Only one beer starts true Philippino friendships.

Trip Start Aug 21, 2004
Trip End Sep 03, 2005

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Sunday, October 3, 2004

The thing about the Filipino people, aside from being one of the most friendly people I have come into contact with, is that they are (more often than not) in much better shape than I can ever hope to be in. The kinds of bodies that I've seen here can only be attributed either to a lifetime of hard labour, a definitive lack of McDonalds, or a natural genetic disposition for slimness, or a shrewd combination of all three. In any case, the roly-poly pudge I happen to carry around seems like, well, extra weight.

The reason why I bore you with this wonderful anecdote is that, when I last left you, I quickly scuttled off into jeepney towards a two-hour hike. In what had been described as 'somewhat grueling', the hike towards Batad seemed more of an attractant than a deterrent. The level of difficulty, at least as far as I understood it, would separate the men from the boys. Those 'wussy' and 'ungrooveresque' tourists would be discouraged, leaving only those with true 'backpacker-skills' the desire to climb the trail. As we were soon to discover, grueling climb mixed with morning sunshine can, and often does, result in 'toastification'. Oh, and by the way, putting words into quotes can legitimize their usage in the English dictionary. 'Right'.

As Jean-Michel and I trudged forward towards the base of the ascent, we were stopped shortly to plow our way through a recent (yet seemingly routinely occurring) mudslide. Looking down into the valley below, we were pleasantly reassured of our safety by the sight of a jeepney similar to the one we were in that had been hit by the slide. It was tossed harmlessly down the hillside only to become semi-submerged in the slop. I quickly prayed to my patron saint, St. Jebus of Seidleria, and thanks to his magical abilities we arrived at the base without being hit by a wall of mud and rocks. And I thought religion was a sham. Who knew!

Setting out with a few bottles of water and locally baked cinnamon buns in hand, we began our ascent up the (seemingly) 45 degree incline. My legs were burning like a cross at a KKK konvention. In many ways, this might have been the most physical activity my body has gone through in recent time. All that extra weight that I have already complained to you about that I was carrying around didn't help either. (Although Daniel will argue that I have never seen sweat in my life, the pictures attached will prove him wrong.) The arduous climb up was therefore only manageable because of my vast knowledge of Beatles and Michael Jackson lyrics. And when I say manageable, I mean for me, for those in the know would describe my singing voice as 'tolerable' at best.

One hour into the hike, we reached the peak. Relaxing at the adhoc outpost on the saddle of the trail, we were all too quickly approached by a local Filipino offering the best thing to catch our breaths- drugs. Not willing to miss an opportunity when I saw one, I quickly declined the offer and began to scarf the addictive substance I had already purchased- my tantalizing, hypnotic, and hallucinogenic cinnamon bun. And MAN did I get an awesome high (sugar related, I can promise). Pumped up full of glucose, I took a few photos, and quickly set off down the other face.

Before I describe our arrival into Batad, I must clarify to you readers why in Jebus' name would I trek 2 hours to a town with no running water, no sewage system, and no power. And no Dad, I did not do it just to build character. As it turns out, Batad is one of the locations in the world fortunate enough to be listed on the UNESCO world heritage list, thus protecting it from entering the 21st century, and preserving some sense of 'amazingness'(yes, I stole that word from Jordan). Batad in particular finds itself on the list as a result of its natural location at the base of an amphitheater of rice terraces. Please see the pictures for clarification. Oh, and there was supposed to be an awesome waterfall. We would have to see.

Marching down the path towards town (at a rather accelerated pace), Jean-Michel and I passed a rather dilapidated souvenir shop where we encountered what we would soon find out to be the only other tourists in the town. Noticing their rather peculiar Germanic accent, and how they would say merci in place of thank you to each other, I asked questioned their land of origin, knowing full well where these Alpenzeller-eating, Matterhorn climbing, cow tipping, Ricola yodeling Switzerlanders were from. After confirming my suspicions of Swissness, Jean-Michel and I continued off towards our destination- Batad.

Arriving at the HillTop Guesthouse, (apparently not to be confused with the Top of the Hill Guesthouse, nor the HillTopp Guest House, nor the On The Hillside, But Next To The Top Guesthouse), we were fortunate to have, what we would find out, our first stroke of good luck. Chatting with the owner, Romeo, he offered to give us a tour of the city, a trip to the waterfall, and introduce us to some locals. Um, sure?! Before the tour could begin, we checked into the spartan (as described by the Lonely Planet) hotel. Soon realizing the Swiss were after us (they soon checked into the same hotel), we set off on our way to the waterfall.

