Tuesday, 7 June 2016

North to Banaue and Sagada - part two of a Philippines journey.

I recently visited the Philippines for the first time. After spending a few days in the sweltering heat of Manila, I left the city behind for a six day road trip that would eventually take me, my stoical driver and my excellent guide to Vigan, about 400 kilometers to the north and with many memorable sites and experiences in-between.

One hour outside the city we came to our first stop, Bacolor, a small town in Pampanga Province. Like many other settlements in the region it was affected by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo which caused the deaths of more than 800 people, the destruction of 200,000 acres of farmland and 800,000 head of livestock.  But this was not the end of it and Pinatubo continued to produce mudflows, known as lahars, for a number of years, causing further damage and necessitating evacuations. One such lahar, on 3rd September 1995 buried San Guillermo Parish Church to half of its 12 metres height. 

Two earlier editions of the church had been lost to earthquakes and Bacolor's residents, not wishing to lose this one decided to dig the church out themselves. With the benefit of very few tools, the citizens removed sufficient mud to enable the church to be brought back into use, albeit  with a much lower roof than previously. It is possible to see the extent of the damage from what at first glance appear to be odd, half moon windows at floor height but which are in fact the upper parts of the windows, the rest now submerged. The back of the church shows similar evidence. 

The determination of the local people to save their beloved church may seem surprising to those of us who live in the west, but the Philippines is a devout Christian country with more than 80% of the people identifying as Catholic and many attending church. Evidence of this devotion can be seen everywhere - the little shrines to Mary in the towns and cities, signs on the ubiquitous "jeepneys" calling on divine protection and even the OMG garage we passed on the road to Vigan.

I came across another Filipino cultural more at Bacolor. After paying a few pesos to use the facilities, the smiley lady looking after the church asked me if I was traveling alone. In a way I was and so to her obvious surprise I said yes. My guide explained that it is unusual for Filipinos to do things by themselves rather than with family, friends or some other group. I had already noticed that few people sit alone in cafes here and on my arrival in Manila there were large groups of friends and relatives to meet returning Filipinos.

Leaving Bacolor, we continued on what was to be a ten and a half hour journey to Banaue. I passed the time watching the clouds floating between the distant Cordillera mountains and enjoying the lush green agricultural landscape. We passed through countless small towns, all of them with a church and most of them with fast food places, street food stalls and shops selling motor parts. Sometimes we would see a little, brightly painted school, some displaying large banners proclaiming themselves to be "child friendly". The other traffic provided diversions too with huge trucks carrying goods of all kinds, fleets of jeepneys and the smaller motor tricycles with a small carriage containing a person or persons, their shopping and on one occasion...a pig. The pig looked comfortable if bemused although I doubt he enjoyed the end of his journey.

And then we were in Banaue. It was dark and raining when we arrived and so there was little to do other than to check in to the Banaue Hotel, a large rambling hostel like establishment, in need of some tlc but with a certain charm. Waking early the next morning I opened my curtains to find that I had a stunning view of some of the famous rice terraces, several of which form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site listing. This pleasant surprise was just a precursor to a day full of wonderful views, some of which I enjoyed from the roof of a jeepney, having been persuaded that I wouldn't fall off and that it was the best place from which to enjoy the terraces. Thank you Joanna!

Built over 2000 years ago by the local Ifugao people, the mud walled terraces are an amazing feat of engineering, maximising the use of land for rice cultivation, whilst the waters are also used to breed telapia and to grow various vegetables for local consumption. It is possible to hike through the terraces, climbing to the top from where there are breathtaking views of the valleys below, some with small villages at the centre, but all with those clear lines defining each level. At the time of my visit the fields were coloured the greenest of greens. If visiting in December, before the rice is grown, I am told that the hillside resembles an enormous mirror with the clear water on the terraces reflecting the surrounding peaks. I'd like to see that.

The terraces attract many different birds and insects. I was fascinated by the bright orange bodied dragonflies that resemble chillies. A brown/ deep red dragonfly had four almost square propeller-like wings and a further species had big, deep green eyes and a black body. I have always liked dragonflies, possibly due to their being used as a motif in art nouveau design but I learned in Banaue that they can eat between 50 and 100 mosquitos each per day which greatly increased my admiration for them. I don't like mosquitos but they like me. A lot. Avocados and mangos grow around the terraces, and some of them had dropped their fruit to be enjoyed by the bird population which includes a species with a bright orange fan tail. We also spotted a pair of kingfishers perched on a telegraph wire when we left Banaue. Although beautiful, birds are unwelcome guests in the rice fields and various methods are used to scare them away. These include scarecrows, and my favourite, a rope with a series of cans attach to it, pulled from time to time by someone sitting patiently in the fields. The noise of the cans scares the birds away. At least for a while.

