The Treacherous and the Beautiful: North to Mountain Province

Trees in Sagada at dusk

Trees in Sagada at dusk

When coming from the known to the foreign, it's always an easy and pleasurable submission.  Originating from the adulterated hybrid of dream and curiosity, we draw our bodies closer. A siren song. Blood from the needle. What is this question mark of a lover? Let me see where bone is hard, the skin is thin, and I flow in and out of your heart like water. Pretend you've never heard the word pain. I want to remember forever.

The northern territory of Luzon, the largest and most populous island of the Philippines, known as Mountain Province is not the first place in the world I was fearless to visit, when it deserved more than it's fair share of anxiety. But this is the often the case of beauty in humans and in nature. After excitement, there may be tears, or sweat. The more of both, the deeper the spell. 

Rice terraces in-between Ifugao and Igorot territories

Rice terraces in-between Ifugao and Igorot territories

It was only in the resort luxury of marbled and air conditioned Makati, back in the low lands of Manila, after my frenetic and passionate recant, typical of a disapora member returned home, that I learned that all these mountains and rivers without end are rarely seen by Filipinos who aren't native to the Cordilleras. Poor road conditions and dodgy infrastructure preserve Mountain Province in myths of beauty. It remains, somewhere over the rainbow where the air is clean, the wood is dark and strong, and head hunting trophies can still be found. Mostly, visitors are Western foreigners who don't know all the fearful local lore. It's true. I knew more about the UNESCO World Heritage accolades of the rice terraces and the curious spiritual tradition of the Sagada hanging coffins than comprehending that the rock slides that inched our truck perilously close to edge of cliffs weren't just normal, they also just normally push buses and trucks into ravines hundreds of miles down the mountain. I just trusted the road. I even trusted that all the boulders coming down knew what they were doing. Like when I was 22 years old, equal parts scared and excited, zip lining through Costa Rican tree tops, I thought to myself well if it happens, it's a fall from grace...

Our guide, Jun, an Ifugao man, who wore a necklace made of ruby colored tree sap, noted that the difficulty of traveling to Mountain Province is what protected his people and their culture from the conquistadors. This same difficulty is what protected the Quechua of Peru from conquest. In contrast to the social racket of Manila, that sometimes feels more Miami than Southeast Asia, the Igorot and Ifugao people I met were rooted in their customs like the nara trees that grow all over their mountains, which they cut and carve with a craftsman's touch that can only be passed down through generations. Within them was a cool confidence borne from isolation, free from the violence of foreign oppression, and the subsequent mad race to Westernization found elsewhere in the Philippines. Interestingly, the natural way of life in the Mountain Province, particularly in the consumption of whole organic foods and the mindful relationship with nature (there are controls to the cutting down of trees for instance), is an aspirational path growing in the West. 

A traditional Ifugao home in the foreground of this Banaue skyline

A traditional Ifugao home in the foreground of this Banaue skyline

I recently heard that Mountain Province is a place where other people in Asia sometimes head to "cool down" during the hot and dry season. I understand that. Thousands of miles away, quiet and still, I can recall the cool breeze over the mountains, trees, and rice. A protected place.