Journal 47: Philippines Days 8, 9 and 10

Day 8: Arrival at Sagada

In between the muted calls of song birds in the distance and quiet gale making its way through these peaceful mountains, I found myself finally able to take in the tranquil notions I’d been hoping for thus far on the trip.

I was extremely lucky in choosing my lodgings the night before in Bontoc.  Because the organization that ran that guesthouse, also had a sister hostel which happened to have the very last room available in any of the homestays in the entire town.

Creeping up on the New Year, this area becomes a hippy mecca in terms of its festivals and celebratory traditions.  Almost every morning people cook up a storm and have their shops open selling all manner of trekking and camping gear.   Almost every afternoon you’ll see people coming back in from long hikes in the surrounds.  And almost every night there is a bonfire festival.

There are pockets of scattered masses moving in their own dust clouds up the dirt streets through town.  And they appear to be a pleasant mix of foreigners, locals and hippies — and various combinations of the three.

And upon arriving and noticing all this, I also noticed that it was well past due for a relaxing day doing little to nothing, save showering and scrubbing the last few days of dirt from my pores.

First order of business: Shower.  Next: the bunk.  Evening time: beer.

So that was my first day.  It’s quite easy to sleep in a town like Sagada.  The dreaminess of the place almost keeps you in a perpetual state of laziness anyway.

Upon arriving at St. Joe’s, I was confirmed for the reservation that the lady from the Bontoc hostel had arranged for me and promptly shown to my room.  But it wasn’t two minutes into the conversation that I was interrupted multiple times by desperate backpackers trying to secure a room for the night.  So along with the horror stories that accompanied trying to sleep through the last week’s rainy nights, I was also told about how there were quite literally no more places to stay anywhere in town.  People had started to go around asking the locals to take them in for a fee.  I am sure that some of this was arranged.  But I would still hate to have been in that position in such damp climes.

The restaurant was as peaceful and cabin-like as the surrounds.  All the woodworking from the entire grounds was done by local artisans with quite a western sympathy.  It seemed like it was more influenced by Norwegian winters than the more common tropical humidity.  But it nevertheless brought in a feel that was well accepted by the patrons.

The food was good.  It took quite a while, but when I went to find out where the staff was at with the preparation of our meal, ordered no less than 45 minutes before, I found the head cook: a vicenarian mother of two (one of which was strapped to her rump like a huge humpback with curious eyes).

I let it pass.

On to bed to plan my next day.

Day 9: Humping through the hills

Being a top-heavy lad of 33, the longer, more technical, more demanding hikes I’d pounce through like a gazelle in my younger years, I am finding the excuse to shy away from nowadays.  Thankfully, Filipinos are among the like-minded citizenry who make an effort to place their most important cultural relics within a stones throw of the main arteries that gnarl the mountainside around Sagada.

Besides the miraculous echos that pander themselves along the jutting karst formations, gaining depth and definition as they bounce around the area, the Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley are just the right counter to break their flow.  And as you descend the mountain to reach them, the echos of even your conversation-level tone can be heard answering back at you like phantoms escaping the limestone erosion.

Seeming so foreign even to this unfamiliar corner of the Southeast Asian wilds, these stoic boxes clinging to the sheer cliff faces at the base of the hike offer an otherworldly glimpse of the deep spirituality that has existed here long before Magellan plotted his course and imposed his Portugese slant on Catholicism here.

Off in the distance was an amazing looking mansion overlooking the entire valley.  That house, my guide told me, was at the end of the hike that we wouldn’t be doing today.  Oddly enough, I knew that I had paid for that hike.  But this news came after an all-important phone call of his to which my day unfortunately took the back seat.  So it was to be back into town with me without word on when I would be completing my hike.

Throughout Sagada, you’re not supposed to hike without a guide.  That’s what the sign says when you perform the other required task of registering as a foreigner to the town hall.  I couldn’t tell if this was for safety purposes or for commerce.  Well, I couldn’t tell until I read the part of the ledger that asked the budget, rather than the number of days, that you had planned for their lovely hamlet.

Pacing and feeling like I was wasting my day to the badly prioritized teen guide, I decided to hop in a jeep and take the long hike through the Fidalizan village to the Bomod’ok waterfall on the other side of the crescent valley.

