Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kalinga By Foot

Sunlight peered over our window pane as it kissed the ridge opposite us. Rice, steamed river ferns, and brewed barako coffee greeted us in the morning. Breakfast could not have been more nourishing to body and soul. Here in the Philippines, food is everything. In Indigenous Kalinga, Westernized Manila or on a scarcely populated island, food is language, life, and love. For the Barangay Captain to not have food for his unexpected guests would send a message of contempt. It pained him that he had nothing more to offer, but we couldn't have felt more blessed. 

Morning revealed that our final resting place for the night was one of a row of houses hanging over a sheer cliff. If I could look through the floor where we slept, we would've seen where our cliff met the Chico River in the gorge far below. After breakfast, the locals encouraged me to wait for my kin, a Californian who resided two doors down from us, but we didn't have hours to wait for her to return from her week-long hiatus from home. Hours can quickly turn to days in a land where the only things you can count on are family, home, and food. Leave those behind, and you'll find that the land has its own time -- immutable and inescapable. 

As a trio, Dominika, Piotrek, and I determined to hitchhike the rest of the way to the town of Balbalan. After all, the journey is the experience. The destination is, well, incentive to journey. Balbalan is the jump off for the infamous road linking Kalinga and Abra, the two most wild provinces in the Cordillera Mountains. 

Very few vehicles exist as far north as we had traveled. The only gasoline was in Bontoc, long behind us. A short ride left us in a small town several kilometres down the road, where we were lucky to flag down a new pickup headed our way. 

The driver wasn't a talker, mostly because he was insecure about his English. He also seemed very serious or static though he was plenty nice. We did ascertain that he was the driver for the Mayor of Balbalasan, which is rooted at the junction for routes east, west, and south. 

Driving is excruciatingly slow on these routes cut into the sides of steep mountains. They would make better horse trails than roads. Boulders, plants, mud, and gravel make 4WD essential to passage. We approached Balbalasan in the late afternoon, when the ridge to the west was silhouetted on the opposite side of the valley. It was the most beautiful view I have ever seen. A tear escaped from sheer awe. The two ridges met far in the distance, angular greens sprinkled with sparkling rice terraces and tin rooftops. I was happy I didn't have a camera if only because a photograph would be an insult to the grandeur and memory of that place. 

Though he hadn't said much the whole way, our driver insisted we pass by the junction for our road and visit the Mayor. Though eager to move on and find a campsite, we obliged. We had ridden in the mayor's car after all. We pulled up to Municipal Hall, which was buzzing with activity. People coming and going, we waited outside his office until he finished a conversation. All genuine smiles and masculine action, he welcomed us in and before we could speak a word showed us to the food. We were the first to fill our plates with pandit noodles, a condensed milk jello, and a local mascobado sticky rice, all astoundingly good. The occasion? We arrived in time to kick off the office celebration of a clerk's marriage the day before. 

Once everyone had shovelled down a few mouthfuls, there was air to tell stories. We explained how we had come to arrive in his office at such a strange hour, where we were from, where we were headed. I spoke mostly with the mayor himself, projecting endless gratitude. Small talk, names, and stories quickly led to exchange of names and family history. When he heard my name, he said, short and sweet, "I'm your uncle." "What?" "You have an uncle named Victorino in Tabuk City [a distant relative I knew existed to the east but didn't have the time to visit]. He and I are fourth cousins, but we grew up as brothers." My jaw fell agape at the bizarreness of the world. I was in Kalinga to be as far away from technology and familiarity as possible, and here was related to the Mayor, our beneficiary, and brother to the Governor of Kalinga Province (who must also be a far-removed uncle). His English was better than any I've heard since from native Filipinos. He was down to earth, honest, and composed -- a living contradiction to the bumbling, dishonest weirdos who usually find themselves in such an office here. Conversation was smooth and frank. He was impressed the fact that I had gone so deep into the Philippines. 
The Kalinga-Abra Road
In the midst of the chaos, he had somehow arranged a ride for us aways along the Kalinga-Abra Road. A crew from the Muni Hall were headed to his brother, the governor's rest home by the river where they would hunt for crawfish in the night. Crawfish are very hard to see during the day but their eyes sparkle like diamonds under flashlights in the night. We passed hissing waterfalls and heard honking hornbills from the bed of the pickup that bounced us along. Our mutual destination was shrouded beneath the shadow of a new moon that had been black for hours when we arrived. We slept on the wooden floor of that nearly vacant, beautiful home and woke at 3am to begin the trek over the next portion of road. 

Sunrise from the Kalinga-Abra Rd
Privincial Boundary
We would have been lucky to see any sort of vehicle pass our way in a week, and we had to walk fast to catch the jeep down the mountain in the town on the other side. We had to walk fast in the dark, early morning because that festive pressure, that looming deadline called Christmas shone upon our all-too-near future. Time was budgeted to be barely enough for our plans. Even though we moved quickly with heavy packs on our backs, we weren't going to have time to catch jeep. So I cruised ahead and walked the rest of the way solo to catch the jeep.
View from the Ridge
Simply gorgeous, crossing the provincial border between Kalinga and Abra at the peak of the ridgeline. I was happy to be moving alone but I grew tired by the end. That morning we walked 25-30km at break-neck (walking) speed through some of Asia's most untouched and beautiful country so that we could appease the Christmas spirits. And… 
We missed the jeep. But we were met at our destination town and we were given free lunch of noodles at a restaurant that likes to take care of travellers who came from the mountains. We were blissfully thankful for the food and we gulped it all down with finality. We took showers and chatted with an ex-professor about mines and other resource extraction policies in the Philippines. He knew of my uncle Danilo in Baguio because they taught at the same university for a time. He was visiting family for the holidays but needed to head back to the city for work. Finally, a cement truck was taking off for the lowlands and we hopped on. 

Cement Truck Bus
I've done my share of hitchhiking, but never have I hitched with a cement truck. Piotrek and I stood hanging onto the sides or sat on the steps to the top when vegetation wasn't too low. Dominika sat in the cab. Only a kilometer down the road, we had to pull over to fix a rubber tube that had popped off behind the truck engine. Up and rolling 30 mins later, only to have a tire explode from underneath me. A quick stop to see it was only one of five tires on my side. Later, another blew on Piotr's side, and yet another on my side. Three tires left out of ten, and a worker hanging out the passenger cab to hold the tube in place, and we were still rolling down the mountain at a brisk pace. The heat grew excruciating as we descended, and we knew we were near our final stop when the road metamorphosed from ludicrous to paved in an instant. 
The three of us were a little worse for the wear by the end of the 3-hour journey down. Dominika was roasting, fumigated in the cab with three chiseled labourers who occasionally glanced sideways to get a look at the pretty white girl. The balls of my feet were badly bruised, I was scraped up by vegetation, and burnt to a crisp by the sun. Piotr was in similar condition. Our headaches demanded silence, clean air, and a cool breeze. Instead, we had to disembark near the downtown of a hot, bustling city close to the coast. Slowly, we built the energy to look for food, water, and solace. We hopped a bus headed farther west and had it drop us near a beach to camp. 

Thirsty, tired, and hungry, Piotrek savored a dip in the ocean, and Dominika and I rested in the sand. Some locals blessed us with full water bottles, a warm gift from a small, poor fishing outpost. We worked our way down the beach to a less populated area, set up camp, and started a fire. Hot dinner, stories, and early sleep under the stars were the order of the day. We had arrived at the coast more or less on time and dazed by the sudden major change of scenery from the cool, quiet mountains to the hot, busy lowlands. Only four days to Christmas...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kalinga: Dreamy. Isolated. Wild.

