surviving sagada's curse

one of the topics of conversation while we were dining in alapo's was my low regard of people who wear t-shirts declaring that they've survived sagada. i recently posted a link on my facebook wall about some of the world's toughest survivors, where i disparagingly said that those t-shirts are both hilarious and stupid, because sagada is a tourist town, and there is hardly anything there so close to danger that leaving it unscathed or at the very least, alive, qualifies you as a survivor. after all, even though the cave connection could potentially entomb you if you're too fat to fit through the crevices, or the pool at big falls could freeze you to death or at least until your balls fall off, sagada is still very tame, particularly now that about 90% of the road from baguio is paved.

indeed, it is with good intention that the local authorities are fixing the seldom-traveled roads leading to this mountain town. but when you find the main road from the municipal hall down to yoghurt house crowded by parked vehicles including sedans, you wonder how and when sagada started to boom. i can remember the last time i was here, and it was already bad, but not this bad. i first visited in 2002, alone, and have been going back regularly until 3 years ago, and i have seen the slow creep of sagada's success, which might also ultimately be its failure. i was drawn here once again because i helped put together the annual sagada backdoor climb. i've done the trek twice in the past, and have fanned interest with my glowing review of the experience.

but in the last few years, the groups that visited have either been delayed or gotten lost, either because the terrain has severely changed or the memories of the trail masters have been failing. i have gotten a little lost myself before, which just shows how confusing the trail going up to the smart tower in mt. pakdal really is. but it was with a lot of enthusiasm that i helped some fellow mountaineers organize this hike. of course it could not have been made possible without the participation of kuya mar, who is one of the last remaining authorities on the trail, having blazed it over a decade ago. but kuya mar had another idea: he asked me if it was possible for us to start our trek in bagnen. of course it was, in theory, but i had no idea at all how to get there from baguio. and this resulted in our spending much more than what we should have. apparently, in order to get to bauko, the bus to tadian or even the ones that go to besao, sagada, and bontoc would do. the junction to bauko, sumadel and tadian is just along halsema, and this is where we got off to take a jeepney to bagnen proper.

but getting there proved to be such a chore. because of our ignorance, and the fact that the folks at the dangwa bus station were not in the least helpful, we decided to hire a van that would take us to bauko, from where we'd figure out how we'd get to bagnen. halsema is a feat of primitive engineering. if the region were less prone to earthquakes and if a bigger budget had been allocated for it, tunnels could have been bored through mountains to cut travel time. but it just follows the mountains contours, and there are many sharp turns, and the road teeters on the edge of sheer drops. the crumbling mountainside continues to pose a threat to passing vehicles, as boulders might fall at the most inopportune times. but our misfortune was different. in one particularly crowded part of the highway, a dog crossed the road and decided to scratch its head midway, and although our driver honked his horn and tried to maneuver away from the dog, we ended up running over it. i had my eyes covered just before impact, and about 20 seconds afterwards, but i knew it was a direct hit because there was a solid thud and a disappearing cry of a helpless puppy.

our series of misfortunes would continue when during an incline, i heard another thud that forced us to stop which i thought was a tire burst, but one quick glance at the sidemirror showed that one of the van's tires was rolling down the road. i immediately jumped out of the van and chased the wayward tire because i feared it might roll all the way back to baguio and also because i thought it could be fixed. but what we found was astounding: all the bolts where you fit the slots of the tire were missing, as if they'd been sawed off. it was only much later that we realized our good fortune: if it had happened somewhere else, we could have fallen over a cliff. while the driver tried to find a replacement vehicle for us, we ended up eating at a roadside canteen which served really huge plates of chicken and pork.

getting to bagnen was another tricky business. we transferred to a jeepney which was swarming with flies that accompanied its earlier cargo: meat. apparently, the driver wasn't so sure about the way, so we wasted about half an hour on the wrong road. bagnen is usually where we have lunch when the trek is started in tadian. but that would mean arriving in sagada when the sun had already set. mar was hoping we would all be there by lunch time. so we shaved off the pleasant walk through tadian's forests and began with a stroll just outside the junction. on our way, we picked up a lady who pointed to us other potential hiking spots for future reference: mt. polis rises just outside of bagnen oriente, and a dirt road girds its way to bagnen proper. it's really quite surprising to see how much has changed since the last visit. when we started the trek, a lady asked where oca was.

it would become a rather short walk to the campsite, and aptly so because the sun was setting by the time we reached balintaugan. people kept pointing us to the easier route to sagada, the one that takes you through a road in ambasing, going past the fringes of suyo. but we wanted a more challenging way: through the forest, up mt. pakdal, down ampacao, and then sagada. what adventurers we are! i would have preferred to camp just outside the gutang primary school, but mar cautioned us that we might disturb the local community, so we headed into the woods to find an appropriate spot to pitch our tents. amid slender pine trees and a forest floor littered by needles and cones, we built our nylon city, and as the waning gibbous poured moonshine over the forest, we began to uncork poisons and prepare dinner.

i had a simple menu which consisted of a sardine miswa soup, bistek tagalog, minced pork and eggplant, which went very well with a steaming pot of perfect rice. some bruised egos had to be massaged as well, so we had extraordinary alcohol on the table: johnnie walker black, johnnie walker red, jack daniel's, and stolichnaya. by 7PM we were already done eating and were already girding for an evening under the wispy cover of pine trees, the recently full moon, and a somber sky that did not affect the mood at the campsite. TL manny was naked despite the chilling wind, the girls were prostrate on the forest floor screaming, and our guest was profuse with gratitude he'd been invited to join the trek. i was hoping i was just as chirpy, but i normally don't need to imbibe anything to do that. i was among the last to sleep, after helping mar sleep under our parawing and assisting our guest regurgitate our dinner into a pancake that looked like corned beef. the following morning, i woke up because my feet were too cold.

we prepared breakfast while sunshine rained on sherwood forest. before 10AM, we left for the smart tower, hoping mar's trail skills would be intact. he remembered correctly that there would be a fork somewhere and that we should turn right. unfortunately we took too early a right and ended up wondering where we were. we found the trail again and followed it and ended up deep in the forest with a view to besao. we decided to backtrack and i immediately broached the idea of getting a kid from balintaugan to help us find the way. so we sped back to the village and picked up a willing volunteer who was accompanied by 3 dogs. he pointed out that the igorots had hacked trail signs onto the trees: there were in fact arrows pointing to the village from the tower on the summit of pakdal, which we found immediately after we emerged from the forest. on our right was suyo, in the distant left besao, and just ahead: the same tower that you see anywhere in sagada.

we went down sagada after 2PM, followed the dirt road towards ambasing and hiked to yoghurt house for a very late lunch. it now has an upstairs floor, orders don't take an hour to prepare, but lacks the intimate, shoehouse feel it used to have. after we allowed some UP students to delay us with their thesis requirements, we walked up to alapo's, which is just beside st. joseph. we tried to get reservations with log cabin, but it was apparently already fully booked since 2 weeks prior. i ended up straining my voice singing power ballads until very late at night. the following day we decided not to queue for the few bus trips that the lizardo lines offered, but instead decided on hiring a van back to baguio, so we could take our friends to see echo valley and the cemetery. on our way back, i sat in front of the van and would step on an imaginary brake pedal when a dog was nearby. i'm not sure whether that negligent act of animal cruelty had influenced the series of misfortunes that attempted to put a dent on this sagada backdoor climb. but i was determined to make sure that there would be no repeat of the curse of the sagada backdoor climb. eventually, someone else will be bringing more people here. i hope one of those few will be me.