Fool was I when I stepped over the ledge-an adventurous show-off of course- adroitly ensuring that I did not plant my leg on the rice stalks so that when posing I could say that I had truly landed in the great rice fields of Banaue. The soggy ground was too much for one of my sandals and as I tried to extricate myself from the glutinous depths, I howled with horror to find I only had one sandal left. The other was quickly disappearing under the tropical bog. My response had to be nifty otherwise I would have been anointed as the one-sandaled tourist which in a party of more sensibly dressed people would not have done anything for my self-esteem.
So I tugged and tugged with all my might like the big bad wolf and just managed to bring the muddy sandal back from the dead.
At the next village I was ordered into a tiny native hut with some running water. I crouched down and cleaned the sandal slowly along with my muddy arm. I felt reborn and could continue the minitrek. Not wanting to be admonished, from then on I kept obediently to the narrow paths which divided up the rice-plots from each other in such a neat pattern.
I was on a three day trip to the Banaue rice terraces in central Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. Dubbed the 8th wonder of the world, the terraces were sculpted many hundred years ago out of the steep hillsides in different corrugated layers, water gravity-fed into rice fields via countless irrigation channels from the rainforest.
The previous morning we saw the terraces for the first time as we gradually climbed up the valley from Banaue until we reached the main viewpoint where you could see the pristine tapestry of the blocks, set aside for cultivation of the world’s premier staple crop, cascading to the bottom of the valley. Stone walls abound to reinforce the sides of the fields and far down below you could just about see workers crouched down in a pose which give them distortion of figure after several years of earning their living in the same repetitive way.
The only present-day evidence of the ancient Ifugeo tribe were the aged men and women at the viewpoint chuckling away and willing to pose for photographs- the men wearing a sort of loin cloth, crimson shawl and gaudy feather-topped helmet, and the women mimicing them in many ways. One of the elders was playing a bamboo flute which made an enchanting accompaniment to the impressive scene which literally unfolded beneath us. Another was practising on the jews harp, and it made for an etherial symphony of sound which was truly wonderful in such a remote place. Buskers on the London Underground could never match this.
2 hours further on, and we were in spooky cave country near Sagada. We delicately descended to the mouth of a huge dark hole at the entrance to which were stored rows of coffins. You’d think it was to preserve the bodies in a more ambient temperature, but this practice is steeped in tradition. Burials in the ground are strictly taboo for the local people.
On the other side of the town in the depths of a very steep gorge coffins identified by names like Sumbad and Bomit were hanging by what looked to be a frail wire, almost as if an offering with which to placate the spirits. A rumble of thunder in the distance was enough to put me off descending the gravelly path to get a close-up. And not just that- the coffins have been known to collapse and woe betide anyone admiring them from below. I had already had one foolhardy moment in the rice terrace- that was enough for one day.
En route we stopped at a native village where we were given a spontaneous demonstration of rice-pounding and sifting, with the domestic turkeys looking on and taking the chaff.
We were invited to stay on for a rice-feast, but tempting as it was, we had 2 hours in a jeepney on a bumpy cork-screw road ahead. And I was still feeling it after indulging in some fried squash cooked at a street-stall 2 days before. And besides we had to leave early the next morning to make the long journey back to Manila.
On our way back to civilisation the all-embracing rice culture of Banaue made way for the very Christian festival of Palm Sunday. We stopped at a village in the plains where yellow palm leaves were being offered up to the priest for Christ’s blessing, almost an equivalent of the Ifugao rice culture which had been practised on the terraces since the mists of time in honour of the bountiful rice gods. This was a fitting transition between a mountain culture which had changed very little since humans first walked on this planet and the noisy modern megalopolis which is Manila, a traffic maelstrom which offers no opportunity for side-stepping.
Copyright © 2013 Adrian Harman-Bishop