Where can I start about Kalinga? Dominika, Piotrek, and I finally left Russell and Sabangan behind us and journeyed north. The plan was to make it up to the northern tip of Luzon in a few days and make it back down to Aringay in time for Christmas. We set off and caught a jeep up to Bontoc, where we stayed only long enough to get some produce and leave. We waited on the edge of town and hitched a few kilometers north on a dump truck. Then we set to walking. Most people don't realize that hitchhiking in most areas of the world involves a hell of a lot of walking. That goes for pretty much everywhere except freeways in North America, where you're not allowed to walk, and where even the most petit, female hitchhiker with a genuine smile is thought more likely an axe murderer than not. In the mountains, people are always in need of a ride since a passing vehicle of any kind is scarce. The more isolated the province, the more catching a ride (or giving one for free) is part of life.

We walked for several hours, enjoying the scenery, and hoping for another ride. When we were tired and hot, we stopped in some shade just outside a very small village, less than a handful of buildings near the road, a bus whizzed by before we even had the chance to turn. It was packed full, but followed by a small car, which stopped and picked us up. The driver told us of the village several kilometers off the main road he was anxious to get to before dark, to avoid getting lost. The last stage of his journey was a long walk. So he raced against the sun with us huddled throughout the car, Piotr not realizing that unimportant pestering questions weren't the antidote to a stressful time crunch for a man with all of our lives in his hands. So we listened to hard rock and he slipped into a comfortable zone whenever conversation was quiet. He told us along the line his destination was home to a famous tattoo artist and a tribe of ex-headhunters. There were anthropologists with the tribe, and many a celebrity had gone to her to receive authentic, native tattoos from this woman. She must be many times more wealthy than me at this point, judging from the prices he listed off.

Just up the road from his turn-off was a battered old hut, with a flat path out along a steep ridgeline covered only in grasses. We walked the length of it, about 200m, and set up camp at the end. We cooked our veggies and rice, pigged out, and enjoyed the silence and the breeze. Down in the valley opposite us was a village, charming in the limited number of lights that turned passageways and open spaces into barely discernible ghosts. Piotrek noticed flashlights crossing a bridge from the village down in the valley. It was after dark by the time we had finished cooking, and the fire blazed a while longer as we get ready to turn in. Just before we were all asleep, we were awoken by those same flashlights, aggressive questions and stern commands all in a dialect that was obviously not Filipino, Tagalog, or any other Philippine dialect I'd heard thusfar.

They stormed our little camp, and after half a minute of yelling, the first man into our camp shouted back,"Tourists". I saw rifles pointed at us, guns at the ready. I glanced down at the knife lashed to my belt and without a second thought, subtly unsheathed and stashed it under my sleeping mat as I stood up, deliberately awkwardly, feigning grogginess, senses actually at full alert. The kind of moment when I thrive...

Flashlights blinding the eyes, three seconds to sort priorities, make plans and act. Disarm hostility, respond with subordinate posture and reassurance to my friends in response to hostility, and tell them to roll down the hillside with me if it came to guns. More loud indiscernible chattering and then the youngest of them all approached us with purpose. In slow, measured English, he started and stumbled over himself, asking me, "Who are, oowhere are u...?" Before he could finish, two new guys flashed their lights in our eyes, yelling, "What you doing!? Who are u!?"  It was obvious we were a couple of tourists, but everybody was caught up in the adrenaline and trying to do their jobs, impress their leader, their families down in the valley, etc... Testosterone spraying the mountaintop. Calming overtense law enforcers is slowly becoming a specialty. Wish I was as good at arousing women as calming egotistical men. With a smile on my face and open body language, palms out, open, relaxed stance, hiding my tip-toe readiness, I said slowly, "Maggandang gabi, ako si David." (Good evening, my name is David). Attention fully drawn away from my startled companions crawling from their tents, one asked me, "You speak Tagalog?" "Conti lang, po." (Only a little bit sir.)

I apologized profusely with lots of smiles and laughs like we were all old pals, "We only sleep here tonight. Didn't mean to scare the village... How long did it take you to get up here?" I had directed my attention only to the young English-miming ambassador, the only calm one among them. He always returned my smiles. He said something that got passed back along the growing line of men who lowered their weapons one by one. My friend said, "We saw a fire from the village. Thought it was NPA." National People's Army is known to hide high in the hills and come down to steal necessities or money from villages to fund their armed Communist insurgency (resistance really) against a corrupt, rightist central government. Usually wearing only slightly more weathered camoflauge clothes than these Philippine National Pulis, they've never once in their 40-year history harmed a tourist. A man from the back, obviously the oldest and a privileged leader, clambered up through the ranks along the small path. I had counted at least 15 flashlights. Not good odds, but the leader came up and looked into my cautiously smiling face and asked with slightly better English, "Who are you? Where are you from?"

Back to those original questions eh? Someone needs to make a T-shirt asking the same basic questions all Filipinos ask to start a conversation, and have the answers on their backs so they can just turn around. But that would take the fun of conversation away from them, or the fun of flirting. Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you have children? Are you married? How young are you? What do you do? Where in your country are you from? How do you like the Philippines?

"My name is David. This is Piotrek and Dominika." As I said their names, I actually thought, better to start with the man, lest their attentions get uncomfortably twisted into reversing patriarchy. Also better to keep thoughts off the woman, just in case. "I am from California, they are from Po-land." Enunciation in the right accent is the key to making English, their umpteenth language learned, a little easier to understand. "Where in California?" Here we go... I gave the short versions of our stories, and by the time I had the leader laughing in a friendly way, the others had lowered their weapons to their least threatening positions. My eyes looked at the leader, but I watched all the others more closely. Eventually we got to the point.

"Is it okay for us to sleep here tonight?" I knew exactly the thoughts in his head as he hesitated. You could, but just to make sure they know I'm doing my job, when we get so little action here, I'll bring you into town. "No, it's not safe here. There are NPA around. It's better if you follow us." More chattering, the leader disappeared, my young friend translating, "We take you down to Barangay." The men didn't wait for us to pack up, they picked up the loose pieces of our camp faster than I could scramble to get them packed up in our packs. Four different men held some small piece of our camp. I watched them all closely to make sure I didn't somehow "forget" anything.

As we walked, the honesty, simplicity, and strength of the men became more and more apparent. Igorot are truly strong people. On the road up to Sagada, I had passed a very official and clean sign that read, "-Caution- Strong Igorot at Work." I laughed out loud at the simple truth of it. I had seen Igorot children lift and carry heavier loads than I myself could carry at peak strength. Physical and cultural strength is written into their genes. Men behind, men in front, constantly shifting positions surrounding us, but my young friend never leaving my side. We chatted amiably. Through my nerves and attention, I humored him in his English practice, and marvelled at how good he was, even growing up out here as he had, I learned.

I knew they were going to take us to the Barangay Captain or the mayor first, to show how well they had performed their task. They deserved their keep. I assured them throughout that "You boys do a really great job here. Your village must feel very lucky and safe to have guardians like you." I know for a fact that every PNP soldier has a tattoo on the right shoulder of a triangle of smaller words encircling the word, "Guardians". Turns out there was no mayor, only a Barangay Captain. Groggy eyes, a puzzling look, the Barangay Captain exchanged unintelligible words with our leader, a friendly handshake, and gave a firm pat on the Guardians tattoo hidden beneath a "camouflaged" shell. Job well done. We checked that we had all of out things, bid farewell to our overanxious, thankfully not trigger-happy, neighborhood watch, and we filed into his home. He asked us the same barrage of usual questions. We recited our answers. He re-explained the situation we already understood. He offered us water when we were already loaded full. We laid out our mats and slept on the tile floor of his home, happy it was over but unable to get a full night's sleep no matter what we did.

