Trials and tribulations in Northern Luon
05.12.2013 - 12.12.2013
A dose of reality is what I wished for, a dose of reality is what I got.
It's four in the morning and I'm on a night bus, sitting wide awake and bolt upright. The lights are on and a violent DVD is being broadcast at full volume. It is in competition with music blaring from a smartphone in the lap of a guy across the aisle from me. He is fast asleep of course. My fellow passengers and I are dressed as if we are off to the Arctic. There are many regulars on the journey, travelling home for the weekend, each have got the Eskimo look down to a tee. Layer upon layer of sweaters, coats and fluffy blankets. Scarves wound tightly around their heads, desert nomad style, with only a slit for their eyes. I am jealous of them. I knew it was going to be Baltic and thus am wearing almost the entire content of my rucksack; two pairs of trousers, my two tops, my fleece and a raincoat. My beach sarong is tied like a wide belt across my middle region in an attempt to stop cold air sneaking in. But even so, it is a poor defence against the biting cold of the overenthusiastic air conditioning. In desperation I resort to tying a small towel around my legs. It is normally used for wiping off sweat. I hug my daypac to my chest as if my life depended on it. The hood of my fleece and raincoat are both up, over which I place my eye mask. Fluorescent orange ear plugs complete the look. Travel is not a glamorous occupation.
Many years ago, after a succession of similar nightmarish journeys, I made a promise to myself I would never, ever make another night bus journey. I had kept true to that promise for about fifteen years, a decision which created considerable inconvenience and hassle to many of my travel plans. However to get Banaue, my next destination, a night bus was the one and only option. And so I endured a horrible day of extended travel; involving a ferry from Siquijor to Damaguette, a plane from Damaguette to the dreaded Manila and an expensive taxi journey across Manila to a bus terminal which resembled a small refugee camp. This was followed by a tedious five hour wait before the departure hour of 11 pm. Banaue had better be worth it.
When I step off the bus at 7.15 a.m I have to resist a strong urge to jump back on again. It feels like a different country to the one I have just come from. It is wet, cold and utterly miserable, like Ireland on a depressing day in Mid February. The road and pavement resemble a murder scene, splattered with dark reddish brown blotches, I guess it's the spit people produce when they chew beetle nut. People look poorer, leaner, longer haired, mountainy. Many have lips and teeth stained vibrant red by chewing betel nut, something they call momma here From a purely visual perspective, it feels like I could be in India or Nepal, not 'it's more fun in the Philippines'.
At times like this, I have a need to retreat to a warm cosy bed and sleep myself into oblivion. Given this was a day when reality was striking back, the nice places in town were all full and it took me about an hour before I found a place to rest my weary head. A head full of snot I might add; sniffles developed during the bus journey had developed at exponential speed into a full blown head cold. Typical. Although my home for the following few days was quite pretty, it had a strange vibe and a reasonably shitty location beside the chaotic bus station and market area. As It was market day, the busiest day of the week, my attempt to sleep and recover from the horror of the night before was done to the sound of revving engines, drilling, banging, shouting and non stop 1980s soft rock classics. Let me explain. The Filipinos are into karaoke in a very big way. If you are Filipino ( as opposed to Irish or British), you don't need to be drunk, nor does it need to be dark in order for karaoke crooning to take place. It's like putting the kettle on for a cup of tea, it's always the right time, although I think seven thirty in the morning was the earliest my ear drums were assaulted by it. Much to my surprise, I was remarkably accepting of the racket going on around me. I felt it created a tiny bit of balance after three weeks of happy go lucky sunny island life.
When I eventually got up to go explore, Banaue felt really really depressing. Sure it was raining, wet and muddy, strewn with litter and murky red splodges. Sure the town was a miserable collection of half built, raggletaggle buildings a million miles away from photogenic.No problem. But there was something else that got to me, something much less tangible, like a heavy fog of soul destroying negative energy. This feeling was no doubt influenced by the hoards of locals who called themselves 'guides'. Every ten seconds you'd be stopped, " do you want to make a tour?". They were poor and desperate so I'd smile and give them a polite but definite no thank you. One after the other, after the other, after the other. The same happened in the cold and dreary cafés each evening. A constant low level harassment from glassy eyed men, too drunk or stoned to pick up on my 'stay away from me' vibes. It was horrible.
The irony was that I did indeed need to make a tour. The reason I and many other tourists come to godforsaken Banaue is to travel out to the famous rice terraces of Batad. I hold out for two days, hoping for the rain to clear, but on the morning of day 3 I give up and find myself a driver. He is nice; straightforward and not stoned. I am happy. But the road is in a terrible state and the muddy conditions mean the tricycle regularly gets stuck in the quagmire. I have to get out to push on various occasions.I am not happy. It takes a bone rattling hour to make it to what is called the saddle and I then dismount and am directed to a set of stone steps which are to to lead me steeply downward to the tiny village of Batad.
