A Visit with the Igorots
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
IT IS early afternoon when my wife and I board a comfortable air-conditioned bus and sink into the soft cushioned seats, anticipating our unique vacation. We are on our way to visit the Igorots, who have, to a great extent, resisted the intrusion of foreign influence into their culture. They live in the mountainous provinces of Northern Luzon.
The Igorots are of Malay origin, medium height, strong, with dark skin and straight black hair. The remarkable thing about these people is that over the centuries, with only hand tools and sheer hard work, they have converted an entire valley into the world’s most extensively terraced rice gardens.
On the way to visit the Igorots, we ride for five hours through the picturesque central plains of Luzon with its many small towns and rice fields before arriving in Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. The cool weather here is a welcome change from the heat and humidity of Manila.
The next morning we are up early so as not to miss the 5:30 bus departure for Banaue. Although we arrive at the station a half hour early, to our disappointment the bus is full. But Filipinos are hospitable, and soon a passenger motions to the others, who begin putting their sleeping little ones on their laps and pushing vegetables aside to make room for us. A man with a smiling face extends his hand to help us up.
The bus is shorter than other buses, looking more like a truck and giving the impression that it is built for strength rather than comfort. It is completely open on one side, with wooden benches across its width but quite comfortable despite its Spartan appearance. For shelter from the wind and rain there are canvas shades that can be pulled down.
Although it is only about seventy miles from Baguio to Banaue, our trip takes nine hours because of winding mountain roads that take us through the clouds to elevations of over 7,000 feet. As we start up the mountains, a yellow-orange sunrise colors the sky and we see the morning mist hanging just below the tops of tall pine trees.
Igorot Customs and Way of Life
Nearing the town of Bontoc, we begin observing the Igorot people. The men wear a brightly colored loin covering called a wanes, commonly known as a G-string. They also wear a small, flat-topped, round cap, which serves the same purpose as trouser pockets.
Women wear a skirt of heavy, brightly colored hand-woven cloth called a tapis. It is predominantly red, with yellow, white, green and black horizontal stripes. The tapis is held in place by an eight-inch-wide belt, woven with heavy cord, called a wakes. Most of the women we see wear a white blouse, but in the villages some women go without upper covering.
Along the road we see women carrying their children in a blanket tied to their back or side. Even little girls carry their baby brother or sister in this fashion, along with packages on their head! When our bus stops, I ask a young girl if I may lift her package, and to my surprise it is heavier than my loaded suitcase. Yet she picks it up gracefully and carries it off on her head!
Bontoc is the capital of Mountain Province. Here Igorots live in a modern town in cement houses with electricity and running water. Yet, across the river in the village of Samoki, others live as their forefathers have for hundreds of years.
As we walk along here with our traveling companion and interpreter, we notice that she speaks to everyone she sees. We learn that Igorot people almost always greet persons they meet on the way by mentioning where they are going and, as a gesture of courtesy, invite the greeted one to come along. However, it is not really expected that they will join the one doing the greeting.
We notice that many Igorot women wear tattoos over their entire arms. “It is a sign of beauty,” explains our guide, “and is applied at the age of fifteen.”
I ask: “How do they know when they are fifteen if no birth records are kept?”
“They estimate the age by the first time she is in love with a young man,” is the reply.
Courtship, Marriage and Work
Igorot courtship customs, we learn, are most original and interesting. In the village is an ulog, or ag-gam, a thatched hut where girls of marriageable age sleep overnight. A young man interested in marriage will approach the girl of his choice in the ulog and ask her to marry him. This may be the first time the couple has ever spoken to each other.
When the proposal is accepted the next step is to visit the girl’s parents, with a pig as a gift. This pig is slaughtered and the bile examined. If it is acceptable, the couple is engaged. This is followed by a second pig. If its bile is acceptable, the marriage is official. A bile that is not in good condition is believed to be an omen that the marriage will not be blessed. A marriage feast follows with much food and dancing.
The marriage, though, is still subject to the condition of the bile of a third pig, to be sacrificed after the rice harvest. An unacceptable bile annuls the marriage.
The work load in an Igorot family is divided in half, between the husband and the wife. One day the man plows the field while the wife cares for the home. Then the man cares for the home while the wife spends the day in the field planting and cultivating the crops.
The Igorot Home
We resume our bus trip, eventually arriving at our destination, Banaue, where arrangements have been made for us to spend time with a family in their Igorot hut.
It is already dark when we arrive and start our thirty-minute walk to our accommodations. With a flashlight, we make our way up roughly chiseled-out steps on the vertical side of a mammoth boulder alongside the road. Once on top, we follow the flashlight beam along the narrow ledge of a twenty-foot-high rice terrace, walking carefully, trying to balance ourselves on a ten-inch-wide path. Soon we come to a narrow but deep gorge. We are cautioned not to look down as we make the four-foot jump. It is incredible to think that this is the easiest way of approach to these people’s home!
Finally we come to a little clearing on the mountainside. In the moonlight we see a small hut, perhaps eight feet high and seven feet wide. No sooner do we catch our breath than a smiling, elderly man comes out to invite us in.
Once inside, we realize that there are no windows, only a small hole in the roof above the fire that burns in one corner. The only other source of light is a small oil lamp made from a jam jar and a piece of cord. There are no tables or chairs, only a small mat made of narrow bamboolike sticks called bilaw, which is laid on the floor. It serves for sitting, as a dining table, and, as we later discover, our bed.
Since it is still early evening, our host, Pedro Kindajan, tells us how he built this hut during the time of the Japanese occupation, which explains why it is so hard to get to. He points out that the walls are made of bilaw, and the thatched roof is a grass called goloon. Upon racks above the fire is stacked a supply of firewood that dries as it absorbs the smoke.
Our conversation lasts until about 8:30 p.m., when it is time to go to bed, since the day begins early for the Igorot people. A small thin mattress is rolled out and the mat we are sitting on instantly becomes a bed. Contrary to what one may think, it is very comfortable. Our host and his family sleep in other huts he has on his property.
A Rewarding Visit
The new day begins before sunrise. While breakfast is being cooked, we wash up outside. Breakfast includes hard-boiled chicken eggs, boiled camote (sweet potato), and coffee. I spend part of the morning working with Pedro Kindajan as he cares for his daily chores, which include feeding the ducks, chickens and pigs.
Pedro points to a recently plowed hill across the valley and tells me he is going to plant some camote up there, and rice on one of the terraces below. Here for the first time I see the vastness of the Banaue Rice Terraces!
Eastward, northward and westward, as far as the eye can see, are green rice terraces upon green rice terraces. They extend from the base of the mountains clear to the summit. On one mountainside there are over fifty terraces, one on top of another. These terraces cover an area of some 250 square miles and, if put end to end, they would stretch a distance of some 14,000 miles. Of all man’s marvelous accomplishments, these terraces are the most impressive I have ever seen. It staggers the imagination to think that they were constructed with simple hand tools and without the aid of modern technology.
Living for several days with the Igorots proved to be a rewarding lesson for my wife and me. Although not having modern inventions to keep us continually busy, we were constantly learning interesting things about the good earth. Never once did we feel bored. While modern technology has helped man to better his lot in certain cases, somehow it has also had the tendency to alienate him from his home, the earth, rather than to make him feel a part of it, as this visit among the Igorots did for us.