Yeah Okay, So It’s Predominantly About Rice

We did want to check out some manner of lookout way up yonder but Germaine quickly talked us out of that by simply pulling a face like we’d just told her we wanted to hop to Manila on one leg. Backwards. Naked. She well and truly pissed on that bonfire when she followed this face with the words, “It’s steep!” Yeah okay, mountain people are badass, they laugh in the face of steep. What we consider steep they consider an easy, gentle incline they could jog up in flip-flops before breakfast. For her to tell us it’s steep means it’s probably fucking vertical at best and more than likely consists entirely of the most slippery substance known to man.

We decided to go to Cambulo village instead and Germaine arranged for her cousin’s wife, Lisa, to guide us for ₱1200 for the whole day. You could probably do it without a guide if, unlike me, you have a sense of direction, but it won’t kill you to contribute to the locals and you’ll learn so much. Lisa is pretty cool, she speaks four languages; English, Tagalog, Ifugao and the dialect of a neighbouring tribe. She also held my hand a lot whilst we traversed the rice terraces. Literally held my hand. Some of the terraces are lined with concrete walkways, some are lined with stone. Of course the stones looks much nicer but it turns out there’s a direct correlation between how pretty the terrace looks and how utterly terrifying it is to walk along.

Aaaand this is me being lead along the terraces by a very patient Lisa.

Lisa had already told us that we just needed to plant one foot in the middle of one stone each time but it’s like the connection between my brain and my feet is severed. I’ll manage maybe two steps then my feet go nah, fuck that, and I freeze. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself to move, I can’t. It’s like I’m glued. Lisa came back and fetched me, patiently holding my hand as I gingerly made my way across and tried not to shit myself. She said locals have no problem walking from stone to stone as God will protect them. Yeah well he won’t be protecting me, sunshine, he’ll be pulling rocks out from underneath me and cackling as I fall to my death. Or injury. Probably injury. I mean, it’s not like you’ll fall far if you do fall, but still, I’d really rather not.

As we walked she told us that her family owned one rice terrace right on the other side of the village but they have four kids to care for so they hire relatives to look after it for them and split the harvest which lasts four months. They used to farm sweet potatoes too but four years ago a virus wiped them all out so these days it’s rice or rice, and once the harvest is gone you just have to buy more rice. There are four kinds of rice grown in Batad including red rice, and two kinds in Banuae, one of which is glutinous rice which they use to make rice wine. We’d seen bunches of rice drying as we’d made our way through the village yesterday, it’s harvest season, and what you do is plant a bunch to get loads of seedlings and every farmer knew exactly how much to plant to fill his terraces.

Harvested rice, bundled and drying like big, itchy wigs.
Red rice. Never even knew this was a thing until SE Asia.

We made our way along a relatively flat bit through some trees until we eventually arrived at a waiting shed right at the top of the amphitheatre where we sat and chilled for ages, just taking in the view and listening to Lisa. She told us that before Christianity the Ifugao people, much like the other tribes in the region, were pagans. It was a lot harder back then with the shamans running the show. They’d tell people there were evil spirits in the terraces or the rivers so everyone had to stay away until a ritual was performed and a pig sacrificed. They lived in constant fear of spirits everywhere, rituals were expensive, it’s much easier with Christianity. No one has to be scared of anything because God will protect them. Some of the old people are still pagans, they just aren’t allowed to do their rituals anymore.

It was only another 3km to Cambulo from here but Lisa wanted to take us to the highest viewpoint which should really have triggered all manner of alarm bells. We followed her along the track as she pointed out different plants including a leaf that they used to break open and use as glue when she was at school, and at one point she dug into the foliage and came out with a non-flowering orchid which she decided to take home. So off she went, swinging a left up a track with her umbrella in one hand to shelter her from the blazing sun and her new-found orchid in the other, a track which she negotiated with incredible ease in her flip-flops and we had to quite literally claw our way up with our hands, it was that steep. Oh my god. I thought I was going to die. When we finally made it to the top I thought my heart was about to crack a fucking rib. I gulped in as much air as I could before turning round to admire the view.

Lisa and her new orchid.

Again we just relaxed here for a while and Lisa told us about rice wine. You know those little long seeds that stick to your clothes as you hike along a trail and take half your life to remove one by one? It’s the root of this plant that her mother used to make the yeast for rice wine. To make the wine you fry glutinous rice without oil until it turns brown then you cool it in a banana leaf. Add the yeast you made from the root. Cover it with a banana leaf and just leave for three days it until it starts producing a liquid which you store in something called a banga or a tivong. You can even leave it for up to a week and the liquid gets less sweet and more alcoholic. She says the women prefer the three day product and the men like it stronger and children can eat the sweet rice that remains. There’s a liquor ban in Batad, you can only buy beer here, so the rice wine is only made for the people who work in the field. It’s also important if people are helping you build a house, you’re expected to provide food and rice wine but if you fail to provide the latter, it doesn’t matter how much food you lay on, you could provide a feast fit for fat royalty but people will still ask where the rice wine is.

