Trails of hot vapour
drift out from the old kitchen like dragons, carrying smells of frying pork,
spices and whatnot, through the din of noisy customers and laughter of whores
who sat on their laps or tottered between tables on stilettos. The tall mirrors
on the walls reflected the jeeps and scooters as they blared their way along
the wide avenue, lit up by the coloured signs that burned against the night
sky. Now and again someone would feed the jukebox and sit down to hear CCR yet
We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, downing Singha beer out of thick glasses that left wet rings upon the Formica tabletop. Our empty bowls and plates were taken away, and the harried waiter came over with another bottle.
My companion, whose name I’ve forgotten, was a Filipino in his 30s and rather shy. He didn’t say much and that too when asked. After some polite inquiry about his islands where I had never ventured, I turned to the customs and habits of its diverse people.
He asserted that balote is rather nutritious and not quite as unappetising as it may seem to foreigners. Was it true, I asked, that in the islands, squid is cooked in its ink? He vouchsafed it is, and pronounced it delicious, with a smile.
Then, lighting a cigarette, he stretched back and began to tell me, speaking slowly, of a really exotic dish he had once sampled, unknown even to most Filipinos.
His job as a government surveyor took him far and wide from headquarters, and thus it was that some years back he had found himself trudging with a pair of workmen in the Cordillera range on Luzon island. They had set out to ascend Mount Pulag, the third highest peak in the archipelago.
“We had stocked up with provisions in Bontoc, a market town that caters to trekkers, selling everything from canned food to butane gas canisters, and set off on foot through a forest of pine,” he outlined. “The first day was fine, but on the second, at about 12,000 feet the weather turned. The clouds closed in as we climbed, and by about 3 o’clock it got quite dark and then … heavy rain. We could not see very far and the lone narrow path became thick mud,” he remembered.
They lumbered on, cold and wet through the driving rain, until the dusk swallowed all shapes. Like blind men they clambered, groping their way through outcrops of rock, scrub and slush, illuminated by the bursts of lightening that flashed now and then, having lost some of their baggage, not knowing a way out of there. Finally around midnight, the three stumbled into a clearing and discerned a rude village that clung upon an incline.
The loud barking of the dogs brought out some of the dwellers from their huts, carrying paraffin lamps. They turned out to be the Apayao, a tribe that not well-known by plains people and hence thought to be wild and intemperate. They were dressed in strange outfits made of a coarse hemp and rope, and most bore strange tattoos upon their brown skins. They had not been corrupted by the Spanish, and successive governments in Manila had failed to tame them or secure mining rights upon their mountain range.
“Using mostly sign language—since none of them understood Tagalog, and their strange tongue, Isnag, being totally alien to us—my mates and I somehow managed to tell them of our plight, and after much animated discussion, they finally put us into a smelly hut for the night,” the man recalled. “The next morning, we found we had no bearings of our whereabouts, having lost the compass and troglodyte, etc. So we decided to wait out the rain, which fell in sheets. You couldn’t see much, and it was quite bare on that mountainside with no telephones. Nothing really.”
The Apayao, it seemed, didn’t do much except rear cattle and sit around in their thatched huts, smoking strong tobacco in little clay pipes, including the women. They didn’t seem particularly interested in the urban intruders either, and left them alone after the first morning. “We couldn’t go very far anyway, except to relieve ourselves in the open, so we lay about cursing our luck in that hut, listening to the rain,” said my companion, shaking his head. “They gave us bowls of thin gruel and boiled sweet potatoes every day. In the night we had to sleep on the cold floor, which was okay, but had to endure the constant howling of a dog that issued from a distant hut. It seemed to grow louder every hour, and got on the nerves! Just one accursed cur that wouldn’t keep quiet.”
The noise had risen somewhat in the restaurant with the arrival of some tourists. We called out for another beer. The jukebox sang.
