Friday, January 25, 2019

The Search for Bontoc's Oldest Living Citizen: Alab's Apo Herbert Todyog

The concrete path leading to Bontoc's oldest living citizen is steep and slippery in places, rising about a thousand feet above the highway and the Chico River.  Should you look up to the west, you'll see an imposing, breathtaking view:  the cliffs of Kamanbaneng or what the Sagadans re-labeled as Marlboro Hills, a most dramatic sunrise viewpoint of a sea of clouds enveloping the distant mountains.  My guide-friend, Tina Paspas Sokoken, and I muttered under our breaths that this daily climb to get home must be one of the reasons for Apo Herbert Todyog's long life.  Lest anyone scoff and say the old man hardly descends from his literally, lofty perch, Apo Herbert insisted on coming down and receiving his centenarian award at the munisipyo some months ago.  

Through a stroke of serendipity, we first bumped into Apo's grandson halfway through the path; later on, on the final rise we met his grand-daughter-in-law, Anti Wilma who was on her way to run some errands.  She gladly stayed on and welcomed us to the Apo's abode.  It was around 7:30am and we arrived at the tail-end of Apo's breakfast.  A few minutes later, he obliges us by sitting outside and rolling some leaves, filling his pipe and smoking, his only vice.
Apo Herbert in his younger years
Anti Wilma acted as our interpreter, also adding anecdotes here and there to Apo's stories.  Though a bit stooped by the years, Apo Herbert is nevertheless mobile, shuffling quickly here and there.  His hearing and eyesight are still clear, his hands bearing no indication of shaking or tremors as he deftly rolled the tobacco leaves into his pipe, lighting it up, and looking into the distance as he answers our questions.

Anti Wilma intimated Apo hasn't visited the hospital.  In fact, he disdains the idea, fearing he may, in fact, get sicker, if he does so.  Inevitably, the inquiry would have to include "What's your secret for your long life?"  The answer was downright simple:  a diet of kamote leaves (whoever said that those failing in school should resort to planting and eating kamote should be shamed) and drinking the fermented juice of kamote leaves.  Apo has always been a farmer, said Anti Wilma, and that tells a lot.  The terraced fields down from where we sit are now green with beans and peppers, rotated from a once-a-year harvest of rice but it's not hard to imagine a time when these, like the rest of Bontoc's rice terraces, were green with rice plants, irrigated by mountain springs and fertilized by runoffs from up above.  Collectively, the still-unpolluted air, clean water, and rigorous way of life, have most likely, contributed to Apo Herbert's longevity.

When I posted Apo Herbert's picture and anecdote on Facebook, amid a flurry of well-wishes crept some scoffers, questioning his real age and status as possibly the oldest citizen of Bontoc.  Could that be fueled by the P100,000 reward for centenarians?  I hope not.  In any case, short of guesstimation/educated guesswork, how can one's age be ascertained if he/she was born during a time when birth certificates were not yet existent or if existing, may have been lost?   This also provokes one into thinking how far (or how little, depending on how you view things) things have changed here.
Looking at Apo Herbert's face, I have to marvel, thinking that these are eyes that have witnessed tribal and world wars, the death of his only son and child (he should've been 85 by now, which moves us into thinking Apo Herbert is around 105-110 years old now), of bountiful and failed harvests.  We stayed for an hour or so, eager to ask more questions but also wanting to let Apo Herbert take his post-meal nap.   Those questions would have to wait until I return with his pictures.  After all, Alab Oriente is just around 15-20 minutes van ride from Bontoc town proper.  Hard to imagine that in the olden days, we would've have to walk half-a-day or so.  Not only that, we'd probably have to send an emissary in advance so the tribe would not greet our presence with spears.   In her book, Bone Talk, London-based Filipina author, Candy Gourlay, tells us the Ifugaos were not subjugated by the Spaniards not merely due to isolation and distance but rather because of their bravery.   Could Apo Herbert have been a warrior of sorts then?   Now, we can freely come and go from one barangay to another -- think about that happening within the space of a century the next time you visit Bontoc.

Coming down the path, we passed by numerous kongos (pig pens), banana plants heavy with fruits, and sunlight illuminating the rice terraces.  We kept getting greeted by the friendly locals who were happy Apo Herbert got visitors.  Goes to show that some things, thankfully, has changed little in these parts after all.

(All images taken with Sony A6000 + Sony 50mm f/1.8 lens • © 2019 Oggie Ramos)


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