Letter Bridge 2: THe Philippines

Sagada Travel Blog

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Terraces at Banaue, Philippines

Once I got myself back into shape for travel, I decided to head east, instead of down to South America as initially planned. I wanted to see India and Africa.


I got a great flight to Bombay that offered two free stop overs, so I landed in Manila, spent three weeks in the Philippines, and then stopped over in Thailand. I had... quite unlike me... decided not to travel too hard in the first month, since I was still recuperating.


Smiling at my caution, I didn't do the smaller island beaches and resorts on South Pacific stop over, though (I would leave that to a week long stay at Ko Samui later); no, instead of Filippino paradise, I took one look at pictures of the terraces of Banaue and knew I just had to see them for myself!




Sagada, Philippines


Hi Jeff



Terraces at Banaue, Philippines
..So I'm here--sort of.  It's not been without moments of irritation: I watched Manilan smog, yellow brown and dusty, go in thru my nostrils and come out again after passing thru my lungs (it was that thick); I had to  survive a horrendous 11 and 1/2 hour journey from Manila to Banaue in which the bus decided to blow a tire right in the middle of a three hour stretch of clear-cut desertified hills, right in the middle of the day (the sun over head--no shade to be had--42 degree temp); I had to survive yet another breakdown between Banaue and Bontoc when the jeepeny bust a bolt and started to drag what looked like an axel.  We waited two hours before another vehicle came by the no-where-stretch-of-road (tho two foreboding military vehicles passes the other way).


But much of the time this has been inspiration.  Banaue was a jaw dropping kind of experience.  The entire codeillera valley terraced for rice planting, the stepped fields literally glowing with greens.  The town is built up a hillside overlooking a beautiful stretch of terraces, and the paths to the surrounding villages often follow the edges of the field plateaus. 


To be sure, the place has adapted to the tourists.

Banaue elders in traditional dress, Philippines
  The only natives still wearing the traditional loin clothes + feather head-dresses are the elders in search of pesos for photos.  But to a prairie girl (used to seeing the flat stretch of the wheat field meeting the sky) this is spectacular.  And while the Philippines, with all its people speaking English, in Western dress, going to Sunday mass, does not seem nearly as exotic as Indonesia, there is still magic in Northern Luzon.  Only three generations ago the hill people were involved in ritualized head-hunting forays. & here in Sagada the pine covered hills and the limestone caverns + caves house hanging coffins--still a preferred mode of burial.  The people in this region mix the Christian teachings of the Episcopal missionary (now Anglican) with their traditional animistic beliefs.  They venerate the spirits of their ancestors; "bury" them in coffins suspended from rock walls or stacked in caves, safe from predators, but the bones are readily accessible for consultation.  Every fiesta includes an invitation to the dead, and the sacrifice of a chicken or a donation of alcohol specifically to keep them happy.


& the place I'm staying at is fantastic.

Sagada river valley
  Built into a picturesque limestone formation that juts up from the surrounding countryside.  One wall is the natural stone barrier of the canyon, and beyond, one slope is covered with the tall pine trees like the Rockies, but in a dip--where the soil is better--are banana palms, jasmines and bushes with bright red blossoms.  And when you turn a corner and look down into the valley to the west of town, the landscape stretches out lush and beautiful with more cultivated terraces.  And deeper than death ravines.   Like a patchwork pattern of bright and dark greens, the blue sky overhead the river a melody.  Some of the terraces are 2000 years old, sculpted without iron tools and irrigated by an elaborate system of bamboo pipes.


Yesterday, I sat under the overhang to the mouth of a huge cave. My German companions set out to explore the caverns, but me, I've had my fill of caves since Costa Rica.  I went along on the three hour trek mostly for the walk and the views and the glimpses of the coffins everywhere--mysteriously compelling.


I've met a few people en route--most very interesting, tho not many have glowing stories about this country as far as our kinda travel goes.  It's one of those in-between places, I guess.  & sometimes disappointing.  The southern islands, I am told are especially touristed; the locals, having seen enuf of foreigners are little interested in anything other than how much money you’re willing to part with.  Up here in the North tho, they smile and are by-and-large friendly.  Went to the big cave with Winston--the thirteen year old son of the owners of my pension.


