In the Philippines, the Boondocks of Bontoc, Sagada, Banaue

After a near panic-attack—or maybe it was claustrophobia, I’m not sure—from being in rooms without windows for six days straight, I get on the bus from Baguio to Sagada resolving to do better.  I even find banana bread.  That’s a good sign.  “You ever have before?” the lady behind the smile asks.  I smile back.  Does a hippie live in the woods?  “I’ve had it all my life.” 

That’s probably the first thing I ever cooked. 


The Philippines really are nice; they just respond better to an old-fashioned approach—wing it.  You’ll pay extra to make reservations, and then they’ll put you in a room with no windows—and those are the nice places!  So I have only one requirement in Sagada: a room with a window.  I don’t care if it’s the ugliest view in the world.  I want to see it.  I don’t need a breakfast buffet, either.  I’m not a lumberjack.  I’m an espresso-sipping intellectual, ready to solve most of the world’s problems while jacked up on caffeine.  Watch me try.  Actually what bothers me most about a windowless room is that the world may have changed around me outside while I was inside plugged in to the intravenous TV drip.


So the bus on the infamous Halsema Highway to Bontoc comes with a warning on the package: don’t look down.  But actually it’s not so bad, certainly not as bad as the road from La Paz, Bolivia, down to Coroico.  That’ll put the fear of God in you.  This road only really merits some mention when it turns off the main road, and then starts heading up the hill to Sagada itself.  That stretch I might not want to see in the rainy season.  But the scenery all along the route is beautiful, a miniature version of the terraced rice fields I’ll see in Banaue, I suppose.


Beware what you ask for, of course.  I’ve got a window in my room in Sagada, but not much else … though I do have Wi-Fi, all for less than ten bucks.  How’s that for a backpackers’ wet dream?  Yes, the Westerners are here in force, but still it’s not too overwhelming, not in the slow season, at least.  There’s just not much to do.  The caves are the big attraction here, but other than that, long walks are about as exciting as it gets.  This is a relapse to another era for me, like maybe Panajachel, Guatemala, c. 1975 or maybe Sapa, Vietnam, c. 1995, the main difference being that the local people aren’t as colorful.  I know they have some ethnic identity that I’m sure includes a language, but no indigenous costume or crafts.  Oh, well.  The language sounds like someone choking btw.


The landscape is the big attraction after the caves, and it is nice.  There are karst rock formations in addition to the wet rice paddies that are surrealistically beautiful, whether terraced or not, especially in sunlight.  So the hippies and backpackers once again find a diamond in the rough and then put the word out that there’s a cool new place, and next thing you know, the leisure tourists are “discovering” it, after the backpackers have helped hone some of the rough edges and shown the locals what we white folk like.  I’ve seen it over and over again.


Next day I decide to press on to Banaue to see its famous rice terraces.  That means stopping in Bontoc, which I’m fairly certain is cognate with the English word “boondocks”—the Indo/Malay bundok certainly is.  Of course Malays & Filipinos can only communicate in English nowadays, ironically enough.  So now I can’t get the old Billie Joe Royal song out of my head: “Down in the boondocks…down in the boondocks…people put me down but that’s the side of town I was born in.”  Most of the music on the radio, though, is country, American country.  The road to Banaue is pretty dicey, probably the worst of the lot in north Luzon.  It should be smooth sailing back to Manila.  “Take me home, country roads…”


If there’s reasonable accommodation in Banaue, I’ll stay a night.  If not I’ll go back to Manila early.  There is.  And the terraces ARE indeed lovely, though there was one set of them along the way that was at least as nice, if not nicer.  Wet padi rice is always beautiful even when it’s not stretched halfway to heaven.  It’s the water levels that are so magical, like some heavenly stringed instrument of varying resonances.  Then there’s something about the way the rice shoots are all at different heights and levels of development, gently waving in the wind.  Mayan corn planted up the same hillside wouldn’t be half as picturesque.  Of course the only way to make those terraces level is to flood it with water, then adjust ground levels accordingly.  It’s a long-term project, presumably brought over by the original Austronesian immigrants from the Asian mainland.


