March - June 2006
Unusual Journeys

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.

ELECTRICITY CAME to this small Mountain Province town of 12,000 people only in the 1980s—around the time that M— entered his awkward adolescence. Up until then, Sagada had been generally sheltered from the slings and arrows of outrageous modernity. For sure, the Americans who established the Episcopal mission in the town at the turn of the century, brought with them Christianity, English, and the American belief in the White Man’s Burden. But by and large, the Sagada Igorot were allowed to preserve the core of their native culture. As one local writer notes, “The Sagadans came slowly to the Anglican fold, taking piece by piece from the bundle of Christian civilization.” This allowed them to maintain a certain pride in their culture, unlike many other Filipino tribes whose cultures and senses of self were shattered by colonialism and evangelism.

SAGADA SCENES. Little boys play near Sagada’s picture-pretty graveyard.

But after electricity came freezers, then cable TV, cellphones, the Internet. Between the coming of the freezers and cable TV began a rush of tourists. If the more adventurous of tourists had come in trickles in the 1970s, by the 1990s, they were coming in busloads. By the middle of that decade, there would be days in summer when Sumaging Cave became overrun by armies of tourists with no time to do anything more than trek in, then trek out. That tourism boom also saw the lives of M— and a growing number of other young Sagada men begin to revolve around the daily arrival of the buses from Baguio. Soon, M— and his ilk would be known as the “lost boys,” even if most of them were by then already in their early or mid-20s.

Nothing had prepared Sagadans, relatively isolated for so long, for the kind of onslaught brought by tourism. To a large degree, Sagadans have been able to fight off the industry’s worse ills: there are no nightclubs in Sagada, and no pedophiles are able to prey on the town’s innocents. But contrary to what is claimed by Sagada’s intelligentsia, that tourism has “integrated seamlessly with the town’s life and culture,” today’s tourism is creating upheavals — subtle as they may be — in Sagadan society.

For one, the sudden exposure to different ways of life has encouraged a mild backlash of xenophobia, with visitors from Manila being a main target. Rev. John Staunton, the Episcopal bishop who had founded the Mission of St. Mary the Virgin in Sagada in 1902, was, after all, a staunch imperialist who like Rudyard Kipling was convinced of the superiority of the white race. Consequently, most Sagadans today speak better English than Tagalog, and have a knee-jerk and deeply ingrained awe for the whites. At the same time, years of being treated as lesser Filipinos has also incited in many a Sagadan an instinctive distrust of the lowlander and a derision for Tagalogs.

But this is mild compared to the bigger threat posed by Sagada’s thriving marijuana trade. It is no secret among the country’s law-enforcement agencies and those that work the country’s courts that Sagada is a major hub in the global marijuana business, and has been one for quite some time now.

Any visitor has to stay only less than a day before someone offers him a bag of pollen or a sphere of rolled hash the size of a golf ball. In this small town of little means, many a structure that shoots above three stories was built with marijuana money. In fact, one of these aberrations in this place of charming little houses has been dubbed, behind its back, the “hash palace”. A good number of the town’s legal businesses — bakeries, trucking, cafés, grocery stores — started on capital put together from one or two big marijuana deals.

There’s just a tiny amount of marijuana grown in Sagada, with most of the supply that passes through here coming from the more remote towns of Kalinga. Marijuana transactions here range from the petty sale of a few grams to a newly arrived visitor, to the occasional “lucky” deal that can involve tens of kilos and millions of pesos. The deep loyalty that exists among Sagadans, where neighbors are often related, coupled with the intense distrust of the national justice system — or the entire national system in fact — allows dealers to operate freely. Of course there is also that local ethic of lauding anyone who can put one over another, especially if the other is the very system that has oppressed and discriminated against the mountain people for decades.

To be frank, up to today, there is really no hard evidence linking marijuana use to violent or destructive behavior. But the danger to Sagada lies elsewhere. Marijuana dealing in Sagada is inextricably linked to an entire lifestyle, a subculture that has, since the early 1980s, claimed batch after batch of “lost boys,” young men like M— who get fatally attracted to it.

