I took the GL liner from Dangwa station at 8 AM to Mt Data Cliff where Benzent, the community organizer from ECP asked me to meet him. There was a bus trip at 10 AM but I wanted to be sure to make it in time for our 2PM meeting with the Bauko community. After a pensive breakfast of coffee and yema cake at Sab-ani, watching this terminal’s grimy buildings and half-finished construction glow in the morning light, I took my seat and we set off.
We rolled along through La Trinidad, some brief traffic and snaked around the cordillera. My eyes softened upon resting on the mountains and trees, images floating in and out of consciousness. I’ve seen these views many times before so I needn’t stay awake. It had a calming effect on me, to be rolling about on that bus, hugging the mountains, waking to see villagers come in or leave, carrying babies or chickens or bags woven in the same fabric design from Sagada.
The Bauko farmers remark at how long the ride is, and how the van may be faster and cheaper but less safe. (the bus ride is 145 PhP) They seem to appreciate that I would come all this way to meet with them. I tell them that I quite like the bus ride, with the natural air-conditioning, witnessing how the conductor and passengers help one another, no matter how irregular or troublesome the load. They do it naturally and it is beautiful to watch. One child after another, one basket of produce and a rolled up futon. I also read a calmness on people’s faces, especially the older ones. They don’t seem to be harried, the lines on their faces look deep and hard-won, and their clothing and shoes are valued for what they are, nothing more. Or less. They served them well. It is a contemplative ride for me, to sit there with nowhere to go and to roll about with others who seem to know what life is about.
So it takes about 4 hours, not 3 as I originally thought, to get from Baguio to Mt Data Cliff. There is a short stop 3 hours into the ride but I can’t remember where that is. Food options are limited. There was siopao, meat dishes with rice, balut, cup noodles, siomai, assorted food-like items that will last forever. Oh but there was also a small bakery with the usual sweet breads and mr donut concession (Jabez should be happy). You could also get slippers, soap bars (though perla only came in large laundry sizes) and toiletries. I bought some soymilk for my emergency granola.
It takes 4 hours and one passes through Atok, then Buguias and then Abatan, their public market. Mt Data hotel rises up on the left and large stone plaques with the ten commandments appear a good ten minutes before the actual cliff. Just to clarify, I didn’t see an actual cliff. Or, it wasn’t spectacularly cliffy compared to the general cliff all-around. But they all seem to know which cliffycliffcliff it is.
I meet Benzent who was waiting the one-hour difference between my estimate and reality and we each take our seats behind motorcycle drivers. I almost toppled over mine because I sat on the rubber flap. I share this to warn you about those deceitful flaps. I hold on uncertainly to Kuya John’s shoulders trying to ignore the stranger intimacy and the fear of death-by-head-crashing-on-concrete. He asks if it’s my first time and I say no, I used to do this all the time but now I’ve learned how to fear. I refrain from asking him about accidents or why he doesn’t have a helmet. The mountains are breathtaking from this moving vantage point. I remind myself that I would die happy this way. I can already see the facebook post. The ride to Suyo costs 50 PhP and Kuya John’s number is 0909 214 2190.
I asked Kuya John whether he had a farm too and whether he farmed organically. He said he did have a farm but he doesn’t farm organically because it’s untested and “yung mga organic farmer nagpupuyat daw.”(it is said that organic farmers sleep late) I thought I misunderstood but he explained “matrabaho mag-organic.” (to farm organically is hard work)
Suyo seemed to be the very dip of Bauko, where the whole sky settled. We crept to the side of the mountain where houses emerged from slopes and behold, a mass was being celebrated in a hole in the wall. There was something distinctively Pentecostal about it: three benches close to the ground and a wooden table for an altar, three sides dark like a cave with the entrance in full noon-sunlight. The only ahistorical detail would be that these were mostly women, singing devotedly with their tattered booklets. I sat and stood like everyone else. I said Amen and smiled at the farmers I recognized in the pews.
We walked to Auntie Ines’s house, a stone’s-throw away, and I felt sheepish when I finally got my bearings and recognized where we were. I was still desperately trying to remember their names. Auntie Ines and Auntie Agnes began preparing fish, veg, rice and potatoes. In the meantime they offered me lagundi tea and sweet bread. Lagundi tea is ready when the leaves turn a darker shade of green. The tea will become bitter if steeped too long. I try to help peel potatoes with my ceramic knife but I am hopelessly slow trying not to make a mess of extremities. I fulfill three. I take in the changes in the house and remark like an old friend – ooh a sewing machine! The juicer is still here. How lovely, an office and wow a professional packing space. The duck pool and pen is gone as a dog slipped through the net and ate them one night, I learn. Her bathroom is back in order! She is delighted that we didn’t need to use her relative’s outhouse, a full 8 steps away. Truthfully, I did feel those 8 steps-difference and her outhouse was lovelier. It has a lacey curtain and a ceramic floor latrine.