Up at the top, I met my other guide.  Equally expensive.  Equally young.  We set off down through the village which rounded banks overlooking the valley in 180 degrees of crisp, sunny views.

The village, itself, was quite and serene.  But infrequently, we would hear gun blasts or some such oddity coming from an undetectable direction.  My guide would tell me that it was dynamite from the copper mining near the river to the south.

Making our way along the only concrete path in the layered rice terraces, we eventually weaved through the pass and down to the foot of this magnificent waterfall.  The water was a brisk and perfect contrast to the hot day working in on us from behind the mountains.

I swam for about a half-hour at its base.  But all one need do is stand near it and become drenched in its powerful sheeting swathes of fall-spray.  It was a wonderful experience to see that kind of power from mother nature even in this remote, unexpected place.

Once out of the water and dried off in the sun, we headed back.  But not before my boots lost a sole.  to this day, I have no idea what took them down.  But whatever the case, I was forced to run through a new pair of socks on the climb back through the other side of the village.

Back in town, we found out that, because of New Year’s traffic, all the tickets would be booked for the next two days.   So if I was to have any hope of making it to the islands before my departure time, I would have to cut my mountain escape one day short.  So I packed and woke up to the early bus for a day-long trip back to Manila.

There, I would run into all sorts of problems.  But that’s going to be another journal.

Check out the rest of the images from Sagada, but don’t forget to watch Part Four of the Philippines documentary below:

At about 3:00 into this movie, you see Sagada from where we arrived, at St. Joe’s.

Journal 46: Philippines Days Six and Seven

Pushing on today, I made it to about the half-way mark: Bontoc.

Bontoc was one of the towns that I had made it a goal of mine to visit because of one particular fascination of mine: the ancient headhunters.

Warring tribes all throughout the mountain areas have feuded for hundreds of years over land, power and mating rights with the women.  And I wasn’t aware of this before I went, but a missionary had set up a museum, the Bontoc Museum, years ago when he’d arrived to rape the local people of their then-current belief system.  Funny – even ironic – I thought, that Christianity would aim to remove all traces of the local belief system which included beheading, worshiping ancestors and honoring gods of unknown western appreciation, and then turn around and build a memorial commemorating its amazing past.

I wasn’t able to get much information about the family lifestyles, but I definitely hit the major points in the museum.  There was a Frenchman who wandered into this area in the 1970s when the culture was still in full swing and not yet inhibited by any western conservative movements.  He captured the life that existed here on film and published a book of the best of those prints.  [I have been unable to find this author’s name and would love it if someone would leave that information in a comment at the end of this blog]

In his book there are so many telling photos that show situations where men had just come back from a headhunting party where they had the headless loser of the battle tied up and hanging like a pig from a bamboo strewn between two carriers.  They would bring their spoils back to the village, remove the face of the fallen prey, keeping it as a trophy, and tattoo a patterned series of lines on their chest marking their success amongst their battles.

How amazingly far flung, I thought, from our current accepted way of life these people are.  Nestled in this little country at some far reach of the world, why, too, would their culture not be just as foreign?

Headhunting, as I found out, was not the work of mad people bent on control or power or because of some strange right of passage.  As things went, there were no rules that might keep people from killing each other and taking their land, their animals, their women and on and on.  So, instead of warring on a tribe-wide scale, the village leaders would simply send out two snipers and a small contingent of soldiers to find the opposing leaders – the few people in charge of waging the violence in the first place – and, simply put, come back with their heads; guaranteeing that these orders would not see their way to fruition and certainly sending a message to any who might follow in their footsteps.

The pictures that I saw in this museum showed men with six and seven rows of these tattoos indicating their take of the men who’d otherwise have their memory emblazoned across their chests.  Men sat in the proverbial Asian squat, holding up their latest trophies from the massacre – the eyeless face of the man who’d not fought hard enough, or the man who’d been taken by surprise in his sleep, or the man who’d been turned in by his own people at the risk of losing their own heads in his stead.

The stories, too, were captivating.  I stood reading every etched piece of wood, every banner and sign in the museum – all of them depicting the shortened history of a certain village or strain of people living their lives in their unique ways, wearing their unique cloth-work and providing the camera with their own lives in the villages they lived in.

