Mountain Province

Times have changed. No longer do we have so many beggars from the Cordillera in the streets of Metro Manila. But that was not the case not so long ago. Up until the end of the millennium, it was not uncommon to chance upon a group of Igorots asking pedestrians and motorists for handouts in Baguio City and Metro Manila specially during the Holiday Season. Most of them were women, most of them were aging, and most were from Mountain Province.

There are many stories about these beggars, and these stories may or may not be true. What is true is that indeed Mountain Province once had the distinction of being the source of these resourceful persons who made a livelihood of begging.

I heard from others of such a story. Whether or not the story is true in its entirety or was embossed in the telling, or whether it is altogether the fabrication of an imaginative mind, is irrelevant. If it is not true, then it shall be added to the many urban legends about the people of Mountain Province. True or not, accurate or not, the story, and others like it, just reflect the reality of what once was at a time that seems so long ago but nonetheless fairly recent.

And so it was that in the late 90s, there was such a group plying their “trade” in Quezon City.

And so it was that the Congressman of Mountain Province at that time, the late Victor Dominguez, was in a convoy of cars with his staff and some local government officials visiting the nation’s capital.

Somewhere along the long stretch of Quezon Avenue in Quezon City, Dominguez, who was in the lead car, saw such a group of women actively asking pedestrians and motorists for alms. He asked the driver to stop and the driver obliged. Of course the other cars in the convoy also stopped, and everybody was wondering why the Congressman’s car stopped.

According to the story, the Congressman told his staff to get the straw hats (silag) of the women.

Those in the other cars saw the Congressman’s bodyguard, secretary and assistant getting out of the lead car. Of course, out of concern, others in the cars following also got out.

The bodyguard, secretary and assistant approached the women on the sidewalk.

The women, probably thinking that the ones approaching them were cops, started running in different directions. The Congressman’s men run after them. Without thinking, the passengers of the other cars followed suit.

And so it was that there was these group of about five Igorot women being pursued by Igorot men in the streets of Metro Manila. Eventually, the men caught up with the women. After the pursuers explained that they were not cops, the women were placated. However, when the pursuers asked for their hats, they refused to give these, saying that it was a hot day, and they needed the hats to shield their heads and faces from the sweltering sun.

The pursuers continued to demand the hats, and the women continued to refuse to give in. After a heated and extended conversation, the assistant went back to the Congressman to report. The Congressman told him that they must get the hats at all cost, and if necessary, they should buy it from the women. The Congressman pulled out his wallet and gave the assistant some money so that they could buy the hats from the woman beggars.

After another heated and extended conversation, the women finally acceded to sell their hats to their pursuers. So, hats in hand, the group got back to their cars and proceeded on their way.

Rumor has it that the price that the Congressman paid for the used hats was more than twice the price of new straw hats, but still the Congressman thought it money well spent. Rumor has it further that the Congressman would have been willing to pay more, just so the beggar-women would sell the hats.

Those in the convoy laughed themselves hoarse talking about the spectacle of aging Igorot women being pursued by burly Igorot men in the streets of Quezon City. It was even more hilarious since the women, and most of the pursuing men, were ignorant of the reasons for the chase. It was a funny moment, but all agreed that it was worth it, and the Congressman was justified in purchasing the precious hats at such an extravagant cost.

What made the hats so special?

Painted in bright red on the wide brim were the words “GAWIS AY MOUNTAIN PROVINCE.”

Close to the end of a five-hour road trip from Baguio to Bontoc, the traveler gets a chance to view the winding waters of the Chico River in Sabangan, with rice fields close to the valley floor and verdant forests on the upper slopes of the mountains

Closer to Bontoc, the road winds closer to the valley floor, allowing the traveler to see the river up close.

The river is calm and clear at times, but during the rainy season may be muddied from soil and debris from upstream.

At the edge of the central village of Bontoc, The Heritage coffee shop gives the traveler a respite, with the quaint backdrop of rice terraces and the river.

The Americans blasted a road tunnel through the mountain, rarely used now as the paved road goes around it.

A landslide blocks the road, but is partially cleared to allow vehicles to pass.

Bontoc and the other communities in the province are agricultural. Here we see rice paddies and camote fields.

In the latter part of the last century, some Bontoc people planted non-traditional crops, like coconuts, seen here.

