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A visit to Banaue’s rice terraces – in 1963

By Christmas 1963, Marguerite and I had been in the Philippines for more than two years and were now the proud parents of two sons, Colin and Charlton. We had spent those years doing a reasonable amount of travelling around the islands, including much boating and water-skiing. But by that Christmas, we had the urge to make a more enterprising journey.

The famous rice terraces in the Banaue area of Northern Luzon are not too far-flung or inaccessible to daunt the enterprising traveller. On the other hand, they have a beauty which goes back thousands of years and they are sufficiently distant, the roads sufficiently precipitous and some of the pagan inhabitants of the area were – in those days at least – sufficiently wild to excite the imagination. So we decided to leave the two boys in the tender and efficient care of our wonderful house staff and mount an expedition with a couple of close friends from the Embassy.

undiplomatic episodes book coverWe set off north on the morning of 27th December and paused on the way at the fashionable hill resort of Baguio, 150 miles from Manila. As there was time before lunch we branched off to the beach resort at Bauang for a swim and something to eat. Even there, we were hardly yet “away from it all”, as we found various friends, including a couple of Belgian diplomatic colleagues, well entrenched and scoffing away.

A poor lunch at the beach restaurant was enlivened by the harmonies of a band and group of singers. One of the latter turned out to be a Filipino lecturer in Moral Sciences known to our Belgian friend. It was hardly unusual for somebody to have such a combination of roles, not in this musical country where even one of the 24 Senators played the trombone in his own band, and where a lecturer in music at the University of the Philippines doubled as a pianist at the bar in Manila Airport.

After lunch we returned to Baguio – where, at 6,000 feet, the temperature is always at least six degrees below the 30 average in Manila.

In the inhospitable recesses of the Pines Hotel, a pathetic fire flickered a wan welcome in the grate of the vast American-style lobby. Around it were gathered a pallid collection of Filipinos and Americans – but, we noticed, there was a notable absence of any of those septuagenarian blue-rinsed American ladies so familiar to us from Manila (who probably got off their cruise ship only for a couple of days).

We had arranged to meet some friends at the Country Club, the hub of Baguio’s rather pretentious social life. The men there wore coat and tie or sweaters, but the women were dressed up to the nines in their best imported woollen suits. Because of the smart clothing, the warmness of the air and the wooden interior of the building, an atmosphere of “apres-ski” prevailed. Many Filipinos went to the Club regularly with their family at Christmas-time to meet all their Manila friends.

The light-heartedness of the social life in Baguio was soon illustrated by the late addition to our group of a girl who breathlessly explained that she had been spending the afternoon playing Charades (rhyme with spades). As we absorbed whisky, we were regaled with hair-raising stories about the hazards of the journey we were about to undertake, the mountainous drive further north to Banaue. Some of our more ghoulish informants suggested that the road was so bad and landslides so frequent that it was foolhardy to attempt it at all – certainly in our own car. One hanger-on contributed a story about headhunters – known to be deadly in some parts of the Philippines – and missionaries’ heads being seen on display at a market.

Little did I realise at this early stage of my career that I was destined to spend a good deal of time ignoring strong advice not to undertake the journeys I had planned. We made an early start for the rice terraces themselves at Banaue the following morning, ascending quickly into the mountains along an (at first) excellently surfaced road. This mountain highway varies between 3,000 and 7,400 feet and was built in the American era, probably at the turn of the century, back when the Philippines had been an American colony. As we progressed, we were treated to a breathtaking vista of range upon range of thickly forested mountains.


We soon saw the first terraces rising along the mountainside, planted at first not with rice, but vegetables. Many of the terraces were so narrow that they would only accommodate one or two rows of potatoes or cabbages.

The extent of this terracing and the large quantities of the vegetables in big plastic sacks awaiting collection by the side of the road solved for us the puzzle of all the fresh vegetables and even strawberries which could regularly be obtained in Manila.

As we proceeded north, the terraced vegetables began to give way to rice. At last we were getting well away from so-called civilisation. Out here, we found the people to be an improvement not only on their urban counterparts, but also on the inhabitants of many of the other provinces we had visited. There, the tendency was to regard the foreigner as an American with a bottomless purse. Here, they were much more friendly and uninhibited, with the children regularly waving at us along the way. Unbelievably, many of the bus and lorry drivers actually signalled to let us past on this twisty mountain road.

At Abatan, some 60 miles north of Baguio, we refuelled the car and had our first real glimpse of the mountain people. It was market day. We were offered a bunch of tobacco leaves for the equivalent of a bob or two and some rather poorly embroidered material – but the people were more colourful than their goods. Many of the men wore the distinctive “G-string”, the somewhat minimal covering for the loins which is surprising garb in the coldest part of the Philippines. This was worn by men of all ages and even, further into the mountains, by little boys.

Up here, the whole attitude to modesty seemed different from that of the lowlander; in the mountains, the small boys went naked until a later age. The women wore plain or quite colourful embroidered skirts made of a rough material which felt like canvas. They were said, at least in the remoter parts, to go bare-breasted in the hot season. If they were covered when a photographer arrived, they could be induced to return to the more natural state by the offer of a box of matches, an important commodity in this tobacco rich area. Both men and women smoked cigar leaves packed into well-decorated little pipes.

We heard a group singing what must have been a local song of a remarkably sweet and plaintive – almost doleful – variety, very different from the American or Hispanicised product of the lowland provinces. Among this group, almost all the men wore some kind of headgear, some of it reminiscent of the familiar pith helmet of Empire days. Others wore small pill-box shaped hats, the particular shape of which denoted, we were told, their marital status – a different shape for married, bachelor or widowed.

