Upland ‘Cabiteros’ Labors Etched in Stone


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Last Friday was spotted a gang of men   digging at a downslope along   a portion somewhere in barangay Busa, Sabangan. Mountain Province, where about 80 meters of roadway was wrecked by Typhoon Ompong, year ago.

These men, daily laborers, or por dia, lowly workers of which Ah Kong belongs to, heeded not the fickle weather as it metamorphosed into sputters of rain, then sun peeping that October 11.

They kept working doggedly.

At a glance, a neophyte can discern the gang were bent to deter further erosion of soil with use of available stones and rocks.

On closer inspection, however, the gang was not merely lugging stones and heaping them on top of the other, like what many recklessly do with their garbage and giving Local Government Units (LGUs) the perennial headache.

Instead, the gang shrewdly positioned each stone to “to bite” and snugly fit with the other stones.  Like caressing each other. At least, when Ah asked the gang, that’s what he was told.

And the gang happily invited him to try his hand at it. So he took a hand at what you know or term, as “ag-kabite,” build by using stones or rocks of whatever size.

But, first, Romeo Chup-yaas, from Mountain Province and “capataz” (foreman) of the gang assigned at the Busa Section of the Halsema Highway, said to Ah, “Ti umuna nga adalem sakbay agkabite ka ket masapul a nga kabaelam agbagkat ti bato.”

“Agbagkat ti bato? Dayta laeng, Naglaka! Easing, easy a,” Ah boasted.

Ah then rolled up his sleeves, flexed his arms and showed his muscles to the gang.

All chewing momma, the gang peered into Ah’s muscles seriously and quietly. Then suddenly, the gang erupted in howls of laughter.

What they expected to see as big bump of muscles in Ah’s arms, they saw instead undersized and underdeveloped muscles that looked like tiny marbles.

Another in the gang, Shaad Dorpis, from Mountain Province, stepped forward and gingerly poked the supposed muscles in Ah’ arms and found to his surprise they were nothing but soft, loose flesh.

Feeling pity for Ah, for Shaad was a kindly person, Shaad wanted to weep for Ah who has placed himself in a difficult position by boasting, ““Agbagkat ti bato? Dayta laeng, Naglaka! Easing easy a.”

But work must be done, pity or no pity. Shaad cleared his throat and said, “Ala ngarud, padasem. Bagkatem dagidiay bato (pointing to a pile of rocks further away) ta iyasideg mo idiay pagkabkabiti-an mi.”

Then Shaad spat red-stained momma-laced saliva into his calloused palms, rubbed his palms vigorously like he was using hand lotion.

Then Shaad smelled his palms, a mysterious smile crept into his mouth and his face sparkled with delight like there was a secret pact between himself and the red spit in his palms, then strode off to where they were building the ‘kabite.”

While Ah was left standing there, foolishly wondering what had he gotten himself into, by boasting.

He threw a glance at the pile of rocks he was assigned to carry and estimated each rock weighed 25-30 kilos apiece. He looked at the distance from the pile to where he was to offload the rocks and estimated it was 70 meters or more away. He sat down and wanted to weep.

Daily laborer that he calls himself, Ah hardly finished the chore of hauling the rocks near where the gang worked as the day reached high noon. The gang took pity on him and said, “Ala, kusto daytan.” (Enough hauling rocks.)

Members of the gang washed their hands and the person “naatasan nga agluto,” shouted, “ALAS DOSE EN. MANGANS TAYONS!”  His shout reverberated through the air.

Romeo, the capataz, grumpy and sore because the gang took all the momma he just bought and kept in a pouch, said to their cook, “Hoy, isardeng mo man dayta panag-inaynayon mo ti S kadagiti ibagbagam.  Anya ti linotum nga sida tayo ngay?”

Answered their cook: “BANGU nga adda KAMATI na. ARDINA nga adda IBUYA na. ken adda pay ILI (sili) nga pagaw-awan (pagsawsawan.).”

Noonday meal done, they allowed Ah to try his hand to “ag-kabite.” But for all that the tried, he was reduced to smashing his fingertips between the rocks and his hands bleeding, while the gang had to re-arrange the rocks he placed topsy-turvy on top of the other.

Ah took a crash course in the intricate art of stonewall building or ag-kabite and that gang at Busa Section, Sabangan, Mountain Province willingly granted such wish, that was no easy task at all.

Chances are, persons you see erecting walls of stones along the roads, rice paddies, slopes, elevated areas and homes in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) are uplanders.

They particularly hail from Bontoc, Maligcong, Besao, Banaue and Kapangan.

None can deny highlanders have a reputation as stone wall builders and their works known for strength, durability and artistry.