The rain has turned to mizzle which means I am less wet than expected, but I can't really see anything. The descent is steep and quite precarious; it's wet, muddy and slippy and there is nothing to hold on to. I continue my mantra of cursing myself for choosing to come up here to Northern Luzon, such a waste of my time and energy. Forty five minutes later I turn a corner and suddenly there they are, the rice terraces of Batad. Woweeee, and I don't say that very often. I am really really impressed and that doesn't happen very often either. I immediately regret not coming here to stay here for a few days, or even for the night. In reminds me of the time I went trekking in Nepal, carrying my own stuff and sleeping at night in little ' tea houses' , places of rest where the word basic took on a whole new meaning. However the overall experience was pure magic. I just can't get over the beauty of Batad, but alas I don't have long to soak it up as a long and sweaty climb back up to the saddle awaits me.
The next morning I am jumping out of my skin with excitement. I am leaving town. As each mile passes the heavy greyness eases just a little bit more and by the time I reached Bontoc, only two hours away, the sky is brilliant blue and it's scorching. I make a quick detour to the museum to learn about burial practices in the region, knowledge I'm keen to learn before I get to my next destination. I learn a lot more than I was expecting; these people I am with now, here in the Cordilleras are the Igorots; people of the mountains, fiercely independent, fanatical headhunters and resistors of assimilation into the Spanish Empire for three centuries. The area is one of the few places in the Philippines which has preserved its indigenous culture with little Spanish influence. Respect is due.
In Bontoc I crawl onboard a cramped jeepney which will take me to Sagada. Everyone under the age of thirty are sitting on the roof. In the main body of the truck its me, some mums with young children and a shed load of old men and women. I find many of the old women extremely beautiful, stunning in fact, never mind a tad stylish. We are in the middle of the mountains, in the back of beyond, what is going on?The road twists and turns, higher and higher; startling blue skies above, lush vegetation to the left and right, sculptured rice terraces scattered hither and tither. The conditions are so cramped on the jeepney that pins and needles in my feet spread up my entire legs and lower body. When we eventually stop, my lower body is no longer under my control. Much to the amusement of the older contingent, I make a complete fool of myself trying to descend from the truck, dragging my dead legs behind me. I brace myself for another onslaught of aggressive guides, but instead I descend into a scene of calm.
Sagada is gorgeous. It is on an elevated position high in the mountains, but looking down and through other valleys, speckled with small agricultural villages. The light is that bright, vibrant, clear light that you get at high altitude, the air similarity clear and invigorating. The town itself is incredibly pretty and surprisingly orderly; lots of little neat and tidy tin houses with coloured roofs, surrounded by family vegetable plot and rice paddies, backed up by lush vegetation. For some reason it reminds me of Monteverde in Costa Rica. I later learn that the town benefitted hugely from the dedication of the Reverend John Staunton, a 20th century American engineer/priest/ missionary who applied American frontier town zeal to Sagada, building sawmills, kilns and mines, developing state of the art (at the time) infrastructure such as roads, dams and an electricity network. The town remains staunchly Anglican, the only such place in Catholic Crazy Philippines.
My home for the next few days is the Sagada home-stay, a wooden type chalet of the Swiss Alps variety. It is spotlessly clean and cosy and at 300 pesos (a fiver) a night, is the best bargain in the Philippines. It has a little balcony which looks out over the valley and I sit there contently for many hours, sipping away at a bottle of the local syrupy fruit wine, enjoying the cool mountainy air. There is a little fire pit below, used by visiting Filipinos and a bunch of lively backpackers, game for a round of bawdy drinking games. It is soooooooooooo good to not be sweating.
I make some trips with local guides, accessed through the town's two tourist cooperatives. We come across loads of coffins on our travels, some piled up on top of each other inside caves, others actually hanging at a great height outside the cave. The coffins are short as the dead are placed in foetus position for their journey to the next world. As one might say, going out as you came in. At the museum on the previous day I had also learnt about a traditional death rite that was remarkably similar to the Irish wake. In Ireland the body of the recently deceased is returned to the family home for a few days in an open coffin. Everyone comes to pay their last respects, offer their support the the family and most importantly, consume enough tea and sandwiches to sink a small boat. The Filipinos are one step ahead. Or they were. In the 'olden days' the body was placed upright in a chair, often bound with ropes to keep them from falling over and placed in the middle of the house, enabling the deceased to have their final participation in family life, whilst family and friends came to say their goodbyes. I like it. I think!
Sagada is a limestone area and the countryside is littered with cave systems, many of them connected underground for miles and miles. For the adrenaline junkie there are many opportunities to spend hours underground; crawling on their bellies through tiny passages and holes, asphyxiation only tantalising moments away. Nora is a cowardly custard, sorry, is proud to be a cowardly custard and thus chose the least challenging of all the caving opportunities in the area, the Sumaguing caves. Nonetheless she is petrified.
