WHANG OD AND HER VIL­LAGE

Sun.Star Cebu - - NEWSPLUS - TEXT AND PHO­TOS BY JONA BRANZUELA BERING

Per­haps it is just me, but it is the women who are the most vis­i­ble and the strong­est in the vil­lage. They are every­where: by the win­dow, by the pa­tio light­ing to­bacco or chew­ing mama, by the com­mu­nal tap wash­ing clothes. Or if there are vis­i­tors, at Whang Od’s place.

Kanau, Whang Od’s sis­ter, made fun of Alex, who was only wear­ing a thin pair of un­der­pants. Her mismatched ear­rings—one tra­di­tional, the other a cheap trin­ket one could find just any­where—swayed as she laughed. The women’s au­dac­ity here seemed bound­less. Alex was em­bar­rassed for a mo­ment. Per­haps he was not ex­pect­ing such can­did­ness from the vil­lagers.

The women con­gre­gat­ing at Whang Od’s place ex­pect vis­i­tors to bring can­dies for ev­ery­one. Alex bought a pack of jelly ace from the vil­lage’s store and dis­trib­uted it to ev­ery­one, who in­stantly be­came young and play­ful. Whang Od was not an ex­cep­tion. Candy is their weak­ness.

Once their cu­rios­ity was filled, they went back home. There was talk that fuel for the mill had ar­rived. The same women car­ried sacks of stalks heavy with un­husked grains. They then hauled the bun­dles of rice in­side the ma­chine’s mouth. Maximo, the mill staff, was the only man there. It must have been a play­ful twist of fate that he hap­pened to be mute. I found it per­son­ally amus­ing that a mute man was sur­rounded by women, who could not, and would not, stop talk­ing and laugh­ing. But ev­ery­one seemed to un­der­stand him with his con­stant “ah, ah” point­ing

here and there.

A woman said the whole vil­lage owned the mill. They all con­trib­uted to the pur­chas­ing of fuel.

Ev­ery­thing here, it ap­pears to me, is com­mu­nal. Har­bor­ing se­crets—a char­ac­ter­is­tic I now as­so­ciate with cities—seems for­eign to them. By five in the morn­ing, I could hear the fa­mil­iar pound­ing of cof­fee beans. By six, one could knock on any­one’s door for a cup of freshly brewed cof­fee. Be­fore go­ing to bed, Whang Od her­self sifted the beans she would pound the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

Life of open­ness

Dur­ing my stay, I would sit at the stoop out­side her house, with a cup of hot cof­fee in hand, while ev­ery­thing look­ing dreamy, drowsy from a cold night’s sleep. The morn­ing sun soft­ened ev­ery­thing, start­ing from the top of the ranges, slowly crawl­ing over the laun­dry left hang­ing overnight.

Whang Od’s hogs would then squeal once they saw her com­ing. The pigs could roam any­where and were said to be fed on weed.

One time, dur­ing my walk, a woman was sort­ing dried leaves in front of her house. Chris, a Latino, said they were mar­i­juana. She asked if I would want a bun­dle. Just for ten pe­sos, she said. I po­litely de­clined.

If there is one thing that must be ex­pe­ri­enced here: it is the chew­ing of mama.

On our first night, Chris brought his tablet out and played a movie out­side the house for ev­ery­one. They all looked like they were in a trance, sit­ting al­most un­com­fort­ably on a pile of dos por dos wood, their faces glued to the small screen. The light emit­ting from the mon­i­tor played on ev­ery­one’s face, like a mi­rage of a movie it­self.

Ev­ery­one asked for another one, but the tablet’s bat­tery died. There was no elec­tric­ity in the neigh­bor­hood for a week or so al­ready. With ev­ery­one go­ing back to their lit­tle houses, we were left out­side Whang Od’s house, Kalinga’s chill­i­ness mak­ing me wrap my arms around my­self.

Ruel handed me a mama, a be­tel nut coiled in a leaf with a lit­tle lime pow­der in it. I chewed it slowly. “Lis­ten to your body.” The sen­sa­tion started with the over­work­ing of the sali­vary glands, then the warm­ing of my ears’ nerve-end­ings, then heat spread­ing through­out the body. It is the vil­lagers’ way of fight­ing the cold. Even in Baguio, a young hand­some Igorot who gave me tips on trav­el­ing to Banaue, had teeth stained from chew­ing mama.

It is a cul­ture unique to moun­tain­ous places. Some places like Sa­gada al­ready banned the spit­ting of mama in pub­lic places.

What is na­tive, what it is or­gan­i­cally au­then­tic, have to be hid­den from the pub­lic eye.

