I know, I've been just incredibly slack on the email front, haven't I? Well first of all I was hanging in Sabang, and not really doing anything worth writing about, and then I was on the move and too busy to write. Excuses, excuses. Well the brief version is that I am currently in Legaspi, in the south east of Luzon, having first ventured up north to see the famous rice terraces (yet another place touted as the eighth wonder of the world). For more details, read on . . .
My lovely apartment in Sabang did me well, and decided to stay put until after my birthday. I spent a day doing the one and only excursion offered from there, visiting waterfalls, a hanging bridge, and a lovely secluded spot they call Hidden Paradise; in the course of the day I got my first ride on a water-buffalo drawn cart, and also accidentally drank some paraffin - they'd stored it in a bleeding water bottle!
Once or twice I week I would head down to the bar at Atlantis and hang out with the staff there - a nice bunch of people. Had a few big drinking nights - inevitably followed by big hangovers - including a joint party to celebrate my birthday, my friend Nicky's, and her husband Steve completing his divemaster course. The night ended in a girly bar - which is the only place to carrying on drinking after the bars close. We normally go to Broadway, which is the least seedy.
Once I'd realised that I was not going to get any work diving before September (tourist off-season), I resigned myself to the fact that I would just have to pay to dive, like a normal person . . . only then my camera started playing up, and I had to send it back to Japan to get it fixed. The thought of paying to dive after being paid to dive was painful enough, and I was buggered if I was going to go while my camera was away, so I stubbornly waited.
As my birthday approached, though, I decided enough was enough, and arranged to do some anyway. Went out on four days, going to some nice sites and having a go of one of those underwater scooters - James Bond eat your heart out! It's basically a big fan with handles, that propels you through the water. It was lots of fun, especially doing loop-the-loops! Finally, on the last day, my camera came back from Japan, so I managed to get a few pictures, to add to the snorkelling ones I'd taken.
I didn't just do fun dives, I also helped out with a problem: a plague of crown of thorns starfish. In the previous few weeks it had been apparent that numbers of these coral-destroying starfish had got out of hand, so the dive shops joined forces to do something about it. Over 1,000 had been killed in around a week, the method used being either to remove them from the water, or inject them with a form of hydrochloric acid. I helped out on a couple of days - so now I know my karma is really trashed!
On the 26th July I left the island, having decided to spend six weeks or so travelling around the Philippine Islands before returning in September, when the prospect of work would look a bit rosier. Just to let you know, I have no intention of visiting the Southern-most islands of Mindanao, where the chance of being shot, blown up, or taken hostage are fair to middling; the Lonely Planet has warnings such as this for that section: "At the time of writing it was absolutely suicidal to take public transport overland from D- to Z-."
My first chore on reaching the mainland (well, the bigger island of Luzon) was to visit immigration and extend my visa, which I was able to do for around £38 - although they would only give me two months, so I'll have to extend it again before I leave. Then, after a nutritious lunch of plain rice (this has become a regular meal, as the PI do not cater for vegetarians - you may find veggie dishes, but they often have the added bonus of meat), I jumped aboard a bus bound for Manila. Manila is made up of seventeen cities, which merged in 1976 to become one sprawling, urban mass.
Its outskirts are littered with slums; random sheets of corrugated iron fixed together to form shaky-looking shacks - curiously some of these have television aerials sprouting from them. Deeper into the city buildings are dirty and dilapidated, and the streets dusty, grimy and smelly. To Filipino men, the whole world is a comfort room (Filipino for toilet), so the usual scent to assail the nostrils is that of urine.
I stayed just the one night in the capital before heading North to the university town of Baguio. The journey took seven hours and, as I had failed to mentally prepare for this, it seemed interminably long. I stayed in a nice room for the rather steep price of £8, booking in for two nights. The next day I saw the sights, such as they were. Before leaving Sabang I had poured hopefully over the LP, trying to find some places of interest in Luzon; to my mind at least there were few. The rice terraces in the North of the country were an obvious draw, but aside from them points of interest seemed mainly to focus around WWII battle sights and graveyards.
The US played a big part in freeing the PI from the Japanese during that war, although the American influence over here goes back further than that. In the late 19th century the US bought the islands from the Spanish, who had occupied them for the previous 400 years. Ostensibly the US were saving the people from an unwanted and cruel regime, but in fact they were just after the country's natural resources . . . hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar . . . can't think why!
As the crow flies, the distance between Baguio and my next stop, Bontoc, is around 90 km away. The road is a bit windy, so that probably makes the distance as the bus drives maybe 130 km. The time it takes to get there is seven hours.
