We made it to Sagada. Enjoy piney forests, sweet mountain air, followed by a private cup-and-bucket shower
Mountain Province, Luzon, Philippines — NOW, the red wire connects to the black one, right? No, wait. The red to yellow, and black to the white.
No. It's the yellow that goes to the white and the black to the blue. Forget the red.
Fifteen of us were standing in the middle of the dirt road here in Banaue. We had thrown our luggage on the roof of a jeepney and were patiently drumming our fingers waiting to get started. Our driver twisted every color combination of wires that hung from under the dash like an end of unfinished macram'e.
Mountain Province in northern Luzon means roughing it for most tourists. But for those adventurous, in-shape hikers who want something less than five-star hotels and three-star dining, it's a worthy trip.
The remoteness, beauty of the forests and rice fields, cool mountain air, and bucolic vistas are coaxing more intrepid tourists to these parts. And what a welcome relief it is from the sweltering heat, congestion, pollution, and car fumes of downtown Manila.
Finally, our driver hit the right combo. The engine roared, er, sputtered. He grinned and slid his MacArthur sunglasses from forehead to nose. Off we went bouncing to Bontoc - a 1-hour drive from Banaue, our first stop on the road to Sagada.
Perhaps ``jeepney'' deserves some explanation.
A jeepney looks like a jeep that backed into one of those quilted, stainless steel trucks that goes around serving coffee and donuts to construction workers, and then was decorated in Spanish Harlem. They're actually a wonderful expression of rolling eclectic art. Best of all, they get you where you want to go. Even up here.
The vehicle is open in the back and has benches for seating on either side. No doors. Luggage, vegetables, extra passengers, pigs, chickens, or whatever doesn't fit inside gets strapped on top.
I hopped in front beside the driver, fast.
Some of the passengers had made this trip before, and survived. They were the ones who knew enough to bring handkerchiefs to tie over mouth and nose to keep out the dust.
One couple actually made the trip in their own car - once. They came through unscathed. Not so their car. That little mountain sojourn cost them $2,000 in repairs. But, they explained, ``that was during the rainy season. The road is a lot better now.''
Hard to believe. It's dirt, mostly one lane wide and full of ruts and boulders. Fortunately, traffic is sparse. In fact, we didn't see anyone between the two mountain villages, save an occasional road-repair man living in a lean-to in the bush.
For serious native art collectors, there are a few store-front shops where works of Bontoc and Ifugao tribespeople can be found in the main towns. Spears, woodcarvings, and exquisitely woven baskets abound, as well as ceremonial pieces.
Vistas along the high, winding road can be chillingly stunning. With no rails or fences to obstruct your view, the ride can be a bit harrowing.
The most spectacular sight was looking down on the rice fields as we zigzagged out of Banaue and down the mountains into Bontoc: men and beasts plowing the patchwork paddies; women bent over, planting rice. Occasionally one would pluck a snail from the water and drop it into a small basket attached to her waist. That meant snail soup was on the menu tonight.
We arrived in Bontoc, a bit shaken but unbruised, about two hours later than scheduled.
Bontoc is a rather unattractive little town with one main street paved with soft tar and bottle caps. We still had a few hours before the jeep left for Sagada. Enough time for lunch, a quick tour of the Ifugao, Kalinga, and Bontoc native artifacts at the Bontoc Museum on the hill, and to browse around for antiques.
You need a real nose for shopping to find anything around here. Almost every store has some little old piece collecting dust, tucked away in a corner. A boar-tusk arm band and finely woven lunch basket were taken down and wiped off in a butcher shop. Tempting, but a side of beef would have been cheaper.
If there's time, be sure to visit the local market. And definitely, stop in to see the masterful photographs of Spanish mestizo Eduardo Masferre. For 75 years, Masferre has lived in the area, photographing local tribespeople - a handsome group, in elaborate beaded jewelry and handwoven costumes - as they go about their everyday life and rituals. Their faces are sweet and gentle; it's hard to believe they were headhunters when Masferre arrived here. You may purchase original prints or postcards at his shop.
After that, it's off to Sagada, another two-hour drive - at least in theory. But first our driver had to pick up a spare tire. It was as bald as a melon - a perfect match for the four we were riding on.
Finally, in Sagada, we pulled in to the Sagada Pension, nearest thing to the Ritz this side of Bontoc. It even has a parking lot, and semi-private cup-and-bucket showers. Breakfast is included in the $13 per night, and it's only a quiet, 20-minute stroll from town.
Sagada is a tiny pocket of Protestantism in this otherwise Roman Catholic country. People here are slim and fit, and, whatever their age, chug up the hilly main street in Sagada seemingly without effort.
So what do you do in a tiny mountain village a million miles from Manila - a town without a street light, let alone a night club or telephone?
Well, if you're fit, and a day person rather than a night owl, you get up early and keep on trekking.
For hikers and spelunkers it's a virtual Valhalla. There are wonderful walks and climbs through mountains, woods, and rice fields. A stop at Julia's Restaurant and Guest House will provide detailed information, maps, and a guide if necessary.
Everyone makes it to at least one of the famous burial caves in the area. These are great yawning cavernous gaps of limestone where coffin upon coffin has been stacked like shoeboxes over the centuries.
Equally fascinating and a little less ghoulish are the hanging coffins which can be seen from a distance. These are suspended by long ropes in the surrounding cliffs.
In Sagada, there also are exceptional views of the rice terraces from cool, comfortable, pine needle-carpeted banks.
Sagada Weavers is probably the most sophisticated industry/shop in town. Along with the bolts of colorful, locally made fabric are other local crafts for sale.
One must-see attraction is the collection of antique and new folk art at adjoining Christina Aben's Coffee Shoppee. Even if the museum is closed, Mrs. Aben is most likely to be in her ``shoppee,'' knitting quietly in the corner, and she'll happily open the museum for you.
She started the collection 13 years ago to protect and preserve the fine craftsmanship so quickly disappearing from the area. The collection, she says modestly, ``is for the children.'' It's just one room, stuffed like Tutankhamen's tomb with local treasures.
Don't leave before partaking of a dish of Mrs. Aben's great homemade yogurt. I mean great yogurt. She keeps it in a large refrigerator in two exquisite Chinese antique ginger jars and scoops it out in bountiful portions into a plastic bowl.
Sagada may not have telephones yet, but it got electricity five years ago, and even has a pizza parlor - of sorts.
Moonhouse Cafe advertises ``Homemade Pizza Pie.'' Just what I was looking for on my last afternoon here. The tuna, tomato, and egg three-way-combo sounded best. All the pizzas here feature egg as a topping.
``Sorry,'' said the young waitress, ``pizza has to be ordered a day ahead. It takes three hours.''
Telephones I could do without, but no pizza?
If you make it to Sagada, probably the best thing to do here is absolutely nothing, followed by intermittent scoops of Christina's cool yogurt.
It wasn't easy leaving Sagada, what with that mountain ride and Manila's pollution somewhere way down the road. But Manila would at least have pizza, without egg.
If you go
Most travel arrangements in this part of the world are made by word of mouth. There are few phones - none in some places. But everyone in these small mountain towns knows how to get around. Ask at the local inns and restaurants.
If you drive to Banaue, plan to leave your car there and grab a ride on a jeepney bus, which leaves once and sometimes twice a day.