Monday, May 21, 2018

Sagada, Mountain Province, Philippines

Sagada - visited April 16, 2018
The rain continued all the way to our trek to our hotel in Sagada. Before we went to the hotel, we stopped by the tourist bureau and checked in, paying a 40-peso per person fee to cover environmental upkeep of Sagada’s sights. We were to keep the receipt and show it whenever we went to any of the tourist attractions like the waterfalls, caving, or hikes. Truthfully, we were never asked to show it but 40 pesos (less than $1 USD) is little enough that I would advise paying it for the privilege of enjoying what Sagada has to offer.
My cousin Abby had booked us ahead of time at Agape Log Cabin. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I travel, I find it best to roll with whatever happens and whatever you find. In the case of the Agape Log Cabin, it wasn’t technically a cabin but rather a 4-story house. The interior gives a log cabin feel with the way it was constructed with bamboo inside. After we checked in, our host showed us up to the third floor, politely asking us to leave our shoes on the first floor as they provided thin, flimsy but clean slippers to wear on the room floors. I am not a fan of shoes in the house (Asian culture) so this was fine with me. Plus it attested to the cleanliness of the floors and stairs.
There looked to be about 3 rooms to each floor with a shared bathroom and shared shower facilities (one person at a time when using). We had booked two rooms, one for me and one for my cousin Eman and Jessie to share. When I say room, I mean room. As in it had a mattress on the ground with clean sheets and pillows and a mirror hanging on the wall. Curtains covered the closed windows. This is a room where the hotel managers expect their guests are just going to use it as somewhere to sleep. It isn’t fancy but it was clean and the several staff we saw were unfailingly friendly and polite. If you want fancy accommodations with room service, go elsewhere. If you want simple and clean, Agape is a good choice.

After the long drive from metro Manila and the trek through the downpour after seeing the Banaue Rice Terraces, we were done for the day and crashed early. But also because we had planned to see the sunrise at Kiltepan Peak in Sagada, about 15-20 minutes from our hotel. Again, drawing from my past Maui experience, this was akin to going to see the sunrise at Haleakela.
Fortunately, the drive to the peak wasn’t as long as the drive to Haleakela so we were able to leave at 5 am and get there in plenty of time before sunrise. The road to get there wasn’t actually constructed for most of the way, as in no cement or concrete/asphalt/tar roads. It wasn’t even gravel for much of the stretch. Instead, it was dirt and rocks and required more careful maneuvering on Jessie’s part. If you didn’t have a car, the tourist office offers transport for 500 pesos (about $10 in USD). If you prefer, you can also hike on foot but wear good hiking boots and start early so you can get there in time for sunrise.

When we arrived, it was to find a crowd of people already there. It wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as Haleakala had been so we were able to find optimum spots to see the sunrise.
Kitelpan Peak is also known where you can see the “Sea of Clouds”. It overlooks some of the Banaue Rice Terraces but the clouds settle low so you can view them as a “sea”. When we arrived, the skyline was grey and just starting to blush pink. It didn’t take long for the sun to rise, casting colors only as Mother Earth and Mother Nature can. I love sunrises anywhere but I especially loved seeing it come over the clouds and climb, diminishing the gray and replacing it first with pink and purple then brighter hues verging towards orange and finally yellow, highlighting the fluffy white clouds.
I especially loved that it was cool. My cousin Eman just about froze to death since it was “freezing” to him but a nice crisp 50 degrees for me without any humidity so I loved it. It was just cool enough that I could wear a lightweight jacket and also appreciate the stands nearby offering hot Filipino breakfast of champorado (chocolate rice porridge), sopas (soup) and arroz caldo (rice porridge with hard boiled egg and chicken). There were multiple stands with the same offerings as well as tables to sit at. I thought it was brilliant entrepreneurship, a common trait in Filipinos, as they provided a service and good that was perfect for that experience.
Arroz Caldo at Kitelpan Peak
My mom makes a really good arroz caldo and the bowls we got were just as good (shh).  I don’t normally eat rice for breakfast but when in Rome….or Sagada. And it was a really good breakfast.
Afterwards, we headed for Echo Valley, one of the tourist spots on the map of activities provided by the Tourist Bureau. Echo Valley is where the locals bury their dead, at both a traditional cemetery as well as against the mountain side if they were to bury their dead in a hanging coffin. It’s called Echo Valley because there’s a point near the top where you can shout into the valley and hear your shout echo. I have never felt it appropriate to shout anywhere near a cemetery or where the dead are so Eman, Jessie and I passed.
Our tour guide in Echo Valley
When we first pulled into the parking lot, we found a local man sitting on the steps. Turns out he was a local guide for anyone who showed up, such as ourselves, so, for 100 pesos ($2 USD) per person, he led us into the valley and told us tidbits about the local customs and traditions on the walk.

