at the house of joel, our guide, we even offered them shots of gin. pretty soon, a throng had gathered outside the door to our room, and they would not have left until we laid down our mattresses and slept. they silently left while our eyes were already closed. that evening on the mountain, however, was different: we played our music while they sang their songs. i could make out salidummay somewhere in their lyrics, but it may very well have been chinese for the strangeness of its tonal sound. we only had over a liter for socials, but it was enough to get the better of jepay and she passed out. this was turning out to be a climb of firsts.

the following day, we started early. eds had a 45-minute head start, and we followed with haste on our feet. i was eager to jump into the river, and i had made a promise of doing it from the monkey bridge. we overtook eds before the edge of the river, and i accompanied sky and joyce towards our destination. the school of dacalan appeared when the forest cleared, and the local who accompanied us said that this is where the voting would take place, in reply to my question the previous day whether a PCOS would be brought here. immediately upon reaching the river, we relieved ourselves of the heat that had collected under our skin with a jump into a deep part of its clear, green pool. we spent nearly 2 hours there, having lots of fun and awaiting the arrival of the sweepers. our kalinga contact, ma'am marlyn, offered us hotcakes made from ground malagkit. it had neither milk nor eggs, but it was proof that with creativity comes variety.

our lunch was long drawn out and slow. we knew we would make lubo long before sunset, and we did not start the trek until after 1:30pm. back at the village, it was siesta: all the pigs were resting in the shade, and dogs were hidden under the stilts of the houses. we were once again offered coffee and a second lunch. our guide said:" iba yung sa ilog, iba dito sa taas." they would not allow us to leave without gifts: an authentic broom for bossing, and a bag of freshly ground coffee for all of us. profuse with gratitude, we bade them goodbye and headed for our next destination, resting long at gaang, admiring the rice granaries which stood on four poles over ricefields. the locals offered us what they could: a place to stay, coffee, and surprise that we had reached as far away as binaratan. from gaang, lubo was only less than 30 minutes away, and on the river, boys with masks ducked their heads into the water to harvest fish. later that night, we were offered a plate of the delicacy that was captured early in the afternoon: it was bony and there wasn't enough flesh.

our own dinner was a disaster, since the pork spoiled rather quickly. nevertheless, everyone threw in emergency food. we slept soundly under the roof of the grandstand, after a round of beer, coke, gin and lambanog with chico: delio's own concoction. joel ran up to the main village to purchase some supplies for us. the following day, we rose early and hiked up towards lubo to catch the still uncertain trip back to tabuk. as it turns out, it wasn't even supposed to make that trip (another local warned us and i felt as if my world would fall apart), but ma'am marlyn pulled strings for us. despite the unscheduled trip, the truck was full. for some reason which may be attributable to adventure, i decided to roast on the roof, to get a better view, i suppose. i have seen many bad roads in my career as a climber of mountains, but the road between lubo and tabuk trumps all that i have seen. the trip was close to 5 hours, and the sun seeped into the threads of my long sleeved shirt and forced more melanin out of my skin. although we made a few stops, i was too proud to surrender and transfer inside -- besides, they were already filled to bursting. so i endured the travel, and the sun, and besides, the view was marvelous in parts.

by a little after 1pm, we had reached tabuk and were deposited just outside ma'am marlyn's home where we took baths and ate a late lunch. there was still ample time before our bus would leave for manila. during this time, i managed to reflect on the time i had spent there, on holy week no less. i had not pre-judged my kalinga adventure based solely on a previous experience, although the fact that i had not returned since 2006 despite the opportunity is telling enough of my opinion of it, which may have ultimately been unkind. but this was a chance which is rare and special: one just cannot pack a bag and go to these insular villages. despite what i've said about their overbearing hospitality, these places are not tourist draws, and the locals, while they may show curiosity, might also show some hostility, which itself might be based on suspicion for the reason behind the visit. the villages are also unpretty, and there are no places to savor the local food. the delicacies -- if you could call them that -- are offered freely. the kalingas have a reputation as warriors. tribal conflict is not unknown in these parts, even in these modern times, and the quest for retribution follows you even when you've left the province: you're more likely to find safety ensconced in the protection of your own tribe. and yet, while some old traditions linger, others are on their way to being forgotten. there are many regal tattooed women in the interior villages. the marks are drawn from their wrists up to their shoulders and above the breasts. the crude designs mostly consist of triangles and lines, and irregular beehive shapes which resemble the scales of snakes. the older women also have elaborate and colorful necklaces and earrings made of real gold the shape of praying hands. the youngest woman i found to be sporting the tattooes was 50. all the younger women were not interested in having their arms permanently drawn on.

and with that observation i close this entry on kalinga. i am torn between praying for the improvement of the living conditions in the distant villages. but i also pray for the preservation of the ancient traditions that set them apart from all the rest. i fear, somehow, that one prayer cancels the other.