Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Spirits of Sagada (c 1995, 1996)

This piece was written many years ago, in 1995, during a workshop course in the non-fiction narrative at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. I found it in a folder labelled "The Evening Paper- 1996" which was where I was working that year. I probably sent it in to them, but am not certain it was ever published -- due to the length and odd point of view, I doubt it. 

For one or two brief weeks each summer we get a chance to renew our lives, to air out the musty cupboards of our psyches, to make peace with our dead. Many of us manage to escape the demands of living only during Holy Week, the dourest season of the year, but instead of praying and fasting, we blithely head for some seaside resort or to the cities and towns of our childhood, where, feted like the babies we once were, we gorge ourselves on native delicacies, or get drunk until ghosts from years past materialize before our eyes, to ration out forgiveness or exact bitter revenge.

Summer makes me think of Sagada, its silences and pure air, a world apart from corrupted Manila. Each summer I head there, if not in the flesh, then in spirit, a mental pilgrimage for purification. It is time for me to go; I invite you then to come along, a guest among all my ghosts; we travel now past the blonde fields of the Central Plains of Luzon, where grey lahar forms a matrix beneath the roots of the vegetation. Our destination is Baguio, from where rickety buses ferry natives and tourists to the numerous towns nestled amid the Cordilleras. Spending the night in a cheap hotel (Baguio after all is a city for transients) we are up at dawn to catch the first bus. There are several more rides later in the day, but no one travels to Sagada after lunch, lest engine trouble catch them in the middle of nowhere and with darkness closing in.

Time and again on the long journey we are brought to the brink, literally, and just as swiftly pulled back, as the bus threatens to plummet down the mountainside, its wheels churning just inches short of the tufts of grass that mark the boundary between road and air. The atmosphere grows thinner and the engine groans in pain. The higher we climb, the more we seem to leave the impediments and affectations of living behind. At an undefined point the houses become fragile structures of plywood and corrugated metal. The brown, weathered men and women by the roadside wear the shabby layers of clothing forced upon them by their hard lives. The vegetables they sell are the practical ones you find on rural Filipino plates — none of the opulent lettuces and broccoli buds peddled in Baguio. They ignore us, you and I.

The town, when we get there, seems a disappointment: a main street, church on a rise to one side, tiny post office and municipal hall, teenagers playing basketball. It could be Everytown in this archipelago, but for the cold air, and the silence. You who unfailingly read all the papers in the 1980s are surprised to find it intact. You have been expecting something war-torn and indelibly marked by rebel and soldier blood, but the shouts you hear are of the children running in the sunshine, and the spots of brightness you see on the ground are geraniums and peonies still speckled with this morning's dew.

There are gardens (it seems) in all the lodging houses, and there are lodging houses (it seems) all over town. Sagada is one big backpacker's destination. We see them swinging along, singly or in pairs —  men and women in tatty shorts, with greasy yellow ponytails, rucksacks weighting down their shoulders. Once in a while we meet Filipinos whose clothes and demeanor reveal them to be from Manila. We examine one another covertly, smiles threatening to break out the corners of our mouths. But no one speaks, speech would mean further engagement, and no one wants to talk about the world we have left behind.

In the vacant rooms of the lodging houses, the sunlight is wan and the sheets are cold. The men and women who attend to us prefer English over Tagalog, and speak with a curious staccato intonation, the accent of these mountains. Their smiles are shy, yet businesslike. Most of the beds are doubles —  the town is as much a haven for lovers as it is for solo travellers or groups of friends. You and I select a lodging house down the road from the municipal building; it has a view of the church, and of the shallow ravine that runs through the town. On the second-floor balcony we lean over the pine-wood railings and gaze upon the galvanized-iron cubes of houses and the textured green flatness of camote patches. Trails lead up the ravine sides, through several terraces of green grass, and on to the church. Gleaming white in the afternoon sun, the Anglican structure is the focal point of the town, more beautiful and more meaningful than the tiny, virtually empty municipal hall.

Feebly we try to connect. I steer you up and down the road, peering into the faded interiors of stores, amused at the prevalence of Caucasians who seem, by their subdued demeanors, to be long-term residents of this place. Vehicles trundle past the shadowy forms of small, stooped men and women. Glancing covertly at their faces I try to embue them with personalities, with some sort of a life. But no stretch of the imagination can bring me into their world; the exercise fails. They are too closed up, moving in a realm which has nothing to do with ours. It occurs to me that they have no need to reach out to strangers like ourselves; they are, after all, home.

This stretch of inns and taverns, populated by transients like you and me —  beyond all these there must be something more. On my first visit here I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding reception. Docile, I followed my landlady and her family down the road, turning right on an unremarkable path that she told me led to the village of Demang. Twisting through other people's camote patches and pig wallows, it is a route I will never be able to find on my own. We picked our way over the muddy stone embankments  that separated paddies of highland rice, to a fragile-looking iron-sheet house on high posts, nestled amid identical-looking houses. The community was very poor, but there was no suspicion, no resentment, no anger among the people as they converged upon the buffet table. My plate was colorful: the rice faintly red, the pieces of pork (skin and bristles intact) black, glutinous tubers smearing my fingers with violet. I watched the children tear past me, gazing at their clay-colored skin with the red splotches across the cheeks.

On our way home, stumbling along in a waking dream, I was accosted by a drunken man who, with an obscene word, made a move on me as his friends laughed their approbation. His rough hand brushed the front of my sweater. Panicking, I dashed a few yards down the dirt road.

The men here start drinking as early as noon, my landlady told me, careful to convey her disgust. They never have anything else to do. I thought of the people here —  displaced, jobless, marginalized and turning to vice. I berated myself. How stupid of me, how ethnocentric, to think of this town only in the most laundered of terms —  virgin landscape, haven, refuge. Rage, frustration, all the deep secret passions —  they were here as well, unchecked by the cold and the silence.

You want your own chance to touch base, but this time no one has invited us to some village celebration. Instead we take a walk, hoping to discover Sagada's spirit through its landscape. The path that we choose leads us to the Anglican church (empty and forbidding this time of day) and up a hill marked by what we perceive, fancifully, to be cairns. But they are actually stations of the cross; each year at Holy Week the populace trudges up here in procession. At the crest of this hill is the cemetery. The wind sharpens about us and the light wanes. It is the perfect time of the day to commune with the dead. The markers here are of white stone, embedded in the earth as you would expect in the United States. It is the religion of the American missionaries, after all, that has come to dominate the place. We pick our way past the gravestones, feeling no fear, struck by how young the people here were when they died. Forty-five, 31, 22, 17. There are no plastic flowers, no fading wreaths of crepe paper. We lie down for a few moments among the graves, daring ghosts to rise up and evict us. You are lost in reverie and come to with a start when I bound up: there is a wonderful prospect just beyond the next ridge —  sheer cliffs upon which the straggling pines resemble soft beards of green, crags jutting out like bleached cheekbones from the rockface.

So to the edge of the cliff we stumble, the last of the gravestones giving way to large boulders on which the cleats of our boots barely make a purchase. The wind burns the planes of our faces and rushes in the pine boughs overhead, and far away, across the valley we hear voices softly whispering, a sound that seems to come from several different places at once: the ghosts of the place given voice, perhaps, by the pines. You discover it first: a tiny chuckle coming on the heels of the loud laugh that pleasure wrenches up from your gut. I call out, experimentally, and hear an answering cry. And then, like people newly mad, we let loose a barrage of cries into the silence —  my name and yours, our secret names, the names of those who have betrayed us and whom we have betrayed. The mountain bounces our voices, in fragments, back to our ears, but sometimes our hoarse cries are met only with silence or a high-pitched un-human sound, and then we stare at each other in dread —  it is as though the cliffs have swallowed the specters we have flung to them in offering; they are no longers ours, but are loose in the landscape.

