The Phils 3

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Aug 25, 2008

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The sun rose on the Hanselma highway, a dusty coil of road unravelling over Cordillera. In the plunging valleys below the mist snared and spilled over the jagged cliff faces. Along the highway trucks groaned under the weight of people and cargo, that more than negated the effect of the vehicles' raised underbellies. Green ravines dropped away from the crumbling edge of the road. Colourful squares of washing flapped over the void.
This was the second leg of my second overnight journey through north Luzon, and I had learned well and truly how deceptively far distances were in the Phils. It is not a country of straight roads. It is a country of long rides, and patient commuters crammed into and onto the rickety public transport. There is nothing to do but watch the scenery roll past. It is an infinitely worthwhile pursuit.
A road split from the highway and disappeared into pine forest. What was such forest during in this tropical world of beaches and scuba? Somewhere in the forest was Sagada, a tiny mountain town universally recommended to me.
Sagada, I had heard, was a tranquil place. It had an early curfew, few or no tricycles, prided itself on its ecological and cultural sensitivity. It was a backpacker haven, for those who liked unspoilt sanctuaries.
And then one weekend each year it threw all that aside and hosted a town fair, which drew every man and his dog and his family and his dog's family to town, where they could buy cell phones and illegal DVDs, designer brand clothing and farm supplies. Our bus ground to a halt in a traffic jam, the town's annual traffic jam, blocking both its roads. Beyond the trees in a clearing by the church raucous games of baseball, basketball and soccer were taking place.
Not all of the guides to the region were drunk or at the cockfight, or playing dice on headstones in the cemetery. Aklay extricated himself from the crowd and we headed away from the bustle, into the quiet of the forests, his barely audible, monotone chit-chat merging with the whispers of the falling, flowing river.
The colonial project that had been going on throughout the history of the Phils only began in the mountains some hundred years ago. By then the waves of conquistadors and influenza had been replaced by anthropologists and missionaries. As a result the indigenous culture has survived, and while the loin clothes and spears have disappeared, other practices remain.
Out in the craggy valley below the town, the local people have been hanging coffins from the cliffs for as long as can be remembered. When a person dies their corpse is tied to a chair and displayed for the period of mourning, and then transferred to a coffin. Those who can afford it may have their coffin hung in the valley. Others are placed in the caves below the cliffs, which are now nearly full with coffins. Others are buried in the church cemetery, where illegal dice games go on during the town fair.
There is no squeamishness about death here. The sight of crooked rows of splintery coffins and death-chairs suspended on the cliff faces was at first very strange to my western sensibilities, but the casualness with which the locals treated the coffins meant it was easy to become comfortable with the idea, and to allow your curiosity free reign.
In the burial caves the crudeness of the coffins was obvious, some of which had rotted and split open to reveal the shrouded remains within. A pile of white bones lay at the mouth of one cave, an off-yellow skull sat alone among the coffins in another. I was welcome to poke around amidst the stacked coffins. I restrained my morbidly curious, acquisitive impulses.
The pine forests, the ridges and valleys of Sagada were pretty, but not really as magical as I had suspected. The highlight of the town was a café selling home-made yoghurt. I suspect those that elevate Sagada highest are those that visit from Manila, and find the lack of exhaust and armed guards, the cool weather and scent of pine to be as mind-boggling as I found a bunch of coffins nailed to a cliff. If I'd had the time to wait out the festival, relaxing with many bowls of yoghurt, I may have warmed to the town. But there were far more spectacular places to visit in the mountains.
A couple more jeep rides brought me out of the pine forest and along other, narrow mountain roads. Beyond the rattling windows of our crowded ride the mountains were a lucid green, their slopes transformed into grand terraces. Some of these terraces were the colour of barren mud. Others had been flooded with mountain stream water and reflected the sky. Young rice crops were sprouting bright green in others, and in the places where the crop was tall and mature rites of the harvest were being enacted by traditionally clad people standing by smoking braziers.
