Seek Beautiful Things: The Philippines
Though I have had many opportunities to travel this year, my latest trip placed me in one of the most beautiful environments. The physical landscape was stunning, and the old towns and ancient villages where perhaps the most charming I have ever seen, but the kindness and relateablility of the people were what made the trip stand apart from most others.
At the end of September we were given a short holiday. I realized that since I would be overly invested in my school during the last month of my grant (October) this would probably be my last international vacation I would be able to take for the year. I have had many things to do as the school year wraps up and my scheduled in the end looked to be pack with events, family visits, English camps and religious celebrations. So as I looked at the calendar I decided it was worth taking a day off so I could go somewhere new. After a few quick discussions with some friends it was decided that a trip to the Philippines, a destination well know for its beauty and affordability, was a great option. But skipping the more rowdy and frequented tourist spots that are notorious for beaches and boathouses, I was set on going to the interior of the archipelago to see something truly unique: Banaue.
The Philippines were never a place that were firmly on my list of places I wanted to go see in Southeast Asia. I figured it a little bit out of the way on a country-to-country loop and though I like marine life immensely I don’t have a flare for the whole beach scene that makes the Islands so famous. That is until I had a number of conversations with some friends that had made a recent trip to the country. They hit all the major stops and even though they went to three of the top ten beaches in the world they said that their favorite part was hiking through the ancient rice terraces of Banaue; a world heritage site. I then proceeded to to a quick “Google image search” of the area, and I think if you did the same, you would probably decide to go there too. So as it turns out, though it may have been on a bit of a whim, I booked my tolerably priced tickets to Manila just a few weeks before the flights and joined a ETA friend on an adventure onto the main island of the nation.
The Philippine Islands are cheap and pleasantly affordable if you would ever want to go there (one of the countries MANY upsides) but it was immediately evident that it was so affordable largely due to the widespread poverty the plagues the nation. Arriving in Manila was an absolute eye-opener. It was perhaps the strangest airport terminal that I have ever been in with essentially no security and only one person stamping the passports of some 200 passengers from our AirAsia flight. It might have been that we were in the discount terminal that made it seem so strange, but as soon as we got our passports stamped we immediately stepped outside into the hectic streets of Manila: there was no bathroom, ATM, tourist or taxi desk in the terminal. It was the strangest terminal I have been in. But despite the almost shocking start of literately not knowing where we were in the city, we met and extremely friendly stranger (the first of many) that was willing to help us find a place to exchange money for Philippine Pesos, and get us a taxi to a bus station.
The encounter was entirely pleasant and much to my surprise both the man, his friend at the exchange counter, and his friend with the taxi could all speak perfect Americanized English (another pleasant surprise throughout the entire country). We got in the cab and of course, as always, we exchanged some life philosophy with the cab driver (basically a philosopher) and made our way to the bus station. We had heard that Manila was not the place to stay if you wanted to have any fun or valued your health. This became pretty clear as we drove down mangled streets clogged with cars and every other kind of vehicle you could imagine, and passed by blocks upon blocks upon blocks of dropping haphazardly thrown together shops and shanty homes. Manila was a fast and dirt city, much the way I imagined many Asian cities to be but had not found yet. As it took us nearly an hour to drive just 5 Km to the nearest bus station we were glad with our destination not to spend the night in a questionable hostel in a poverty stricken area and go right for the night bus.
We really only spent a few hours in the city to be fair, but I have to say that I was a little anxious to get out of the smoky and loud bustle of the city for some more serene surroundings. We paid the cabby a surprisingly little amount and walked around for a short time, getting some things to eat, before we wanted to get on the night bus all the way to Banaue. Buy the bus ticket to the rice terraces was one of the easiest things that we did on the journey, largely in part of the excellent English spoken by cashier who certainly doesn’t sell tickets to foreigners very often. Though purchasing the ticket was easy, it was then very clear that the travel to the very remote Banaue was going to be really difficult. Not too many people were sure why we were there and why we wanted to go to Banaue (we latter found out we left from the wrong bus station) but they were very clear that it was going to take a long time and that that we would have to get off and change buses in the middle of nowhere at three AM in the morning. Lucky, we made friends in the ticket line, and as luck would have it, he was traveling from Manila back to his home in Banaue–an extreme stroke of fortune. He was quite but kind, and he said he would stick with us through the transfer so that we would reach the small town in 15 hours rather than the previously projected 20 hour journey.
