Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sagada, Luzon, Philippines

To get from Banaue to Sagada, you must cross a perilous mountain round for about two hours to Bontoc, and then switch to a Jeepney for another hour over unpaved mountain roads to Segada. But Sagada itself is definitely worth the hassle it takes to get there.

After spending a morning trekking across Rice Terraces (which was spectacular, by the way!) Joven dropped me at the bus stop for the one Bontoc-bound bus of the day. Now I thought that the bus from Manila to Banaue was rickety, but it didn't hold a candle to this one. This was a true Filipino villiage bus, complete with chickens and goats on the top! Inside it resembled the old schoolbuses I used to ride in elementary school (and looked to be as old too!) The bus was packed to the gills with people and luggage: inside and on the roof. We wove our way up the sides of cliffs up to the top of Mt. Polis, at whose peak the road was literally at cloud level. The bus would teeter and sway as we went around corners, oftentimes in places where mudslides had eroded the road. I just had to close my eyes and keep in mind that the bus driver does this every day and that he cares about his life as much as I care about mine.

On the bus I met a wonderful young woman named Elly and her very outgoing seven year old daughter, Reynely. Reynely doesn't have a shy bone in her entire body! She introduced herself to me in perfect English and told me most of her life story during the first hour of the bus ride. Then during the second hour, she started belting out Celine Dion songs at the top of her lungs for all the bus to hear. She has obviously done her fair-share of Kareoke, because her voice is amazing. Oh, and she also speaks 5 languages. They were also going to Sagada and helped me to negotiate the bus to Jeepney change in Bontoc, and Elly even told me about her sister's guesthouse in Sagada, where I ended up staying. Elly and Reynaly used to live in Manila with Elly's husband, but she recognized that Manila is not a healthy place to raise a child, so she moved back to Sagada (her hometown in the mountains) and has a little place next to her father's house in the village. We stopped by their charming little house, met Reynely's adopted little sister (who was absolutely adorable!), and then Reynely showed me to her Auntie's place, the George Guesthouse. It was a great little family-run place on the main road in Segada, which is tucked high up in the hills North of Bagueo.

In Sagada, I made several new friends, including one man who I met at the yummy yogurt shop in town who also graduated from u of Michigan around the year I was born, and has lived all over Southeast Asia. He had great travel advice to give me, which I was grateful for. I met Graham, a funny Scottish man who is married to a Filipina. She's in Glasgow and he is in the Philippines overseeing renovations to a house that they just bought there. But when school holidays started, 14 of her nieces and nephews arrived at their house and drove Graham crazy, so he got on the first bus he could find to escape from them. He was staying next door to me at the guest house, so we went hiking up to some waterfalls, and also to see hanging coffins and burial caves. The Igorot tribespeople who live in Sagada believe that if you bury a dead person underground, their spirit will get stuck under the ground too, so they have to find creative burial places where the coffins will not be disturbed. This includes secret caves, hanging them on the sides of cliffs, etc... When visiting one cave, we met an Igorot man who I asked about cultural traditions. He explained that they still continue to bury their dead in secret caves, and asked if I'd like to make a reservation. No thanks!! In 50 years, my coffin might be discovered and turned into a tourist attraction!

When coming down from one of the waterfalls, Graham and I were looking for a lookout point from Sagada to lowland villages below. We were getting lost, so we asked a cute little girl for help with directions. She told us that she would go with us. She was the cutest little thing Ive ever met. Of course her English was beautiful, just like Reynely's. Every time we asked her a question, she would start her reponse with a little giggle. It was too cute. We learned that she is the youngest of 10 children, she's 9 years old, her father is a pepper farmer and her mother is overseas working in Dubai. We hiked with her for nearly an hour until we found the magnificent viewpoint. We never would have found it by ourselves! Together we walked back to town and bought Julianne a coke and a little snack as a thankyou for the 2 hours she spent walking with us. Can you image anyone in the western world allowing their 9 year old daughter to take of for 2 hours with complete strangers without telling the parents? Well, parenting is just a bit different in this part of the world, but the kids seem a lot healtheir and their environment is wholesome and healthy. There is no crime in the area and everyone keeps an eye on each other. It's really pretty great!

Well, Sagada is a wonderful place...charming little villiage, breathtaking natural environment, much cooler than the rest of the Philippines, and just overall a friendly, wonderful place to spend time. But I didn't have long before I had to get back to Manila to catch my flight to Davao, Mindinao, the Southernmost part of the Philippines. I'm so lucky to have seen so many cross-sections of Filipino life. It has such a variety of interesting climates, cultures, and natural wonders!

The ride back toward Manila was another winding, high mountain journey across cliff-sides on the Halsema Highway. But this one took 6 hours. The bus was packed to the gills and the cold air seeped right in. It's amazing the vast variations on climate between neighboring towns when one is below the cloud level and the other is above it! I was completely unprepared for cold weather, bringing only one small backpack with 2 pairs of sandals, t-shirts, and capri pants. I was freezing for most of the trip to Baguio. An overly-friendly Igorot man in his 40's took the seat next to me, and seemed to want my seat too, since he kept invading my personal space. I had to keep pushing him away and asking him for space to which he would smile, and then start doing it again 30 seconds later. I was pretty darn happy to reach Baguio after 6 hours of this. Baguio has a reputation for its second-hand shops, and I'm a sucker for a bargain, so I set off to find something long-sleeved. I found the perfect light knit zippered jacket which fits easily into my backpack and has been a lifesaver on many an overly-air-condtioned bus or train trip since, for only 150 pesos (that's about $3.50). It was raining in Baguio and I was cold and miserable, so I decided to get back to Manila that night. I took a bus out and in the morning I was back to Manila for one day before flying to Mindinao.

From the bus station in Manila I recognized the name of a landmark very close to my guesthouse on the side of a Jeepney, so I decided to venture onto the Jeepney by myself (a little intimidating because they all have paths that they follow but that are not published or posted, so you just have to know your way around...which I barely do). I took my chances and jumped in and found out it went all the way across town to my place for only 20 pesos (50 cents)! Wow, I was feeling so smart about myself when I realized all the other passengers were getting off except for me....that's strange! Then I noticed that we were backtracking because I started seeing landmarks I we had already driven past. I started to get a little ticked off at the driver...was he swindling me? He didn't speak much English and I wasn't really following his hand gestures, but finally I figured it out: Right Jeepney, Wrong direction! I had reached the end of the line in the other direction and now I had to go all the way to the opposite end of the line. It took 1.5 hours and I got a pretty good tour of Manila for my 50 cents (and a good dose of humility!)

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