In the morning, the captain's helpers served us a vegetable-rice breakfast and baraka coffee (boiling water poured over coffee grounds in a cup). We marveled at the view and precarious placement of this building handing over a cliff, said goodbye, and were happy to walk out of town. An hour later we were picked up by a small truck headed a few kilometers north, from where we walked and then waited again for several hours in the shade. The next car to pass was a brand new Nissan pickup truck. The driver hardly talked, his English was very poor, but when we said we were headed to Balbalan, he pointed to an ID card hanging from his rear-view mirror. Office of the Mayor, Balbalasan. We knew Balbalasan was the town at the fork to the road we were aiming for, and we couldn't believe our luck. It took longer to get to where we headed than we expected. We could see the sizeable town of Balbalasan in the distance paling in comparison to the mountains around it. Late afternoon sunlight shone through clouds, the shadows revealing the shapes of the hills. It was by far the most awe-inspiring and beautiful sight I had ever seen. Wished I had a camera for a second, but was soon glad I didn't have a dead, poor image to diffuse my lively memory of the vastness of it.

Later, we passed the turnoff to the road, and we asked to go back but the driver insisted we speak to the mayor. Only fair, I thought. We did ride in his truck all this way. Least we could do is say hi. It took a while to get to the mayor himself. When the staff realized the situation, who we were, where we were headed, and how we'd gotten there, we were shuffled inside. There was a celebration for a staff member who had married the day before. We we the first to partake of pancit, pink coconut-agar-agar jello, and a local sticky rice dessert with Muscobado crusted around the edges. We ate heartily and thankfully, and eventually got to talk to the mayor. We told him our story, where we were going and where we were from. He heard my surname and said immediately, "We're cousins." "Really???" "You're related to Victorino in Tabuk right?" His English was better than any I had heard in Manila or almost anywhere else. "Yes! I was sorry I couldn't try to find him!" "Well, he's my fourth cousin, but we know each other like brothers." "Wow! You're kidding me!" "Nope. You must be related to that Cacanindin who married an American right?" "A Canadian, actually, but yeah!" "So what do you do?" That launched us into all the specifics of our relations, my work, my family's work. I gave him my father's card because he was curious. I learned all about how he had come to this office, by default, and how he didn't like it as much as working with his hands in poor neighborhoods in the area. He thought I was lying, getting two bachelor's degrees at the same time. Doesn't happen and doesn't sound possible according to educational rules here. I'm sure someone's done it though. After a rapid discussion of mutual histories, he said, "You better hurry, there's a group of guys waiting for you downstairs. They're going night fishing for catfish and crayfish, and they're following the road you're following." I wolfed down a bite that was too big to allow a quick answer. "Wow. Really? Okay." I told my companions who were keeping the new bride company about our ride. I briefly remembered a workmate from Tajikistan who took the job we did just to get better at English. He would make fun of American English by saying 'wow', 'really', and 'okay' in overabundance and with exaggerated tones. Miss that kid. Smart as could be and at times a real riot.

We gulped the last of our food, gave our thanks and farewells, and rushed down to the waiting men. We jumped in the back of the pickup and went along for the ride. The sun was setting on the reason for our journey here: the Kalinga-Abra road. A rugged connection between the west coast province of Abra and Kalinga in the mountains. It was famed for its impassibility and beauty. Waterfalls, mist, green, moss, and rocks were around every corner. The setting sun made it all the more beautiful. Our butts hurt after five minutes on the rough road and were well bruised after two hours. We arrived at the governor's pleasure house, a fine wood cabin by the river's edge where the men would fish, and where we would sleep. Turned out the Vice Governor of Kalinga province was the mayor's brother; and thus, also my cousin. Only a caretaker that night though, a special Christmas party in Baguio had drawn the governor out from his secluded Kalinga den. We slept on the wood floor, timing our sleep for we knew the next day was going to be a long and rough one on the road we had come for.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sabangan: For Love of Bananas

Sabangan Village and the valley that cares for her.

Sabangan basically means bananaphile, a town of banana lovers. Not too many bananas there though. From the road, I climbed stairs up a hill, and then again to the second floor of a building. Russell had explained earlier how his furniture was made from trash. I was excited to see his place, but I was still unprepared for what I saw as I entered Russell's home. Beautiful, bright and colorful chalk murals made cement walls inviting, gorgeous hardwood covered most of the bedroom and living room floors and walls, and Spanish-style iron ornamented the windows and the door to the balcony looking over all of Sabangan and the valley below. There was a huge comfy rug made from drinking straws. Pillows from rice/flour sacks filled with small plastic bits. Waves on the walls from colorful plastic bags, light fixtures, shelves, tables, and stands from plastic or glass bottles. The kitchen sink was bottle caps. Pretty much only the toilet, the dining table, and the beds were the only fixtures not made from trash. The combination of the energy, tranquility and colors of it all put mind and body at peace.

This beautiful place was the setting for equally beautiful memories with Russell, Dominika, and Piotr. Our first of many adventures was dinner. All of us used to flavors from outside the Philippines, we had a blast throwing together what we could from local ingredients. Peanut sauces, coconut curries, spaghetti with Pace salsa-like sauce (lol), stir fries, raisin-coconut rice puddings, Igorot flatcakes (courtesy of Macky from Guina'ang), hash browns, Mandarin Orange Hollandaise, local coffee with various Mascobado (pure, unadulterated sugar).

Stir fry, sesame seeds, and friends

Bottle skylight over bottle and can shelves
If you think brown sugar or "Sugar in the Raw" is sugar, you have another thing coming. Try Muscobado (Muscovado). It's very powdery, has all of the good stuff, and has such a rich layerings of flavor, it's better than the world's best candy or ice cream. Yet it's the cheapest way to find sugar when you're around sugar plantations. Non-processed, just dehydrated I guess. I ate the stuff by the spoonful. I'm an admitted sugar/chocolate addict. One time in Negros I bought a half-kilo of Muscobado super cheap. I ate the whole thing in two days. I was on a two-day sugar high with no major crash, just ecstasy. I figured my neverending exercise through my travels would keep me from being diabetic, and let the craving take over. There are apparently two varieties too. In Sabangan, there's an abundance of "white" sugar cane, which produces a powdery Muscobado of various shades of brown. Then there's "violet" sugar cane, which produces a sticky, clumpy, brown Muscobado with a hint of purple pigment. It has a flowery flavor with many different layers, and it's somehow even more fulfilling so you don't keep bringing spoons of the stuff to your mouth. If "white" sugar is like Earl Grey tea, "violet" is like Rooibos tea.
Bags from wrappers and magazines, placemat from wrappers, and floor
rug from drinking straws
The first few days, Dominika and Piotrek were still in Guina'ang, so Russell and I were in his house in Sabangan alone. Between full, often collaborative meal creations, we caught up with work on the internet, chatted and shared music, and went for walks around the village. We met with some of the local craftswomen to give ideas and swap materials for bags made from labels and junkfood bags. Local weavers make the straps for larger bags, and when the bags are complete, Russell and I squeeze the bags into boxes to be shipped abroad to an assistant who helps distribute them to fair trade shops.