Once our legs had recovered enough to grudgingly carry us the rest of the way we headed along a road where men were logging. Apparently they want to widen this road so locals have been tasked with removing the appropriate quantity of trees. Before we walked down into the village we chilled out in another waiting shed and scoffed a packed lunch and Lisa told us a bit about the culture surrounding weddings and funerals. She said one of the richest families slaughtered several pigs and a water buffalo for a wedding once, a sheer show of wealth. But an important celebration was the one you threw for sick or dying parents. If you failed to put on a party for them it’s considered pretty shameful and everyone will talk about you and your inability to care for your parents. Apparently if an infant dies a party is thrown for them too to celebrate all of the birthdays they would have had. Such a different world to the one we live in.

The walk down to Cambulo from there is probably the least traumatic part of the walk. I savoured every footstep. No narrow terraces, no trails that had been washed away leaving a section so thin they made the walkways around the terraces look like the M25 so you have to literally place one foot directly in front of the other whilst hugging the wall and trying not to cry, no hills so steep they make your lungs feel like some bastard took a Black & Decker sander to them. We took another break in the village before heading back as Lisa told us about the rice harvest.

These days there’s only one a year but back in the day, when all anyone had to do was farm rice, there’d be two a year. Everyone helped everyone else, the entire thing would be planted in a week. If it wasn’t done by the end of Saturday everyone would come together to get it finished before Mass on the Sunday. These days it takes months and everyone plants at different times which upsets the government, they’d prefer everyone to plant together to keep the terraces the same colour.

As the rice grows it changes colour and when it’s finally ready the women harvest it, bundle it and, if they have an Ifugao house, they put it in the roof for drying. If they don’t they just leave it in the sun. The men only help with the harvest if they’ve left the Ifugao region and gone to work with a different tribe, or they’ll help harvest here if they woman of the house is too old or infirm. Apart from that the men carry shit and collect firewood. They probably had more use back in the day when there wasn’t a road and everything had to be carried in from the junction with the main road, a good couple of hours hike. Once the harvest is in the grass is left to dry then it’s trampled into the soil where it’ll rot and become fertiliser. Then the fields are planted again by the women and the process is repeated.

According to Lisa all the day to day shit, cooking, eating, sleeping, happens inside this traditional Ifugao home. Harvested rice is dried in the roof, chickens scratch around underneath it, and the children sleep separately in another hut.
It’s the women that do the harvesting around here. These women were really old. Either that or they were 27 and rice harvesting really ages you.

The future of Batad isn’t clear and the old people are worried. They think the younger generation are lazy, they don’t want to work in the fields, it’s too hard. They also have other choices these days, Lisa only has one terrace which will be left to her eldest, but she has four kids so she’s encouraging them to study and perhaps get jobs in Manila. The 2000 year old terraces are UNESCO so they’re hoping that maybe the government will step in to help. Who knows?

If you look closely you can see a kid climbing that tree to get the betel nuts.

Things are very very different today. She pointed out terraces that have already been abandoned and once you know they’re there you can’t unsee them. It’s glaring, and you keep seeing more and more of them. It’d be a shame to see them deteriorate but who are we to dictate how the younger Ifugao people should live their lives? Why should they stay in Batad and give up their dreams and choices just so tourists can come and look at the fields? Of course it’s hugely important that heritage and culture is maintained but how do you do that when the world is changing so quickly?

Romeo, plucking a chicken he killed. This guy is a legend. He came home one evening hammered on rice wine, clutching a random vegetable he’d found and decided he’d wanted. He’s a deeply religious man who gets very passionate when talking about God and gets dressed up in his best clothes every Sunday to trek down the epic hill to church.
This is Rita, she walks around bent almost double these days but she’s always on hand for a chat and to hand out travel tips for the area.

We made it back to Rita’s by 3pm, just as the daily rains rolled in over Mount Amuyao and battered the terraces. It’s actually gorgeous to watch as long as you’re under shelter with a tasty cold beer. Germaine arranged for Lisa’s husband to porter our bags up the hill the following morning in time for the 9am public jeepney back to Banuae. He lifted each one and decided to charge us ₱150 each which is well worth it, my poor, out of shape carcass had taken a proper beating, he could have asked for three times that and my soul and I’d have signed it over. I promised myself a significant quantity of apology cake as soon as the opportunity arose.

Bonus photo: There was a guy back at Rita’s assembling his betel nut mix, called “moma” in the Philippines, for chewing. I think this guy was pretty hardcore, he didn’t even de-husk his nut, he just broke it in half and put the other half away for later. He added commercially available slaked lime but traditionally they would use crushed snail shells, then he wrapped the whole thing in a betel leaf and stuffed it in his gob telling us that chewing it keeps your teeth strong. “The only problem is,” he explained through the red spittle created by the nut, and the red stained teeth of a habitual chewer, “the girls, they don’t want to kiss you!”

Batad, Ifugao Province, Luzon, Philippines
Stayed at: Rita’s Mount View Inn

Rita’s Mount View Inn & Restaurant

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