Sometimes Things Go Right
Benguet, Philippines, Feb 2003
by Gregg

Sometimes things go right. Within five minutes of arriving at the road I had a ride. A hired jeepney en route to Sagada would drop me in Bontoc. Getting a southbound bus in Bontoc would be easy. But I knew I'd only get as far as Abatan and from there, well, I would just try. By 1:30 I was in Abatan.

Inquiring about transport from there to Kabayan I was pointed down the road to a parked jeepney. The conductor confirmed the destination; I was elated, having anticipated a bit of trouble making this next leg. I threw my pack up on the roof and hit the market. A half hour later I climbed up after my pack and took in the heat of the sun as we pulled away from the curb. Feeling good indeed!

But as soon as we started, we stopped. The one other guy with me up there on the roof was calling down to the conductor. He'd picked up on something and now they asked where I was going. Miscommunication; they were heading off somewhere else altogether.

I hoisted my pack and clambered down. I asked around, getting assorted stories and I-don't-knows. I waited by the side of the road for two hours. Sometimes things go wrong.

Then I met Dante. He'd just come from Baguio but lived nearby. He seemed to know a few things about the place; I told him my plan.

I wanted to see the mummies that had been discovered in caves in Kabayan. 500-800 year old preserved bodies, in wooden coffins, stacked in caves.

Dante had heard about the mummies but he'd never seen them. He didn't really know where they were but okay, if I wanted to go to Kabayan, he'd help me get there. He went to inquire with his uncle who worked in a nearby butcher shop.

No rides to Kabayan; ever. But there was a regular jeepney to Balai Kabayan; from there I could either hire a private ride or walk. The jeepney departed once a day; in the morning. I'd been told there were no hotels in Abatan. My fallback plan was to catch a late bus south to Baguio where there were plenty of places to stay. But that would mean foregoing the mummies as I wouldn't have time to double back.

I asked Dante if there were any hotels nearby. It so happened a new one had opened just last year—and he knew the manager. Let's go, he said, I'll take you there.

Dante helped me haggle over the price of the room but I still didn't quite know what to make of him. I was skeptical that he might have an ulterior motive in all of this; especially when he said he'd wait while I relaxed in my room a bit and had a shower. Wait for what?

We had a beer, he introduced me to the manager, and then he left. I was getting to know him now and feeling I could trust him; we'd meet again in town in the morning. I'd give it a try then but I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic. Even if I could make it to Kabayan I wasn't sure I'd have enough time for the hike to the caves.

The next morning I felt better. Whatever happens, happens. I was back in town by 8:00. Dante was already there waiting. Further inquiries told us the jeepney would be at 11:00. Maybe I could hitch a ride earlier. We waited and talked; then retreated into a restaurant for a coffee.

Dante exchanged a few text messages on his cell phone; then turned to me. "They're butchering a pig at my father's house today. It's part of a ceremony. Sounds like they'll be doing it early enough; we could go there, you could see the sacrifice, then we could go together to Kabayan. I'll have my uncle tell the jeepney to pick us up at my father's house; it's on the way."

Sounds good to me!

Dante flagged down a truck and we jumped in the back. The breeze and the hot sun felt great as we bombed down the road into the Loo Valley. Dante's family home was right on the main road—we were there within a half an hour.

The extended family had started to gather having come from various places in and around the Loo Valley—some, such as Dante's sister Kristine, from as far away as Baguio. I was welcomed warmly, stowed my pack in a corner of the simple wooden sala, and settled in to chit-chatting with the folks.

They were intrigued with my notions of seeing the mummies. The older folks especially, knew the area well. Dante's dad had even guided foreigners into the hills on treasure seeking expeditions. But none had ever been to see the mummies.

They mulled over my plan and then revised it for me. Getting to Kabayan via Balai Kabayan would take all day. From there it would be a long and grueling climb up the mountain to the caves—not possible that same day.

I should go instead back to Abatan and then south on the main road towards Baguio. Get off at km55, they said, and hike from there up the mountain to the Timbac Caves. They figured it would be about a two hour hike but they really weren't sure.

Okay, good advice. But I did the math. Even with this approach I probably wouldn't make it. I'd have to hike up and back and reach the road in time to catch the last bus to Baguio. Whatever; I was having a good time and there was no way I would cut out before the pig sacrifice and the meal that would follow.

Out behind the house I watched as Dante whittled a segment of tree branch into a lethal stake. The pig was taken screaming from its pen. It knew what was up and tried to bolt but they had tied a rope around one of its hind legs.

The pig lay on its side just a few feet from a roaring open fire. Two of Dante's cousins squatted over it—pinning it down, holding its legs and digging their bodyweight into it with their knees. Dante's parents and an uncle murmured prayers; others—mostly boys and men—looked on respectfully. One played intently with a game boy

The people of the Loo Valley are Kankana-ey. They believe that when someone is ill, a ritual sacrifice—an offering to the ancestors—can make them well. Dante's nephew—a seven year old living in Baguio—would disappear. That is, he wouldn't come home after school. Someone would find him wandering in some part of the city and somehow he'd be returned home. One time he wound up back in the Loo Valley having taken the 3-4 hour bus to Abatan and from there, somehow, made it down into the valley.

The family priest had advised a ritual sacrifice in order to reestablish the boy's center.

With five men holding down the doomed animal, Dante's nephew plunged the stake into the pig's heart; again and again as blood gushed out and the animal screamed. I moved quickly, snapping photos while trying to avoid landing in the fire. The pig's anguished eye met my own. I felt the adrenaline surge.

It was over quickly. The pig stopped moving; stopped screaming. The puddle of blood continued to spread as the men relaxed their grip. The corpse was hoisted onto the fire and the hair was burned off. It was then dismembered and boiled in a large vat of water positioned over the fire.

