The Search for Ama Tocayeng

Written by Patrick McDonough on .

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Journal Entry: May 1981


Two days after the Bontoc Museum’s Grand Opening, my mother, Marjorie Tudlong, some girls from the Mission and I headed out to Sadanga. This was an important side trip for me and my Mom. First I had many friends there who had extended invitations to me once my mom had arrived. Sadanga was also one of the most traditionally intact villages for the Bontok Igorot. The majority of the houses were still in cogon, many people still wore traditional clothes. The ato was strong and still respected, the ulog somewhat intact.

We had arranged to stay in the church there under the care of the catechist, John Fuyos. Alas, as we approached Sadanga we were informed they were holding their “tengao nan ani” a three day sacred holiday and rest period prior to the harvest. This was an important holiday, designed to ensure a good harvest. No one was supposed to enter or leave the village during this time and we needed to respect this tradition. So the Ford Fiera pulled up to the school and we waited, deciding what to do. Instead we decided to head to Sacasacan, the next closest village. We disembarked while the Fiera went closer to the village of Sadanga to drop off its cargo. The driver would return and give us a ride to Sacasacan a few kilometers up another road.

            While waiting for the Fiera we met a g-stringed Sadanga man going to his granary to fetch a few gallons of “fayas”, sugarcane wine, for the holiday. He invited Mom, Marjorie and me up to his granary for a taste. It was from the recent sugarcane harvest, still young and fermenting, but it tasted fine. After drinking well over a quart, another man came performing the same task, and also invited us for a taste. So I “had” to drink some, lest I insult the man. Mom seemed to actually be enjoying it as well. We were getting a buzz on.

            Finally the Fiera returned to take us to Sacasacan. It is actually a scary ride, petal to the metal; keep it in first gear the whole way up the steep mountain type of ride. We went straight to the church where we were welcomed by Mr. _____the catechist in Sacasacan. This village still retained a high degree of native architecture and cultural integrity so I was happy my mom got to see it. (Sacasacan is a very poor village and highlights the fact that the poorer you are, the closer you are to “traditional”. This is a bad omen for the future of the Igorots) The houses here show influences of both the Bontok style, Kalinga style and quite a few of the rough “runo-walled” houses, low to the ground, that were typical to the poorest of the poor throughout many areas. These houses had no stilts, no granaries, just the barest of necessities. That’s not saying much when you consider that even the typical Bontok structure only had a wooden sleeping platform, dirt floors and a three stone fireplace.

            We toured around the village until almost sunset when we came upon one of the ato’s in Sacasacan. I was proudly surprised that some of the men recognized me, possibly from the Mission clinic, and offered more fayas. We cooked up and shared some fish we had brought with us, a definite luxury in this village, and hit the sack early.

            Because of the tengao in Sadanga we adjusted our plans and decided to take a hike and picnic at a small “lake” about five kilometers into the mountains between Mainit, Sacasacan and Sadanga. Carmen and Widwigan, two ladies that study at the mission came with us as guides. I was surprised at how well my mother did hiking. She was the slowest of the bunch, but never a complaint and always eager to see what was on the next ridge. When we reached the lake we started a fire and cooked a meal of “sardine spaghetti”, canned sardines in tomato sauce and pancit bihon.

            Interestingly, at the lake I noticed there were several groups of people walking by on the adjacent hillsides. This got my attention because we were actually hours away from a village and these people were obviously not working in the fields. And they were making a lot of noise. A red light went on when suddenly I saw a group of men from my ato!! (Pilala, Lamay and Eduardo) I knew something was going on; this was far from Bontok and any of the Bontok village lands. It is very unusual that folks venture so far from their own ancestral territory unless something was amiss. The men were just as surprised to see me.

            After exchanging greetings I learned that Ama Tocayeng, from ato Umfeg in Bontok, was lost somewhere in the mountains and there was a huge search and rescue operation going on. Apparently a group of Bontok folks had attended a wedding in Belwang, Sadanga. Two days ago, and on the hike home to Bontok, Ama Tocayeng left the group to go search for some wild tea leaves that grew in that area. He said he would catch up to the group later. The group continued on the long hike home, arriving in Bontok late at night. It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon that they realized Ama Tocayeng was missing. The last time he was seen was about ½ hour hike from the lake so the search parties gathered in the forest nearby and set up a base camp. When Lamay pointed to a large column of smoke above the forest canopy I could see the camp was only a couple kilometers away. I wanted to go and help so badly, but I had my mother with me. About two o’clock we headed back to Sacasacan, for the trip home in the morning.