Kitchen shelves, the first experiment
Once the ball was rolling with these bags, Russell realized that it was helping to mitigate damage, but not helping reverse any environmental degradation. So, he has been experimenting with different solar chargers and lights and such that can be worked into the bags, most of which is also made from trash. If someone charges their phone or camera or tablet just by solar panel, it's taking a step to reverse damage caused by traditional electrical generation. He was also experimenting with Piezoelectric crystals, which generate electricity simply by snapping it from one side to the other, like a playing card in bicycle spokes. Walking is enough to generate electricity enough to charge various batteries. Like a child with a new toy, I was fascinated and trying to figure out the wiring and such, since even the circuit was a repurposed USB charger. Mostly, the time spent at Russell's was long-needed rest.

Feminine touch
Russell is one of those people you're thrilled to have met. The kind of person who makes you remember yourself or rethink yourself, depending on what you need. His first big adventure was selling of his things in the Yukon, and spending a year building a music playlist on the original ipod. Then one day he hit shuffle, sat on his bicycle packed with his last few belongings, and rolled out of his hometown. He cycled from Northwestern Canada all the way to Berlin (with a flight over the Atlantic). The journey itself was an adventure in itself, but his beginnings in Berlin as a nascent artists were equally adventurous and bordering on predestined. Later, he lived in the Gaza Strip, he lived in Holland, and a few other places.

Bulaklak ng Saging (banana blossom)
Russell's not particularly religious. He went through a time of frustration with Christianity and religion in general, and now he believes in a God closest to the Christian God, whom he prays to and worships in his own way. We start every meal with a simple prayer. His is essentially, "Dear God or whatever energy process brought this wonderful food to our table. With it, may we spread light and love to everyone we meet." I can't get it out of my head, such a beautiful way to approach our living world and time on this Earth. Perhaps philosophers become hippies when they stop seeming apathetic and begin to project empathy. I wouldn't classify either of us as hippies, but there are many who would.

View from Russell's balcony, and me cycling away down the winding road
Just before Piotrek and Dominika arrived from Guina'ang, I took a trip up to the famed Sagada. It's a place of wide reputation for free love, cool air, good food, and cheap dope. I took the less hippy, more adventurous route through town. Russell lent me his mountain bike. It's the first bike I've ever ridden that I can say fit my body, though it's a hint too small for Russell, the tall, lanky, giant (who wouldn't hurt even a mosquito). I rode the bicycle more than 20km from Sabangan along the highway and up the very steep, winding road to Sagada. There were plenty of places where even the lowest gear was too difficult to keep the bike moving upwards, so walk it I did. At the top I rolled leisurely into town, letting my legs rest from what I thought was a pretty quick pace up the mountainous slope.

Solar water heating
Rice terraces between Sabangan and Sagada
Russell lived in Sagada for a year before moving to Sabangan. Sagada has recently become more touristy as Manila "weekend warriors" found they could spend their days off beyond Baguio (the first of the mountain towns to lose some of its charm to development). There's still lots for Sagada to be proud of though. It's a place of collaboration. Artists and weavers and strawberry jam and cheap carrots and a Yogurt House and a famous cave system are all collaborative projects, rather than exploitation or simple business. For example, a French chef and baker landed in Sagada 15 years ago and never left. Now many of the locals can make top-notch French loaves (savory or sweet), and cook with European influences. He runs a log cabin with accommodation and weekend buffets, where he takes local ingredients and makes dishes from all over the world out of them.

Sunset over Sabangan
I checked out some of the highlights and did some errands for Russell, and headed for the cave system to see if I could join up with one of the last groups of the day to do the 4-hour trek through the caves, coming out farther uphill. Good information was hard to come by that day, so I didn't catch the last group, but I had a great time exploring the cave by myself, meditating, and chatting with Josie, the shop owner of the "Caveman". Perched at the end of the cave connection, this quirky shop is owned by a distant cousin of mine! A descendant of Tupelo Cacanindin. She even lived for almost a decade near where I went to university in Los Angeles. She was the person who taught me the difference between the two sugar can species, and I bought some "violet" Muscobado for Russell and I to try. Everyone in Sagada had known Russell, and murals and shop signs he had painted were everywhere. Eventually I made my way towards the back door to Sagada.

Russell had told me there was a path that was meant to be a road originally but that was barely passable by mountain bike. It led down out of Sagada towards the main highway, but rather than a windy, paved road lined with blaring buses, big towns, and construction workers everywhere, this road was unpaved, nearly unpopulated, and one of the most scenic places I had ever seen. Each turn held different smells, sights, and sounds. Limestone formations cut by trickling water falls invited me to partake of the richness of cold mountain spring water. I passed lizards and skinks on the path, pine trees gave way to ferns and banana trees, and there were distant rice terraces without a hut in sight. Cool mist nestled into the nook of one draw became a cool breeze at the next corner. Birds chirped and sang, or were silent, matching the silence of the landscape. There were pocked limestone obstacles that were too much for a mountain to pass, and I cut a wide detour around formidable mudholes with the bike on my shoulders. Only a few times did the bike threaten to wobble out from under me as I negotiated gravel and loose rocks, realizing that precariously higher speeds were the best way through some sections.

Colors foreshadow events to come...
I was tempted to take my time even more than I was, but I knew I had to get down before dark. Even though sunset is longest in the mountains, I felt I was pushing my luck. The only town on the back road was Balili, which had just let out of school when I passed through. At the town center, brief, simple conversations with parents and elders about the mines in the area interrupted long stretches of giggles and hellos from the children racing the sun home. Children walk long distances to and from school in the mountains, and I wondered if I would have preferred to head uphill before or after school. One thing I feel good at is putting myself in the shoes of someone who is totally different from me. With minimal information about someone and with a little imagination, I can find myself facing the same priorities and fears and challenges that make up the majority of a person. It's the fine details that historically lead to clashes between people. An empathy that finds the similarities rather than the differences between people leads one to realize, people are just people. We're not all that different. In a subway in NYC or Philippine jungle village, people don't seem all that different to me.

I made it back to town just as the sky bid its final farewell to the sun, and the celestial paint splatters previously hidden by the luminescence of the sun peered down in all their humility and timelessness. I stopped at the shops by the bridge for a rest before the final climb to Russell's house chatting with the Alice, woman who owns the shop that sells some of the best hopia in the Philippines. Turns out, Russell was late for a meeting with her concerning woven wrapper bags, so I waited with her and chatted until Russell showed up. We ate dinner demonstrated how to write and silicon the new labels to the inside of each bag, wolfed down some food, and walked back up the hill. Admiring the beautiful moon as it moved or we moved or both, content that there's nothing more beautiful or fulfilling than losing yourself in a natural beauty more profound than anything going on in your own life... Another fantastic dinner and a long, restful sleep.

Chatting with Jun, Heifer Int'l Regional Director
In the morning, there was a gathering happening down near the rice fields. I have done extensive research on International Aid Theory and Praxis, and Heifer International was one of the very few organizations I found from a distance to be doing more good than bad. In all organizations, small and large... of the world. Heifer allows donors to buy a particular animal for a community deemed to be poor by a combination of government data and visit to the community. Philippine data is poor at best. With anything. Because the terrain, communities, and infrastructure are so erratic. The animal could be a chicken, a duck, a rabbit, a goat, a sheep, a cow, a pig, or even something specific to a particular locale. The recipient receives the gift on the condition that they must share whatever milk, or eggs, or offspring, or meat (in the end) that the animal produces. The gifts are timed such that gestation will yield offspring at an optimal time to take full advantage of the animal. The annual "distribution" was happening that morning.