As it cooked Dante told me that one of his cousins had a van. Maybe he could drive us to the km55 drop off point. That would save some time.

Around noon the feast was ready. The food was laid out on the floor of the sala. I tried to no avail to ignore the thousands of flies swarming everywhere and settling on the meat. I was served a healthy portion of pork, large intestine and rice. We ate with our hands sitting at a big table, around the room's edges on benches, and seated on the floor. The kids were mostly outside (including the disappearing nephew who was there from Baguio).

After lunch we spoke with the van driving cousin. He suggested maybe we could drive all the way up the mountain to the caves. But it would cost me more. No problem! This could be the difference between seeing the mummies or not. It was 1:00. Despite the late hour I was once again feeling optimistic.

Dante's sister Kristine would join us. She was due back in Baguio that night so we would travel together. Dante, his cousin, and a friend of his cousin's would return with the van to Loo. We set out through the lush valley—vibrant with the greens of cabbage and lettuce. The land here has been good to the people, traditionally providing them with a profitable livelihood. More recently however, low-priced imports have threatened their ability to earn a living. Many have gone elsewhere in search of opportunities; to less-green pastures such as Baguio—the once pristine "summer capital"—which recently surpassed Manila as the Philippine city with the worst air pollution.

An hour and a half south of Abatan we reached the turn off at km55. The road leading up the mountain was wide enough but it looked pretty sketchy; deeply rutted, rocky, and very steep. The ten year old van had a hard time but Dante's cousin had a can-do attitude. The engine stalled repeatedly, the van positioned precariously just a feet from dramatic mountain drops. Each time, Dante would jump out, grab a boulder and shove it behind one of the rear wheels. The driver would gun the engine, kick in the clutch, and we'd make another few yards.

It took us the better part of an hour but we made it all the way to the top where we discovered a small cluster of homes. A young woman emerged from one of them and welcomed us. "So, you want to see the mummies? Do you have the key?"

Over the years, some of the mummies have been stolen. In other caves, there has been vandalism. Locked gates were thus erected across the cave openings. Dante and his cousin got in the van and headed partially back down the mountain—to a school we'd passed where a gathering was underway. Someone there would have the key.

Anxious as I was to see the mummies, I didn't mind waiting—the view was extraordinary. Kabayan and other villages were visible thousands of feet below in the valley. Directly across the valley rose Mt. Pulog—the highest peak in Luzon and the second highest in the country.

The young woman who had greeted us emerged again; this time holding a key. Dante arrived back; I had been skeptical he'd be able to find a key—now we had two. With Dante was a contingent of men form the school. A few of them joined us as we hiked down a steep trail with cement steps.

Beyond the end of the steps the trail leveled out; we then dropped suddenly, turned and were in front of a cave opening. Stacked wooden coffins were visible within. The young woman unlocked the gate. No one made a move. "Go ahead", someone said to me. I ducked down and entered the cave. "Look inside", someone else said, pointing to one of the coffins.

I slid the top of the coffin off to one side and peered in. There was enough light but not much clearance between the coffin and the cave's ceiling. I strained to see; my eyes met a skull. Some skin around the side, a preserved ear, but mostly just bone.

One of the men sidled up next to me, slid the coffin out and placed it on the ground in the full light of the cave's opening. The body was in the fetal position; arms tucked in, hands turned inward. Now I could see that quite a bit of skin was present. But my first impression had been the bone of the skull and I was actually a bit disappointed.

A second, much smaller coffin was opened revealing the mummified corpse of a baby. Some minutes passed as we looked this one over as well as the first. None of the locals were moving and I was left thinking that was it.

Then someone said, "look in there", and pointed to a larger coffin. A boy removed the lid for me. I had never seen anything like it. Three withered mummies. One appeared to look right at me. Perhaps because these three were propped up in a deep coffin, the impact was far greater than had been from the others. I marveled. Ears, fingernails, skin covered with tattoos.

And there were to be more; in a second cave a few meters below the first. Three and four mummies to a coffin; wedged deep inside. Fantastic!

Just ten cultures worldwide throughout history are known to have practiced mummification. Unlike the Egyptians, the Ibaloi people of Kabayan didn't eviscerate their mummies; the body was considered sacred so organs could not be removed.

The process was started before death. The dying person swallowed a salt water solution which helped to cleanse the internal organs. Following death, the eldest son blew tobacco smoke into the body through the mouth, disinfecting the tissues and thus preserving them. The body was washed and then dried over a low fire and in the sun. Any draining body fluids were considered sacred and caught in a jar. Once dry, the epidermis was peeled away. Before internment, herbs were rubbed on the body. The process took months to complete.

Back at the van we discovered a flat tire. As the rest of us kicked back and enjoyed the view, Dante's cousin threw on the spare. If we made it back down without a second flat, we'd reach the main road before dark.

All went well. Feeling triumphant, we took a couple photos. Then Kristine and I said goodbye to the others and settled in to wait for a bus. Plenty of rides passed in the other direction. We waited and talked; the sun was gone and it was getting cold.

Finally, a bus. Only one flat tire during the 2-1/2 hour ride to Baguio. By the following night I'd be ensconced back in the big city streets of Manila; feeling fulfilled.

Bonus Photo
More info on the Kabayan mummies (from World Monuments Fund)

copyright ©2003 - Gregg Butensky

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Kabayan, Benguet

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Dante's father, praying

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The pig meets its maker

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Onto the fire

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Timbac Caves, Kabayan

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Timbac Caves, Kabayan

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Timbac Caves, Kabayan

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Timbac Caves, Kabayan