When we got to Sadanga a PEO jeep was waiting and about to head for Bontok. I wanted to return to help in the search for my town mate and explained this to Marjorie and my Mother. They were more than willing to go to Bontok and understood my desire. They were just surprised that I was heading back into the forest with nothing but a flashlight, a nylon poncho and a light jacket (still more than most of the others had). I sent them ahead and told them I would catch up with them in Bontok once this was over.

            In Sadanga I met some Sacasacan men who were also going to join the search. First we went to the house of the barrio captain where we all gorged ourselves with the thought of long days in the mountains. Each of us was given a block of native sugar to take along. Sergeant Filug from Bontok was with us. He was in a great hurry and tried to walk ahead. He didn’t know the way so I offered to go with him and show him the trail. Along the trail he explained that no one really knew if Tocayeng was lost or the victim of foul play.  He said that at one time there was some tribal conflicts between Bontok and some of the villages in this area and perhaps some had decided to take revenge. I inquired about these conflicts because I was surprised I never heard about them. When I realized he was talking of incidents from generations ago I was set back.. Amazing, I thought, how these old grievances can come back after tens and tens of years.

            We passed the lake and headed into the thick forest. Deciduous forest, not the open pine forest found at different elevations and slope exposures. We heard voices up ahead and I knew we were approaching the main camp. Strangely, Filug drew his revolver, jumped off the trail and snuck through the brush towards the voices. Once recognizing the people he put his weapon away and relaxed. (Made me wonder exactly what it was I was getting into.) The camp was around the bend and we headed that way.

            I couldn’t believe what I was looking at….here deep in the forest, miles from any village, surrounded by thick vegetation; a wide clearing was hacked away. In the clearing were 6 or 7 large fires, each surrounded by scores of people. There were over 200 men and women here. I recognized many from Bontok, but there were many new faces. The way they dressed, the shape of their bolos, their physical features and of course the way they spoke, told me that there were people here from the Sadanga area, the Guina-ang/Mainit area, Tocucan and Malebcong. (there were actually people from nine barrios present…Bontok, Samoki, Tocucan, Malebcong, Guina-ang, Belwang, Fikigan, Sacasacan and Sadanga)  Apparently once it was realized that Tocayeng was lost, runners were sent to the neighboring villages in the hopes that someone may have spotted him. In response each village sent a contingent to the forest to help in the search.

Most all the men had spears, many carried firearms. I now understood Sgt Filug’s earlier concern. There were people here from many villages that normally would not be found in such a large group. They were not in a village, not under protection of ceremony or as guests. There were a lot of old grievances out there in this group. For now everyone presumed Ama Tocayeng was lost in the mountains and everyone was willing to help out. But the situation could go quickly south either through an old grievance or if Tocayeng was found harmed in any way. The only other time you would find so many people from so many barrios together would be during a Chomnu. (The inherent good of the people stronger than the inherent fear or possible mistrust). The camp was amazingly organized. On each fire was a large pot of food. Emergency food, camp food. As each group returned to the camp they would throw in the pot whatever it was they were able to collect that day during their search…tree fern shoots, edible greens, a couple of doves, snails, mushrooms, even insects. Occasionally one or two people would enter camp carrying a sack of rice, a case of sardines, or even a small pig. What a feeling to watch all these people get together to help each other out. I was so proud.

Filug and I had a quick dinner then sat around with the others for a smoke. Fortunately I had the foresight to purchase four packs in Sacasacan. But no longer than two minutes after opening the first pack at camp and they were all gone. (Funny how a man can spot a pack of smokes from thirty yards and crawl over tens of people just to get one. Two packs were gone by nightfall and I quickly learned to pull them out one at a time. Better to share with the 6-8 people sitting around you. At least I got one drag out of each smoke.)

I found Lamay and asked the whereabouts of Pilala but was told that Karti, Katangay and Pilala had gone to Mainit to see if anyone there had seen Tocayeng. At this there were some mumblings of how the Mainit were too busy to come and help in the search.

 As evening approached, an old man stood up and silenced the crowd. Then the old men, with Ama Fakat presiding, started to talk. (Fakat was my adopted father and it made me so proud that even here, amongst all the different villages, he was considered a man amongst men). The old men explained the situation. Where we had searched that day, where we should search tomorrow. Different sections of the mountains were delegated to various groups. Everyone listened to the local tribesmen with intimate knowledge of the forest as they explained the terrain to those visiting from other villages. As this was going on, a man ran into the camp, straight to the group of elders and began talking furtively. Soon people started whispering intently.