The dis­man­tling hap­pened on our sec­ond day. There is a cer­tain po­etry of loss in the dis­as­sem­bling of an Ifu­gao house. The most in­ti­mate, the in­ner­most must go first: the boxes of clothes, the sooty pots and pans, and the hearth— the heart of warmth on chilly Kalinga nights, the fam­ily it­self who lived here. Then the roof made of co­gon grass, and then the ceil­ing—stalks of an en­demic grass grow­ing in the sur­round­ing ranges that turned gold in the morn­ing and late af­ter­noon light: the very bam­boo-like stalk Whang Od used as the pomelo thorn’s holder. Then the wall—the three­foot-wide pine tree wood that does not ex­ist any­more. Then the floor that could be mis­taken as walls to the unini­ti­ated’s eye. Then, the feet—the foun­da­tion that has been rooted in this place for a cen­tury or so.

An Ifu­gao house comes with no nails: it is an as­sem­blage of fit­ting a piece of wood into another. The walls and floors have to be num­bered 1-23 for eas­ier re­assem­bling in the city that has al­ready given in to mass con­sump­tion long ago: Baguio.

The wood must come from huge, ma­ture trees. There are no mas­sive pine trees around here. The build­ing of a small Ifu­gao house re­quires some­thing big: from trees to strength used to carry the wood to this vil­lage. The un­build­ing of a small Ifu­gao house re­quires some­thing big: dis­heart­en­ment and the art of let­ting go.

I was in one cor­ner look­ing at two young boys look­ing at the men—must be their un­cles and rel­a­tives—at work: the only time of my stay I saw a lot of men in one place.

The young owner, al­ready a fa­ther and a hus­band, in­her­ited the house from his fa­ther, who must have in­her­ited it from his as well. Asked why he de­cided to sell his house, he said it was hard to main­tain. A con­crete one would be more con­ve­nient.

Up­rooted

Ruel was dis­gusted by the ban­ning of chew­ing and spit­ting out of mama in pub­lic places. He said it is the death of their very cul­ture.

The nephew’s wife asked if she could have my pants. I gladly gave them to her for all the trans­la­tion help she ex­tended. Whang Od’s sis­ter asked for the beanie I bought in Baguio, I de­clined. I still needed it for the long bus ride. For a mo­ment, she grum­bled. Two old men craft­ing in­door brooms un­der­neath a house asked if they could have Alex’s match­box. Alex, a chain smoker, said he would still need it. They mum­bled some­thing. I just smiled. Grace can­not ac­cept any more re­quests on Face­book: she has reached the 5000 limit al­ready. The al­bino cock­roach ran for cover af­ter ev­ery­thing had been up­rooted.

A cer­tain in­no­cence has been lost here. Bus­calan, I could tell, has been in a pe­riod of tran­si­tion for a while now. Some­where in the vil­lage, I found a

grave­stone: Born on June 6, 1967. Manuel Par-ong was died on July 23, 1998. Whang Od’s nephew’s dog is named Wade, af­ter his fa­vorite NBA player.

It is painful to see Bus­calan try­ing its best. For the wrong rea­sons, I am afraid.

Cus­tom dic­tates the slaugh­ter of a hog and com­mence­ment of a feast upon the up­root­ing of a na­tive house. Cel­e­bra­tions can cost an arm and a leg here.

But at that very mo­ment, when ev­ery­thing had been up­rooted and the meat had been eaten, I won­dered, what ex­actly were we cel­e­brat­ing? Was it life? Or was it the tri­umph of a cer­tain death?

Whang Od, the very rea­son this vil­lage is pop­u­lar to wan­der­ing souls who pur­sue the un­fa­mil­iar—it seems to me—is the only one who re­mains stub­born, or­ganic, rooted.

I even joked Whang Od I would buy one of her hogs, the one Alex called Matilda My Wife, Can I Have

You for Din­ner? af­ter a se­ries of bland boiled say­ote tops and beans. It costs P7000—a few thou­sand shy from the cost of my 10-day back­pack­ing trip across north­ern Lu­zon.

“We would have a fi­esta in the house if you reach a cen­ten­nial,” I dared.

“Make it three,” she coun­tered. With­out even cal­cu­lat­ing, I nod­ded. And she laughed. Whang Od laughed. *When not trav­el­ing, Jona Branzuela

Bering teaches, gar­dens, writes, and be­comes a slave to Hip and Car­bon, the cat roy­als. She is a plant thief and reader by mid­night. Fol­low her trav­els on In­sta­[email protected] trav­el­ingjonaor on her blog Back­pack­ing With a Book. For col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­quiries, one may email back­pack­ing­with­a­[email protected]

SIESTA. Af­ter lunch, the kids are ready to take a nap be­fore they re­sume play­ing. RICE GRAINS. Bus­calan peo­ple grow rice and ei­ther mill the har­vest or pound it man­u­ally. A RIDE WITH A VIEW. On the top of the bus, pas­sen­gers are re­warded with the sight...

PRE­PAR­ING COF­FEE. At Bus­calan, lo­cals like this woman pound and pre­pare their own cof­fee early in the morn­ing. COF­FEE ROAST­ING. It seems like Whang Od does most house­hold chores like cook­ing and roast­ing cof­fee beans while her sib­lings tend to the...

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