Since the time I had conducted the majority of the Int'l NGO research, I had become a Vegan and an animal liberationist. But I still wasn't entirely opposed to the idea that animals could help save human lives and lead to vibrant cultures. In Guina'ang the week before, and in many other communities I had passed through in my time in the Philippines had helped mold my opinions concerning animals here. And yet, I was excited to see this organization in action. It was, after all, supposed to be efficacious and truly humanitarian. As I conversed with the organization representatives, I was heartened to learn that every one of them was born and raised in the province in which animals were given. I learned about the broader logistics and interactions with different provinces, government bodies, and the Catholic Church. I determined how communities were deemed poor, how a particular animal was chosen for a community, and how follow-up studies as to the effects of the animals on the community are rare if not non-existent. In the end, I was as disheartened with Heifer as with all of the other NGOs I had researched.

The richest communities in my mind are those that are most independent of the central government, the places where various, nutritional, and clean food and water is readily available, building materials are easy to find in nature, and a strong communal/familial bond is present. They are places that live happily and healthily and usually have some sort of exportable resources that allows for enough income that the people can afford tools, special materials, treats, transportation, and savings. Poverty is defined by Heifer, the Philippine Central Government, and the Global Economy as GDP. Gross Domestic Product is characterized by per capita earnings, or the amount of money each person in a given group of people is able to earn, which is weighed against global units of value (the US dollar, the Euro, the yen, all floating around on an abstracted, intangible value themselves). The Catholic Church has a similar program as Heifer, and they act in exactly the same manner. The communities with the lowest GDP are given pigs, because pigs are part of the national cuisine.

Distributors and recipients together
Local cultures, especially those high in the mountains and farthest away from colonial powers of the last 500 years, were based on completely different human-plant/-animal relationships than the more influenced lowlands. Throwing pigs into a community that never knew them, even if they claim to want them, is not the best way to go about solving the problem of "poverty". Mainit is a once-beautiful small town decimated by pigs and mines. The pigs are kept in painfully small pens where their shit and their food are indistinguishable and one in the same. These pens leak out into the only walking paths and mountain springs the town depends on. Even the tourist attraction that brought me there, their natural hot springs, were polluted and unsafe. Just one example of the introduction of pigs. The same problem was present in Guina'ang and so many other small villages I passed through.

Al Dente Macaroni with a blended carrot, fresh oregano-basil, hint of curry sauce (with green beans, tomatoes, and garlic and olive oil and sesame seeds and whatever else we want to put in there damnit!)
Not considering the abuse of an animal that's smarter than a dog and equally friendly, pork is a very unhealthy meat that is difficult to digest for those whose great-great grandparents were long used to it, let alone a mostly indigenous population with no biological tradition of pork digestion. The sanitation problems pollute other sources of vegetable and animal foods beyond edibility, so that people are left with smaller quantities of food, little nutritional variation, and possibly deadly drinking water. This is poverty alleviation in reality.

Sabangan, the valley, and the Heifer Int'l tent in the middle and bottom left
In a helpful, supportive manner, I suggested a different approach to the head of Heifer Int'l for Northern Luzon. Keep supporting the local practice of growing and sharing baby fruit trees and vines such as kalamansi and tomato (not officially under Heifer's jurisdiction) but take a different approach to the animal distribution. I pointed out Heifer's flawed foundations, but given that it was probably not going to completely revamp its model of animal support to communities deemed poor by traditional standards, I took a mitigating approach. Make simple a list of the environmental, nutritional, and health costs and benefits of each possible gift animal, including long term, not just short term effects, and present these facts with honesty and accuracy to each "poor" community. Then let them decide what animal(s) would best suit their needs, if any at all. Then give a short run-down for good care techniques used elsewhere to protect all involved in the animals' lives. He beamed at this possible solution to the problems I had discussed, gave me his card, and at that moment, Russell was also ready to move on to take care of more errands around the valley.

Bricks from bottles
These walks are magnificent. Russell is the ideal community guy, who walks slowly, always smiles, and always tries to strike up conversation in limited Kankanay (the local language). Russell's fascination in the work people are doing, what they are making, leads people to respond beautifully. His gift of a simple ten-minute acknowledgement of their efforts, their existence would make any person of any background and any age feel worthwhile and loved. It's something to admire in Russell. Daily, he proves that if only walking were the pace of living - not cars, planes, or trains, or even bicycles - then human communities would be shaped differently, and human relationships with each other and their surroundings would become personal and organic and mutual.

Piotrek and Russell's balcony
View from the intersection of rock and road
Later the next day, Piotr and Dominika arrived from Guina'ang, kicking up the fun. Gatherings with the local missionary, from Sweden, walks to the river and beyond, wandering only partly lost among the small marks Russell has made on the town. You can see it in the way people greet him, in the mosaic mandalas in random places, in the hope a change of approach to life has added to the atmosphere of the town. Each detail so small, and each so impossible to notice. More good meals, some pirated movies, and relaxing conversations later, and we prepared to do another school project at a totally different town. A van ride to a junction of roads and of mountain rock becomes a ride in the back of a hallow-block truck, me standing to stay comfortable and looking like a hippie cowboy in a green bandanna master of a grunting, bucking bull. Becomes a walk up a steep, slippery road and up the wide limestone steps to the school.

Typical mission statements of a Philippine college at any level
What is art? Art is philosophy!!!!
Once the university students are gathered in a classroom, Russell begins an introductory talk, handing all of us, students and foreigners alike, pieces of papers and pencils I had gathered from the office next door. Simple enough question: What is art? My mind raced back to all of the many conversations, academic papers, and whimsical musings in my life that had supposedly covered the topic thoroughly. Now I drew a blank. One by one students gave their responses, one broken up by responses from us, the guests and foreigners. Beautiful, colorful, expressive, angular, creative, giving emotion, important, new, etc... Like any teacher, Russell simplified each idea into a catchphrase, most of which were elementary, shallow, or barely applicable at all, but each getting equal weight.

What is a Mandala?
Mandala is Sanskrit for "circle"
When it came around to me, discussions had begun to flow out into a concise but profound and probing lecture that could have turned into a university course on the subject. I hadn't finished, so I asked to go last. I simplified, asked easy questions and giving obvious examples. Still, the language barrier and the depth hadn't bee lost in translation and the students were mulling the new approach around in their heads. Most simply, I included beauty and ugliness, intent to be art, and meaning as the most inclusive definition. But Russell's one and only addition to the brainstorming has me thinking still. Art is COURAGE. Every single human creation is an act of courage, testing new waters and walking through spaces no other human has touched. Every artist is a bold and adventurous traveler. I laughed to myself, of course I didn't think of that.

Getting there y'all...
Then we moved to the doorway. We collaboratively learned the art of the mandala, its simple, sensuous symmetry, and we gathered the paints we had. Not much to go on. Red, black, yellow, and a small amount of green. I expedited the washing process and preparations while everyone else gathered brushes and prepared themselves for the painting. The day was consumed by painting broken by a quick, simple lunch in the cafeteria (I ate rice, sayote, and a small chicken leg because I felt hypoglycemic and faint). Kids of all ages flocked to participate. There wasn't enough room amid the painters for me, so I took to entertaining the artists with a guitar I found in the office. By the time I wound down the last song I knew, the sun was behind the ridge. The mural was nearly done and could be finished and cleaned by the kids, and us foreigners needed to head back down to town or risk getting stranded on the way home. Had to do some extra convincing to get a van driver to take us down to Sabangan. It had been a long fun day, and the meal we made that night was magnificent to match.

