I realise that I’m at risk of harping on about bus trips. But the truth is that the hours I’ve spent sitting on public transport in SE Asia have been many, and they account for some of my vivid memories of being away. So, as my friend Jack would say, I’ve got a very long and very boring story to tell, and I’m determined to get to the end of it.
I left Sagada reluctant – worried that there were other buried treasures that I had yet to unearth. After my early morning start to catch the sea of clouds sunrise, I decided to reward my body for with a couple of rounds of breakfast. The system of scheduling of transport in the Philippines is a serving suggestion only. I had been assured that buses heading south from Sagada run hourly, give or take an hour. It is a testament to the patience of the people that they always seem prepared to accept delays, cancellations, overloading, horrific crashes etc – at least more than the average Western visitor considers to be tolerable. I sat at the concrete bunker in the town square, entertaining a toddler with the chain of aluminium carabiners off my backpack, trying to distract myself from the ammoniac fumes given off from the rivulet of urine as the town’s menfolk relieved themselves into the drain behind it. The 10am bus arrived at 11am in a pall of blue diesel fumes, high-pitched brakes and rattling bolts. It seemed at this point as though my extra serving of eggs and sausages may have been a mistake – the ‘deluxe’ air-conditioned buses were finished for the morning, and my only remaining option out of town was to buy ticket for a specimen of the garden variety.
The unsmiling conductor climbed down from the bus chewing slowly. He turned his back on my questions about whether this might be the bus I needed and instead gave his attention to the ten or fifteen local people also waiting. When my turn came, he hoiked a red stream of momma juice out of the corner of his mouth and gave me one word through brown, gappy teeth – Baguio. He creaked open the side cargo doors and my pack was unceremoniously tossed in with baskets of cabbages, a bagful of durians, and half a dozen boxes of Uncle Wang’s Chew Candy. It seems Uncle Wang had made an earlier start to the day than me and had the monopoly on real estate. Despite a couple of vigorous shoulder charges and a minute of bouncing on the door with a meaty, sandalled foot, it refused to latch under its extra load. Cursing quietly in Tagalog, the conductor dragged my bag out by the straps and hurled it with even less respect into the rear locker, to bounce around in the grease and dust with spare tyres, tools and a few bundles of firewood. I was pointed into the bus with a stubby finger and a grunt, getting off to a great start by banging my head on the overhead rail as I crouched down the aisle under the surveillance of forty sets of dark, impassive eyes.
I lined myself up with the only seat that appeared to be vacant, eventually convincing my travelling companion to move his bags, banging my head again on the cargo shelf while trying to sit down. Surely, this was the smallest bus seat in creation. With my knees hard pressed into the seat in front of me and even under my full weight, my backside was still and inch or two from contact with the cushion. Oh joy. We sat slow-boiling in the sun while the conductor wandered off to restock his supplies of lime leaves and betel nut, the bus shaking loose other important bolts as it vibrated away at idle. The other passengers were as patient as ever, but I was already checking my watch by the minute and feeling the strain of Filipino public transport. Eventually, the conductor finished relieving himself in the town’s most popular drain and climbed aboard, and we crept away at a walking pace down the hill. Deciding to make the best of a bad situation I tried to strike up a conversation with the fellow next to me. Obviously not a fan of outsiders, or not knowing enough English to be confident, he looked out of the window and ignored me as well. Dressed in an oversized denim jacket with the sleeves rolled up to show his hands, he obviously wasn’t feeling the heat like I was. Evidenced by the fact that he slammed the window shut the moment we got moving fast enough to allow a faint relief of breeze to came floating in. He yanked the curtain open to let in the late morning sun, rolling down his sleeves to conserve heat. I sighed, blinking the sweat out of my eyes with my backside puckering in free space – 200m and fifteen minutes down, only 130km and seven hours to go.
How to describe the hours to follow..?
I’m sure we were already well over capacity leaving Sagada, but every few minutes someone would tap a peso coin against a metal rail. The driver would bring the bus to a reluctant, squealing halt on the impossible decline, n passengers would get off, but n+1 would climb aboard. A row of passengers would jolt awake as a new body was wedged into it, fold-down seats appearing in the middle of the rows to increase the capacity to five or six wide, then crammed in like battery hens the row would quickly settle back into its torpor.
