Banaue Rice Terraces And The Ifugao People of the Mountains, Philippines
From Negros Oriental, we flew back to Manila.
We had booked a private car to take us to see the Unesco world heritage rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, located north on the island of Luzon, which is the largest and most northern island in the Philippines.
It takes about 8-10 hours drive from Manila depending on the traffic to get to the region of the rice terraces.
It is a very mountainous region with many tall peaks that the local tribes started cultivating two thousand years BC.
It took 2000 years to complete, with families adding more and more rice terraces down the steep mountain slopes, as the need for food increased.
Because of the very long drive, it was suggested to us that we should leave Manila at 4AM in the morning to avoid the horrendous morning traffic in the city.
We left our larger backpacks with the hotel and packed only small overnight packs for hiking through the rice terraces.
The drive north was very pleasant.
We had a minivan all to ourselves and were able to recline back and sleep until sunrise.
Our friendly and talkative driver Eddie, told us stories and observations about politics, about life in the Philippines and shared with us local jokes.
For example, corruption is rampant in the Philippines.
Eddie told us that there is a ban on logging and making furniture from the native Narrah trees which are nearly extinct, yet still people cut those trees and invent all sorts of ways to transport them from the forest to Manila.
The most popular way is to just bribe the guards at the checkpoints.
Another way is to use tourist buses, which have been customized by removing all the passenger seats.
They fill those empty buses with Narrah wood, and pay day laborers to sit on the logs as if they were passengers, so from outside, the checkpoint police think that this is just a normal passenger bus.
Another corruption scheme is to buy votes for election.
The way that the person who buys votes can tell that the people he has paid have really voted for him, is by asking them to bring a piece of carbon paper to the voting booth.
The person votes on the original form, and also makes a carbon copy, and when he presents the carbon copy to the politician, the politician pays him.
A vote costs about 3000 pesos (about $67).
The day was almost unbearably hot, but as we arrived in the mountains, the temperatures were much cooler.
In this mountainous region, the traffic was light since most of the tribal people cannot afford cars.
Eddie told us that drivers drive very carefully here because of the free roaming chickens which often cross the main road.
Eddie said he always follows one rule that applies in this area:
“Don’t drive over a chicken, or you’ll pay not just for the cost of the chicken, but also for the loss of the income from the eggs it could have laid, and for each of its unborn chicks.”
In Banaue, we met Darwin, who was to be our local guide and accompany us on our hikes from village to village.
Darwin was a short and very strong man.
He has lived in this region all his life.
Darwin extended his hand for a handshake and asked us where we were from.
We said USA and NZ.
He looked at me with a doubting look on his eyes and said:
“You look like a person from Israel, you have that long face, and its something around your eyes.”
I was amazed, and asked Darwin how he had learned what Israeli people look like, since in most places in rural Asia, they have never even heard of Israel. When I have said that it is the country where Jesus was born, they say: “Oh, you mean that you are from Jerusalem.”
They think Jerusalem is a country all by itself.
Darwin said that Israelis were some of the biggest groups to come to see the rice terraces.
As he pointed to the mountains he said: “Over the mountains in Cambulo and especially in Batad, you will be able to eat Mallauach, Pita and Shakshuka.
The Israeli backpackers who have come here since the 1980’s taught the local people how to cook Israeli food, and also how to make banana pancakes and pizza.”
A private Jeepney took us up the mountain to the starting point of our hike.
Until recently, the hiking path was just a narrow mountain trail and the villages of Cambulo and Batad, were completely isolated.
If the locals wanted to buy supplies, or more likely to barter their rice and root vegetables in Banaue for sugar, salt, etc, they had to walk 4-5 hours each way to town.
The expansion of this trail is still under construction by crews of workers living in tents made of tarps by the side of the road.
As we passed by them, we saw them cooking cabbages and slices of pork in boiling water, cleaning dishes or washing up with buckets of water.
Darwin who knew most of them, yelled out to them: “No time for love!” and they all laughed.
It is a private joke, that they work all week long on the road and only go home on weekends, which leaves them little time to court a girlfriend or to get married.
When we started our hike, the rain was coming down, making the patchy dirt road very muddy.
It was a bit difficult to navigate the muddy road between the huge potholes, which quickly became pools filled with rain.
We did not bring raincoats, but Darwin supplied us with what looked like yellow rubbish bags, to serve as our ponchos.
I was happy that we were carrying our electronics in a dry backpack, and that we had folded our overnight clothes in plastic bags inside the heavier backpack which Jules was carrying.
I was also glad that before we left Banaue, I asked Darwin to stop at a local shop where I bought arm sleeves to cover my arms during the sunny hike that awaited us the next day.