Typically, I've been doing a lot of thinking, why not in a land where death is in evidence and has drawn the curious from around the world... but not all my thinking has been morbid.  I have never met so many extensive travelers as I have on this road.  It seems (smile) I'll never achieve my ambition to do something no one else has thot to do--ah--such tragedy.  Mostly I've been swapping stories, and I'm beginning to realize there are as many ways of seeing--many many ways to travel; almost as many ways as there are reasons for traveling. There was this Chinese American guy for instance, who seems to have been everywhere: Central America, SE Asia, China, Africa.  He was with the Peace Corps + spent four years in East Africa.  Fascinating.  BUT he was here in Sagada only three days + is one of those "I'm here.  I'll hit all the spots I'm supposed to as quickly as possible, then I'll move on" types.  Looking only to chalk one more name up to their list of destinations traveled.  Then there's the two (other) Germans in the pension (Germans are everywhere!)… they are in Sagada for three weeks--they've seen only a few of the caves and one waterfall; but mostly they spend their time stoned in one smoke joint or another.  This little mountain town is remote from the powers that be in the Philippines, and one of the latest in a declining tradition of freak-zones:  where Western hippy-wannabes can still find a hassle free space to hang loose and do the cheap stuff.  Then there was the woman I met in Banaue.  She was the Canadian consular attache to the Philippines;  out and about on a few days off.  40ish and very Toronto-Jewish.  She drove up in her land cruiser to show a friend around the north. She was funny and interesting and had been posted everywhere--Hungary, Paris,  New Delhi (I think? Didn’t actually take notes).  Now: she wanted to see things too.  in a way.  But she had a  bureaucratic luncheons heaviness around the hips, and when I mentioned my intention to go to Batadd--a three hour hike--she indignantly responded "Oh.  It's probably pretty and quaint, sure.  But who wants to walk for three hours."  Her cruiser was immensely comfortable--with air conditioning, shoulder strap seat belts, and a stereo for soft music.  She hit the villages that had roads.


thinking about travel and what’s next...

Maybe I'll divide my time in Thailand between the beaches of Ko Samui and a Buddhist monastery near by that accepts Westerners.  Something cerebral and spiritual to of-set bikiniville.  &, of course, I'm anticipating waht we'll be doing in Africa.  I'll call from Bangkok on that one.


So: I am here.  on the road. Tomorrow I'm off for Baguio + then on to Manila for my next flight.  And there's lots to keep the mind occupied.  All the heres I’ve been, + those yet to see.  Everyday when I travel, I am asked at least once: "Where are you from?"  There is a "here" that we all claim as home, but (having given away +/or sold all my stuff) I am feeling more than a little up-rooted.  Canada.  Yes, that's it of course I am Canadian.  But does that mean Saskatchewan or Toronto?  A house, a school, an occupation, or a history?  I think sometimes it means people.  I'm from a certain kind of people.  Not just my family.  Clan.  We have less and less in common as the years go by.  But a people, who see things thru eyes that have sharpened their vision in a common environment.  And perhaps that’s what leads to the displacement...because the more I travel the more my eyes seem to change.  Adapt.  A-point-of-view.  From view-points around the world.  So, if I am from a people, those people are changing as I shift position.  ...and its only when I look in your eyes Jeff that i see something of where I am from.  I miss you deeply. All the more, when I am talking to others and listening to their stories.


'cause it's all story, in the end.  And god knows I go on talking forever... so it's just story (no "in the end" about it), and you have become a large part of this story, even if it seems to twist and turn haphazardly--like the winding roads in these hills.


In the fairy-tale that is us: I want to wander; return to some preordained spot + swap more stories with you; and I want to touch your hand while we're talking; and I want to feel your smile when I kiss you; and I want to look up from my writing to where you are sitting, across the room, or across the country, knowing you're thinking of me too;  and I want your body next to mine some nights; to drag my fingers thru your chest hair; and to feel your hand against my thighs. 

And then I want to wander some more, and work out all my silly philosophical dilemmas, and then return to some pre-ordained spot + swap more stories with you; and I want to touch your hand while we're talking; and I want to feel your smile when I kiss you...


Until the end of June,

Take care of yourself,



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Terraces at Banaue, Philippines
Terraces at Banaue, Philippines
Terraces at Banaue, Philippines
Terraces at Banaue, Philippines
Banaue elders in traditional dress…
Banaue elders in traditional dres…
Sagada river valley
Sagada river valley
Sagada Sights & Attractions review
SAGADA Where: Cordillera Mountain Range. North Luzon People: Igorots of Kankanay Ancestry, believe to be founded by Baig, a hero of Igorot cultu… read entire review
photo by: lauro