The guidebook disses and dismisses the town of Banaue itself as short on “ooh…aah” moments, but for my money I’d probably prefer it over Sagada.  For one thing, it’s not so bad.  For another, Sagada’s not so great.  The rusty tin roofs that invite such scorn are present in both.  Sagada I guess is groovier—with its reggae bars and yoghurt parlors and such—but that’s not why I’m here.  Sagada also is a little pricier, the same local grub that costs P85 there only P35 here in Banaue.  Of course there’s no yogurt here in Banaue and the coffee sucks, too, so it’s a trade-off.  Here only the hotels gouge.  How do you spell “authentic?”  More importantly, though, the people in Banaue seem friendlier, downright effusive I’d say, though the people in Sagada are hardly sullen or surly.  Sometimes these things are just cultural inheritances, Ingorot vs. Ifugao in this case I believe.


Both places seem to have 9 p.m. curfews, and they act like they want to button down tight, though I can’t imagine those reggae bars flourish before 9 p.m.  I’d bet money they flourish after.  The strange thing is that even the light rail lines in Manila shut down at 9 p.m.  Maybe the idea is that after that, everyone is suspect.  If you’re up late, then you’re up to no good.  It sounds like Rankin County, Mississippi.  Ironically nighttime is almost the only time to travel long-distance.  I hate to miss the scenery, but I certainly don’t mind missing the congestion.  Outback like this is hard to find, especially in Asia.  Thailand has none to compare, except maybe the short stretch from Pai to Mae Hong Son.  Guatemala is hard to beat for beautiful outback, of course.


It’s a shame that traditional culture seems almost extinct here, because it must have once been extremely beautiful.  I finally find some old-timers in original garb posing for pictures overlooking the terraces, but that’s about it.  The old lady laughs when I tell her how cute they look.  The old ways are dying fast.  This area seems to be the chicken dung capital of the world, so I guess that’s the future.  I assume the other islands have even less, though I’ve read some interesting reports about Siquijor about its shamans and healers.  But it’ll have to wait.  Time’s up.  I take the all-night ride back to Manila and there’s nothing left to do but wait for my plane. 


That would be too easy, though, so when I show up at my hotel in Manila at 9 a.m.—after killing time for four hours—they inform me that I can pay an “early check-in charge” or wait until 2 p.m. I tell them I’ll wait, but I’m not happy about it.  I wouldn’t mind if there were nothing available, but there is; they have a half-price special rate, too… for locals only.  That’s racial discrimination.  So I content myself with Internet, my eyes drooping and saliva drooling, until finally at 10:30 I tell them I’ll go ahead and check in.  I’m tired.  I hand them my credit card.  “Four percent surcharge no problem?”  I grab my card back.


Four percent surcharge yes problem, so I walk down the street and find a place for half the price and they have my room ready in ten minutes at no extra charge amd I can even get a Wi-Fi signal in my room.  At least in Thailand they have a religion that reminds them that greediness is bad, while here they have one that urges them to love each other.  Well they aren’t especially hateful, so that just means to make more babies, and they’ve got enough of those already…and a hotel room rate to cover every conceivable (pun) circumstance.  Give it a rest, guys!  I think I know what’s causing your baby boom…


So what’s the verdict on Philippines?  Well, it all seems very familiar, maybe like Indonesia without the Islam or Thailand without all the tourists.  I guess here in the Philippines they’re all concentrated in a few areas…the beaches.  Like the others, there is a multiplicity of services, with typically about ten people doing the work of one person is any “civilized” country.  There are a lot of islands, and there are a lot of cheap airlines, too.  To my knowledge Indonesia doesn’t have that.  As a matter of fact, they make Philippines a reasonable place to stop over on a flight to Bangkok.  Otherwise Philippines Air is too pricey.  They even have good interest rates on savings accounts and secrecy laws that’d rival Switzerland…


On the whole, though, the Philippines have been a revelation, and a pleasant one at that.  Outside the capital city of Manila, it feels downright fresh, and that’s not a word I’d planned on using here.  You can keep Manila, with its prostitutes and street urchins and homeless people living on the streets of the main tourist district in Ermita.  Even Bangkok is better than that.  So the Philippines are not perfect, but … I’ll be back.

photo : Bernard Gagnon

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