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Tamarra’s Travel Diary

Friday, 25 Jan 2013

Location: Part One , Philippines

MapAs always I am behind in my travel journal but it seems meant to be at this point. I am now back in Thailand and on to new adventures but I thought I might catch you up on what I have been doing the last three weeks.

December 16th was a three- country day! We left Myanmar at 8 am and flew into Bangkok where we spent the day wandering the streets aimlessly until our evening flight to Clark airport in Angeles, Philippines.

Once again, we got to discover the unique modes of transportation in a new Southeastern Asian country. The Philippines has the standard buses and taxis, but the common trasport for the local people in the tricycles (a motorcycle with a side car that looks a little like a baby carriage, but in each city they look a little different) and jeepneys. When the Americans base closed, and the troops left the Philippines, the American military left behind thousands of army jeeps with large cabs on the back and benches along the sides. These were used to transport troops and goods but were likely too expensive to send back to America, so they just left them behind. The resourceful Filipinos have converted these into local and short range transport vehicles that service an extensive and inexpensive transport system. Owners have named their jeepneys and painted them and/or given them themes. Each has a specific route that it services and some are available for private hire. Amazing! We loved the jeepneys.

Our first stop was Sagada. Sagada is known for many things but what we remember most are the following: Hanging coffins, Subterranean caves, Beautiful weaving, the Yogurt House and the Ganduyan Museum. We made it to Sagada before lunch and ate a restaurant called ‘Salt & Pepper’ for the only two spices they use in their food. Our lunch trip introduced us to the majority of the town’s one street and we decided to head off for a hike in ‘Echo Valley’. Many of the people in and around Sagada are of Kankanay descent and the traditional way to bury their dead is by hanging their coffins in caves and on the sides of cliffs. In Echo Valley, there are several places where these coffins can be seen. The older coffins are quite short and deep due to the fact that the dead are buried in the fetal position. Posts or rods stick out of the cliff-side and the coffins rest on these. It is a very interesting practice and although not as common now,there are still elders that want to be laid to rest this way. It is no more morbid than visiting a cemetery (which, by the way, we had to walk through to enter Echo Valley). We walked out of the valley the long, scenic way so that we could see the underground river and enjoy the lush vegetation; however, we got a little disoriented at the end. The path wasn’t clear and I was reintroduced to my long lost friend, the thorn bush. We ended up calling up to a house on the edge of the cliff from which we heard voices and the occupants redirected us, from above, to the path out. We emerged relatively unscathed, if you don’t count the thorn trails on our arms (LOL) and in desperate need of a shower.

The long cave walk through a subterranean cave system was our adventure the next day and quite the workout! We hired a guide at the Sagada Guide Association and that was a good move. I don’t think that there is any way we would have found the way through the caves without one. He brought a very badly behaved kerosene lantern and managed to carry that flaming beast on his head while Denise and I slipped and slid over rocks, climbed slippery walls and wiggled through narrow gaps coated in moisture. This is the one place in Asia, so far, where having long legs is a great advantage! The temperature in the caves was cool but very humid and the water was chilly, but being from refreshing. The formations and fossils in the caves were fascinating and have formed over 1000s of years! Toward the end, the kerosene lantern had a tantrum and our guide borrowed my head lamp to try to fix it. After he almost lit his arm on fire, he gave up on the lantern and we joined another couple and their guide to exit the caves. I am pretty sure that our guide would have caught on fire if we had continued to use that lantern. The caves were an incredible experience and after 3 hours of exploration, we emerged, climbing a rock carved staircase that spiraled into the light and outdoors from the underground world of water, stalactites and stalagmites. Breathtaking!

In our explorations of Sagada, we stopped at different weaving workshops to see the different bags and creations that are so popular all over North Luzon, all the local women and men use them for all sorts of practicalities. This craft is something in which the people take pride and the quality was obvious. Each workshop sold different patterns, styles and colours and we had to shop around to find the perfect souvenir.

After our cave adventure, we went to see a Sagada sunset and visit the Gunduyan museum. This museum is a completely unassuming, hole in the wall, treasure trove of Kankanay artifacts. The woman, Christina Aben, who runs and owns the museum, located in her late husband’s ancestral home (she lives with her youngest son and his family in the back) has collected all the artifacts herself. She decided that as she watched the culture of her people start to change that she wanted to make sure that there was something preserved. The Kankanay people were head-hunters and have inhabited the area and northward for 100s of years. The museum was filled with traditional jewellery, clothing, weaponry, pipes, weaving, bags, pots, cooking and eating utensils and much more. After telling us about the history of her people, Christina told us a little about her own battle with cancer and showed us what she has done to help with her recovery: pottery, painting and sketching. What an amazing woman! We were blown away!

