Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Kalinga and Mr. Baculi...

As the bus chugged along the mountain road winding itself through the mountains the landscape became more and more intense. The scenery was stunning and I just couldn't wait to arrive in Kalinga. I had been eager to travel there as it seemed - according to the stuff I'd read anyway - to be in stark contrast to the 'touristy' towns of Banaue and Sagada in that it was almost completely untouched by tourism. In this day and age I think it is a far cry to be able to say that for almost anywhere that you visit but considering that Tinglayen only has two guesthouses and that anywhere else in the province requires some level of travel with a fair amount of walking in the mountains then I guess this is one of the least 'touristy' places that I have ever visited.

We arrived in the late morning after about 3-4 hours on a rickety bus but it was fine as there was a cool mountain breeze coming through the windows and a decent view wherever you looked perhaps with the only exception being the driver... Anyway after arriving we saw the rapids of the Chico river and the suspension bridge that crossed it and that was where we assumed we needed to go. At the foot of the bridge I looked downstream of the river and saw that there were some children holding automatic weapons. These guys were probably about 12 and I guess it is a bit scary that children so young are placed in charge of such powerful killing tools but this was a different world and I wasn't here to judge as my knowledge of tribal politics in the area at this point was non-existent. We crossed the bridge and saw a short man with a scraggly white beard grinning a half-toothed smile at us. He announced that he was the local tour guide and village chief and that his name was Victor and that he'd meet us at the guesthouse in the village later on which seemed like a fair deal considering he hadn't had chance to attend his usual Sunday mass. So head to the guesthouse we did and after a lunch of vegetable soup and rice we got chatting. Victor said that it was too late in the day to leave on a hike and that we would have to wait in the village until the next day but that there were a few closer villages than where we would inevitably be heading. The destination for the next day would be to visit the village of Buscalan to see the village and meet the tattoo artist Whang-od of National Geographic fame. So with that basically decided for us - as we were informed that travelling to other parts of the region was unsafe due to tribal disagreements - we were content with spending some time in the local village. Unfortunately we had just missed the killing of a pig for Sunday dinner but I was pretty happy that we were included as guests and not just relegated to eating in the guesthouse. We walked into the village centre and met some of the local men sat around and for what of a better term just basically shooting the shit as guys the world over do. Luckily there were plenty of English speakers and after a somewhat tense few minutes we managed to break the ice as soon as we started to drink shots of gin with them. We got tipsy fairly quickly and were treated to "polutan" which I think is just a Filipino term for drinking snacks which were absolutely delicious. From what I can remember - and being slightly drunk probably helped the taste - we were given a salted pig-skin that had been deep fried with garlic and chilli. This was followed by pork broth and rice with what I think was boiled pork and it was absolutely fine. Before we knew it we were drinking gin in the home of one of the guys whose name was Fasim, it was really cool and I remember thinking how nice it was that these people were so open and friendly. Two of the guys we were drinking with soon decided that it was time to go for a walk and trot merrily - or drunkenly - around the villages but not without a locally brewed coffee first. We walked through some rice fields with absolutely stunning views of the mountains and in particular one known as "Sleeping Beauty". We were lucky enough to meet some of the local older ladies and see their amazing tattoos and they were kind enough to speak to us through one of the Tinglayen villagers whose name was Bobby and seemed to love gifts of matches and brown sugar but were more than happy to provide us with coffee and chat. It soon got dark though and after the second or third village in the loop we had to find our way back to the main road and head to the guesthouse. It proved to be a great day but I was glad to eat yet again with the Filipina at the guesthouse and her German husband. We had a meal of Spezle (I have no idea how to spell it and I feel a bit ignorant towards German cuisine writing this) and it was lovely but proved to make me pretty tired and helped to send me off to sleep but not before Victor came to see us to finalise details of the next day and tell us how drunk Pedro and Fasim were by this point.