However, we were not destined to reach the waterfall that day; as we were walking through he city, Romeo introduced us to a local villager who owned one of the remaining traditional houses still intact. We were fortunate to be invited into this house, where he voluntarily explained this history of his family, demonstrated the traditional methods of sleeping, cooking and eating, and elucidated on how he actively seeked to retain the culture of the ancients alive. Although I found this conversation intriguing, Jean-Michel decided it was all too much for him and took a nap inside the traditional house. During this time, the conversation shifted to the elder's concerns of Christianity's impact on traditions, his views on religion, and ultimately his view on the current social, economic, and political situation of the world. For someone without television or newspapers, he was quite well opinionated. Apparently, people in rural Philippines also agree that Bush is in Iraq only for oil!

In any event, my interaction with the elder was a definite highlight of the trip. Being able to communicate with the locals in English was a new experience for me- it allowed me to get to a point i've never been able to ever reach before during my travels. In many ways, I felt so much more connected to those I was communicating with; I could share in their discussions, hear their opinions, and make arguments back. At the same time, I could also thus more readily identify with their poverty. It was a completely new experience for me.

During my discussions with the elder, it had begun to storm rather fiercely, so it was decided that instead of trekking to the falls in the rain, we would go see them at sunrise the next morning. Retiring to the hotel for the evening, I was comforted by many bottles of San Miguel beer, only to notice their slogan in the Philippines: "The only beer that starts true Filipino friendships.". Always open to make more friends, the three Swiss, Jean-Michel and I settled into a 'slight' drinking binge. Basically, all I remember is the Filipino who works at the front desk got out her guitar, and began to play Elton John tunes. Singing ensued, quite loudly if my memory serves me correct. It must not have been a pretty sight.

Early morning brought sunrise (as one hopes it would), and sunrise meant a quick hour-long march to the waterfalls. Climbing down an (at points) 80 degree staircase, we (the Swiss in tow) crossed over a fresh mudslide and promptly arrived at the falls. A few (read: ten too many) photos later, and after a quick dip, were back off to the city, where our busy schedule pushed us back up to the saddle, then down to the Banaue. Let us just say, if I did sweat a lot on the way there, on the way back I wished my skin was made of terry-cloth.

Arriving in Banaue in what we were told was minutes before our connecting bus departed, we were pleased to find out that the bus was not to leave for another 40 minutes. This gave me perfect time to a) buy another cinnamon bun (mmm) and b) throw a few red koopa shells at Lugui and the Princess. Little did I know my skills at dodging homing shells would soon come in handy. In due time, the bus arrived, only for us to find out that, as it was the last bus of the day, fuller than my stomach after each and every visit to Bubbie's kitchen. Not knowing what to do, an impatient local leaned over and threw our bags onto the roof of the bus. Before I could ask "wait, where are we sitting" we too found ourselves thrown onto the roof. Before you could say "boomshakalakadewyaka", the bus harshly shifted into gear, and we were off. Only seconds later moments later, a Filipino yelled "duck!". Thinking Al Qaeda's subsidiary organization, Abu Sayaf, was planning to blow up the one jewish boy in the Philippines, I ducked, only to have a power line run centimeters over my head. Sitting up, I turned around to notice dozens of power lines crisscrossing the street and thus directly in the path of my handsome, intelligent, and completely necessary, head. So I ducked again. And again. And again. Finally, we left the confines of the city, and barreled along in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life. And to think- had I been inside, all I would have seen would have been stacks of 10 kg bags of rice.

Arriving in Bontoc, we quickly jumped into a jeepney headed for Sagada. Our ride too had passengers who opted for the roof seats, only to be coerced inside by a torrential downpour. For those who have no concept of what a jeepney is, please see the photos- but in any case, a jeepney with 25 passengers inside it (some of whom are lying on those aforementioned bags of rice) is not as spacious, as say, an Acura TSX.

We arrived while the rain kept falling, so Jean-Michel and I checked into the nearest hotel, and promptly went to bed. Waking early next morning, we decided to celebrate life by going to see some dead people. Apparently, the fashion in Sagada was to bury your dead not in graves but in coffins hung up on a hill- the notion is to leave people closer to where they are heading anyways. Hiking through rocky cliffs and dense brush, we arrived at the coffins only to be shocked by the sight of a corpse hanging down the cliff. (Just kidding. It would have been cool, though!)

