Joseph T. Bautista

Night of the living and the dead

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sagada120161025Looking for a road trip to one of the spookiest places in the country this long Halloween weekend? Why not drive north and head to Sagada?

The people of Sagada, the Kankanaeys, have some unique rituals of taking care of the dead and remembering them. They believe that the spirits of the dead continue to make a connection with the living, so they make lavish preparations for sending off their departed. Needless to say, they have a distinctive way of celebrating All Saints’ Day.

In Sagada, pre-burial rites begin when a person is in a dying state. Animal sacrifices are made, and chanting and prayers are performed until the dying person heaves his last breath. When death finally falls, the body is wrapped in cloth and placed in a fetal position into a coffin made of hollowed log. The Kankanaeys believe that the dead should get out of the world the same way they got in.

No road trip destination beats Sagada in terms of adventure and richness of experience. The All Saints’ Day break is as good an occasion as any to visit the place. Just be prepared to fuel up more than usual.

No road trip destination beats Sagada in terms of adventure and richness of experience. The All Saints’ Day break is as good an occasion as any to visit the place. Just be prepared to fuel up more than usual.

The coffin is hung in high-elevated cliffs or stacked in open caves. It is believed that the higher the body is laid, the closer the person is to heaven.

But when the Americans came in the early 1900s, the Anglican missionaries introduced the practice of burying the dead in a cemetery. They discouraged the old practice, saying that it was unsanitary. It took many years before the people of Sagada accepted burying dead in cemeteries instead of hanging them on cliffs. The last known coffin to be hung was that of Estefania Mayocyoc in 2008.


How to get there
Driving to Sagada is much easier now than it was before. The 160km roads from Baguio City going up to Sagada are now well-paved. The drive can actually take just four hours. But driving on Halsema Highway, with its specular views of the Cordilleras, is already part of the adventure, so there’s no point in driving fast.

But the Baguio-Sagada Road is not the only way to reach Sagada. One can drive from Manila to Banaue via the east road that passes NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, then exit from Pura, and then continue to Banaue via the San Jose-Solano Road. From Banaue, it will take about two hours to drive the winding but scenic 60km road passing through Bontoc to reach Sagada.

sagada320161025Those who wish to try the off-the-beaten trail to Sagada can enter via Tagudin, Ilocos Norte, and take the Besang Pass through Cervantes, Tadian and Sabangan. This is actually the old mountain trail, and it takes three to four hours from there to reach Sagada.

What to do, what to see
There are plenty to see and do in Sagada during the Halloween break.

First, there is a unique ceremony on November 1st of honoring the dead. Called “panag-apoy,” which literally means “to produce fire,” the practice goes back to the time when the Anglican missionaries started the evangelization of the people of Sagada.

Instead of using candles, the local sa-eng or long thin splinters of pitched pine are used. Burning the sa-eng is their way of lighting the path for their departed kin to find their way back and to keep them warm.

sagada420161025A mass is held in the afternoon, followed by the blessing of the sa-eng. Then there’s the long procession from the Church of Saint Mary to the Calvary Hill where the cemetery is located. Upon reaching the cemetery, the priest lights up the first bundle of the sa-eng, blesses it and passes the fire to light up all the sa-eng brought up by residents. The burning sa-eng illuminates the whole cemetery as darkness sets in, enveloping the Calvary Hill in a thick veil of smoke. When the whole ceremony is finished, a dinner of Sagada favorites like pinikpikan and etag is held where the spirits of ancestors are invited to partake.

Aside from the unique experience of witnessing panag-apoy, visitors to Sagada can explore the eerie Lumiang Cave where thousands of coffins are stacked, and do spelunking at Sumaging Cave. Another activity is to descend to Echo Valley and have a closer view of the Hanging Coffins.

The people of Sagada never forget to honor and remember their dearly departed with a solemn mass.

The people of Sagada never forget to honor and remember their dearly departed with a solemn mass.

Where to stay, where to eat
There are now several dozens of guest houses in Sagada, and finding a place to stay for several days is not a problem, unless you arrive during the long holidays.

Most of the guest houses offer basic lodging (P350 per person, shared bathroom) or private room (P1,000 to P1,500, twin-sharing, with private bathroom). The most popular and visitor-friendly ones are St. Joseph’s, Ganduyan Inn, Misty Lodge, Kanip-Aw, Isabello’s Inn, Alapo’s, George’s, Sagada Guesthouse, Bilza Lodge, Mapia-Aw, Olahniban, Rock Inn and Shamrock’s. During the Halloween break, the locals usually offer homestays to visiting guests.

The local food is also one of the reasons people troop to Sagada.

Try the season’s favorite like pinikpikan, but avoid watching how this soup dish is prepared. A native chicken is beaten to death in the Cordilleras in a process called pikpik. Beating the live chicken with stick is supposed to tenderize the meat and improve its flavor.

This burning ritual is designed to help the dead “find their way back.”

This burning ritual is designed to help the dead “find their way back.”

Or how about some etag, their so-called native ham? The pork is prepared by curing the meat with salt, then smoked and dried for months. The result is dark, smelly dried meat rotting with maggots.

But if you’re not up to the local-food challenge, you may opt for the vegetarian fare available at Gaia Café. You can also try the locally made yogurt at Yoghurt House or the lemon pie at Lemon Pie House.

Finally, when exploring Sagada, be sure to hire a local guide. Most of the guides are working students, and they are more than happy to share with visitors their stories about the living and the dead.

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