EVERY individual living in this world dreams of living a long life, but it is not for us to decide. When someone just turned 100 years old, we are usually amazed by it. In this era, it’s unusual for a person to reach that age; that’s why we consider it as a milestone.
Even reaching half of a century is hard to achieve.
My great-grandmother is now 101 years old. She lives in a place where motor vehicles are seldom seen and heard. Only the chirping birds can be heard clearly.
Fresh and healthy air is not just sensed by the nose, but can be felt by the whole body. In this place high up in the mountains of Benguet, you seemed to be living in a time freeze when mobile phones weren’t invented yet.
It is surprising that there are people who live seemingly in the middle of nowhere. If you visit my great-grandmother, you endure a 13-hour bus ride from Metro Manila and walk for nearly an hour on the cliffs of Tublay, Benguet, to reach the humble home of my Alapong Tasya.
My great-grandmother is Imelda Tomas Pontino, but we call her Alapong Tasya. Alapong is a Kan-Kanaey word, the native dialect of the Igorot, which means Lola. She was born in the mountains of Benguet on May 16, 1917. When she was 19, she married the head of a tribe from Mountain Province, Thomas Pontino, my great-grandfather. He was a respected deer hunter because of his enormous hunts, but what made his reputation was his being a fierce headhunter. Our family still keeps his spear and shield used during his hunting days.
My great-grandparents met while Lolo Thomas was searching for his brother who went hunting and never returned. His search took him to Benguet. After they met, Lolo Thomas turned his back from his brutal hunting life and chose to be with Alapong Tasya. He learned how to plant and grow his own crops and to live with other tribes peacefully. They were blessed with seven children. Their fifth daughter, Lola Irene, is my grandmother.
Lolo Thomas died at the age of 89. He was buried in the front yard of their hut. This was where my Alapong wanted her husband to be buried. When her time comes, she expressed her wish to be buried beside her husband.
I was 13 years old when I first met my Alapong because it was hard to reach their place. I’ve only been there twice. The first thing I noticed when I saw her was the unusual color of her eyes. They were blue. From her children down to the fifth generation, no one in the family inherited her blue eyes. She doesn’t know why her eyes are blue, but those eyes were the reason her brothers needed to hide her during the Japanese occupation here in the Philippines.
A Japanese soldier saw her while she was doing laundry by the lake and, from then on, she was hunted by the Japanese to be one of their comfort women. But she was never captured. Her brothers built an underground shelter to serve as her hiding place when the Japanese arrived to search for captives. She showed us the location of that refuge, but it has since been washed down by the heavy rains.
At her age, it is surprising to see her manage to do heavy work like carry a large basket full of potatoes on her head and climb up the mountains. When asked what her secret is in reaching her age, she would answer in Ilocano, “ Eat vegetables.” Meat is a rarity in this place. But when people do, they do it during “Kanao” when they eat a lot of meat. It’s thanksgiving time to their god for giving them a bountiful harvest. Vegetables and fruits are the main sources of food in their place. It is Mother Nature at its finest.
My family asked her multiple times to come and live with us in the city. We even told her that we have a television. But she answered in Ilocano, “No, I was born here. I will die here.”
Alapong was in tears when it was time for us to go back home. She said she never thought she has a big family. She hugged us one by one and said, “When you come back here, I may not know you anymore because my memory is fading, and I’m forgetting a lot of things.”
A few days after Alapong marked her 101st birthday, she slipped down a mud staircase and broke her back. Her children have all been pleading to her to go to the hospital for treatment, but she always refused. Now, she’s having a hard time to get up and walk. Her son, a farmer, gave up his farming to attend to his mother.
The blood of Alapong Tasya and Lolo Thomas runs in my veins, making me one-fourth Igorot. It is a heritage I am very proud of.