Northern Luzon, Philippines – After spending the night in Laoag we took a bus a few hours north to Pagudpud, a beach dubbed the “Boracay of the north”. I’m not so sure how accurate a comparison that is – they are both beaches, sure, but Boracay has fine white sand and clear, calm water. Pagudpud has corse yellow sand and rough water. Boracay is littered with hotels, restaurants, stores and even more tourists. Pagudpud has a smattering of hotels, no restaurants or stores, and precious little people.
Staying true to form, it started pouring down rain as soon as we arrived – which put us in a good position to negotiate for a few dollars off the cost of our room. I was totally bummin’ that once again it was raining at the beach and decided to mope in the room, but Stuart coaxed me out and we thew on our rain coats and took a long walk along the beach. There are worse things to be doing than walking down a quite beautiful beach in the rain with the man I love – even a “Debbie Downer” like me had to admit that.
The sun greeted us on our second day, and we marveled that the beach was nearly deserted and were glad we decided to stick out the rain and stay another day. As with most beachfront rooms, our shower only had cold water. I can power through a quick cold shower after a hot day, but it was just far too cool to bare on a cool night, so the hotel staff brought us an electric kettle that we used to heat up water and take bucket showers – it was actually pretty nice. One night the kettle doubled as a kitchen when we decided that we had eaten enough overpriced resort food and made instant noodles for dinner.
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Due to the poor conditions of the roads it took us two days to get to our next destination, the mountain town of Tinglayen. After a very interesting bus ride from Pagudpud to Tuguegaro – the windows on the bus were frosted so we couldn’t see out, and the woman behind us was huffing some gelatinous chemical in a plastic bottle that filled the whole bus with noxious fumes – we took a minibus to the college town of Tubuk and had to overnight there and wait for the morning bus to Tinglayen.
Tinglayen is situated in a beautiful, rice terraced valley in the Kalinga Mountains – a promising location for some good trekking. We decided to stay in the village of Luplupa across the Chico River. We descended a steep staircase, crossed a long suspension bridge, and then ascended another steep staircase on the other side and came upon a run down cement building with “Riverside Inn Office” painted on the side. “This is it?”, I said. “Where do we sleep, the floor?” Why in the world I thought that could possibly be it, I have no idea. I guess my appreciation for “anything goes” went a little too far.
We found the location of the real Riverside Inn after winding our way through the village filled with friendly people greeting us “hello”, curious kids, crowing roosters, skittish pigs, and way too much pig poop. There we met the 65 year old guide, Victor and arranged to have him guide us on a trek the next day.
Victor had the kind of personality that filled the whole room, mostly with crude jokes. Actually, his personality filled his whole village – he has been the village chief for 20 years, until he recently retired due to term limits. He is a man of many talents: comedian, story teller, village chief, farmer, tour guide and drug trafficker?
As we trekked from village to village Victor told everyone we crossed paths with that he was taking us to buy hashish. He told us hard-to-believe stories of foreigners renting helicopters to transport huge quantities of it out of the village. It was hard to know with Victor what was true, an exaggeration, or just plain fantasy. I hopped that people knew what a joker he was, but just in case, I would stand behind him shaking my head as he told people we were looking to buy drugs. When we arrived in Buscalan I saw villagers with huge mounds of marijuana and rooms full of hashish – so I had to assume that not everything was made up.
We had been advised by other hikers and Victor that we should bring matches and candy to hand out as gifts to the people we met and photographed in the villages. Actually, it was kind of enforced – our first stop was at the local market to buy these items. As soon as we started passing people on our hike they started asking, “matches, candy?”. At first this really put us off – it was like they were begging. It’s one thing to bring gifts to people who aren’t expecting them – but it doesn’t feel good to be constantly asked for handouts by everyone who walks by – especially when you didn’t want to be doing this in the first place.
I guess someone (probably Victor) started the practice so you really can’t fault the villagers. In hindsight we shouldn’t have continued this practice. Giving candy to people, especially kids, with poor dental hygiene and matches to people so they could light cigarettes is irresponsible and detrimental to the community.
