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       Volume 11 |Issue 04| January 27, 2012 |


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Village scenery in the hills of Luzon. Photo: Andrew Eagle

Robert's List

Andrew Eagle

The river that was our travel companion. Photo: Andrew Eagle

Comfort is not the thing at twenty-two, when there still remains the energy to drive curiosity and the endurance to put plan to action.

Beyond Bontoc in the mountains of central Luzon, the Philippines, is the hillside town of Sagada that attracts tourists for its caves and tribal influences. The sites include the cave cemeteries featuring the hanging coffins of traditional burial practice. It's not just anybody who's awarded a hanging coffin. Among other things, to be eligible, the person would need to have been married and have grandchildren.

Sagada brought a problem. It was a few weeks of detour, the Philippines, and, having left the bulk of our luggage in a Manila hotel so that we could travel light and fast, we sought to continue from Sagada to the island's western coast. But the mountains wished to push us southward, eight hours back to Baguio, a city we had already seen, then the following day several hours northward on the coast road. The alternative, eliciting serious contemplation when discussed briefly with locals, was to hike, to challenge the mountains on foot.

There was just ten minutes to decide: the last evening bus, two hours, to the first village on the way to the sea was leaving. Without a map or compass, with me wearing business shoes since we had not planned on hiking, and with my day pack's contents featuring two wooden buffaloes, I had bought as souvenirs, we took the decision of our twenty-two years, rushed to the hotel, packed and paid, and ran up the road to join the bus just as it departed for Besao.

There was no hotel there, we knew, for it was a village; and if there was no place to stay we might have no choice but to hike in darkness for several hours back to Sagada, our plans defeated. But we had learnt to trust the world, for in our travels, whenever there faced a problem, we found a solution, and in any country there are locals who know well how to assist the traveller. So we threw ourselves into the care of the Philippines.

Rice terraces at Besao. Photos: Andrew Eagle
Jane washing her clothes in a side stream.

Fortunately, on that bus, people were friendly and curious. Fortunately, it was Mountain Province where English was widespread.

He lived like a hobbit, Robert, without perhaps the penchant for lavishness and comfort for which hobbits are renowned. Yet, in his simple house overlooking the paddies of the valley and with the silence of all the disconnected roads, it was possible to imagine him blowing smoke rings with a pipe, like Bilbo Baggins. We had discussed our plans on the bus and thankfully he offered to put us up for the night. His housemate, Gem, cooked rice and we talked into the evening. They were sure to wake us with the sun: we would need breakfast and the sea was far.

Robert gave three things: a list, a letter and a warning. The list was of villages we would need to pass, asking in each the way to the next. The letter was to his sister-in-law who we could meet upon reaching her village in half a day's time. But by nightfall, he said, we should reach South Ilocano Province and while the people of Mountain Province were friendly, we should take care with the Ilocanos. In this world, it's usual for people to have misgivings about their nearest neighbours but we paid attention.

Sagada rice terraces. Photo: wikipedia
Hanging coffins at Sagada. Photo: wikipedia

We had not crossed the first valley, mist rising, morning not yet of full form, when we met an old lady ambling through the rice terraces with a walking stick. I wished I could talk to her but in many countries where English is not the first language, it's instinctive to assume the elderly may not know it. 'Good morning,' she said with clarity the sky was yet to achieve. Ah yes, this was Mountain Province! We paused to explain our plans and discuss the rice crop.

After an hour, we found the first swinging bridge of the metallic and wooden rung type that cross the small mountain rivers in central Luzon, and reached the far side to the first village on Robert's list, Kin-iway. And so it went, up and down in pursuit of the river that became our companion from village to village on the list. At a side stream, we met Jane, busily washing her clothes by hand. She wanted our opinion on a planned hydroelectric project. It would inundate areas of rice paddy but there was the promise of electricity. Did we think electricity was good?

By mid-afternoon we reached Robert's sister-in-law's village and found her at the school where she taught. She was surprised but we were able to deliver Robert's letter. I don't know the words he wrote but it might have contained 'feed them' in it for she took us to her house for lunch. Her village, Robert said, was last in Mountain Province; after that were the Ilocano lands.

Storehouses by the road. Photos: Andrew Eagle

It was a very long way to the next village and afternoon was on its wane. We walked not knowing how much further it would be or what we would find. Fortunately there came a jeep, a rare sight on those roads and they offered a lift. The last of the way into Quirino was made easy. I wondered what they would do, our first Ilocanos, and they also wondered because we heard discussions going on. It was decided to deliver us to the mayor's house where we stayed as guests.

We had hoped to see the sea from the Ilocano side, but from Quirino you couldn't see the sea: there was another quite large mountain in the way.

The way over the mountain was tricky, the mayor told us, but his sons had agreed to be our guides on the following morning. It took the day: there was no road and it was steep but eventually we made the pass near the summit and there she was! In the distance, beyond a plain with the outline of what looked like a decent road: the sea. The mayor's sons continued with us down the far side until we reached the outskirts of the village of Gregorio del Pilar. Then they bade us farewell. It seemed the only treachery to be met in the Ilocanos was hospitality; but I guess when ordinary people meet, the most likely outcome is friendship. It's not from there the divisions come. We learnt to say 'thank you' in Ilocano: 'agyamanak.'

A village house.

There was irony in Robert's warning, I discovered recently. The name of Robert's village, Besao, may have been derived from the Ilocano word 'buso' meaning head hunters. There's a likelihood it was once believed that the earlier people of Besao took part in such activity. In Gregorio del Pilar we were again directed to the mayor's house. He sought our opinion about how to protect the environment. In the past logging companies had been active and the locals hadn't properly comprehended the damage.

Several villagers came to meet us. They took us on a tour, to show the school and other public amenities. We saw the main square where the annual fiestas were held. From Gregorio del Pilar, we were informed, was a bus to the sea on the next day.

On the fourth day, at twenty-two, with me in business shoes and with two wooden buffaloes in my luggage, we reached Candon City on the coastal highway. It is said we get wiser with age but if there came again the choice of Sagada, mine would be unchanged.

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