Reckless in the Cordilleras

Jun 22, 2013 in Philippines | 5 Comments

The actions recounted within are entirely irresponsible, and in no way condoned by myself, however much I participated in said behavior, for which I offer no excuses. What I’m trying to say is do not do anything I would do. Or did.

***

I met Randy when he and half a dozen other touts pushed their way onto the bus as it arrived in Banaue, in the Cordilleras region in Northern Luzon, Philippines at 7am. Oyahami Trans runs night buses between Manila and Banaue, the easiest way get to Banaue’s Unesco World Heritage rice terraces, and is currently the only bus line making the trip. After a long, freezing, and loud—thanks to the laughable bootleg of The Watch offered as entertainment—trip, the energy of the touts tumbling into the aisle was pretty overwhelming. One gentleman loudly proclaimed that we should not trust anyone but him, in particular the guys outside who’d not managed to shove onto the bus yet, because they are all liars. As the dazed passengers filed out into the street, Randy’s straightforward question, “Greenview?” caught my attention, followed by his neon green pants. Uyami’s Greenview Lodge is the first accommodation option listed in my Lonely Planet, and it seemed a good enough place to start, with this guy, his round amicable face topped with spiky hair, to guide me. And at least I would not lose sight of those neon pants in the crowd.

“Sure, yes,” and we set off down the street, after stopping to get my bus ticket leaving three days hence. As we walked down the steep road and stairs, he pointed out the amenities: the live music Country Bar, and the Official Tourist Office he swore he was affiliated with. Greenview Lodge is very close to the bus station, and while Randy’s guidance there was probably unnecessary, I was grateful as he negotiated the check in, assuring me I’d get the 250 PHP single, just as soon as the other guest checked out. Great! I dropped my bags and ordered some breakfast in Greenview’s restaurant, with a stunning view over the town of Banaue and across to the famed rice terraces themselves. As I ate, Randy returned and proceeded to tell me about all the local sights, terraces and waterfalls and caves, and how to get to them—and how much it’d cost. Public jeepney? No no, motorbike is much better, only 1000 PHP.

After some very effective selling on his part, I agreed to go with him the following day by motorbike to visit the remote town and rice terraces at Batad, and to Sagada the day after that to explore the caves and hanging coffins. Satisfied with these plans, I frugally opted to hike to the Banaue viewpoint myself, a 45 minute uphill walk featuring fantastic views of the terraces, the houses clinging to the side of the road as the mountain dropped out from under them, and clumps of giggling children shouting, “hi!” as I sweated up the road. It’s an easy walk, but the heat was heavy, and typical of my planning, the sun was at its hot zenith when I finally set out.

Banaue

Early the next morning Randy introduced me to Ephraime, my moto driver for the day. Randy explained that he couldn’t take me himself because his grandfather had just passed and he had to help his aunts and uncles with the preparations. Local custom dictates that when someone dies after a good, long life, the body is kept with the family for a week or more, and the family must kill a pig everyday, for the friends and neighbors and extended family that will come by for pork and coffee. “Death is very expensive in the Philippines, yeah? Many, many pigs, everyday.”

Ephraime was a skinny young guy, teeth stained red from betel nut, with luscious long hair unencumbered by a helmet, and flip flops with sparkly bows on them, a silly detail which I found instantly endearing. As he gestured to a bike with a rather large scrape in the gas tank, I asked about a helmet for myself, to which he responded, that no, there was no helmet, but it’s okay, we wouldn’t be going that fast. And so, I laced up my boots, and got on the motorbike behind him, and very deliberately ignored the foolishness of that statement as we zoomed up the mountain, dodging trikes and jeepneys, swinging around mountainous curves and bumping over the frequent unpaved portions.

Ephraime, sparkly flip flops just out of sight.

