Thanksgiving in Batad
It was pouring outside as stone-faced women walked past me carrying what looked to be three pounds of carabao (water buffalo) meat strung on bamboo vines. I looked back at Ruben, a local from Asapan, who seemed incredibly confused as to why I just told him that I keep a dog as a pet. His expression changed to a small grin – “Many people here eat dog. My friend here loves dog,” he said, motioning to his buddy who simply gave me a big, toothless smile. I didn’t have time to dwindle on that moment though. Having looked that direction for the first time in a few minutes, I noticed a newcomer had sat down at the table a few feet away from where we were standing. He sipped his tea and placed it back on the table next to his newly acquired carabao leg, the severed end facing me.
I had been in the tiny, remote village of Batad in for 24 hours, clambering up and down what are arguably some of the most pristine and beautiful rice terraces in the world. For the town of 1500 people, life is similar to the way it’s always been. Each family has and maintains a section of the terraces that has been theirs for generations and generations and all the rice that they farm is meant to sustain them for the year. Homes are incredibly basic and despite the travelers who come for the epic trekking, mass tourism isn’t overly apparent. The village is not accessible by road,* electricity just came in 2008, and naturally there is no internet. (There are very, very weak cell phone signals.)
I was staying with the Addug family at the Hillside Inn, one of the many homestays greeting travelers as they arrive on the ridge overlooking town. I had come in from Banaue with a couple from France that I had met and in sitting around having drinks with an Austrian girl and her local guide that first night, we learned that there were about 300 people descend on our homestay for a Thanksgiving the following day. Fears of another Filipino Fiesta immediately invaded my thoughts.
The Addugs were holding a Thanksgiving to give thanks for the father of the family, who from what I could gather, had been in and out of hospitals for two years, most recently received open heart surgery and after, a clean bill of health. It also happened to be the anniversary for another couple in the family as well as someone’s birthday.
As we finished up dinner on that first night, watching another thunderstorm rolling through the valley, we noticed the atmosphere in the small restaurant got very somber as the family gathered around. Papa Addug was addressing them, quietly, but very sternly, to the point we thought something was wrong. But the guide sitting with us started translating – The father was simply giving out tasks to his family for the next day’s events. In order to have a successful Thanksgiving, it was paramount that each member perform their assignment perfectly.
The following morning was noticeably busier when I went downstairs for breakfast with many of the Addug’s family and friends already sitting around in large groups enjoying their day. I said, “Goodbye” to my French friends and sat back with another cup of coffee, soaking up one of the best views I’ve ever seen before being interrupted by a guitar and loud singing below in the family’s other house adjacent to Hillside – a full on Roman Catholic mass.
Arguably the most important part of the day directly followed mass, in the same spot… preparing the feast, which had to begin with the slaughter of seven pigs and two carabao in the traditional Ifuguo way. The carabao’s, heads were chopped off, ideally with one swipe of the machete and the seven pigs had their chests slit near the heart before a blade was shoved through the heart delivering the final blow.
The howling of the pigs was too much for me so I quickly went out on a trek down to the Hanging Bridge, the squeals still echoing through the whole valley.
I returned to Hillside right as the afternoon rains started and in taking one look at the amount of people, I began to question whether this home built in to a mountain side was actually going to hold. I grabbed a big water and coffee and found a corner of the porch to post up on. Before I knew it, I had members of the family just chatting me up asking me about life in America and proudly telling me about life in the Philippines. Last of all was Ruben, a professor from Asapan, and his student from Russia who was working towards his linguistics doctorate, who sat with me for hours telling me about school, letting me know what process of the party we were at, and giving me the back stories on each of the faces walking by.
As the evening drew near, people began to noticeably crowd the “Mass & Slaughter Hut,” but get very quiet. I saw Papa Addug get in front of everyone and start reading names off a notebook he had pulled out. As with tradition, whatever meat was not used in the feast that day, was divided up between all guests. The closer someone was to the family, the more meat they received. Their names were called, they would step forward and receive their meet tied up with bamboo string, and they would leave. Signaling the party was ending, this was their parting gift.
And that night at Hillside was just another night. The core Addugs still huddled around enjoying themselves, a couple of guests (myself, a German couple), and some of the best Lechon I think I will ever have.
*A road is currently being built and if all goes well and according to Ruben, it should be done by 2016.