She sighed. She was crouching on the floor, sifting some leaves with her frail-looking, wrinkled hands. She then slit the middle of one elongated leaf, which looked like pandan, and inserted the base of another. She repeated the process until she made a beautiful mandala of leaves. She pushed the heart of the foliage into the soot-bottomed casserole and then poured rice grains in it.
“It is her own way to keep the rice from getting scorched,” Tommy, Whang Od’s frequent visitor, explained. She cut the pinewood into splinters and fed them into the hearth. The fire illuminated her tattooed arms.
“You were lucky to see that,” Tommy looked as amused as I. He was there with Ruel, another photographer from Baguio. I saw their black-and-white works on villages and tribes adorning the walls of Yoghurt House at Sagada. They were at Buscalan once again to document and oversee the whole process of disassembling a traditional Ifugao house Ruel bought from a local family for about P60, 000.
Again, Whang Od sighed.
There was a stove on the small counter, but her nephew’s wife, whose name escapes me now, said its was only for visitors like us. She used the traditional hearth at the far end of her small kitchen.
Later on, while we were having a dinner of instant noodles and sayote tops with sardines on her kitchen floor, we encouraged her to have some. She scowled upon eating the noodles, and mumbled a word I could not understand.
Her language is a terrain of guttural sounds that momentarily remind me of thunder and raging rivers. It is confusing, like the wh in her name is pronounced as f—her name is Fang Od to the tongue, Whang Od to the eye.
“Maalat daw. Salty,” her nephew’s wife translated. She was content with her boiled sayote tops, which tasted bland to me, whose taste buds prefer the salty and the bitter.
“No wonder, she reached 92!” Alex exclaimed. Whang Od must be 94 by now.
I met the Spanish-speaking Alex and Chris and their guide, Jerry from Sagada, in the narrow road in Bontoc, where the bus going to Butbut was parked. We both had the same intention: to meet Whang Od. On the top of the bus, Alex kept on cursing and held onto the bar tight. The newly paved road to Butbut snaked through the steep slope of the ranges. On our right was a 90-degree cliff, and below was the rage of the Chico River.
Alex’s swears were the only explicit language of saying the unsaid, the unsayable: what if the bus toppled and somersaulted down the gorge? Is meeting Whang Od worth the danger?
As the bus roared on the road, the rice fields sprawling beyond the cliff stole our attention. Most fields were emptied and muddy, some had new seedlings planted. It looked very surreal: the dreamy variations of yellow and green boxed in the field. It felt like looking at a realistic approach to Mondrian. This must be our reward for choosing the top instead of the seats inside.
Whang Od herself farmed the fields down the slopes of their village; and for her, this must be an ordinary scene. Her brother, whom we met on our way up, called her from the valley.
We rested in a shack along the small path. She was silent when she arrived, and remained so throughout the trek to the village. All I could hear from her was her heaving from climbing the slope. I wonder if she was uncomfortable with us around.
She would always be stooping by the wall or sitting on the ladder with her hand supporting her chin. For a moment, she would fix her hair then resume her usual position. Her eyes looked glassy. This must be the reason why she looked sullen most of the time.
One time, she held my left hand and pointed to the lines at the base of my pinkie. She sighed.
“Marami ka rawng lalaki,” translated the nephew’s wife.
“Ha? Isa lang!” I defended myself and laughed. She thought Chris, who was much younger than me, was either my husband or boyfriend.
“Marami dawng darating.” I had a hard time grasping such possibility then. I was too in love and romantic to entertain such.
Whang Od then joked about the different sizes of men’s delicate parts. She started with her own pinkie, then eventually progressed to her wrist. This was not the Whang Od I had read about online—the woman consumed by sadness of a lost love: a story spread by a certain guide named Francis. I dared not ask about her heartbreak, which somehow appeared to me as mythologized. I preferred listening to and laughing at her dirty jokes.
When Ruel made some lewd hand gestures, Whang Od could not contain herself and showed her baby-like gums, then covered her face with her tattooed arm like a teenage girl.
Her sighs, I must admit, were the most constant throughout the day.
One time, she did my hair like hers: braiding both sides, loosely tying the tails by my forehead. It resembled a laurel wreath. The ‘do did not last long.
She said something in her guttural language once again, talking to me directly, although she knew I would not understand anything.
“Buhok mo daw sobrang bagsak,” translated the nephew’s wife, while holding a months-old baby by the kitchen’s door.
