Thursday May 8 - Kabayan, Benguet Province (Cordillera Mountains), site of the Kabayan mummies
OK, not much going on here. The one letter we received about this place had only two "corrections": the museum curator is now dead (fair enough), and admission to the Odpas burial cave, where dozens of skulls are stacked, is by optional "donation" - admission is not 20 pesos (about $0.40) as I wrote. To which I say, big freakin' deal.
My main question concerns what they've done with the key to the Timbac Caves, where the best preserved of the famous Kabayan mummies are housed. These caves are a 4-hour hike (or a rough 2-hr drive in a sturdy 4WD vehicle) from town, straight up. But they can be accessed much more easily from the Halsema Hwy, the main mountain road running south-north from Baguio to Bontoc. Formerly the keys to the Timbac Caves were with the museum curator in Kabayan, so you had to come through here, then hoof it or rent a jeepney to get to the caves. I'm not sure where the keys are now. My plan is to hike up to the caves tomorrow and find out, then continue on to the Halsema Hwy to see just how easy it is to access the caves from the highway.
If it's now easy to get to these sacred caves from the highway, do I mention the easy way in the book? It's a classic example of that old guidebook writer's conundrum - do you risk ruining a remote or sacred place by putting it in the book? If you don't put it in the book, you run into another conundrum: Where does your selfish desire to see a place remain undiscovered get trumped by your acknowledgment that a degree of economic development is what people in these poor communities want and need? I would hate to see these mummies become more accessible, not only because it would harm their appeal (which currently lies partially in the fact they are so hard to get to - you gain 1200 meters or 4000 feet of altitude in the climb up there, so it's not for the faint of heart ), but also because it would, according to the local Ibaloi tribespeople responsible for the mummies, piss off the spirits.
The same conundrum applies to Kabayan itself, an "untouched jewel" as I called it in the last guidebook, tucked amid rice terraces and 2700+-meter peaks and a bumpy four-hour bus ride from the nearest city (Baguio - where I spent Wednesday night after bussing it up from Manila). If I sing its praises too loudly on the pages of Lonely Planet, more and more tourists will come and it will inevitably lose some of its appeal. I would hate to see Kabayan go even the way of Sagada, itself one of the most mellow places I've ever been despite being firmly on the tourist map and possessing a well-established tourist infrastructure. Kabayan makes Sagada look positively raucous. There's not a peep on the streets here as I write this (at 9 pm), only partially because of the curfew that's apparently in place. In the previous edition I called it a "voluntary 7pm curfew," code for "quiet as shit after dark". But it turns out there actually is an involuntary curfew here, albeit at 9pm, long after most people have gone to bed.
On the other hand, people like Kenneth, my guide from three years ago who recently opened the town's only cafe, genuinely want to see more tourists dollars flowing in. If I downplay Kabayan to appease the selfish desires of the few tourists who have discovered this place and want to keep it a secret, I am thus hurting the local populace.
Wow, as I write this a car just went by. That wouldn't have happened three years ago. So maybe there has already been some "progress" here. Not much, but some. Kenneth's cafe is actually a major change in itself, the first establishment in Kabayan opened with tourists in mind. It's great, but it's also a bit sad. Ambivalence reigns. I put "progress" in quotes in deference to Dervla Murphy (an Irish travel writer whose book Across Siberia By Accident I recently read). She would argue that these people were perfectly happy in the years before capitalism and materialism arrived and began creating new temptations and incentives for a peoples accustomed to and happy with their so-called "primitive lifestyle." A reasonable point, of course, but you can't turn back time. You can only lament the effects of its passage, and what's the point of that. Materialism, once it arrives, is here to stay. What these people desire in the here and now is more legal tender - and that applies even to those locals who nobly cling to their Ibaloi heritage and traditions.
Anyway, I feel Kabayan can handle a small uptick in tourism, from a starting point of practically zero. Even if they do get a paved road in here someday, as planned, it’s way too remote to suffer anything resembling a tourist onslaught.
(Epilogue – the hike the next day was a 4.5-hour grunt, straight up after the flat initial hour - gruelling but most definitely worth it to see those mummies. The views were stunning too, with Mt Pulag (2903m, the second or third highest peak in the Philippines depending on who you ask) and at least two other 2700m+ peaks clearly in view, plus about a dozen more peaks over 2500m in the immediate vicinity. The cave keys now rest with a gatekeeper about a 10-minute walk uphill from the caves. There’s a road leading to the gatekeeper’s house from the Halsema Hwy, but few people know this and there is no sign on the Halsema Hwy. From the Halsema Hwy it’s a steep 45-minute walk in, or a 20-minute drive if you have a sturdy 4WD. All signs point to this road eventually being paved and to the local authorities exploiting the sacred Timbac mummy caves to milk as much money as possible from cars passing along the Halsema Hwy. The gatekeeper is a nice guy, but he’s not even Ibaloi, he’s Kankanay, and thus not an appropriate guardian of the caves. Only the Ibalois practiced mummification, despite what the Kankanay claim. Ibalois claim visiting the caves without an Ibaloi guide and failing to observe certain protocols angers the spirits. Can the Kankanay guardian be trusted to enforce those protocols? I somehow doubt it. For now, luckily, the caves remain a little known secret. I was only the second person to visit them since they were opened to visitors from the Halsema Hway in late April. The other was an Australian girl who had also hiked up from Kabayan – the way it should be, if you ask me. We’ll see what has become of the Timbac Caves three years from now when I do the next update. I see concession stands, T-shirts and tour buses in their future.)