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.

31 thoughts on “The blasting priest of Barlig. The Mountain Province Philippines. 1975”

  1. First, given the world financial crisis, I’ll just have to start with: I wish I had a dollar for every post you’ve written “Back in (pick any year) my girlfriend (at the time)..”

    This was a dream post. And, by that I mean “other worldly”. The Jesuits I have known have always been less bible thumpers and more independent. Vincent’s blasting scheme is genius, don’t you think? Nowhere in his Jesuit education did they teach him that trick, so he brought to his ministry experiences of the world all on his own. The two of you had more in common than you first thought. I love the story of the cheese!! Thank God that other guy’s photo is gone and we have Vincent. One of the few manipulated photos you’ve posted. The color palette chosen for the “blasting” part of his identity, I presume, or no? Yea! You are back.

  2. he he, I should have known that it could not be just a regular post about traveling and romantic hiking… though for a while I did expect some sort of blasting consultancy on your behalf given your past record/posts :)
    brilliant

  3. Pat

    “I wish I had a dollar for every post you’ve written “Back in (pick any year) my girlfriend (at the time)..”

    I write that, so you know that I’m no longer with that person. After all it was a long time ago and so much water has gone under the bridge, so to speak.

    I’m sure you’re right when you say “Nowhere in his Jesuit education did they teach him that trick” but I’ve been told that the Jesuits are selected for their intelligence.

    Once again you’re correct about my choice of colours. At first I was only going to use one photo and the shot I used was in B&W and not all that interesting so I thought I’d jazz it up a little. As I was writing, I realised that putting in a few more photos would help readers get a sense of place.

    Grass

    I did ask Vincent if we could do some blasting together but he said that none needed to be done at that time. I would’ve loved to have been part of such an experience.

  4. Another great travelling story.
    Though, I have to admit, when I read your travelling posts, I tend to fall for that unproductive thinking – those were the times, when travelling was still “genuine”, people were friendly and the world unspoilt 😉

  5. I LOVE the photograph of the woman coming down the stone stairs in the mountain. All the others are interesting too but this one really sticks with me. It’s just beautiful.

  6. Mr. ruzz,what a nice experience you had before from my old town called barlig,ten years ive never seen barlig already oh boy.Anyways the late priest name was HUBERT BOUWMAN,he was buried there too,thanks for sharing your story about FATHER BOUWMAN and about the town that FATHER BOUWMAN called HOME.

  7. Now, isn’t this simply amazing that someone born in Barlig reads this post and knows the name of your Jesuit??

    Seriously, this technology is wonderful and this is a good example of how it connects all of us.

  8. Pat

    Yes! You’re spot on.

    I’m so glad that Clinton informed me of Hubert Bouwman’s name as I feel he is worthy of remembrance. I googled Hubert Bouwman’s name and all that came up were references to a Dutch soccer player. I find it really sad that someone like Hubert Bouwman, who did such worthy things, is not celebrated in cyberspace and a cosmically pointless sportsman is.

    Sometimes I think the world has it’s priorities all mixed up.

  9. Hello! I am so happy to see and read this article. I am on the process of collating infos anything about my town Barlig. This appeared and am so impressed for this told experience. Please would you allow me to cross post this in the barlig blogspot (http://www.barlig-fialikia.blogspot.com). It would be really grateful as many people of barlig would read and remember. Of course credits to you.

    I remember this priest… when I was young, still primary age in the 1980’s we are quite afraid of him-this is because he is so very big… and distinct fr. us, imagine it as a child from a rural village. We dont have electricity at that time yet I go with my father to the convent to buy some “package”. It is about 500 pesos I think for a big sack- we open it at home with delight! Full of many stuffs-clothes in variety, some of them too big even- as these are for big white people. I think he purchase them from Holland. He is such a lovely priest, he sits there in the second floor of the lamp lighted convent puffing his big long cigarrette. He has big quite a roaring voice especially when he gets a bit angry. He is so cute though when he speak so fluently and natural in Ilokano and Finallig.

    My father used to live in his convent as house boy so my father has really a good encounter with him which I am on the process of asking him to write all his memories in the convent.

    Funny enough after almost 20 years I got a job in Manila, employed by a missionary priest(retired)Mr. Edward Gerlock (A great photographer). He said oh “you are from Barlig, do you know this dynamite priest in the Mt. Province, I think it is in Barlig.” I smiled.

  10. Ayeona

    Thanks for dropping by with the kind words.