The road is under refurbishment, which meant sections of perfect flat cement were more and more frequently interspersed with muddy excavated portions, which finally culminated in a massive landslide blocking the road. A line of jeepneys and trikes were parked along side the road as we motored up, and eventually I had to get off and walk as Ephraime navigated through the debris. At the slide itself, we waited for the excavator to finish a scoop, and with the help of the road crew (in flip flops), he carried the bike over the mound of earth, rocks, and tree branches blocking the way. If I’d felt any miserly guilt about choosing the more expensive option, it evaporated as we left the mess behind us, and motored past the junction where most passengers are left, up to the Batad Saddle itself. The road got much steeper, and I abandoned my reserved posture grasping the bitch bar, and wrapped my arms around Ephraime’s skinny frame, his hair, escaping from where he’d tucked it in his collar, whipping me in the face as we made the final ascent.

Dragging the bike over the landslide.

From the Saddle, it’s a 45-minute hike down into Batad, an ancient village nested in an amphitheater of stone sided rice terraces. You can hike up and down and around the terraces, wander through the town, and across and down again to an impressive and refreshing waterfall. The net result of all this up, down, and around was utter exhaustion—terraces are a lot of stairs—and the hike back up to the Saddle was a long one. So long, in fact, that Ephraime had brought the bike a portion of the way down the trail in search for me, as all the other hikers of the day had gone, and it was getting late. The tires spun ominously, and the bike wobbled and lurched over rocks and dips, but we made it to the top of the trailhead, and began whizzing down the other side, I suspect in a race against sundown.


I had to address the hair situation, however, and when we stopped to drag the bike back over the landslide, I asked Ephraime to tie it back somehow. Neither of us had a hair tie, and while I controlled my impulse to braid his hair by the roadside, he wrapped and pilled it atop his head, and held it in place with his bandana tied, “like a lady boy,” he said, under his neck. I could not control my laughter at his silly appearance, and we laughed uproariously at the side of the road as a jeepney passed, faces peering out, confused at our spectacle.

I still had a grin on my face as we zoomed into town, for whatever the stupid risk, it is an exhilarating ride. We hit the local version of traffic upon arrival, a snarl of trikes waiting for a small flatbed with a giant excavator mounted on it’s back—secured, it seemed, with bamboo and ropes—to slowly navigate the skinny street. As we watched, one of the bamboo bits sticking off the top became entangled in the lines sagging over the street, and to shouts from motodrivers, passersby, and residents hanging out windows, the whole thing screeched to a halt. In addition to wires of some sort, electrical or telephone or both, thin black tubes are strung everywhere along the streets and overhead, and through careful observation—watching them leak—I’d deduced that they are waterlines, bundled up with the other wires and tied in big, messy, often dripping, knots on tall poles along the road. It was this mess the truck slowly backed out of, a man straddling the top of the excavator using a long bamboo pole to disentangle the other bamboo poles from the tubes, lest they wipe out all utilities for likely the whole of Banaue. As we waited, Ephraime encouraged me to come with him and Randy to the Country Bar for beers and live music that evening. As he left me at Greenview, I professed I’d try to make it after some dinner; otherwise I’d see him in the morning to head to Sagada.

After chatting to another traveler over pork adobo, I realized that I’d misunderstood the costs involved in going to Sagada; sure it was 500 PHP for the guide, but also over 1500 PHP to take a motorbike there, as it was much farther than Batad. This fact had escaped me. Jeepneys also made the trip, but would take so long; there was a very good chance I’d miss my bus returning to Manila that evening. I headed to Country Bar, yes, to check out the local scene, but more importantly to let Ephraime know that I would not, in fact, be meeting him at 6:30 in the morning, and to apologize profusely. Of course, he was not there, having opted to go to bed in anticipation of our early trip, which I discovered upon seeing Randy there. I told him my dilemma, and he said he’d let Ephraime know. I relaxed knowing I could sleep in, ordered a beer and enjoyed the live music, a sort of free-for-all open mic band playing classic rock; a set up made only possible by the seemingly universal musical talent of the Filipino people. I chatted with Randy and the other guides, in various levels of drunkenness, about the town, their jobs, and the betel chew which they all enjoyed. One demonstrated to me how a portion of areca nut is wrapped with tobacco into the betel leaf, and ‘chewed’ in the manner of chewing tobacco. The resulting spit is bright red, and stains doorways and street sides throughout town in rusty drips. He offered me a bit of the unwieldy looking pouch, which I declined, mostly out of intimidation of the process. The guys all professed that it was just like tobacco, but not bad for you, and it freshened the breath, and occasional use would not stain the teeth. I ordered another San Miguel instead.

