PERHAPS it is just me, but it is the women who are the most visible and the strongest in the village. They are everywhere: by the window, by the patio lighting tobacco or chewing mama, by the communal tap washing clothes. Or if there are visitors, at Whang Od’s place.

Kanau, Whang Od’s sister, made fun of Alex, who was only wearing a thin pair of underpants. Her mismatched earrings—one traditional, the other a cheap trinket one could find just anywhere—swayed as she laughed. The women’s audacity here seemed boundless. Alex was embarrassed for a moment. Perhaps he was not expecting such candidness from the villagers.

The women congregating at Whang Od’s place expect visitors to bring candies for everyone. Alex bought a pack of jelly ace from the village’s store and distributed it to everyone, who instantly became young and playful. Whang Od was not an exception.

Candy is their weakness.

Once their curiosity was filled, they went back home. There was talk that fuel for the mill had arrived. The same women carried sacks of stalks heavy with unhusked grains.

They then hauled the bundles of rice inside the machine’s mouth. Maximo, the mill staff, was the only man there. It must have been a playful twist of fate that he happened to be mute. I found it personally amusing that a mute man was surrounded by women, who could not, and would not, stop talking and laughing. But everyone seemed to understand him with his constant “ah, ah” pointing here and there.

A woman said the whole village owned the mill. They all contributed to the purchasing of fuel.

Everything here, it appears to me, is communal. Harboring secrets—a characteristic I now associate with cities—seems foreign to them. By five in the morning, I could hear the familiar pounding of coffee beans. By six, one could knock on anyone’s door for a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Before going to bed, Whang Od herself sifted the beans she would pound the following morning.

Life of openness

During my stay, I would sit at the stoop outside her house, with a cup of hot coffee in hand, while everything looking dreamy, drowsy from a cold night’s sleep. The morning sun softened everything, starting from the top of the ranges, slowly crawling over the laundry left hanging overnight.

Whang Od’s hogs would then squeal once they saw her coming. The pigs could roam anywhere and were said to be fed on weed.

One time, during my walk, a woman was sorting dried leaves in front of her house.

Chris, a Latino, said they were marijuana. She asked if I would want a bundle. Just for ten pesos, she said. I politely declined.

If there is one thing that must be experienced here: it is the chewing of mama.

On our first night, Chris brought his tablet out and played a movie outside the house for everyone. They all looked like they were in a trance, sitting almost uncomfortably on a pile of dos por dos wood, their faces glued to the small screen. The light emitting from the monitor played on everyone’s face, like a mirage of a movie itself.

Everyone asked for another one, but the tablet’s battery died. There was no electricity in the neighborhood for a week or so already. With everyone going back to their little houses, we were left outside Whang Od’s house, Kalinga’s chilliness making me wrap my arms around myself.

Ruel handed me a mama, a betel nut coiled in a leaf with a little lime powder in it. I chewed it slowly.

“Listen to your body.”

The sensation started with the overworking of the salivary glands, then the warming of my ears’ nerve-endings, then heat spreading throughout the body. It is the villagers’ way of fighting the cold. Even in Baguio, a young handsome Igorot who gave me tips on traveling to Banaue, had teeth stained from chewing mama.

It is a culture unique to mountainous places. Some places like Sagada already banned the spitting of mama in public places.

What is native, what it is organically authentic, have to be hidden from the public eye.

The dismantling happened on our second day. There is a certain poetry of loss in the disassembling of an Ifugao house. The most intimate, the innermost must go first: the boxes of clothes, the sooty pots and pans, and the hearth—the heart of warmth on chilly Kalinga nights, the family itself who lived here. Then the roof made of cogon grass, and then the ceiling—stalks of an endemic grass growing in the surrounding ranges that turned gold in the morning and late afternoon light: the very bamboo-like stalk Whang Od used as the pomelo thorn’s holder. Then the wall—the three-foot-wide pine tree wood that does not exist anymore. Then the floor that could be mistaken as walls to the uninitiated’s eye. Then, the feet—the foundation that has been rooted in this place for a century or so.

An Ifugao house comes with no nails: it is an assemblage of fitting a piece of wood into another. The walls and floors have to be numbered 1-2-3 for easier reassembling in the city that has already given in to mass consumption long ago: Baguio.

The wood must come from huge, mature trees. There are no massive pine trees around here. The building of a small Ifugao house requires something big: from trees to strength used to carry the wood to this village. The un-building of a small Ifugao house requires something big: disheartenment and the art of letting go.

I was in one corner looking at two young boys looking at the men—must be their uncles and relatives—at work: the only time of my stay I saw a lot of men in one place.

The young owner, already a father and a husband, inherited the house from his father, who must have inherited it from his as well. Asked why he decided to sell his house, he said it was hard to maintain. A concrete one would be more convenient.

Uprooted

Ruel was disgusted by the banning of chewing and spitting out of mama in public places. He said it is the death of their very culture.

The nephew’s wife asked if she could have my pants. I gladly gave them to her for all the translation help she extended. Whang Od’s sister asked for the beanie I bought in Baguio, I declined. I still needed it for the long bus ride. For a moment, she grumbled. Two old men crafting indoor brooms underneath a house asked if they could have Alex’s matchbox. Alex, a chain smoker, said he would still need it. They mumbled something. I just smiled. Grace cannot accept any more requests on Facebook: she has reached the 5000 limit already. The albino cockroach ran for cover after everything had been uprooted.

A certain innocence has been lost here. Buscalan, I could tell, has been in a period of transition for a while now. Somewhere in the village, I found a gravestone: Born on June 6, 1967. Manuel Par-ong was died on July 23, 1998. Whang Od’s nephew’s dog is named Wade, after his favorite NBA player.

It is painful to see Buscalan trying its best. For the wrong reasons, I am afraid.

Custom dictates the slaughter of a hog and commencement of a feast upon the uprooting of a native house. Celebrations can cost an arm and a leg here.

But at that very moment, when everything had been uprooted and the meat had been eaten, I wondered, what exactly were we celebrating? Was it life? Or was it the triumph of a certain death?

Whang Od, the very reason this village is popular to wandering souls who pursue the unfamiliar—it seems to me—is the only one who remains stubborn, organic, rooted.

I even joked Whang Od I would buy one of her hogs, the one Alex called Matilda My Wife, Can I Have You for Dinner? after a series of bland boiled sayote tops and beans.

It costs P7000—a few thousand shy from the cost of my 10-day backpacking trip across northern Luzon.

“We would have a fiesta in the house if you reach a centennial,” I dared.

“Make it three,” she countered. Without even calculating, I nodded.

And she laughed. Whang Od laughed.

*When not traveling, Jona Branzuela Bering teaches, gardens, writes, and becomes a slave to Hip and Carbon, the cat royals. She is a plant thief and reader by midnight.

Follow her travels on Instagram@travelingjonaor on her blog Backpacking With a Book.

For collaboration and inquiries, one may email backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. (conclusion)