(STAR) By Audrey N. Carpio - It was a good night for a war dance. A full moon reflected its tumescent state in the rice paddies, still wet from a fresh harvest. The dancers, dressed in woven thongs and skirts, braided belts and feathery headdresses, lifted an open palm or spear, depending on the type of ritual and celebration, and moved in and out of the circle, a whirl of red, black and white, to the rhythmic threshing of the gong. They told an ancient tale of headhunters and tribal conflict, of victory and thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest.

We were in Mayoyao, the Cordilleras, and this night in particular our group of travelers had descended into the valleys where 2,000 years before Ifugao ancestors carved out rice terraces on the slopes of these mountains. A modernized Ifugao hut, whose iconic cogon roof had been replaced with red-painted galvanized steel, provided the evening’s shelter. Mayoyao is one of the 11 municipalities of Ifugao, almost all of which have their own set of terraces. Banaue, of course, remains the most famous, with an appearance on the P1,000 bill; but unknown to many, there are terraces beyond Banaue that form a network so extensive that, if placed end to end, they would reach halfway around the world.

After the dance, the performers changed back to their regular attire of pants, T-shirt, Adidas jacket and bolo. Everyone partook of the meal that had been killed just earlier. Pinikpikan involves lightly beating a live chicken so that its blood coagulates and thickens the meat around the wings and neck. After the chicken is taken out of its misery, it is plunged into an open fire to burn off the feathers, then chopped up and cooked in a container. Inhumane or not, the process of making the dish was actually more exciting than the taste of the chicken, which was plain, save for the hint of blood and smoke.

But the tapuy — oh, the sweet tapuy. Our guide JP Alipio, one third of the Cordillera Expeditions group, brought over a few bottles of the rice wine from his personal estate in Baguio, bootlegged in Ginebra bottles. Now this was the stuff: none of that burnt-tasting bitter brew sold at souvenir shops that littered the rim of Banaue. The tapuy had the light red color of a rosé and a natural sweetness to it, and seemed to go down especially well after spitting out one’s moma or betel nut chew.

Impassable is nothing

“I wanted Filipinos to see their country the way a tourist would,” says Alipio, explaining why he puts together these off-the-beaten-path trips to the Cordilleras. “There are so many beautiful places here, each with its own distinct character, language and customs.” Alipio is a true Cordilleran, having grown up in Baguio where he spent a lot of time exploring the outer regions trekking, biking and camping. But the mountains are more than just a playground for this environmental management post-grad; they are his passion and his advocacy; its soil, his own soul. Alipio has investigated issues from tribal wars to pesticide use and has received grants from the National Geographic Society as a Young Explorer to research the Cordillera region, as well as mentored under adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie.

One of his expeditions for the National Geographic was a hardcore 38-day trek known as the Philippine Central Cordillera Traverse, a trail that connects Benguet to the Mountain Province and ends at Tirad Pass. No wonder, on our mini expedition to Mayoyao, every destination according to our guide was just “30 minutes away” and involved “light trekking.” We took maybe five hours to hike up and down a forested mountain and were blistered, scratched, sweaty and palpitating all the way. I tripped over vines and slipped a few times, and wished I could’ve worn my as yet unbroken-in Hi-Tec Base Element shoes, which are waterproof and would have provided better grip and traction on muddy trails and steep inclines than the battered old pair of sneakers I had on.

But, at the base of the mountain swept an elegant waterfall, its icy waters a salve for our sunburns and a contemplation for our complaints. The photographers of the group whipped out their tripods and shot the rapids while the rest of us splashed around and screamed like children. When hunger struck, a lunch of barbecued chicken, veggies and rice was served on freshly macheted banana leaves (nature provideth). Ben Muni must be thanked for hauling around all the supplies in his gigantic backpack. Ben is the second guide from Cordillera Expeditions, and while not a native of the parts like JP, he could very well be one, as a teacher of anthropology at UP Baguio and a team member of the Central Cordillera Traverse. His extensive knowledge of local culture is outshone only by his ability to crack jokes and lighten people’s spirits.