The Entertainer
Ain't that somethin'?
Eventually all of our good times wound down. We all felt we had overstayed our welcome, but Russell assured us we hadn't. One thing after another kept us all there. The school art project. Russell's computer broke down and Piotrek tried to fix it. We all helped finish and send the diamonds and letters from Guina'ang to Cambodia.  I made earnest beginnings on an herb garden just up the hill from the house. A quick bug passed through Dominika, who has a porous immune system. Dominika and Piotrek having relationship tensions that might split them apart earlier than expected. Ultimately, we left exactly when we were supposed to. No sooner or later than we all were ready. I had even left my own mark in his place. One of my better poems is on the wall in different colors and fonts to match the lyrics, now filling a previously blank and colorless section around a window.

Never even guessed her shirt would get painted too, did she?
A short-lived, pathetic stint at drums....
So many things I learned from Russell, and I hope it was mutual. I had plenty of advice to give in terms of his relationship with his girlfriend. I never got to meet her in person, but I heard her voice on the phone and heard the stories he told, and it sounded exactly like a toxic relationship I was in once. He took my advice and really ended it, the way she had threatened to so many times before. I'll find out in a few months whether he's better off for it. I'm sure we'll meet again in the future.
All done! Gotta go! Have fun with clean up guys!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guina'ang Village

Guina'ang Village
As we sat on the jeepney waiting to head up the mountain from Bontoc, a woman was selling turon. Turon is one of a million different kinds of treats that have been thought up here. Some are specific to one barangay within a town. Some are specific to an island or province or general region. Some are general to the entire country, but usually with variations. Kakanin is a coconut rice cake. Almost any kind of coconut rice cake goes by that general name. My family name is Cacanindin, meaning “rice cake, as well”. How many things do you think 90 million Filipinos can come up with from two of the only ingredients found everywhere in the country? A lot, to be sure. Turon is another special treat found almost anywhere in the country. It’s the Philippines’ cooking banana called saba, wrapped in a rice wrapper, and fried in oil and sugar (which gives an exterior caramel crunch). A variation in the Eastern Visayas is both saba banana and a slice of jackfruit inside. Waiting on top of that jeepney I had my twenty-something’th turon here, and it was the best I’d ever had. Along with a perfectly ripe saba (not too sweet that it fights with the sweet flavor of brown sugar), it contained a small amount of camote (Philippine sweet potato, which has a flavor and texture of its own, depending on which of several species). It was perfectly hot, fresh out of the pan even though she was carrying a huge plastic container of more than 100 of them. It was crispy as it could’ve possibly been. The amount of banana and camote matched each other so as to blend in layers rather than mixing together or one standing out, not to mention the perfect amount of both compared to the rice wrapper. And the amount of sugar was also perfect so that it was sweet but not too sweet, hard to find given the Filipino sweet tooth. I had a small bit of Piotr’s and when I realized what this woman was selling, I chased her down and bought one for myself. It was exactly the same quality as Piotr’s. A unique variation, this turon was simply, perfect.

My stomach was feeling better because it was after 2pm and I hadn’t eaten since Evelyn’s rice pudding the night before. I had less pain and I could move a little more freely so that when that turon gave my tastebuds a simultaneous orgasm, I really didn’t care if I would regret it later. The jeepney was packed FULL and ready to leave by the time I finished mine. Piotr and I were trying our best to keep from sliding off of the spare tire on the roof, there were huge bags of the green-leafed tops of the camote piled 3 high behind us (destined for pig stomachs, though I love them and eat them like spinach), and there were people hanging off the sides and roof all around us. Still better than the cramped, hot interior because we could breathe, sit up straight, and actually see everything in the landscape around us. Riding on the top of a jeep is second only to hitch hiking in the bed of a dump truck in my opinion.

Guina'ang Village
The landscape was beautiful. Open, cleared fields at the tops of hills gave way to pine trees and later high-altitude jungle, sunlight peeking through the cloudy sky and pine canopies. We passed by clusters of rice terraces and farmland somehow built into the steep slopes. My journey back to Bontoc would later be done by foot and with a new close friend, but I didn’t know that yet. At the moment we were headed for Guina’ang, a small town high up in the mountains; a town of pigs and rice terraces and vestiges of Igorot life. Piotrek’s girlfriend, Dominika, was waiting for us when we stopped at the only roadside store in town. Piotr gave her a long, warm hug while I observed the impressive number and variety of packaged breads and pastries laid out on tables, a display I hadn’t seen in all my experiences in small, Philippine towns.

Quick introductions led to a 15-minute dash through the town, over and along rice terraces and to the other side of the valley, where Dominika had been sleeping and where we would spend the next week. By the time we had started walking, the usual local afternoon rains were threatening, and caught us with a few drops as we were arriving at the house of Lola (Grandma) Taino.

Lola Taino shelling rice and bundling camote tops
Lola Taino is the sweetest old lady one could ever meet. Her warmth and wisdom are sewn into every wrinkle on her face. The house was actually owned by a German woman who comes to visit for a few months. Lola Taino was caretaker for the rest of the year. Dominika herself is the definition of loveliness. An artist and honestly caring human being, she travelled with Piotrek from Poland, through China, and was planning to spend two months in the Philippines. She travelled separate from Piotr to the coast and back up the Cordilleras with an eye to help children. She found Guina’ang and randomly met Lola Taino near the elementary school. Dominika had already been there a couple of weeks, and Piotr had learned by text message what she had been up to and she invited us to come. Two boys who help Lola Taino named Frederico and Amaki (a.k.a. Macky).

Cooking with Dominika
Like most of the people in Guina’ang, they are Igorot, shy, and as genuine as can be. Both were 19 years old and going to school. When asked what he wanted from life, what his goals were, Macky said he wanted to be a good man. His wife had recently given birth to a child, but the girl’s parents will not allow him to even see his child until he finishes school and gets a good job (2 years down the road). He didn’t resent his situation, but the emotions it brought were a great motivation for him. He goes to school on the weekdays and works in the local mine on the weekends. There was a slight influence of Christianity in Guina’ang, but the people are more pagan and they have a very long history. Macky explained a few of the customs and expectations of their community, and it was indeed an entirely different culture than I had seen elsewhere in the Philippines. The only similarities likely leeched out of the television screen and into the minds of the latest generation. Electricity came with the end of the 20th Century, and along with it, a plethora of changes.

Lola Taino knew only greetings in English, so the only time we could communicate was through Frederico or Macky. She barely knew Tagalog or Ilocano, more widespread Filipino dialects. She mostly only spoke Kankanai (not sure on the spelling, but it’s the local indigenous dialect). All she asked in return for hosting us was food. So we cooked every day and she partook with only a few bites. Hilariously, she didn’t seem capable of hiding her facial expressions as to how much she liked the food. Coffee is a staple there, and Lola Taino drank 5-10 cups of very strong, locally produced coffee per day. It’s called baraka. Boiled in a pot for a few minutes, the coffee grounds sift to the bottom, but fine particles are poured into every cup. Dominika had green tea leaves leftover from China. A delicate blend, the tea needed to be steeped in good balance with water that wasn’t too hot. Lola Taino, accustomed to her strong coffee, boiled it very hot and VERY strong. And. She. Loved it.

Lola Taino and her trusty translator, Frederico
Because the language barrier between Lola Taino and us was profound, it was hard to know how she felt about us. Didn’t know if we were breaking untold customs or expectations. One day Frederico translated a conversation between all of us and she made us all cry. As she spoke tears fell from her cheeks. I had never before experienced the seemingly eternal gap between an emotional utterance and its translation. My mind filled the gap with the thought, “What could she have possibly said with such conviction?” Then Frederico’s translation: “I wish I could say in words what I feel in my heart. I love so much to have visitors in my home and I wish I could show you.” As if the expression in her face as she said it wasn’t moving enough, tears welled up in all of us as we finally understood.

