THREE MAGI IN TAMALA HILLS
By Rudy A. Arizala
18 December 2008
With the advent of Christmas, I remember that in the 1960's during one of my balikbayan visits to my hometown of Infanta, a week before Christmas, I decided to join two of my friends in hunting wild chickens and boars in the forests of Sierra Madre. The only thing my parents told me befote leaving was: "Be sure to be home for Noche Buena and Christmas Day."
So, one fine sunny morning in December, my two friends and I boarded a wooden boat with bamboo outriggers at the mouth of Bantilan River bound for Tamala, a barangay of Gen.Nakar, Quezon off the Eastern coast of Quezon province facing the Pacific Ocean. We negotiated the blue waters of the Pacific for about 45 minutes until we arrived on the rocky shores of Tamala.
From the shore we woufd have to hike inland through the forested foothills, then climb a ridge and from there continue trekking until we reach the "kaingin" of Tata Tisyo and his wife. The latter is the auntie of one of our companions. Their place will be our temporary base during our hunting adventure.
We have hardly commenced walking through the forest when it started to rain very hard. And we scampered for shelter under giant molave trees. When the rain subsided, the once dusty mountain path became muddy and slippery ; and all kinds of insects suddenly appeared. Also, there were blood sucking leeches called « limatic ».. The muddy trail, leeches and insects which cling not only to our feet but to all other parts of our.body slowed down our journey.
When we reached a small clearing, it was already getting dark and from the Western sky we saw a bright star - "tala sa hapon," the evening star. It shone brightly and reminded us of the bright star which shone over the town of Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. From a distance at the foothills of the mountain, we saw a wisp of white smoke rising above the tree tops and the bright flame of a flickering light filtering through the spaces between the leaves and twigs of trees.
"Let us go there and seek shelter for the night," suggested one of our companions.
We were still soaking wet because of the rain when we arrived at the bamboo and nipa shack. We found an old woman boiling something in a black earthen pot on an improvised three stone stove at the foot of the bamboo ladder. We greeted the old woman : "Good Evening," and she looked toward our direction trying to find out who were the new arrivals. Each one of us carry on our hack a canvass knapsack containing our extra dry clothings. In one of the knapsacks are basic provisions for a hunting trip- a kilo of rice, a can of corned beef and a box of match sticks.
One of our companions introduced us to her and informed her we were going to the house of Tata Tisyo behind the first ridge a few kilometers away from the foothills. However, we were overtaken by a strong rain on our way and if she won't mind, we would like to spend the night under the bamboo floor of her nipa hut. It is typical in the area that homes are built on wooden stilts about four feet above the ground. There is, thereore, ample space under the house of the old woman where we could lie down and sleep.
"So, you are the nephew of Patricio,.the ex-guerrilla and WW II veteran," the old woman commented. Then she told us it would be dangerous to sleep on the ground after the rain because all kinds of insects and even snakes would be crawling on the ground at night. " You three better sleep upstairs," the old woman suggested.
When we went upstairs, we saw in one corner of the hut a newly-born baby sleeping on a rattan hammock tied from both ends with a rope to two opposite wooden posts of the house. A young mother of about 18 years old was swaying gently the hammock as she puts her baby to sleep.
"She is my daughter-in.law," the old woman introduced her to us. "Her husband, Tinio, has been out there in the forests since yesterday hunting wild chickens to make arroz-caldo for Noche Buena."
Then the woman went downstairs and when she returned, she had with her a plate of boiled sweet potatoes. "These boiled sweet potatoes would be our dinner tonight. I am conserving the kilo of rice we have for Noche Buena," quipped the old woman.
We looked at each other because we were about to ask permission from the old woman if we could cook on her stove the rice we have in our knapsack for dinner. However, when we learned that the old woman had few rice left for Noche Buena, we decided to give our kilo of rice to the old woman for their arroz-caldo on Noche Buena. We also gave her the can of corned beef as well as the box of match sticks..
Af first the old woman refused to accept them. But when we told her they are our gifts to the newly-born baby boy, she gratefully accepted them. That evening, all of us had sweet boiled potatoes for dinner. We ate them with gusto because we were so tired and hungry.
After dinner, the old woman gave us a huge sabutan mat and an old olive green U.S. Army blanket. « Here »,. she said, « Better rest now. I know all of you are very tired and tomorrow you will still have a long way to travel before you reach Patricio's house behind that ridge », pointing at the direction of the mountain ranges.Because we were really very tired, we all decided to go to bed as the woman suggested.
That night before we fall asleep, we heard the wind whistling, the swaying of giant branches of trees nearby, joined in by the symphony of a thousand sound from birds, insects, frogs, and from other night creatures. But we were lulled to sleep by the murmur of the brooks nearby. Then it rained again so hard. The patter of the raindrops on the nipa roof was broken only by the « oyayi » or voice of the 18- year old mother humming an old lullabye to put her baby to sleep. The young mother, perhaps tired of lullabyes, switched to humming a familiar Christmas carol - " Silent Night:. I heard the old woman already snoring. She immediately fell asleep due to tiredness during the day caring for her daughter-in-law and newly-born grandson.
I happened to glance at the improvised altar - the top of an old narra chest cabinet where a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary (Immaculate Conception), stands. An oil lamp hangs from the ceiling of the house its flickering light creating grotesque shadows on the sawali walls. At a corner near the improvised altar, tied to a post are now dried coconut fronds or palm leaves which were blessed last Palm Sunday.Among the rural mountain folks, those palms leaves blessed during Palm Sunday serve as protection against evil spirits. Then, I myself was also sound asleep.
When we woke up in the morning, we found the old woman already downstaris boiling water for « salabat » and reheating the left-over boiled sweet potatoes of last night for our breakfast. The sun was shning brightly in a clear blue sky as if it did not rain last night.
After we washed ourselves at a nearby brook and returned to the house to get our knapsacks,.the old woman did not let us go unless we had a cup of hot salabat (boiled water with crushed ginger and honey from sugarcane) and a plate of boiled potatoes.
The hot salabat and the plate of boiled sweet potatoes gave us sufficient energy for our onward journey. When we bade them goodbye, the old woman and her daughter-in-law profusedly thanked us for the kilo of rice and other provisions we gave them.
The virgin forests of Sierra Madre on the Pacific side is cold, foggy and windy and the higher you climb the ridge, the trees become more stunted and covered with moss. We walked through thorny mountain paths, underbrush and mud with leeches especially after the rain last night.
But despite such difficulties, we enjoyed the sights we saw along the way for we passed by patches of kaingins planted with sweet potatoes, cassava and pineapples. There were also edible wild ferns, rattan fruits and as we waded through the crystal clear water of the brooks and streams, we saw stray crabs and shrimps hiding under the rocks and boulders.
From the top of the ridge, we got a glimpse of the panoramic view of the landscape below - the seemingly endless mountain ranges that stretched to the South from the North as well as a view of te Pacific Ocean toward the East. We also saw the winding outline of a river that flows into the Pacific from upstream of the mountain ranges in the West.
"That's the Umiray River, our landmark to which we will go down ; then follow it upstream until we reach the kaingin of Tata Tisyo," excitedly exclaimed one of our companions.
When we three finally arrived at Tata Tisyo's place, he greeted us with air of concern and joy. "Where have you been ? We were waiting for you since last night, "
We narrated to him and his wife what happened to us yesterday and how a kindly old woman at the foothills of Tamala gave us shelter and food . We also told them about the daughter-in-law of the old woman with a newly-born child.
"Ah ! the wife of my friend Tinio, who is the son of my co-guerrillero and now engaged in hunting wild chickens, deer and boars. ", commented Tata Tisyo.
We did not tell Tata Tisyo and his wife that because of Tinio's newly born baby boy, we felt like the « Three Magi » who visited the newly-born infant some two thousand years ago in the little town of Bethlehem. But unlike the three Magi -Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar, we did not offer the newly-born child gold, myrrh and frankincense. We made offerings with a kilo of rice, a can of corned beef and a box of match sticks.
We did not catch any wild boar, deer or chcken during our hunting spree. But it was one of the happiest moments in my life, because in the course of my diplomatic career, I have spent Yuletide in various parts of the world, including the Philippines. None of them could compare with the one I experienced with my two friends at the foothills of Tamala mountains one December night when we acted like the Three Magi from the East.
In that mountain fastness one dark December night, I experienced among the simple mountain folks peace, love, faith and hope - the very essence of Nativity.
E n d.