First we made a slight climb to a traditional cemetery where he said families could choose to bury their dead here. Then we started to trek downwards on (sometimes slippery) stone steps to make our way into the valley. You need good shoes here with traction, no cute but flimsy flip flops, but serviceable shoes. I had packed a pair of tennis shoes just for the Banaue/Sagada trip but even I had to hold onto the railings as some of the stone steps were wet.

There’s a point on the upper part of the trail where you could step onto an outcropping of rocks overlooking the valley and scream into the abyss if you wanted to hear your voice echo. Hence the name “Echo Valley”. However, both my cousin and I felt that seemed disrespectful of the dead whose cemetery we were in just for the “pleasure” of hearing our own voices echo back to us. We also jokingly thought our own deceased grandmother would come back to haunt us and smack us around for being inappropriately loud among the deceased. We chose to pass on the opportunity and continue to follow our guide down the trail.

The end point of the tour before you turn back is to see the hanging coffins. They’re literally hanging on the side of the rocky mountain/hill(?), wooden coffins that had been affixed to the rock. I’m unclear how as our guide was a little difficult to understand but he showed us pictures of them affixing the coffins in crevices in the rockface, attached with wooden strips. Somehow. The reason some of the hanging coffins are shorter than others if the family has the option to “bury” their dead in a sitting position (hence the shorter coffin) or the traditional laid out position. Our own guide’s father was one of the ones in a hanging coffin as he proudly told us.

After Echo Valley, we did a brief stop at Bokong Waterfalls. It’s a short hike to a small waterfall. Hike might be overstating it as it was a very easy downward trail along stone steps. Not quite as slippery as the ones in Echo Valley so it was much easier to navigate and took no time at all. In the summer heat, I imagine it’d be refreshing. When we went it was cold and Emman and our guide, Jesse, thought the water was way too cold, even for wading.

We had originally planned to stay in Sagada for the day and return to Metro Manila the following day but we had gotten such an early start with the sunrise at Mt. Kitelpan that even by doing the Echo Valley Tour and Bokong Falls, we had pretty much exhausted most of our tourist plans by 10 am that morning. Our original plans were to catch the sunset at a different spot which were supposed to be equally breathtaking as at the Sea of Clouds but it was a long, empty day until sunset.

There were other touristy options we could’ve done but most of them involved a harder, longer hike to different waterfalls or caving. I like to think I’m fairly open to new adventures and I’d never been caving before but I hadn’t planned on going caving in the first place so I didn’t have anything appropriate to wear, including footwear. Plus, let me be honest, as soon as I read there “might” be eels and other creatures and there are parts of the cave where we would be knee-deep or waist-deep in water in the caves (not sure if that was true or not), I bailed on the caving idea. Um, eels? No.

So it was an easy decision to decide to head back to Manila a day early. I had already paid a 50% deposit at Agape Log Cabin that covered our first night’s stay and was on the hook for the second night’s stay but when we talked to the helpful folks there, they graciously agreed to release us for the second night’s stay if we were okay with paying half of the cost of the second night. I thought that was fair since it was likely too late for them to rent out our rooms that night and greatly appreciated their flexibility and understanding.
The only downside is it was another long, winding drive back. Fortunately, the weather was clear and wasn’t pouring rain like the day before. That was another reason we decided to drive back early because there were clouds gathering and we didn’t want to be caught in a similar deluge on the way back as it was more hours of driving through the mountains. We did a brief stop at one point to take some pictures where the views were particularly beautiful.

Bistek (beef steak)

The drive back was via Bagiuo, another tourist spot, but as we got closer to Baguio, the traffic got heavier so we veered slightly away, stopped for a late lunch at a place that, according to Emman, was well known for its food then headed back, reaching Manila in the evening. An early ending to my first planned tourist stop but still a good trip.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Banaue Rice Terraces, Luzon, Philippines

Banaue Rice Terraces, Luzon, Philippines - visited April 15, 2018
Aerial view on the descent to Manila
I referenced a vacation in the last couple of posts and I'm finally getting around to doing the write up. I haven't been back to the Philippines for a few years and I was due back. I normally go mostly to visit my relatives but for this trip, I wanted to see something of the country. So I decided to take a week off and go play tourist.
Descending into Ninoy Aquino International Airport

Aerial descent - almost there
I purposely arrived early on a Friday morning. The first couple of days were taken with visiting with relatives, paying my respects to my grandmother's grave at the nearby cemetery, having a memorial lunch in honor of her birthday and getting my hair straightened for a fraction of the price it would've cost me in the US. But two days later, it was time to switch to tourist mode.
My cousin, Emmanuel (Emman) and I left early on Sunday morning for the Banaue Rice Terraces. This has been on my bucket list for years and is considered the “eighth wonder of the world”. My cousin Abby had arranged for a driver/tour guide, Jesse, to take us to the terraces and a nearby town of Sagada to show us the mountain province.

