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.