I'm trekking through the Philippine "boondocks," a mountainous, rice–terraced cloud forest called the Cordillera where highlanders relax in a state of eleventh centuryish harmony — still unscathed by roads, electricity, or other people's gods. Boondocks, or boonies, are terms derived from a native Filipino word meaning "out in the woods." The Tagalog word for mountain is bundok; U.S. Marines imported the slang after WWII. Suddenly, a wiry man pops out from behind the dangling vines brandishing a machete and a mullet. Incidentally, I'm here to challenge the U.S. State Department's warning against traveling here.
The Philippines is the lone Christian country in Southeast Asia. The majority of their 75 provinces swiftly caved into Jesus when Spain embarked on a short–lived Asian experiment in the 1650's. In spite of that, six of those provinces — within a secluded mountain–range jungle in northern Luzon — fiercely resisted Spain's take on God. The semi–tropical Cordillera is the country's most rugged and least populated region and is still a thorny place to plot a route and get a haircut. Native Ifugao, Igorot and other pagan tribes remained warring headhunters until the 1950's.
From my jungle, Manhattan, it required three flights, two bump'n'weave bus marathons, a motorcycle sidecar hitchhike, and a hoof over a 2000–meter mountain saddle to behold the base camp of auto–free Batad, the starting point for my trek in the Cordillera. This magnificent village is a triumph of ancient community planning because the rice–terrace irrigation technology created two thousand years ago still works today. An incredible labyrinth of mountainside water–dispersing canals flow from rivers and waterfalls into outlying crops. The effect is a valley–dwelling paradise encircled by an amphitheater of stone wall–rimmed rice–paddy terraces engraved into steep mountainsides. Often, the height of a wall is a greater distance than the width of paddy. They cascade all 2000 meters to an idyllic waterfall that serves as the bull's eye of the expanding corona of layered rice paddies.
A walk downtown into Batad's ancient Ifugao tradition tromps down a 10,000–block stone staircase mimicking the side of a vegetated Mayan pyramid. I strolled past clusters of thatched hay–roof homes called sitios, tidily separated by the stony retaining walls that also create trails. As if part of a serene performance, women weed the wall's earthen gaps — a full time job; imagine miles of vertical garden weed invaders — while kids on other terraces bother pigs. In the misty distance, stooped rice planters, standing in two feet of mud and wearing wide–brimmed grass sunhats, color the scene. Aural spaces are the domain of roosters, three cascades, and the slush of workers tilling the mud, knee–deep in soupy, stilted earth.
The scope of chores widens. High on a terrace across the crystal clear river, water buffalos pull two manned ox–and–yoke tilling plows; all purpose 4x4's that venture anywhere. It's all rather timeless, apart from one of the teens piloting a harnessed buffalo plow who's wearing a hooded, heavy metal sweatshirt declaring: Sin Basher. Along with the mullet, the sweatshirt conjures the Appalachian countryside sans the car on cinder blocks.
However, there seems a more ancient knowledge permeated in the mountain ridges themselves. This incarnation of Mother Nature and Mayan–like constructs, fully garlanded in tropical foliage, means lush green mountain ranges are transformed into adjoining pyramid faces that are conveniently rimmed with stairways, accessing agriculture, and trekking dreams. Roaming between villages in these boondocks means trudging the ridges and the rainforest it chain–links together. Some inclines would be rated triple–diamond by extreme skiers, yet they've been conveniently sculpted for thousands of years to maximize rice harvesting on land that's anything but flat. Long ago, the stones used to reinforce retaining walls were carried up from river beds.
Walking the Ancient Balance Beam
The rule insisting to never hike alone is erudite, but I longed for solitude, so after consulting locals about trail routes I roved solo and rambled upstream to Cambulo, whose 1,300 residents still gaze in sunrise awe at a solar power panel that arrived a month before me. The footwork to get there provided a quick study in the constant, requisite balance–beam style walking on wet, mossy wall crests that frequently means being one slip away from a 100–foot tumble to paralysis or death.
Airlift insurance coverage notwithstanding, surviving such a slip, and then being luckily discovered, means locals carrying you on a handmade stretcher for at least a full day to find a road leading to a rudimentary hospital and flight to Manilla. You must focus on each one of your ten thousand steps per day on these slippery perimeters, or pay a huge price. It also became rapidly clear that, here in the midst of muggy, pyramid garden euphoria, one crow–mile translates into five, zig–zagging, up/down, where–the–fuck–am–I trail miles. Walking like a nervous surveyor on a limestone tightrope, you need to stay as focused as a personal injury lawyer eyeing a jackpot.