I also came away from that revealing conversation wondering what similar experiences the future held in store for me. My Tagalog hardly improves because the Philippine people speak such immaculate English. The least-educated farmer or construction worker speaks English as well or as poorly as the most-educated office worker. Only the truly sheltered or indigenous populations don’t speak English. But then, they don’t usually speak Tagalog either. I have yet to visit a place where I cannot communicate with words. The closest I came to this was an experience in a Taipei taxicab during a flight layover four months ago. “Please, take me to the bus stop” became “Train station. You know, Chuga chuga chuga chuga wooo woooooooo!” (hand pulling an imaginary overhead lever). What will it be like in Burma or Indonesia, I wonder? Side note: Philippine primary education is taught almost entirely in English. The people speak such good English that people from other Asian countries, especially China and South Korea, come to the Philippines and pay a lot of money to learn English.

Russell, Frederico, and Macky measuring diamond patterns 
Besides Dominika, another foreigner had been working with children in Guina’ang. His name is Russell Maier, and he’s a human being and a half. He came to the house towing two Couchsurfers that stayed with him at his house down the mountain. Remember He has used Couchsurfing to do some amazing things in the area. Russell has lived in Sabangan – a larger, more Westernized town on the main road between Bontoc and Baguio – for several years. He lived in infamous neo-hippie hangout, Sagada, for a year before that. Originally from the Yukon in Canada, he is a veteran bike tourist, hitch hiker and traveller who biked from the Yukon to Berlin so he could build an art studio there. Uncompromising in his goals, we helped him achieve his current one: become an international artist.

David says: "Someone rip out my intestines, put them
on a stick, and grill them like Inasal BBQ"
Russell says, "This food is fantastic" saturated with all
of the loving energy he can muster.
The story of his roots in the area is magical. While living in Sagada, he went on a long hike in the mountains, without a guide, and got completely lost. Just when he thought he knew where he was, he stumbled out into the schoolyard in Guina’ang. Young children and a few teachers were very welcoming and comforting. They fed and took care of him. The spark of life in the people and his debt to their generosity stayed with him. He returned later to do an art workshop, only to realize that there were no art supplies, paper, crayons of any kind or any of the usual tools teachers use for teaching. So, they made do with trash and any other materials they could find. Then he discovered their textbooks were huge tomes from the 1940s and ‘50s, and sometimes there was only one copy. Using the Couchsurfing website, he asked that visitors to his home bring a book or two to donate to a library he was building for the children of Guina’ang. Two years later, he has hosted many guests of all backgrounds, has gathered hundreds of books, art supplies, and even essential medicines for the children. Almost exclusively through The small details of his projects are amazing and speak to the interconnectedness and love within and between Philippine communities. He is also supporting schools in other areas in myriad ways.

I didn’t know all of this when Dominika’s new friend, Russell, arrived at the house with two new guests. That made six guests. I hoped we hadn’t overwhelmed Lola Taino, but the open honesty of her smile assured me otherwise. In my travels, my sense of self-security varies from totally relaxed to unworried to uncomfortable to adventurous to fight for survival. I was more relaxed and comfortable there than I had been in a long time, and I felt the same vibe from my friends. Russell’s two Couchsurfing guests left after just one night’s stay. Meanwhile, I was still nursing a volatile digestive system. It seemed like no matter what I ate, my stomach couldn’t handle it, causing me sometimes paralyzing pain. So, I decided to fast, that is to ingest nothing but water until it was time to leave Guina’ang.

Before we could leave, Russell and Dominka employed our help with a project of Russell’s that was two years in the making. He had met a friend through who was in Cambodia working with an orphanage. Some have one or both parents but were left at the orphanage because they were too poor to feed them. The orphans usually eat only rice and live in a desolate, hot part of Cambodia. We got the children of Guina’ang Elementary School to make Christmas presents for the orphans.

On a Thursday, Russell and I went to all of the classrooms to remind them what materials to bring the next day. The Head Teacher had a guitar that was in terrible shape but was still playable (my Josephine was in Aringay because I couldn’t climb mountains with her). So we also exchanged a song with each class. I sang Feliz Navidad, and they would sing a song that they learned at the beginning of the school year. As soon as I heard the first class (second grade) sing its song, I was astounded by how musical they all were. They ALL had good sense for rhythm and pitch, the two hardest things to teach in music. Then I realized that as poor as these schools are, the limited “tools” at their disposal were unnecessary to teach music in school. There was art all over the classroom, some of them drawings from crayons that Russell must have procured for them. How unforgivable it is for schools in a place like the U.S. to not teach art or music! The children in every class (one class per grade) were the most quiet, respectful, honest, happy, and diligent children I have ever seen. But, they were extremely shy. Nevertheless, these kids loved to sing even a brand new song to them.

Learning what a mandala looks like
The next day, Russell, Dominika, Piotr and I began the art project. After singing with each class the day before I knew third grade was the least attentive (but still much better than any group of kids I’d seen), and that was the class I got to work with. Each class used paper patterns that we had measured and cut the night before to draw and cut diamonds out of old clothes. When each student had cut around 6-12 diamonds, we had them play with them and make patterns out of them. At the beginning of the class we explained a short history of the pattern we were going for, a mandala. “Mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle”. It is an ancient art form that involves symmetry and teamwork. It doesn’t have to have four quadrants. It can have 2 halves or 11 sections, or 1,001 sections as long as each section is symmetrical to the others. The diamonds were measured so that the edges could fit together into a hexagon, meaning each diamond was comprised of two equilateral triangles. It was fun trying to remember enough geometry to achieve this without a protractor. Anyways, the patterns the children came up with were not only beautiful and right on point, but damn creative, especially in 5th and 6th grades. After all of that fun, we all cleaned up and stored the diamonds. Leftover clothes scraps were saved for other uses that are already part of the culture. It’s not a new thing for people in poor communities overflowing with trash to make creative use of the trash. Old clothes get turned into floor mats, rugs, new clothes and patches, and even hand dusters/scrubbers.

Lunch feast
For lunch, we were served a feast cooked for us by the teachers that consisted of all sorts of traditional special dishes. The highlight was Philippine deer meat, which is very hard to find. The Head Teacher (a.k.a. Principal) said she only eats it once every few years. The uniqueness of the meat and the dish made from it made me want to try it. But my gut still felt terrible and I needed to give it a break. There were even Vegan dishes, and it was all served with special red mountain rice grown in the rice terraces surrounding Guina’ang. My gas-bloated intestines and my empty stomach were competing for which sensation was strongest; pain or mouth-watering hunger. Of all times to fast!