Depending on the time of the rice agricultural cycle, the traveler may see rice paddies green with growing plants, or golden with ripening grain, or freshly plowed for planting, like in this picture.

The rice paddies are plowed for planting, and the asymmetric shapes of the fields add to the beauty of the scenery.

Carabaos are used for plowing, if available. The paddy in front shows a field not yet plowed, and the paddy on the right has already been planted with rice seedlings.

With an “umbrella hat” to protect herself from the heat of the sun, this woman plants rice. Planting rice is a communal effort, an activity that maximizes the people’s mutual help systems.

More freshly plowed fields.

Stopping to pose for a picture, this woman is on her way to work on the fields.

The newly planted rice seedlings benefit from the water brought by the irrigation canal. Often coming from kilometers away far upstream, some of these canals have already been cemented.

Rice seeds are first sown in paddies like this, and then “harvested” to be replanted, like what these folk are doing.

In the Bontoc municipal center is Lanao village, nestled in rice fields along the Chico River

Another shot of Lanao, Bontoc. Beyond the farther houses is the river.

Foot bridges allow folks to get to the forest hunting grounds and fields on the other side of the river.

Further downstream, the river continues on to Kalinga

A bird’s eye view of central Bontoc

The Chico River flows past Bontoc, to Kalinga, through deep valleys and canyons, where white water rafting is popular during the rainy season when the water is stronger.

The road to Kalinga winds along the slopes of the mountains. the roads have recently been paved for the most part, deducting from the more rustic thrill of dusty dirt roads that were for a long time the way they were.

In early April every year since the past decade, Bontoc hosts the Lang-ay Festival, where the province’s indigenous people congregate to showcase their dances, songs, attire, and other cultural expressions.

These women proudly show their unique tapis, or wraparound skirts. On the ground are bundles of rice stalks on woven baskets, part of their props for the parade during the Lang-ay.

These men, with turbans and g-strings, play the gongs to provide music for the parade, as the ladies walk beside them.

These young folk showcase their indigenous attire, stating their uniqueness and yet their likeness with the other indigenous people of the province.

With boys playing the gongs, these girls dance along during the Lang-ay parade.

One attraction for visitors of Bontoc is its museum, where one may see different cultural artifacts and photographs.

The Bontoc museum has a traditional pigpen dug from the ground, where this pig is found.

Around September, Bontoc also holds another festival, the Am-among, where different villages of the municipality show us the variety and similarity of their indigenous communities.

Using a shield to shade himself from the sun, this young warrior poses with these ladies for a picture

Bright shirts are now part of regular garb, though prior to these ready-made creations, tops were rare clothing for the people.

Carrying woven farming tools and baskets filled with food, Am-among paraders try to encapsulate their culture.

Theater and symbolic representations are not uncommon during these festivals, as the community people portray their existence in a capsule.

Carrying plowing tools, these women embody the hardiness and industry of the Bontoc people.

********* some photos are by Patrick Mcdonough, who like me married into the Bontoc community.

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Spirited Thoughts

The mountains as viewed from the road going up to Bobok, Bokod, Benguet.
Ambuklao dam and the community below it
Ambuklao Dam and part of the lake it forms.
Fishcages and Fishermen’s huts, Ambuklao lake.
The delta formed by a river feeding Ambuklao lake.

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The indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras invariably perform several rituals in the life cycle of an individual, from pregnancy until death, and most of the time even after death.

These rituals for the most part involve the slaughter of sacrificial animals, or what may be more appropriately called ritual animals. The type and number of ritual animals depends largely on the ritual itself, and the social status of the family for whom the ritual is performed. Thus a single chicken might suffice, or the ritual might involve the slaughter of several pigs. Some communities would require the slaughter of carabaos, cows or bulls, horses, or dogs. Ritual celebrations might last for a few hours, a day, or several days. And because there are several animals butchered, the entire villages, as well as friends and relatives from neighboring villages, are invited to partake of the feast.

(Photo: A carabao is prepared for cutting up prior to a wedding in Baguio.)

(Photo: Butchering one of two carabaos slaughtered.)

(Photo: Separating the meat to be distributed to those who participated during the slaughter.)