The next day we were on the move again. We wanted to reach an isolated village called Batad and we had to move through series of connections to get there, which took us through, Bantoc and Banaue. We had a 3 hour wait in Banaue before we caught the jeepney to get to Batad and we enlisted a tricycle driver (actually he enlisted us, to be honest) to take us on the viewpoint tour to see the UNESCO World Heritage site rice terraces. We stopped at three viewing points and were absolutely speechless at the beauty of the rice terraces. In Banaue, the terraces are all made out of dirt walls and are quite narrow. They line the mountain (hillside) from top to bottom and up the other side as well. A great deal of effort is required to maintain them and the amount of rice they produce both in Banaue and in Batad is only sufficient to feed the local people. In order to maintain their UNESCO status, they must maintain the terraces as they have been for 2000 years. So, yes they get tourist money and they maintain the integrity of the soil without fertilizers and machinery; however, they are unable to make changes that may help feed more people or make the production of rice easier and rice farming is painstaking, back-breaking work. As it was not rice season, most of the terraces were empty, being used to grow rice seedlings for the next season or used to grow local vegetables. We were disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to see the terraces completely filled with baby rice plants as baby rice is such an exceptional colour of bright green that it takes one’s breath away.

At the viewpoints, there were elders dressed in their traditional clothing (G-strings and colourful weaved clothing) which is still worn for celebrations and special occasions. Most were stooped over, some almost in half, due to years of hard work in the rice patties. At the last viewpoint, we were present for the Christmas party for a community of stores. They played musical chairs, but instead of chairs they used newspaper that was folded smaller and smaller after each round. Then they had scooter races: Homemade wooden scooters, wheels and all were walked up the steep road and raced back down again. Hilarious!

We made it to the jeepney with 5 minutes to spare but it was already packed to the gills. Our tricycle driver negotiated with the jeepney crew and we managed to get a couple of seats sandwiched in with 30 of our closest friends and their babies, groceries, and other goods. The top was just as packed as the inside with both people and goods. The jeepney took us to the saddle, from where we hiked for an hour down to the village of Batad. The vistas walking down into the valley were incredible, although the thick mountain mists obscured some of the view.

We reached our guest house (called pension houses in the Philippines) just before 5 pm and managed to get the last room. We had an amazing view of the rice terraces and we sat and ate dinner while the sun set.

As always, we were up early to hike the rice terraces and see the beautiful waterfall just outside of the village. We hiked to the very top of the rice terraces and then worked our way down. In Batad, the terrace walls are built from stones and water gutters run from the top of the mountain to the bottom to ensure that all the terraces get sufficient water. We walked along the stone walls from where we looked down on the amphitheatre of rice terraces that lined the bowl of the valley with the village huts interspersed with the terraces. Unbelievable! This hike would definitely be a challenge for those that have a fear of heights. They are an incredible wonder to behold.

From a hut half way down, we hiked the path down to the waterfall. The falls were about 30 metres high and we cooled off with a swim in the pool at the base of the falls. The water was brisk but being used to Canada’s lakes and rivers… No problem! The Aussies that joined us in the water were a little more shocked! It was a refreshing cool down after our hike but the hike back up from the bottom of the valley to the pension house pretty much eliminated the cooling effects. The sun managed to burn off the mists between 10 and 1pm and we were able to enjoy the vistas with the sun shining. On the way back we stopped at a Christmas party at the home of one of the locals. We stayed for about a half hour and talked to the people and shared a drink. They welcomed us with open arms. This is the Filipino way!

Back at the pension house we ate our lunch and over our food met a Filipino family who lives in Sydney Australia but was visiting family in the Philippines for the holidays and doing a little touring. We managed to score a ride with them back to Banaue that afternoon which made it easy to catch our overnight bus to Manila. We hiked out of the valley, taking the 412 step short cut near the top, back to the saddle where the family had a jeepney waiting. We got dropped off in Banaue with enough time to shower, eat dinner and catch our bus!

This was the extent of our time in the north and we headed south to do some diving and island exploration. When we arrived in Manila at 4:30 am on December 22nd and we were exceptionally fortunate to catch a bus-ferry-bus transfer to Sablayan on Mindoro Island as all the Filipinos were trying to head home to their families for Christmas. We got the last two seats on the bus and rode with our knees at our ears for 10 and a half hours. We reached Sablayan around 4 and found a fabulous place to stay called Sablayan Adventure Camp. It was right on the ocean and after 7 weeks of travelling it was really amazing to see the water! Our room was an open-air Nipa Hut and we were the only tourists there! It was a great place to land!

Okay time to go to the beach. Phillipines part two pending......

Hugs, T