There, among a collection of goods and supplies to fit the needs of the local people, I found arm sleeves that look like they were designed not for hikers or cyclists, but for working in the rice fields.
Still, they will do.
Despite the heavy rain and the difficulties in navigating the muddy road, I felt elated by the hike, the beautiful rice terraces, and the tropical scenery.
The Banaue rice terraces were carved into the mountains by hand by the Ifugao people, or the ‘People Of The Mountains.’
When we reached Cambulo, it was nearly dark.
We walked through the village and saw the traditional houses which were small one room Pyramid shaped wooden structures, with either a thatched roof or metal roofs.
The houses (called Bale) are built on high stilts to deter rats from climbing up.
The people enter the house through a wooden ladder which is pulled up at nighttime.
The traditional Bale houses for the upper class used to have carvings on both sides of the door of humans or animals, carved from wood or tree ferns (called Ponga in NZ.)
It is a one room house with an attic in which they stored the rice supply for the whole year.
The whole structure could be disassembled, and reassembled in another location.
They almost look too small for human habitation.
Initially, Jules thought that they were storage rooms, but we could see kids and grandmothers inside, smiling toothlessly at us.
Our guesthouse in Cambulo was a very basic operation.
Not well built and not very clean, it offered low level plywood rooms with no shower and a shared toilet.
If you wished to shower, you had to use a cold water bucket in the toilet room.
We saw nobody take such a shower beside the local kids, who bathed this way outdoors the next morning, as the sun warmed the day.
The place was busy with backpackers from England, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, all dining in the restaurant and chatting away.
There was only one sink in the place to wash our teeth.
It was the kitchen sink which had a hose with fresh spring water from the higher elevations in the mountain, and had no faucet valve to turn it on or off; it continuously flowed into the kitchen sink.
I had to move aside the dirty dishes in order to brush my teeth.
My initial reaction was an objection to the idea of sleeping on bedsheets that clearly had not been replaced in weeks.
They had no washing machines and the village was not clean.
The pathways were full of discarded candy wrappers.
Some of the more creative girls were taught how to make little purses from those candy wrappers, and we saw them weaving strips of chips bags or of candy wrappers into small, charming wallets.
I bought one in order to encourage them to keep the village clean and to make something good out of discarded trash.
Despite being repelled by the sleeping conditions, I had to remind myself that this is the difference between anthropologists and missionaries.
Missionaries come and tell the people that their ways are WRONG and then proceed to “educate” the natives by teaching them the “right” way to do things.
They tell the people that their beautiful naked bodies are to be covered with “modest” clothing and how to worship the God of the missionaries.
Anthropologists come to observe the natives’ ways of doing things, and with a spirit of admiration, they LEARN from the natives.
Anthropologists who come to learn and observe, live and sleep with the natives, the same way that the native do.
Even though I have not studied anthropology formally, I have read many of the fascinating accounts of anthropologists who have lived with tribal people all around the world.
Much like Alexandra David-Néel, (October 1868 – September 1969), who was a Belgian-French opera singer who became an explorer, a spiritual seeker, a Buddhist, and a writer who lived in Tibet while it was still a forbidden kingdom, I too count myself as an unaffiliated global anthropologist. Like her, I do not go around the world in order to just observe; I do so as a spiritual journey through the landscapes of our beautiful and fascinating planet.
I resigned myself to the basic living conditions and encouraged Jules, who normally is less adaptable than me, to do the same.
He took it in good spirits and we placed our small towels on the pillows and made sure not to use the blankets which clearly were NEVER washed.
The menu of the restaurant had some promise.
They offered only tourist-food, which in these parts of the world, mean chocolate banana pancakes, pre-packaged instant noodle soup, eggs, rice with vegetables, the Israeli Mallauach on fried or handmade pita.
We ordered a variety of dishes with the hope that some of them would be edible; most of them were not very good.
Still it was fun to sit among the backpackers and to listen to many of the conversations around us.
At times, we could not resist a chuckle at some of the unexamined ideas that many of those young people held.
For example, a conversations between an Italian man and two backpackers from England:
Italian man: “Do you eat a lot of fish and chips?”
English woman: “Not really, but I do sometimes.”
Italian man: “You shouldn’t!”
English woman: “Why, because it is full of calories and is unhealthy?”
Italian man: “No, it is because it is all made in China nowadays.”
English woman: “What do you mean? Many places use local fish.”
Italian man: “I don’t think so… But maybe, even if the fish is local, still they ship it to China to fillet it and return it to England to fry and serve as fish and chips.”
English woman: “That is crazy, why would they do that?”
