Friday, December 26, 2008


In memory of my cousin Joel.  Here is the full text of Sagada Gothic.  Still perhaps one of the best non-fiction stories I have read in my life.  A poignant story that highlights how religious and cultural differences, alienation, the pain of keeping terrible secrets and the lack of a support system could lead to very bad choices. 

SAGADA GOTHIC by Joel Tesoro

“When I walk through a cemetery I always stay away from the fresh graves,” a friend once told me. In a big city graveyard, where the sheer number of the dead grants them a kind of anonymity, such talk seems just a superstition. But in a small, misty mountain town of 12,000 people, seven hours from the nearest major city, her words seemed more like a warning.

Small-town graveyards are uncomfortably intimate. On its crosses and tombstones, the same family names reappear. Small-town graveyards have traces of presences. Pots of day-old flowers make the graves seem cared for, frequently visited. When someone in the community goes into the ground, everyone knows about the death: the whys, the hows and the legacies of it. And if the death was particularly disturbing, small-town graveyards are also where those secrets are buried.

In Sagada’s hilltop cemetery, Donni “Cadiog” Cadiogan’s grave marker did not look like any of the others. His grave was fresh, not more than a few months old. The border between the turned soil and the rest had yet to be overgrown, so a long, rectangular border could still be seen glinting through the grassy loam. And there were a couple of things that seemed off about his simple wooden cross painted with a gay blue sky and flowers. The first was the cryptic, bitter epitaph painted on the back:

“It gives you real respect for the truth when you have to clean up lives that have been based on a lie. Think about it. Donni”

The second was the span between the dates on the front: June 26, 1980 — September 3, 2002. He had died at 22, an age so young his life was barely lived.
To die at that age is to die tragically.

The town of Sagada snakes along a U-shaped ridge high in the mountains of the Philippine Cordillera. A picket-fence picturesque Episcopal compound — solid grey church, charming clapboard rectory, and white-washed hospital — anchors one end, while a line of iron-roofed houses trail down the road like upright scales on a lizard’s back. Compared to congested Baguio, stagnant Bontoc and dying Banaue, Sagada’s still-clear air and still-bright light continue to attract both artists and tourists, who think they see in its pine-clad hills and its picturesque funerary traditions a world that no longer exists, even deep in the Luzon interior.

From the other side of the cross-crowned hill above the cemetery, called — naturally — Calvary, you can see the craggy, ragged edge of a gully outsiders call Echo Valley but locals dub the Valley of the Dead. In the days before the Reverend Staunton introduced the people of Sagada to his Jesus and his Bible, the Aplay tribe stored their ancestors here in wooden coffins inside caves carved by an underground river or anchored by nails, like paintings, on the sheer cliff faces.

Isolated it may be, but Sagada has never been immune to change and progress. Although known as a tourist town and an artist’s retreat, the community’s main source of income, as in elsewhere in the Philippines, are its children working overseas, who send money to the town’s lone Western Union office to build the cinder-block homes now sprouting on the crumpled land around and above the town’s plaza. The sound of hammers striking nails or saws slicing wood reverberates through Echo Valley as often as the shouts of visitors testing the strength of their voices off the hardness of the high stone. Two decades ago, this town had neither electricity nor running water. Townspeople had to line up at the pump, and no one had a freezer. Now, in a building behind St. Joseph’s Resthouse, an office on the third floor can keep its air-conditioning switched on 24 hours, while a karaoke bar begins entertaining from early in the morning until the edge of the 9:00 P.M. curfew. Tourists have cracked stalagmites off the caves as souvenirs or have raided the coffins for morbid trinkets. And children litter the grounds of the Episcopal compound with plastic leavings.

But still, modernity seemed to have left this small town untouched enough for suicide to be so rare that it was unthinkable. Suicide wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t happen in Sagada. Even the rectory’s boarder, that writer from Manila, when he heard Donni’s crazed shouts echo from the valley beyond the cemetery, never thought that the silence that followed was anything more than the kid falling into a drunken sleep, or deciding to go back home to his mother and sister. And when it happened, the town just shrugged its collective shoulders and blamed his death on drugs or madness. His aunt would point out to curious visitors a black-and-white photograph of Echo Valley, and say, with a lopsided smile on her face, “There, that’s where he jumped.” It was as if, for Sagada’s old-timers, what happened to Donni was both inexplicable but yet, on hindsight, the natural end to his troubled existence.
Yet blame is never easy to pin, when it comes to a suicide. Donni didn’t fit, not even in the way the tourists, the artists or the other Sagada transients who came up here for the light and the air were misfits. He vibrated at a different frequency. He was, first of all, less than a full-blooded Sagadan. Nearly six feet tall and wolfishly good-looking, Donni cut a figure in town that proclaimed his mixed background.

Eighteen years before she returned to Sagada, his mother met an Indian in Italy. Donni and his sister were the product of that coupling. The couple settled in the U.S. illegally and raised their children in Las Vegas. In that place in the desert where, as nowhere else in the U.S., the tinkle of fortune and opportunity is both so strong and so treacherous, Donni’s mother found religion. When Donni’s father died, she brought her family back to her hometown so she could be a missionary. She dedicated herself to supplanting the spirit worship of her ancestors and the Episcopal Church which succeeded it with the fervor of her small Christian sect the name of which no one in Sagada had thought important enough to remember. Her problem was that her mission church could only pay her a small stipend; she and her children had to live off the generosity of the very relatives she sought to woo away from Sagada’s congregation.

Her children, naturally, were not raised to understand Sagada traditions, which might be wearing a pair of jeans and a tattered T-shirt but was still underneath all that the customs of the mountains. The move from Nevada to Sagada left Donni confused and puzzled. He couldn’t have known, when he accepted an idle dare and whacked a chicken with a badminton racket, that the cock happened to be a Besao farmer’s dearest possession. And that his town had to repay his affront with several pigs and a thousand apologies. He didn’t understand that his youthful swagger, so normal in America, would be so out of place in a town where age and respect required deference. Yet for the first few years, all was forgiven. He was the town’s golden boy, co-coach of the local St. Mary’s School soccer team and then captain of the basketball squad at the prestigious Brent School in distant Baguio. His wide smile left local girls going to bed dreaming one day of marrying him.

If Donni smoked dope or just drank — which he did anyway — the town might still have accepted him. One of Sagada’s main attractions for both artists and tourists is that it is a major distribution point for marijuana grown in the Cordillera. To the townsfolk, cannabis is as much a cash crop as lettuce or tomatoes. You can stay less than a day before someone will offer you a bag of pollen or a sphere of rolled hash the size of a golf ball. You don’t have to go very far; in some places, you can toke up from the hotel receptionist. With so much of the stuff, not many in town actually smoke it. Most of the men prefer to get soused on rounds of rum at Auntie Graal’s Shamrock Cafe before the bell sounds the curfew.

No one knows, however, when Donni first encountered shabu. He might have picked it up from Brent in Baguio, that school where Manila society infamously tossed their young when they were, ah, too much trouble. It might even have come to him in Sagada itself, up the road from Bontoc, just like the daily papers. However he found it, the drug soon possessed him. Metamphetamine hydrochloride. Its name seemed so lowland, so foreign — a cheap, nasty drug that makes you feel like a god when you take it and a devil when you’re down but which in the end only reminds you of your mortality.

Once he picked up the shabu vibe, Donni, in the eyes of Sagada, went from youthful hope to cautionary fable. He dropped out of two colleges in Baguio. He tried rehab, but his mother took him home before the end of his treatment. It was unclear if she did it because she pitied his suffering or because she thought he’d do better in the clear air higher in the mountains. Her motives were pure. But in Sagada Donni only got lost even deeper.

Penniless, he wandered the streets, looking for a toke or a swig from someone’s bottle. Sometimes he’d get on the bus to Baguio or Manila, and return to Sagada with no hint of what he had done or seen on his bender. He still slayed girl’s hearts — but now their mothers kept their daughters away from him. The other boys in the town thought him a little too dangerous. Donni slipped into a class of his own. Nobody stayed with him. Even the German girl he called his girlfriend lingered for only a few days before leaving the town. Without him.

