Banaue and Hungduan, Ifugao, the Philippines
February 28, 2015
Who would travel ten hours by bus to Banaue only to miss seeing the postcard-famous Batad Rice Terraces? This tourist, apparently. Fresh from a butt-busting bus ride, my friends and I were herded off by jeepney to People’s Lodge and Restaurant for a meet-up with tour guides. A blind date, as it were. They recommended less touristy rice terraces, although Batad was scribbled in the itinerary as a come-on. We could not tell whether it was our limited time or a web of lies that denied us a stop at Batad; instead, we spent our precious half-day in town at Hapao Rice Terraces.
Hapao was located in the next town, Hunduan, derived from the Ifugao word for pit stop or a place of passage. So it was for us, dropping by on our way to Sagada. It was not a look-see as we had expected. Our guide led us down the slope to walk through what he called the “spider web rice terraces.”
Viewed from the highway, the patterns and grids of pilapil (dike) were web-like, crisscrossing much of the valley, a feature of Hapao Rice Terraces that set it apart from the more famous image of the rice terraces carved higher on the mountainside.
The paved pilapil doubled as footpath through rice paddies. We had to balance gingerly on it, more so where one side plummeted several meters down a lower level of the terraces. The other side was not too far down but not less muddy. Despite the dry season, the paddies did not lack irrigation. Water came gushing down from the forested mountaintop through rivulets and small falls.
The Ifugao knew better than to overwork nature. The terraced paddies reduced soil erosion as they retained water from the forest kept intact upslope. Ifugao farmers did not set out to carve the entire mountain, only when the need arose. Sorry Nick Joaquin, this was not a heritage of smallness. Such environmental awareness was forward thinking! This way, ancestral lands were passed on by one generation practically unchanged to the next. It was planting season, and perhaps the farmers concealed by umbrellas in the field belonged to the same families that had owned the land for centuries.
Trailing behind, I was eventually alone in the middle of the rice terraces until I heard footsteps following me. A trio of Ifugao kids had caught up with me. My snail pace created a bottleneck on the pilapil not wide enough to allow overtaking. As captive audience, they could not evade my attempt at small talk.
They came from families of farmers, they shared, but they had dreams beyond these terraced paddies. They wanted to be engineers and doctors. Still, I made them promise that they would do whatever they could to maintain and protect their heritage: the rice terraces. They raised their right hands. At last, one boy asked me where I was from. He probably thought it odd that we had spoken exclusively in English, which they were fluent in, throughout our conversation.
My sister said that the Ifugao learned English from Anglican missionaries of old. Living in mountain hamlets, they were isolated enough to preserve such fluency in the language. As they did with their received religion. Indeed, Catholic churches did not dominate town centers in Ifugao as they did in the rest of the country. Dotting the green expanse of Hapao Rice Terraces were pockets of small houses and at least one church, perhaps Protestant.
An hour of walking in the sun offered relief at the refreshing Bogyah Hot Spring. I came unprepared; I could only dip my finger to check the water temperature. Yes, it was invitingly warm as the cascading water of nearby Hapao River was frigid. Later I downed Coke naturally chilled in the river.
The experience was akin to walking into a community swimming party. Townsfolk, mostly kids (including the ones I had walked with), and quite a few dogs were relaxing in and around the natural pools. It was chill day Saturday, after all. Along with a lone white guy, we were the only outsiders, but we were received graciously.
The proof of the rice from the rice terraces was in the eating. I bought a bag of red rice from a lady by the highway to bring home to my mother. It surprised us with its softness and stickiness, not unlike white rice and very much unlike the less refined brown rice.
A product of indigenous farming, minaangan rice was organically grown, fed by compost rather than artificial fertilizers. I figured the rice terraces could sustain itself by its fruit, but perhaps their minimal yield limited availability in the market. As heirloom rice, it was not only food but a form of cultural heritage as well.
On our way back to Banaue, we made a quick stop at the Banaue Viewpoint, a collection of souvenir shops sharing a deck overlooking the Banaue Rice Terraces. We were finally rewarded with a postcard-perfect photo op. After an enriching experience at Hapao Rice Terraces, this felt less like the main event and more like the cherry on top.
The rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras were at least 2,000 years old. They had been built before Jesus walked the Holy Land. The Philippines did not have ancient colossal monuments, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Renaissance architecture in Italy (both predated by the Ifugao rice terraces by more than a thousand years), but there existed sophisticated indigenous cultures in these islands before our “discovery” by Europeans. Ancient Filipinos may not have sculpted massive stone structures, but they carved mountains.