Whang Od styled her hair in different ways. She would embed colorful beads in her braid or wrap a scarf around her head. She looked queenly and fashionable with her heirlooms, while feeding her black hogs by the incomplete concrete structure in front of her semi-concrete house. She was the only one of her age in the hood I saw who regularly combed her salt-and-pepper hair.
I could not exactly recall when she started loosening up around us. Perhaps it was the moment when she let her hair loose and I snapped a photo of her. The genuine curve in her lips, almost mischievous, as if I caught her doing something naughty. Perhaps because it is rare to see her with her hair down. It was just at the moment when she combed her locks before tying them again.
Or it must have been the time she started inking the base of my left hip.
She said something like “ajug-ajug.”
“Bilbil mo daw nag-sha-shake!” That cracked me up. I laughed, she noted, like there was no tomorrow. Laughter, later on I realized, was the only language we both spoke and understood.
She was silent most of the time while working. All I could hear was the tok tok tok—the sound of wood tapping against wood. I was silenced by the searing pain of the pomelo thorn prickling, piercing my skin. She hammered the stalk’s head as gentle as possible. Tok tok tok. She was old, and her pulse was not even. Some taps ended up more painful than the rest.
Earlier, I saw her insert the thorn between the slit of what appeared to be a thinly-stalked bamboo. She scraped the soot that accumulated on the pan’s bottom, gathered it in a small, used bowl, and mixed it with a bit of water. She said something to Grace while mixing. Grace, schooled at Kalinga Apayao State College, is her niece and said to be the next mambabatok. While revisiting my field notes, Grace actually scrolled down her Facebook account. Whang Od trained her. Her aging hands cannot keep up with the influx of visitors wanting a tattoo from her.
Ruel said, on holidays, she could earn about P50,000 from tattooing alone. She was able to buy the surrounding lands and carabaos. Sometimes the neighbors would borrow money from her.
Whang Od’s short stature was always wrapped in silence, regardless of the domestic noises around her: kids crying, black hogs squealing.
She said the centipede, the design I chose for myself, is the guide for the lost.
There is nothing, I guess, more fitting for someone who has a terrible sense of direction, who, later on, would find herself at a loss after a heartbreak.
Heartbreak is one of the many trips I have taken. Whang Od has been there as well.
It is just be me, but it is the women who are the most visible and the strongest in the village. They are everywhere: by the window, by the patio lighting a tobacco or chewing mama, by the communal tap washing clothes. Or if there are visitors, at Whang Od’s place.
Kanau, Whang Od’s sister, made fun of Alex who was only wearing a thin pair of underpants. Her mispaired earrings—one was traditional, the other a cheap one I could find just anywhere—swayed as she laughed. The women’s audacity here seemed boundless. Alex was embarrassed for a moment. Perhaps he was not expecting such candidness from the villagers.
The women congregating at Whang Od’s place expect visitors to bring candies for everyone. Alex bought a pack of jelly ace from the village’s store and distributed it to everyone who instantly became young and playful. Whang Od was not an exception. Candies are their weakness.
Once their curiosity was filled, they went back home. There was a talk that the fuel for the mill had arrived. The same women carried sacks of stalks heavy with unhusked grains. They then hauled the bundles of rice inside the machine’s mouth. Maximo, the mill staff, was the only man there. It must be a playful twist of fate that he happened to be mute. I found it personally amusing that a mute man was surrounded by women who could not and would not stop talking and laughing. But everyone seemed to understand him with his constant “ah, ah” pointing here and there.
A woman said the whole village owned the mill. They would all contribute for the purchasing of the fuel.
Everything here, it appeals to me, is communal. Harboring secrets—a character I now associate with cities—seems foreign to them.
By five in the morning, I could hear the familiar pounding of coffee beans. By six, one could knock on anyone’s door for a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Before going to bed, Whang Od herself sifted the beans she would pound the following morning.
During my stay, I would stoop outside her house with a cup of hot coffee in hand while everything looking dreamy, drowsy from a cold night sleep. The morning sun softened everything, starting from the top of the ranges and slowly crawling to the laundry left hanging overnight.
Whang Od’s hogs would then squeal once they saw her coming out. The pigs could roam anywhere and were said to be fed on weed.
One time, during my walk, a woman was sorting dried leaves in front of her house. Chris, a Latino, said they were marijuana. She asked if I would want a bundle. Just for ten pesos, she said. I politely declined.
