your accent’s pretty good, actually. you sound just like everyone trying to put on a british accent.
that’s a pretty good impression of james.
jay and i had agreed to meet at 9.30pm at the bus station, but at past 7pm, i was locked in the office still, while the little assistant secretary laid down some confidential cards on the table, like a tactician gripped by the immense power of his delegated authority. earlier, alvin had said that he would be telling me something “that would change my life forever”, and i initially thought it would involve some money. turns out that the life-changing things had to do with a lot more responsibility, and i knew right then that i was the least interested in changing anything about my life. i had already missed out on an entire week at the gym working on some “top secret” paper work for the department, and given the less-than-sufficient salary i was receiving, i most definitely was not liking it.
so finally, i got home at a little after 8pm, and had less than 30 mins to pack for my three-day trek to the ifugao villages with jay. yet again, the two of us were by our lonesome selves, since no one among our friends were keen on embarking on what had been described as a “nerd hike.” of course, this was not to be considered a dent in the trip, and may have made it a little more unique and special. what disappointed me really, was the fact that everyone could have grown by leaps and bounds from the experience, but their lack of interest in the cultural exploration was just too telling of their ordinary inclinations.
when i reached autobus along españa at a quarter to 10pm, i hopped on the first bus bound for banaue. turns out that my least favorite common carrier had scheduled three trips for the day in consideration of the long weekend, and jay was nowhere to be found. instead, he was still outside, grinning from ear to ear because of my little faux pas. rex and amy of sierra were also there. they were headed for sagada.
i had a hard time trying to get some sleep on the bus since the destination felt a little like antartica. to quote akiko thompson, these cordillera-bound buses can at times feel like freezing coffins on wheels. fortunately though, there was nothing along the stretch of highway to delay the trip, and we arrived in banaue at 7am on the dot. we arranged for our jeepney ride to batad, and before long, we were winding through the perilous dirt road at the far end of the terraces, sharing the roof with some young koreans.
we arrived at the batad saddle at around 9.30, and i suggested that since we were more than a couple of hours ahead of schedule, we might as well have breakfast before we started descending to batad proper. with the ominous silhouette of mt amuyao pasted in the background, i went about preparing an easy fix of tuna omelet and aromatic rice: something i was not sure how to prepare. just before 11, we began our short hike to the barangay center, and throughout this trip, the famed terraces of batad were nowhere in sight, and i had doubts whether it would be anything like the pictures i’ve seen.
batad’s rice terraces, it turns out, are like secret charms, hidden from common view, enclosed by the tall brooding shoulders of surrounding mountains, and only accessible through a winding footpath, which requires some degree of determination, though not necessarily a lot of physical stamina. it is this appreciable degree of inaccessibility which makes batad a tad more special than the many tired destinations around banaue. the view of the well-kept terraces, which appear like long green flights of a semi-circular staircase, snapped me from the droning boredom of the 40 minute trek downhill. wow should have more letters in it, because looking at the terraces from the viewpoint, i could not utter anything more than that staid, but appropriate monosyllabic expression. i have seen rice terraces before, as they are a common sight in the mountainous regions of the cordilleras where i have ventured on many a trip in the past, but there is nothing quite like the majesty of batad. thus reduced to a dribbling buffoon, jay and i made arrangements to shack at hillside inn. we could not have chosen a better place to spend the night, since the window of our room afforded a fantastic, unimpeded view of the terraces below, like a framed picture with amazing depth.
at the inn, we met four people with whom we spent our days in the ifugao villages: jill, a lawyer from alaska, who like me has a background in creative writing, derick, a local guide who once made a living as a folk singer in baguio, chris, a canadian who has family living in dasmariñas village in makati, and james, a bloke who hails from brighton.
jill lives quite an interesting life. 38 years young, she works in child advocacy in anchorage, 8 months in any given year. the rest of the year is spent traveling, 2 months at any given time. this ingenious concept is what they call job-sharing, and her yearly vacations have taken her to most of southeast asia and south america. she does not quite like europe, and is already thinking of discovering africa and subcontinental india. jay met her at the canteen below while i sneaked in an hour of sleep in our room. she just made the pula to batad hike the previous day with derick, and jay was anything but not amazed.
