Sunday May 11, Bontoc
Weekend over. But it rarely makes a difference in this line of work. Add to that the fact that we're deep in the mountains of North Luzon, and it matters not even the remotes lick. While Bontoc, where I'm based now, is a former village growing ever more city-like (city being relative in these parts, of course), my next stop, Kalinga, is where time has had much less of an effect on the vicissitudes of daily life. This is an area of the Philippines where you can get up close and personal with tribal man - with people who have only gradually evolved from their wild, "primitive" pasts. Until recently Kalinga was governed almost completely by traditional tribal law: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (plus a few pigs thrown in for the victor). Recent years have obviously brought some modernization. Basketball shirts have replaced 'g-strings' (local vernacular for the traditional loin cloths once worn by virtually all Cordillera men), and even a few mobile phones have drifted into remote villages, where a short hike up to an open bluff might garner a distant signal. But for the most part in Kalinga life still sways to the beat of the wind and the rain, and the spiritual world is closer at hand than it is in most places. Indeed, animistic spirits have a bearing on most aspects of Kalinga life. Kalinga's different ethnic groups (there are some 30 different tongues still spoken in Kalinga province, about the size of Connecticut with a population of less than 100,000 people today) still wage frequent tribal wars, albeit success no longer being based on the number of severed heads claimed. Not that Kalinga is particularly dangerous for travellers per se (although most Filipinos and especially Fil-Ams wouldn't dare venture here - they view Kalinga, somewhat hysterically, as a seething cauldron of Igorot tension, a land of crazed tribesmen ready to pounce on hapless tourists). The truth is somewhat more nuanced. Yes, Kalingas like to fight each other, and other tribes outside the region. But for tourists Kalinga will seem much like most places in the Cordillera - warm, hospitable and particularly curious as they have much less contact with the outside world than their neighbors, the Applai (Northern Kankanay) of Sagada and the Bontoc of Bontoc.
So that's tomorrow. Today was just a coolly efficient day in the heat. Got a shitload done, but it lacked the spontaneous gaffes that coloured yesterday's efforts. Spent the morning strolling in and around Sagada -; including an interesting sidetrip to Demang, the site of the original settlement of Sagada and its spiritual and cultural hub to this day. Bontoc was amazingly easy to cover the second time around. No maps to fix, no getting to know the trekking routes through the area's splendid rice terraces and mountains. Aside from a proliferation of internet cafes, not much has changed in Bontoc from a tourist's perspective. The hotels are still largely tatty, the food mediocre, so not much to update there. The sudden internet explosion is an interesting phenomenon. Since mobile-phone provider Smart introduced a broadband service operating off its mobile network a couple years ago, even towns as remote as Bontoc, which had only one internet facility three years ago, are suddenly awash with internet cafes, albeit the main purpose being for MMORPGs. This is bound to be something we see everywhere, as three years ago there was simply no way for remote communities to get the internet, and now any town with a Smart mobile phone tower can connect. Karaoke is also more widespread, reflecting a pattern well-known in the rest of the country. Add to that the fact that I've yet to see an old Bontoc woman with tattoos (last time around I saw many) or an old man in a g-string (last time I saw a couple), and one can certainly say that Bontoc has lost a little character. There are old-timers who say that it lost its character years ago, but I have never subscribed to that camp, probably because I never saw it years ago. I've always found it to be a colorful, vibrant mountain town despite all the tricycles (a mere handful compared to most Filipino cities and commercialization. The old ladies with their tattoos, and the Chico River cutting through the town's rice terraces, always gave it character. It's lost some of that, and now I'm the one saying, "Remember the days when ....."