Steam rises from my tea as I gaze out over ancient rice fields, terraces carved into the dramatic landscape of Ifugao, a mountainous province north of Manila in the Philippines. These ancient rice terraces are believed to be between 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. Many of them are still in use.
Roosters crow to the background of the waterfall beside us. A refreshing breeze moves the tall bamboo below us making the bowing heads bob as if they were giants watching over the humble homes at the base of the terraces. Their leaves dance gently in the wind as if acknowledging the beauty of the morning.
“Look over there,” Trin says pointing to a terrace in the distance.
Three children in school uniforms are racing down the stairs woven between terraces. They scurry along the paths in ease as if their feet knew every nuance of the route.
Trin and I laboriously walked down those stairs yesterday, each step knee-high or higher. The depth and height of every step varied and sloped sometimes forward or to the side uneven and dangerous to those used to flatter surfaces and uniform creations. But it is the variance itself that lends to the beauty and harmony with nature.
Soon we begin to see little ones emerging from various locations on the mountains bounding their way joyfully down to school.
As the last of the children reach the valley floor the sun begins to emerge slowly burning off the fog and changing the colors of the ancient rice paddies around us.
Peace in the terraces
The Ifugao region was my favorite place within the Philippines. The higher elevation gave us cooler days and was a much-needed break from the suffocating heat and humidity enveloping the rest of the country.
We enjoyed the smaller town feel. It was a relief from the constant barrage of vendors who follow us down the street demanding we buy something. Or street carts selling ice cream quoting me a price 100 times higher than they quote Trin, my Filipino husband.
Life in Banaue seemed calmer and more peaceful.
Exploring the terraces
We hiked the length of the Banaue rice terraces one day. The trail led us deep into the rice paddies and it truly felt like we were walking on an ancient wonder. Steep stairs let us up and down from one rice paddy to the next or across the narrow ledge built into the wall of the mountainside.
The edge of the canal on which we used to navigate across the terraces dropped off straight down to the valley far below. The trail at times became precarious but always beautiful. At other times the narrow ledge was only a few feet to the next terrace below.
There’s hardly any safety rails to keep anyone from slipping and falling off the ledge. It probably won’t have lethal consequences but it would be inconvenient at best nonetheless. I had better pay attention to where I’m going instead of constantly looking at the sights, I thought to myself, easier said than done. And just as I thought this, I slipped on the narrow edge.
Thankfully I was able to shift my weight to the right and landed in the canal rather than toppling over the edge of the cliff that fell a few hundred feet. I knew I’d probably be sore the next day from hitting the rock wall, but it was no big deal really. The water was refreshing on this hot humid day. I hoped that eventually my soaked hiking boots would dry.
At our next narrow crossing, I watched Trin skirt across a slippery wet log that was the path across another narrow section. I didn’t even attempt the log. I sloshed my way through the canal, my boots were already wet.
Along the way, we passed small hovels and locals working in the field. Many of them were chewing on a local betel nut. Viscous crimson splotches that looked like blood could be seen on the ground all around them. It was the spit from the betel nut that they were chewing on, much like some chew on tabacco.
A few men sat along the path their speech was slurred and their eyes were red like the blood-red spit from chewing the betel nut. With large dilated pupils they sat around and laughed exposing red teeth darkened by the chewing. They said something to us as we passed that even Trin could not understand.
Betel nut: Is addictive. At low doses, it can be a stimulant much like caffeine or nicotine. At high doses, it produces cocaine-like effects.
We began the walk early in the morning but we must have taken a few long cuts as it was late afternoon by the time we could see our destination, the main viewing deck where we planned to turn around and head back to our homestay.
The viewing deck was on the other side of the valley from where we stood. It was still a long hike down and back up the other side. From there we returned to our lodging in a tricycle.
A town with no cars, Batad
Wanting to explore the region even deeper we caught a jeepney the following day that took us further into the mountains. It wound around the edge of the cliffs at seemingly impossible grades. I hung on half expecting the vehicle to stall and then slide back careening off the cliff. We rode the Jeepney to the end of the road.
At the end of the pavement, we threw on our packs and started hiking. A narrow trail led deeper still into the mountains. In half an hour we spotted Batad the tiny village we planned to spend the next few nights.
There are no roads within Batad and no place in the village where a road would even make sense. Homes cling tightly to the mountainside stairs wind in and around the homes. The entire village each had their own view over the Batad Rice Terraces.
We climbed more stairs to our plywood room with a window that allowed us to watch the storm passing through the valley.
The following day we ventured into the rice paddies. The whole ensemble was like a huge amphitheater, the far edge almost abruptly ending on a cliffside. Narrow stairs hugged the cliff edge. They were so high I used hands and feet to ascend them. The climb was scary at times but the views were stunning.
These rice terraces that have been in use for centuries reminded me of the lasting legacy of the peoples in South America. Salt mines terraces in Per, built before the time of the Incas, are still in operation today. Inca dwellings built in the 1400s are beautiful and their water systems still function today.
We think we have evolved so far yet what will our legacy be a century from now if we were to disappear now? Will modern mankind be known for its sea of floating plastic? Our temporary gadgets that last no longer than the next release seem to be only a mirage of advancement.
Despite the rain, pink pastel had adorned the sky painting hues of glory glimpsed through the mist. The sun was setting over the ancient rice terraces as the laughter of children from the valley below reached our ears.
Maybe the key to the next opportunity rests in understanding what truly lasts for centuries.