A small cemetery lay on our way to the famous Hanging Coffins of Sagada. We walked past resting places that looked like stone beds under the sky and exposed to the elements. Others were laid flat on the ground instead. The names of the deceased, mostly from an indigenous background, were etched in polished marble plaques. I softened my voice immediately out of respect. As we trailed behind the guide, I whispered my apologies and hoped those who passed away were not disturbed.
It was 9 AM and the sun shone brightly. I removed my jacket and tied it around my waist. Despite the high altitude, I began to perspire due to the thick fabric of my green polo shirt, ski cap, and minutes of strolling. My high school classmates and Adrian, Jera’s boyfriend, seemed aroused by the heat too.
Our guide named Rod led the way. Ironically, he shared the name of our high school classmate who passed away before we entered the third year. As a transferee, he only spent a year with us but it was worth it. I wish I had been better with socialization back then. Mastering this life skill took me through the hard way. Yet it was a memory as distant as another galaxy. We simply enjoyed each other’s company as we spent the weekend at scenic Sagada.
Pine trees grew all around us. The tropical rainforest gave way to coniferous woodland. We followed a dirt path with railings on top of steep slopes. It reminded me of our arduous hike through a similar trail at Biak-na-Bato during a high school field trip. This time, our fellow visitors were more senior instead of junior. Trees provided shade at some spots of our way. The nearby ridge looked dark green from towering pines that rose up as a single mass.
As we descended towards the Hanging Coffins, the trail had steep parts that forced us to either jump down or hold a companion’s hand for support. We moved in single file. Abie was on my front and Candice was right behind me. Yet everyone switched places from time to time. At least this hike was much easier than climbing Mt Tabayoc. It was more of the idiomatic walk in the park. Our feet kicked a bit of soil from the barren ground that made up the trail.
Rod kept the group going with his sense of humor. He had us stopping at one vantage point. We could shout at the nearby ridge and hear the echo of our voices. Luke told me to let out my frustrations related to romance. Then he grinned and we had a friendly laugh. He began by imitating the morning yells of a vendor who peddled taho, the sweetened tofu snack sipped from a plastic cup. Michael did something similar as a peddler of that infamous duck embryo called balut. No one shouted to express negative feelings, not even me. We continued the hike in a lighthearted mood.
Later on, we came upon a massive rock face. Several people gathered at the base. A rope stretched from the top of the geologic formation to the ground. It became clear that this spot offered visitors the experience of rappelling. A lean but muscular man held the rope tightly as his feet pressed hard on the gray surface. Spectators gasped in awe. Then that man taught the tourists how to rappel safely. Our group decided to forgo the leisurely activity and continue towards our true goal.
Beyond the trees, our group caught sight of another rock face with a rugged surface. Cracks allowed the roots of withered but hardy plants to take hold. Then we saw the actual Hanging Coffins, flocked by a large group of visitors. The downward trail led us into a wooded area. Bushes and flowering plants there were well-tended like those in a horticultural garden. Countless pine needles atop us gave some shade. At a dim part of the trail, the path was rather steep and strewn with undergrowth. The chatting grew louder as we approached this place’s main attraction. My ears singled out the voice of another guide, who shared information to the tourists and entertained questions.
We arrived at the site with a group of people at our front still taking photos and another group just behind us. Wooden coffins were suspended on the rock face just as one would place tiny rectangular bits of sticky tack on the wall of a home’s interior. They still housed the deceased. This gave the place a supernatural feel. A cross and chair also hung and were supported by ropes. Like the resting places at the cemetery, these coffins also had names inscribed on them. I wondered if the deceased would have enough respite as they were visited frequently by people not even related to them.
According to Rod and his fellow guides, the deceased in the Hanging Coffins could ascend into the afterlife easier than those buried under the ground. The remoteness of Sagada enabled its indigenous residents to preserve their beliefs better than those on the lowlands and the coasts. When Spain took control of much of the archipelago, conquistadors and missionaries could not influence the Cordilleras of northern Luzon. It was the advent of modern roads, automobiles, and aircraft that made this realm accessible. Technology changed but tradition did not.
The indigenous beliefs in Sagada differ significantly from the Abrahamic tradition. Regarding the afterlife, the latter involves Heaven for good-doers and Hell for those who committed evil. In the belief system I practice, an angel takes the soul from people at the time they pass away. This soul does not die. It awaits the Day of Resurrection when God, the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful will give eternal bliss to those who deserve it.
As I contemplated about the Hereafter, I heard a voice that seemed to call me. Looking around, I saw a girl in a pink outfit and wearing a ski hat. That face was familiar. It happened to be Mae. Back at the Welcome to Banaue arch, I asked her to take my photo as I had difficulty taking a selfie. Then we parted ways as we rode different vans. I never expected to see her again. Yet she stood there for real. I had a brief chat with Mae, took her picture along with a few companions, and asked her full name. Then I joined my companions as we left the Hanging Coffins. (I never found her on social media. I hope the readers of this blog post recognize her. Perhaps she might be reading this herself.)
On the way back, I stumbled upon a senior couple with Caucasian features. They were from Dublin, Ireland as revealed in our short conversation. The two continued their hike and the man stumbled. He rose up immediately. Both were physically fit.
People gathered at one point of the trail. One by one, they posed atop a rock outcrop with that ridge of pine trees at the background. Getting into that spot meant grasping firmly on hard surfaces while maintaining balance. Slipping off one edge would result in a nasty fall into a jagged rock formation. Fortunately, Rod was there to help us with both climbing and descending. We took turns in posing either relaxed or risk-taking. I used one of my own photos as a Facebook profile. When one of us had a photo shoot, the rest sat on the ground and chatted mundanely.
As we returned to the modern cemetery, I reflected on what would happen to us after leaving this mortal life. Punishment in the Hereafter meant that passing away does not guarantee escape from hardships and a way towards everlasting comfort.