Early the next day we met Victor and headed towards the main road to catch a jeepney to the trail head that we were to hike from to get to Buscalan. The jeepneys here are few and far between and so we had to sit on the roof - this was my first time doing so - but it was a splendid way to enjoy the views without the dust of the road or the smell of fuel slighting the crisp mountain air. We got to the trailhead and I remember the walk for the first hour and thinking that it was lovely and that the pace was not too bad. Eventually we got to a hut with a lady and her kids - presumably their home - and we had a rest there and chatted for a bit before continuing for a little while longer and meeting some more people that were resting in little more than a shelter. It turned out that they were villagers from Buscalan and one of the guys joined us for the rest of the walk. It was at this point that the trail thinned dramatically with little more than a few inches between the path and a sheer drop and considering how many times I've fallen while hiking on trails in Taiwan I was feeling a little bit dubious at the prospect of hiking for another hour or so along this trail... I was particularly comforted by Victor's sage advice however: "This is the dangerous (bit)... You fall... You die!"

After only about another forty minutes or so which felt like longer due to my unfitness we were in the village of Buscalan and having coffee with the villagers there. It was at this point that I was presented with the opportunity to get my first tattoo. There was a book with lots of potential designs and so I was browsing for quite a long time as to what I permanently wanted to put on my skin.There was little in the way of pressure though as another guy whose name I later learned was Gio was being tattooed. He seemed to have an affinity with the local culture here and I guess what is deemed a traditional part of the culture in The Philippines. I can imagine how amazing it must be to live in a country with such socio-economic and socio-polital differences in such short distances from one another. Regardless I decided that I liked one of the designs that Gio had and so that was what I got. It was a pattern based on the skin of a local snake and named Finac-Fa-Oo. It looks cool and to be able to say that I have a tattoo from possibly the last traditional Kalinga tattoo artist - Fang-Od - is something pretty special to me. She was a really nice lady and loved making fat jokes as I sat there topless with my belly hanging out while she tapped away and my new tattoo. Of course this was made obvious by the cacophony of chuckles from the locals but Victor felt it necessary to translate exactly what was being said anyway. While this was going on Jules and Chris went off with some of the local girls to chat and walk in the fields. After chatting for a while with Gio we went off for a walk around the village and to see where the other guys might be and we failed to find them but did find a girl who was happy to sell us some pancakes she was cooking and so we sat with her for a while. Upon arriving back at dusk as the sun was setting over the mountains we found Chris and Jules and they were looking quite happy with themselves and appeared failry baked from the consumption of some local herb. They had the giggles and we ate a modest meal of corned beef stew and rice with beans which when your hungry tastes much better than it sounds. As the night progressed Victor produced a couple of bottles of gin that we had bought after breakfast and we consumed that with the locals who produced some more 'polutan' this time being a cooked and marinated brand of dog meat which as it goes is pretty tasty. I'd never eaten dog before and as I'm writing this I haven't since but I would again if the opportunity arose but ultimately I won't be looking for soi dogs to murder and eat here in Bangkok anytime soon. After the gin had gone we walked outside and sat around enjoying the night air and watching the stars as Chris and Jules were pissing themselves laughing at Victor and his rather promiscuous stories which have to be heard to be believed and sound ridiculous coming from my mouth or written in my words but when coming from his mouth and with his enthusiasm it's hard to believe that they aren't true... After that though we went to sleep, well myself and Victor did in the spare room of Whang-Od's hut. We were essentially sleeping on the floor but it was a fine place to crash considering the other option was to sleep outside. As it turns out Victor was snoring extremely loudly and by the sounds of it I was trying pretty hard to match it but all is well that ends well I suppose and as it happens I had a great night's sleep. And the next day we headed south towards Bontoc to part ways after what proved a great few days in the province...


Banaue and Bontoc

Flying from Cebu to Manila was straightforward enough. I had a quick flirt with disaster at an internet cafe near the airport in Cebu City and nearly lost all of my underwater photos from Oslob and Malapascua but fortunately I had enough time to download a program to recover them and even uploaded them to Facebook in time to create backups.

After arriving at the airport in Manila I realised that I hadn't figured out exactly how I was going to get from Manila to Banaue which ended up being an overnight bus after quickly perusing the Lonely Planet over a coffee. I decided to jump in a taxi and head to the 'bus station' which is a loose term in Manila as there isn't really such thing as a terminal. All of the bus companies have their own depots and you have to make sure you get the right one to avoid complications. When I got to the bus station there was a bus leaving within the hour so I tried to buy a ticket for that and failed miserably. This meant that I had to wait in the station overnight  in order to catch the first bus going north at about 4:30am. It was a ballache and I found myself sleeping on some plastic chairs using my backpack as a pillow while there was a curious looking dwarf hanging around haranguing the drivers and honking the horn when they left their buses to do whatever it is long distance bus drivers do after a shift. The heat and the honking made for an unpleasant kip and after a while I just gave up and put my Ipod on for a couple of hours and listened to an acoustic album by Stephen Marley among other things before the bus departed.

