Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Manong and the Jeepney: Up in the Philippine's Cordillera Mountains

Friday, April 21, 2017

Manong and the Jeepney: Up in the Philippine's Cordillera Mountains

Batad Rice Terraces
Despite the thirty-year age difference, the connection with the Slovenian couple was immediate. Bill and I met them on the tour of the world’s longest navigable underground river in Palawan, consistently on lists of best islands (and beaches) in the world. While sampling crocodile sisig at Kinabuch Grill, Katarina suggested, “Come with Jure and me to Banaue. We’ve seen the best of the Visayas, time for the best of Luzon.” Luzon is the largest of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands. The Visayas is the central island group.

We had slept most of the nine-hour night bus ride from Manila to Banaue. When we felt the whiff of cold mountain air on our faces and smelled the fresh scent of pines, we knew we had arrived.  Bill and Jure carried our bags up the uneven wooden stairs to our room on the third floor of the modest mountain chalet. Katarina and I stood there fascinated by a short, dark, wrinkled mountain man, an Igorot, noisily chewing betel nuts wrapped in leaves at the token dining area behind the reception desk.

Banaue Rice Terraces
“Jeepney, Ma’am?” he asked. He was referring to the vestiges of America’s WWII presence, jeeps that have been extended and colorfully decorated. They have become the norm for going around. “Manong, hindi kami mayaman,” I pleaded, using the Ilocano term for an elderly man and explaining we were not rich. Soon a Spanish couple, a Dutch couple, and three foreign students arrived, looking to hire the driver, too. Satisfied with the rate I had negotiated, they joined us on a two-day plan.

Manong took us first to the nearby Banaue Rice Terraces. It was a spectacular sight, soaring over 5,000 feet into the sky. These “stairways to heaven” were carved by the Igorots with their own bare hands, probably 2,000 years ago, to create fields for planting their staple food. Banaue, together with the other less accessible terraces, Batad, Mayoyao, Hapao, and Kiangan, was UNESCO’s first cultural World Heritage Site. 

a jeepney
On the way to Batad, we encountered a jeepney so packed people were clinging to its rails and perched atop its roof. There must have been twenty people where only ten should have been. Intrigued, Jure climbed to the top of our vehicle and swore, “The view is better from up here!” As expected, Manong deftly negotiated the one-lane mud road marked with deep ruts. The ride became an adventure in itself. I thought we would never make it.  But, we did.

At the end of the road, Manong parked his jeepney and led us to the forty-five-minute descent on foot to Batad. There were wooden slats at first, but later they disappeared.  Parts of the path were almost vertical. Bill and I fell more and more behind the pack. Finally, we caught up, breathed pure, clean mountain air, and beheld the jewel that is Batad. The village is a cluster of huts at the middle and bottom of the glistening terraces that radiate upwards around them. Only a few get to Batad; those who do are hugely rewarded.

burial cave
The next day Manong was early for our trip to Sagada, the other pride of the Cordillera Mountains. At the cusp of a U-shaped portion of the narrow mountain pass, however, we were stopped by a landslide that had earlier occurred. Luckily, on-site city engineers helped us cross the fallen boulders while looking down a steep drop-off. That was the scariest walk of our lifetime. Manong and his jeepney could not make it, but he shouted to another driver on the other side to take care of us.

He took us right to the hanging coffins, a traditional way of burying Igorots who are held in high respect, been married, fathered children, and had grandchildren. There were several sites where we saw them from afar. But at Sumaguing “Burial” Cave, we saw them up close, hanging all over the sides.

an Igorot couple
Igorots who had been following us told us, in their broken English, about another adventure, a cave connection trip. The men were convinced. After negotiating the fees for two guides, all of them disappeared into the cave. The women decided to wait in the nipa hut by its mouth.

As we relished native rice cakes filled with caramelized coconut shreds bought from the sari-sari store, Katarina insisted, “Tell them about your incredible love story.” You see, at 60, after retiring and migrating to the US, I met Bill (then 65) on the Net. After more than a year of writing and dating, we married on a private ship, cruising Washington’s Lake Union. We were on our honeymoon meant to show him my native land. 

In about a couple of hours, the men arrived, dirty and tired, after emerging from Lumiang Cave on the other side of the mountain. “What an adventure!” they shouted, telling us of the steep drops, small crevices, stark darkness, the bats and their droppings. But the clear highlight was the thirty-foot long water hole they had to swim across at the bottom of Sumaguing Cave before they could go up to Lumiang. 

the bulldozer broke down
As luck would have it, a bulldozer working on the road spanning a small valley had broken down, stopping everyone on the way out of Sagada. As far as the eye could see, vehicles were lined on both sides. “We have a flight out tomorrow,” the Barcelona couple anxiously said. We hurriedly paid the driver then walked to the end of the line on the other side. There we found another jeepney that was willing to take us back to Banaue! When we got to site of the first landslide, the path had been cleared. On the other side, patiently waiting for us, were Manong and his jeepney.

the landslide cleared
This is what best travel should be. Spectacular scenes, extraordinary escapades, and a peek at a fascinating way of life are the utmost basics. Having good local people take care of you and making lifelong friends are huge bonuses.  And Bill ending up loving not just me but also the country from where I came will make this trip hard to top.

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