A Late Afternoon Journey with my Lola Bengdan and the Folks of Alab

Written by Vivalyn Sawad-Meyerhoff on .

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“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

“Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.”

Like the ploughman in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” my Lola Bengdan, and I left the darkening rice farm to plod wearily home down the mountainside. I was nibbling on the plum black, red and orange berries we plucked from the bushes on the side of the path. Some sweet juice trickled down my mouth and hands and dripped down my clothes. “Yummy, very fresh.” Lola gave me more berries, this time it’s the “sengang,” orange in color, bitter flat taste when unripe but sweet when ripe.   

Halfway down, we stopped by a “gin-aw” or stream whose clear water is fed by the gigantic mountains that tower above. I rested my head on a boulder and swayed my feet back and forth on the gurgling white water. “Very cold, very clean, very refreshing,” I exclaimed loudly. Lola glanced and nodded her head. She bent her big, sturdy frame and washed her feet. After the day’s labor- planting rice and walking back and forth the mountain side, sweet sweat and clear dust were on their way to the Chico River of Mountain Province. Miles and miles down, it would soon meet up with the South China Sea plankton, dirt, sand and scum and will end up with the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, I remembered my history.    

Back to my Lola, I glanced. Her feet half immersed in water, I see bare feet, brown legs, dark nails with many thousands of calluses that blend with the stones, crabs, snails and fish of the sandy bottom. I thought, “historical artifact, living implement.” It had participated in the many biannual planting and harvesting seasons and witnessed great and many cycles of nature- lunar waxing and waning, sunsets and sunrise and occasional floods and earthquakes. She blends with nature, she is a living god just like the other folks of the rural community. They walked the earth, toiled the earth and born with and die with the earth. Their callused and imperfections are part of the imperfections of nature too. I looked at my slippered and clothed torso. I stand out bright red plastic in a verdant, virgin forest.

“My child, we have to get going,” Her gentle voice interrupted my thoughts. I picked up my bundle, basket that contains 12 bundles of palay, when threshed would be equivalent to a kilo of palay, my wage of the day.  We continued traversing the rice farm and Lola started humming. The birds chirped with her as they fly onwards to their nests on the mango, bamboo and pine trees. “Aha, it will rain in very soon, I better get your bundle so you can walk faster,” Lola ordered. I followed.

Melodious raindrop beating on the grass droned the roaring thunder and striking lightning. We walked faster. Earthly voices were awakened. Frogs croaked, crickets chirped. The dragonflies tiptoed to their leaf nest to give way to the mayflies that come and dropped in droves. The overturning of life is further evidenced by the glittering fireflies as the bees buzzed home to their hives. Lola continued humming the great ‘Ugayyam,” oral tradition of the ethnic group, Igorots. The chant is similar to oral history chant of native American elders. It talks about the toils, pain, success and goals of the people as a nation. The noise became even louder as if earth’s faunas are cheering her on. Every living thing knows that Lola is imprinting words to history. The earth’s fauna and flora are witness to another agricultural season gone by. I sighed, life in the barrio is hard, simple and attuned to nature. Their faiths are simple and goals, pure.

“My child, let me help you,” this Lola uttered as we started climbing the stone pathway leading to Lola’s hut or “inatep.” I can easily climb up but my infantile imagination of dragons and monsters of the darkening atmosphere might cause me to miss my step and fall. I reached out, “thank you.” She also took my bundle and put it on her already overloaded basket we call the “luwa.” Folks in the village sacrifice a lot for you. If you heard the song, “Oh they tell me of a home far beyond the sky………., oh they tell me of a place where no clouds pass by,” This is it. This is not a place for discouragers, bad and monstrous people.

We reached the house. Other farmers have arrived ahead of us having gone to do their own business first like feeding their cows, carabaos, more likely and pig and attending to their children. The melodious buzz shows tiredness but contentedness. Toddlers are darting here and there. Some are hiding on their father’s or “lolo,” grandather’s pants. Infants and others sit on their mothers or “lolo” and “lola,” grandparents’ laps. Younger children are running around the dirt yard. The epicenter of everybody’s activity is the growing glowing coal embers of the dying fire.

As was the custom, the whole family of everybody who worked on the farm will gather together for supper at the field owner’s house. “Welcome everyone,” Lola exclaimed. Adults acknowledged by bowing their heads slightly. Men acknowledged by detaching their tobacco pipes from their mouths. Children stand or sit at attention.

“Stand clear of the closing doors. Next stop is Pelham Parkway.” Oh where am I? Somebody just pushed and squeezed me against a pole on the inside train of the New York subway system, a bookbag of an unaware Bronx youth rapping with his headphone. I rushed out of the train door and down the steps. I have to rush like all the people around. For a moment there, I was transported back to the place where I was comforted as child. Whenever I feel I have lost my compass, those memories wash over me like a wave of warmth. I guess the ballad speaks to my experience, “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.” There is no place like Alab, Bontoc, with villages nestled in the valleys and atop mountains of the great Cordilleran mountains. 


About the Author

             Vivalyn Meyerhoff nee Sawad, with Igorot name “Chaliwaya” credits her journey from the little known barangay or “baryo” Alab in Bontoc Mountain Province, Philippines to the pedestals of New York Metropolis to the closely knit bond and guidance of family common to every Igorot family. She ran wild in the local barrio school, Alab Elementary School, actively tried to fit in the town’s Mountain Province General Comprehensive High School and at the University of the Philippines College Baguio. After college, she became a research assistant in organic farming in Benguet State University, an educator in a private school in Dagupan City, Pangasinan and in a public school in Baguio city, Pines City National High school. Since 2003, she has graced the classrooms of New York City Department of Education as a Special Education Teacher Support Services provider. She is active in promoting her cultural roots. She is a member of BIBAK New York. 

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