As I sat groggy over breakfast the next day, Ephraime came up to me and I began to apologize for standing him up, but he cut in, saying that it’s okay, and he had good news for me. Today was Randy’s day to drive the jeepney to Sagada, and Ephraime was going to be co-pilot, and for only 600 PHP I could come along. They guaranteed I’d be back in time for the bus, too, because I’d be the only return passenger from Sagada, and we could leave as soon as I was done with my tour, promise, but we had to leave right then, everyone was ready to go. I quickly threw some stuff into a bag, and jumped into the back of the Jeepney, named The Challenger, surely foreboding, which was idling out front, Randy’s smiling face in the rearview.

Other than myself, inside there were several older local men, and one blond tourist; Sasha, whom I’d meet as we made our journey. Up on the roof, a gaggle of young Filipino tourists cheered and shouted as the jeepney zoomed up the mountain curves. When we pulled over for Randy to take a break, Ephraime turned back from the front seat, and asked if I wanted to go up on top. Without hesitation, I scrambled up, Sasha following, and we gingerly sat on the rack of metal bars across the top, and gripped on with incredulous grins. I can only offer the excuse that the Philippine lax attitude of road safety is contagious, and I, weak-willed.

Photo credit: Sasha Khlebnikova, Randy.

With nothing between me and the road in front of the jeepney but my flip flops, as it went swinging across lanes roaring up the mountain, I began to imagine morbid scenarios. What if we hit one of the oncoming trucks, or even just stopped short? Would my last thought be *shit!* as my fingers lost their death grip on the rack, gravity throwing me forward? Or would I feel the cement pushing my face through the back of my skull? What if the jeepney tumbled over the cliff’s side? Would I have a better chance of survival being thrown clear or tumbling around in the metal, seatbelt-less interior? Which would be the cleaner death? A few deep breaths, and some breathless views later, I relaxed all but my grip and truly enjoyed the amazing three hour ride over the cloud topped mountain, passing by remote terraced villages and into Bontoc, buzzing with trikes around us, and then back up another mountain towards Sagada, bouncing up unpaved roads, through an unexpected pine forest.

In Sagada, Sasha and I paired up with a guide, and I began to consider what sort of tour I had come all this way to experience. Sure, the hanging coffins were interesting, and the cave with more coffins—short and rounded, carved-out tree trunks, the deceased arranged in a fetal position inside—stacked along walls and shoved into cracks, was pretty cool. What I hadn’t put much thought into was the cave situation. Previous visits to caves in the United States were well-lit, dry, and with railed, well-marked trails, so I was entirely unprepared for spelunking through pitch-black caverns, squeezing through tiny holes on my butt and elbows, wading through chest deep water… barefoot, helmet-less, following a skinny local kid with a kerosene lantern. Have I mentioned I have a touch of claustrophobia? Utter fascination with the alien landscape unfolding in the small circle of light, and the strenuous journey, trying and almost succeeding at not banging my silly head into stalactites, were the only things that kept the panic at bay. Would I do it again? Probably.

