Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Weekend with Asao Shimura

his first time to guide someone in the rain

After a two-hour ride from La Trinidad I finally arrive in Sitio Poking. It is a little hamlet of around a hundred houses that seem to be racing upwards on the slopes of a ridge that overlooks the sprawling undulating terrain of rice paddies liberally sprinkled with bamboo groves and clusters of subtropical trees. In one of these houses lives the family of Asao Shimura, a paper artist from Japan who decided to trade the convenience and exuberance of Tokyo with the humdrum and isolation of Kapangan.

The rain has not let up and Shimura-san, under the generous canopy of his blue umbrella, is already down the steps leading to his house. Stashed around his waist is a machete, the length of its scabbard handsomely agreeing with his lanky figure. His yellow shirt doesn’t attempt to hide his droopy shoulders but his loose denim pants working their way into his puddled boots somehow add an air of sturdiness to his precarious almost flimsy stance. He is in his full battle gear for our trek today!

‘Are you sure you want to sleep at Perico’s house?’ I have already read from one of Shimura-san’s miniature books about Perico’s cabin (that he loves to call CafĂ© Perico). ‘Actually any place where I could hang my hammock.’ And with a mocking smile he asks ‘In the rain?’ We head to the small local store across the road to get a bottle of gin and half a kilo of sugar. Concealed behind the assortment of saltines, candy, school supplies and a placard that reminds debtors to ‘settle their account,’ I can make out a middle-aged woman in a lively exchange of greetings with Shimura-san, with some giggles in between. She makes a call and tells us that Perico is nowhere to be found. I volunteer to carry the groceries as Shimura-san keeps fumbling with his phone, not to update his Facebook but to keep track of the time. This trait of measuring the day in terms of minutes still betrays his being Japanese in spite of the more than 20 years he has spent blending in with the Ibalois. Once in a while, his glance will move from the screen of his phone to my gear. With a tinge of condescension his eyes peer through the gap between his thick glasses and his forehead, vividly flashing an image of Dumbledore in the back country of Barangay Labueg. ‘You should wear bota!’ he quips ‘I wear these shoes when I run trails’ I reassure him. After one last look at his phone we head down the trailhead to Perico’s house.

The foliage shading the rolling trail affords a pleasant trek on an ordinary day. But in the rain, the trail could get really tricky….well, at least for me. As for Shimura-san, he charges ahead with no sense of precaution whatsoever on the slippery trail occasionally pockmarked by the hoof steps of cattle. And all the trekking tips and lessons on applied mechanics, traction and contact surface are summarized into a pair of bota!

I trudge behind him, making sure that my shoes steer clear of the little stream that has formed in the downpour, one hand negotiating  a tote bag slung onto the handle of my umbrella and the other keeping my camera safe from the rain. Eventually I surrender to the gully. There is an interesting sense of safety and adventure behind the filth of shoes drenched in mud.

‘Libo-o! Libo-o!’ He stops to take pictures of clouds dominating the horizon, as it were, fluffs of a downy pillow that has burst, and captured in slow motion, splendidly providing a hazy backdrop for the green meadows and rice fields. I am starting to get an idea of the untranslatable Japanese words ‘natsukashii’ and ‘wabi-sabi’.

We stop at a shack as the rain gets heavier. In Benguet, it is common to find houses empty in the morning as the farming locals are in their office-the fields, making their village seem like a ghost town whose stillness is disturbed only by the whistling of the mountain breeze and the occasional appearance of wide-eyed kids whose solemn gazes will follow your movement in an almost perfectly mechanical fashion. In their office they have a kampo where they can rest and have their lunch. Late in the afternoon they leave their workplace and the kampo gets empty. Shimura-san undoes the thread tied around a nail. He is a friend of the owner. Inside the shack we find a soiled spoon and plate among the clutter of sacks and farming equipment. Snugly thrust between the furnace and a makeshift window is a makeshift bed enough to sleep someone in a curled larva position or with legs dangling off the edge. 

Outside, there is a spout but the water flowing out of it has turned brownish due to the rain. The chickens are agitated. Somehow, they have come to associate the arrival of humans with food, or maybe with getting slaughtered and served as pinikpikan to guests. Overall it is a cozy little shack that has basic provisions for survival and a modest amount of sunlight to give you a pleasant wakeup call through the window. ‘I guess this will do for tonight.’ With a tone that hints a mixture of the relief that he can leave for home soon and the honest concern that I may not survive the night without someone’s assistance, he asks ‘Are you sure?’ He is not convinced by my affirmative answer. As the sky gets clearer he invites me to go to one of the houses about 200 meters away from the kampo to know Perico’s whereabouts. They too are clueless but after a couple of minutes of self-introduction we see Perico headed our way. He has been drinking.

We go down a few hundred meters further and we arrive at Perico’s house. It is a typical tin cabin secluded from all the rest amidst different trees including avocado, guyabano, coffee, and some bamboo. The reason for the pouch around his waist is revealed when he appeases the rowdy welcome of his chickens.

Cafe Perico

As soon as we get inside, Perico is already at the furnace preparing coffee. In Benguet, people are differentiated by three major dialects—Kankanaey, Ibaloi, and Kalanguya. The highlanders grow potatoes, carrots, broccoli and other highland vegetables while the warmer lowlands produce rice. But if there was one thing that all households in Benguet have in common, that would have to be coffee. Unlike pinikpikan which is only served on special occasions or when guests visit, Benguet arabica and robusta can almost always be found in the kitchen. As soon as Shimura-san finishes his cup, he bids us goodbye, feeling both relieved that I will be taken care of tonight and worried that the dark might catch him on the way.

The charm of the rustic life in benguet

The trickles coming down the tin roof as if they were fairies dancing to the the late afternoon chorus of cicadas and the nimble chirping of chicks, and the soot on the surface of half of the inside of the cabin that accentuates the haze of dusk give you this unblemished charm of the rustic life in Benguet.

Perico is delighted to have a Tagalog as a guest. He catches one of his chickens. ‘Kumakain ka ba ng pinikpikan?’ That’s normally their invitation to a meal—a question, as opposed to the prompt cupful when offering coffee. And ‘Pasensya ka na, ganito lang kami maglutong mga Igorot’ is a common part of the social graces before meals.

Perico preparing pinikpikan

After the sumptuous dinner, Perico tidies up the cot for me and he lays down layers of blankets and sacks on the floor. It is no use refusing Igorot hospitality; they are persistent in pleasing their guests. We share the gin over some local lore, jokes and Duterte politics. But the gin doesn’t taste good tonight so I leave it to Perico to finish. His repetitive sequence of the same questions and chuckles lulls me to sleep. Tomorrow we go to Kamboloan!

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