We got some more food from a mango vendor that walked on the bus and then took off for the center of the island. The VAST majority of our time was spent in the extremely heavy Manila traffic, but after a number of hours we were on rough rural roads leading us away from any modern world. After a bumpy ride were little sleep was had we arrived in the darkness with our Filipino friend at a bus stop that truly was nowhere. It was 3:30 AM and we were supposed to catch a bus passing down that same road to Banaue at that same time. We had missed the initial bus, and our friend seemed a little bit worried. We knew however, that all we could possibly do was wait for another bus going that way.
We waited in the quiet darkness for well over an hour, watching the people of nighttime food stand talk smoke and drink like it was three in the afternoon. People in this part of the country don’t have any reason to go to bed at night because they don’t have anything to do in the day. The rice season was over and the harvest was just completed. I didn’t quite realize that most people in the area were practicing subsistence living until our waiting in the dark brought me to a conversation with our new friend. He was coming back from Manila because he was getting a Korean visa to lead a Mission trip to Soul in order to teach people English and how to read the Bible (a surprising 98% of the people in the Philippines are Christian). He said he had been there many times, and when I asked what his job was that allowed him to travel for weeks at a time every year he gave me a confused look, and a short laugh as he said, “I grow rice.” That’s what his father, mother, brothers and sisters all did. No one had an occupation that made money. They just lived off the rice they grew, sold what they could spare and lived largely off the funds of the Churches charities. I have to say, it is always quite surprising to meet people the are just trying to live, and have little concern for anything else outside of what their body physically and spiritually NEEDS everyday.
It was a great conversation in which I was able to connect with someone in a way that I haven’t in quite some time, but our bus finally did arrive. It was with the correct bus that we needed too, thankfully. It was just an hour and a half late. We walked unto the crammed bus of already filled with sleeping people and tried to join the ranks of the unconscious, though it would be just for a couple of until we reached our destination in Banaue.
When I awoke from a late evening nap I found the sun rising over luscious green hills rippling with the handy-work of the ancient ancestors of the now inhabitants of the region. Rice of course is the staple food of the region, and it has been for about 6,000 years. In order to better grow rice on the less arable land and protect themselves from hostel neighbors the ancient Filipino people built thousands of miles of terraced rice fields that would serve as walls and as sustain them in the rainy but pleasant climate of the Philippine hinterland. The views were spectacular at day break, but what made them even more spectacular though were the sporadic disbursement of more primitive houses that scattered the hillsides, each home accompanied by at least tiny distant workers laboring in the field. The places I have really enjoyed the most this year are those where one gets a snapshot of what life was like 50 or even 100 years ago. The emerging town was exactly what you would imagine; a small, simple country town rested peacefully on the hillside, with the already wide-eyed people already slowly going about the morning’s business.
When we go off the bus to a quite surprising and much appreciated cool temperature, we were supposed to find our guide that we had previously contacted who would lead us through the rice terraces for the next 3 days. We were about 3 hours earlier than planed,somehow, so we were a bit worried about not connecting to our guide. However it soon became very clear that Banaue was much too small to miss anyone, and immediately everyone knew who we were looking for and just told us to go grab some breakfast and wait for our guide before he lead us to the homestay (all in perfect English of course).
As we sat waiting for our guide the person that approached us in an overly friendly and high-energy persona was a very pregnant woman in about her late twenties. This was our guide. We thought from her name that she might have been a woman and that was fine, but neither of us expected that she was going to be pregnant. When we got around to asking how far along she was she sadly admitted that she would probably not be able to do the whole hike with us because she was going to probably have her baby that day! Despite having labor pains though she accompanied us on our first leg of the journey before she went to the hospital, and literally gave birth just hours later.
Irene took us to the top of an overlook before she left and explained in great detail and with great energy the history and significance of the region (she was an exceedingly healthy individual!) The place where we stood was one of the most stunning I have ever been.
Irene walked us through what would happen over the next couple days without her since she would be giving birth to a human being at the time. We would follow her friend Don Don into a jeep and drive about 1 hour to the end of the road so that we could reach the trail head to Batad. Don Don would then lead us on a short down hill, two hour hike through the rice terraces. We would stop, get lunch and drop our things in a family made, traditional 100 year old grass roofed hut where we would spend the night. Then for the remainder of the day we would make a short trek to a nearby waterfall said to be one of the tallest in the Philippines. Then the next day, we would help prepare breakfast and lunch and then trek out from Batad on a 8 hour walk through the rice terraces most of which are over 4,000 years old and still have seemingly unchanged families living from the bounty of the terraces.