There are a variety of reasons for these ritual feasts. One of the most popularly known are celebrations of indigenous weddings. In many parts of Mountain Province, these weddings are scheduled during particular months of the year, mostly when there is a lull in the activities of the rice agricultural cycle. The reason for this schedule is that the village people would not be unduly disturbed when the wedding feasts are performed. For the same reason, the weddings were performed all at once, together. It was not uncommon to have more than a dozen couples wed at the same time, with celebrations on-going at different houses of a village, and gongs-a-plenty being played in melodious cacophony when several couples wed are neighbors.

The number of ritual animals prescribed as necessary for weddings were the same, and it involved feasts before, during and after the actual wedding. And since no animals are butchered for no ritual reason, this number may not be added to, so that the amount of meat may actually not be enough if the guests to the feast are many. However, if the meat cut up into small pieces still do not suffice, the guests would be as content to sip the stew or soup, and would be just as content in their participation. It was not an uncommon occurrence, since the pigs bred in earlier times were really small, and took several years to mature. The chickens were the same. Even if several pigs and chickens were slaughtered according to the rituals performed, there might not be enough for the assembled guests, and thus while it remains a feast, it would not be a feast of unnecessary extravagance, as indeed nothing is wasted, and sometimes the meat is not enough.

In latter times, this might have changed, since the pigs that we have now grow to gigantic sizes, and so the meat from a single pig now would exceed the meat from five pigs of the traditional variety. The number of required ritual animals have however remained the same, so that the amount of meat now available during feasts has significantly increased. Often, therefore, these ritual ceremonies truly satisfy the meaning of a “feast” in the sense that there is abundance of culinary delights. With our absorption of foreign influences, these feasts now include other delicacies as cakes and salads of all kinds, pasta preparations, candy, and many other purchasable whatnots to tickle our discriminating palates.

Many communities have also lifted the prohibition on the slaughter of animals more than those required by the rituals, so that in many cases, the hosts of these ritual feasts would butcher several more animals than ritually required.

These present-day realities might be the reason why there are more and more people who say that the old ritual ceremonies and the requirement of ritual animals are unnecessarily extravagant. Critics of traditional feasts say that these rituals unnecessarily strain the economic resources of those hosting the rituals, that these hosts are better off investing their resources rather than “wasting” these in “extravagant” feasts.

What is conveniently forgotten by these critics is that ritual feasts traditionally were graduated, that is, the number of ritual animals varies according to the social standing of the hosts, and with those relatively well-off expected to slaughter more, according to their status.  In a way, it was the communities’ way of redistributing wealth among the villagers, for the lesser-off are expected to slaughter less animals for the same ritual. Further, these rituals do not happen only at the behest of the hosts, but as an affirmation of the hosts’ belongingness to the community. It becomes their social obligation, and the rest of the community are expected to help in whatever way they can, either by “lending” mature animals, by helping in the preparations, and assisting in the different tasks during the ceremonies. In many rituals, too, people quite naturally help out by donating to the hosts, either in the form of their labor, rice and other foodstuffs, or by donating ritual animals. These donations are regulated only by the villagers’ ability to extend help and certainly not mandatory. Thus the ritual feasts are actually a culmination of the oneness of the community.

The success of a feast is more aptly measured by the cohesion and mutual-help systems of the village, and the number of guests during the feast.

(Photo: Part of the more than a thousand guests at the Baguio wedding.)

In weddings and wakes, guests are allowed to give donations in many forms. Of course, in older times, these were in the form of rice and other food, their physical labor and presence during the festivities, ritual animals, wine, and most anything else that might be needed. It encouraged the mutual-help systems that existed in those times. Family relations also figure prominently, with relatives, no matter how far removed, chipping in whatever they can to help.

Current times have not diminished the feeling of community and family relations in indigenous feasts. Rather, because we have become more affluent as we engaged in non-traditional economic endeavors, the gifts we give during these feasts have also gained affluence. Instead of the traditional rice and foodstuffs we donated to each other, the availability of cash has many of us giving cash donations during special feasts. It is arrogant for any of us to refuse whatever help our guests give us, for these guests are merely affirming their belongingness to the community, or our relations with them, or both. It is their way of saying that they are one with us.

With all the donations that our guests and the members of the family and community readily share, it is but natural that newly-weds, for instance, would not scrimp on the preparations, and provide the community with a feast worthy of their being counted as members of that same community.

The mutual-help systems, while they yet exist, are the reasons why our feasts continue to be relevant and practicable. When we lose these systems, then indeed feasts like the ones we hold now would really strain the economic resources of hosts, and would become truly unnecessarily extravagant.