If there is one thing that must be experienced here: it is the chewing of mama.
On our first night, Chris brought his tablet out and played a movie outside the house for everyone. They all looked like in trance sitting almost uncomfortably in a pile of dos por dos wood, their faces glued on the small screen. The light emitting from the monitor played on everyone’s face like a mirage of a movie itself.
Everyone asked for another one, but the tablet’s battery died. There was no electricity in the neighborhood for a week or so already. With everyone going back to their little houses, we were left outside Whang Od’s house with Kalinga’s chilliness made me wrap my arms around me.
Ruel handed me a mama, a betel nut coiled in a leaf with a little lime powder in it. I chewed it slowly.
“Listen to your body.”
The sensation started with the overworking of the salivary gland then the warming of my ears’ nerve-endings then it spread throughout the body. It is villagers’ way of fighting the cold. Even in Baguio, a young handsome Igorot who gave me tips in traveling to Banaue, had teeth stained from chewing mama.
It is a culture unique to mountainous places. Some places like Sagada already banned the spitting of mama in public places.
What is native, what it is organically authentic have to be hidden from the public eye.
The dismantling happened on our second day. There is a certain poetry of loss in the disassembling of an Ifugao house. The most intimate, the innermost must go first: the boxes of clothes, the sooty pots and pans, and the hearth—the heart of warmth on chilly Kalinga nights, the family itself who lived here. Then the roof made of cogon grass, and then the ceiling—stalks of an endemic grass growing in the surrounding ranges that turned gold in the morning and late afternoon light: the very bamboo-like stalk Whang Od used as the pomelo thorn’s holder. Then the wall—the three-feet wide of pine tree wood that does not exist anymore. Then the floor that could be mistaken as walls to an uninitiated’s eye. Then, the feet—the foundation that has been rooted in this place for a century or so.
An Ifugao house comes with no nails: it is an assemblage of fitting a piece of wood into another. The walls and floors have to be numbered 1 2 3 for an easier reassembling in the city that has already given in to mass consumption long ago: Baguio.
These woods must come from huge mature trees. There are no massive pine trees around here. The building of a small Ifugao house requires something big: from trees to strength used to carry the woods to this village. The unbuilding of a small Ifugao house requires something big: disheartenment and the art of letting go.
I was in one corner looking at two young boys looking at the men—must be their uncles and relatives—at work: the only time of my stay I saw a lot of men in one place.
The young owner, already a father and a husband, inherited the house from his father, who must have inherited it from his as well. Asked why he decided to sell his house, he said it was hard to maintain. A concrete one would be more convenient.
Ruel was disgusted with the banning of chewing and spitting out of mama in public places. He said it is the death of their very culture.
The nephew’s wife asked if she could have my pants. I gladly gave them to her for all the translation help she extended. Whang Od’s sister asked for the beanie I bought in Baguio, I declined. I still needed it for the long bus ride. For a moment, she grumbled. Two old men crafting indoor brooms underneath a house asked if they could have Alex’s matchbox. Alex, a chain smoker, said he would still need it. They mumbled something. I just smiled. Grace cannot accept any more requests on Facebook: she has reached the 5000 limit already. The albino cockroach ran for cover after everything has been uprooted.
A certain innocence has been lost here. Buscalan, I could tell, has been in a period of transition for a while now. Somewhere in the village, I found a gravestone: Born on June 6, 1967. Manuel Par-ong was died on July 23, 1998. Whang Od’s nephew’s dog is named Wade, after his favorite NBA player.
It is painful to see Buscalan trying its best. For the wrong reasons, I am afraid.
Customs dictate to slaughter a hog and have a feast for the uprooting of a native house. Celebrations can cost an arm and a leg here.
But at that very moment when everything has been uprooted and the meat has been eaten, I wonder, what we are exactly celebrating. Is it life? Or is it the triumph of a certain death?
Whang Od, the very reason this village becomes popular to wandering souls who pursue the unfamiliar—it seems to me—is the only one who remains stubborn, organic, rooted.
I even joked Whang Od I would buy one of her hogs, the one Alex called Matilda my wife, can I have you for dinner? after a series of bland boiled sayote tops and beans. It costs P7000—a few thousands shy from the cost of my ten-day backpacking across northern Luzon.
“We would have a fiesta in the house if you reached a centennial,” I dared.
“Make it three,” she countered. Without even calculating, I nodded.
And she laughed. Whang Od laughed.