Don't trip over the coconut...

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
Trip End Mar 02, 2007

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Knock knock knock!
Girls? It's 7am. You asked me to wake you?
Girls? Are you awake?
Grnffle grrrnftl.
Ok. See you at breakfast!

The curse of the light sleeper - being responsible for shaking your friends into life numerous times before they rouse themselves for brekkie. Despite the torturous amount of alcohol we imbibed the night before, we woke on the morning of Christmas Eve ready and raring to endure our 10 hour drive north of Manila to Luzon Province and into the famous mountains of Banaue, home of the Rice Terraces, 8th Wonder of the World. We set to our Aussie Breakfast with the same enthusiasm as the previous day and managed to drag ourselves and our bags downstairs only an hour behind schedule. Cora, whom we had invited along for the ride was waiting patiently for us, so we packed ourselves and our belongings into the van with Georgie our driver, and set off into the wide brown yonder.
The wisdom of hiring a van was appreciated three-fold when we all got to stretch out on our own row of seats for short naps between the huge bumps and really really huge bumps in the road. It seemed like mere moments before we hit Christmas Eve traffic. Miles and miles of buses crammed with people, trikes with families of ten piled on top of them, motorcycles with up to five passengers clinging on for dear life and all manner of human powered buggies, bikes, tricycles and barrows, overflowing with squirming, cramped bodies trying their best to guard their lungs against the heavy fog of diesel fumes which were threatening to choke us all to death. We crawled along like the metaphorical snails, our noses pressed to the glass taking in the utter chaos of the traffic as it twisted and wended its way through the sucking mud. The sound and smell was something akin to six hundred lawn mowers competing for one square foot of grass, so it was quite a relief to sit back with our windows wound up, avoiding the noxious clouds as best the air filter could manage.
Traffic jams in the Philippines are like nothing I've ever experienced. The predictable unpredictability was quite refreshing after the logic-defying Korean habit of sending motor traffic down the right side, but the foot traffic down the left.
But that comparison is to imply that there was a specific road with a specific directional flow of traffic. You may gather from my tone that this is, in fact, a mistake.
Vehicles of all shapes, colors and propellation seemed to move in the same manner as drunk people trying to get into a cricket game, attempting to squeeze their entire bulk through a tiny opening that wasn't going to stretch or give way no matter how hard they tried. When even the tiniest of openings appeared amongst the traffic, it was promptly filled, like rain running into a puddle. My favourite part of the chaos (and yes, there was a favourite) was the high spirit of the crowd. People jumped out to help drag/pull/push strangers bogged in the mud and laughed at the inconvenience of it all. The stress and impatience didn't seem to register on their faces as they joked and enjoyed themselves as only Filipinos can. They were completely accepting of the entire situation and all just appeared to be happy to be on the road, heading back to their families for another Christmas together. The squeeze got to choking proportions as we reached a "puddle" that had turned into a lake across the road. Apparently this was the reason for our huge delays, as only one car/bus/trike could drive on the thin dry stretch of road at a time. This necessitated a high degree of eye contact and hand signalling on the part of the drivers. All who tried to take a shortcut through the lake found themselves in the rather annoying position of sinking beyond redemption into the mud. At long last we rejoiced as we escaped the puddle and it's unfortunate captives and sped off into the countryside.
The vista was refreshingly green. Rivulets of water spidered through the fields like capillaries reaching out towards the horizon, and children rode slung over the back of oxen as they grazed on the grass. We could see the mountains rising in the distance ahead of us, but they always seemed to be just around the next corner, just over the next hill, like we were chasing rainbows. Finally we started a gradual climb upward, which began almost imperceptibly but very quickly became a strenuous exertion for our van. The further we got from the city, the thicker the poverty became, until we were eventually driving past ramshackle grass huts that clung desperately to the roadsides. Our progress was impeded once more by the roadblocks that either stopped us, or forced the accelerator down further, with signs such as "Stop! Checkpoint for hi-way robbery!" "Beware! Armed car-jacking!" and "Caution: Landslide prone area."
These dire warnings failed to deter us and we continued on our snaking journey along the cliff-hugging roads up the mountains.
We stopped at a service station for a toilet break and it turned into a true cultural experience.
We bought ourselves a coconut with three straws poking out the top and passed it round, joyfully sucking up the fresh milky coconut juice saying things like "Oh, don't mind me, I'm just drinking from a coconut," "Care for some coconut juice? I have some lying around here somewhere." Other less creative ones were "Wow. We're in the Philippines. Wow."
Cora and Georgie bought some balot to snack on.
Prepare yourself.
Balot may appear to just be a boiled egg on the outside, but inside is something much more disturbing. Balot is actually a half-gestated chicken; feathers, feet, beak and all, sloppily clinging to the yoke in a wet mass of interrupted growth. When asked if it tasted like chicken or like egg, the response was grinned back at us logically: "It taste like both, sister!"
Needless to say, Erin, Veronica and I were content with our coconut and turned down the venture into traditional Filipino snack food.
As the sky darkened the rain started falling, enveloping us in a thick fog cutting visibility to the end of Georgie's nose, which slowed our progress once more. The white wall all around the van inspired us into song, and we ran through every Christmas carol we knew, including the 12 Days of Christmas which got a massive lyrical makeover. The merriment only just got us past our tenth hour as we finally started making out the shapes of a small town outside the van. Banaue at last. Cora jumped out of the van and ran into the closest lodge we could find, using her incredible bargaining skills to get us a room for $3.
We dragged our cramped and aching bodies into the warmly lit lodge where the proprietor apologised profusely about the restaurant being closed. We panicked at the thought of skinning our coconut for dinner, but then, in true Filipino hospitality, we were welcomed to join the family's Christmas Eve party.
We were greeted all round by smiles and offers of food and drinks, and wholeheartedly encouraged to join the Christmas games, which involved a highly competitive round of musical chairs. We graciously accepted the adobo chicken and rice, and tore open the case of San Miguel we had carted all the way from Manila. Veronica produced a one foot high Christmas tree she had thoughtfully packed, and we set it up on the coffee table in front of our room, Erin's unopened Christmas card from her mum set snugly underneath.

Before going to sleep, we stood silently on the verandah outside, straining to see the source of the water sounds we could hear from all points of the lodge. But the fog was too thick, and the night was too black, so we retired to our room and were gently lulled to sleep by the sound of water echoing in the perfect mountain silence.
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