Of course, critics of indigenous feasts might base their notions on their acquired religious biases, but that is another story.

It is arguably the coldest time of the year in the Northern hemisphere, though I have not been in other countries during the closing days of January and the beginning of February. If this statement is contradicted by the more traveled of my readers, then I will content myself with arguing that it is the coldest time of the year in Sagada.

Temperatures in that place have always been relatively colder than the surrounding places, owing to its higher altitude than, say, Bontoc. Besao is lower, too, and its temperatures are somewhat tempered by the air from the China Sea, for Besao is on the slopes of the mountains facing the sea.

Sagada, however, is some hundreds of meters above Bontoc, and it is sheltered in a valley of sorts between mountains, and thus the air from the China Sea does not aid in regulating its temperature. Even in Bontoc and Besao, the people regularly complain of the cold at this time of year, though people from these places would agree that indeed Sagada is consistently colder than their hometowns. Perhaps the only colder places in the vicinity are the Bauko villages of Bangnin and Balintuogan, which are located higher than Sagada.

It is coincidental that the feast day of the Anglican Church in Sagada is during this time. Because the church had greater power than government in American colonial times, its celebration of its feast day naturally became a community activity, accompanied by games and general festivities.

In earlier times, other parishes were invited to participate in the activities. Anglican church schools were also invited to the games, to compete with Sagada’s St. Mary’s School.

And so it became a tradition that during the coldest time of year people flock to Sagada to attend its fiesta. The municipal government later on made the occasion its town fiesta, and with the establishment of the many public schools in the municipality and neighboring municipalities, the fiesta became an even bigger occasion with more people participating. Later on, government offices and other local government units as well as private organizations would also want to participate in the games.

As the congregation of people became regular, enterprising vendors would also congregate in the town, so that during the fiesta there is scant space not filled with wares being sold. Such wares include every imaginable article, from cooking pots to clothing, from toys to vegetables, from dried fish to plastic ware. It became a habit of Sagada’s people to wait for the fiesta to buy new clothes and shoes, or bolos and pots, as well as tools like shovels, forks, and hammers.

The games during the occasion have been varied, from the ubiquitous softball, basketball and volleyball, to tug-of-war, breaking the pot, races, and indoor games. It is also undeniable that these more wholesome games are accompanied by the not-so-wholesome, for it is a public secret that for several decades already, the fiesta in Sagada is also the time when gamblers from all over get together to play Monte. There have been stories of gambling patrons losing the money they should have used to buy a new pair of pants, or a new hoe.

Even the youngsters are drawn into gambling, for it is not uncommon that during the fiesta some kids would find a secluded place in Sagada’s valleys and ridges where they imitate their elders by gambling away their lunch money.

Yet the fiesta in Sagada still holds a special allure, for people of all kinds congregate there during this time, whether to watch the ballgames, participate in the more boisterous tug-of-war, compete for prices in the races, or to chance winning in Monte. Earlier generations also took every opportunity to go home to Sagada during the fiesta, for it is also a time to meet old friends and peers.

Going home during the fiesta became so much of a tradition that not attending it was almost a sacrilege.

And so those who could not go would wait for news and stories as to what happens during the fiesta, and somehow share in the jubilation, however whimsically.

As this item comes out, the fiesta in Sagada would be in full blast, and the people actually there would once again be jubilant in their celebrations.

As for the rest of us, our not being there would be magnified by the cold, and the cold weather would be emphasized by our not being there.


December has always been the windy season in the central villages of Sagada, Mountain Province. For this reason, December naturally became the season for kite flying.

In earlier times, children’s activities consisted mostly of playing with toys that they themselves make, and of games that made use of whatever is available in the locality. In the case of kites, the materials for making them were not readily available until the community absorbed many foreign influences. When people started using paper, and when strings and threads became more available, people learned to make kites.

At the time of my generation’s childhood in the late sixties and early seventies, even these materials were not so common. Threads were available, but these were bought for use in sewing and making clothes. To use the material for such frivolities as childhood pastimes were not encouraged, and indeed many a child has tasted a whipping for using his mother’s long-treasured roll of yarn or thread for kite flying.

Paper was also rather rare, for these were also bought, and since there was not so much cash in the community, it was both wasteful and pretentious to use paper extravagantly. The paper available in those times was mostly limited to the paper from books, and certainly the people frowned upon the destruction of these reading materials, rare as they were and truly valuable for the knowledge they contained. Even magazines were treasured then, and even the non-literate members of the population valued these, for the pictures and the unplumbed wisdom they contained.