“Finally, after about four days it stopped raining, and we began to plan our descent. It took most of the day to dry our gear in the weak sunshine, after which we asked to see the chief and thank him before making our way away from there. But when we met him and passed on the message through sign language and a gift of about 300 pesos for his hospitality, he declined, and with much mimicry insisted we stay for a farewell feast that night. I tried to protest, but the hurt expression on his leathery face convinced me it would be the right thing to do. So we agreed reluctantly to leave the next morning instead. And we needed a guide from his lot to take us down the steep mountain anyway. ”
All thirty or so of the village gathered in the open for the farewell feast. First a big mud pot of potent arrack was drunk over two hours starting before sunset, accompanied by the thin sounds of a bamboo flute that was passed to and fro. No one seemed to know how to play the thing, but they blew a shrill sound sitting on the damp ground around the fire just as their hoary ancestors must have. The arrack soon kicked in and everything began getting just a little out of focus in the cool evening.
Looking up, I saw stars through the scudding clouds. Then we drank some more.
“I was beginning to feel rather hungry, not having had a proper meal for many days … I was hoping it wasn’t going to be potatoes or gruel again. At last the dinner was brought, or rather pushed, forward from out of a distant hut with much merriment by some women and urchins: a whinnying old mongrel with stomach so bloated, it could barely walk. Its glazed eyes darted wildly at everyone. There were smiles all around when the cur was finally tied by a short rope round the neck to a wooden peg rammed into the mud by the fire. Then, a stout cudgel was produced and given to the chieftain, who got up slowly to his feet and approached the dog that was pulling desperately at the rope that cut into its neck. Muttering a short prayer, he poured a libation of arrack upon the beast and in a trice swung the cudgel over his shoulder and beat its head open with a loud crack!”
My man smiled and lit another cigarette before picking up the tale again.
“They fed more faggots into the fire so the flames leapt, sending up sparks into the cold air … And then, holding the dead dog by its legs in turns, roasted it, turning it over and over with great care and singsong, as though they were rocking a cradle, until its fur burned off and the skin turned crackling black, giving off an acrid stench. After half an hour of this, a rattan mat was spread on the ground and the chief again crept forward into the firelight to do the honours. There was much pushing and shoving among the ring of eager onlookers … Squatting on his haunches, the old man took up a long knife and thrust it between the stiff hind legs of the roasted cadaver and slit open the belly in one swift move. The intestines tumbled out steaming onto the mat, and these he cut away from the body neatly. As he did so, one of the men present pushed the viscera onto a large plate and told a woman to carry it away,” the man said.
While the carving was unfolding, he had gathered by and by that the old mastiff had been chosen three days prior and fully starved, being given not even a cup of water. Then the famished beast, almost mad from hunger and thirst, had been fed to bursting with the choicest meat, plaintain, and rice, and had had good arrack poured down its throat and left to digest the whole for some hours before the kill. All this, it was conveyed to him, was quite rare and in honour of his unexpected visit to the village.
“The tribals babbled and argued like children at a carnival, lunging toward the fire and the dismemberment for a better view. The chief then wiped the knife, and with great care and much groping with his left hand, chose a spot on the swollen stomach which quivered like a misshapen balloon in the dancing light. Then, picking up the membrane between thumb and forefinger of the left, he sliced the same in a careful move so the thick effluvia oozed out. Immediately, those standing around lunged down with wild cries and thrusting their dirty hands clawed at the dripping grey mess. Women blew upon globs before lovingly shoving it into their toddlers’ mouths,” the surveyor recalled.
The chief now made clear to him and his mates that they had to partake of the special meal as a way of thanking providence, and all eyes turned on them.
“And so what did you?” I asked.
“Ah, the fiery arrack had worked … I’d had many cupfuls and nothing to eat since lunch,” the man chuckled, embarrassed at the memory, and, using his arms for emphasis, continued to conclude what he did. “When you drink like that in thin air your head goes numb, yeah ... so after much hesitation, I looked away, dug into the ooze, scooped up a warm handful, and ate.”