All the chaps we saw were sturdily built, though many of the elderly were bowed, no doubt from a lifetime of carrying burdens up and down the hillsides. Some of the latter leaned upon hunting spears. As we passed by, one old man approached me, spear in hand. I found to my relief that all he wanted was to sell the spear. I declined and asked if I could take a photograph instead, a suggestion that was not well received.
Generally, the people were fine-looking, sometimes with a pinkness in the cheek and a straightness of the nose not found further south. On the other hand, some looked alarmingly unhealthy. Pink lips and tongues provided tell-tale evidence of the widespread chewing of the noxious betel-nut which is grown in this area and very little elsewhere. Though said to “blacken but preserve” the teeth, we saw much unattractive evidence to the contrary; we also saw ugly scars on various faces – caused, we heard, by some kind of worm. Strange, somehow, that the mountain people should be so bad at looking after themselves and their families, while their compatriots in the south managed to look clean and nice, even though they were just as poor (and with good teeth in spite of the prevalence of Coca-Cola).


We had done much exploring, but still we hadn’t reached the terraces at Banaue! In earnest, we returned to our car and set out again. First, we had to pause at the Mount Data Rest House which is said to be the coldest spot in the Philippines. Having shivered there, we lunched at Bontoc and took the road towards the terraces. The weather deteriorated as we got near and, by the time we stopped to read a notice adjuring us to admire the terraces, the clouds meant that we could see very little of the first one, even though it was only a few yards away.

As we finally approached Banaue, we spotted an obvious missionary driving along in a smart American van and exchanging greetings with every second person he met. He was holding me up, but I refrained from hooting the horn because of my prescient worries about finding a place to stay. Indeed, the one and only Banaue Inn was stuffed with tourists, with no room left for us; they suggested we try Dr James Irving of the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade, and it wasn’t long before we realised that this was the very missionary we had passed on the road. The good doctor’s wife greeted us warmly and offered us hospital beds in their superb new clinic, on the condition we did not smoke there. Feeling like naughty children, we later smoked and had a drink on the veranda outside, in the mist. The hardness of the beds at least encouraged us to rise in good time on the following morning. We took our leave at 7.00 a.m., not forgetting to make a Christmassy contribution to the hospital funds.

Back at the Inn, we found senior staff who were able to give us a considerable outline of the history of the terraces – which was also briefly inscribed on a stone monument at the approach to Banaue – and much else besides. The terraces date back to the second millennium B.C. and reached their present state about one thousand years ago. They cover some 155 square miles in the mountain province area. The local people
were taught the art of terracing by a race of people who came from South China or Indo-China. Borne by different currents, some reached the Philippines, some Japan and some Java. This can be inferred from the similarity between the terraces of these places.

The oldest terraces are not in the Mountain Province, but at Laguna, in the south of Luzon. It seems possible that the original settlers, or “terracers”, decided to move further north in the island, where the mountains were more suitable for their art and the climate more favourable.

On the edge of some of the terraces we had noticed bushes growing. Our Banaue informants told us that these, with their appropriately coloured red leaves, marked the site of the ritual execution of a man found guilty of stealing – or filching – some of the water essential to the irrigation of the terraces. The bushes were supposed to be the shape of a human figure. An interesting absence was that of the carabao, a type of domesticated water buffalo, ubiquitous elsewhere across the islands. I produced the theory that this beast had no head for heights, but the truth was that these large and lumbering creatures would be all too likely to wreck the delicate terrace work; so everything here was done by human hand.

undiplomatic episodes book coverThe only animal we saw on the terraces was a dog or two with its owner. They were luckier than the pathetic and very friendly-looking dog we saw and photographed being carried slung round the neck of a young Ifugao man, a member of the local tribe. Knowing something of the culinary habits of the mountain people, we asked the man whether hewas taking the animal to be killed and eaten. The answer, alas, was yes. Dog is one of the delicacies of northern Filipinos, and a friend of mine who ventured further into the interior found himself, as guest of honour, unable to refuse such a canine dish.

While still in the Banaue area, we passed an old lady being borne by a couple of stalwarts, probably her grandsons and probably to church. We were able to peer into the Catholic church in Banaue and saw that it was nearly full of Ifugaos in their Sunday best. Clearly, the missionaries had achieved success with these essentially pagan people; but we wondered what they made of some of their customs, including the “trial marriage” system. This was said to involve promiscuous living in mixed dormitories among adolescents who use this experience as a basis for their eventual choice of wife.

We noticed that a much higher proportion than usual of men carried their babies around. At Bontoc, we had to fetch the man in charge of the petrol pump where he was tending his chickens – and, when he appeared, he had a baby on his back. Quite a few of the men also wore earrings – a much less common practice in those days.

We were told in Baguio of the weird funeral ceremonies of some of the pagan mountain people. When someone dies, they set him (or her) up on a chair for a day or more and implore him to come back to life. Once it seems definite that he will not revive, they smoke the body, still seated on the chair, over a fire for a few days. Eventually, the bones are placed in bags under the houses to bring good luck. As the houses are on stilts, these bags can be seen from the roads.


At last, it was time for us to return home – and to end our expedition. Having left Banaue early, we were in time for a late lunch at the Mount Data Rest House. From there we were able to observe the destructive activities of the Kaingineros, whose system of cultivation involves burning down the edge of the forest and then tilling the enriched soil. For me, this was an early experience of the miserable and irreparable destruction wrought by the slash and burn approach.

Following this mildly adventurous and successful trip, it wasn’t too long before 1964 came along and, with it, the time for a posting back home and subsequent adventures in many other parts of the world.

Extracted from Martin’s newly-published book, Undiplomatic Episodes, available from the publisher or, if you have to, from Amazon.

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