Newspapers were also hard to come by, as these were only bought in Baguio City, a full day’s travel though rough roads and rickety buses. Not all those who came from the city were keen on buying newspapers, too. Even if they did, the paper, once read many times over, had other uses than for the making of childhood toys. The paper was reserved for wrapping tobacco in the handmade cigarettes that smokers rolled then, or wrapping goods for storage, or used as wrapping paper by storeowners, or used for cleaning the soiled posterior after moving one’s bowels.

Before these precious materials became common in Sagada, kids had other toys than kites, and amused themselves otherwise than kite flying. It is safe to assume that making and flying kites was introduced by the people who introduced paper to the locality.

How kites were actually introduced was before my time. However, in my childhood, December was already the time for making and flying kites.

There were two basic designs in the kites that we made, one of which was shaped like an elongated diamond, and the other was a half circle with a pointed top. The frames of the kites were made from any of the many varieties of bamboo or woody grasses in the locality, for bamboo strips were both pliable and light. Even then, the material was also not so common, for even bamboo and the stems of other woody grasses had more important uses like the weaving of baskets or for tying bundles of the rice harvest. The alternative was the coconut leaf stalks used in stick brooms.

Yet even stick brooms, called “tingting” in Tagalog, were not so common, for these were also bought, and thus valuable.

So it was that the children in that previous time had to find materials for the frame, either taken from their father’s store of weaving or tying material, or from the family broom. Either way, it was considered an unnecessary waste.

Then they had to look for paper to paste around the frame. The preferred paper was newsprint from newspapers, for these were sufficiently wide. They dug around their homes looking for these, and waited for grownups to finish reading the rare newspapers before taking these, with or without permission, to paper their kite frames. Those whose parents regularly bought newspapers and therefore had abundant supply of such a precious resource traded these for other childhood treasures.

It was not uncommon that a child known to have a stash of newspapers would suddenly have many friends during kite season.

Cooked rice was used to paste the paper to the frame, and to connect the customary “tail” of the kite, consisting of long strips of precious paper. A rule of thumb in the use of cooked rice was not to use fried rice, for it is oily, and the oil reduces the adhesive capacity of the starch found in the rice.

Kite makers also had to find ways to spirit the rice away under the watchful eyes of their parents, for rice was also precious.

Perhaps rarest in the materials were the rolls of thread or string used to fly the kites.

Fortunately for my brothers and I, our mother was a knitting Mom. She knitted sweaters and crocheted blankets, so she almost always had a roll of yarn around. She also bought unrolled surplus threads and strings that we were conscripted to untangle and to wind into rolls for her knitting. We therefore had the chance to separate the stronger and lighter threads, which we rolled for our kites.

Other kids sometimes had to unravel clothes for strings, or to filch the precious store-bought rolls of thread from their homes.

After going through the trouble of gathering materials and making the kites, we children also had to find time to fly them. Going to school and our household chores did not give us much time to play, so we had to do with stolen moments to fly kites made out of materials stolen from our homes.

There was a community water source found on a windy ridge in the village, and it was the kids whose chore it was to fetch water. Late afternoon was the busiest time for fetching water, with long lines of containers to be filled in the watering place. For kite flyers, the longer the line, the better. For kite flyers, the weaker the trickle of water, the better. For then it means that we had a longer time to fly our kites.

Even after our water containers were filled, we just set these aside and flew our kites, only taking the water home when it became dark. Our excuse for taking so long was that the lines were long and the water flow was weak.

It was heady to see kites so far up in the sky, and if a particular kite flew better than ours, we often lent our rolls of string to the owner so that his kite will fly higher, and we take turns flying it. Sometimes, when it became dark, we tie the kite string to a tree, and see if it will continue flying until morning.

The kite does not keep flying. It sometimes dives to the ground, and the long strings that we have filched would get tangled in the trees and bushes. The strings also sometimes break, and the kite would fly off to the farther trees.

At the end of a good kite-flying day, we lose the strings, and we lose the kite. Then we once again gather the precious material to make other kites.

The fun of kite flying always erased the tongue-lashing and whipping we got for wasting our homes’ precious paper and string, or for our delayed completion of our daily chores.


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