I won’t soon forget the many interesting things that I found there.  And I apologize that I don’t have any photos from the location.  But the video below should do a good job at staving off the fiendish demand for the answers to the curiosity for secrets of the Ifugao headhunters.

Back on the road, I headed northward.  More on that trip and the gallery from the mountains of Sagada in the next journal.  Until then, enjoy Part Four  of Travel Geek: Documentary Philippines!

Journal 45: Philippines Days Four and five


See the rest of the photos from the Philippines at

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.

To see the rest of the photos from the Philippines, go to

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

[Wanna Help?  One way you can help is to sign up for blog updates.  You can also share this video (which can be found on my channel), my photography website and this blog.  Email at least ten of your email contacts who might enjoy it.  Help spread the word so others can enjoy my travels!  If you have any questions, just email me at: You can also follow me on facebook, sign up to receive my tweets on Twitter, and see my latest pins on Pinterest!]

New Photos from the Philippines, 2nd album

Okay, so here is the second album of recently edited photos.  This is the rough draft editing stage of the photos.  The final drafts will be edited all together in a batch process and then uploaded to the commercial website.  So you’re getting the sneak preview before the photography page gets updated.

In this album, the elderly people taken in HDR are from the hill tribes living in the mountains.  The beautiful lady trying to hide her face from the camera was so shy that her friends made her take the photograph.  She very reluctantly and uncomfortably sat as I snapped these shots of her.  I gave her a warm thanks and a fist full of cash afterward.  And they wounldn’t let me leave without getting a shot of the tattoos that she acquired in her time in the hills.  The tribes people decorated themselves back then and are strangely embarrassed of it now.  The older gentleman sat proudly and let me take this shot even though the youngsters around him were laughing and pointing.  He seemed not to mind.

Be sure to click the images and make them larger.  The detail that comes out in HDR when you’re looking at the larger image reveals much more detail than a thumbnail.  Tremendous range is exposed in this technique of photography — which is responsible for giving the photos that “dreamy” feel to them.  The mountain shots have so much old-worldy feel to them in these shots.  There are many more that will make it to the commercial site, but these will have to do to start.

Take a look and be sure to leave me comments on what you think!

Journal 44: Philippines Days Three and Four

After Pinatubo, I headed farther north into the western peninsula of Luzon.  Hundred Islands National Park was next on the agenda.

As I rolled into Alaminos, on the long bus, I hadn’t realized how much time had gone  by.  But that last leg took me almost six hours.  I just spent most of the time snapping photos at passers by and trying to scribble a few words into my journal as the bus bounced roadward.

Getting into Alaminos doesn’t mean you’ve made it to the park, however.  Once there, you still have to pay a tricycle to drive you the rest of the 7km distance to the coast.  The price isn’t that bad (only about $2), because the driver probably will have a brother or cousin who owns a hotel, restaurant or boat.  Good people to know.

Hundred Islands National Park:

Probably the thing I liked the most about the Hundred Islands National park was area surrounding it.  Staying in Alaminos and Lucap was sort of what I was hoping to see since I got to the Philippines.  The slower pace of life, the small town feel and the quiet streets that, once you wake up, you’re happy to have had the night before.

The place I stayed at was a reasonably large place that had recently been built by a small family.  I couldn’t tell if the husband was a perpetual drunk, because it was Christmas Eve when I arrived.  To be fair, both towns were equally stocked with drunkards, I suppose.  So perhaps I was being a bit harsh on the old man.  But it was his reliability as a boat captain what I was more unsure of.  Because the next day I’d signed up to have him drive me out into the park.

I approached to set up a time to leave to the park the next day and it felt like he’d thrown up an entire bottle of malt liqueur within five minutes of our meeting.  But as I had begun to find out, there were many people who could captain the rickety little vessels passing as the latest influence for the aquatic tourist conveyor belt out to the islands.  So if he fell through, I was pretty sure I’d be okay.

And that turned out to be the case as I wound up snatching up a younger, more sober looking driver at the entry to the pier.

Being as it was the morning time and I had arrived to the crumbling docks in time for the sunrise, I thought I’d snap a few photos.  They became some of the best shots I’d made yet on this trip.  So I was happy that I went out early.

