Friday, July 1, 2005

Joe Philippines - 6: Blanketed Bundle of Bones

We had traveled to the famous Banaue rice terraces, over some of the worst roads I have been over in my lifetime. The driver who looked all of fourteen, didn't inspire a lot of confidence as he made his way between Baguio City and small village near the rice terraces over some of the most twisting mountain roads that left my stomach in roils. Dust choked the air until you almost needed a spoon to get it inside your lungs and once there, the rough bouncing of the jeepney bounced it right back out, never letting you hang onto even the slightest bit of it. The roaring of the straining engine soon quieted even the most avid chatterbox and I had spent lots of time on the ride, reflecting in my inner quiet and gazing in wonderment at the absolute beauty of northern Luzon. The Filipinos with me had no time for that because they were trying to punch out text messages while bracing on two or three sides of the jeepney at once to get enough stability to punch the tiny buttons of the cell phones with any sort of accuracy.

Eventually we make it to the small village, which was nestled in rugged mountains full of steep canyons and terraced rice fields, some of which are older than the Egyptian pyramids. In fact, entire mountains had been terraced with the tops leveled off so that they actually looked like pyramids except composed of dirt and rice instead of stone. The village is what would be referred to in the American West as a one horse town but in without the horse. Besides a half dozen other jeepneys scattered around mostly at the local watering holes, the main forms of transportation are by foot or bicycle.
We stopped at a hotel situated at the top of a mountain that had very narrow and steep footpath leading down the mountain to rice terraces further below. A local told us that we could hike right down to the rice terraces and even see 'the bones' whatever that meant so we started down. Even though the only effort I was doing was to stay upright so that I didn't stumble and roll right off the mountain, I was soon covered in sweat in the moist morning air. Part way down we came to a native village and the trail we were on went right down between two rows of traditional nipa huts. Nipa huts are basically bamboo huts built up on stilts to keep the rodents out of home and provide much needed air circulation in the humid climate. The residents of the village were out and about, some doing laundry at a nearby spring and others grinding rice into flour using large mortar and pestles. I was a little timid at first about walking right down the middle of their home but there was no choice with a rock face on the uphill side and cliff on the downhill side. The residents didn't mind because I think they get a lot of tourists coming from the hotel at the top of the mountain and trail and the second reason I soon learned.

At the far side of the village as we continued to follow the trail on down the mountain, a small native girl came running out from the nipa hut village and lead us down the trail. Once we arrived to the rice terraces, she led us down narrow paths that ran along the terraced walls of the individual terraces, some of them ten feet or more in height. We carefully poked around, took pictures and me coming from a farming background, couldn't resist the urge to shuck a head of wheat and eat the rice kernels just like I would oats or wheat. The kernels were still hard and doughy and needed a bit more time before harvest.

Because of the steep nature of the terraced fields, there are no roads or paths in which to move equipment or vehicles, so all work done in the fields is done by hand from planting to harvest. All seeds and harvested by crop are hauled on the backs of the farmers and as we began to make our way up the steep trail to the nipa hut village, I began to really appreciate that fact. The young native girl scampered right up but my wife and I along with our German friend were soon sucking air in big greedy gulps as we slowly made our way up.
Soaked in sweat and struggling for enough air intake, we stopped for a breather when we got back to the village. It soon became clear that the native girl expected money for her guide services so I have her the pesos that I had in my pocket. The girl's mother came over and I thought was going to chide her daughter for going off with a bunch of strangers but instead asked us if we were here to see the bones. After a few questions, I found out the 'rest of the story'.

The bones that she was offering to show us for some money were the bones of her grandfather. In her village, when someone died, they were wrapped up and after a seven-day celebration, were buried for seven years. At the end of the seven years, the bones were exhumed from the ground and boiled to remove any extraneous bits of hair or flesh and then wrapped in a colorful blanket. Seven more days of celebration would commence and then the blanket of bones would be tucked into a corner of the nipa hut in which the surviving relative lived and there it would stay for another seven years. After the second set of seven years, the bones are traditionally buried for good but in this case, the woman had decided that she could make money by showing them off. She set the bright red-blanketed bundle down on the ground at our feet and I could hear the bones make a distinctive hollow noise that I could only associate with bones though I have never heard the sound before in my life.

I looked down at the bundle fascinated by the story that went with them but not really caring to see the bones. Not wanting to offend the natives and maybe end up in a matching bundle of brightly wrapped bones, I looked at me wife and she was shaking her head know much to my relief. We politely declined, thanked her for telling us the story, and headed out of the village and up the long steep trail to the hotel at the top. It was a long time before the sound of those bones hitting together left my mind.

No comments: