travel

There’s town where faiths and tribes intermingle, where birth rates are below average, and culture and art flourish – but it also stands on top of lucrative mining profits. How long can it hold out?

It is 5 A.M. the roosters have paused, waiting for the next sliver of light. It is so quiet, one can hear a civet get an ecection. You open the homestay door, and walk around as the town itself wakes up around you. And the first thing you hear or see is something one never does, the equivalent of one hand clapping: the sound of sweeping, and the sight of men taking their side of the street armed with there is walis tingtings and whistles.

This is not quite Bhutan, and it certainly isn’t Baguio either. It resembles what it was – in place of the colonial planted pines, we see an endless mosaic of primary forest. Every few seconds our ears are gifted with a chorus of endangered species, proclainimg their identity in this imploding universe.

Description: “Naimbag nga bigat… welcome to Paradise.”

“Naimbag nga bigat… welcome to Paradise.”

The town is called Adams, Etymology debated, boundaries untested, future in question. It sits between the Pacific Ocean and the Cordilleras. Nestled on the fringes of the main island, up a tortuous road, down a glorious valley, it is testament to a Philippines that once was and still can be. This tiny hamlet, with vistas and virtues as far as the senses will fathom, tells is like it is. It hangs between the blandishment of mining moguls on one end, and the hot air of tree-hugging nazis on the other. And if both, or either, had their way, this place would lose its soul for good.

“Naimbag nga bigat…welcome to Paradise.” An elderly lady had welcomed us the night before, smiling at us our eyes and lungs took in the air and the panorama after emerging from a clearing of fog and foliage. I ask one of the early morning strollers: “Where is Lover’s Peak?” He tips his hat and replies in English: “Follow the road up.”

We set off past where a barangay tanod idles by his motorcycle, hoping to find something more exciting to do other than going through the handful of tiny sitios that dot the 13,000 hectares to ferry home the occasional lost resident with too much bignay (organically made currant wine) in his system, or a woman to the poblacion’s newest maternity clinic, one that would put many city hospital suites to shame.

Description: As the light cascades on the vast, untouched valley below, crowned by a forest even Tolkien’s elvenfolk would call home

As the light cascades on the vast, untouched valley below, crowned by a forest even Tolkien’s elvenfolk would call home

As we now stood past the clearing, we and a few families who made their way up with us are now looking toward the horizon, and one can almost feel their gaze at the rising sun as if it was the first, or last one they’ll ever see. As the light cascades on the vast, untouched valley below, crowned by a forest even Tolkien’s elvenfolk would call home, and the fog-kissed saddle behind us, we’re swept up in an un-spoken, shared notion: Wendell Berry was right to write that whatever man has not yet encountered, he has not yet destroyed.

Description: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/%7Eksbarber/ml_episcopalian_church_2006_1.jpg

Episcopalian Church

In the meantime, we descend and find the town abuzz. It is Sunday, and it is time for church. Or churches, plural. All within ear-shot of each other. We choose the one with the warmest smiles and steo inside. It is a modest room, spartan but shorn of commonplace kitsch: no gaudy, bleeding Jesus, no sanctimonious matron. We figure out it’s Episcopalian. My fellow parishioner mirthfully points out the financial statements on the wall (where a gaudy monstrance would usually be) that show where all the collection plates contents have gone.

After the service, what we see next is unnervingly refreshing. No idle, empty faces. No unkempt, greasy children begging. The men, who’ve stopped sweeping now, are joined by their wives in serving a healthy dose of cacao. Congregations waiting outside to welcome you, invite you to share a meal.

Adams is a town of about five tribes harmoniously existing, with just as many faiths to call their own. It’s a community of barely a thousand residents, with enviable libraries, an expanding health center, an average life-span that matches Okinawa’s. And a secret harshness lurking beneath these gentle faces, like the feral pulses teeming beneath the forest canopies.

Description: Adams is a town of about five tribes harmoniously existing

Adams is a town of about five tribes harmoniously existing

Before coming up the trail, there’s a clue staring right at you. Staring at you from the the foot of the clearing is the image of a dead man, a tarp banner as his casket. The man is, or was Elpidio Sy, your average dodgy government bureaucrat. Until two years ago, Nr.Sy ran an usury business, and foisted it on seemingly hapless indigenous elders who were tricked into signing away their birthright. Word has it that he almost succeeded in amassing over a hundred hectares in forfeits, until one day his bloody corpse was found corrupting one of the tributaries flowing in to Pagudpud. That carcass, preserved on the banner with the words “Justice for Elpidio Sy,” still remains for those who wander into Adams – a macabre tribute to irony and tribal justice. And just enough to make his ilk think twice before pulling another shenanigan.

This is the only town in the province that resoundingly voted against the Marcoses, and yet they couldn’t have cared less about the Aquinos or Arroyos. They’re the only one up north that has needed no help from pedantic NGOs, or mass campaigns to spurn the advances of the logging and mining firms. Twice, in public consultations, they stuck it to them with their cash and promises. They showed up to the gatherings, politely said thanks, but no thanks, and voted with their feet. One of the community elders simply said, they didn’t want to lose who they were. They had what they had: their wine and weaving industry, the patronage of quietly loyal visitors, honorary subjects of Adams as it were – and that was more than enough.

Description: Before coming up the trail, there’s a clue staring right at you. Staring at you from the the foot of the clearing is the image of a dead man, a tarp banner as his casket.

Before coming up the trail, there’s a clue staring right at you. Staring at you from the the foot of the clearing is the image of a dead man, a tarp banner as his casket.

It’s a town with one of the smallest populations, and by no accident either. There are 1,523 souls living in four sitios, give or take a few migrants – a constant level since the last few decades. Residents enjoy a sustainable birth-rate, an astounding longevity, the highest student-teacher, book-to-resident, resident-to-area ratio in the country. Which is not surprising because it is the only town in the region and among the handful in the country where the local government has quietly and confidently instilled a bona fide family planning program.

And to this day, the average family size (including parents) stays at four, just enough to sustain the next generation. It is a reality that resembles more of the communities in Chile or Czech Republic, with their progressive balance of faith and seculurism, and with more heart-rending scenery to boot.

Description: The miners and loggers and the rest of the riffraff are coming back to roots

The miners and loggers and the rest of the riffraff are coming back to roots

Their independence flows into their culture and art. We are enjoying a night under the effusive moon, and we witness a display as rare as it is beautiful. Here are the indigenous folk-the Imalnods, Bagobos, Insnegs, Yapayaos, Kankana-eys-otherwise at odds everywhere else, now dancing togerther, both old and young. The dance is getting more frenetic, visceral, fusing colors, chants, and frenetic steps into a reworking of the cosmos.

But time is running out for epophanies and idylls. The miners and loggers and the rest of the riffraff are coming back to roots. The mayor mow has a trumped up “administrative” charge foisted on him by the powerful and salivating provincial board. A conspiracy to implicate him to the Sy murder is on its way. The neighboring local governments are now encroaching on its boundaries and claim the forest and the minerals they keep under their roots. And somewhere in a cozy, gaudy, lifeless room, the mining giants are patiently licking their chops, champing at the bit for when these plans fall into place.

Only the irony is this. That it isn’t the foreign invaders the native are resisting; bohemian backackers have joined the cause. Having slipped in and out of their new Shangri-Laover the years, they know there’s not much time left before the lowlanders start to covet. These fellow countrymen have little left to ravage in their own backyards. They’re now itching to spread their avarice, offspring, and excrements on this last remaining oasis that God would call home. The last few governments have stood by. The new administration hasn’t figured out what to do with the miners and their minions.

Description: Oases surrounded by scorched earth commercialization, kitsch and reckless breeding.This is a tiny sliver of who we are and can still be.

Oases surrounded by scorched earth commercialization, kitsch and reckless breeding. This is a tiny sliver of who we are and can still be.

“Once we get the cell sites and Wi-Fi installed in the town beginning in the libraries – we’ll let our community tell the President directly what’s going on here and what he should do,” a local offcial beams, underterred by the odds. Either way, an invitation is forthcoming, and we will soon find out if the man in yellow will see green or red, or cry uncle.

And maybe there might be something to hod out hope for, before this place starts resembling its defaced Cordilleran neighbors. In your mind, try to conjure up the Baguio of your childhood. And then open your eyes and clear your nostrils and smell the crap it’s become.

This place, fictional as it may sound or appear, could stand for any other in this God-given, Pinoy-forsaken country of ours. There are, indeed, a handful still like it: the last alcoves of the soul. Oases surrounded by scorched earth commercialization, kitsch and reckless breeding.

This is a tiny sliver of who we are and can still be.

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