The plan was beautiful, and it went largely as it should have. The walks were charming, or guide, a large and husky man with red stained teeth due to his chewing of the local Beetal-Nut, was kind and affable. The rice terraces were unlike anything I had seen before. Even in the off season where little is still growing they are a radiating green and last as far as you can see the ridge line. We walked on people’s property with no ill effects and even nearly walked right through some houses and interrupted some family meals. All looks however, were met with perhaps just a bit of confusion, but always a smile. There was no trail anyway, just the natural made path that occurs when people just go about their work everyday cultivating their fields. It was a truly different kind of hike.
The waterfall was spectacular too. Falling from about 100 feet above us, the water hung in the air and splashed against the surrounding jungle to give all living things a constant supply of water and to give everything a more bright hue of green. The only down side would be that it rained relatively hard (a common theme on many of my treks now) but it provided us with an extraordinary view of the clouds rolling into the old valleys and an comforting feeling as we all slept under a grass roof as it poured outside. We spent that night eating some traditional food and listening to history and folklore of the land while sitting by the fire underneath our raised hut.
The next day unveiled a shinning morning with a blue sky that seemed all the more blue due to the outstanding green blanketed just below it. We rose to the sounds of pounding as the family at the homestay was pounding the daily rice to make our breakfast and lunch. We would be taught to help in a process that was more complex, time consuming and talent requiring than I had ever thought. It took us a number of hours to produce enough rice to be cooked and eaten by just us 5 in the house. After a short stint of eating, talking about the American occupation before and after WWII (it seemed most Philippine people in Banaue where exceedingly grateful for the American’s presence in the region especially after the Spanish, and later after the Japanese. It made me quite proud to hear of Americans helping the people of Banaue through education as my grandfather was one such navy-man stationed on the Islands during the war) we were than off again on a serene trek along sharp ridges filled with rice and snails and soaking in the vistas of breathtaking rolling hills, each one ribbed as though decorated. It rained on us again at this juncture, but it probably only added to the allure for me, and I enjoyed the hike immensely.
We made a quick descent down the rough country road at the end of the trail in a vehicle called a jeepeny, essentially an elongated jeep, ate at a local restaurant with our friend Don Don and then were set to take off on the bonus side trip of our short vacation. We would make a detour on the way back to Manila into a city called Vigan (you guessed it, another Wolrd Heritage site) for one night. It required another night bus though.
Vigan was a strange town, one that you would certainly not expect to find in the Philippines, but what it had in strangeness it matched in allure. Vigan is a 500 year old world heritage site mainly because it was the first of the imperial Spanish settlements in the pacific. The Spanish quickly set up a trading emporium there after first exploration, and it became one of the hubs of international trad for more than hundred years. As such, it is still marked with a wide variety of colonial remnants including culture, food, dress and architecture, so rare in the region. It was truly a special and beautiful place.
We spent just one day walking the scenic streets where, surprisingly, not another tourist could be seen (none of the western variety anyway). We stopped in a couple of museums and took, bought some handmade crafts, tried our hand at making some pottery and took a river cruise to learn some more history. But maybe the most enjoyable aspect of the stay were the lovely restaurants that we were constantly eating at. I hadn’t heard kind words about Filipino food, but what I ate in Vigan may have been some of my favorite food of the year. What’s more, was that everything was reasonably priced, and people were so kind that they would never think about arguing with you over prices. That was quite a nice reprieve from the typical haggle war that usually ensues whenever I do anything in Southeast Asia.
At the end of the day I couldn’t have been more pleased with myself for the successful, quick stop over in Vigan and was actually quite proud to have found a hidden gem among a multitude of touristy stops. But of course time was up fast and I had to head back to Manila because I had to teach a class in the next 48 hours, but it also meant yet another night bus. I loaded up and after another very quick stop over in San Francis I walked along the beach just to check it off the list and then got back on a dreary bus toward the Manila traffic.
I boarded the plane and was back in the classroom soon after. However, in just a short amount of time I will hold that I was able to cheat the world by sneaking off to see something so beautiful that I felt guilty I was able to do it with such speed. In fact, I was able to see a lot of beautiful things. They can be found every where–some may be easier than others–but nevertheless they can be found. You will be rewarded if you just look for it, and I have found that truly, all you have to do is seek beauty and, invariably, you will find it.
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful; it is God’s handwriting.”