Abracadabra: The Magic Of The Cordilleras
- Alman Dave O. Quiboquibo () - October 13, 2002 - 12:00am
First Prize winner, Philippine STAR Travel Now Essay Writing Contest
Pinaghahati-hatian po nila ang lupa.
Karagatan at himpapawid, ngayo’y may bakod na.
from Joey Ayala’s Bathala

To the ignorant stranger, the language of the Cordilleras might sound like the mindless chatter of delirious birds in heat. In the same way, their hypnotic dance borrows greatly from the movement of flightless fowls flapping their broken wings. Not too many people seem to know exactly how to follow the monotonous droning sound of these gongs, but nonetheless they plunge into the circle, emulate the leader, who herself is often lost, and express, in the most subtle of ways, their love, their gratitude, and sometimes, even their rage.

There is a remote tribal village in Kili, Abra, flanked by the broad shoulders of a mountain range, surrounded by rice paddies that form stairways to the sunrise, and threaded by a majestic river.

It was by no accident that I and nearly a thousand other kindred and alien souls found ourselves girding a footpath on the cheek of a mountain. For at least three hours, we set out on foot, following a road seldom traveled, guided only by the movement of the constellations and the regret of a thousand crickets. It was by no accident that close to twenty years ago, Macliing Dulag, a Kalinga tribal chieftain, was assassinated by the military for leading opposition to the World Bank’s Chico Dam Project. Which, instead of being a reason for weakness, became a fount of courage that intensified the struggle, leading eventually to a much cherished victory. It was by no accident that one day in April, for these past several years, has been designated as Cordillera Day. A day unknown and ordinary to many; yet to some, a cause for great celebration and a reason to declare solidarity.

It was by no accident that this same place in Abra is now being threatened by a mining application, putting at risk the ecological diversity which sustains the simple lives of the Maeng people and other tribes around it. None of these happened by chance. They were all part of a grand and cosmic plan.

Traveling more than 15 hours from Baguio along a road that once rolled like a smooth obsidian tongue licking the horizon, and at times like the dusty intestines of an eviscerated animal whose destination had yet to appear on the map, on a Ford Fiera that seemed all ready to be scrapped, I joined a happy band of earth mothers, militant activists, thrill seekers, adventurers, mountaineers, artists, national democrats, reaffirmists, communists, NGO workers, community organizers, indigenous peoples, and foreigners to continue the struggle Macliing Dulag began two decades ago.

Like determined masochists, we wrestled through poorly paved roads and crossed the same bridgeless river three times to reach a place that augured a long and tiring hike. On our way, we stopped by a community to refill our bottles of water. They told us that Father Conrado Balweg, erstwhile rebel priest turned politician, discouraged their attendance to the celebration. There was even talk of harassment from Balweg’s Cordillera People’s Liberation Army somewhere along the way. But these did not deter us from the challenge of reaching a place few even knew existed, even while the closer we seemed to get to Kili, the farther it appeared to us.

Upon reaching the village which was carved along the banks of a river, we pitched our tents on a parched rice paddy. Directly across it is a much greener reflection. This slice of land is where the people’s lives depend on. Little trade takes place here; the people grow their food in their own backyards; they sustain themselves with little or no dependence on external forces. For a city dweller, it is hard to imagine how people would choose to live far away from the rest of man and womankind. Even more unimaginable is that two hours away from this remote community is another village inhabited by the Bakling-ayans. But once you see for yourself how their lives are endangered by the destructive hand of progress, it is so easy to understand why they chose to steal farther away, farther inland.

Kili’s elderly are living testaments of history. They do not know how many years they have been tilling the land, nor remember the day they were born; they may even be older than memory itself, but it does not matter. They still refuse to have their pictures taken, because they fear it trapped their souls. The shape and texture of their bodies serve as evidence of years of hard work: crooked and severely wrinkled. One old man who bent down seemed as if he were burdened by the weight of amnesia.

The mountain folk are sturdy men and women, but some of them suffer from severe goiter. The lumps below their chins are the size of both their fists. Someone tells me that being mountain people, they get little salt and seafood, sources of iodine. But they receive little or no basic services at all. While water was abundant, gushing forth from the mouths of hoses slithering around the village, its source was not any water service provider I can name, but nature itself. The elementary school in the village had four poorly ventilated classrooms and an empty library. Health care came in the form of elders who practiced the art of healing with herbs and prayers. One of them offered to cure a Canadian woman who had maladapted to nearly everything and suffered from severe diarrhea, but she declined and trusted the pharmaceutical miracles the volunteer nurses had plenty of. The people of Barangay Tubo had known little about power in the form of currents traveling through electric wires, except for those few days when a strange and noisy generator was introduced to the village. Gas lamps, bonfires, flashlights and the face of the moon were the usual sources of nightlight. Ice, insulated by sundried leaves, had been transported just for the occasion. On other ordinary days, one merchant woman told me, the cold, glassy material and many other commodities that had rarely been seen by the children and even by the oldest of old, were unnecessary pleasures their simple lives could do without.

It is no wonder that this part of Abra is sheltered from the intrusions of contemporary living. For who would ever imagine that such beauty be given a facelift? This realization came to me as I found myself basking in the soft morning light, feeling the lifeblood of the Cordilleras flow through me and over me and under me, and never had I felt so safe, like an unborn child nestled in the womb of his mother. All the while, dusky and shameless village boys frolicked on the river to escape the ravages of the unrelenting sun (the mornings kiss with cold lips, but the afternoons seethe like fevers). They are adept swimmers as if they were born in the water (though I doubt many of them have felt the salt of the ocean on their bodies), and agile acrobats, executing backflips and somersaults from a cliff into a deep part of the river.

Further upstream, the cool and gentle river proves to be unforgiving as its rapids roar against a formation of giant rocks and boulders, even as it thunders down a pool with an angry waterfall. Behind it is a grotto where a hot spring leaks from stalactites forming on the ceiling. Nature can be very poignant, and I was seized with multiple orgasms; we came together in a way I could never imagine with a lover.

But it was not true for others, whose utter neglect for nature showed as the river flowed downstream with the burden of countless shampoo sachets, plastic bottles, sanitary napkins, and the dirt of unjustifiable ignorance. Unlike some who were gripped with profound epiphany, repudiating environmental threats that masquerade as progress and development, many others, who chant this same rhetoric without completely understanding it, fail to realize that it is this kind of thoughtlessness that imperils the very fiber of our existence. The simple act of leaving nothing but footprints, taking nothing but pictures, and killing nothing but time, was forgotten, perhaps carried downriver, along with the rubbish of insolence.

But I remain hopeful that the struggle did not end with the hike back home. Weighed heavily perhaps by our own guilt, we began the journey to our place in the sun. In my case, the mountains faded gradually to concrete and the river became an artery of congested highways. For a little while, I saw where life began, and for the rest of my life, I shall watch it coming to an end. If only I could choose to birth more beginnings.

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