Upon our return to the village, we stoped at a restaurant called the Yogurt House. We admired the 'artistic yet strangely psychotic' entries found in the guestbook, only to be interrupted by the clatter of a jeepney passing by and dropping off three familiar faces. By luck, the Swiss were dropped off exactly where we were. Who knows me in Sagada? Honestly.

Now that our 'posse' had been reunited, we all decided that we would spend the afternoon going spelunking. Heading into a cave, we bent and twisted our bodies to get through the nooks and crannies (much like Lazer, the Human Contortionist) following the gas-light of our guide. We arrived at a swimming hole underground, went for a dip, then came back only to revel in the joy of having a bat defecate on your back. To celebrate such a momentous event, we went back to the Swiss' hotel (Swisshotel? Not quite) and we once again enjoyed creating Filipino friendships between two Canadians and three Swiss.

Arising early (as usual), Jean-Michel and I headed to the early morning bus, prepared for a 6-hour bus ride (that turned out to be 8.5) to Baguio. Arriving late afternoon, we perused the used shoes and clothing stores (a heaven for D.C., the level of old school clothing was incomparable) and noshed on pizza with cream cheese filled crust. Sounds gross, but was actually awesome.

Jumping soon after the pizza onto another bus, we basked in the eerie yellow-orange-burgundy glow of the sun refracting through the haze as we read our books until there was only enough light to verify once again that the speedometer was definitely not working. Disappointed that I would not be able to continue to read about Mexico's incredibly interesting political, economic, and social history, I napped for what seemed like the first time in ages.

Awaking minutes before our arrival, I quickly packed our bags as we pulled into Vigan, a western-Filipino (no, they do not wear cowboy hats) town whose Spanish colonial architecture is rivaled only by the remnants found in Manila. The cobblestone streets, even late at night, reverberated with the clip clop of horse-drawn carriages. In order to celebrate our long journey of the day, Jean-Michel did what we always did- fostered a few friendships, then went to bed.

Arising in the morning, we caught the tail end of the first Bush-Kerry debate. Although Kerry's mention of "increased successes towards reducing international terrorism, in places like the Philippines" was rather unexpected, we decided to not to brave the 'insurgent and terrorist filled' streets. Instead, we opted for a quick swim in the local swimming pool, made some Filipino friends (this time for real, without the help of alcohol), and then got up and went out.

Walking through the rustic colonial town really brought back great memories of my short time I had spent in Mexico- the old churches and beautiful Spanish architecture reminded me of San Cristobal De Las Casas in Chiapas, and the time I had spent there with JP. The only thing missing this time? JP. I guess you can't have your cake and eat it too. (But you can bake a pie and eat a pie, right?)

Speaking of eating, I my stomach was barking at me to get a meal, and I was howling something fierce to cull my appetite. I knew what to do! What better way to fill a stomach than by eating dog meat! Jumping in a tricycle, we were whisked to a lower-income part of town, where we were able to sample the finest in dog-cookery. I devoured a full plate while Jean-Michel only tried a small morceau. What did it taste like? I dont know, but the bark was not as bad as the bite. (I had too, I'm sorry, I really am)

After our hound-tastic meal, we jumped onto a final bus headed towards Manila, and our flight. Waking at 3 am to find out that our engine had broken, we lost 1 hour as a result of repairs, and thus arrived late the following morning in Manila. For the first time in my life, the unthinkable had happened- I missed my flight.

Luckily, Cebu Pacific's motto of "frankly, do whatever you want" really did help us out that day. The ticket booth (although difficult to find), was pleased to issue us a ticket for the later flight for no additional fee. Just a sticker that said "next time, be on time, you moron." (I wish it said that). Suddenly with time to spare, we took a jeepney to the local mall, and scarfed a dericious meal at a Swiss-Chalet impersonator. After that, I went on the internet and spoke to JP for a while, got a shave (face and back of neck, WELL needed), bought two new shirts, and headed to the airport. In the grand scheme of life, it was a day well wasted.

All in all, the Philippines was an incredible trip that I enjoyed not only because of what I was seeing, nor just the local people, nor just the person I was traveling with. It was a combination of all three, something that rarely ever happens during the oh-so-many short adventures I have been fortunate enough to embark upon. I will return to the Philippines in the future, and thats a promise I will keep.

I think I have many more Filipino friendships to forge. However, for now, I'm happy being a loner in Hong Kong. I think it suits me better.

Until next time,

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