For the first half of the journey, the Halsema Highway is paved, but the many twists and turns make the progress slow. For the second half the roads are rough and bumpy, but afford great views over the surrounding countryside: steep, green mountains, some already carved with terraces planted with all manner of vegetables; small shacks at the side of the road; a predominance of vulcanising rubber shops, emanating horrible smells that made me think of glue factories; sheer drops at the side of the road, that didn't bear thinking about.
I enjoyed the journey, having psyched up for a long one. The bus was an ordinary one, as opposed to an air-conditioned vehicle, and I discovered that I much prefer these. I was able to sit with my head out of the window, enjoying the view, and feeling more as if I were experiencing the country; the glass windows of the aircon buses serve to separate and insulate one from the world outside.
Bontoc was not my final destination that day, so when I arrived I transferred onto a jeepney bound for Sagada. Have I mentioned jeepneys? They are shiny, overgrown jeeps with two rows of seats facing each other in the back, and ply set routes. They are the equivalent to the Thai songthaew, and are the cheapest form of transport - although any longer than an hour in them can be a bit of a drag, as they are invariably cramped and uncomfortable, and they provide no view (you know what I'm like about my view!).
Sagada is a nice place: a small town atop a mountain with minimal traffic and noise - although from talking to a couple of people, and just generally picking up on the vibe, I think they could do without the tourists. There are a number of things to see in the vicinity: hanging coffins, suspended high on the strange rock which sticks up all over the area; caves, including burial caves; waterfalls; and a viewpoint over nearby rice terraces.
I attempted to go on a walk suggested in the Lonely Planet, past hanging coffins, and to a cave with an underground river inside; I failed miserably. The walk took me first past a church and though a graveyard - no problem - then the book told me to head to the big cross on the hill - well I'm on a hill, surrounded by crosses. I pick one and check the next instructions: "follow the right hand path until you come to the lone pine tree"; all around me are pine trees.
I persevered for a while, edging slowly along a narrow path cutting across a frighteningly angled slope, failed to distinguish which of the many was the lone pine tree, and gave up. My fear of heights, clumsiness, and ability to get lost walking in a straight line meant that this was just not happening. A tourist fell to his death exploring a cave in the region, and I didn't want to add to that number.
I did successfully manage to visit the viewpoint, also a waterfall, where I skinny dipped in the refreshingly cool water. That night I went to the renowned Yoghurt House, and sampled some of there delicious yoghurt - thick and creamy, and ever so tasty.
Next on the list was the small town of Banaue, two jeepneys - and a long wait in between - away. As has been my bane over here, I was visiting at the wrong time of year, April or May being recommended, but there was not a lot I could do about that. The town itself is dirty and ugly - as, to be honest, most places I've seen so far have been. Its surrounds, however, are a different story, as it sits amidst hills carved into picturesque terraces, a patchwork of greens and yellows.
I visited the museum, which housed various interesting items, including head-dresses worn by head hunters - a custom that went on until relatively recently. I arranged to see a few things the next day, agreeing a price with a tricycle (the other common form of vehicle-for-hire over here, cheaper than taxis) to visit the viewpoint, nearby Hapao, and to then be dropped off to do a walk through a couple of neighbouring villages, and through rice fields.
We set off early in the morning, visiting all five of the viewpoints overlooking Banaue and then to a "native village", an open air museum where you can also stay in one of the traditional Ifugao houses. These are on stilts - with large disks of wood near the top to stop rats getting in - and provide a living space as well as an area to dry the harvested rice. They are made with wood, built without use of a single nail, and can withstand typhoon winds. The ones I saw were 180 years old, although the thatched roof must be replaced every 17 years.
The rice terraces at Hapao are also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, along with Banaue, Batad, and a couple more in the area. It took us an hour to travel the 16 km across the bumpy, twisting roads. Once there I walked down into the terraces to the village, walking along the paved path that led across the side of the terraces.
From there I was taken to the start of my walk, first agreeing to meet with Donny, the tricycle driver, the next day. I had been unsure whether to visit the village of Batad, which was said to be stunning; I just wasn't sure whether I was up to the task. Donny said he would guide me, and charge just 800 pesos - £8.
That afternoon's walk took me though some beautiful scenery. I checked with almost everyone I saw that I was going the right way, so I only got lost once, but the terrain was a bit taxing: on the downhill parts I was terrified I would slip and fall; for the flat bits I balanced along a foot wide strip of concrete, often with a ten foot drop at the side, so I was terrified I would lose my balance and fall; on the uphill bits I was too knackered to be terrified. I think what clinched my survival was that I bought a good luck charm at the beginning of it - who knows what would have happened otherwise?
