(MY FATHER told me that when an Ibaloi dies, tradition dictates that among the animals to be offered is a horse, for the departed to use in his journey to Pulag. Trekkers with sensitivity view their ascent to the country's second highest peak as a cultural or spiritual pilgrimage rather than a personal achievement or feat.)
My wife and I were disappointed when we were informed that there were about 260 climbers who registered for the Mt. Pulag Pre-Christmas Climb. The sum shot up to 300 and it looked more like a battle for Thermopylae and not a climb.
So we backed out.
At four in the morning, on the day of the departure for Pulag, I woke up and my mind was on the hike. Half an hour later, after I got dressed and grabbed my camera bag, I bent down to kiss my wife. She whispered me to take care. Then Lovelyn snuggled in between our sons on our single bed for four to go back to sleep.
I planned it out of the blue that I would be going to Babattan. I thought: if the party of 300 will be going up, then I should go down.
Babattan is situated below Kilometer 18, Ambassador, Tublay, on the west side. Lovelyn and her siblings grew up here where her father grew vegetables, especially sayote. The narrow winding road is steep and dangerous. Typhoon Pepeng had scarred most of the mountains here with such cruelty that I felt like I was in another world walking through.
This was my third time to visit Babattan. The first was when Lovelyn and I weren't married yet and I helped out in harvesting carrots. My second was the week before the Pulag climb; when I jogged down then up to prepare my legs for Pulag. School kids walking up the road teased me that I was a woman because of my 3/4 jogging tights. I was told that the children of Babattan never get sick at school or miss their class because of illness. Their immune systems are strong that even in the rainy months they don't get sick. Come rain or shine (the temperature can be hot or cold), the kids walk up about 45 minutes to be in class, then down again after school.
I met a lot of folks along the way, mostly farmers who never failed to ask me to drop by their house later.
Beyond Babattan is Dukot. The cooperative store there serves as a turning point for vehicles. About a kilometer farther is where the road ends. I tried to look for a trail of some sort but found nothing.
Back at the cooperative I found a footpath that led to a surprise and rarity these days - two traditional Ibaloi huts. I took some photos and made small talk with the residents. Roxas, a man who smoked Champion cigarettes, didn't know why their place is called Dukot.
He offered me homegrown and brewed coffee, with too much sugar for my taste. Then he gave me directions to two houses at nearby Piloy, which were taken away by landslides during the typhoon. A man died there, Roxas said.
I took Roxas' directions and reached Piloy.
On the night of October 3, 2009, at around 11:45, Jerry Limwas, his mother Piana and his three children ran out their house just before it slid down into a ravine. Jerry didn't have time to get his uncle who slept in the other house next to them.
The following morning Jerry was able to send two text messages to his wife who was in Hong Kong - before the battery went dead. Juanita, Jerry's wife, just arrived a day before I came to talk to them.
Samson Maakay, a barangay councilman of nearby Baayan, received the news via text messages. He went immediately to Piloy and led support for Jerry's family and the retrieval of the body of Milandro Solte, 43.
A shanty, about a kilometer up where their house used to stand, and which Jerry used as a tool shed, was now their home. At the back stood a tent donated by the United Nations.
Piana offered to guide me to their fallen homes. Before we headed down, I had to use their comfort room. Juanita handed me a packet of imported tissue and apologized for they have only a "kaybu" to offer. I told her I really didn't mind.
After seeing what's left of their houses, we went to see where Jerry's uncle was laid to rest. Under a house of a relative lay his uncle. Beside the grave just outside under the shade sat an old man. I got my second dose of coffee and it tasted as the first. Their brew is pre sweetened, I was told later.
Half-way back up to their shanty home, I thought I should have asked the old man how these places and their names came about. All those I asked why their place is called Piloy or Dukot answered "I don't know." I saw a need for their children know why, lest they grow up not knowing how their place came about.
I thanked Jerry and his family, bade them goodbye. Then I noticed inside one of my pockets that I still had the tissue. I tried to hand it back to Piana, who told me to keep it because I might go nature calling again. I laughed as Jerry gently nudged his mother and told me to use the tissue for my sweat.
The coffee gave me energy as I trekked back up to 18, relieved I didn't have to use the tissue again. I felt our decision to back out of Pulag was worth it. My little adventure led me to Babattan, where I met folks and took photos of this beautiful place. To cap a fine day, my wife, in-laws and I repaired to Wild West Music Saloon. It's the only folk house I had gone to that played real country music, this time for a benefit concert in honor of the late classic country singer Mike Santos.
On our last night at Ambassador, I camped on top of mount Pulit, just near our home in 18. It was the icing on my cake.
My trek was not a spiritual pilgrimage, but a bit of cultural learning, I suppose. What fascinated me most are the people in this part of Tublay. A stranger walks by and the folks make him feel like their long lost relative who found his way back home.
I'm sure I'll be back home some time again. (Johann D. Dacawi)