that same afternoon, we decided to hitch with jill in her guided trek to tappia falls. we walked through the narrow trails on the edge of the terraces, which have been fortified with cement. the increase of traffic, and the introduction of newfangled shoes with slip-resistant soles, make for contributors in the degradation of the ancient riprap of the terraces. nonetheless, walking through these trails imbues one with a sense of how life must have been many a year ago, when batad was still free of the intrusion of strangers, when electricity was a far-fetched notion, and the homes were still traditional huts standing on stilts. now, there are rusting upturned pails or biscuit tin boxes on top of these houses, and more and more houses are resorting to the lure of concrete, galvanized iron, and processed wood. power had just been introduced only last december 27, 2004, and the first television had just been hand delivered to simon’s. i am happy that i managed to experience batad while only a few things have changed. i can only imagine that like an unwelcome visitor, change of the worst kind will plow through the old village, down to the terraces, all the way to the hidden tappia falls, which we reached in less than an hour.
derick was busy explaining many of the things around us, although his pace was decidedly quick, and we breezed through the clump of houses smack in the middle of the roofless green coliseum. pretty soon, we were led behind the terraces, where tappia pours powerfully into a chilly basin. it took a while before i even deigned to wet any part of my body above my knees. although batad’s climate is very much unlike sagada’s, tappia’s waters match that of the big falls.
we returned to our inn just before the sun disappeared, and a dark cloak descended upon batad. despite the introduction of electricity, only the inns and a couple of houses are lit by anything beyond gaslights. as the night grew deeper, we were informed that our plans of reaching cambulo through the terraces weren’t possible. at the first light of february the 26th, the elders will conduct a ritual to pray for good harvest. from the scant information i gathered, a pig would be slaughtered, and it is officially a holiday for everyone, and no one will be allowed to walk through the terraces. as jay and i mulled our options, we had dinner with jill at rita’s. the usual fare was served, and it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the view or the experience. there is a peculiar absence of meat on the menus. despite that, dinner was great, as jill told us about her trips, her life, and her so far amazing experience in my country.
in the morning, we were up early, having decided to reach cambulo from kinakin. it had more than doubled the hike, but jay and i are used to having missing cogs in our wheels, and although there was nothing pretty about the unpaved road being built to connect cambulo to the rest of banaue, we had decided this was not going to be a hindrance to completing our ifugao villages trek. although we started out the hike with james and chris, they were quickly out of sight. being a lot taller, each had a pair of longer legs which made giant strides, compared to the little steps we took. add to that the fact that my bag was greatly exaggerated, it was certain that we’d be far behind. surprisingly, i still managed to fill my bag with 50 liters of not necessarily the bare necessities.
before long, the wide road funneled into a foot trail. a payloader was parked where the road ended, and judging from the still great distance we walked to reach the barangay proper, cambulo is far from becoming less remote. this, however, did not deter sister delia of the carmelite sisters from proselytizing the locals. she has been here for the better part of 30 years. “this is where God put me,” she said, as she rested her “complaining feet” in the shed, peacefully watching the sleepy community down below. she offered the keys to her house, but we declined, and headed off for a place where we could possibly prepare lunch.
shortly, i found myself outside sister delia’s home. jay was at least 20 mins behind, having to perform a detour because of some dogs. james and chris were already devouring lunch at the cambulo friends inn. we ordered some rice, and had jay’s chicken nuggets. they were on their way to being inedible, but it was much better than the limited choices that were available. softdrinks were sold at P35 a pop, but there was nothing shocking about this. “i won’t be surprised if they sold it for P50 each,” i remember james declaring.
james... james woodward, not bond (although the accent’s pretty close), is a young man from brighton who says he works so he can travel. i was not inquiring enough to ask where he works and how much he earns in order to afford to go on extended tours each year, proclaimed that he fell in love with the philippines even before he visited it, having read the “lonely planet” guide to the philippines twice. and i felt that with the way he said it, he was being very honest, because james was not the typical foreigner trying to be coy and diplomatic with a local when the subject of the latter’s country became the subject of conversation just to please him. he’d say it sucks if it in fact did, as he did when he tried out the salted egg i served for breakfast the following day.
the two white guys started for pula earlier than jay and i did. and with their pace, they had disappeared rather quickly, lost in the winding trails of the carved mountainsides. hiking to pula is a pleasant experience, although it is also too close to danger to be taken lightly. one just cannot admire the scenery while hiking, because a misstep can send one plunging 15 feet down to a muddy grave. in order to appreciate the upland rural views, one should make a full stop in order to look around. james sampled the peril in the terraces early on when he slipped, fell on his right arse, wounded his knee, and scratched his leg all the way to near his hip. jay placed some bandages on the small wound the night we reached pula.
