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Discovering Bukidnon in the Philippines

Seven nations, one Philippine province, and nary a beach in sight. JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN falls under the spell of lush, landlocked Bukidnon, where the village elders hold the cure. PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICHARD MARKS.

Published on Mar 11, 2016

I'VE TRIED SUNDRY REMEDIES for overimbibing, from a brisk swim to beef pho, but in 2015, I accidentally discovered the most effective ever: full immersion in Tulugan village, in Bukidnon Province, on Mindanao island, in the agricultural heart of the Philippines. Hill-tribe homestead as hangover cure? Sounds unlikely, I know. But we were in an unlikely vacation spot, a landlocked region smack in the center of the nation's easternmost isle. It's a place where pineapple and palm plantations could be mistaken for vineyards, glimmering on hillsides in the dusk. Where the country's best cowboys, whose grandfathers learned to rustle from the Americans, ride in rodeos and on ranches. Where your field of vision is dominated not by the shiny cerulean of the sea but by the dense Dartmouth- and ivy-greens of the waterfall-filled forests, by the auburn-mud-spattered white of curious cattle in the fields, by the lemon yellow signifying abundance and the stop-light red symbolizing courage of the clothes and beads still worn by the province's seven indigenous tribes.

Roadblock, Bukidnon-style.

Descendants of the original Filipinos, their beading, patterns, headdresses and prayer rituals feel closer to those of Native Americans than, say, the Hmong and other Southeast Asian minorities. So we had come to Bukidnon to dive into their mostly red-, yellow- and black-kaleidoscope, and to get a sneak peek at their preparations for the month-long Kaamulan Festival 2015, which hold in October. At this annual 50,000-person extravaganza, chieftains are installed, men lock heads at pestle wrestling, and everyone struts their stuff in the outfits, dances and songs they've been working on all year.

Which explains why when we visited Manobo village in Maramag, not only had the high-schoolers long perfected several routines including the courtship dance (two girls, arms aflutter, vie for a boy by draping him with their kerchiefs until he finally sweeps one away, in a perfect teen drama), but so too had the littler kids, who swayed and crooned along on the periphery. The key task for their tiny fingers, though, is to thread elaborate beadwork designs, and, working on a headdress with fluttery-frocked six-year-olds, I felt like I had entered a living diorama.

Manobo village
Pretty and precise in the Manobo village.

The next day, on the other hand, I was dying a slow death after too late a night of too much quality scotch as we toured the leafy countryside, winding around rolling hillocks and under towering pines (the tops of which were the main things I could spy, prostate in pain in the backseat as I was), when we pulled to a stop. I was told we had arrived in Tulugan village. Out I tumbled into a magical hippie commune, where puppies frolicked with goat kids, young men playing basketball passed off to "me too" little boys bouncing on the sidelines, narrative and abstract art covered every surface indoor and out, and any aversion I'd had to local village visits crashed and burned.

There, arbor-canopied lanes were lined by ingenious and wholly unique homes best described as treehouses. Some were the larger-than-life play forts every boy dreams of for his backyard; others looked more akin to multi-level ranch homes his parents want in the front. One had a spiral staircase leading up to a turret. (I climbed it, and surveyed the rustic territory like a pirate in the crow's nest.) All had flowers blossoming in the woodworks, potted plants on windowsills, and fenced-in gardens. A spring rain had just fallen. The smell of dew on all this flora was an elixir. I was coming back to myself.


AND THEN I MET WAWAY SAWAY, the head of this merry band—an artist and musician who has played at Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian, and who invited us to his son's home on the family compound. Twenty years ago, Saway began using clays and silts to make the rusty-hued paints that every Talaandig now uses to paint canvases and wood blocks, massive and small, for love and money. On this day, he showed us another of his inventions: the tamboliling, a combo drum, guitar, violin and one-string fiddle—a mélange of the instruments his mother and father used to play.

Waway Saway soothes with his tamboliling.

For lunch we drove 10 minutes away to Kurbada's Bulalo, a roadside restaurant overhanging a rushing brook, where the steamy beef shank soup took care of my tummy, and the glass bottles of fizzy, ice-cold Coke washed down the rest of my headache. Oh, and the mayor held court while slyly covering the bill for us unexpected tourists who had stumbled upon his fiefdom. A canary yellow dump-truck jeepney filled to the brim with 50 passengers, some clinging to the sides, drove by in the direction from which we had come, and I considered flagging it down to hustle back to the best village ever.

Because as I sat cross-legged on the floor of Saway's son's wooden loft, surrounded by dozens of earth-tone artworks, doodling with a mudcaked paintbrush, glancing out the window as a mist visibly lifted off the green valley in the distance, dazed by the string- and beat-driven melody of the tamboliling, I tried to think of another moment in my life that had transported me anywhere close to the same way. Saway likes to say, "Music can be heard in the movement of a river." On this revelatory day, music was the river, I dove in, and I was healed.





1 Buy peanut butter from the monks If you need a little peace from the party, ascend the high hill topped by the modern pyramid that is the church of the Benedictine Monastery of the Transfiguration, designed by revered Filipino architect Leandro Locsin. This beautifully manicured meditative space overlooks a museum full of lustrous liturgical vestments of banana and pineapple fibers woven into patterns inspired by indigenous tribes; it's a unique melding of traditions. The amiable monks grow coffee, rice and peanuts—the peanut butter in their shop is the sweetest silk you'll ever spoon into your mouth. San Jose, Malaybalay; +63 88 221 2373.

2 Ride with the cowboys In many ways, this is frontier country, to which the sprawling ranches manned by horseback cattle herders can attest. The big rodeo at Kaamulan is a centerpiece of the festival, but others are held throughout the year. Bettors might put their money on competitors from Impasugong, where cowboy blood runs deep. If you want to get your gallop on, local hotels and public gardens in Dahilayan in particular offer horseback riding. Or head to Forest Park or Adenture Park there, where high-octane rides, like their super-long super-fast dual zip line, also await.,

Tulugan Village
The country's best cowboys place.

3 Climb the mountains and raft the rivers It's fitting that the name of this province home to the second- and fourth-tallest Philippine peaks means "highlander." Get fit like one to traverse both Dulang-Dulang—which the Talaandig protect and hold sacred—and Kitanglad, an inactive volcano. Collectively known as D2K, one of the country's most challenging treks rewards you with serpent eagles and sparrow hawks above the age-old pines. The Cagayan de Oro River spills forth from the Kalatungan Mountain Range, meanwhile, rushing white-water rafters along class-two to -four rapids.



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Cantering into cowboy country.
  • Manobo teens locked in the courtship dance.
  • Pretty and precise in the Manobo village.
  • Waway Saway soothes with his tamboliling
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