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People Power and the Perils of Democracy Lite

by Herbert Docena
Beneath the coup plots, shadow plays, and shifting alliances is the old protracted struggle for power in the Philippines.

Preparing for Disaster

by Vinia M. Datinguinoo
For a disaster-prone country, the Philippines is notoriously unprepared to deal with calamity.

Wowowee and the Women of 200 P. dela Cruz St.
by Sheila S. Coronel
TV networks benefit from the poverty and despair of their audience. But until the “Wowowee” tragedy, TV executives were oblivious to the perils of peddling dreams.

Through the Tube, Darkly
by Sheila S. Coronel
Primetime newscasts are fixated on crime stories, but then that is what their audiences want.

The Way We Were
On Sept. 22, 1972, the military closed down newspapers and broadcast stations and hauled to jail journalists and publishers.

Unusual Journeys
Most travel pieces by Filipinos involve shopping, but there is more to traveling than searching through the bargain bin. Unusual journeys inspire the traveler to see the world in a new light.

Romancing the Camera
by Howie G. Severino
Filipinos love the camera and the camera loves us.

A Basketball Diary
by Steven Pollit
A Canadian traveler discovers the Pinoy passion for basketball in Visayan villages way off the tourist track.

The Lost Boys of Sagada
by Danilova Molintas
The young men who grew up in the midst of Sagada’s tourist rush have fallen to the temptations of easy money, easy women, and what seemed for many years an easy life.

A Sta. Ana Story
by Grace Loreno
The time-warped district of Sta. Ana in the old Manila is changing fast, the remnants of its storied past now being overrun by fast-food joints and urban blight.

On the Trail of Lost Films
by Nick Deocampo
The pieces of our celluloid heritage are scattered throughout the world.

The Quest for Katsudon in the Kingdom of Kawai
by Dean Francis Alfar
Being functionally illiterate in Japanese makes the search for the perfect katsudon in Tokyo truly challenging.
The Lost Boys of Sagada

The young men who grew up in the midst of Sagada’s tourist rush have fallen to the temptations of easy money, easy women, and what seemed for many years an easy life.


Photo by Isa Lorenzo 2006/Silver Lens Photo
M—'S EYES are closed, but the rest of his bronzed, chiseled features are tight and tense. His heavy, muscular frame, sprawled on a rough-hewn bench of thick pine slabs, seems suspended on his big-boned hands that are desperately grasping a little homemade bong. His thick lips suck furiously on a small bamboo pipe stuck into a disposable plastic water bottle filled to a fourth with water, now swiftly turning green.

There are other ways to smoke hash, and faster ways to get a high. But smoking this circuitous way assures M— that his throat wouldn’t feel raspy, especially after all the smoking he knows he would be doing in the next six weeks.

A croaky voice surely wouldn’t do. In the next few days will begin the summer’s mad scramble for tourists, buyers, girls, and the only little scraps of adventure available to those like him, members of Sagada’s growing tribe of “lost boys,” and there is no way he will be left out just because of a sore throat or some other affliction.

The high makes his happy thoughts explode and trail away like little shooting stars in his mind. Every day in the next six weeks promises to be like today: cloudless and filled with brilliant sunshine, with all six Lizardo buses spilling over with tourists just begging him to guide them to Echo Valley, the caves, Bomod-ok Falls, Mt. Ampakaw...

Better yet, every night for the next six weeks promises to be like tonight: a wild party at Shamrock or Yoghurt House, getting soused on gin or rum, and high on the exhilaration of him and the boys trading dirty jokes and stories with a group of Swiss chicks touring on their own, and then singing and banging black-sooted pans to the beat of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’” and “Waiting in Vain,” yelling “let’s get together and feel all right” until the church bells strike the nine o’clock curfew, and the Swiss girls pick up the tab. Then comes a walk through the churchyard, discreetly pairing off, and this finale, a dinner at his aunt’s vacant house in way-off Nangonogan, at the fringes of the sleeping town. Now everyone is comfortably paired off, stuffed with pinicpican, the native chicken stew, and smoking ganja and groping each other around the pinewood fire.

And even better, all the tourists are potential clients. Maybe they’d want to buy from him one hit, two hits, a ball, a kilo…Maybe tomorrow’s bus will bring the sale of his lifetime, his lucky break, the big deal! Then he can build a big house, right smack in the town center, and nobody will ever look down at him or his family again.

M— finally opens his eyes, and gives the Swiss woman in front of him a stare that he reckons is both passionate and intense. Such stares he practices a lot on a mirror shard tacked outside his father’s tin-roofed house in the village of Demang. This will do the final trick, he tells himself. Just as the line that he had practiced for days on end had come out well this morning. “Climb on me, I’m a human ladder,” he told this woman earlier as they came across a particularly steep little gulley inside Sumaging cave, and he spread himself across the limestone gap. The woman had blushed and seemed perplexed at first, but yielded.

Oh, to be 22, and young and strong, and carefree and handsome and desired. And to party all night, every night, and be ready for a new adventure every day. He had thought these happy thoughts as he leaned forward to kiss the woman. Never mind that she was all of 45 and had a family back home in Basel.

