North Country

Grasping the metal bars on top of the bus-like automobile, we held on for dear life as it tumbled over dirt road. The jeepney, emblazoned with images of local celebrities and “In God We Trust” logos, was fully occupied: inside, food and supplies for various villages, and on its roof, young farmhands eager to return to their homes after a busy morning of deliveries to the various town centers.

Photo by Lola Abrera

It was the last day of the year. My companion and I had wanted to celebrate the New Year in Sagada, a hippie town up in the mountains of Cordillera region of the Philippines. However, due to a series of wrong turns, missed buses, and idle wandering we missed our bus and found ourselves hitching a ride with a passing vehicle. We had no idea where it was going, but we jumped on anyway. Since it was the 31st of January, transportation had ceased on most provincial dirt roads. It was a gamble, but our vision of starting the new year in Sagada was clear and unwavering.

Photo by Lola Abrera

At the helm was an 11-year-old boy who gave us a quick glance, before turning his eyes back to the road. Seated next to him, his older brother—about sixteen years old, moon-faced and smiling—who asked us about our trip. He said that in the next town, just across the river, there might be something there for us. We wondered how we would get across the river, but he smiled, winked and said, “Don’t worry, this jeepney is going there.” And as the vehicle veered away from the main road, descending unto a slope, soil crumbling beneath its wheels, we reached lands end, face-to-face with the churning river. The machine hummed, then broke into a roar as it charged over the water. It wasn’t deep, but the liquid moving fast, rushing over black and gray rocks. My travel buddy and I gasped at the streaming flood below, the stark blue sky above and rusted bridge overhead. Flashing white teeth, the younglings in the front looked our way and laughed.

The vehicle stopped in front of a store. The teenager told us that this is where we should get of as the jeep was heading towards its final stop: their village.

Photo by Lola Abrera

 

Sitting on the wooden planks of the shop sat a mother, staring into space, an infant in her arms, an old woman whose eyes had turned an oyster-grey from blindness, and several children sucking on tiny clear plastics with orange-flavored ice inside. My companion and I had no clue where we were. There were no buildings apart from a few stone walls, where two adolescents sat, looking over at the small crowd and what looked like a gathering place below the ridge. The owner, a petite middle-aged woman with chin-length hair and dark eyes, greeted us. “You are in Bulaga…like the one on TV!” she said with laugh, citing the popular noontime show. We asked if there was transportation that we could take to get to Sagada. Her forehead wrinkled and said that due to the holiday, there would be no more buses passing through the town. A man in his early thirties, with a thin moustache and a fitted black shirt, overheard our plight. He introduced himself as “Angelbert Banasen.” He worked for a security faction based in Manila, the country’s capital. It was his first vacation after two years. He said he was happy that he would finally be able to spend time with his wife again, whom he wed shortly before he was sent to the city.

Our newfound guide told us that a wedding was taking place. Angelbert said that he would ask if any of the visitors were heading up north and if they would let us ride with them.

Photo by Lola Abrera

Photo by Lola Abrera

The noon bell rang. People lined up by the cement structure that served as the town’s main venue. To the beat of the gong, the residents passed bags of food down the queue. Angelbert called us to join in. Trying to be polite, we tried to say no, but he already had two bags of food—rice, noodles, and meat—ready for us.

 

Photo by Lola Abrera

He later took us down a row of broken rocks that served as a makeshift stairs, and into the wedding party. The mother of the bride opened her arms, gave us a hug, a quick peck on the cheek, and invited us in. Most were dressed in Western clothing but there were a few, the respected elders, who came wearing the traditional striped red and black loincloth, known as a bahag. As the parents gave their speeches in their dialect, even if we could not understand, we joined in chuckling and cheering along with  the crowd. With copper gongs and stretched drums, a troupe began to play. The old and young, jumped to the middle of the hall. Side-by-side, they clapped, waved, stomped their feet, and danced to the ancestral ghosts that resided within the trees, the sky, and the earth.

Photo by Lola Abrera

 

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