The Ifugao produce many skilled craftspeople. Its possible to see and purchase their work including wood carvings and textiles directly from the craftsmen and women in the villages, at the large shop in the Banaue Hotel (where you can find items from various parts of the country) and even from tiny kiosks set into the hillside that also sell drinks and snacks to tourists visiting the terraces. I enjoyed a big mug of local coffee brewed at a stall operated by three children helping their mum during the school holidays.

After a day spent on the terraces and another night's sleep at the hotel, we were back on the road to travel the 190 kilometres or so to Sagada in the Mountain province. Before reaching our destination we made  a short stop in Bontoc which has a good, small museum exhibiting clothes, crafts and other cultural items of the Kalinga and Ifugao people. The items are well displayed together with photographs of the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras, taken by Eduardo Masferre from the 1930's onwards. The pictures show the day to day life of his subjects as well as important events including marriages, festivals and traditions. The photos are not voyeuristic and his affection for the people, their life and traditions is obvious. There is an excellent book of his work - People of the Philippine Cordillera, photographs 1934-56. It is extremely rare and extremely expensive. If you have £799 to spare you can buy a copy here from Amazon. At least you can at time of writing. I've seen the book and covet a copy. The museum is set in a pleasant garden with some reconstructed traditional homes that can also be visited. The Masferre family maintain a hotel, restaurant and a very good food shop in Sagada - the Masferre Inn where I would spend the next two nights.

Sagada has a number of attractions, including caves, waterfalls and the Echo Valley hanging coffins. The local Igorot people have intricate and detailed traditions relating to burial. People buried in the traditional way were not placed in the ground but in caves or on cliff sides. The place of being laid to rest depended on the way they had died, their status and the services they had rendered to their communities and families. Women who had died in childbirth were buried in a particular place, murder victims in another, with separate locations for other causes of death. The most prominent people and those who had significantly helped their communities could be buried on the cliff side. Most people today are buried in the ground but there have been some cliff side burials within the last few years. Visitors can get very close to the coffins in the caves, some of which are extremely ornate with lizards and other creatures carved on to them. The more ornate the coffin, the greater the status of the deceased.

Local guides can take visitors deep into the caves around the town. This is not for the feint hearted as it includes passing through some very tight and claustrophobic spaces and getting very wet. I passed on this and chose instead to hike to the small, Bokong waterfall where a group of young people were trying to outdo each other with their dives from the top of the fall before coming up gasping for breath from the chilly water.

Sagada has something of a micro-climate and with day time temperatures in the low 20's it was a welcome break from the heat and humidity of Manila and Banaue. This may be why the area is host to some amazingly coloured butterflies including pale yellow and black and white patterned species. Cevat coffee beans grow here too - the ones that need to pass through a cat's system before being processed for drinking. Regular readers will know of my coffee addiction, but I resisted the temptation on this occasion. On the subject of coffee (and food), Sagada can boast a vegetarian restaurant - Gaia - a rare find in the Philippines. All of the products are organic, locally grown and somewhat intriguingly, the menu refers to an organic pig that gets to eat the leftovers! Food is served on a terrace and I thoroughly enjoyed my sweet potato soup, vegetable chips, sesame cookies and coffee whilst admiring the view. Gaia also has a small shop where you can buy organic items, souvenirs and even borrow a book from a small library.

The Ganduyan Museum is another Sagada highlight. The sculptures, jewelry and artifacts were collected by the now sadly deceased Christina Aben. In addition to preserving the cultural heritage of the local people, she was a fine artist and craftswomen. Her son now runs the museum and gives a thoroughly engaging explanation of the collection interspersed with incisive humour. The museum does not receive government support so if you go please make a donation to help ensure this important work continues. Part of the museum presentation was about wedding traditions. We were told that when there is a wedding in this part of the Philippines, everyone is invited. We saw evidence of this the next day when Sagada came to a standstill as a wedding being celebrated in the centre of town attracted hundreds of guests, many of whom could be seen coming away with little parcels of food - another example of the shared, group approach to life in the Philippines.

Sagada was the penultimate stop on my road trip. As we began the long drive north to Vigan, turning a corner with a steep drop, we were met with views of the morning clouds filling the valley below and the dark mountains going on and on in the background. Beautiful, heartbreakingly so.

You might also like Looking for old Manila - part one of a Philippines journey
More pictures of the Philippines here.

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