To get a feel for the scene I want you to imagine one of those horrific shows on Tv, the ones where very obese people, in a desperate bid to loose weight, sign up to be publicly humiliated in various ways. One of the regular activities in these sadistic shows seems to the outdoor assault course, in which people with very large undercarriages are asked to crawl through small tunnels on all fours, scale sheer vertical planes on bits of rope, swing through trees, you get the idea. Well, my experience at the Sumaguing caves was a bit like that, except that it was underground. Thus except for the guide's oil lamp, it was done in the pitch dark. And there was no movement of air at all. And I was doing it (as directed) in a pair of flip flops. Flip flops which wouldn't stay put on my muddy feet, flip flops which sent me slipping and sliding on wet, slimy muddy rocks. I spent two hours clambering up rock faces, holding on for dear life, descending down again, praying to St Jude and swearing at the same time. Nine times out of ten I couldn't see where my foot was going next. Crawling through low tunnels commando style, lowering myself through tiny holes and descending into chest high water. My nerves were in tatters. Ropes were used to help me get up really really sheer rock faces, at maybe an 80 degree angle. It was utterly nightmarish and I was completely and utterly petrified. My guide was a gem; while he hardly spoke, he knew to be slow paced and patient with me. We stopped every few minutes in order to me to get my breath back and for my shaking to subside. Occasionally I had the strength to look up and take in the amazing rock formations all around. But not as often as I would have liked. They were something else. If anyone is reading this is planning to visit, don't let me put you off. For many, especially the young and fit, the trip is probably a dawdle. But for me, middle aged Nora, Nora with her poor balance, non existent upper body strength, a moderate fear of heights and lack of fitness, this was a tough call. The best bit being was returning to the surface, alive and in one piece. I was ecstatic; shaking, struggling for breath, soaked in sweat which stunk of fear, but ecstatic. I'd done it, faced another fear. I met a rather poo faced French man on the way back to town. He asked me how I felt. Glad to be alive I replied. He thought I was referring to a general Joie de vive. I meant it literally, happy to be alive, as opposed to dead.
On the way back into town I stop at a gorgeous little cafe, overlooking some nice rice terraces. I am a very happy bunny and am content to sit and ponder life over a huge pot of ginger tea and two obligatory slices of lemon meringue pie. The waitress is 16; glowing with life and curiosity as well a liberal sprinkling of Filipino naughtiness. We get into a mammoth conversation which leads, as it always does in Asia, to my status as a single woman. They say it nicely in the Philippines, " Only one? But where is your companion mam?". When I tell them I don't have one, they assume he is at home. When I say there is no one at home, no husband, no children, a look of torture comes over their faces. My waitress is besides herself with worry, "but who will take care of you when you are old?". I've heard that one many times before and have no answer to reassure her. She takes off into the kitchen and relays the whole story to her cousin, she is about 25 and has just had her first baby. The two of them come out and sit with me at the table. The younger one takes my hand and starts to stroke it. "We are so sad for you mam, so very very sad". I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Probably both would be appropriate.
I have a huge journey to make the next day, 12 hours minimum if the 4 different buses link up. Half way through I have a two hour break in Cervantes, a place where I don't think they see many tall white people with pointy noses. I am treated like a celebrity, with lots of staring, pointing and waving. I partake of Halo Halo, a bizarre Filipino concoction of shaved ice, condensed milk, pasta, beans, bits of jelly and coconut milk. It sounds oh so wrong, but tastes oh so right, except for the pasta. The lady at the stall looks incredulous as I eat, I wait for her to ask for my autograph. A few of the school children who have surrounded the stall give me a little cheer. I could take to celebrity-dom.
The next part of the journey takes me up through numerous mountain passes, verdant with tropical vegetation despite their altitude and then, eventually back down to the coast. I am struck by many of the villages en route; neat and tidy, free of litter and thoughtfully beautified by painted roadside decorations, potted plants and little shrines. Quite a number of them had set up really lovely, creative Christmas displays, often made with the local vegetation. I was impressed. There must be a strong sense of pride in their villages, as well as a community willing to contribute. At Tagudin, I leave the last eight hours of twisty turney mountain roads behind. This is where I connect with the National Highway, where I flag down one of the modern coaches which speed the 250 miles between Manila and Vigan. I'm famished and stop for a quick bite to eat. Three local men pounce on me, " Only one? but where is your companion mam?". Their replies to my "I don't have one" are totally pragmatic, such a contrast to the emotional responses from the day before. Two of the men suggest I take their phone number, which makes me laugh. The other asks my age and then suggests I am no longer marriage material, given my limited mileage for producing babies. Cheeky beggar.
I escape to a plush bus with leather seats and joy of joys, air con. The journey north is beautiful; to the left the South China Sea, to the right a broad plain of rice paddies hemmed in by long narrow brooding mountains. Northern Luzon has been astoundingly beautiful. I'm glad I came after all.