Outside, the other farmers were gathering around, sitting or squatting on the discarded rebars on the rubble; random greens and vegetable sprouts emerging from the mound. They show me a packet of chia proudly, saying they grew more from what Sir Jabez gave them. How does one eat it, they ask, aside from adding it to coffee? I mentally slap my forehead remembering how Ernest and Jabez would declare coffee healthy by adding chia to it. I tell them they can add it to juices or shakes. I explain that the gel that forms around each seed is believed to cleanse the gut. Auntie Virgie confirms saying she suffered from constipation and chia made her go. The tatay who brought it asks if I will buy it and I tell them that we tried selling it in the market but it was too expensive compared to what is commercially available. They shared how challenging it was it was to clean the seeds. I told them I know and so I don’t ask to lower the price but I suggest they propagate it for their own health and consumption.
One of the things that struck me the most from this meeting was what one of the farmers said as a matter of course. When I said thank you for coming on such short notice, she responded readily, without pretense or righteousness “siyempre, pagsayaatan” which she struggled to translate in Tagalog. “For the common good.”
Like I said, I feel blessed among women.
We have a good meeting, I feel, going through what happened with the ordering system and how we can work out logistics. The guaranteed orders of 60 kilos twice a month heartens them and they say they can shift their marketing schedule around that. Vegetables will be harvested and packed Monday afternoon, sent by van or service 4AM on Tuesday to Resurreccion (~4 hours) and on the Dagupan bus no later than 9AM to make it to Cubao by 4PM. We go through the minimum purchase order Ernest prepared, evaluating the reliability of each vegetable throughout the year and suggesting “subsi” vegetables during off-season. I also ask about seasonal fruits and unique items they may want to offer. We haggle over prices and packaging in a friendly manner. Yes, friendly haggle. I think this is also why I say it was a good meeting. I listen to the cost of packaging and labeling, they listen to our need for the veg to arrive un-juiced. We figure out a solution together. They ask for higher prices with some veg, matching what they sell through other marketing coops. I remind them that our purchases are guaranteed and that there are no pull-outs. You hear them listening to the rationale with sounds the equivalent of, ahh, true. Sometimes I concede, sometimes they do. We reiterate to each other with laughter that these are friendly prices.
I feel the impending economic death of some items though such as potatoes. Kuya Lito is the only one who has them at the moment and asked if we could increase the prices. He reasons that they are prone to blight and are unlikely to be planted after this harvest for this price and vulnerability. It is true as I remember a farmer in Bebe losing her whole field of potatoes to blight. Such is life without fungicide. I regret to tell him however that the market price is too low to compete with and if we raised prices further, we would be way over budget. I wish I could tell him different.
On the other hand, hope springs eternal for veggies like zucchini. More specifically, hope springs in Kabikhaan, a crazy mountain away, so far away that those puncturing pests don’t go there, they say smilingly. They all look at Auntie, the zucchini expert, when I insist they try to deliver. Blushing, she promises to try and I try not to think about how I just asked her to carry a sack of veg on her head across a crazy mountain every month.
Finally, we discuss how order confirmation would take place and how payments will be made. Ernest would call every Friday afternoon to check in and that would be their chance to offer limited items in season or any substitutions. Sunday morning Ernest will send in final purchase orders and by Monday we need their confirmation. Payments will be made through Episcopal Church as usual to facilitate disbursement. I ask about their name, CRAP-C, this subgroup of the original municipality-wide Bauko Organic Producers Association. It stands for Chico River Agricultural Producers Cooperative, formed when farmers borrowed money for conventional farming from the Church and lost it in the gamble that characterizes that system. This is what led them to try organic. What keeps them in it is knowing better. One farmer asserts that we should change the name to emphasize organic: Chico River Organic Producers Cooperative (CROP-C) and many agree. I agree, for reasons less principled than theirs.
It is good to see them again, after a year. To hold their hands and smile, recalling memories from visits past. Friendships take time, repetition, smiling and listening. A few words here, small gifts and gestures of care. Thank yous, many thank-yous. I ask auntie Ines and auntie Agnes how it is that they would do so much to make organic work (including coordination, packing till late and rising early to ship the veg). Auntie Ines says people don’t know how to sacrifice for the whole anymore but she does it so young people may see its value. Auntie Agnes chimes in that organic is hard, but they love each other and they love what they do. So, *laughter*