How Our Alal-apos Outwitted Headhunters

Author’s Note: The recent ‘panag-aapoy/panag-dedenet’ (literally translated to lighting of fires) to warm the gravestones of our dearly departed made me reminiscent of a couple of Lola Banayan’s stories. She recounted mini-tales of how some early village folks escaped the blades of imminent deaths from the unscrupulous hunts of ruthless headhunters (referred to as ‘buso’ in the common lingo) by either using their wits or with the uncanny help of nature itself. As yet another disclaimer, I can only rely on the hyper-imaginative brain of a story-hungry toddler in retelling these so forgive the embellishments and the nuances that are sure to be inevitable.

The Warrior by James Gabriel Wandag


The Old Man in the Hut

A man who spent a long day toiling in his fields made the decision to spend the night in a little hut to wait until daybreak before he makes his way back home. The hut was by no means the most comfortable but it had a roof, four walls and a door–enough to pass the night in. Soon after he settled in, he heard some scuffling outside the hut. He carefully peered through one of the holes and saw two unfamiliar men who appeared to be headhunters. He knew right away that he had no chance against two men unless he does something quick.

He thought of running through the fields as he was sure he knew the area more than these non-villagers but he also realized that it was too dark outside and that made this option riskier. He checked his little knapsack for any content that he could use and saw that he only had kindlewood, a couple of matchsticks, and his ‘abilao’ (musical instrument made of bamboo reeds which is played by putting it between the lips while you strum one end with your finger as you blow it).

He lit one of the matchsticks and very soon, he had a little fire ablaze inside the hut. He went to one corner and in a deep voice said, “My friend, the night is cold. Why don’t you throw more wood into that fire you built.” He then went to the opposite corner and said in his normal voice, “Yes mister, it’s lucky I gathered a lot of wood earlier today.” He put some of the kindlewood on the fire then went to another corner. Then in a slightly higher tone, he said, “Brother, I believe you brought with you that abilao of yours. Would you indulge us with a tune or two.” Slowly he crept to a different side of the hut, pulled his little instrument and played a lively jig.

The two headhunters outside had been listening all the while to the conversations inside the hut. If their count was right, there were four men inside! Who knew if there were more? And so realizing that the two of them had no chance against four or so men, they quietly crept away from the hut.

Who knows how long this quick-witted man kept the pretense of not being alone inside the hut. But morning came and he was safe and alive!


The Girl Against Nine

Houses long ago did not have the comforts of indoor toilets. One needs to go outside to the backyard to do his or her business. So it was for a girl who had to go out to pee in the black pitch of the night.

She never suspected that there was a handful of ‘buso’ who were ready to go on a midnight hunt. They were prowling just nearby when this unsuspecting girl positioned herself to pee in front of them like it was no one’s business, as it should be. The headhunters were caught off guard and stood immobile on their spots while this girl proceeded to pee. The girl must had so much ‘tapey’ (rice wine) or water to drink during dinner that her pee noisily gushed. It made this distinctive sound that unmistakably said “Sham, sham, sham, sham!”. Lo! When the headhunters counted themselves, there were exactly nine of them! ‘Sham/siyam’ in the local dialect means nine.

It was the age of strong superstition so the ‘buso’ took this as a bad omen for headhunting. So they went away as silently as they came. The unsuspecting girl finished her business, still very clueless that she just escaped possible throes of danger and went back to sleep soundly.


The Old Woman and Her Flowers

An old woman was busy digging for camotes when a swarm of flies buzzed around her. She hastily swatted them away but they persistently flew around her, landing on her arms, her face, her legs, while noisily buzzing.

She stopped and wondered as she realized that the flies were singling her out. They weren’t flying anywhere else but on the spot where she stood. She took it as a sign that something foreboding was about to happen. She climbed the little hill that partially blocked her view from the other fields yonder and that’s when she saw three sinister men headed towards her way. Suspecting that they were headhunters, she immediately devised a plan and prayed to the gods that her little play will scare the men away. What’s a poor, frail woman against three sturdy men?

She cast off all her clothes and quickly gathered the brightly-colored flowers that were growing aplenty nearby. The flowers were in orange, yellow, but mostly red. She tied as much as she can to all the hair she has on her body–the hairs on her head, on her arms, her legs. She twisted her form in such a way that made her body ugly and crooked, then she walked towards the men.

In a shrill but unafraid voice, she chanted and hummed. Walking directly to where the headhunters were. The men seeing and hearing her got so scared out of their wits! They had no doubt it was a witch of sorts that was heading towards them. One can only imagine the powers this ghastly-looking, crooked woman in all her naked glory and seemingly ablaze with those blood red flowers has! They rapidly took off back to where they came from before the ‘witch’ even got close.

When the men fled, the old woman carefully plucked away the flowers from her body, put back her clothes on, and headed to her home safely where she cooked her freshly-dug sweet potatoes.


These are just three of the many headhunter-related stories that I could at least recall with a certain level of vividness. I really pray another inspiration will strike me to remember the rest real soon before I forget. Here’s to always keeping your memory alive, alapo!

Calidad Humana; Living A Hundred Years and More

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Lola Banayan and Gayamen (Photo: Aiden Josh Wandag; great grandson)

Living a Hundred Years and More

Perhaps she didn’t like it as well. Her very long, silver-white hair had to be sheared, right above her ears. It had to be cut because she had to spend most of the hours lying down in bed, tangling those locks that once gloriously crowned her head. She wasn’t bed-ridden, not just yet, but old age has taken its toll and even sitting down wearied her already.

She used to say it was taboo to cut the hair of an old woman as all her memories are stored in those long, thinning tresses—a personal belief she insisted even among us, her grandchildren. But like all the other things she had to give up doing, this was one of the beliefs she had to renounce too.

The years have finally caught up with her. But no one really knows how old she is exactly. She has outlived all of her friends and generation-mates. There are times I can’t help but think that she’s going to live forever, in the literal sense that is. But I, among numerous others know that she will, in one way or another, she is really going to live forever. She has left in us a legacy that makes us want to make the most of what life has to offer. She, now in her silent world, old and weary but with those knowing eyes that are still very much alive. They continue to sparkle with wisdom—of told and untold knowledge she has accumulated through all those years.

Prisca Sumedca Banayan, fondly called Lola Banayan by everyone else, is considered by those who know her as the oldest living citizen of Sagada, Mt. Province, a small tourist town nestled in the hills of the Cordillera mountain range. No official documents could prove that but we accepted it like it was a fact. We did so not only because she has been around longer than anyone else but also because up to now, her say on community issues are still revered, a rarity in a traditional community where the opinions of the male old folks are the ones taken into consideration.

She was born in the unfortunate era when women were regarded lesser as that to men. When her only brother was encouraged to go to school, she was made to stay at home and perform the daily chores despite her insistence that she attend school as well. Despite being adamant to her father that she be given the privilege to go to those classes conducted by the American missionaries, she wasn’t allowed. There were few victories which she fondly recounts to me every now and then. She managed to escape her father’s watchful eyes and was able to attend a class or two. Thus her very sparse knowledge of a few English words—grandfather, stick, green, little girl, cloud, among other words that she can mouth with that self-satisfied grin of hers.

Yes, she is illiterate, hardly the kind who can possibly do much for her society as she was never given the chance to be educated about the new ways of the world. But that’s what makes me admire her so much. I’m in such awe at her wisdom, wisdom not acquired in the academe, but one which was nourished by years of braving a life that seemed to offer so much in so little time, a life that challenged her to make whatever little thing she had into something huge.

Even as a toddler, Lola Banayan had always been a favorite of mine. I had this unquenchable thirst for stories and she had endless of those. She had this knack of telling stories that could enthrall me for hours, knowing that I had an attention span that lasted for such a short time. It was in these stories that I gleaned a lot of things, for these were not just tales designed for bedtime but these were stories that were brimming with local lore and history that are unfortunately left undocumented.

I never really got to ask her where she got these stories. But I could picture this scenario where as little kids before, she was among those toddlers who like me, were eager to get as many stories from her elders as well. I see her huddled around the dying embers of the fire while maybe her grandmother or mother recounted tales long lost to the younger generations nowadays. But in my case, I can still remember them like they were told to me yesterday.

These stories were set in the rural suburbs of villages with female protagonists who always emerged victorious in their own plights. Even in my young mind, I somehow always pictured one of those heroines as my very own grandmother. For me, she embodied the traits and characteristics that enabled those characters to be victorious in their own respective exploits.

Lola Banayan’s own glorious feat cannot be measured by the community contributions she made or by any distinctive deed that would earn her a seat in the town council. In fact, she had so little but she gave so much. As a wife of a farmer and a mother of ten children, her life revolved around rearing this huge brood while toiling everyday to be able to support the family. It was the time when paid labor was rare and to be able to survive, one has to literally work their bodies off. That was what she did. To her, there was no difference between night and day, as long as her lithe body could allow her to toil and labor. Accounts from my mother gave me a picture of a woman who worked as hard as a man to be able to provide to her family. As life was truly hard those times, it wasn’t enough depending on the resources that were available in the vicinity. They needed other commodities aside from the homegrown crops that they plant throughout the year. The idea of barter trading was also recognized by the highlanders. As it was, Lola Banayan always took it as her responsibility to trudge those mountains on foot while carrying a sack or two of her produce with hopes of exchanging it for a certain amount of the highly-valued salt from their lowlander brothers. This scenario already gives me an idea of the kind of hard labor and sacrifices that Lola Banayan had to undergo just so no one among the family members could ever go hungry.

As a mother, she never failed. She made it sure that there was not just enough food for everyone but also made it a point that what she missed before, she won’t make her children forego the opportunity of being learned. She was more than dutiful to encourage all the members of her brood to attend the public school that was being run then by American missionaries and some pioneer highlander educators. She knew that she needed all the hands she can get to help her in the fields for the family’s daily sustenance but she took it upon herself to do all the chores though some of her kids were already old and more than capable to help her out with the livelihood. For her, it was more important for the kids to go to school than to have them help her in the fields instead. She eked whatever little they had to be able to provide paper, books and school clothing for her children.

Fate tends to be kind to those who persevere as Lola Banayan was blessed with children who knew the importance of hard work and who recognized and valued the sacrifices of their parents. Their kids grew up to be industrious and diligent ones. Though far from being pampered, they fared way better relative to their mother’s experience. This however did not make them complacent at all. Values were embedded in their young minds. More than the lessons they encountered in the school, were the morals that were constantly being imparted by their parents. Lola Banayan always had adages and life lessons to share to her children. My mother often re-echoes these to me, morals that are really very familiar as I usually hear these from my grandmother as well.

When her kids were old enough to fend for themselves and have families of their own, she continued to be a doting grandmother to her grandchildren. No wonder she became a favorite of most.

Though already aged and silver, her desire for literacy was never quenched. Benevolent local educators held informal learning during night times and Lola Banayan was always a punctual attendee. Those few months she spent under the tutelage of someone a lot younger than her increased her meager vocabulary on English. She was able to create a sentence or two using the language and that was already a huge thing for her. They say that it’s never too late to get educated but this unfortunately applied to Lola Banayan. Her very flimsy grasp of the English language is all she could boast of. Time and human nature was not so kind to her. If perhaps the opportunity was given to her during her younger years, that would have spelled a huge difference.

However, whatever she missed out, she made up in the wit and knowledge that far transcends what a learned man has. Her integrity and her outlook about life, her selfless love, her huge and open heart, among other truly outstanding virtues earned respect not just from her children and grandchildren but from everyone who knew her.

She has a lot of friends, but most if not all of them, she has outlived already. That attests how old she is in years already, but her strong memory of history’s events as if they happened yesterday more than affirms the length of time she has lived already. It is amazing how someone her age can vividly remember events long gone. Her memory’s so reliable that a lot of local writers consult her for their outputs. I myself have repeatedly consulted her for my researches and studies that included local history. She continues to be my best local historian as her accounts of past events though not based on actual dates are always specific and detailed.

She led a life that is far from easygoing. She epitomizes the hardworking mother who sacrifices so much for the sake of her children as she manifests the kind of woman who can be submissive if it means sacrificing her wants for the greater good.

She led an ordinary life, no outstanding feats that could make her standout in the community, but how she was able to live it is what is extraordinary. True it was difficult but she never did once complain or be pessimistic in her outlooks. She talked about the harshness of life but recounted these with a strange fondness that is quite hard to comprehend. Life’s difficulties did not make her bitter in any way but instead made her stronger and more persevering, not just to get by but more for the sake of the people around her. That to me is a life well-spent. Not to sensationalize but I can really see Prisca Bacagan as one of the heroines in her numerous folk tales. I could repeatedly listen to her own story and not ever get tired of it.

"Indeed Lola, you have lived a hundred years and more." Photo: Ayeona Brett Wandag (great grandson)
“Indeed Lola, you have lived a hundred years and more.” Photo: Ayeona Brett Wandag (great grandson)

Author’s Note

We belong to a society where we put so much premium to one’s academic achievements. So much indeed that one’s background in the academe correlates to societal status. Perhaps it is for this reason that individuals are endlessly clamoring to have that distinct title attached to their names as they see that this could give them the edge in a highly-competitive environment.

The following essay relates the story of a woman who wanted so much to be educated like everyone else but who was unfortunately prohibited from being able to do so. Despite this, the author deems her as one who has lived a truly virtuous and purposeful life, even more so than others who were able to attain an academic diploma.

Calidad humana is to be depicted by not how worthy an individual is in terms of accomplishing his or her personal feats, but as to how many people he or she has unknowingly affected in a good way with his or her deeds. The person portrayed in the essay is far from being controversial or famous. But her simple, humble but laudable deeds and virtues make her an exemplary individual in her own right.

It is sad that we can be so hindsighted with one’s capabilities as we base these on societal statures. But there are a lot of people like the one in focus who contribute to society without even intending so or knowing it–humble and selfless individuals who are grounded on their values and who make the most of life even with life not offering much to them.

*Lola Banayan inspired my entry for this essay competition for “Calidad Humana”.