With no ventilation and every window shut tight in the chilly 26 degree morning, the atmosphere was stifling. Every breath of air had already been through someone else’s respiratory system, this relieved only by an intermittent fresh burst when the conductor threw open the side door to let fly with a fresh gobbet of momma spit. Before long each lungful burnt with the acrid tang of cooking asbestos from the roasting hot brakes. After several minutes planning, negotiation and apologies I managed to manoeuvre myself enough to reach my water bottle off the parcel shelf to rinse my mouth. At full stretch trying to put it back it slipped from my hand and went rolling in slow motion between feet and seats to the back of the bus. No one awoke from their coma to pass it forward and being jammed in like a sardine, I couldn’t even turn around to look for it. My bladder, which I had neglected to empty in the community latrine, rolled around in my abdomen like a stray rockmelon, making each hair-raising corner a full sensory experience.
When the driver cranked up the country and western music I really lost the will to live.
The road – a continuation of the infamous Halsema highway – is absolutely death defying. The first drop-off must be several hundred metres, giving away again and again a similar distance to false valley floors – the true bottom of the valley ill defined through the hazy air. I stared out the windows left then right with eyes like overcoat buttons, muttering like an imbecile about how the landscape was impossible, and how the fact that there was a road through it was insanity. At any time, a loss of brakes, driver error or an unexpected washout would mean certain death for 59 people crammed into a bus for 48. The driver seemed to be oblivious to the danger as he raced to overtake other vehicles before the next hair-pin bend. Likewise, the other passengers seemed unconcerned, their sleeping heads rolling around in unison like balloons in a breeze.
For two hours I sweated, swore, cringed and muttered as the driver carved zigzags along the cliff face just below cloud level. The country and western singers were still whining about how much worse they had it, if anything, with even more volume. After a particularly violent episode of braking into a tight right-hander, my water bottle rolled tantalizingly close from the bowels of the bus, and while I tried to trap it with a foot that I couldn’t feel at the end of a leg that I couldn’t move, the driver spotted me in his mirror as if for the first time. At the next peso tapping, and after a terse exchange in Tagalog with the conductor, he indicated to me through lots of hand-waving and finger-pointing that I was to be moved. The conductor glared at me with dilated, unblinking eyes, evidently considering my behaviour to be generally suspicious, but began organising the shuffling of bodies, bags and boxes none the less. A few surplus cases of Uncle Wang’s were shouldered outside and thrown in on top of my filthy bag, testing its contents for fragile items. Then, to the entertainment and background commentary of the seven rows behind me, I was plucked from my bucket sized seat and helped into a more or less upright position. Not being able to feel anything below my abdomen except a pulsing bladder, I wobbled along as though recovering from an epidural, pausing to retrieve my water bottle in ultra slow-motion – like a giant infant taking his faltering first steps. By these means, I was shifted from the seat alongside the chatty, rolled-up denim jacket to this one.
I’m not sure which category of disability they felt I fitted but at that particular moment I possibly could have made a case for having deficiencies in all three areas. I would like to extend my gratitude to the management of Lizardo Transportation Corporation and their consideration of clause RA7277. Shortly after this rearrangement the bus stopped for refreshments. I paid my three pesos to splash my shoes at a urinal that only came to my knees behind an elbow height door, and the world became a happy place again. The country singers still twanged away on their guitars, moaning about tractors that wouldn’t start and horses that had run away, but with an inch of patella clearance and a pole right in front of me to swing from on the corners, the remaining five hours were relatively easy time. Finally able to distract myself from my physical discomfort and concentrate on the incredible scenery, I tried to snatch some lucky photos through the dirty, cracked perspex but eventually gave up. The depth of the valley does not translate onto film, it really needs to be seen to be disbelieved. In any case, my depth perception was broken, my brain no longer believing what my eyes were telling it.
Eventually we left the mountains behind and the density of humanity increased exponentially, the kaleidoscopic snapshot of people’s lives almost as fascinating as the landscape had been. Soon enough, we were within the skirts of Baguio, home of the same peristaltic gridlock of traffic that I have come to expect in any Filipino city. The bus gasped and squealed it’s way through the congested tangle of scooters and jeepneys to arrive at a confused parking lot that doubled as a bus station.
I unfolded myself from the seat, telescoping myself into a upright arrangement, and staggered into the dusk of Baguio, straight into a Health Department declared, Dengue fever epidemic.