after a while, when some women said that pula was just around the bend, i was expecting to see another clump of houses resting on a flat surface. instead, i saw still distant bunches of homes, none of which seemed abuzz with any activity. a few terraces below, chris and james stood, waiting for some locals to go up. when they met us, they said that the young boys informed them that pula was the few collection of old houses in the far yonder, perched on the slope of the leaning mountain. “half of me is saying that these guys are lying, and that pula is actually over there,” james said, pointing to what the locals referred to as tao (pronounced tahw). in spite of the brit’s doubts, we walked uphill, trudged several flights of stairs, and came face to face with locals bearing either guns or spears.
we found pula eventually, and the famed cham-ag bentican, sitting on a bench with his legs folded in front of his chest. we made arrangements to stay at his house, and while we waited for darkness, we headed for the basketball court nearby to play with the kids. initially, there was some resistance from the wily little angels. they pranced about unwilling to have their pictures taken. but they gaily poked at my butt, flicked james’s cap, and were all too excited to see their images captured on the little LCDs of the digital cameras that everyone save myself had brought. we knew not a single word of the language they spoke, but we had quite a lot of fun, and i was rather amazed that these two caucasians seemed to enjoy the time with the children. i suppose they weren’t as jaded as i had imagined.
after dinner, where i shared my sour teriyaki pork with the two strangers, i discovered that they each are very interesting individuals with a passion for discovery. james has been in the philippines since january the 5th, and had been to as far as siquijor, leyte, cebu, bohol, and many other places. that night, having made a few miscalculations, he was down to his last hundred pesos. chris, on the other hand, is from chilly halifax. he is tall, and looks very much like a pretty boy peeled right off any generic glossy fashion magazine. he’s been in the country for over 3 weeks, shacking with his aunt in makati. he had laser eye surgery here which he is very satisfied with. it was an evening of stories and ideas, shared amongst four individuals who were as much of a stranger to each other as the person who sits beside you on the bus. nonetheless, we had many things to talk about, and i joined them in puffing through a few joints of hashish. james explained that ordinarily, weed would be a mix of uppers or downers, but hashish, which is the hardened secretions of the plant, and resembles a charred piece of wood or a very black, flat piece of stone, is supposed to have nothing but uppers. james carefully shaved the hashish onto the joint, and before long, my voice was the only audible thing in a radius of 100 feet. after realizing this, i ended up whispering the rest of the night, until we slept.
the following morning, i prepared breakfast, and at a little after 7am, we prepared to leave. we had a photo taken with cham-ag, and after looking at the preview on the screen, we could not help but feel that it looked exactly like the one the old man has had taken with many other tourists who’ve been down this way many many years ago. cham-ag probably spends an entire day looking out on the hills beyond, lamenting the fact that old age has prevented him from hiking 5 hours away to banaue. at least for him, little has changed, and “there’s a lot of comfort in that,” james correctly observed.
we started our departure with some locals on their way to the poblacion, mostly high school students returning for the resumption of classes. to reach the first shed, jay and i had to struggle through an uphill and very exposed trek. but throughout those 45 minutes, the view was unwavering in its magnificence. rays of white light pierced the thick clouds hovering around pula, and it reminded me once again of how painful it is to say goodbye to a place filled with so much wonder.
from the shed, the trek is generally rolling, though no less challenging. danger was abundant, but so was a lot of beauty. by the time we had reached the last shed at the border of barangay viewpoint, the two white guys had left a rather thoughtful message on the trail. “hello dave + jay” the pieces of sticks said, and i chuckled, realizing that i had an entirely different idea about these guys.
after about 4 and a half hours, we reached awon-igin, the PNP detachment on the national highway leading to bontoc, and there hitched a ride back to the market. we had lunch at cool winds canteen, and as jay correctly observed, i put my savvy negotiating skills to work in order to get a free bath. since i was having liquidity issues, i suggested that we head off to solano so i can make a withdrawal. from there, we took a bus bound for manila. i think we may have saved around 2 hours, and i was back home before 1.30am.
bollocks. big hairy bollocks.
photo credits: jay raymund e. jallorina and alman dave o. quiboquibo