Once I got to the north I had to jump off at a town in the middle of nowhere called Solano and catch a jeepney heading to Banaue. I found a jeepney and after about an hour of being eyed-up by the rather promiscuously looking 'bus conductor' - can't really think of a better term - who had a rat tail type mullet haircut and a demeanour that sent a feeling of distrust through me, I was off to Banaue.... finally. On the jeepney to Banaue I met a guy that was travelling with his family and funnily enough just so happened to be a guide. He had an instantly obvious addiction to Moma (the local term for betel nut) which was given away by the intense red stains on his teeth, but he seemed like a nice enough chap. He gave me a tip to a fairly good guesthouse in the city that was away from the humdrum of the guesthouses in the centre. I was pretty grumpy by this point from the lack of good sleep and all the travelling so I just grudgingly agreed to use him as a guide the next day as he seemed affable enough up until the sales push.

On my first full day in the Banaue area I had agreed to do a fairly simple trip taking in the rice terraces of Hapao and then popping up to the viewpoint in Banaue on the way back and stopping off at some traditional Ifuago homes somewhere along the way. All was pretty good despite the limit of the view from the tricycle. I think the problem with arranging transport for me became that the only options anyone seemed to offer were either private jeepneys which were way too expensive for one person or tricycles which basically have sidecars with a restricted view. Nobody talks about the public jeepneys early in the mornings which I presume the locals must use as this seems like the only cost-effective mode of transport in the area, either that or people don't really leave... I enjoyed the ride at times and even took the punctured tyre we endured fairly well on the way back as we got to chill out in a random village on the way and talk to some guys who seemed pretty chilled. The one thing that I enjoyed about the whole day was the atmosphere and I was quickly becoming enamoured with the Cordillera. They are amongst the most beautiful mountains that I've ever seen and this was culminated in an amazing view over the Banaue terraces and the mountains beyond with the former being a source of pride for the Filipinos.
The rice terraces in this area are around 2000 years old I believe and it was amazing to see them even though they weren't the intense green they would have been had I visited when the rice was fully grown the views were still breathtaking.

The second day I agreed to use the same guide again and the destination for the day was the rice terrace at Batad. The ride there was a bit bumpier than the day before and the guide was fine but started to annoy me a bit. I'm pretty overweight and not at all physically fit but for some reason that day he had a habit of reiterating that he didn't think I should do all of the trek because I'm fat which obviously annoyed me a tad around the fifteenth time and so I just kept telling him that I really wanted to do it and was determined in an attempt to annoy him back a little. When you get to the track at Batad (you can avoid walking up this by taking a public jeepney it seems) you get to an extremely dusty road which they may get to concreting soon. After twenty minutes or so of walking - for a fatty like me anyway - you get to what is called 'The Saddle' which affords splendid views out over the mountains. My guide started to annoy me a bit more when we saw a pretty Filipina with a western guy whom he had rather untactfully deduced was being paid for her affections. This didn't bother me that much in and of itself but did mean that I'd had to have a passing small-talk dialogue with a couple that my guide had quite obviously offended with his pointing and whispering with his hand over his mouth as if he was some 1950s' cartoon character. After about a ten minute diatribe on interracial couples I think he realised that I didn't really care and stopped talking about it. I understand that this might make me sound a bit grumpy but in all fairness the personal lives of strangers and their choice of partners is pretty trivial subject matter to me. She happened to be attractive and I'd have much rather spoken admiringly of her form or something...  After hiking the rest of the way to Batad village we had a pretty good lunch of adobo and rice which is a sort of pork stew with chilli, garlic and vinegar and is a dish that's hard not to like, unless you happen to be a vegetarian. After the meal and taking some photos of yet another spectacular view I decided it was time to head back to the trike and head for Banaue.

