Tuguegarao, Tuesday May 13
Holy shit, it's Tuesday? Six days ago this moment (10:25 pm) I was just rolling into Baguio, the first stop on this incredible tour of random encounters and experiences. There was the spider in Kabayan; meeting Francis (a Kalinga hiking guide I knew) at the landslide on the trip from Bontoc to Tinglayan yesterday (I didn't write about this, but I'm posting photos and even a video of the landslide, which held my bus up for an hour); the kid with the car in Besao; the Italian dred-locked dude in Bontoc (more later on him), the kitty-producing kitty on my lap in Sagada; the random foreigners in Tulgao. Amazingly, I also got a lot of work done while bounding around the Cordillera in a manner that would suggest aimlessness to the untrained eye. Filipinos I meet along the way always find it difficult to grasp when they ask me what I'm doing in their town and I reply, "working", but that's exactly what I'm doing. It's admittedly a pretty plump assignment up here as Kalinga and Mountain Provinces are way off the beaten track, utterly fascinating, and lack hotels to review. But it's still work, technically.
It was in Bontoc that I ran into the Italian dred-locked dude, living in a disgusting hovel of a fan room on the loud main drag. This is one of these guys who lend credence to my belief that there a certain % of LP readers - usually crusty long-term backpackers on a serious budget - for whom price is the ONLY factor in choosing a hotel room. He was paying 150 pesos (about $3.15) per night for his undoubtedly flea-infested bed at the Alabama Hotel. When I informed him that I had found a place around the corner of a similar ilk for 100 pesos ($2.10), he was genuinely pissed. Dudes like this are why I make a point to throw all other considerations aside and almost always list a town's cheapest, and usually crappiest, hotel. In Tashkent this was the Hotel Hadra, an uninhabitable rat hole with visibly shit-stained walls that doubled as a brothel. It was the cheapest place to stay by some margin and I met a handful of backpackers who had gladly paid $3 a night to sleep in this pit of pestilence. In Lithuania it was the legendary Victoria in Klaipeda, where I broke my camera some years ago. These places do serve a purpose for travellers like my dred-locked friend. They simply don't care if, as I once wrote about a hotel in Moynaq, Uzbekistan, "it looks as if a giant poo volcano went off in the common bathroom". "Yuck," say I. "Great spot," says he. You have to try to see the world through the eyes of a cash-strapped backpacker when you do these books. Of course it helps that I once was such a backpacker, even if I prefer a bit more comfort these days (In Bontoc I splurged and laid down 350 pesos ($7.50) for a decent air-con room at my favorite place in town, the Churya-A).
The Italian's real claim to fame was that he had spent the first 2 months out of his planned 3 months in the Philippines in Kalinga, mostly in rinky-dink villages like Tulgao. He is also the only tourist I've met who has toured Kalinga's famed marijuana fields and visited a Kalinga house where they processed hash.
Back to the present, today started with a wet walk to Dananao to not meet a headhunter named Mamaya. 80-plus years old and still tough as nails, he was in Tabuk (Kalinga's low-lying capital, at the confluence of the Cagayan and Chico rivers) helping out in the family rice fields. I did have a second breakfast (my first was with Erlinda and co in Tulgao) with his family in a century-old (maybe) Kalinga house, a simply gorgeous piece of dark-stained pinewood on stilts. My gifts of gin and matches were received warmly throughout Dananao, which was basically a smaller version of Tulgao, complete with the requisite gazillion kids running around, weathered old ladies, ample litters of swine, and rice terraces. Like in Tulgao, the people were incredibly warm and generous. These people leave well beneath the poverty line by any measure, earning in the dollar-a-day range per family and supplementing that with subsistence farming of rice, camote and other vegetables. Yet I was showered with food and tasty locally grown Arabica coffee. They may be poor, but they are generous, cheerful and seem generally happy with their semi-traditional way of existence. Why do you think so many of them elect to live here as opposed to making more money to drive a tricycle or be a security guard in a noise-polluted city like Baguio, Tabuk or Tuguegarao, where I am now?
Then again, many of them leave, which is a good thing or Kalinga's population would spin out of control. There's not much in the way of family planning in the Cordillera, but the culprit seems to be poverty rather than the Catholic Church, as the Cordillera Igorots were among the last Filipinos to be Christianized (by the Americans in the '20s and '30s as opposed to by the Spanish), and hence don't seem quite as God-fearing as lowland Catholic Filipinos. I could be wrong about that, but there's not mistaking that the average family in Kalinga has about 8 kids (conservative estimate - most adults I met had 9 to 12 kids). Maymaya, the former headhunter, put up an 8-spot. If each of his kids also had 8 kids, and they all had 8 kids (which seems reasonable, as one of Maymaya's grandkids whom I met, Maggie, has 9 siblings; she herself has 4 kids - Maymaya's great-grandchildren), then how many grandkids is that for Maymaya? Call it 64. How many great-grandkids? A whopping 512! That population growth rate is off the charts! Prolific great-grandfathers like Maymaya are also a reminder that head-hunter blood runs deep in Kalinga, and we are only two or three generations removed from the days of widespread headhuting in the more remote reaches of the Cordillera.
From Dananao, it was an easy, mostly downhill 1.5 hour walk back to Tinglayan, where unfortunately I missed the peace pact ceremony because the bus from Bontoc to Tabuk was on time. So no headhunters, and no sacrificed carabao on this trip. As much as I enjoyed Kalinga, there was no way I was spending 24 more completely unproductive hours there just to see a couple carabao sacrificed. I rode roof-top on the bus most of the way to Tabuk (see video). Rooftop riding is definitely a highlight of travel in Kalinga. I remember doing the same back in Laos 10 years ago and it being equally enjoyable, albeit I don't recall the views being quite this spectacular nor the dropoffs quite this precarious on either side of the road.
**Sorry this website doesn't seem to support my video format. I'm working on changing the format. Tune in later and hopefully there will be some videos posted**