We were also a little disappointed in the villages. I guess we were expecting something a little more “native” – with people in traditional houses and clothes. The first village was supposed to be one of the last headhunting tribes in the Philippines and we were told by other hikers that many of the villagers were still covered in traditional tattoos.
What we found was a little more modern – mostly concrete houses, everyone in “regular” clothes, and the people with tattoos were Filipinos tourists who hiked to the village to get traditional tattoos, oh and of course, all the marijuana a hippie could dream of. I guess if we wanted to see something more “tribal” we’d have to hike to Hill Valley, California and hitch a ride in Doc Brown’s DeLorean.
The strenuous eight hour hike terminated at a road several kilometers outside of town just as it started to rain. We took cover under a makeshift shelter nearby that had been erected by some road workers and then hitched a ride back into town on a passing truck.
After dinner, Victor joined us and told a hilarious story about the first time he visited Germany. He has been there twice and it seems to be what he is most proud of. He even calls his youngest son “The German” because his wife gave birth to him while Victor was in Germany.
He recounted his flight (first time on a plane) to Germany; his surprise at being told by a fellow passenger as the “waiting room” started to move that, “Hey Filipino, this is the plane, not a waiting room”; his delight as the flight attendant served him endless free beers; his bracing himself in the aisle as he got up to use the restroom (after all that beer) thinking it was like a bus and being told “Hey Filipino you just walk straight like a road”; and the free meal that was so much food, he could only eat the main entre, and how the large German woman seated next to him was happy to finish his food.
He made one poignant comment about his observations in Germany that stuck with me: “In Europe it is cheap to be rich; in the Philippines it is expensive to be poor.” At first I thought “Hey Filipino, you have it backwards!” It takes a lot more money to be rich in Europe, and not much at all in the Philippines.” But then I caught his meaning.
In Europe and America you can afford luxuries unimaginable to the average Filipino: a car, spending $100 on a nice meal, vacations, computers, etc. on a modest salary that you only need to work 40 hours a week to earn. In the Philippines you can work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and still make just enough money to survive. Even in my most challenging positions I have never had to work as hard as the farmers in this village, and I can afford to travel for months after saving up money for just a year. I think he summed it up quite nicely.
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One of the main forms of transport in the Philippines are Jeepneys, essentially jeeps with benches in the back that can cram in about 20 people. On our way from Tinglayen to Sagada I rode inside the Jeepney while Stuart chose to enjoy the steep, winding road and scenery from the roof. Too scary for me.
Other travelers told us that the place to eat in Sagada was the Yoghurt Cafe. The Western menu was a welcome sight after weeks of eating Filippino food, which isn’t heavy on the vegetables. I had a simple green salad with a lemon yoghurt dressing that nearly brought me to tears. Lettuce! The Yoghurt Cafe was so good that we ended up eating lunch and dinner there the entire time we were in Sagada – also because one everything else seemed to be closed, and another place wanted reservations!
The coolest thing in Sagada besides the weather are the coffins. There are bright colored coffins hanging on the sides of mountains or piled up in the entrances of caves. Some of them hundreds of years old but since the practice continues there are a few newer coffins mixed in.
After hiking down to the famous Echo Valley hanging coffins, we poked our heads into the opening of a small cave nearby, and sure enough there was a coffin on the wall of the opening about 7 feet above us. Or half of it was anyway. The other half had fallen apart and some of the occupant’s bones were in the ground. We peered inside the coffin and could see the rest of him. Super creepy!
On the other side of town, the Lumiang Burial Cave has hundreds of coffins stacked in the large opening opening from floor to ceiling. Most were simple small boxes carved from tree trunks. It’s said that those laid to rest in the opening where the sunlight hits the are aloud to walk among the living. Those in the dark area of the cave had died from disease or plague and were kept forever in the dark.
With all the coffins and bones and talk of spirits I started to feel the presence of something out there and even started to hear faint scratching noises in our room at night. Turned out the noises were cockroaches. After a few nights of being terrified to go in the bathroom because of the roaches,I began wishing that they were spirits after all – at least I knew they would have been the good ones.