The only other thing of note that happened in Banaue was seeing some fireflies dancing around in the dark on a walk back from the town to my guesthouse after dinner that evening. I'd never seen a firefly up until this point and despite not being able to get a good pic or video it was an experience that I was happy to savour. It was a really pleasant surprise and something that I'll remember for a long time. It happened quite spontaneously and was completely unexpected. The next morning I left and headed for Bontoc. I had no real interest in travelling to Bontoc except that it was the interchange to the mountain province of Kalinga and that was my next intended destination. On the way to Bontoc I took a jeepney that left pretty promptly as far as countryside transport goes and that is where I met Chris and Jules and a few American girls who had recently finished some time in the peace corps. Between us we spent a good deal of time chatting and enjoying the views of the mountain roads with the company of a Filipino family on holiday from Manila. It was a pleasant ride as far as bus travel in Asia goes - there were certainly worse bus trips to come - and we arrived in Bontoc safely and soundly by about 12.

After finding somewhere to stay, the French guy Jules figured that he did not want to stay in Bontoc at this point and would rather head to the next town of Sagada and spend the night there and come back in the morning. By this point we had established that we were going catch the early bus to Kalinga in the morning but seeing as the early bus left at about 7 am I had my doubts as to whether or not Jules would make it back in time the next day. While in Bontoc for the day we learned that there was a fiesta in town and despite missing most of it we were lucky to have an entire outdoor food market at out disposal which I enjoyed thoroughly. I can't remember how many shawarmas I had but it's safe to assume that I had quite a few... and probably a few more. It was here that I also decided I'm not really arsed about the iced dessert drink known as halo-halo which is essentially milk and ice with lots of things floating in it and a good dose of sugar. I mean it was alright but not really my thing. There was also a local martial arts competition which seemed to be a Filipino adaptation of kickboxing that incorporated slams. It was pretty good and provided lots of entertainment. After that there were just some good chats and an early night to be had after a beer as we needed to be on the bus to Kalinga the next morning.

After breakfast of some bread with Chris in the local market we made our way to the bus that would take us to Tinglayen, a town in the mountain province of Kalinga. We had our bags on the bus and were informed that we wouldn't be leaving for a while and had time to get some water so we took the opportunity to return to the spot where we had planned to meet up with Jules. We didn't think he was coming and after a few minutes we had decided to get back to the bus before it left without us and at the last minute, what I presume was the first jeepney of the say arriving from Sagada pulled up right in front of us and out popped Jules with a big smile on his face as if to say: "weren't expecting me, were you?!" and so we headed north, further into the lusciously green Cordillera mountains...


After leaving Oslob I only had a few days left before catching a flight back to Luzon. This meant that I just wanted to relax and make the most of my last few days on Cebu. Moalboal is only really known for it's diving and while not the prettiest of holiday resorts it does boast a fairly nice, albeit thin slice of white sand beach on which to while away the hours. In essence it was the perfect end to my stay on this island.

After arriving in downtown Moalboal it became pretty obvious that I wasn't where I needed to be and so I had to enlist the services of a trike driver. Trike drivers tend to be a varied bunch with some guys being friendly and genuine and others being fairly sketchy. I realised this particular trike driver was sketchy when within two minutes of meeting him he was offering to find me a lady friend of the ilk that demands a fee... After politely declining on numerous occasions on the trip from the town centre to the beach he politely enquired whether or not I was homosexual because I didn't want to sleep with one of his sisters/cousins but did inform me of where I could get a cheap room and on that note he did prove useful. After bargaining for a while on the price for two nights in a room that looked like a prison cell - complete with bars on the windows - I managed to get an agreeable price and set my backpack down.I managed to catch sunset and have a beer before falling into a deep sleep.

The next day - and really my only full day here - I decided that I didn't want to do anything but unwind, so after a decent breakfast I found another trike driver to take me to what was locally known as White Sand Beach. This beach was nicer than the rocky outcrop and patch of sand by the prison cell room but I avoided staying the night here because it was a bit out of my price range. What was definitely in my price range however was finding a beach bar and eating scampi and chips and drinking copious amounts of iced tea while reading The Kite Runner. I read the book from cover to cover that day and found a bar looking right out onto the water where - with the exception of a couple of wrinklies from Germany or Austria - I was the only person around. It was perfectly serene - besides the complaints and grumbles of the old couple in a language I don't understand.

Moalboal was a cool end to the Cebu leg of this foray into The Philippines and so I found myself heading back to Cebu City and catching a flight back to Luzon...