Archive for December, 2011


The Hole-y shoes of Tanudan.....

So I am still recovering from a physically arduous Christmas.  As you can see from the photo my trusty hiking shoes couldn’t survive the Christmas – my fingers poking out in strange places.  Here in the Phillipines you can get most things fixed at a very reasonable price (not like our disposable throw away culture) – but even some things have there limits. The local cobbler just laughed at me when I presented my sorry shoes to him.  I have a sentimental connection to these boots having tramped the highlands of Scotland, the highways of India and East Africa and the mean streets of North London with them in recent years – but they met their match in the Cordilleras of the Phillipines.

But a serious point is how impressive the work of the priests and missionaries is in this area – as well as how tough the locals are.  Wherever I went I was always accompanied by catechists / and youth.  They insisted on carrying my rucksack for me – and in the end I was glad as some of the tracks were pretty precarious. I think I would have been pretty unstable on some of the steeper paths.  A Belgian priest – Fr. Leo van de Winkle had gone missing about 10 years ago.  They have found his chalice deep in the forest and it is proudly displayed in the Bishops House, but his remains are still missing – so half-jokingly the Bishop suggested we keep an eye out for them!  It seems he was abducted and killed by local communists – who he was openly very critical of – but as I was walking some of the paths with the mudslides – and the steep drops I was thinking he could have just slipped and that would be it. The wild pigs would take care of the rest!

The CICM missionaries had set up an impressive network of schools and hospitals – and the evidence was the high educational level and cultureal level of the people. Most of my homilies were translated but they didn’t need to be as they seemed to understand even Scouse English and even laughed at my jokes (something I am not used  to).  I have to confess to being scared at times – particularly walking on the rice terraces…. the small paths with stones were not designed for size 11 European feet particularly belonging to a lumbering, lobsided 6ft 2 – 95kg beast like myself. So it was scary teetering – in the rain – in slippery rocks with a 200ft drop on one side of you – I said quite a few prayers to various saints….  What was amazing was seeing our companions dance along these paths and rocks in bare feet.  Here is a taste of the journeys and the welcome we would receive when we would arrive….


Greetings of Christmas Joy and Peace Everyone!   I have emerged from the mountains of the Cordillera, exhausted but very happy, with wonderful memories of a very special Christmas with the people of Tanudan.  Thanks for the concerned messages regarding the terrible typhoon that hit the South of the Phillipines.  I didn’t know about it till yesterday which shows you how cut off we have been up in the mountain villages.  It had been raining steadily for 2 weeks as the tail of the Typhoon hit us – which meant landslides and swollen rivers making vehicular access impossible.  As a result we have been without electricity for much of the time (having to ration the remaining gasoline).

As they say a picture paints a thousand words – so below is a small taste of the journey into the mountains – with chickens / pigs / puppies – the last vehicle I saw for two weeks!  From then on it was walking from village to village for the pre-dawn masses, beautiful singing, and a simple lifestyle!

A first Christmas without presents/cards /booze/ TV /even electricity but full of singing, dancing and joy!  It was humbling to see how happy the people where to have mass for Christmas.  Even managed to squeeze some Baptisms in on Christmas day – after the celebratory pig was prepared of course.  Unfortunately the relentless rain seems to have destroyed my boots and my video camera – but I seem to have some footage saved.  So the next few days I will post some more stuff.  What remains with me is the glow of hospitality – unlike the people of Bethlehem, the people in the villages of Tanudan all opened their doors – many gave me their beds or a floor to sleep on, fed me, washed my muddy gear, gave me copious amounts of gorgeous home-roasted coffee.  So there was room at the inn this Christmas for me!

The place of Death


One of the differences I have observed about the different remote villages I’m visiting in Upper Kisga is the place the dead are given.  It is almost an indication of how ‘Christianised’ the villages have come.  There is documentary and oral evidence that successive missionaries encouraged people to build a cemetery outside of the villages, but they never insisted on it.  The dead and the spirits of ancestors play a significant role in these mountain tribes.  The nearby Bontoc region  – where some of my companions are – is famous for the hanging coffins in some of the caves.  In fact, according to Lonely Planet, different from the 9 other different cultures that practice dmummification – here in the Cordillera they are unique in that do not touch any internal organs. Corpses are dried in the heat of a fire, embalmed herbally and then over six months smoke is blown into abdominal cavities to dry out worms and preserve organs. Here in Tunadan – at least in the remoter villages – the dead are still buried next to the houses of the family.

This means, as you can see in the picture, that graves are interspersed amongst the dwellings – sometimes even underneath homes. In some houses when the family gather to eat, they will call on the name of the dead relative to join them – as they believe that the spirit is still roaming about their former habitat.  Again whether this is practiced or not would indicate the level of ‘christianisation’ that has happened.  The old lady who was explaining this to me assured me that in her eyes it was superstition. She then gave a very impressive exposition of how important belief in the Resurrection is now for her family. I hope she wasn’t just saying it to impress the priest!  The other fascinating detail she told me was about  the tradition of mourning.  It used to be that a widow would not cut his hair for a year and then could cut it only if he went to an enemy tribe or village and came back with a head. The old lady, laughing, assured me that this expectation was commuted long before she was born, to hunting a wild boar or deer for a day and a night, and coming back with its corpse to be shared in a feast.

It has always fascinated me the different ways we cope with death – in the UK very poorly I believe!  It is a peculiarly British habit to quarantine death with pragmatism, etiquette and control.  That is definitely not the case here. I was very fond of the HBO series Six Feet Under for this reason and  I have put on my Amazon Wish List (hint hint!) a fascinating book called Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre. How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray How we deal with death often is more about how the living cope with loss and the values that underpin that.  Here the people have such a strong collective identity – which seems to be both positive and negative.