The next day, like every day in the next six weeks, M— gets up at around 10 o’clock with a nasty hangover. To shock the gin out of his system, he dunks his head into a bucket of cold water. Then he is off, grabbing his rope, mountain climbing gear, his Petromax lamp—all stashed away in his father’s unused pigpen. The sweat that trickles down his cheeks still reeks of gin as he walks leisurely up through the winding walkways that criss-cross Sagada’s stunning rice terraces in the villages of Demang and Dagdag. On the way he calls out cheerfully to the housewives gossiping in front of their homes as they tend to a handful of small children.

He swaps jokes with a farmer taking his midday break before swinging over into the main road and reaching the town hall just in time for the first bus to arrive from Baguio City. The bus discharges its passengers like a cornucopia of goodies meant for him and his fellow tour guides and hash dealers. All of them had been waiting eagerly for the tour of the day, the party, the adventure, the big break, to begin.

THE TOWN of Sagada sits stoically high up in the mountains of the Philippine Cordillera. Its center is a portrait of American colonial uprightness: it is anchored by a picturesque Episcopal compound with its church of solid gray stone slabs, a sweet clapboard rectory, a whitewashed hospital named St. Theodore’s, a graveyard, and a charming café where one could sample Auntie Josephine’s homemade lemon pie, made from homegrown lemons first planted in Sagada by the Episcopal missionaries who had brought with them industriousness as their core value.

RESPECTABLE FACADE. The town center of Sagada, dominated by the Episcopalian church built by American missionaries, is a portrait of colonial uprightness. [photo by Estan Cabigas]

This is the first face Sagada presents to her visitors as they unload themselves off the bus in the early afternoon on a clear and bright summer, or crisp and cold December. For many visitors, this is the only face this remote mountain town has. But as the shadows lengthen and the mist begins to shroud Sagada, or one chooses to stay longer, one can glimpse the town’s other faces. Some say Sagada presents to her many visitors the face they really long to see. The idealistic environmentalist sees Sagada as the home of an indigenous tribe whose traditional patterns of using resources are intrinsically sustainable. For adventure sports buffs, Sagada presents itself as a limitless expanse of cliffs and ridges to scale, a place where the mighty Chico River begs to be conquered, where countless entrances to the mysterious cave system just wait to be discovered. For burnt-out yuppies and urbanites, Sagada’s rural charms are a refreshing breather from the triviality and blandness of Manila’s mass-produced offerings.

Young revolutionaries and activists fancy Sagada’s native culture as a utopia of sorts, unspoiled by commercialism and filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and community child-rearing. Historians hail Sagada as the place that allowed William Henry Scott the solitude he needed to write about prehispanic Filipinos. Anthropologists marvel at Sagada as one of the few indigenous communities in the world that has, so far, been able to preserve its core traditions, yet adapt, and adopt other ways in order to engage with the world on its own terms. Christians see Sagada as the staunch Episcopalian community that embodies much of the good about living a life of Christian witness.

Sagada is all of these, but also more than the sum of its parts. Its dazzling beauty, light, and clean air continue to attract generation after generation of artists and writers from National Artists, Palanca Hall of Famers, to lesser known scribes and struggling crafts makers.

But Sagada’s compelling magnetism as also attracted its fair share of the scum of the earth. At the lighter end of the spectrum of scum lie the hippies who come to Sagada because it is a “smoke-free” zone, where they can smoke a joint in peace, or sample — even when broke — the exotic psychotropic fare like Angels’ Trumpet or mind-blowing mushrooms.

Somewhere near the darker end are the “white trash” types — the red-faced, potbellied Westerners who come to Sagada with their spindly-legged, protein deficient, and spaghetti-strapped nth GF picked up from any of the country’s multitude of bars. They come thinking they can leave behind them a long string of abuse cases and petty violent crimes. Farther in the shadows are the hardened criminals running from international law-enforcement agencies, and who find in Sagada’s relative isolation a hideaway for a year or two.

On the surface, these different worlds remain apart, their members brushing elbows only occasionally. But Sagada is a small town, and these starkly different worlds exist in a small space, like layers upon layers of rock plates on a lithosphere, continuously moving apart, pushing each other, sliding against each other, creating subtle tremors and holding always the possibility of a major upheaval.

Each tourist season, people come and people go. But those who are hopelessly, fatally attracted to her — those who stay longer — are those who sing a different tune, those who respond to a different call.

I lived for a time in Sagada and came to know M—. “Sagada attracts the artists, the con artists and the crazy people,” he once quipped in a sudden flash of insight in one of his out-of-mind days. “They all come searching for something, or running away from something.”

Indeed, the Romanticists come to Sagada seeking the “Noble Savage,” the wisdom-spouting, mythical Igorot pagan who, following the Latin word pagus, is the “natural man,” and who, according to Perfecto Llacar in his poem “Sagada” is “often defiant, perplexed, sad, defeated, but hero nonetheless.” The middle-aged white woman left by love on the roadside comes to Sagada to find, well, love. The artists and writers come to Sagada seeking a creativity that eludes them in the drudgery of urban life, or searching for a way to manage a creativity that threatens to be their undoing. The criminals and crazy people seek respite from a life of never-ending escape, running away from the law or from the demons in their minds.

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