Said Martellle Mercado, anthropologist from Manila who went with Ah that Oct. 11 in Busa: “Work of the highlander cabitero is striking, yet not so simple, for there is greatness in the men and women who take to task a delicate art.”

If gauge of greatness of the Cordilleran cabitero lies in time, it’s no metaphor to compare cabiteros being cousins of Hercules.

For they have more than proved their Herculean   worth, they, descendants of great rice-terraces builders.

Glimpse at the famed Banaue Rice Terraces of the Maligcong Rice Terraces. Their greatness has been preserved through the ages.

Ponder on the Banaue Rice Terraces. Indigenous highlanders have constructed 20,000 hectares of agricultural land upon inhospitable bedrock of the steep Cordillera Central Mountain Range.

For millennia, succeeding generations of farmer-cabiteros built and maintained 20,000 kilometers of dikes and retaining walls – enough to stretch halfway around the equator.

They created a unique an irregular patchwork of terraced rice paddies.

Tiers rise to about 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level. Each tier is defined by a stone or clay retaining wall, snaking along contours of the steep mountainside.

Stone walls are as high as 50 feet (15 meters). Some of the clay walls are more than 80 feet (25.5 meters) high.

If that isn’t Herculean cabitero effort, how then, do you describe it?

In December 1995, the terraces were added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO’s) World Heritage List.

In honor to the indigenous engineering feat of the cabiteros, UNESCO released a statement: “The fruit of knowledge passed on from one generation to the next, of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they helped form a landscape of great beauty that expresses conquered and conserved harmony between humankind and the environment.”

Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), particularly in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) admits about the invaluable contribution of cabiteros in road maintenance.

DPWH-CAR people with whom Ah talked with explained that from engineering viewpoint, Cordillera road system has at least three different types of maintenance: routine, periodic and emergency maintenance activities.

Road maintenance being a continuous process, local resource-based maintenance comes in. As the name suggests, it’s the use of materials, manpower and technology available in the community.

Highly skilled in construction of grouted rip-rap or road-retaining walls, the cabiteros have always been in the forefront of the DPWH’s three maintenance activities.

Between equipment-based road maintenance done by large contractors and one done by local resource-based group like the cabiteros, the latter is more advantageous, cost effective and importantly, helps local economy, said DPWH-CAR people.

Physically, the typical cabitero is well-built and belong to that extensive stock of highland families remarkable for their industriousness. Cabiteros have strength, determination and endurance.

Resting with the gang at Busa, Ah asked how they learned the art of cabite. The gang related male and female children in Cordillera are taught the art in teens, an informal form of education that call for strength, finesse, correctness with a smattering of some scolding to urge the teens to do a job well.

Neither do they feel aggrieved about the hard training, despite, sometimes, their loss of childhood frolic, when seen by a critic.

On the contrary, many in the gang revealed their training led to discover a job and fit into a world where their skill and strength are in demand and admired.

Like Fortune Mercado. Perimeter of his house in manila is made up of stone walls. His gardens are made up of stone walls. Even his garage is stone walled.

Said he, “I always admired the skills of the cabitero, that when I made my house in Paranaque, I sent for my highlander cabitero friends to come over to do the contract in stonewalling my residence.”

“My neighbors saw their work; they commissioned them to also do stone masonry in their homes after they finished at my place,” Fortune related.

Often, cabiteros do a job by contract or “contrata.” And cost of the job is settled mutually by both employer and the worker.

In a typical gang of cabiteros, there’s a person, more experienced than the others and with wisdom to wit, in leading until a job is finished.

Durability, strength and artistry of cabitero work can be seen by the way how they know exactly what type of stones to utilize and by hindsight, determine where water passes through the rocks.

Of the many types of rocks used, the gang identified “dalmeg,” big stones preferred as foundation of a stone wall, often buried 2-3 feet.

From the foundation, a “nasalkad,” is formed, a type of wall slanted about 85 degrees to the ground, and capable of holding up soil.

Another form of stone wall is the “ayaba,” walls more or less perpendicular to the ground for artistic beauty, with heights ranging from three or more feet.

In constructing ground flooring, cabiteros make use of what they term, “datil,” or “kamada.”

If you have stepped on flat stones jutting on the sides of the walls of rice fields, then you have just used what cabiteros call, “paytukan,” or “sakyaban.”

And the walls, erected like foot stairs, are called “palingay.”

As is often the case, when cabiteros start to build a stone wall, a chicken is butchered at the workplace as an offering to placate and thank the gods, who would later etch in stone, the Herculean toils of the cabiteros. – Bony A. Bengwayan