When we emerged from the cave, The Challenger was waiting for me. I changed into dry shorts, grabbed a nice cold can of Red Horse and some honey cracker snacks at a small shop, and jumped in when Ephraime gestured me into the front cab between Randy and himself, the rest of the jeepney empty. Randy asked if was hungry, we could stop in town, and I pulled out my snack, saying no need, and asked if it was okay to drink the beer in the jeepney, to which they both started laughing, red teeth showing. Still laughing, they admitted that they had drank Red Horse beers in town before coming to pick me up, which is why they were chewing betel now, to disguise the beer on their breath. Randy continued, “It’s okay, everything is okay in the Philippines!” Once again, I opted not to think about the foolishness of riding hours back to Banaue with possibly drunk drivers, and cracked my Red Horse instead. Red Horse, by the way, is from San Miguel Brewery, the only brewery in the Philippines. At 6.9% alcohol, it’s “Strong Beer” and the ads tout the manliness of the beer, strong beer for strong men, an assertion taken seriously by the drinking populous. The fact that I had chosen Red Horse, then, gave me serious cred with these two. Which was probably a bad thing, because at the next stop, Ephraime jumped out and brought back three bottles of the stuff, one for each of us. And at the stop after that, bigger bottles. And that, dear reader, is how I recklessly made it back to Banaue, sandwiched between Randy and Ephraime, bouncing along in the beast of a jeepney up and down mountains, chatting about our lives, and singing to the old top 40 hits on the radio,

Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way!

We arrived with half an hour to spare before the departure of the bus, and I grabbed my bags, and allowed the guys to drag me to the karaoke bar next to the bus stop. They each needed to sing me a song, they insisted, and so I sat on a tiny plastic stool in the local establishment, mostly empty but for a table of old men across the small room, accepted another big Red Horse from Ephraime, and the boys debated which songs to sing. They led with a delightfully off-key version of Bon Jovi, “It’s My Life” and, as I heard the bus rumble to life next door, and stumbled most buzzed out onto the street with a wave goodbye, it was strains of Poison, “Every Rose Has it Thorn,” that followed me into the night.

Say,

Details:
Oyahami Trans overnight from Manila leaves at 11pm, arrives in Banaue at 7am. Buy your return ticket when you arrive, right next to where you disembark. The reverse trip leaves at 7pm. 450 PHP each way. Take warm clothes and earplugs if you want to get any sleep. Maybe get drunk first.
Make friends with a guide, maybe one in neon pants, they are all basically selling the same trips, between 500 and 1500 PHP, depending on where you go and what you do. If you’re unsure, check with the Tourist Office in the center of town.
On the trip to Batad, opt for your guide to come with you – I negotiated Ephraime down in price to just drive me, and promptly got lost trying to find the waterfall, and had to hire a local whose front yard I ended up in to take me. Maybe you don’t get lost? If you order your food from a resto before you set out across Batad, it’ll be ready for you when you return. The chicken adobo at Rita’s was great in my ravenous face.
Red Horse, 70 PHP.

5 Comments

  1. Will
    June 22, 2013

    OMG. No seatbelts. No bike helmets. Riding on the roof. Red Horse behind the wheel. aaaeeeeee…. la-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la-a-la- just floatin down that big river in Egypt.

    Reply
    • Melia
      June 23, 2013

      I’m sorry dear Father, I know. Although, as for seat belts, not even taxis have those, a fact I discovered upon arrival. The concept of safety is very different here, which is not an excuse, but a fact none the less. Love you!

      Reply
  2. Luanne
    June 26, 2013

    I am awed, breathless, and inspired by your exploits and adventures, Melia. on many of the days, I wished I was with you ……. until you got to the caves ! I’m outa there. I don’t like small places and slime. You are one tough cookie ! And I love the photos …. just fantastic. I think the iPhone is just fine. Stay safe and have fun.

    Reply
    • Melia
      June 26, 2013

      Thank you, Luanne! The cave was surprisingly un-slimy once you passed the first big cavern where the bats live (and poop), but oh, the tight spaces, that was a little freaky.

      Reply
  3. Homer
    July 19, 2013

    Good to know you had ‘fun’ top loading and experiencing Sagada!

    Reply

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