Tuesday, 7 January 2014

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...

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