One hundred years ago Banaue was an indigenous village of wooden huts built on sticks. There was probably also church. The entire valley around it, both sides of the valley stretching away from the village, had been transformed into enormous rice terraces, the process taking thousands of years, the terraces hacked and scraped into shape by hands and simple tools.
Today Banaue is the most popular place in the Phils to see the rice terraces that characterise the Cordillera. Some of the terraces have had to be reclaimed to allow paved roads to go down and tourist facilities to go up. The town spawned by the arrival of tourism is pretty - too much concrete, too much rust and corrugated iron - but there is still something about it. The dirty colours of the buildings contrast perfectly with the mist on the mountain tops, the green of the crops, the brown of the terraces. Every perspective of the valley is magnificent.
There were other backpackers in the jeep - Banaue's remoteness doing nothing to deter a constant stream of tourists most of whom grind in from and return to Manila. The door of the jeep opened and we were greeted by a crowd of men all with bright red-stained mouths and teeth, the road covered in red stains. The men were smiling a non-cannibalistic smile though, their faces and town stained by the juice from the betel nut, a stimulant which is chewed, producing great gobfulls of rust-red spit. Banaue is not a resort town; it is a town of rickety tricycles and frequent brown-outs, and constant streams of spittle.
The guides in the region, I am sure, turn much brisker trade when they wipe their lips and gargle some water, making themselves look less zombie-like. Betel is one of the few things that I found the locals less-than-eager to share with any and all visitors. It is an indigenous tradition and a local addiction. Banaue was also the only place I went where there was some sort of divide between locals and tourists, where there was some level of limit to the hospitality. But this did nothing to dampen my spirit in the area. The town is still spectacular, the terraces sublime. A slight us-and-them division is only natural at a tourist site.
Beyond Banaue, along a road that had no right or left lane but only big or small rock, deep or shallow puddle, lies Batad. A tricycle or a jeep can bring visitors close to Batad, but to reach the village itself requires a hike down out into the green valleys. Batad a tiny village, some wooden huts and some metal-roofed houses clustered at the foot of a spectacular amphitheatre of rice terraces.
Here we could hike out among the terraces, walking the tightrope stone plinth that separates the deep mud of the terrace from the short drop to more deep mud. In Batad the planting season was approaching and hunched old farmers were up ladders, using chisels to pry the plants out of the stone walls of the terraces. It seems an impossibly big job, and yet it is completed every year without fail, the livelihood of a family and the wider community depending on the preservation of the walls.
Strange to look out and down on such a grand site, a project that took thousands of years to complete. These terraces are often called the 8th wonder of the world, but they differ from most of the world wonders in that there is nothing intentional about their magnificence. They are accidental monuments to and by a people who have never been wealthy, but who found themselves unable to leave the mountains, but equally unable to sustain themselves in the natural mountain environment. The grandeur of the vision, the imagination required to view mountains as malleable, transformable surfaces is awe-inspiring. I wonder how much the people knew, as they scraped their valleys into shape, of the lasting legacy they were creating. I wonder if they saw beauty in what they were doing, or just necessity. I wonder if they mourned the loss of the natural environment or marvelled at their own ingenuity and power. Their vision could be enormously beneficial to the rest of the barren, hungry world.
Banaue was only the second place where I had spent two nights in the same bed. The next night was spent aboard yet another bus, lurching through the night and finishing finally at yet another pre-dawn bus terminal. This one in the middle of Manila, and full of tired bustle.
This was the start of my last day in the Phils, another mad dash around Manila, another day lost in the labyrinth, moving from taxi to tricycle to train to jeep and back again.
Across town in the soft beds of another family home, other travellers were sleeping peacefully, before they too began their final dash about Manila and back to Korea. Jules and Viv had also decided to spend their winter holiday escaping the Korean cold. They had also found that two weeks cannot do justice to even a tiny portion of the Phils. And they were also discovering how difficult it would be to leave.