    I’m very happy for you to link to this post and I’m glad you enjoyed what I had to say. It wouldn’t surprise me that I might’ve met your father. when Hubert organised our accommodation he has a young fellow (maybe your father) take us to the house we rented. You might want to ask you father is he remembers taking a young Australia guy with very red hair and a beard who was travelling with an Australian Chinese woman to a house for Hubert Bouwman.

    I will be doing another article about Barlig soon, so please drop on by again.

  11. ps ps, I havent really seen photographs of Barlig at this old, very few. I was so surprise someone has taken and posted them in the net. All I know is there is none. They are beautiful and clear even. Those houses in the mountains is that the one you can widely at the road? Looking at them I was trying to place where they are these days, so difficult!

    Really glad I found this.

    Hope for a favorable response, ayeona.

  12. oops, you are online, while I am typing lol. . Yes my fathers name is Inocencio Ayeona. He is known in native name: Tangrob, with another house boy Lamaton. I must ask my father…next time I call. I am in the UK right now. Are you based in Australia?

  13. Ayeona

    Thanks for the correction of the spelling of Huberto Boumans’ name.

    Unfortunately I can’t remember the names of Huberto’s houseboys. It would be such a pleasant coincidence if I had met your father.

  14. This continues to be a wonderful and surprising story line for the blasting priest and the village of Barig. Seriously, to have the perspective of the man from you, from a young child living in the village, from a man who worked for him? You now have names and so much more. There is something very special here, I think, Razz. Think about it. I think this translates into other mediums beside a blog.

  15. hi..

    just happen to read your article about the priest who one way and another helped our people a lot. Father Boumans as we knew him really did a great job to our place and had a great impact to our people as well. A really big thanks to you that you were able to post such article in the net. We really appreciate it.

  16. Hi. I stumbled upon this post while doing my list of periodic worthy “bloggable” news items and blog posts. It was a wonderful read. The photos show a glimpse of Barlig at the time you made the interview. Its precious.

    Cheers from a,
    SaGaDa-iGoRoT

  17. Inway

    Thanks for dropping by and I’m glad I that you enjoyed the article. Father Boumans was a very special person.

    SaGaDa

    Thanks for the link and I’m glad you enjoyed what I put up. I’ll be doing another post on Barlig in the near future, so please drop on by again.

  18. I’m also from that town. I had not been there for almost 15 years now since I graduated in college. when I was a little boy I met a foreigner( I don’t know if it was you or maybe someone else)interviewing people weaving baskets out of rattan. i wish you had a photo of that sort. Basket weaving is one of the major livelihood in my town before next to farming. I’m not sure if it still true now.

    Just want to appreciate your post and i look forward to your next issue.

  19. Xinyu Boy

    Thanks for dropping by. I don’t think it was me that you met all those years ago as I’m not a reporter who interveiws people. Who knows though, to a child I might’ve looked like a reporter. I don’t have any plans to go back to the Philippines for at least another couple of years but if I was to go there again I’d definately go back to your village and take all the photos I took with me.

  20. Hi!!
    As i was looking through some Barlig articles, i accidentally came across this anecdote of Fr. Huberto Boumans. It captured my attention so…. The story was great..and interesting, too.
    Though i also feared Fr. Boumans (as what Langfia felt), i still had the chance of talking face to face with him when i went to the convent with my father for a visit. Then I suddenly discovered that the scary priest turns to be a convivial deric.Countless developments have taken place during his time which the Barligians (including me as i am one of them) were being thankful for. The flight of steps from the church going up the public road was named after him…”Boumans Trail”. Now, the trail was already cemented and roofed so we can have access to it even during rainy season without an umbrella.It’s so sad the started road construction (shortcut going to Banaue, I think..) was not finished..
    After Fr. Boumans, local priests were assigned successively in the municipality until another missionary came – Fr. Jaggi (Sorry, i don’t know his first name). He is known to be a tireless priest as he walks from Poblacion, Barlig going to Lias and Kadaclan and back to Poblacion just to officiate a mass. Although he stayed in Barlig for a few years, i know he had also helped the community a lot in his own ways. I was already out of Barlig when he was there.

