The air is chilly and as I sit in a circle with eight other women, I feel my breathing slow and the quiet settle around me. Each of us is asked to share our intention for this retreat, and mine is a desire for clarity, the chance to hear the thoughts that are so often drowned out by the buzz of the city.
After setting our intentions, we are asked to place our meal orders, two hours before dinner time, to give the kitchen time to prepare. Even this small act helps us reset our brains from “faster, easier, instant”, nudging us into a different pace.
We are in the northern highlands of Ifugao, where breathtaking rice terraces were hand-carved into the hills over 2,000 years ago by the ancestors of the indigenous Ifugao tribe. In 1995, five clusters of these rice terraces in the municipality of Banaue were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, where they were referred to as “a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty”. Interestingly, the cluster closest to the town of Banaue did not make the list due to the presence of several modern structures, even though this is the cluster that bears the official name of Banaue Rice Terraces. Located about 1,500m above sea level, the Banaue Rice Terraces are a marvel often locally referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world” and bear the protective status of being a National Cultural Treasure.
I look out the window of our common lounge and find a swirl of white clouds enveloping our little spot on the mountaintop. It is indeed an impressive world, unlike anything I’ve seen in the Philippines, and I am genuinely perplexed: why have I never visited until now?
Candy Reyes-Alipio, who runs a social enterprise in Banaue called The Knitting Expedition, confirms that the area is largely unvisited by Filipinos. Candy’s work takes her to these terraced highlands — where she teaches a group of women to knit quirky toys, home accessories and woolly warmers — at least once a month, and she reports that the buses that ply this route are usually filled with foreigners.
Candy’s knitting workshop is one of the highlights of this three-day getaway by Flow Retreats, which organizes decompression escapes designed primarily for frazzled urbanites. Most of their retreats have been set in seaside towns like San Juan in La Union, where the itinerary includes yoga sessions and surf lessons, but the recent decision to venture further north seemed like a logical next step. “Up in the mountains participants are miles away from city life, and that gives them the chance to unplug and reset for a few days and deeply connect with nature,” says Noelle Hilario, one of the founders. “Banaue also offers a very authentic local experience because it’s not crawling with tourists, and it’s easier to soak up the culture and lifestyle.” For the headspace I am craving, I have come to the right place.
The knitting circle
Candy and a few other knitters have come to teach us the basics of knitting, one of the activities of the retreat. I am paired up with Jean Mundiguing, a knitter who used to work part-time as a laundry woman at the Native Village Inn in Uhaj, where we are staying. The inn is about a 20-minute drive from Banaue town proper, and it’s where she first learned to knit.
Jean had asked one of the inn’s guests, an American named Meredith Ramirez — who had spent much of her spare time with her needles — to teach her how to knit. Meredith agreed, on the condition that Jean would get a group of women together. Candy later heard of their merry band of knitters and volunteered to oversee the women after Meredith returned to the United States.
The knitters’ newfound craft and knitting enterprise that sells their goods allow them to supplement their family incomes. “I always used to contribute,” says Jean, “but in the form of crops or through manual labor. Now I contribute with money, and we have a little more to cover our expenses.”
Jean patiently teaches me the basics of knitting and purling, but like most of my companions, my fingers are stiff and clumsy. Many of us, too accustomed to tapping away at our keyboards or swiping up and down on our smartphones, appear to lack the dexterity needed to handle the needles. As I try to maneuver through the tangled web of yarn I’ve somehow knotted together, I can feel a rusty side of my brain start to sputter into motion. Admittedly, I’m rather frustrated, but I keep at it, and feel a haze begin to lift from my brain.
Weirs and vistas
My traditional Ifugao hut at the inn — a standalone, elevated wooden structure with a thatched roof and a short wooden ladder at the entrance — has “modern fittings”, like a soft mattress and two bare bulbs. The shared bathroom is in the outdoor common area a few meters away. In the late afternoons, low-lying clouds roll in and obscure the bathroom and the other huts from view. The scene is at once dramatic and mysterious.
The inn has its own viewing deck that looks out to a small pocket of the Ifugao rice terraces, where we go for a hike on our second day. The paddies have already been tilled and prepped for planting season, as they have been for two millennia, and every bend in our path reveals a patchwork of green, and then another, in a breathtaking quilt that rises all around us. The scene is sometimes just a pocket wedged into the weirs that we scramble along on slippery terrain. Sometimes the vista is a broad expanse of paddies dotted with a few modern homes.
It gives me the chills to think that I am a speck in the centuries-old wonder that first astounded the Spanish conquerors when they stumbled upon it in the late 1800s, and that has amazed the world ever since. As we pass along the ancient walls hewn from the earth and built with stone, I feel like I am trekking through my history books.
Along with this flashback to my history lessons, I learn one on geography, too: Candy casually notes that people tend to lump the cold-weather, northern highland destinations of Banaue, Sagada, and Baguio all together, when in actuality they’re all capital towns of three different provinces — Baguio is in Benguet, Sagada is in Mountain Province, and Banaue is in Ifugao. My companions and I nod, some a little more sheepish than the others for not having realized this before.
At Barangay Hapao, Jean points to some of the terraces that have fallen into disrepair due to typhoons and neglect. The younger generation no longer wants to plant rice, she explains, so there aren’t enough farmers to maintain the terraces.
I ask about the modern homes that I’ve spied from afar and just as I suspected, these local interpretations of Swiss chalets and French chateaux are built by locals who have worked abroad. It’s a common enough occurrence all over the Philippines, but what amazes me is the fact that there are no roads leading to these homes.
I ask Jean how the building materials even got there. “The old-fashioned way,” is her simple reply. Sacks of cement, boxes of tiles and planks of lumber were all brought in on foot up the winding paths of the terraces or, as an alternative, using a system of ropes and pulleys.
Jean also points out that some of the terrace walls are cemented. Her husband, Marcial, a local village officer, later explains that these improvements are meant to help keep the terraces intact during inclement weather. They also make it easier for visitors to walk through. Ironically, Marcial reports, it takes several engineers to work on these projects, and many times they have to keep coming back to repair them, while what was made by hand from rock and earth has stood in place for centuries.
Marcial adds that his is also the last generation to wear the traditional dress for males. “We stopped wearing the bahag when I was a young boy. But there’s a reason for the bahag that we should not forget.” He explains that the tightly wrapped waist serves as support in manual labor and heavy lifting. And while he welcomes the influx of visitors, he is firm about the need to remember the old ways. Ancient wisdom and a deep, instinctive understanding of the land, after all, have allowed these terraces to endure for so long. It might seem like an uphill battle, but Marcial says it needs to be done. He shrugs with the cheerful resolution of someone who has accepted his destiny, and smiles warmly to reveal his betel-stained teeth.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Smile magazine.