As the rumors spread through the crowd I heard that the man had found a clump of hair on the trail to Mainit. It was recognized as the hair of Tocayeng (I don’t know how in a nation of black haired people). The rumors spread... “That’s why the Mainit did not join in the search. The Mainit killed Tocayeng.” Tempers flared, men began shouting until two men drew bolos against one another. (Surprisingly they were from the villages of Fikigan and Sacasacan, but I imagine at least one of them had ties to Mainit) It was a while before the crowd was calmed by the old men. They explained that we must be calm. We did not really know what had happened yet so we should not assume the worse against our Mainit brothers.

“What about Karti! What about Katangay and Pilala! They went to Mainit this morning and had not returned.” (These three men are my ato mates and my dear friends so even I started getting excited) The rumblings started again but fortunately Ama Fakat stood, “Karti and Pilala are my sons, I am also very worried but let’s not jump to conclusions. If there is indeed trouble in Mainit we will deal with it in time. We will send some men to Mainit right now to check on them”

It was already night, but Lamay stood and volunteered to lead the group. I also volunteered but they would not let me go. The other two men in the group were unknown to me, not from Bontok, and I suspected were chosen for political reasons and that they had relatives, and therefore protection, from Mainit. As they were leaving, these two men picked up firearms. Lamay approached a Bontok and asked for the man’s weapon. It was clear Lamay was not going to leave unarmed; and the man did not want to go in Lamay’s place; so he reluctantly relinquished his gun. They left and the camp settled into a fitful sleep. The mosquitoes were horrendous.

By about three in the morning the group of three returned with good news. Everyone was fine. Katangay had returned to Bontok via Guina-ang, and Karti and Pilala, rather than brave another night in the forest had decided to drink fayas in the comfort of an uncle’s house. Karti and Pilala would be here by sunrise.  Every thing seemed OK but the mystery of the chunk of hair was still unresolved.

Early that morning a group of women from Bontok and Sacasacan arrived carrying rice and some wine for the old men. Men dispersed to the forest in search of edibles. Finally the food was cooked and we settled down to a huge cauldron of stew that was now thick and pink in color! It could have used salt but we ate heartily all the same. After eating an old man stood up and starting giving orders for this, the fourth day of the search day. There were some discrepancies over where the search should continue but they were quickly settled. After that a lady from Bontok, the one who had brought the food earlier, spoke to the group of searchers. What she gave was really a kind of pep talk.

She started talking about how all of Bontok was thankful, how the relatives of Tocayeng were worried, how we must find him and not give up. Amazingly all this was given in a melodic chant-like rhythm that actually rhymed. In the end it became even more song-like and turned into a prayer to Lumawig asking to help keep the people strong , and to help find this man. It was all very emotional, things which really went right through you and encouraged you spiritually to continue. By the time she was finished she was deeply sobbing and drained. It was very touching.

The old men talked again, making sure each group knew where they were going, checking to see if they had enough rice etc. One man solemnly announced a new strategy for today: no yelling out for Tocayeng.  During the previous days the groups dispersed to the mountains, constantly calling out to Tocayeng in the hopes he would hear someone and respond. Ama Tocayeng had gone missing five days prior; this was the fourth day of the search. “The chances of finding the old man alive in the forest are very slim. We are probably looking for a body so use your nose as well as your eyes. Smell for decaying flesh. Make sure you check everywhere. Look where one may want to hide a body and only yell if you find something. Then everyone will know and come to help.” (Unspoken: some may decide to fade into the forest to avoid any inevitable conflict)

So we left…Pilala, Karti, a Sacasacan man and me compromising one group. I was surprised how the search had changed, no yelling, searching every nook and cranny. Reading the trail for signs of someone falling or being dragged off the trail. All streams were checked thoroughly, even the smallest water falls. “A good place to hide a body is under a waterfall, and the water prevents you from smelling it”, Lamay told.

Any place where the ground was disturbed was searched. Some places meant crawling down 60 feet to the base of a cliff. All terrain several feet off the trails was also searched in case the body was dragged into the brush and hidden there. “Men would do that so as to leave no sign on the trail” I realized how hard it was to search for someone in these thickly vegetated mountains. So many places to hide someone, so many places to fall. It was hard work and our skin was getting sliced crawling through the underbrush.

After a while we split up into two groups, making sure each group had someone with a pack of cigarettes. They were a rare commodity now. We searched hard until lunch, around 2 o’clock, and then lied down for a while to rest. The forest was silent.

