The town of Kiangan in Ifugao is reached after a long drive through landscapes of forested mountains and rushing streams. I had the sense that we were far from everything else, but in truth we were but a few hours outside the bustling cities of the Cagayan Valley.
In Kiangan, one has the feeling of sanctuary tinged with a note of sadness. Just beyond are the fabled Rice Terraces, once glorious but now threatened by neglect and erosion.
At the very outskirts of the town was our inn, a compound of comfortable houses run by Toto Kalugdan and his wife, the former Teresita Habawel.
The two are obstetricians. They left a substantial practice in California. After many years of living abroad, it was time to come home.
Home would turn out to be in Ifugao from where Teresita’s family hailed, instead of Toto’s native Cavite. The couple purchased a piece of land and began to build their dream residence. The spot had actually been a coffee plantation and a Japanese military camp in previous avatars.
Listening to Toto talk about his plans for a school for the deaf or a clinic for snake bites, one can see how much he has come to love his adopted community.
The Japanese probably chose the site because of its location—the river valley was visible for miles around.
When the first house was built, curious visitors began to drop by. A relative asked if the couple could take in 17 foreigners whose reservations elsewhere were botched. Though hesitant, the Kalugdans agreed to play host.
Not long after, more people would show up, referred by the original batch. The dream house was now doubling as a homestay.
Through the years, though, one rule remained: only those recommended by friends of the family are allowed to stay.
One day, kayak tour organizers Anton Carag and Argel Gerale came calling, referred by their guide Daniel Pitpitunge. They wanted to know if the couple was willing to accept guests who needed showers and food after braving the rapids. Lucky for me, the Kalugdans had said yes to what would prove to be a productive arrangement. This was how I ended up in the compound, having joined a beginner’s sortie led by Anton and Argel.
We got to Kiangan in time for mid-day meal. It would be the benediction at journey’s end.
The first thing laid before us was a soup confectioned from cornmeal and squash blossoms —a most satiating porridge. On the trip up, I had seen an old woman carrying a bunch of the yellow flowers—drops of sunshine gleaming in the cold air. It was nice to know that such wonderful incandescence was now warming my stomach!
Next came kare-kare and a salad of tender ferns enlivened by tomatoes, onions, and a lot of salted eggs. As if the saline kick from the eggs was not enough, there were also small bowls filled with sautéed bagoong laced with coconut cream and chili. As most Filipinos know, all these form the perfect complement for kare-kare’s protean peanut-kissed stew.
I dug in, grateful that all our kayaking had been fortuitously accomplished the day before. My vessel would surely have capsized from the weight of what I was ingesting! I barely took note of what our hosts were explaining: lunch was a kind of transition from the cuisine of the lowlands. Ifugao fare was reserved for that evening.
As scheduled, the whole afternoon was occupied with the celebrated Rice Terraces. We headed for Hapao since the terrace walls there were made of stone instead of the more common packed earth.
One has seen these agricultural marvels, on television, in photographs. But there was no preparing oneself for the awe which they drew. The whole world became ziggurats of emerald, each step paved with silver, mirroring the sky.
It is Jacob’s Ladder ascending to Heaven, a celestial vision.
Someone observed that the grass roofs of the houses had been replaced by shiny metal sheets that looked so harsh and alien. Yet how does one force people to be content with grass which requires constant replacement?
On the way back, we passed a stall selling watercress, freshly picked from the Terraces. In the Philippines, watercress grows only at higher altitudes and is quite the treat. We bought the whole batch for Teresita.
As we drove home there was one more incident: we witnessed an infant plummet from a kitchen counter onto a pail! From our van came a flood of helpful tourists, each carrying what he/she thought could help. Someone brought a bottle of water, another a can of soda. The cold surfaces would reduce the swelling, we explained as we waved our offerings wildly.
Eventually the grandmother thanked us for our assistance, graciously addressing the women in our party as “Madame.” All through this episode the patient in question kept very still, having quickly silenced her own cries. Later on it dawned on us: the poor child was probably more shocked by the explosion of deranged strangers than by her actual fall!
After a brief stop in a silversmith’s workshop, we were back in the hotel. As promised, Teresita prepared duck the Ifugao way. I had never imagined duck as a fixture of Cordillera meals. It made sense, though, given the liquid realm of the Terraces where ancient hydraulic techniques were practiced.
I found the fowl, accompanied by the broth it was boiled in, too gamey for my taste. But then Victoria, our Spanish guest, made a brilliant suggestion: in keeping with a tradition in her country, we should all pour into our bowls half a glass of baya, the local spirit made from rice. Dr. Toto prided himself in having found the perfect baya maker. He liked to serve the amber liquid ice-cold and sweet. It went perfectly with the duck soup, a fusion of Cordillera and Castille.
The theme of fusion continued to the watercress, just so recently flourishing on mountain slopes. Teresita had lavished on it a vinaigrette made more sensuous by the oil of walnuts, the vigor of garlic, and the pampering of Parmesan flakes. This time it was the Terraces meeting up with Tuscany by way of California. There was also breaded fish with a dark sugary sauce as well as julienned sweet potatoes and carrots, all cooked a la tempura. The camp’s original occupants would have approved!
I had to interview Teresita: had she ever studied cooking extensively? It turned out that she mostly experimented with the recipes she read in books. It was very clear—this was a woman who was cooking from the heart, weaving culinary threads from her kitchen atop a valley with a rushing river.
The next day, Dr. Toto showed us around the compound. We saw cozy rooms with carved doors made regal by the skill of local sculptors, a stream-fed pool, a traditional hut. But everything was again eclipsed by the food. We couldn’t wait for breakfast: eggplant omelet, slivers of sun-dried and salted fish on a bed of tomatoes, garlicky kangkong and finally, an aromatic coffee coaxed from beans grown on the surrounding peaks.
Change is coming to the Cordillera. Some of it is lamentable. Young people no longer want to farm the Terraces, understandably leery of the back-breaking work. But some of the changes can also be for good. Surely one must be gladdened by the knowledge that somewhere amid the Terraces, there is a home with two people who have returned from a distant country to explore what it means to reunite the tastes of many lands.
Listening to Toto talk about his plans for a school for the deaf or a clinic for snake bites, one can see how much he has come to love his adopted community.On the way back, we passed a stall selling watercress, freshly picked from the Terraces. In the Philippines, watercress grows only at higher altitudes and is quite the treat. We bought the whole batch for Teresita.