2000, Banaue, North Luzon, Philippines
"Do you want to see the bones of my ancestors?" asked a young Ifugao man wearing a tomato-red cap. "Not today, thank you," I said in a tone normally reserved for doorstep inquiries from Jehovah's Witnesses.
One more set of ancestral bones would have been a surfeit. The young man meant no harm. His uncle's bones were neatly parcelled under the eves of his house and charging tourists for a peek is useful revenue.
The panoramic view of Banaue's ancient stepped rice terraces, what Filipinos like to call the eighth wonder of the world, had been obscured by rolling clouds of morning mist so I had wandered off aimlessly to the nearest village. But wandering aimlessly just about anywhere in the Philippines is off the agenda. The more aimless your wandering appears, the more determined someone will be to steer you towards their buck-making speciality.
Peeking at bones is all part of the Banaue experience. When you're not marvelling at the 2,000 to 3,000-year-old rice terraces there is always someone keen to drag you away to view some coffins, skulls or bits of bones for a small fee. The Ifugao and their Bontoc neighbours keep death in the family, propping their dear departed relative on a chair in the hut, as essential a part of the scenery as Norman's mum in the Bates Motel in Psycho.
Neither the Ifugao nor the Bontoc are as finicky in their funerary arrangements as the Ibaloy tribe who used to mummify their dead using salt water poured down the throat. The mummies are perched in caves in the Kabayan region. Each of these tribes in the northern highlands of Luzon, the biggest island in the Philippines, lived relatively free from outside interference until less than a century ago when US road builders made their way into the mountains to establish an alternative administrative centre away from the heat of Manila in the warmest months.
The Americans built the mountain town of Baguio that became the base for deeper forays into the hill communities beyond. The Americans were dismayed to find that the Bontoc, in particular, were enthusiastic headhunters. Anyone who was anyone had a human jaw hanging from his drum as a trophy resulting from some blood feud. The new administrators persuaded tribes to settle their grievances with tug-of-war contests - hardly the stuff of a Rider Haggard narrative but safer for everyone concerned.
Drums, jaw-bones and grisly pictures of headhunting forays are today consigned to the museum in Bontoc town and most of the tribal huts have shed their traditional thatched roofs, their occupants erecting ugly corrugated-iron shelters in their place. The iron is cheaper and lasts longer but does nothing to insulate families in their homes. Nor does it photograph well for the holiday album. Stories of remote headhunting tribes lose their lustre when the pictures reveal Nike T-shirts on the washing line and a satellite dish on the roof of the tribal hut.
Accessibility to these North Luzon tribes remains a challenge, however, if you take a round trip from Manila via Baguio and the Halsema Mountain Highway, a twisting and often unmetalled road with treacherous stretches that can be prone to landslides and rock falls. But the rice and vegetable terraces encountered on the way are worth the discomfort. The oldest terraces in Banaue are an engineering wonder, intricately constructed with earthen walls and drainage systems so that water reaches every terrace in a controlled cascade.
The ancestors of the Ifugao may have chosen to farm up the sides of the hills in preference to encroaching on the territory of their fierce neighbours. Whatever their motive the terrace system reveals that these societies had sophisticated engineering skills, transforming the landscape into stepped hillsides patched with green rice shoots sprouting from the flooded paddies.
Today these structures, carefully nurtured and expanded over 2,000 years, are under threat from neglect as young tribespeople abandon their traditional lifestyles, preferring the bubblegum, neon-lit fume-choked squalor of downtown Manila or Baguio. It's difficult to blame them. Banaue does not maintain the image of cultural enrichment with its increasing tourist trade turning tribespeople into souvenir touts, churning out thousands of carvings of their rice god.
When the fruits of a morning's labour in the fields can be earned just as easily by turning your house into a penny arcade, exchanging photo-opportunities to pose by dead relatives for a few pesos, the dignity of ancient customs soon begins to suffer.
When trekking among the jagged limestone formations of Sagada, where the so-called "hanging coffins" of the local tribespeople are perched on rock ledges and stacked in caves, you have to question your motives. Was I looking for some cross-cultural insight or was I simply indulging in ghoulish curiosity? In my case I was going where the tour guide led me, driven only by the idea that, since I had come this far, I might as well see what there was to see. But would I wander round the cemeteries back home?
There is an argument that immersing ourselves in other people's cultures is part of the travel experience but I drew the line at dog when it was offered for breakfast, even if it was accompanied by a piquant sauce. The best bit, they say, is the head, particularly the tongue and the ears, prized for their crispness. I couldn't have faced my West Highland terrier again in the knowledge that I had sampled one of his pedigree chums.
Perhaps there are some things so alien, so sacred, so indigenous to another's way of life, that they are best left alone by the outsider. Perhaps it is time that the dead of Sagada and Kabayan are left to rest. But it won't happen so long as there is potential to extract a tourist shilling.
© Financial Times