The third of the Cordillera Expeditions triumvirate is Cherry Malonzo, a med school graduate who has backpacked all over the country and has known JP from their college mountaineering days. She added a woman’s touch to the expeditions, though she is certainly as fit, if not fitter, than the boys, earning her the nickname “Ula the Amazona.” The three are good friends above everything else, and their love for the outdoors is so infectious you can’t help feel like you’ve been traveling buddies for a long time.

The other rice crisis

And after the guides have taken you safely — sometimes holding your hand — through the wilderness, you do feel a sense of gratitude, not just for reaching the destinations but also for the detours along every step of the way. If a 30-minute hike took a few hours, it was because we stopped through villages where children would congregate and want to have their photograph taken, or we paused to hear a hymn sung in the local dialect at a makeshift church, or we interrupted a household’s afternoon routine and asked to try our hand at rice pounding.

Simple as they are, these are the kind of experiences fast becoming extinct in a world where almost everything and everyplace is accessible at a price. Banaue is an example of unplanned tourism gone awry — the supposed Eighth Wonder of the World, the rice terraces there have been neglected and abandoned by younger Ifugao folk who look for more lucrative careers in tourism or in the city, or who have converted them into plots for lodging and shops. Visitors leave the place not with a sense of wonder but often disappointment with the rundown view and the widespread prostitution of native culture. Eventually, the reason for tourists to come to Banaue in the first place will cease to exist.

“Ecotourism” meanwhile has been a marketing buzzword of late and a label slapped on almost any kind of nature-related activity. True responsible ecotourism must minimize its own impact, aid in conservation of the ecosystem, build environmental and cultural awareness and respect, and be sustainable by giving back to the community through jobs and socio-economic benefits. According to many definitions of the term, ecotourism must, above all, sensitize people to the beauty and fragility of nature.

“We have a policy to use only locally produced food and services like guides, transportation and catering,” says Alipio on how they apply the leave-no-trace ethic to their tours. “It makes less business sense, but in the long run the communities not only benefit monetarily, but will start to give more value to the local environment that the explorers come to see.” The people of Mayoyao have learned the lessons of Banaue, and are using the income generated from tourism to save the terraces, which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger in 2001. Our local guides Leandro Elahe, who joined us on our walks, and Grace, who led the cultural activities, are part of MATTIKHAO (Mayoyao Trekkers, Tour Guides, and Indigenous Knowledge Holders Allied Organization), a group that uses part of their earnings to fund the rehabilitation of the terraces.

A group limited in size — 12 people at the most — also lessens the impact on the environment and its resources. By staying at an Ifugao hut, the demand for inns (and building of new ones) is minimized. “We hope to create a new kind of tourist,” explains Alipio, “a traveler who would much rather stay in a hut than look for five-star accommodations, someone who is respectful of local customs and traditions, someone who will readily eat the local food and drink, dance with the locals, and be mindful of the people and environment they are visiting.” And to address the 10-hours-plus road trip getting there, a portion of the tour fees is donated to planting trees to offset emissions from travel.

Sure, the local practitioners did put on a show for the guests, but it was in the form of performance and theater, not a staged ceremony of sacred ritual that may no longer even be relevant. I believe that at some level it was also for the instruction of the younger generation, the lot of children who might possibly lose interest in their heritage and never be inclined to put on a G-string. The toothless, wrinkled old man who dons his tribal garb to step into the dance is repeating a motion inscribed in memory, singing a song that was never written down, and calling out to the god of the Sky World, who existed long before religion.

We left Ifugao with hopefully little to no trace. But Ifugao no doubt left a huge impact on us.

* * * Special thanks to Hi-Tec shoes for their sole support. Hi-Tec is available at Rox Bonifacio High Street and SM Department Stores.

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