Weaving Sagada Stories

by Kiko Matsing

Sagada Church
Ifugao Woman Batad Village

In December 2001, I knocked on the door of Cez and Brian Uhing in Sagada to deliver a letter and a small stack of poetry for my friend Vince. Sagada, tucked away in the Cordilliera Mountains, was such a remote and rural place, it seemed beyond the reach of postal service. I was glad to be the courier of these poems and well-wishes, for I found in Cez and Brian, kindred spirits and lifelong friends.

I was there to take my cousins Eddie and Jonas to see Sagada for the first time. Eddie, a bioinformatics programmer, lived in California, was out of a job at that time, and got a deal to go to the Philippines as a courier himself. I was just in Sagada that summer with Vince and BJ Patiño, and met Cez and Brian for the first time through them. I wondered if Sagada was as enchanting in the cold, wet winter as it was during the summer we were there. Eddieboy Calasanz, who shuffles between Manila and Aix-en-Provençe, indeed described it properly to me as our own Provençe–the quality of light, the crispness of the air… We had come in a jeepney from Banaue and Bontoc, having found that, in winter, the Batad Rice Terraces had a different charm. It was otherworldly. You wake up to a thick fog that blots your view of the ampitheater-like trerraces, then it lifts, slowly, as the day waxes, until it just lingers on the ridges. This must be our own Machu Picchu.

I had supper with Cez and Brian at their Sagada home the following evening, with some other of their friends who also happened to be there–John Bulaong, being one of them. I got to know John from a short stint I did as the science judge of the now defunct quiz show “Battle of the Brains”; he used to sub for Manny Dy as the arts-and-culture judge. I did not know that he also knew Cez and Brian, nor that he was also visiting them there. There was also a couple of renegade film students, fleeing cushy jobs from TV networks, and working on the storyboard of their next short film. Green mountain tea flowed, the fire on the hearth was kept stoked, and so did our conversations that went well into the night. Cez and Brian lived the nomadic life I only had the courage to dream about. They are artists who, being purposefully self-taught, keep their technique and point of view pure. They also work with the local community wherever they live–the Kankanay in Sagada, then, later, the Ivatan in Batanes. When the party broke up, we stepped outside for some air; there was no fog that night, and the stars were out. It felt like watching fireworks.

Eddie now works in biofuels, and happily married to Moua of the Southeast Asian Hmong tribe. He just co-authored a paper in Nature, about the cellulose-digesting enzymes in symbiotic organisms that live in termite guts. I stayed with them in Lafayette, about 45 min from San Francisco. I had not seen Eddie in six years since our trip together in Batad and Sagada. We had spent Christmas Eve there on a hillside inn overlooking the rice terraces. It was his birthday and we popped open a bottle of Valpolicella (I had brought as surprise) to imbibe with our modest pinikpikan feast. He had been to Peru since then–to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

I got a duffel bag from Eddie–he’d been saving it for when I visit–made from Peruvian fabric decorated with Inca art. It felt like Sagada weaving. It’s funny, because my sister gave me a Sagada rucksack this Christmas, and, when I left for the US the first time, Cez gave me an Ifugao skirt that still adorn my coffee table. I had written something about knitting once, set in the Shetlands–a place I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met. Like Machu Picchu, it only exists as a fable in my head, subsisting only on desire. Why its lines come to me now must be as stories of distant past and future travels furl and unfurl in my mind, like “the confluence of threads into palpable fabric”.

Last night, woozy on sake at Eddie’s favorite sushi bar, we toasted to good ol’ times. We hung around bars and dance clubs while I was here, with Moua and my other cousin Eve. Eddie was showing me a good time, always egging me to do something crazy. “I’m your id Ted, the Ed inside your Ted,” he said with a dark grin. I told Moua that Eddie needed a kid brother, some rookie he could show the ways of the world to. “Don’t let it be another six years, Ted,” he slurred and downed another sake.