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Northern Philippines • Life and Death in Batad

I woke up extremely early that morning and took my laptop to work in the balcony of the restaurant, overlooking the breathtaking view of the valley below. Pauline later joined me and asked a bit about what I do and how I started traveling.

Pauline was just merrily backpacking around the world and it seemed that, just like me, she was looking for something. Sadly, we didn’t have time to ponder on what that something was, since we had to get ready for the trip. 

A few hours later, all three of us were showered and sitting on a small panel bus which would take us to the drop off into the valley.

At the time I thought I was ready. I sincerely thought it would be a similar trek to the one we had in Bomod-Ok a few days earlier. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We got to the drop off and our guide said the trip was divided into three parts. The first part had us going down the now-familiar set of steps into the heart of the valley until we reached a small village with a restaurant to rest.

Ifugao Living

The restaurant was also next to an interesting exhibit: a set of Igorot huts. Traditionally, the People of the Mountain lived in huts made of wood and palm leaves. Inside they would have a place to sleep and would decorate the ceiling with the skulls from monkeys, pigs and other animals they would hunt to eat.

Northern Philippines • Life and Death in Batad

The huts themselves are sustained above the ground by four pillars in each corner and below they would usually make the house stove to cook. To climb into the hut they have stairs which are set as removable drawers that stack up to keep strangers from climbing in at night.

Our guide explained that the Igorot put a lot of emphasis on learning and helping young boys and girls understand their roll in the family and the tribe from an early age.

Somehow along the way this happened and I have no idea how to explain it.

Northern Philippines • Life and Death in Batad

In the photo I’m wearing a wanno or g-string, which is a traditional clothing of the Ifugao men different from the tapis which are wraparound skirts that women use instead.

What the Hell is ‘Moma’?

We knew we were getting close to the fields because we started seeing less signs of “no spitting on moma” and well… more moma splattered on the side of the stairs. Thanks to the presentation from the previous day, we now knew why moma was such a big deal in Banaue. As Wikipedia puts it:

…’moma’ (mixture of several herbs, powdered snail shell and betel nut/ arecoline: and acts as a chewing gum to the Ifugaos).

To us, moma was just a mix that you put in your mouth and makes all your teeth bleed red with it. It’s not actual blood, but rather the color of the mix itself which men will chew and then spit out while they work in the fields. It serves two purposes, first as a way to pass the time in the long hours of the day and also as a numbing agent that desensitizes the body to mosquito bites, of which you are bound to get plenty simply by standing in a field composed mostly of water puddles all day.

Basically, the moma won’t stop the mosquitoes from using you as a pin cushion, but at least you won’t feel the stings until later and can go about your business while earning a living.

You can buy a ‘moma kit’ with all the stuff you need at many of the stores on the way to the rice fields and while I was tempted to do it, I can’t say I had the money to afford it at the time.

Northern Philippines • Life and Death in Batad

Batad: The Mecca of Rice

We continued trekking down, watching the landscape change and the mountains get taller around us until we finally hit the mother load: a rice field so large that its produce was only harvested twice a year depending on the weather and had dozens of men working on it as far as the eyes could see.

The whole view was made even more beautiful by the water buffaloes and the PVC tubes coming down from the mountain, which carried water in intricate pluvial systems that the local people had built to irrigate the fields many years back.

There’s a village that’s stationed right in the middle of the terraces and you have to go through it to reach the next high point in the trek. This is the second part of the tour at which our guide explained some of the basic tenants of the way they handle rice in Banaue, which is a very important culture in and of its own all over Ifugao.

You have to understand: people in The Philippines eat rice. A lot. Where I come from, rice is seen mostly as a meal for lunch or dinner, but in The Philippines, it is eaten at any time, anywhere. You can have it for breakfast with fish or eggs, you can eat it plain white as a snack, and in some local fast food chains you’ll even find All-You-Can-Eat rice specials all day, where a person with a bucket full of the stuff will walk around the restaurant and refill you with a big scoop or two if you ask, even after the rest of your meal is over.

In that sense, the Ifugao region and more specifically Banaue, is like the mecca of rice, where traditions and cultures have grown surrounding the harvest of this grain, and its possession determines things like social status and wealth.

Tappiyah Falls

Beyond the rice terraces, my body was starting to feel the burn of trekking in what was closely becoming a 2 hour, 10 kilometer hike up and down the valley.

Unlike Bomod-Ok (and sorry that I keep comparing the two, but I just don’t have any other reference point to give you right now), the weather was evenly cool throughout most of the trip, which meant the relief from reaching the final part of the trek, the Tappiyah Falls, wasn’t as great because the temperature didn’t really improve.

Moreover, what really sucked for me was that I hadn’t thought of bringing board shorts to swim at the bottom of the waterfall. That doesn’t mean I didn’t go in, it just means I bathed in my loose, semi-transparent red boxers, with all my jangling bits casting an unflattering light on me as I walked out of the cold water. Still, can’t say it wasn’t refreshing to chill happily in the fresh water without having to rely on my legs for a moment.

After a refreshing bath it was now time for the good stuff. Needless to say, the trek back up was murder. Really painful, leg-cramping, blood-pumping, eye-bulging, vision-blurring murder.

It took us around 2 hours to get to the falls and now we had to crawl back up two more hours back where we came from and I was dying, but Stef and Pauline didn’t have any problems at all going up, or at least that’s what it looked like.

As the climb got harder, the group naturally began dividing itself into smaller clusters of people more or less at the same endurance level. Stef and Pauline were ahead with the guide and I was behind in a group with some German girls and a couple from Austria. At points we would need to stop for a breather, but I found consolation in the fact there were at least 2 more groups behind us, including a couple of really large guys who stopped a lot.

When most of us finally made it back up, the guide went back down to see who was left and we had to wait around 20 more minutes to see if he would come back up with the couple who lagged behind. Otherwise we were told we would have to leave and they would be retrieved in a helicopter. They never came back up.

The rush I got from the Batad hike was insane, not only because I felt I was about to lose my mind, but also because the feeling of accomplishment at reaching the top was amazing. Would I do it again without proper training? HELL NO.

But it was nice that I did and it felt great. Back then I used to cap training like that with a tall bottle of coke. Nowadays I’m cutting down on my sugar and soda consumption, so maybe next time I try it, I won’t be close to dying.

Welcome to The Big Journey. Where a Panamanian roams the Earth in search for purpose, adventure and answers. Part of the Pateando Calle series, find the archive here. Thank you for tagging along.