After working our way back to camp we joined the other groups of dejected searchers. They would trickle in by groups of three and four. Dirty, sweaty, silent and glum. Some, especially the family of Tocayeng were visibly close to tears. The men started quietly discussing the plans for tomorrow’s search half-heartedly. Everyone knew that eventually we would have to call off the search.  But no one wanted to be the first to breach the subject. Whether from exhaustion, or the order to remain silent during the search, the camp, though filling quickly, remained very quiet. Then the camp became completely silent. There was a faint sound in the distance.

A woman broke the silence but was quickly hushed by the crowd. And then it came again. Way in the distance, from the far side of an unseen ridge, you could barely hear it. Way in the distance was a voice. The words indiscernible, but still a voice.

Could it be over? Has someone finally found the body?

The voices came closer, louder, and it became apparent there was a certain energy to the voices. No one knew what to expect. Suddenly two young men came sprinting down the hillside and into the clearing…”We have found him...We have found him….HE IS ALIVE!”

The whole encampment was on their feet. People hugging those from other villages, jumping up and down, wide toothless smiles. What a wonderful feeling. What brotherhood and relief. It was great news. Alive. Five days and four nights in the forest and alive.

Eventually the two men explained how some young boys, gathering firewood north of Belwang, found Tocayeng staggering along the trail. (Bontok was south of Belwang and was where we had concentrated our search. Apparently Tocayeng had walked a full circle. He was actually farther away from home than when he had started the hike four days ago.) Apparently he was very weak and the Belwang had taken him to their village. We broke camp quickly and most people started heading towards Sacasacan. Many simply returned to their villages. In Sacasacan a dog was butchered and granaries with jars full of fayas opened. In the morning three government dump trucks came to Sacasacan to take people to Bontok. Word spread that the mayor of Bontok, Loy Claver, would prepare a feast for all the searchers. Everyone was invited to Bontok. The trucks were so packed that everyone had to stand. People were on the roof, on the fenders, hanging on the mirrors, even on the hood.

As we approached Bontok people came out in the streets, waving congratulations, clapping their hands. We went to the Municipio where Loy was having a cow butchered as thanks to all the searchers. All of us were there, from nine villages. Really made some good friends in those mountains. Once we were all down on the road I noticed what a strange site we must have been. We looked like a pretty rough crowd. Dirty, sweaty, spears, (the guns disappeared). Well muscled men that looked like they were made for the mountains, and they were.

After eating at the Municipio, Ama Fakat invited a group of men back to the ato for more drink and a place to sleep. We got pretty drunk that night and in the morning my small cogon house was full of men from four different villages. Some slept on the “choksu” the wooden sleeping platform, some slept on my Kalinga style bamboo floors I had installed over the dirt floor and some slept on the waterbed I had brought from the States and kept upstairs in the granary. (the Fayfay they called it) Outside there was a line of spears and a row of woven backpacks in front of my house. Holy crap, I forgot about my mother.

Taken up in the moment I jumped on one of the dump trucks to Bontok, feasted at the municipio, and then continued to revel in the ato. I had forgotten my Mom who was staying at another house in Iub with Marjorie Tudlong.

Once things returned to normal I went to see Tocayeng. He was sheepishly staying inside his house, probably embarrassed at how much trouble he caused. We sat in front of his house, squatting on a stone and reminisced the adventure. He did not know everything that went on with the camp, I explained the excitement, the accusations at Mainit. How Pilala and his brother went there and did not return, then finding the clump of hair on the trail.

At the mention of the clump of hair found on the trail to Mainit I could see Ama Tocayeng almost wince. I asked what he knew about that and this is what he told me...

He explained the belief that when one is lost in the mountains, it is thought to be because of a malicious anito. Also when you are lost you are not supposed to defecate close to the trail, otherwise you will go in circles and return to that point. He told me that one way to fool the anito who was making you lost was to burn some of your hair. The anito would then follow the smoke and leave you alone to find your way back home. I acknowledged that I had heard this was true.

On his third day in the forest, Tocayeng came upon the spot where he had previously defecated. He knew for sure now that he was lost and under the spell of some anito. So with his bolo, he removed some of his pubic hair. Thinking this not enough hair to make much smoke he grabbed a clump of his head hair and hacked that off as well. Placing the hair on the trail he prepared to burn it. At that point he realized he was out of matches. Frustrated, he left the hair on the trail and continued walking.

The hair was then found by the search parties and the rumors started.

About the Author

Patrick McDonough is a former US Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in the Cordilleras from 1976 until 1984. He spent most of his time living in the Bontoc "ili" and working on the establishment of the Bontoc Museum with Mother Basille Gekierre. He is married to Marjorie Tudlong of Chakchakan, Bontoc and lives in San Diego, California. He can be reached at: yawan(@)

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