THE seven-hour drive from Manila to Banaue was rough. Roads in these parts are narrow and winding. And water buffalo keep getting in the way. These carabao, as they're called here, get off from work early, and tend to slow traffic to their pace as they lumber home down the middle of the road.
Carabao are not the only mode of transport here. Noisy, motorized tricycles dart in and out, and ubiquitous jeepney buses stop to pick up and drop off riders wherever they like.
But the ride seems well worth it, once you make it up the treacherous 45-degree-angle driveway to Lily B. Luglug's Banaue View Inn.
From here, the view of Banaue village is one of spectacular beauty. This small village, nestled in the shoulder of a mountain in Ifugao Province, is an agricultural wonder of the world.
For more than 2,000 years, Ifugao tribesmen have labored and cultivated the mountainsides into terraced, stone-walled rice paddies. Today, these paddies surround the village like great steps in some giant outdoor amphitheater.
In the darkness of early morning and at dusk, the walls deepen in color, and appear like huge blocks of malachite and mica, reaching from deep in the valley up to the clouds. For nearly 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) they cover the face of the Central Cordillera Mountains.
The stone terraces are considered to be the highest (at 4,000 feet), most extensive, and best built in the world. Someone has even estimated that, if strung end to end, the terraces would reach more than halfway around the globe - or 10 times as long as the Great Wall of China.
But this is no crumbling monument to the past. The paddies are in fine working order, tended and repaired every day. Women spend long hours bent over, planting and transplanting slender single wisps of rice. Plodding through knee-deep mud, teams of men and carabao plow the terraces. Everyone turns out to help harvest.
Although the rice terraces are what bring the few camera-toting Western tourists to this remote village, there's plenty in town to explore. The roads, however, are little more than stone ruts, so it's best to park your car and lace up your hiking boots. A Banaue tour map should be available wherever you stay, to clue you in to what's ahead as you set out to hike. There's also the Banaue Tourists Information Center, up by the post office, to guide you along.
The best scenery is from Viewpoint, four kilometers (2 miles) out of town on the way to Bontoc. Here an old, skinny, toothless man wearing tribal G-string, cap, and not much else will pose for pictures for a few pesos. That's about as touristy as it gets in these parts.
Banaue Trade Center, a series of shops and restaurants, burned to the ground last year, but still there are enough little shops to poke around in, and even a small market to explore.
You'll find some, what shall we say ... ``interesting?'' ... Ifugao art along the way. Like the woven headpieces decorated with tufts of brown and black chicken feathers, and topped with a monkey skull - if that's your style. Beautifully crafted baskets, handsome wood carvings, and fine lost-wax bronze pendants abound. All at fair prices, especially if you bargain. Other shops sell spears and blowguns, more feather and skull headdresses, Ifugao weavings, jewelry, and artifacts.
There are restaurants in town that serve as hangouts for the bearded, sunburned hippie types that find their way to this remote spot in northern Luzon. You'll eat well if you have a particular fondness for chicken or beef curry, carrots, and potatoes.
Be sure to wander up to Bocos Village, just a 10-minute walk from the center of town. You'll meet Mina Plas, a pleasantly roundish woman who sort of resembles the Bloody Mary character in ``South Pacific.'' She's the matriarch of the mini-village and keeper of the rice gods.
These dome-headed, E.T.-esque little carved wooden fellows are kept upstairs in the rice granary. ``Oh yes,'' she may part with one of the male figures - for a price - but certainly not the lone female idol. ``Not until my husband carves another,'' she said, stroking the head of one figure. ``That would leave all the men without any woman.''
Of course if she did sell an idol, ``We'll have to sacrifice a chicken,'' she said. And if reading the entrails suggested the rice gods were not pleased with losing a member, then another chicken, and maybe a pig, would be next on the block.
While Mrs. Plas served us a cup of instant coffee, her two nephews returned from school. They share a hut next door, and they kept quietly busy doing chores - hulling and winnowing rice, feeding mother sow and her five offspring, giving themselves haircuts, and doing a bit of woodcarving to earn extra money.
They care for the chickens, too, which nest in covered baskets under the house.
The young boys don't actually live alone. ``These are the bones of their grandparents,'' Plas pointed out, as we climbed into their dark hut, set on stilts.
The deceased are first buried for a few years, she explained. The bones are then exhumed, polished, and wrapped in fine woven cloth. Of course they are treated with the greatest reverence. In times of family strife, the bones may be unwrapped and repolished, while the deceased's spirit is implored to intercede at a time of trouble.
We waved goodbye to Plas, as she reluctantly parted with one of her rice gods and began planning tomorrow night's dinner - fresh chicken. Curry, most likely. And maybe pork after that. If you go
Although rare, there are occasional clashes between communists and local police in these mountains. There is no way to predict these. Apparently, you are relatively safe unless you travel around in a police car! I never met a tourist who was scared off by this, but check ahead with the local police if you are concerned.
The road north of Banaue is just not practical by car, especially in the rainy season. (Friends of mine did it and spent over $1,000 on car repairs.) There are jeepney buses to take you beyond this point.
Good hiking shoes are a must, and a rainproof jacket and sweater. A flashlight comes in handy also. A straight and sturdy walking stick can be picked up along the way to help you clamber over slippery stone terraces.
Don't plan on buying film. If you do find any, which is unlikely, you'll pay dearly.