“Heaven here on Earth….”
Yes, that is exactly what I had in mind when I saw clouds hovering the city of Baguio from Beckel. Beckel is located at La Trinidad, Benguet, a province in Baguio City here in the Philippines. The weather in this part of the country is comparatively cooler than the rest. In fact, it is the coolest part of the Philippines with a temperature range of 15 degrees Celsius – 26 degrees Celsius.
The Benguet Community
Astounding. That is the word preferably closer in depicting how my first encounter with the community was. The idea of the place as being a rural area makes all sense to me. The serene ambiance accompanied by the fresh scent of the pine trees surrounding the place and the overlooking view can surmise beyond perfect. Never can anyone tell what Beckel is without that description. The ideal life as what I have imagined. The place was far-flung from the city and yet it can be described as bountiful not in terms of riches associated with material wealth but that of naturalism and simplicity.
The place is such a breather and definitely a lovely sight after a tiring 6-hour trip of winding roads and steep slopes. If I can describe it in another way, with just one word, I’d say it would be none other than the word “basic.” Why “basic”? As the word simply states, what they have are enough to supply their basic needs devoid of frivolities. These basic needs can be acquired at the the shops downhill which includes the mini grocery store owned by the very generous Kagawad Vicky who gave us the honor and the privilege to tour the community and be acquainted with the locals, the small internet cafe, the karinderya, a water refilling station, a panaderya, and an ukay ukay store along with another 2 stalls that mainly sell, again, the basic needs.
If there was one thing though that captured my attention most, a scene that I do not often see is that of coffins situated just beside or behind the houses. If someone would ask me what would be the most significant landmark in Beckel that separates it from all the other communities I have visited, it would be the coffins. Being a foreigner in the community, I have to admit that at first, it gave me the creepy feeling indeed. Especially since the room where Ate Nina and I occupied is overlooking a neighbor’s backyard full of coffins. But good enough for us, we slept quite like a log oblivious of any eerie sounds in the background at night, if there are any.
Speaking of our room, this leads us now to the Parish house under the care of Father Joseph Pumihic with the aid of Ate Lisa and Ate Josie where we sought shelter during our one-week stay. A humble abode. It definitely is a special place for guests. Laying my eyes on the small but not so small house actually made the entire Beckelian experience complete. The house being perched at the side of the cliff gave us the elevated feeling and that looking-over-the-clouds experience when the temperature drops and fog starts to cover everything below us.
I call it as a house, structure wise, but amazing as it is, it has a very “homey” feeling considering that nobody ever stayed there for that long if we were to count years, decades or centuries even. Upon entering the house through the splendid door with its faded varnish revealing an antique feeling to it that’s why I called it splendid, a sala which also serves as the dining area provided just the right amount of space for the entire group to fit in and huddle for the discussion nights. I wasn’t expecting at all that the exterior of the house sort of gave that “little house” impression but inside, the space was really maximized arriving to 2 bedrooms, the kitchen, laundry area, a bathroom downstairs and on the second level, 2 more bedrooms with one bathroom and more spacious areas for the sala and sleeping areas. They also have a balcony which is set just in the right part of the house which somehow helps in setting up that mood of serene ambiance when one goes there. I may describe it as the perfect nook for contemplating.
The atmosphere, weather wise, is just very appropriate for traveling. The scent of pines trees and the cool breeze somehow complement the good mood aura and it would be impossible if one will not have a good feeling everyday in such beautiful surroundings. Daily walks from the barangay to the Parish house and back to the community are not the daily walks of regular city lifestyle here in Manila or even in my province in Bicol. Exhausting they really are but with good company and a laidback community, I must say “exhaustion” will be just a word, not a feeling. The up and down walks going to Lamut can portray how physically fit the people in Beckel are in order to act out their daily activities of living but for visitors like us, it would take quite a long time to adapt to these strenuous climbs.
Among the communities I have visited which I have found to be one of the major contributors of making my Beckelian experience worthwhile would be the hike to Mt. Camiling. Mt. Camiling is located outside Beckel and I must agree with Ate Rose, one of the charity workers and our tour guide, that going to Mt. Camiling is one of the most difficult and treacherous hikes. This is mainly the reason why mass was held only once a month there in Mt. Camiling. I wasn’t geared up for the climb wearing very thin socks inside a pair of Chuck shoes (definitely a no-no for hiking), a heavy camera and a backpack, I felt nothing more but shaking knees, aching feet with calluses all over and a sweating, weary body.
Halfway the climb, I almost felt the urge to back out and climb down but seeing the two nuns who are with us, Sister Maxene, who is 65 years old, and Sister Bina treading on the cliff with difficulty but with patience, I thought, I am younger than them, stronger even but do I have a strong faith such as what they have? It came to a point I almost felt my life was hanging by a thread when I slipped and was only holding on to a bunch of wild grass to keep myself from falling and sliding down the cliff. Thanks to Ate Rose who helped me get back on track and for saving my life. Whew! We are physically spent out, were catching our breaths and I already emptied my water bottle – this is indeed the hike of the year for me. Not even my hiking capabilities way back Girl Scout days are a match for the treacherous hike in Mt. Camiling. I must say I was hurled back to being a newbie in hiking. But seeing the community being surrounded with hills and mountains, the fresh pine trees — the view was spectacular.
The People of Benguet
All the effort of going up Mt. Camiling is worth it when the people welcomed us with smiling, exuberant faces. How glad they were for having visitors like us there in their place. I can indeed tell. They are indeed honored for the visit made by Father Joseph and the sisters as well as people from neighboring communities. It was a privilege for them. They have, in return, offered welcoming arms and an overflowing generosity. Snacks were offered by means of boiled saba and brewed coffee while we were resting. Mass started a couple of minutes after that and it was followed by “the feast.”
A short program was conducted when everyone has eaten already. If there is one character trait that I have noticed with the people of Mt. Camiling, it is their hospitality. It is, if I may add, a very genuine feeling of offering what they can offer or provide to visitors in the community. I have witnessed the same character trait also in Beckel.
The same as with the value of bayanihan. Every member of the community participates and involves himself/herself in every important occasion or festivity. They share the responsibilities of making a festival or occasion as grand. When it comes to becoming a solid community, I must say that the communities I have visited in rural areas and the provinces are really tight knit as compared to that of the city life.
They are closely attuned to nature and their surroundings. Aside from the fact that it is through nature that they get their source of livelihood, they have somehow perceived nature as part of who they are as an individual. One observation that I can make from the entire duration of our stay in Benguet is that there was never an instance where I felt awkward in dealing and communicating with the people in Mt. Camiling, Lamut and Beckel. They never held this air of arrogance and were just willing to share what they know through story telling. They have no reservations so to speak when it comes to their life and culture as a Kankana-ey or an Ibaloi. Yes, gossips are part of storytelling too but they deal with it in a nonchalant manner. Thus, sensitive issues are always sidetracked. This, I think, is reflective of how peaceful the dwellers of the Benguet community have lived alongside one another. To acquaint with the people from Beckel, Mt. Camiling and Lamut is as far from being difficult as acquainting with the place, itself.
And of course, the trip won’t be complete without trying Benguet’s very own specialty: strawberry taho (soya/beancurd). So YES, if given the opportunity to go back, I really would. It was one worthwhile experience that one should never, ever miss out on.