Jesse arrived at 4:30 am and we were soon on the road. The Banaue Rice Terraces are quite far from Metro Manila which was our starting point. I had originally read it was an 8-10 hour drive but that’s dependent on traffic as well as weather. If you’ve never driven or been driven in the Philippines (I don’t recommend driving there unless you can list “New York cabbie” on your resume), you need to let go of all your preconceived notions about traffic laws, rules and flow. Just close your eyes and let a good driver drive you around. Otherwise, you will twist yourself into pretzel knots of stress every time you see oncoming traffic, another vehicle you swear is going to crash into you, pedestrians who you also swear are going to be brushed by cars and random dogs who don’t seem to get out of the way fast enough and you just know they’re going to end up under the wheels of a random vehicle. Except they don’t. 

As cringeworthy as I find the driving in the Philippines, I’m perpetually astonished that it all works for them. I’ve never seen a car crash there (I’m sure they happen but considering the driving, it’s mindboggling that there isn’t one every minute), I’ve never seen anyone run over or even clipped by a car and the animals casually stroll out of the way in the nick of time.  Filipino drivers are an amazing class unto themselves. 

Case in point, Jesse, our driver, was adept at navigating the traffic and, beyond the Manila area, the twisting, curving mountain roads as we headed to Banaue. If you’ve ever driven the road to Hana in Maui, imagine it something like that with twisting, winding roads, some of them becoming one lane so that you had to take turns with oncoming traffic over who goes next over that particular stretch of road. 
Unlike New York cabbies whom I’ve ridden with, there is a lot more give and take with the drivers in the Philippines. Slower vehicles are habitually passed and expected to be passed. A polite honk is a signal to let the slower driver know you’re coming up on their left and about to pass. The other quirk of driving in the Philippines is a honk is a signal that you’re planning to move forward, not an annoyance that someone pissed you off and you’re making your feelings clear about it.

The road to Hana in Maui (the Hana Highway) is 103.6 kilometers long and can take 2.5 hours to drive. From Manila to Banaue is 465.6 kilometers. It took us almost 12 hours. Yep, twisty, winding, curving mountain roads for about 9-10 of those hours. Not gonna lie, it was brutal and I was just the passenger. I can’t imagine being the driver. Knowing it was a long drive ahead of time, I had planned ahead and was listening to an audio book to while away the time. But it was still a long slog. We made a brief stop for breakfast along the way but we waited to have lunch until we got to a “top” point where a restaurant was situated for tourists such as ourselves that gave a commanding view of the rice terraces. 

And commanding they were. I took a number of pictures from a few different points where we stopped along the way. I am awed by the magnitude of the Banaue Rice Terraces. I had seen pictures of them online but it really is something to behold in person. They’re said to be over 2000 years old and were created mostly by hand and very few tools, given the time when they were created. They’re Philippines’ version of the Egyptian pyramids or China’s Great Wall. According to Wikipedia, if you put the terraces end to end, they would encircle half the globe. I can’t even wrap my mind around that. It must’ve taken generations to create and they’re still there to this day.
Since it was April, it was planting season before the rains arrived. October/November is the harvest season when the terraces would be golden with rice ready to be harvested. I’m glad I saw it when it was green. It was majestic. This is what I had come to the Philippines to see. I was born there but raised in the United States. Whenever I went back to the Philippines, it was primarily to see my relatives and we stayed mostly around the metro Manila area, with the occasional forays to Baguio or Tagaytay. This was the first time I came on my own and played tourist so far afield from home base.

I’m glad I did. Banaue isn’t a tourist spot where you go and do a bunch of “stuff”. You go to see them in person and pay homage to the generations of Filipinos who started, continued and finished the wonder of these terraces carved into mountain sides farther than the eye can see at any one point. It made me reflect the vision they had, the needs driving them at the time and the patience and perseverance it took, handed down from generation to generation by tradition and calling to create it. Also imagine the community it took as no one person did this. It was many. Many people, many families, many communities. Even factoring in the lack of tools at the time and the ingenuity not to mention sheer sweat equity, they also had to contend with the climate and weather.
We were reminded of this as, shortly after we had finished lunch and were taking more pictures, it started to rain. We had about 30 seconds of sprinkles as a warning but by the 31st second, sprinkles had turned into “deluge”. This was the tropics, after all. It really started to pour so it forced us back into the car to head for our hotel for the night. Which was about 59 kilometers from where we were, all back down those twisty, winding, curving mountain roads and took another 2 hours. Only this time, with the torrential rain, those one lanes (sometimes two) started to flood. Major, major props to our driver Jesse for navigating the downpour, slick roads, mud, flooded lane(s) and sometimes hillside erosion blocking the road with skill and precision. We never once fishtailed or stalled out or overcorrected to avoid a road hazard. It couldn’t have been easy but he did it with the same patience and skill as on the drive up under sunny, benign conditions.

Travel bucket list – Banaue Rice Terraces? Check.

Given the long, brutal drive, I confess I’m not sure I would do it again so it will go into the column of “once in a lifetime” experience (right along with the one full marathon I’ve run) but I’m glad I did it in my lifetime. It was really something to behold.