16. A side serving of rice

On the spur of the moment I decided to jump on a red-eye horror bus ride from Manila to the North of Luzon. It was a risky decision given that it is wet season – the unpredictable rain and potential for typhoons can bring roads to a standstill or leave travellers stranded for days. But the area has an impressive reputation, so I decided that the risk was justifiable. I find buses about as comfortable as aeroplanes, but hoped that on a 9pm night bus I would sleep through the worst of the trip and be somewhere new and exciting by morning. Unfortunately, the air conditioning was set to a level comfortable for polar mammals and the blindingly bright overhead lights flashed on and off randomly through the night. Additionally, the driver worked the throttle and the brakes with equal fury, and swung on the wheel with enough determination to keep the passengers heads flapping around like seaweed in a current. Not that any of this seemed to have an impact on the local passengers who seem to be able to sleep in any conditions, and who were universally snoring and gurgling within minutes of take-off. But, with my legs folded up like those of a deceased spider, and the seat in front of me laid so far back that the pom-pom of the dude’s beanie was only inches from my nose, the 300km/ 10hr trip was a special kind of hell. My plans to sleep failed. A awkward hour of head-bobbing half-sleep into my friend’s ridiculous hat left me with a sore neck and completely unrefreshed. I decided to stay awake and keep an eye on my increasingly fatigued self in the window, as reflected by the interior strobe light-show. By 5am my eyes felt like over-cooked hard boiled eggs and my mouth tasted like I had been kissed by a goat. But then the dawn broke.

Neither words nor pictures do justice to the scenery of the Banaue and the surrounding villages. They are absolutely breath-taking. All of my discomfort forgotten, I folded myself up in the seat with my nose pressed to the glass, and enjoyed the majestic terraced valleys in the dawn light while everyone else slept. This mountain area is famous for its rice terraces, and they are one of the prevailing iconic images of the Philippines. Using only primitive hand tools, it is believed that these terraces were scratched out of the mountain sides around 1000BC. The system of agriculture remains very much unchanged since that time. There is a complete absence of mechanisation – all rice crops are grown here by means of manual labour only and an ingenious method of irrigation. By these means, small allotments of terraces have been handed down, along with the knowledge of how to work them, through family lines for at least the last 100 generations. Everything grown here is 100% organic and certified GMO free. It is little wonder that these valleys of the northern Philippines have been recognised with UNESCO world heritage listing.

I tumbled off the bus at 6.15am into the market square of a town that had evidently been up and busy for a few hours already. The tourist trade is very quiet during the low season, and loaded up like a beast of burden, I obviously made a more interesting display for the hundred odd locals than the stalls of fruit or fresh baked bread. The prospective guides are obviously aware of the bus timetables and were assembled in the market square en masse. Being hungry for work they were all over me like a fat kid on a chocolate bar. I managed to Capoeira my way through the crowd, deflecting all of them except one. He wasn’t taking no for an answer, and as I strode up the hill looking for accommodation he shambled after me in his over-sized army jacket, rolled up trousers and thongs. He clung to me like a barnacle, and as I walked in and out of each hotel in turn he would nod sagely as though he couldn’t agree more with my decision making. I finally settled on a middle ranged homestay and ordered some breakfast, not realising that the moment I sat down I became a reluctant captive audience.

Like many of the older men in the area, he had red/ brown stained teeth from chewing momma – a betel nut/ tobacco/ lime mixture popularized by its addictive, mild narcotic effect. A tell-tale line of rust marked a path from his lower lip to his Adam’s apple where the juice had run down his chin from a poorly controlled spit. Even in the early morning light his eyes were almost black from unnaturally dilated pupils. An unnerving sight, especially given the way that he was ogling my breakfast. But, he seemed lucid enough and I did need a guide, so we haggled on price and shook hands. He introduced himself as Walter, and I as Brett. I am getting used to the way that the syllables of my name refuse to roll off the Asian tongue, so for the next 24hrs or so I was somewhere between Fresh and Breast and Bath, and I came from Argentina in Europe.  After breakfast I headed upstairs for a cold shower and to change clothes. But Walter wasn’t letting his day’s work out of his sight. He clung to me like a barnacle, and even after I gently closed my room door in his face I’m sure that I could hear him breathing through the keyhole.

To his credit, Walter and his gasping little 155cc tricycle put on a cracking good tour. Chewing his momma, and spitting well aimed gobbets of red juice over his shoulder, we revved up and down the sheer hills of Banaue, Bangaan and Batad. Heads turned as we flashed by, people obviously wondering how he had managed to stuff a flesh coloured ladder into his motorbike canopy. I do believe that he gave me the best experience that could be crammed into 24hrs, finishing with a hike down into the Batad valley and a reasonably private swim at the waterfall. I paid him at the end of the day and tipped him well for his genuinely good service. Under no obligation at all, he was back at my homestay at 7.30am sharp the next morning, the same (or different) red line down his chin, smiling a brown smile and again ogling my breakfast with black, unblinking eyes. He insisted on loading myself and my bags into his trike, before carting me off to the bus depot, barking a mouthful of Tagolog instructions at the driver as to how well I must be treated. We shook hands warmly, Walter insisting that I come again soon and that I recommend him well to all of my Argentinian family in Europe. Such is the level of hospitality of the Igorot people.

The Halsema highway, from Banaue, through Bontoc, to Sagada, was once considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous roads. This miracle of engineering started life as a goat track that was scratched out of the cliff face. As time has gone by and demand on it has increased, it has slowly been widened and improved. The risks of driving along it include being pulverized by landslides and falling boulders from above, and plummeting several hundred metres into a ravine below where a grisly, fireball ending awaiteth. The odds for both outcomes shorten considerably in wet season, the roads being at their most treacherous. I was crammed into the back corner of a minivan already packed with the flesh and baggage of eleven other largish Western bodies. Prior to setting off the driver was kind enough to set our nerves at ease by demonstrating how the sliding door – our only escape route – could only be opened from the outside with a craftily placed screwdriver . We set off up the hill with the motor red-lining, the driver doing his best to test the overloaded minivan’s tipping point at every hairpin and switchback. The trip would have been terrifying if the view hadn’t been so spectacular. Rather than concentrate on my impending mortality, we scorched along with my arm poking up out of the back right window, trying to get lucky photos over the roof of the bus. Unfortunately, we were packed in so tight that once out, it had to stay out – me looking every inch the tourist, the van looking like it had an over-sized, sunburn-pink aerial. Every so often the weight of bodies would sway away and I could pull it in again, only to poke it back out as the next valley view unfolded. The trip should have been horrifying, but aside from my trucker’s tan, it really was one of the most amazing driving trips I’ve ever been on.

Bayyo viewpoint (10)

Lucky shots along the Halsema highway

Within three hours, and after the driver laboured for a good five minutes with his screwdriver and an increasingly forceful knee, we were deposited on the sloping streets of misty, woodsy Sagada.

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