Italian man: “Because it is cheaper!”
English woman: “You do realize that fish and chips cost only £5 right?
Italian man: “Trust me, it is cheaper to ship the local fish to China and fillet it, then ship it back to the UK! I KNOW what I am talking about!”
While we were eating, a local women came by, asking us if we wanted to get a massage in our room.
I thought that it would be fun and suggested that Jules try one.
The woman who came to massage Jules was a woman we had passed on our hike that afternoon.
She was then on her way to plant rice in the rice terraces.
It was already 8:30 in the evening and she had worked all day in the fields.
I gave her some rose and bergamot essential oils to massage Jules with, instead of the baby oil she had brought, and because she loved the smell so much, I poured most of what I had into one of her empty bottles to take home.
She told me she had three kids and that life in the mountains was very hard.
She tried to make an extra income from massages, but not many backpackers went for it.
They travel on a budget, or just do not think she was good enough as a massage therapist.
Untrained, she turned out to be a great massage therapist, and I agreed to get a massage also.
I asked her to concentrate on my back and legs, which were achy.
There, in the dark room with barely room for two single beds and a window, she told us about her life.
She told us she was born and lived in these mountains all her life, and that she has never left the region, not even to go to Manila.
She asked if I had any kids.
I said that I do not.
She said that in this region, you must have kids, so they will take care of you when you are old and unable to work in the fields any more.
The concept of making ANY money during a lifetime, is very rare, since they are used to just bartering rice or squash that they grow on the terraces, or wild bananas that they forage, for whatever they need in town.
After thinking awhile while working on Jules’ back muscles, she added that she believed that she must be kind to her children even when they are young, so they will stay with her and take care of her in her old days.
That reminded me of an account that I once read about missionaries who introduced the concept of the Ten Commandments to some tribal people.
In order to explain to them the concept of “ONE GOD,” they told them that God was like ‘Divine Oneness’ which encompasses all.
After hearing the Ten Commandments, two of the tribal woman said to themselves:
“That doesn’t sound right…..Why would Divine Oneness ask us to ‘honor your father and your mother’ when it is something that ALL people do naturally.
Children LOVE and HONOR their parents naturally….”
Lady number two answered: “Maybe Divine Oneness meant to say to the parents, ‘Do not treat your children badly or make them lose respect for you!… Yes….That sounds more correct…”
Back to Manilla, and on to Banaue
It was time to bid a very fond farewell to Dauin, and to prepare for the final leg of our introductory visit to the Philippines. We returned to Manila Friday early in the afternoon, but by the time we made it through city traffic and arrived at the H2O Hotel, it was already dinner time. The H2O Hotel is part of a complex that also houses the Manila Ocean Park, and its claim to local fame is that one wall of many of the rooms, the wall that would ordinarily be without windows, is part of the aquarium, so it has lots of tropical fish swimming freely in it!
We didn’t have much time to enjoy the fish, though, since we had to repack our backpacks and get some sleep. Our final Philippine adventure involved a nine hour drive north, to trek to and explore the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces of Banaue and Batad villages.
The drive was to start at four in the morning, so that we would arrive in Banaue by lunch time. Our driver, Eddie, was right on time, and so were we, thanks to a 3am wake-up call, even if we were a little bleary-eyed!
We really appreciated being able to take a private car for this trip, since the only other alternative was the public bus, which leaves at 10:00pm, and drives overnight, arriving in Banaue at seven in the morning.
A few years ago, we had heard that one of these buses had a mechanical failure in its braking or steering systems, and wound up at the bottom of a ditch, with quite a few injuries. In addition to being a very safe driver, Eddie was also pleasant and informative, good company for the long journey, with lots of interesting tidbits of info to share.
After we completed the first half of the drive, on the expressway, we started to climb through the mountains, on a winding two lane road. We passed through many small to mid-size villages along the way, whose residents were just beginning their days. Everywhere there were rice fields, with water buffaloes that are used to help with the hard farm work lounging before their days also began.
Just as in most of Asia, there is a vibrant community life on display in these villages, since residents of all ages live their lives as much outside of their houses as inside. The sense of community is reinforced by constant interaction with one another day to day. It’s so much more alive than in many parts of America, where people live indoors, in front of their televisions or their computers so much of the time, isolated from one another.
Up in these mountains, Internet and cellphone service are intermittent at best, so you don’t see too many people walking around glued to their phones!
We finally reached the town of Banaue, the gateway to the rice terraces, at about 2 pm.
At the entrance to the town, there is an arch welcoming visitors, and around it are sculptures carved from the black wood of the fern trees that we call Pongas in New Zealand.