He could not make long-lasting relationships with the trekkers and the tourists who came up for the hiking and the hash. But for a brief while, Donni found friends in the local artists’ community: the potters, painters and writers that, like plants, loved Sagada for its good air and its good light. Donni said he wanted to learn how to paint. One of the artists, a mutt like him — half-Filipino, half-American, agreed to teach him. Together they colored the bright checkerboard sign that hung above Donni’s cousin’s restaurant. They signed both their names underneath it.

Yet if for the townsfolk, Sagada was all about community and tradition, for the artists, the mountains were about solitude and surroundings. They had their own creativity to manage; none of them really had the time to be the best friend, mentor or parent to a young misfit the town could not or would not handle. When, how or if Donni realized that will probably remain forever a mystery. What is certain is that on a September afternoon, Donni went around to see his friends, his mentors. He wanted to bum a smoke, to hang out, to chill, to light up a doobie. His erstwhile mentor, a mutt like him but continents of difference between them, told him he was busy. Donni might then have tried other doors, other people. He ended up knocking on the door of the Manila writer at the rectory. He got the same message.

That night, Donni did not come home. He had told his mother he wanted to go swimming in one of the waterfall-fed pools around the town. She had a twinge of doubt — something tipped her off about his intentions — but there was no way she could have kept him. And sometime that night, after 6:40 PM, one of the artists who fancied herself a psychic turned to Donni’s cousin and whispered: “He’s gone.”

The next day the town sent a search party after him. The guides swept through the Echo Valley. Someone called his former co-coach at St. Mary’s to bring out his rock-climbing equipment. They found his body at the base of a sheer cliff where the cemetery ended. His handsome jaw had broken open; bones poked out of his wrist. The town’s men carried Donni’s shattered 6-foot-tall body up in silence, while the wails of Sagada’s women rang through the gully.

After Donni’s suicide, many artists began leaving Sagada. In his shaky, broken eulogy in Sagada solid grey church, Donni’s erstwhile mentor blamed the town for the boy’s isolation and misery. He didn’t need to be a star basketball player at Brent, he told them, before you would come up to talk to him. Before he left, the painter decorated Donni’s cross; the epitaph was taken from the last words Donni had written in his diary.

Since his death, the townspeople say, Donni has been scaring students at St. Mary’s, which sits at the bottom of Calvary. Sometimes he will jump into the body of a student, who for a short, terrifying moment, will act and talk like him. Although Aplay tradition bans immediate relatives from leaving Sagada after a death in the family — to keep the departed spirit company, to observe the proper rituals — Donni’s mother and sister left immediately for Baguio. One student who went to his empty house suddenly felt desolately cold, achingly lonely.
The town elders talk: The coffins on the cliffs and the caves of Echo Valley, they explain, have a certain hierarchy. Those people in the community who have passed through all stages in life, from birth and childhood to adolescence and marriage to children and old age, get to be buried in coffins placed at the border between light and darkness: at the mouths of caves, or just under the cliff overhangs. Those who did not get to reach as far in life do not have as honored position in death; their wooden coffins sit in the depths of the caves, far in the darkness.

Ghosts tell us less about the afterlife than they do about this one. Their presence only tells us that emotions can be so powerful they last long after a life is over. Emotions that can anchor a soul — like anger and frustration at one’s inability to escape, isolation and loneliness in the middle of what should have been friends and family, perhaps even regret. Regret over the consequences of folding one’s clothes in a neat little pile, planting a bunch of plastic sunflowers beside them, and taking a soaring leap into the void over a valley of pines and tree ferns, falling first through the fading light of the evening, then down through the speckled shadow before hitting the darkness at the bottom of the valley.

Before I left Sagada, I met a man from Baguio who had lived in this mountain town for four years in the 1980s. “It’s a nice place,” he said. “Just don’t stay too long.” A small town has a small culture, he later explained. I understood him. If you don’t fit — or mis-fit — in ways the town recognizes, then you are really nowhere.

For visitors like me, Sagada could always present me with that choice: to love it or leave it. After all, we have other lives, other places to which we could return and perhaps to which we could belong. But for Donni, for whom small Sagada — not Baguio or Las Vegas or India — was supposed to be home but never ever felt like it, he did not have that choice.

He chose anyway.