As darkness fell, I found Cambulo and checked into the Friend's Inn, a.k.a. Lolita's house. Over dinner — rice with string beans — we scuffed about with toddlers playing under my table and heard the adolescents playing hoop in the town square. Lolita explained that she gave birth to her nine children between the age of 21 and 47; her youngest is 3 years–old. Lolita looks to be about 30. Her mother, looking on and grinning, spoke only Ifugao. During WWII, Grandma's husband was a local message runner for U.S. troops fighting the Japanese, thus the family's yen to accommodate me was natural.
The only alien in town, I was woken at dawn by an unrelenting pounding sound as unswerving as a pile driver. Uncomfortable because I thought it was Lolita's husband, Alberto, going for kid number ten, I tiptoed down the stairs to go for a walk, but rather discovered Alberto underneath his stilted house, thumping rice. This was the first of many encounters I had with people de–husking large stone bowls of rice stalks by pound–milling the grains using cone–tipped logs as smashers.
Hoop Shots and Detention
Six to twelve children per couple is the norm in this quarter, so are basketball courts with cement backboards and dueling, wilting rims due to monkey business. Most of the five villages I visited had courts and a ten year–old trickshooter always surfaced. We'd compare hook shots from every angle and distance, sometimes for an hour. Yet, meanwhile, several teens may have been playing Mario Brothers with ill–gotten chicken thievery booty. Modernity spelled trouble in the boondocks. A very recent drift into these far–flung communities were solar–powered DVDs — the first import to inspire a crime wave. For the first time in oral history, elementary school kids were getting caught stealing (chickens mostly) to finance insidious DVD addictions. Various town meetings addressing this nefarious dilemma revealed similar solutions. The punishment for busted kid–robbers was caring for the freeranging chickens, night and day.
And there they would be, sulking through the night, dreaming of their joysticks, their mullets silhouetted by a background that could pass for the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the end, these were the most notorious rapscallions in a rugged terrain thought to be worthy of a State Department warning. You can only imagine the DVD frenzy if these nonconformists had access to their West Virginian brethren's fuel of choice — meth.
Continuously gaining elevation, a few days later I meet two barefoot, betel nut fiends on the trail. Semi–toothless and beaming, they adamantly refuted my side–trail detour suggestion like stern elementary teachers. I was lost, and when they tired of trying to redirect me, they attached me to commuting school kids, who happily led the way. I soon learned, compass needle swirling about in my skull, that the best way to stay on the right trail — I did have a destination — was tailing speedy school kids, moms carrying babies on their backs while on errands, dads transporting tools to an adjoining village, or any other commuters.
In hillside–hugging Pula, another village without electricity, I was enlightened by a two–room schoolhouse teacher, Meliza: In the 1600's, a Spanish decree renamed all native Filipinos with Christian names. The invented Spanish surnames starting with letters in the beginning of the alphabet (particularly A–D) indicated existing familial affluence, while the leftover alphabetized surnames were tagged on families diminishing through the middle and lower classes. This colonial A–Z branding was lost on most of the population in the then impenetrable Cordillera.
"We don't rely on purse–onality," Meliza smiled.
Lessons in the Practical Haircut
With comparable resolve, Meliza insisted that Cordillera hairstyles haven't suffered the whimsy of trend either because the archetypal mullet haircut was invented here. A traditional Ifugao men's haircut, she explained, is executed by placing the customer's forehead on a block of wood and draping their frontal bangs over its side. Then a buddy–cum–barber uses one machete hack to trim his bangs to mid–forehead length, leaving the rest of the hairdo flowing like a Woodstock devotee. Traditional Ifugao men are also tattooed aplenty, but with none of the styles currently fashionable in U.S. stripmall parlors.
From Pula, I hiked high up into another climatic zone, where conifers abruptly overtook jungle, and crested a watershed divide; the trail eventually lead into another province, and another way of life. After traversing a whitewater stream and summiting a narrow, half mile–high saddle of towering long–needle pines, I walked for miles up the natural Great Wall ascending toward Mount Amuyo, the country's highest point. The saddle bisected dueling waterfalls, whispering in stereo from the distance.
Standing on the breezy saddle, as far away from New York City as I've been in a decade, I spotted a man ambling along the saddle, towards me, something steely glimmering on his hip. My State Department cynicism took a breather. I considered hiding but waited for our paths to cross. His dog had already smelled me. When he was 100 feet in front of me I distinguished the bulky machete dangling from a rope around his waist. Marching to a fallen log five feet in front of me, he stopped, looked at me and then at his dog. I waved hello. Seemingly startled, he took off his small, handmade backpack and laid it on the ground. He walked the remaining feet towards me and presented an inquisitive, nose–to–nose look into my eyes.
Tapping on my own chest and nodding yes, I murmured, "Me Bruce."
I pointed calmly toward his chest and inquired, "You name?"
