Walking around in circles

by Gary Pekas

People in the many villages in the Cordillera have their share of stories of people who walk around in circles when they are lost. A person would keep walking and find him or herself in the same place after a while. There are even stories of groups of people getting lost and walking around in circles.

In Sagada the phenomenon of being lost is called “liweng,” and the experience is to be “maliweng.” To walk around in circles, or to have the illusion of walking while being rooted to the spot is “banig.”

Apparently, “liweng” and “banig” are global phenomena. In a study published in Current Biology, conducted in a forest in Germany and in the Sahara desert, people who think they are walking in a straight course tended to change direction, and might walk around in circles if there are no navigational guides like the sun, the moon or landmarks. In the study conducted by Jan Souman, liweng happened when the sun or moon was hidden and the trees in the forest began to look alike. The desert landscape is fairly constant, and without the sun or moon or landmarks to guide people, walking around in circles occurs more often.

Before Souman conducted the study, liweng has been known to occur in the same conditions, that is, when the people walking have no navigational guides. Thus the phenomenon occurs in the desert, forests, or in the arctic where the snow or ice-covered landscape offers no landmarks. However, the phenomenon has generally been disbelieved by skeptical modern thinking, dismissing these as old wives’ tales and superstition.

For our part, in the Cordilleras, we have ascribed liweng to be the work of spirits. Other similar cultures in the world believe the same.

Souman and company could not offer a scientific explanation for the phenomenon yet, only that it does occur to people in the same conditions of disorientation and confusion.
Patrick McDonough, long-time Peace Corps volunteer in Bontoc, once told me a story about how a Bontoc man was lost in the forest back in the seventies.

The man and two companions went to Belwang in Sadanga to attend an occasion there, and instead of taking the road back to Bontoc, decided to take the less-used forest paths.

The forest in the area is a large one, as it spans parts of Bontoc, Sagada, Besao, the province of Abra, and extends north to Kalinga.The forest has trees whose leaves are brewed for tea, a drink that is believed to have medicinal properties. The tea is now referred to as “mountain tea.”

In the middle of the forest, the man told his companions that they go on home ahead so he could gather some of the mountain tea to take home. The man was no stranger to the forest paths they were taking, so his companions were not worried and went ahead.
After a day, the man’s companions became worried since the man did not yet arrive home.

As is customary in our villages, the people were informed, and search parties were sent out. Some started out from Bontoc, taking the expected route that the man would use going home, and others proceeded to Sadanga to start the search from there.

Now it happened that Patrick was in Sadanga, and when he learned of the circumstances, he joined the search party.

They went into the forest, shouting out the man’s name, fearful that he might have met an accident and was injured.

For two days, they searched, even meeting up with the group that started from Bontoc. They doubled back many times, calling for the man but not finding him. By this time, the searchers were joined by people from other villages, and still the man could not be found.
Patrick did not say, but for sure, the people in the village in Bontoc, specially the man’s family, would have performed the necessary rituals. The searchers are also sure to have performed some rituals, complete with sacrificial animals, imploring the spirits to reveal where the man was.

On the third day of the search, one of the searchers found a lock of hair. The search party assumed that the hair was from the man they were looking for, and people began to fear the worst: that the man was killed by any of the other villages around that shared the forest resources.

After finding the lock of hair, the search parties decided to stop calling out the man’s name, believing him to be already dead. Instead of calling out, they were just to use their noses, since the man, if dead, would begin to decompose and smell.

As they were sniffing out the forest, one of them noticed that there were no people from the village of Mainit in the search parties. Some suggested that the culprits for the man’s disappearance must have been from Mainit, thus their conspicuous absence from the search parties.

So the people searching proceeded to Mainit, truly suspecting the worst. Arriving at the boundaries of the village, they dispatched two men with relations in that village, to go into Mainit and see if their suspicions are indeed true. These two men went into the village. After several hours, they did not return to report, and those at the boundary became even more worried, fearing that their emissaries were themselves killed.

So they sent out a larger group, sufficiently armed and prepared for any eventuality. To their relief and consternation, they found the two emissaries in the middle of Mainit village, totally inebriated with basi and tapey. Apparently, after the people of Mainit assured them that they were faultless, disproving the original suspicions, they offered the emissaries the potent Igorot brews, who happily obliged.

After the absolution of the people of Mainit, the search continued, this time with people from Mainit taking part.

To cut a long and hairy story short, they eventually found the man, weak from hunger, and minus some of his hair, but otherwise healthy and heading the right way going home.

The man subsequently told his story. After gathering mountain tea, he proceeded to walk home, but realized that he was walking around in circles, “nabanig.” Upon realization, he remembered one remedy he heard from his elders, and that is to cut off a lock of his hair and set it on fire, before proceeding.

The funny thing was, after the man cut off his hair with his bolo, he found out that he had no matches or any other means to start a fire. So he left the hair on the forest floor and continued walking, hoping to find his way, which he did.
Our ancestors know the solution to being lost and walking around in circles: to stop and orient yourself before proceeding. Smoking, cutting off one’s hair and lighting it or any other similar activity are just to provide a distraction, a sense of purpose, and to provide confidence; but by stopping, the lost person would try to logically orient himself and thus would be more likely to find the right way. Our people also know that sometimes those who are lost need to be searched for, and we continue in the practice, for our entire communities are mobilized to look for missing and lost persons when needed.

In a story on Souman’s study, this is echoed by a guide from Maine, USA, Carroll M. Ware. “Your job as the lost person is to sit down,” he said.

Souman’s study and the guide from Maine teach what we already know.

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