The Ifugao tribes of people, who have lived in this area for thousands of years, have a very rich and creative culture, and woodcarving is just one of their many talents.
The Municipality of Banaue is one of the eleven (11) towns of Ifugao and one of the five (5) provinces of the Cordillera Administrative Region. It lies on the northern most part of Luzon island, surrounded by steep mountains up to about four thousand feet high.
The Ifugao people in this area began building stone terraces for the cultivation of rice at least four thousand years ago, and the gargantuan task of constructing these stone terraces took them about two thousand years to complete.
This whole area is so steep, that a system of terraces was really the only possible way to cultivate the land. The need for terraces was recognized by the Ifugao at a time when no tools or beasts of burden were available to help them in their construction. By hand, they removed all of the rocks from the mountainous soil and carved them into the size and shape they needed to make terraces. Then they carried each rock up the steep mountainside to place in the terrace they were building. No wonder this process took two thousand years to complete!
It is not surprising that the Banaue Rice Terraces are a Unesco World Heritage Site, a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines, and are considered to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World by many Filipinos. When the First Lady of the Philippines visited this area in 2002, she was so impressed by the Ifugao people and the terraces that she directed the national electric company to bring electricity to these small villages for the first time.
Before that, the Ifugao had been living with no electricity and only a very rudimentary sewage system.
We met Darwin, our local trekking guide, in the center of the town of Banaue. Eddie was going to stay in Banaue and wait for us to return, in two days’ time, to drive us back to Manila.
Darwin was considered to be one of the best and most experienced guides in the area, and his lighthearted manner made us immediately feel comfortable. “It’s not my tour,” he told us right after we met, “It’s your tour, so just relax and enjoy yourselves.”
Since Darwin was a member of the Ifugao people, I felt that he would be a great source of local tradition and customs.
We boarded our private, brightly painted jeepney for the ride partially up the mountain trail that would eventually take us to the tiny mountain village of Cambulo, our stop for the first night.
Cambulo and other mountain villages around it were until recently only accessible by hiking four or more hours from Banaue along narrow walking paths.
Life in these villages was almost completely self-contained, and a bartering system was used to swap locally grown produce for necessities such as salt and sugar.
A year’s worth of rice, cultivated here, was stored in the locals’ pyramid-shaped houses, raised almost two meters up off the ground to prevent infestation by rodents. These pyramids, with either thatched or aluminum roofs, looked to me just like large, bright tents from a distance.
There is a four year road building project here that is now in its second year. The original narrow dirt walking path has been widened, and Cambulo is now accessible by jeepney, which runs once daily in the morning from Banaue, and returns to Cambulo once daily in the late afternoon.
The path widening has produced a muddy, uneven path for us to walk, however, and just as we were starting out for the three hour walk to Cambulo, it began to rain. Darwin had a couple of thin plastic ponchos for us to put on, fortunately, and Tali carried a waterproof pack, while everything in my pack was wrapped in plastic bags. We slogged through, enjoying the occasional spectacular views of rice terraces, the quiet of the mountains, and the dense growth of flowering and fruiting trees all around us.
After about three hours of walking, we arrived at our guest house in the tiny village of Cambulo, a bit muddy, most definitely wet, but otherwise fine and in good spirits.
Darwin explained to us that Israeli backpackers have been one of the most frequent nationalities visiting this area since the 1980s, along with French and German trekkers.
The Israelis showed the local owners of the guest house we are staying at tonight how to make Israeli and global backpackers’ food, like pita bread with tomato and onion and banana pancakes, so there wasn’t much local food on the menu for us to try! In fact, most of the food was of the pre-packaged noodle variety, reflecting perhaps the very basic kitchens available to the cooks.
We sat in the dining area, along with half a dozen other backpackers from Europe, and enjoyed our simple fare. While we were eating, a local woman approached us and asked if we would be interested in a massage. After carrying my heavy backpack, I didn’t need much convincing! She came up to our very simple bedroom and gave me a surprisingly good massage, while telling Tali and me about her challenging life as a mother of four children in a very poor village environment.
She spoke about insects eating the rice which they farm in organic methods and do not spray, about birds or rats eating their rice in the fields and about living with no money.
Tali even decided to have a massage after mine was over, and her sighs of relief at having her sore calves and thighs worked on, led to a good night’s sleep for us both.
I love this kind of adventure, despite the very simple room and board, and lack of any shower other than a bucket.
It’s physically challenging, new and unexpected, and a great opportunity to mix with and learn from people from very different cultures.
I looked forward to the next day’s trek, from Cambulo to Batad, which would offer the most spectacular views of the rice terraces.