Pause. Tree leaves rustle.
"Hygee," he asserted. He then playfully tapped on my chest to reconfirm my customized handle, "Boose."
I'm wedged between thoughts. Either I've made a new friend or its time for a wild–Boose chase, on his turf. Alas, he opens his backpack, points to a rock near the log (our seats) and we exchanged snacks: L.A. Airport granola for camp–fired flat bread. As we sat there snacking, he spoke no English or Spanish, only smiled and repeatedly pointed toward the massive, looming, fogged–in mountain to call out, "Amuyo."
I could also see that he rather enjoyed sporting the archetypal mullet haircut, and swung it about like a tool in a Wayne's World video. Snacks traded and devoured, we stood up to part ways. But my apprehension returned when he pointed to my forehead and then tapped on the machete swinging from his hip. Seeing my confusion, he reached out and used his fingers to flick the sweaty bangs that were hanging in my eyes. He notioned toward his knife again. I remained bewildered. He hunched his shoulders, smiled, and continued down the trail. We shook hands and trekked off in opposite directions.
Though we never spoke beyond monikers, we'd bonded. I was still alive and there's something poignantly random about only seeing one person all day long, doing the same thing as you, 15 hours from any road. He moseyed down the saddle and I descended into a canopied, leachy tropical rain forest where trail rises and falls toggled the soundtrack from bug quiet to waterfall roar. The narrow trail was often overgrown and offered several side options. Often, I lost the main trail and had to backtrack. My breath quickens. When you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there. Finally reemerging onto another piney saddle, I overlooked my turnaround point in my hike, the village of Barlig.
The next morning, before the long return trek to Batad, I purchased a basketball from a ramshackle general store in Barlig. It was deemed for Pula, a village strewn with deflated basketballs and a rumored spike in DVD addiction. I'd like to think my gift could stem the tide of the chicken–pinching kid crime wave. I did meet Hygee, again under the cover of jungle, both of us doubling back home. This time he immediately began tugging at my backpack with a sense of urgency. Fear and curiosity raced through me in equal parts. One minute later, after indecipherable articulations — speaking fluent Ifugao — I realize that, unbeknownst to me, he's telling me my backpack zipper is open and its contents are a moment away from tumbling onto the ground. I zipped up my pack and he flashed me one of those hand–milled, smoked, organic rice smiles…decked out in primitive dignity with a grin that's immune to want and has otherwise lost its way in cities.
Inside the soggy, slippery, leech–infested jungle, not far from the piney saddle, I'd nearly thrown my hands up in total remote mountain surrender, but Hygee's secondary concern were the leech bites covering my legs, and the medicine man in him shown through. His leech–bite salve, topically–applied powdered lyme (betel nut chew construct amalgamated with ground snail shells) dried the bites and prevented jungle–rot infection. Others along the trail suggested bleeding leech–bite remedies including spit–sodden tobacco or pressing a lit match on the wounds.
The average human being sheds about 5 million hairs over a 75–year lifespan. We have the same number of follicles as our hairier simian relatives, but our hair is finer and shorter. In America, our hair dementia has been cosmetically brainwashed into a paranoid and toilsome slavery demanding a regimen of shaves, plucks, waxes, coloring and $100+ trims. Lacking cranium locks or presenting back fur is taboo; hair has become way too complicated. So, before descending from the apex of Ifugao highlands, I gave Hygee the nod and rested my head in prayer onto a fallen tree. Hygee elevated his glistening machete blade of steel over me and a thundering whack shattered the dawn air. I slowly raised my head from the clammy, supine tree and looked about the Cordillera anew — no follicles obscuring my view, proudly sporting an Ifugao mullet.
Hygee pointed his thumb to the sky, smiled like he'd just got a huge raise and said "Boose" twice, then strode off with a gait of unbending altruistic nobility.
Continuing to retrace my steps, I learned that the schoolteacher in Pula was Lolita's daughter. Jungle telegraph news (walked–in gossip) preceded me. I presented a basketball to the entire town and gave a brief geography lesson using a similar sized globe. I think I spotted a couple of DVD addicts loitering around a hut with wires protruding from it. Only they smirked at my haircut.
I returned to my trek starting point, Batad, ten pounds lighter, unconcerned with electronic communiqués, speckled with leech wounds, and with a clearer outlook — literally. Perhaps I should advise the State Department to warn Americans to avoid traveling to this region with chickens, X–Boxes, or hair in their eyes. I stood tall above the terracing, unfettered after an officially unrecommended jaunt, clearly viewing my path from afar through the window of my mullet.
Bruce Northam is an award–winning travel writer and speaker. He is the author of Globetrotter Dogma and editor of In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. He contributes to a wide variety of publications and is a regular columnist for the New York City area publication The Improper.
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