[Past] does change. The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.
—Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
A traveler intrudes upon the privacy of a place. Yet, is it possible to be part of its privacy in a time too limited, too short, too constrained? Possibly not. To reconcile the gap between time and understanding the place, one creates a version of the place on memories. And the place becomes truthful, sincere to memory.
Mt. Timbak: The Mini-Calvary
Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey.
—Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
While piggybacking her younger sister, a girl around eight eyed the camera with repugnance. She was a real beauty.
“Coming from that place, it gave me a different perspective of the beauty that I have never appreciated,” someone commented upon seeing the picture. Sometimes we fail to appreciate something that we are familiarly exposed to. Such beauty requires certain distance and strangeness in order to appreciate it. Just as the uninitiated find the poor exotic and photographable.
Consuming a diet mostly composed of fresh vegetables and fruits, it comes as no surprise that kids in Atok, Benguet are naturally gifted with rosy cheeks, smooth complexion, and healthy eyes. Let’s hope that urban or Western diet shall not reach this part of the archipelago contaminating the pureness of their beauty and health.
Calla lilies are pricey flowers, yet in the mountainous Benguet, they are simply wild. Flowers such as chrysanthemum, daisies, and lilies adorn the mountains. Adjacent to Halsema Highway, known as Death Road, their beauty makes even death appear welcoming.
Pausing from tending the vegetation, the farmer pointed the right direction toward Mt. Timbak which was signaled with three crosses―a local version of the Calvary. We noticed the two tombs one side of the farm―right next to a house. In some cultures―local and foreign alike―burying the dead near the living is practiced. Oliver Sacks, a noted anthropologist and neurologist, noticed such culture in Pingelap―an atoll in the Pacific. It seems like an act of close kinship. Perhaps it is an act of loneliness and reassurance―the living could not depart from the dear departed. It seems the validation of life comes from the dead.
Cebu has a different approach. In Lorega, San Miguel, a portion of the neighborhood found comfort living in a cemetery. Tombs became paths leading to doorsteps, tables for drinking sessions, sites for rendezvous.
Chinese cemetery, which is a stone’s throw away from Lorega, gains the repute of being home to fugitives from the law.
A paternal uncle, who was my guide in the labyrinthine Cebu City, kept on reprimanding me not to nose around the area. What is forbidden teases the mind.
Stories of robbers on the run hiding in tombs circulated in our neighborhood. Perhaps the authorities never tried to look them up in those considered sacred places. Questions bugged me. How does it feel to be confined in a grave, to be with the remnants of the dead? To have bones almost embracing one? To inhale the air staled for years inside? As Kiran Desai put it “the space between life and death . . . too small to measure.”
Not heeding my uncle’s advice, I passed through a couple of times. It was not as scary as I thought it was. Boys sniffing rugby gathered in the kiosk near the tower. Adults played taksi with a ten-peso bet on one side. Women shared a gallon of tuba (coconut wine) while feasting on the lives of those who were absent in the circle.
That was nothing new. Rugby boys proliferated in Mango and Fuente areas. Taksi was a trivial gamble—even I had my share back in Tuburan, my hometown. Stabbing each other’s back is an innate character of humankind, which even those deceased cannot escape.
Why, then, are they considered outcasts inside a bigger society? Perhaps it is the place, the cemetery—how it rationally contributes to the creation and sustenance of this neighborhood. How the dead sustain a community of what is considered vile in the society.
Mt. Pulag: The Laid-back and the Killer
She stared out at the mountains, at the perfection of their stillness.—Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
We opted to linger in Baguio and experienced the Death Road ride, explored Mt. Timbak, and visited the centuries-old mummies, so we could not possibly join the other group journeying the killer trail—Akiki, which necessitates longer time.
Those who opted to trail Ambangeg were often asked why they chose the relatively easy route. Perhaps we should ponder the reason we climb, the reason we travel, the reason we walk. Although we climb as a group, we have selfish, personal reasons for climbing. For some, perhaps it is more daring to experience the coniferous Akiki, to scale a challenging trail, to test one’s strength. For others, it is exhilarating to climb with a bigger number, to laugh, and enjoy one another’s company. Yet there are times calling for silence. There are those who prefer silence to listen to nature’s true character, to journey not just with the body but with the mind, to entertain, accept, reject thoughts, to revel in the sheer pleasure of thinking, of walking.
Sir Shimi, a core member of EWIT, said I was being unfair to myself, knowing I could handle Akiki’s killer trail. I was not being unjust to myself. Ambangeg is Ambangeg; Akiki is Akiki. I desire to experience both. They are two unique identities. Killer Akiki could not be scaled without the existence of the laid-back Ambangeg. We need both for comparison. That is the reason of their being.
I was selfish. Setting one’s pace is a choice. Ambangeg is the apt trail to linger on, to look upward and see how the branches of kalas trees coil themselves into grotesque forms, reminding one of the Crooked House in Poland—a random online read. It’s the trail designed for serious talks with the guide, to know the place from the guide’s eye, whose expertise lies in his experience.
Tatang Andrew has been a guide for ten years. He used a worn-out school backpack, a wind- and time-bitten umbrella, and a makeshift raincoat made of a trash bag.
He reminded me of the sherpas in the Himalayas. Once again, Desai intruded my mind “Should human conquer the mountain or should they wish for the mountain to possess them? Sherpas went up and down ten times, fifteen times in some cases, without glory, without claim of ownership, and there were those who said it was sacred and shouldn’t be sullied at all.”
The evolution of mountain climbing is reversed. Instead of returning to basics, it becomes a luxury sport designed for those who have the resources to travel and purchase gilt-edged gears. We have completely overlooked that it is not about fancy gears. Rather it is about the appreciation of what we do not possess, of what we have possessed, of what we do possess. It is the pleasure of friendship, of laughter, of talks, of nature, of thinking, of walking, of silence.
by Jona Branzuela Bering
edited by the boyfriend 😛
published in Sunstar Live, Travel Section, April 21, 2011