Kaleidoscope mandala?
My morning 3rd graders
In the afternoon, the 5th graders got to do a few more things for the project because the teacher was out sick. By far the largest of all of the grades, we split them into two halves. Russell, Piotr, and Dominika helped their half make bigger, more complex mandalas, and my half wrote letters to the orphans. I explained that they should simply write about themselves, about their life in Guina’ang, what they care about, and any message they have for the orphans. After 10-15 minutes there were still a lot of empty papers, even though they were really trying hard to come up with what to write. So, I wrote a basic message to give them an idea what to write. Some copied it pretty closely, but others took it and ran with it. My favorite was this one, not because of the touching story but because she told a beautiful story, she had the best grammar and spelling of any of the students:

“Dear Kay Champey,
My name is Maea F., I am from Guina-ang, Bontoc Mountain Province, Philippines. It is a small town in the mountains in Luzon. I have no brothers but I have four sisters. Im the last child among us. My father is died because of stroke, and my mother need to leave us and find a work so that we can go to school. I am now 12 years old, I also love to read storybook, fairytales, and much more. In here Guina-ang it is a beautiful place, their are many trees in our place. But we never expereince snow it is just a rainfall. I realy miss my family because my three sisters is studying in Baguio. I can’t wait Christmastime, because this is only the day that I can meet my friends and sisters in Baguio. I hope you and your family have a memorable Christmast.
                             Your friend,
                                  Maea Fegcan”

Big mama mandala
Every single one of them cared so much about what to say to these children across the sea. Next came envelopes. When we had a letter for each orphan, we folded and decorated envelopes. While the children were writing letters, I was experimenting with different ways one could fold a letter envelope without tape. I came up with 7 different ways and showed them all. They had watched and listened diligently, but when they each had a paper to fold, most started folding an envelope I hadn’t thought of, but one design they all seemed intimately familiar with. It was a basic origami-style envelope that used an entire sheet of 8.5’’x11’’ paper. Once the envelopes were finished, they put their letter inside, and our job was done. Then we walked next door to see the beautiful mandalas the other half of the class had come up with. Russell started the process with a little structure, but once they were comfortable with the idea of a mandala, no guidance or advice was needed. They all came together to make one large mandala that was amazing! I can’t say enough how impressed I was with these children. They’re living proof that exceptionalism and ego in the West holds absolutely no ground in real life.

The whole Christmas gift
Twelve cloth diamonds were put into each envelope along with a letter, a spool of thread, and a sewing needle. Then they were shipped to Cambodia via Taiwan. The orphans will then sew the diamonds into mandalas of their own. The project was 2 years in the making, and at the end, Russell could say he had fulfilled his goal of becoming an international artist.

We spent the weekend cleaning empty gin and soy sauce bottles, a difficult task to be sure. Then we glued them together with silicon in the shape of a small table. A “drinking table for the men”. Russell has made all kinds of bottle furniture including light fixtures, tables, and sofas. When he’s used one and is ready for something else, he gives the old one away to a friend and starts a new project. With one, 100 peso silicon gun, one can build entire couch. A hundred pesos is about USD $2.50. It came out very sturdy and beautiful. Several of his other bottle furniture has been in large art galleries and museums in the Philippines.

Ma'am Lala, the Master Weaver and her new clutch bags
One of the other things Russell does in the area is empower women who don’t want to labor on the farm. They weave bags out of plastic wrappers or magazines, Russell buys them at a very good price when he visits their homes, and ships them as cheaply as possible to a volunteer assistant in Europe who then distributes them to several Fair Trade shops in North America and Europe. The women are thrilled to be making art out of the trash around them, but they are even more thrilled that they can feed their families with money to spare in the process. For more images and updates on this and other projects that Russell does, check out

A palace of a pig pen, with the luxury of a
wall between the walkway and the feces
One evening, we foreigners and Macky went to visit Mainit, the last town along that particular road up into the mountains. Mainit is locally famous for its hot springs, but it’s a town getting sucked into the toilet. Firstly, a recent “community development” program implemented by the Catholic Church is giving pigs to people all over the country. Regardless of local culture or landscape, the Church must believe that pigs can only be good for communities. In Mainit, water that drains into some of the hot springs flows through pig pens, poisoning the water. Like Guina’ang, there was now an excessive number of pigs. Where there were once empty spaces next to major walkways or important water sources, small, confined, smelly pig cages now occupy. Not only was it unsanitary, to say the least, but the widespread presence of pigs completely changes the culture of the people that live with them. Food is essential to culture. It effects the plants grown to feed livestock, the number of people needed to tend to livestock, the kinds of food that the people eat, and even the language the people use. Lola Taino spends most of every day cutting the trunk of banana trees into slivers for the pigs to eat. Camote tops, one of my favorite leafy greens here, is considered only pig feed. Pork meat is the least healthy of all foods common in the Philippines. All I could do was wonder why there was such a huge push to make people revert to pork from vegetables or chicken. Rice will inevitably be apart of Philippine culture, I fear. White rice and refined white sugar cause the diabetes pandemic here, and pork causes high blood pressure and obesity. Why does the church implement this program? I can only guess at their motivations.

More than just mandalas were made
The second reason the town is doomed is because of the mine. I mentioned how strong the Igorot were. I had no idea until I saw how much raw ore individuals could carry. Paid by the kilo, the workers haul huge amounts to make a quick paycheck. Women carry 60-80 kilos, children carry 25-40 kilos, and men can carry up to twice their weight out of the mines. The ore is then bought and shipped home to refineries by a Korean company. Copper, cold, iron, and several other metals are said to be contained in the ore. The mine has been there for two years, it keeps children out of school, and is hated by all those not in the mines. Where mines have been present longer, generations are beginning to lose the skills to farm, build, and support themselves. When the ore is all harvested, communities will suddenly be entirely unemployed and without the skills to survive. It also seemed apparent that the companies are breaking Philippine or international laws in the bribes and threats they give to keep the workers from talking about their work or paychecks. If we asked questions, we were hushed immediately and told not to ask questions. A bigger example? A Head Teacher told us that when she was on the education board, she visited a town in her jurisdiction only to find a brand new school being Christened by the mining company that built it. The companies refuse to go through the legal channel. All we could see was the strain on the faces of all the workers and the destruction of the communities that “profit” from the presence of the mine. In order to pay for school, Macky spends his weekends working at the mine.

As we returned from Mainit, there was a town crier calling out a message. Town criers are so distant in the past of most Westerners that they don’t even know what that means. It’s a person who stands at a point of projection and yells out messages at dusk when people have stopped working. It obviously only works in a town small enough for the crier’s voice to reach the edges of town clearly. Guina’ang was such a town, and I felt so lucky to be visiting such a town that has a town crier. A local translated the message to mean that people are forbidden to work in the rice terraces or farms because of a special holiday. Combine that with the fact that there was a big Pacquiao fight the next morning that people could travel to watch in Bontoc. You can imagine how full of people the jeepneys from Mainit through Guina’ang to Bontoc were the next morning.

A Christmas decoration for sale that someone
had made out of drinking straws 
From Guina’ang, Russell and I left early to walk the 2-hour trek down the road to Bontoc. On the way, we visited the master bag weaver at the edge of Guina’ang. We arrived in Bontoc with plenty of time to take care of a few things and head to his house in Sabangan. Originally we planned to skip the fight, but since neither of us had seen Pacquiao fight, we decided it was one cultural experience we couldn’t miss. Pacquiao is by far the Philippines’ most revered celebrity. A hero for the people in many ways, he is a world-famous boxer and also a member of the National Senate. He was facing off against his long-time opponent, Marquez. Most expect Pacquiao to get major recognition in the World Boxing Hall of Fame. The fight was played up, of course, and every detail of the boxers’ lives was analyzed before and during the fight. Everyone in the Las Vegas crowd and at home in the Philippines were stunned when Pacqiao was knocked out cold early in the fight. After it was over, Russell and I walked for more than an hour in the direction of his town until we got tired and paid a van to take us the rest of the way. On the way, we talked about our opinions on violence and on competition, but we were unsurprised that our uncommon opinions were similar to the other’s. We arrived at his home in Sabangan, Mountain Province close to dusk, where yet another bed with a mattress awaited.
Ghost David