The next morning Donny collected me at the appointed time, and we drove to the Batad junction; the 13 km journey took us an hour, past numerous landslides that had occurred a month or so ago, during the last typhoon which killed a number of people. The first hour of the walk was spent going up a wide but rocky track which zigzagged its way up the mountain. At the top was a waiting shelter - just a covered area with a couple of seats - and my first views into Batad. After a rest we started down a smaller track leading towards the village, which sits in the centre of an impressive amphitheatre of rice terraces.
Many people still live in the wooden, Ifugao houses, and rice lay outside many of these, drying in the sun. I ate some plain rice, then we walked through the village, and started up a slope on the other side towards Tapia Waterfall. Once we had crested the hill, we began our way down the high, slippery steps. I had already warned Donny of what a useless tart I am when it comes to heights, and now he was to see proof of it.
After an hour or so we reached the thundering falls, changed into swim things, and sunk gratefully into the chilly water. While we were splashing about and cooling off, the sky grew dark and the rain started to pour down. Leaving the pool sometime later I found that the leaky shelter, under which we had left our stuff, had directed a stream of water into my boots. Once slightly drier, and dressed in my rather damp clothes, I tried some of the beetlenut which Donny - along with many in these parts - regularly chewed, leaving their mouths and teeth stained red.
Four ingredients make up the concoction: some beetlenut, which has a woody texture, and is quite tough at first; a leaf, which tasted of aniseed; a little tobacco, just a strand or two; and a white powder, which I later found out to my horror was made from crushed snail shells. Chewing on these items produces a hot taste, and copious spittle stained red, which must be spat out - but no narcotic effect, I was disappointed to discover.
After a while the rain ceased, so we began our arduous ascent. Whist going uphill was certainly harder on the body, it was easier on my mind, and I think the upwards journey was quicker than the downwards one had been. We returned to the sculptured bowl of the rice terraces, and began to make our way along the walled edge of one.
The terraces were built over 2,000 years ago, over many generations. The stones that were cleared from the land were used to create walls to support the fields, and have been worn smooth over the millennia. My progress across them was slow, and I had to be helped often by my young guide - who was already carrying most of my stuff.
We began our journey out of the amphitheatre, leaving the beautiful village behind us. About two thirds of the way out, as we trudged up the path, the rain began - this time showing no signs of stopping. I began to get a little concerned about the journey home; the road was rough, and in one place the mud from a previous landslide had been thick and runny, and difficult to pass.
The path we were on turning into a fast flowing river of brown, muddy water that gushed passed us - I needn't have worried about getting water in my boots earlier, they would have been soaked by now anyway. We rested at the top before beginning the downwards journey on the rough road, lightning flashing all around us as the accompanying thunder cracked and rumbled.
We had not gone far when we came across a mudslide that had engulfed the road. I asked Donny if it had been there earlier, or had just happened now; falling stones and earth as I spoke gave me my answer. As we continued down we came across many more landslides - soil, stones, and trees had tumbled from the mountainside and now lay in the road.
By the time we had reached the bottom, an hour or so later, I was really very concerned about the homebound journey. I did draw some comfort from the fact that I had already seen that Donny was a good driver, properly cautious. To be honest, I had found that all the drivers I had so far experienced seemed to be careful, and drove well rather that hurtling along at breakneck speed as I have seen in other countries. I mentioned this to Donny. "Oh yes," he said. "They are always very careful here. Even when they are really drunk, people drive carefully." That cancelled out my confidence, to some degree.
The bike was reluctant to start, but when it did we set off on our precarious journey. The whole way, I expected we would leave the road at any moment, and crash down the mountain to our deaths. Thankfully - and amazingly, to my mind - we made it back in one piece, relieved, exhausted, and soaked to the skin.
I began my southbound journey the next day, with a mammoth 22 hour trip to the south-eastern peninsular of Luzon. Two jeepneys and two buses later, I arrived in Legaspi, where I am now. I went first to a really grotty guesthouse, that looked like the sort of place a tramp would go to die. Even in my travel-weary state I could see how bad it was, so came instead to the Legaspi Tourist Inn. It's not exactly five star, but better than the last - and for £4.50 a night, what can you expect?
I hope this email finds everyone well and enjoying life, and would love to hear what you have been up to, be it mundane or exotic - it's always good to hear from friends.