A bus stranded in Sagada is headed nowhere. Photos by Isa Lorenzo 2006/Silver Lens Photo.

THE TRUTH is that these “lost boys” often start out as some of Sagada’s best and brightest, the unrecognized creative minds able to grasp that which is outside the traditional culture, eager to question. Early on they are labeled as “trouble” by old-school teachers for being mischievous or for playing hooky. By the time they are in their 20s, they are condemned to the never-never land of marijuana dealing where they are not coached to grow up. In another time, their boldness may have earned them a niche as tribal warriors. And because Sagada can be a homogenous group of shared values, a nightmare of conformity closes in and blocks off these young deviants, and they are forced into the archetypical role of the Bad Boy.

In the past, the elders of the dap-ay (the smallest Kankanaey socio political structure) may have been able to guide such young men to a safe path where they could see beyond their raging hormones. But with the withering away of the dap-ay’s essential roles, these men have been left to fend their way through the lush mirage, but truly arid landscape, of marijuana dealing—where the pull of easy money, the eternal party, all-the-women-one-wants, thrill and adventure is so strong, and so treacherous. Among the big men of the business, there is no “lost boy”; they do not touch their own merchandise. Most Sagadans distance themselves from the stuff as well.

In the eight years since I left Sagada, the batch of “lost boys” I had come to grow fond of has been replaced, twice over, by a new batch.

Only D— still haunts Sagada’s cafés, entertaining tourists, doing the same tricks, except that he is pushing 40. B— has been in and out of the Baguio City Jail, thanks to the bribe money his family has been able to scrounge together. J— has finally joined his hardworking wife in the United States. G— just recently came out of jail when an old flame, luckily, pulled strings to get him out. P— gets sick all the time and secretly fears that he contracted AIDS from one of his wild nights. Once in a while, O—‘s German girlfriend, now close to 50 and still pining for him, comes to visit him. And B—, always SAGADA the nastier brother, is said to have gone mad after a particularly noxious combination of ecstasy, shabu, and God knows whatever else.

As for M—, well, he’s run away with a well-known townmate’s wife, and has had to hide in a city far away.

This is a town that is said to have anitos — the spirits of the ancestors — still haunting it, protecting its villages, seeking revenge for injustices, punishing those who disrespect the town’s traditions, or just willfully playing with the lives of outsiders they fancy. Among those who practice occult in the town (for there is a group of mystics who seek occasional refuge there), Sagada is known as one of the country’s stronger “energy centers,” a chakra if you like, or a vent of energy straight from the cosmos. But one must be careful about tapping this energy, they say, lest one gets overwhelmed by its strength. Like me, many of the searchers who come, and stay, in Sagada, never find what they seek. Instead, they find something else: mostly the town becomes a stage for an upheaval in their lives, some cataclysm that changes their lives or leaves deep marks. For those on the run, whatever it is they are running from eventually catches up with them. Whether this is due to the anitos, or the nenergy, I still can’t say. M— stands hunched by the shed that overlooks Sagada’s town hall, looking constipated. It’s the rainy season, and today is the first of 10 days that the skies did not break open to let loose curtains and curtains of rain.

Like almost every day of the past 10 years, he is nursing a hangover. His eyes are not only bloodshot, they are also yellowish. Days like this, Sagada’s overstaying tourists swear, are terrible. The damp and cold seems to grow a mold that overpowers one’s brain chemicals, inducing bouts of anxiety and boredom.

An overwhelming feeling steals upon M— but he can’t put a finger on it. Sadness? Boredom? Disgust? He thinks of going down to the Yoghurt House to bum a smoke from G—, who like him has grown a paunch, and has long pushed past 30. G— is probably singing one of his dirty ditties, or going through the motions of one of his antics, but they have grown stale, and are not so funny in a middle-aged man. So M— remains where he is, standing, waiting for the last bus to arrive. The first five buses have come and gone on to Besao or Ankileng, but only a few college kids and farmers’ wives on the monthly-supply run have come out. So he stands and waits some more as the shadows begin to lengthen.

The author now lives and works in Manila, but will always feel deeply about Sagada and its “lost boys.”