Easier Path To Heaven?

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Philippines  , Luzon,
Thursday, March 15, 2012

With "hanging coffins" as the big claim to fame, Sagada  isn't really a destination but more of a side trip and since we were in the general neighbourhood it seemed like a worthwhile effort to make. After enduring the mountain goat roadway system from Banaue, we wanted a bit of a break so we dropped in on the Bontoc In Museum  which had guidebook endorsements as a place of interest. It did have a mildly stirring collection of old photo's but it wasn't going to hold our interest for too long. What Bontoc did offer, and which neither the guidebooks nor the Filipinos themselves make any note of, is a steady stream of gleaming Tricycles parading up and down the roadways. Tricycles, like Jeepneys are only found in the Philippines, and although we had seen Tricycles, they are largely banned in urban areas (they are absolutely gutless, Chinese made- usually- motorcycles that have a relatively large sidecar attached so they don't move particularly fast), and when we had seen them, they seemed to be universally beat up and unattractive. For some reason, in Bontoc, the Tricycles were layered in shiny chrome and elaborate paint schemes. As judge and jury in our own undeclared Filipino Jeepney and Tricycle beauty contest, I would have to name Legazspi as home to the best looking, gleaming Jeepneys, but Bontoc is definitely home to the best of the Tricycles.

The Hanging Coffins Of Sagada don’t have any of the expected links to ancient mythology, dark beliefs, or mysterious customs. It seems that a couple thousand years ago one of the locals developed the notion (presumably out of desperation after leading something less than a virtuous lifestyle) that his chances for access to the gates of heaven would be enhanced if he were a little closer than some of the others buried in the nearby graveyard. The coffins are hung from a limestone cliff side or secured to cave walls but how they got there probably involved a significant effort of either ropes to lower the coffins down the cliff or some sort of timber scaffolding to raise the coffins to the appropriate height.We were told that families continue to use the coffins today sometimes removing the bones of previous residents to make room!! The corpses are smoked to preserve them throughout the requisite 5-day pre-burial feast and as the bodies are pushed into the smallish coffins, the cracking and even breaking of bones often occurs as the process is completed.
For efficiency and time management we had actually stopped in at a restaurant to order lunch before trekking out to see the Hanging Coffins. After guessing what menu item was available for ordering (we have learned that Filipino menus are more vision than reality so you order an item, find out it’s “finished”, and you move on to your next choice- this can continue for quite some time, and at no point will the waitress with the big smile ever offer to tell you what might be available but neither will she see the problem with having a menu that lists so many items that are “finished”), we wandered off safe in the knowledge that a hot meal would be waiting when we returned saving us all kinds of time- of course the cooking only started once we got back but you just can’t get upset because the waitress is singing and the cook is dancing. This surprisingly poor but amazingly friendly customer service that we are bumping into all through the Philippines is starting to rival the Jeepneys as a lasting memory of the country.

The afternoon saw DH challenging her Splunking demons- the last time we were in a proper cave was in a water-filled version in Guatemala and DH broke her hand after slipping and falling. Another day, another cave, more water, and a whole lot of climbing straight down over slippery rocks (and bats- lot’s of squeaking bats). Despite blaming me completely (or so my guilty concsience says) for the earlier broken hand, DH decided it was time to jump back on the horse and follow me back into another cave (didn’t start well as she pulled on her headlamp and promptly snapped the elastic and the lamp shot back into her face opening up a cut on the bridge of her nose- weren’t even at the start point yet!). We did see another set of hanging coffins at the cave entrance way but apparently these were as much about saving money as they were about gaining early access to heaven. Since you had to pay to be buried in the council managed graveyards, some enterprising types started 'burying' their relations by stacking coffins in the caves. As we moved deeper into the cave it started getting much narrower to the point we were crawling through tight openings with no sense of how much further these tunnels went (no big deal with our tiny Filipino guide but a little more challenging for me given the feasting I had done at the Dennys in Guam recently. Probably out of concern that I would get permanently stuck in one of these openings (and there was no longer much to see), DH called an end to this splunking adventure (with a high pitched voice I had never heard her use before) and we headed back up with all of our bones largely in tact. A quick wash to remove the bat guano and we were on our way back to Banaue.
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