The next day we wake up cramped and worried, squeezed into bundles beneath the layers of bedclothes. At this time of the day a faint mist still remains about the trees, in the pale sunlight it rolls gently, spreading over the ravines, enveloping us as we stand on our balcony, so that the air that touches our skin is wet and chill. As we walk through the mist a few minutes later, the noise of a chainsaw forms a counterpoint to our thoughts. This early in the day the pine woods are already being desecrated, the long logs sundered neatly and lying in rows along the mountainside. A second look reveals how cunningly the loggers have chosen their victims: one or two trees in the middle of a thick stand of pine. Some day this forest will be gone.

We are searching for a burial cave the cartoon map in your hand calls Lumiang. You see, it is fun to play tourist, fun to discover that yesterday's mysterious chasm bears the all-too obvious name of Echo Valley, fun to buy copies of old Masferre photographs (all those men in loincloths, the women with their breasts so bare), fun to spend our money on knapsacks and wallets woven just for outsiders like ourselves. None of the locals I have seen sport belt bags quite like the purple and yellow one you wear about your thickening waist, but when you come back down to Manila your friends will smile at you enviously: "Aaah, Sagada."

We come to a point where the road forks, a path curving up the mountain at an extreme angle. A few meters along the split-rail fence that marks off road from ravine is a patch of crushed grass and, beyond it and weaving through the ferns, the naked earth of a trail. You and I begin our descent. A few feet down the mountain the vegetation turns damp. Beside the trail, half-obscured by the twisted undergrowth, is a drop of an unknown height. In the branches overhead, birdsong and the sound of the wind. Unconsciously our voices have lowered. We breathe, easily and excitedly, through our mouths. We are the only humans around.

And then the stone steps, either carved out of the mountainside or planted there many years ago. Progress is slower, the path nearly vertical, but sure-footed we descend, feeling lithe and reckless, keeping balance with knuckles, steadying ourselves by grasping briefly at blades of grass.

At the base of the mountain now. A bend in the path, and ahead of us, peering over the stalks of grass, great boulders and a black emptiness. Cold, smooth fissures of fern beneath our hands, moss that comes away in our palms and the seats of our jeans.

And then we round the last bend of rock and the coffins are there, to the right of the cave mouth, stacked upon each other like pale cordwood, the bottom ones dry and nearly fossilized, the top ones jeweled in green where moisture has patiently slid down the rock face.

There is absolutely no sound. A few meters up the path, the faint rustle of underbrush. But beneath the shrub-encrusted vault of the roof, the palpable silence. The cave is a vacuum, draining even the memory of sound from our ears.

Slowly we sink down on a slab of rock near the entrance, where mourners in days gone by could have rested the heavy log coffins before consigning them to the pile. The rocks lie helter-skelter beneath us; far below is a great black hole, dry and cold. Above us, a flapping of wings. Something slithers through the leaves with infinite slowness, kissing each surface before touching earth. We count coffins. There are fewer than we thought. On the far wall, one of them has lost its lid. Its shrunken, bleached occupant, more than a hundred years old by now, stares at us, challenging and yet resigned. That is another skull up there, moss-jewelled and without a home. The coffins that lie splintered on the rocks and the names painted in three-foot-high letters upon the walls are as eloquent as the noise of the chainsaws as they rip through the forests above us.

In prayer, we call upon God, but it is the stack of nameless and now-forgotten men and women before us whom we address. I ask them to forgive us this visit, this desecration. We mean no harm, we simply seek renewal in a land we thought untouched, amid the mountains that must have seemed immortal while they lived. I ask them to bless us, to impart the wisdom of the generations that preceded theirs, that chain of knowledge that was broken long before our time. Our prayer has no conclusion. I simply cease to think as I turn to you, and we leave.

Now here we are, at the end, ferrying ourselves back to reality, back to the burden of our separate lives.  I hope all this has been good for you —  the silences, the mist, the chill air that takes a toll on your bones. This pilgrimage has been mental, but I think it would be good to travel up to Sagada in the flesh, and see town and mountains shimmer in the clear sunshine. Beyond Holy Week is summer and the days will be warm and lazy. It is a season for pleasure. Life is too short.

No comments: