The blasting priest of Barlig. The Mountain Province Philippines. 1975

Every now and again I meet an exceptional person and this post is about one of them, a Dutch Catholic priest who was a Jesuit missionary called Huberto Boumans*, known locally as the blasting priest of Barlig, that I met in the Philippines.

the blasting priest of Barlig

Back in early 1975 my girlfriend (at the time) and I had left Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge were about to take over. In the six months that we were in Cambodia we had only managed to scrape by making a living teaching English as a second language.  The  situation while we were there was pretty dire and as the Khmer Rouge came closer to Phnom Penh my girlfriend’s parents sent some money to her to fly back to Australia.  We had heard from other travellers that one could teach English as a second language in Japan so we flew to Japan via the Philippines instead.

While in the Philippines, we were travelling by bus in the Mountain Province of northern Luzon when we met a young man at a rest stop in a very small town called Bontoc. I never really travel with any plans and so I’m usually open to distraction or invitations, so when our new-found friend suggested that we come and stay in his village Barlig, we surprised him by immediately saying yes.

The unpaved road to Barlig travels through very mountainous terrain with very steep drop offs and frequent rock falls.

bus passengers remove rocks from slide off road

Because of the steepness of the terrain, most of the roads that I saw in the Mountain Province stay up out of the valleys and traverse the mountainsides close to the ridges.  Most of the arable land in the valleys had been shaped into spectacular rice  terraces.

Barlig rice terraces

When we were dropped off at Barlig, we could see that the town itself was actually below the road down 850 steps into the valley.

the 850 step stairway to Barlig from the road

Barlig was so small and out of the way that it didn’t even have a hotel, and our new-found friend had suggested that we speak to the local priest because he would be able to organise some accommodation for us. As soon as we arrived in Barlig, we were taken to a Catholic priest who was a Dutch Jesuit missionary (Huberto Boumans). I was a bit apprehensive about meeting a priest (particularly one of the pope’s stormtroopers, a jesuit) because I’m not a religious person and I didn’t want to get a Bible bashing, but my fears were quickly allayed when I met him. The priest was a very civilised and cultured man, who sized me up instantly as somebody who would not be interested in discussing religion. Instead, Huberto donned the guise of wise old uncle and he generously organised for us to stay for two weeks in a house for about $7 US.

The timber house we rented had a tin roof and was very basic with no running water but it did come complete with a pig sty outside of the kitchen window. The sty had one of those serious gigantic muscular wild boars with tusks that one usually sees associated with aristocratic hunts in mediaeval tapestries. It was a real pig, not one of those fat corn eating machines that we see here in developed world. In the mornings I used to go down and give the pig scraps from the evening meal. The sty was basically a wall of loosely stacked rocks that the pig could have pushed over easily if it had enough brains to realise that it could do so. Pigs are a bit like dogs, and they get excited when you are about to feed them. As soon as the pig saw me heading towards the sty it used to wag its tail very quickly back and forth, whilst raising up on its hind legs to push against the wall with its fore legs. He used to really frighten me, because the pig would quite often knock rocks loose from the wall, and it was so big and powerful I knew that I would not be able to control it if it got out.  So I used to go down with a 2 x 4 piece of lumber to push it back from the wall so I could feed it safely. Pushing the pig didn’t really have any effect and hitting it just hurt my hand.  So I ended up just flinging the scraps and running.

Barlig is right in the middle of the head hunter country of the Igorot tribes, and it was not uncommon at that time to see people still walking around in loincloths and carrying spears.

a hard working local

The last person the people of Barlig had killed and cut off his head was back in the early 1960s (only about 12 or so years before I’d been there), when some Communist agitators came into town and tried to stir the locals up into some sort of peasant revolution. The people of the town listened, and then followed the communists out of town, killed them, and then decapitated them.

Barlig man with tabacco leaf

The two weeks that I spent in Barlig was some of the best time that I have ever spent travelling. It is an absolutely beautiful area with an incredibly rich culture, that I will discuss in much greater depth in further articles. 

Every day or so, I would meet up with the priest Huberto, just to shoot the breeze, because he was such good company, and so interesting.  He used to show me letters written by Filipinos to him and he would point out to me their old-fashioned manners and how the Spanish influence lingered in the way how they expressed themselves.  There was a lot of “by the will of God” or “should God will it” etc. Huberto also told me that there was a Baptist ministry in town as well and that it caused quite a bit of friction in the village because the village had basically broken up into two parts along sectarian lines. It just seemed so odd that in such a beautiful place there was such an artificial and externally introduced conflict. I guess it is better than head hunting.

Huberto told me about how he had tried to bring the village together by improving their irrigation system, and he was at the time, helping them dig a 7 mile long aqueduct along the mountainsides. Much of the aqueduct had to be cut into the solid rock and since there was no heavy machinery (even if it had’ve been available) that could reach such steep terrain, so all the work had to be done by hand. I was told that they had been at it for about 20 years but thanks to a strange charity donation of a large carton of matches, construction was speeded up when Huberto figured out that they could blast the rock with match heads. He told me he used to get some of the village women to carefully shave all the phosphorus off the tips of the matches.

Once Huberto had seen how effective using matches for blasting was he immediately wrote back to his home office in Holland and asked for more matches to be sent. Because of this correspondence, Barlig was able to receive a steady supply of blasting material.

One-day Huberto took me out on a walk to inspect how the work on the aqueduct was proceeding. It was amazing to see how much work they had achieved without any heavy machinery. The villagers, with Vincent’s pyrotechnical help had cut away the sides of the whole hills all the way up a large valley. 

the men take a short rest from the back breaking work in the heat and humidity

I was fascinated to hear that when blasting needed to be done Hubert used to organise for holes to be drilled (by hand with a large metal spike and sledgehammer) and to be filled with the scrapings from the match heads.  It was at this time, I found out that the holes were plugged up with dry sand around the fuse (I don’t know why, but I always expected that wet sand would be better) to concentrate the blast and make it more effective.

My association with Huberto gave me carte blanche to travel around the general area and to be received with goodwill. 

I used to spend my days hiking up into the hills, following the ancient small foot paths that threaded all over the mountains. 

there were tracks going up every ridge

The scenery was spectacular, as I would pass kilometre after kilometre of very laboriously built rice terraces constructed from stone that had been carried, sometimes hundreds metres (yards), up from the very bottom of the valley where the river ran. 

many of the paths were along the top of the rice terraces

One day I was walking uphill following a small tributary of the main river when I came to a small stream about 3 m across on a couple of metres deep of fast running crystal clear water that was passing over smooth rock. It was such a hot day, and the stream looked like such a big beautiful and inviting natural water slide that I decided that since no one was around I would have a bit of a swim and cool down.  I took off most of my clothes and without much hesitation or thought since the water was so clear and I could see the bottom that was smooth rock, I just jumped in.

In a flash, I shot down the chute and was carried hundreds of metres downstream as I tried to get a grip of anything that would stop me going any further. Unfortunately all the rock was worn smooth, and the sides were too steep for me to get out of the raging torrent. As I was whisked away, I realised that panicking wasn’t going to help and that I needed to keep my head, and wits about me to stay conscious, making sure I didn’t drown. I was carried down stream feet first, all the while hoping I wasn’t going to go over a waterfall or be impaled on a submerged log or anything like that. Years of body surfing at the beach as a child served me well as I tumbled downstream through various small rapids until I came to a small pool, where the stream widened a little and the water was slow enough for me to be able to get enough grip in some cracks in the rock to be able to clamber out. I won’t be doing that again.

When I got back to Barlig, some of the locals had asked me where I had been and what I’d been doing. When I told them, a look of horror swept across their faces. So I asked them what the matter was and they told me to never go walking that far out of the village again, as it was very dangerous. I thought they might’ve be talking about my little episode in the stream but when I enquired further, they told me that there was still communist rebels operating in the hills, and they often kidnapped people and that a foreigner like me would have been a choice target.

When I told Huberto about my experience in the water he said that reminded him of a time when he received on the behalf of the village, a charity donation from overseas of a large box of Kraft cheese (that horrible stuff that doesn’t melt), which he handed out to the villagers. Hubert said that a few hours after he had handed out the last of the cheese some of the local women came back with the cheese in their hands and said that this “soap” doesn’t lather.

They had no idea it was food and I can fully understand why.

*I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t remember his Huberto Huberto Boumans’ real name and for convenience I called him Vincent when I first wrote this article. Fortunately, Clinton Wacchan who is from Barlig, kindly left me a comment informing me of Huberto Boumans’ identity. Thank you Clinton.

Also thanks to Langfia Ayeona for the correct spelling of Huberto Boumans’ name.

Spring has sprung!

Spring has well and truly sprung. It’s almost like someone just flipped a switch. One day it’s cold, overcast and windy and suddenly the next day is clear and hot. The weather has been so glorious that my wife and I spent last weekend pottering around in the garden planting new plants (mainly Australian natives as they’re much more hardy and require far less water) and re-oiling our outdoor furniture.

Our godess of the garden

Although our back yard is very small, we have over the years made it into a very nice place sit and relax. My idea of heaven is to sit outside in the morning with my wife and read the weekend paper together then do a bit of gardening during the day to be followed by a barbeque at night. As a matter of fact that’s just what we did. On Saturday night we had the neighbours over to help us eat some barbequed and smoked loin of pork and knock over several bottles of wine whilst chilling out to Gabin

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Ahhh…. life can be so good!

Some trees have it hard. Perisher, NSW, Australia. September 2008

My wife and I went down to the “snowies” (short for the Snowy Mountains) last Thursday to meet up with some friends and we came back on Sunday. We enjoy spring skiing because the weather is usually much clearer and better behaved, plus the snow is a bit easier for poor skiers like us.

It usually comes as a surprise to people from the northern hemisphere that Australia has ski fields.  As matter of fact, the three contiguous national parks (Kosciusko National Park NSW, Namadgi National Park ACT and Alpine National Park Victoria) that make up the snowies cover an area of about 14200 square kilometres (about 5500 square miles). Although we have enough snow to ski on for about 4 months a year it’s not what most experienced skiers would call quality snow.  To tell the truth the snow here is mostly either, ice or sloppy crap, but it’s all we have so we make do.

Engogirl on her telemark skis heading out from Dead Horse Gap

Most of my friends and I avoid the resorts with ski lifts like the plague and we use heavy touring skis with telemark bindings to go out into the less infested parts of Kosciusko National Park.

Playing around on the the blue trail at Perisher

The only reason why we get any snow at all on the mainland of Australia is because of the altitude of the (laughably named) “Australian Alps” (should be called hills, even if it is the highest part of the country). Since much of the park is at about 2000m (about 6500ft) only the most hardy of plants can survive the harsh conditions of freezing cold winters with high winds and hot dry summers with bushfires. In the winter, snow covers the low heath and the only trees that one tends to see are battered and twisted Snow Gums.

It's hard being a tree at Perisher

 Even the incredibly tough Snow gums have a hard time coping with the conditions. Large areas of Kosciusko National Park were burnt in bush fires a couple of years ago leaving these stark remnants behind.

Sometimes even the Snow Gums can not handle the conditions

Someone traded a part of their life for this. South of Williamsdale in NSW, Australia

Every time I see an old wrecked car I wonder about the circumstances of the last time it was driven. I also find myself thinking about how the car was once shiny and new in a showroom. There is a whole involved process to buying a car. Getting the finance, getting it registered and insured etc.

This was once someones dream

Someone once looked at this old wreck when it was new and wanted to own it so badly that they went into debt. They traded the expendable income from a couple of years of their life for what is now a worthless rusting lump of junk. Consumerism is such a addictive drug. If we were told that we only had a few more years to live, would we spend that precious remaining time working to make money to buy some thing? Yet, when we are healthy and think we’ll live forever, we gladly trade our youth and freedom for things.

It’s ironic how there is this tacit promise made by the automobile manufactures, “buy a car and be free”. The truth is that cars tie you down to one place while you make the payments to pay it off and enough money to run it. Cars don’t free us, they enslave us.

I didn’t get my drivers licence until I was 35 and I only did so because it was required for a job I wanted. Now that I own a car, I’d be hypocritical not to admit that I enjoy the fact that I can drive out into the country easily and take photos of things.  

Sometimes I feel so conflicted.

Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl

Last night my wife and I went to an exhibition called “Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl” by a friend of ours, Mai Long at the very lovely and new NG Art Gallery. The exhibition consisted of a sculpture installation

Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl

and a series of 25 drawings.

Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl

Much of Mai’s previous work has dealt with the cultural dissonance that she feels as a consequence of her mixed racial heritage. Mai was born in Tasmania to an Anglo Australian mother and a Vietnamese father. Although Mai was born here in Australia, many people still assume that she was born overseas, and it is still common for her to be asked where she originally comes from. Mai also lived for a time in Vietnam when she received a grant to study there and was also identified as a foreigner in Vietnam. It would seem that no matter where Mai goes, she’s often seen and treated as an outsider.

For about the last 8 years Mai has represented her mixed race as a mongrel dog (her words). In this latest exhibition, Mai’s work of papier-mâché dogs is covered in the writing of many languages to represent how one can look at something that has meaning and not understand what it actually means.

Mai in front of the dog that caused all the trouble

When a dog by Mai that is similar to the large dog that is at the background was first shown in public in Perth Western Australia erlier this year, it caused quite a storm in a teacup within some sections of the Vietnamese community here in Australia. There was a demonstration and the curator of the show, (from the Casula Powerhouse that collects Mai’s work), had the windows of his parent’s house, that he was staying at, smashed and paint thrown around the inside.  The curator was also threatened with physical harm and was so distressed about the danger he was putting his parents in that he left to go back to Vietnam and is waiting for Mai’s exhibitions to come to an end before he returns to Australia.

So what is the big deal about a bunch of papier-mâché dogs? One of the issues that Mai addresses with this exhibition “(Mai’s words) is the mismatch of historical memories across cultural and sub-cultural groups; and the seeming impossibility of explaining one to the other.  It is this schism of realities and the pain and trauma is causes for all those affected that Dag Girl aspires to ascend”. Another, is how a small vocal minority of the Vietnamese here in Australia are still focused on issues that are over 30 years old.  There are old open wounds and grudges that are still being nursed. A small group of refugees from the American backed southern part of Vietnam see the recent immigrants from Vietnam as traitors and for them the war never really ended. It’s a bit of a paradox that although this small group enjoys democracy and freedom here in Australia they don’t feel certain sections of their own community have the right to do so.

One example of how Mai has been addressing this issue is with simple symbols such as the one below (you can see it on the muzzle of the large dog behind Mai).

The red and yellow dots represent the colours of the Vietnamese flag.

The old South Vietnamese flag

“The flag of former South Vietnam was designed by Emperor Bảo Ðại in 1948, and was the flag used by former South Vietnam until it was abolished by Vietnamese government on April 30, 1975, when the South unconditionally surrendered to the North. It is also used by some Vietnamese immigrants now living in other countries.The flag consists of a yellow field and three horizontal red stripes that represent North, Central and Southern Vietnam (Flags Unlimited Inc).”

The current Vietnamese flag

It could also be said that the red represents the communists and the yellow represents the American backed southerners. The small colours are combined to produce a much larger orange circle. The corollary being that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. The Orange also represents Agent Orange which Mai sees as a symbol of how the Americans took advantage of the internal political struggles in Vietnam. By calling attention to Agent Orange, Mai is trying to say to the Vietnamese community that when they fight amongst themselves they weaken themselves to the extent that outsiders with their own agendas will take advantage of the distracted and fractured Vietnamese people.

Orange is also a colour of Buddhism and the orange balls in the dog’s mouths is a reference to the balls in stone dragon and temple dog’s mouths that can be seen in many parts of Asia and allude to playfulness. If you’d like to read more about Mai’s work click here to read the exhibition catalogue (2.25mb PDF) which also has a very interesting essay by Gina Fairley a freelance art writer and co-director of Slot gallery (which has also exhibited Mai’s work)

Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl

Luckily there was no demonstrations, at last night’s exhibition.  It would seem that the people who have indulged in the thuggish behaviour in the past aren’t ready to step out of their own community and cause trouble.  The fact that there was ex-Minister of Parliament and a few reporters in attendance probably deterred those who would rather operate in the shadows.

All this talk about Agent Orange brings to mind one of my favourite punk bands of the same name and because Mai and her partner Stuart (he has a surf tour company and yacht charter business up in Indonesia) both surf, I thought I put up this little video.

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