  21. hi,what a very touching story u had….well, i’m really impressed and happy that a experience like that still not forgotten. hehehehe though i really like your experience about the pig and the pigpen. Yes you are correct FR. HUBERT BOUMAN is a man to be remembered. it’s a pity u can’t find somebody like him nowadays, i remember FR.BOUMAN very well because i used to fetch water and firewood after i came from school and in return he gives me chocolates and nuts in a box. Sometimes in the evening when we hear him making telephone call we used to sit beside him tonguetied ‘coz we are fascinated with the phone(it’s an old one)and he’s not talking he’s using morse code. Yes, we really are very lucky to have FR. HUBERT BOUMAN as our parish priest because of him we tasted our first rolled oats, cornmill,milk, cheese(the one they thought was soap,oh my!)chocolates and etc.But the most important thing is HE as a human person, FR. BOUMAN dedicated his life to the people of Barlig, He not only dedicate his life, HE lived, HE breath, HE suffered with the people. To FR. BOUMAN,(may HE rest in peace) your teachings and contributions will be cherished and not be forgotten forever. To me, you have a soft spot in my heart always….. And to you Mr.Razz thank you very much for posting your story in the net, i’m looking forward for the next one.

  22. I remember Fr. Boumans too! I’m from Baguio but my dad’s family was really close to him. I remember him giving us Cote D’ Or chocolates when we visit him in the convent in Barlig or in Home Sweet Home Seminary in Baguio. I miss Barlig vacations.

  23. Hi
    I grow up also in Barlig since birth until now. So I know Fr. Huberto Bouman. I remember also when he gave us a rosary even he asking question for us but we didn’t answer him because we are a shame for him. I have also a brother named Huberto Dante that come from his name Huberto and the Boumans Trail that he improve before. Thanks to Fr. Boumans who give clothes(we called it “Penachi”) to the people of barlig like Jacket, dress and others and they all beautiful. So when during winter the people of Barlig are like Foreigner because of the aide coming from the friends of Fr. Bouman. So the people of Barlig love Fr. Boumans very much and they missed all the things he had done in our place of Barlig and until now a days some are still wearing the Jacket which he give it.

  24. Father Bouman is not a Jesuit. But he is a Catholic International Christian Missionary or we called it the CICM. As I know Jesuit is different from the CICM.

  25. Greetings! I came back again for this article and to a surprise how my townmates have followed it here. A great delight. As you obviously know that I have posted this in the Barlig Blog (http://barlig.wordpress.com/, a reader recently had a comment so I will repost it here:

    “Thanks for this wonderful reminiscence of Fr Boumans, the beloved missionary of Barlig. I worked in Barlig as rector of St Michael’s some years after he died; but his memory was still very much alive. One small correction? Fr Boumans was not a Jesuit. He belonged to the CICM Fathers, who worked throughout the Cordilleras. Sometimes known in English as the Missionhurst Fathers.

    -Fr. Greg”

    ps. I read the article again, never tiring. There is a Vincent name you miss out to change. I couldn’t see a new post about Barlig yet. But I understand you must be busy.

    Regards.

  26. Ps.I was just trying to imagine how Barlig look like at that time of your visit in Barlig. I am sure you have other photographs during your 2 wks stay. It would be worth sharing? Thank you.:-)

  27. Thanks a lot Ruzz for the lenghty article you wrote about your visit to Barlig many years ago and your friendship with Fr Huberto Boumans of the Congregatio Imaculati Cordis Mariae ( Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary). I was very happy to see his photo. Just like many of those who responded to your story, I was born and bred in Barlig. My mother is a retired catechist so we were quite close to Fr Boumans. I used to visit him in his retirement home (Home Sweet Home)when I was working in Baguio. Yes, he helped the Barlig people in a hundred and one ways: First, with supplies of rolled oats, bulgur,wheat flour, corn oil that he solicited from Europe. As a grade-school pupil, I used to go to the presbytery with my grandmother. We’d bring along an empty glass bottle, join the queue and wait for our bottle to be filled with cooking oil. Then after some time, we’d go down again to get our share of some flour, or oats or bulgur. Then came the irrigation that you mentioned. I also worked there with my grandmother. Third, those sacks of clothing that Ayeona talked about. My family had their share of those clothing,too. As clothing was scarce in those days, unless your parents are government employees, my sisters and I ( and I’m sure most of the people in Barlig at that time )were more than glad to be able to keep ourselves warm during those terribly cold December days.
    Such was Fr Boumans’ generosity that, in my opinion, the people of Barlig were somewhat spoiled, and found it difficult to ‘give.’ When the first Filipino priest took over, people still thought ‘ the priest should provide.’ That has changed now. The children of the family of one of Fr Boumans’ neighbours who found fortune in the US, pooled their resources and funded the renovation of the church. And for Ruzz’ information, the old presbytery has also been renovated. ( And it doesn’t smell of tobacco anymore,lol!)

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