Tuesday, January 18, 2011
I went back to the Philippines
Filipinos have a well-worn repertoire of national Sights and Spectacles to recommend to visitors. There’s Boracay, of course, the country’s dominant party beach; the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, a series of brown papillary bumps in the earth; the tarsiers, the world’s smallest primates, also found in Bohol; Palawan’s underground river. Many Filipinos have never visited some or any of these sights, but the list is pretty standard, and near the top of that list can usually be found the rice terraces of Banaue.
For me, the most striking thing about the rice terraces is not their appearance, impressive though they are, but rather their sheer antiquity. Some of the terraces have been maintained by Luzon’s Ifugao since long before such a people as “Filipinos” existed. And for all of modern society’s accoutrements, the terraces remain in use in communities far from any oceans, cities or Jollibees. The finest terraces of them all (well, such is the general consensus) are etched into the mountainsides at Batad, which is a reached by a long trike ride and a longer hike from Banaue. Batad’s small local community caters to visitors with its many simple guesthouses, and foreigners are no odd sight – on our hike in, many of the locals we passed asked in proficient English if we needed guides or lodging in the town.
The truth is that, while the terraces are worth seeing, I was more interested in the mountain culture and the people who lived in what I thought of as an inhospitable place. Many of the trails are impassable by anything mechanical, and even on the well-worn road out of Banuae we witnessed a jeepney struggling through the mud mixed up by recent rains. (We also came upon a mysterious earth-mover digging out a hillside in a place where there seemed absolutely no way to way to get the huge machine there – the trails up and down the hill were far too steep and narrow. It looked like it had been airdropped by a truly monstrous helicopter.) Of course people there survive, working their terraces and housing and feeding curious outsiders, but their adaptations to life in and from the mountains must be marvelous to “urban” eyes. Even their bodies change: we saw that many locals had feet with remarkably splayed toes, tweaked to better navigate the mountain paths that wind around their valley.
I didn’t return to the Philippines a month after my service ended just to see the rice terraces, of course, but I liked the sidetrip. I enjoyed visiting Japan and China, but I discovered just how huge the difference is between traveling and living. Back in the Philippines I felt comfortable: I knew how to get around, I could communicate, I recognized a lot of the local quirks. The Philippines was my home for over two years, after all, which was not enough time for me to understand it, but it was enough for me to become comfortable with a lot of things that were initially jarring – and enough for me to welcome the sweet sounds of Ilonggo all over again.
I spent Christmas back at my center in Iloilo, after a harrowing ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) trip from Manila involving three cramped bus journeys, two intemperate ferry jaunts and twenty-seven total hours. A few of my coworkers knew I was visiting, but it was a surprise for nearly all of my kids – and I was mobbed before I even got inside the center. It was fantastic to see them again, to go through our well-worn routines and conversations.
My third New Year in the Philippines turned, and this time I had a ticket home. But I wasn’t redeeming it quite yet.