Moving onto the mountains, Ifugao was my next destination. Highlights abound on this leg of the trip. I wanted to see the hanging coffins of Echo Valley, the tall, majestic waterfall past the ancient Fidalisan Village and of course the ancient rice terraces.
I have seen many terraced farming fields before in places like Northern Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and throughout some areas in Korea and Taiwan. In full season, the fields can take on an otherworldly pallet of colors and, depending on the perspective and the backdrop of the sun at the time of witnessing them, they can make the intricate lines of a valley appear to carve out the steps the gods take to travel to their resting place – or something equally mysterious and grandiose.
But these fields were said to be the best terraces in all of Southeast Asia because of their expanse and their meaning in the ancient world. I suppose I’d find out in a couple days.
My first stop was a little town called Baguio. It was just a quick stopover as I would almost immediately catch another jeep into the higher reaches of the mountains. But it’s worth mentioning because it’s the carving capital of the Philippines. Well, that and the fact that I had a great conversation with a lady who sold beetlenut to the locals.
So beetlenut is a small, fibrous bud that comes from within the fruit of a palm-like tree. Beetlenut by itself isn’t really all that stimulating. It’s basically got the consistency of chewing on a pine bud or pre-pinecone sprout. And it’s not all that organic tasting either. But if you never spat the juices out on the ground, you’d never really get the feeling that this little bud really has an odd chemical reaction in your mouth.
The punch comes when you add two other ingredients. First, you add tobacco and wait for that to get into the blood stream. Then you squeeze in a packet of mustard. And the combination of all the various substances forces into the blood, a very amphetamine-like buzz. It’s effects are fleeting — only 20 minutes or so — but the process can be repeated over and over with the same effect.
Basically, it’s become this ritual for the men in the area, more than a drug or addiction. However, the addictive qualities of this substance are not to be questioned. Almost all men do it. And if the stained red mouths full of quickly decaying teeth didn’t give it away, the huge, snot-covered, crimson spatters all along the roadway will. All told, it’s probably one of the most disgusting pastimes I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. And I have seen a lot of them.
But that didn’t take away from the “carving capital” aspect of the place. Huge trunks and split logs almost completely line the roadway up to the town and even a little after, awaiting their artisan’s shaping hands to come and craft them into something appreciable by human standards.
The town itself has an easy, laid back feel to it. Shops line the three corners of the central part of town and they supply the entire outlying area with goods and food. But what I liked the most was that the backs of most of the shops had restaurants hanging about a mile above the huge, mountain drop-offs below. The people are very curious of travelers, walking up to talk and waving at you from passing vehicles. And this also adds to the demeanor of the place.
From there it’s only a short wait until another jeep is full of people and items are piled high on the roof. My jeep started rumbling up the mountain at about noon and I arrived at my next destination, Banahue. by 6 p.m.
Banahue is another one of those towns where things are a little slower, not necessarily finding any reason to rush around. And over every mountainside guardrail there’s a vista of the most amazing terraces chiseled into the valley below.
It was Banahue, too, where I got the full grasp of the risk people take in traveling through this area. The mountains in this area were simply not equipped with the soils befitting of support for the roads being plied through them. As in several locations I could very easily see the next pass the jeep was headed over, there would be a huge empty space where the mountainside used to be underneath the 4-inch-thick concrete pathway for the passing vehicles. This, of course, was precariously replaced by a few rickety beams used as temporary replacements for the moment’s pause until the seasonal construction crew could come out and lay concrete underworking to the roads damage.
Passing over these dodgy turns was shifty business at best, and, as I thought many times, likely to be my last time passing over anything at all on this planet. It made me wonder if the last vessel of people to have toppled to their deaths during one of these trips was filled with people who may have been thinking the same things I was thinking – anticipating their own demise just moments before it was sure to take place…
In Banahue, I moseyed around and went to the little tourist-based shops and bought a couple masks and a native fighting stick and even a couple little bags to keep my batteries in. And when I walked back across the lazy road I snapped this shot of local life in a typical shop in this area. The peacefulness of the mountains seemed to echo its own voice back into the culture that exists here. In fact, a lot of the mountains’ characteristics are played out in traditional life, I thought. It was the nice, cool climate that I had been seeking since my retreat from the heat and bustle down in the towns of southern Luzon.
Below is a part three of the six-part documentary film, Travel Geek: Documentary Philippines (be sure to subscribe to my channel). It covers much more than this journal. But since I’ve already made the video, I might as well put part one of the six-part series in here to add some reference:
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