I stomped into their peace and quiet, setting dogs barking, and beginning the countdown timer on our time in Manila. It was Chinese New Year, there was plenty to see and do. But as always, Manila took our plans, chewed them up, and spit them out like betel. After a lengthy of exchange of stories and curiosities, we succumbed again to the Manila instinct, and found ourselves in a massive mall sampling as many different foods as possible.
We were also waiting, for one last grand show of Filipino generosity and hospitality. I had narrowly missed seeing a cockfight in Sagada. I was very curious to see what all the fuss was about. Jules and Viv's hosts happened to know someone whose father was very involved I cockfighting.
In typical Filipino style, there were delays and we couldn't find each other. I true daft backpacker style, none of us were carrying phones or watches. The answers to our questions of 'what time is it?' varied dramatically. But at least we found Jaydee, and we set off through the streets of Makati, away from the banks and armed guards and into a warren of little houses, and narrow streets full of people.
After all the colour of the Phils the cockfight arena came as a shock. A big white room, fluorescently lit, and devoid of details. Just concrete benches, some scoreboards, and a dirt-floored, glass-walled arena, where a couple of men were presiding. The crowd was all-male. They stared at us and for the first time in the Phils we didn't feel entirely welcome. But the scrutiny dissolved into shouts directed ring-ward, as bets were called in and received, and the excitement preceding another fight built and built. This the only pastime in the Phils sufficiently engrossing to stop the men smoking or drinking. There were just the birds, and the money changing hands.
The fights themselves depended on the money, and also the curved blades tied to the birds' feet, for their interest. The birds didn't always register each other as enemies; they sometimes took a while to actually start fighting. And when they did after some brief and intense flurries of feather both were usually too tired and wounded to be able to seriously hurt their opponents. If the fight didn't end quickly and clinically, it tended to drag on and on, both bird falling heavily, unable to jump or walk or do anything but peck ineffectually. The fights, however, continue until one bird is dead, that is, until it cannot peck. So most confrontations end with two birds, at least one of which is dying slowly, falling over each other and wallowing in a mound of feathers. All the while the crowd roars and hopes the result isn't a draw.
The first death came as a shock, but it took only a few fights for even this vegetarian to become quite comfortable watching the spectacle. The ridiculousness of the situation was much slower to dissipate. The human animals in the room became far more interesting than the birds, with their complex codes of gestures and shouts signifying different bets. Even in this colourless place there was plenty of chaos and bustle among the spectators.
By time we left our eyes were dry and hurting. None of us had blinked in a very long time, and there were plenty of airborne particles of bird floating about the room. With this sight seen, there was nothing left to do but enjoy one last relaxed Filipino meal in the evening warmth, and to raid a supermarket for its bounty of colours and flavours unavailable in Korea. It was in some ways a very depressing moment, realising how pallid the supermarkets we were returning to were, in comparison to the tantalising diversity of the Phils.
Good bye to our kind hosts, and a very crooked cab ride through the evening streets of Manila, dodging the main street gridlock but twisting and turning through innumerable side streets, and then we were at the airport. Our warmest clothes were close at hand, in preparation for the icy onslaught waiting just across the sea in Incheon. It was not easy to get on the plane, and this had less to do with any deficiencies with Korea as with the vibrancy and richness of the Phils, and the shortness of our time there. The change from Korean winter to Filipino eternal summer had been a little like stepping out of black and white Kansas and into technicolour Oz. We were not relishing the reverse process.
When the time came we boarded the plane, our eyes red with exhaustion, and a hint of desperate hysteria in our voices. Our bags were loaded down with food and toiletries unavailable in Korea, Jules and Viv were wearing dark tans, Viv had a ring on her finger and we carried great bundles of memories, stories, photos with us. Enough to distract us through the remainder of the winter until the spring broke through. Enough also to torment each other with places left unvisited, foods unsampled, people unmet. I strongly suspect that this was not the last I will see of the Phils, nor they last they will see of me. The colour of the land, the vibrancy and diversity, the details that fail to show up on most maps and generalisations about the place make it quite captivating, and utterly unleaveable in any ultimate sense.
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