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New Year in the Highlands of Maligcong

Roasting marshmallows and keeping warm by a bonfire while waiting for the New Year.
Roasting marshmallows and keeping warm by a bonfire while waiting for the New Year.

I sit around a flickering bonfire with two friends eating roasted marshmallows as most of the world await the coming of the New Year with so much festivities.  All around us, there is only the dark outline of the mountains, a heavy cold, and a quiet that gently lays all over the land like a perpetual mist. In our simple gathering, it is hard to imagine that a just a few minutes more thousands of places in the world will be lighting up with lavish firework displays with a boisterous welcome for 2018- the very opposite of how people in rural Maligcong-the town where I am in-  celebrates New Year.

Just like how they live each day, the people of Maligcong- a sleepy town nestled in the highlands of Bontoc in Mountain Province- welcomes each year simply and quietly.  “Just like any other work day” my host, Manang Rowena said when asked about their new year rituals. It is not widely celebrated, according to her, “a day most people just sleep through”.

And true enough, New Year’s Eve passed just as Manang Rowena said it would. A few firecrackers lit up the sky at midnight but its crackle and light were too quickly dissolved in the vastness of night. Some youngsters rode their motorcycles up the steep street with a bunch of tin cans trailing behind them.  One can also hear the faint echoes of the poundings of the “gangsa” coming from another village in a distant mountain.  It is not yet an hour after midnight when silence settled in again, pulling us to our beds to sleep. If not for the chirping of some insects the quiet will be too heavy to bear.

A faint burst of light from a firework illuminates the landscape
A faint burst of light from a firework illuminates the landscape at midnight

The quiet was unchanged when we woke up in the morning. At breakfast, Manang Rowena said that they don’t celebrate Christmas and New Year that much because what they take time and resources celebrating are family gatherings such as weddings, baptismal, and their unique indigenous rituals. In these events not only the family members are invited but the whole village as well showing how they value community ties that has been formed through the years.

Later that day, we walked to the rice terraces (or “payew” in local dialect) – an attraction Maligcong is most famous for.  The fields are bare this time for the planting season is just about to begin but water from the watershed above keeps the whole terraced field flooded. Here is where our lunch is- not rice, but snails and clams that live in the muddy waters of the payew, the abundance of which a good reminder of how nature can provide our most basic needs.

Foraging snails in the Maligcong rice terraces
Foraging for snails in the Maligcong rice terraces

It is written in different ethnography records that Igorot children in the past consider gathering of food not as work but more of play. And indeed, it is in this mindset that we went into the knee deep mud to forage for snails. It was not easy though, as each step was a struggle for balance but it is in this way that we get to appreciate more of the efforts of our rice farmers and all the work put into the maintenance of our rice terraces.

Heading home, the unplanted payew glistened under the morning light, the unbroken stillness of its surface a reminder of what the New Year means to many Maligcong farmers and to us: a new and clean slate from which abundance, hope and dreams grow towards the sun, despite of the threats of typhoons.

The terraces of Maligcong as seen from the summit of Mt. Kupapey
The terraces of Maligcong as seen from the summit of Mt. Kupapey

The coming of the New Year might just be like any other day in Maligcong but for me, it is a New Year that is unlike any other.  It will always be good to remember how, even in silence and simplicity, we can celebrate the gift of another year.

Happy New Year!

 

P.S. Thank you to Manang Rowena of Maligcong Terraces View Inn for accommodating us and our many questions!

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