Being the first national park that resided in the ocean that I have ever seen, I thought that this was one was particularly special.  The islands themselves were interesting.  But they weren’t mindblowing – as played out in the advertising all along the coast.

Shaped like the average blooming mushroom, these islands display a headdress of green foliage under a short canopy of failing coastline.  They are also very close to one another in proximity.  So there are lots of shallow pools, swimming areas, neat beaches and what is left of the coral that was swept nearly away from the latest wave of seasonal typhoons and covered by annual sediment brought in by lahar flows.

I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t impressed and didn’t enjoy the trip.  But if they were a little less dramaticized before you got there, they  might seek less awe and find more of it in the people that gaze upon these eroding structures.  Nevertheless, among the two packages (a half day [3 hours] and a full day [can include an novernight stay on Governor’s Island]), I opted for the short tour.

But I was no less excited about the day in the islands.  The driver took us out to little coves and swimmable spots.  There was this great little island that had all sorts of little pagoda-looking huts that appeared to have lived through many a noisy party echoing through the inlet.  And probably my favorite part of the trip was… well, the trip.  I guess I mean that literally.

When we arrived at the last island, there were lots of people swimming in the crystal clear waters at the south-facing beach.  And I was happily prancing along watching them when I stubbed my toe on this enormous shell jutting up through the sand.  I definitely broke my toe and I was down for a ten-count.  But once I was back up and snapping away, I found this great little oyster bed that had been “salvaged” by the last heavy weather that had come through and torn up the coral bottoms.  

I crept out into the sectioned off nursery and snapped a few photos of these giant oysters.  They must have been two feet across.  They were bright blue and green and seemed to change color under the shifting light of the cloud-strewn sky.  It was a great additive to the trip.  But after that, I headed back for the trenches.

Today, it was off for Banahue and Bontoc on my way to seek out the home of the native headhunters of Ifugao.  That trip would prove to be exciting and full of great views.  I would spend the first half on top of one vehicle and the other half hanging out the rear door of another.  But you’ll have to wait for the next journal to see photos and read about that.

And speaking of photos, be sure to stop by for the photos from the whole Philippines trip.

Below is a part two 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:

[Wanna Help?  One way you can help is to sign up for blog updates.  You can also share this video (which can be found on my channel), my photography website and this blog.  Email at least ten of your email contacts who might enjoy it.  Help spread the word so others can enjoy my travels!  If you have any questions, just email me at: You can also follow me on facebook, sign up to receive my tweets on Twitter, and see my latest pins on Pinterest!]

Journal 43: Philippines Days Two and Three


Be sure to check out the Philippines photos at

There’s an interesting and flavorful addition to the Philippines that is home to no other location on earth.  What is this delectable, endemic treasure: the Jeepney.

Short is its history on this green earth, but fascinating is its time here.  The Jeepney came about through an unexpected gap in the Philippines chilling and exciting past.

For only a short period of years, about (#) years or so, the United States occupied this small, island-speckled nation.  But in those short years they peppered the countryside with the vehicle most appropriate for bouncing around its rugged terrain, the Jeep.  So godlike is this amazing entity bestowed upon the Filipino people that they created many different Jeep-esque country crawlers in its honor.

Useful in hauling everything from livestock to construction materials up the slow-to-progress hinterland road system, these smoke-belching beasts are seen all over the country – especially in Luzon and the larger islands.  The classic front end, the heavy steal construction and, of course, the diehard suspension system are all akin to their master.  But Filipinos have added girth, length, an upper rack system that could rival the strength of boardwalk pilings.  And that’s all in an effort to tote as much as possible (and therefore make as much money as possible) in one trip.  But little else has changed about from the Jeep’s original design – including its not-so-environmentally-friendly miles-per-gallon ratio.

I was scammed and always charged the local rate on these mobile social clubs.  And it was never a boring ride.  People were crammed everywhere; in the nooks aboard the body, on the rack above, in the front seats and even clinging for dear life off the back.

I could have taken the big bus liners to the areas I wanted to go – mostly.  The air condition going through the city would definitely have been nicer.  But I would rather see the Philippines the way it’s seen from the inside – not the outside or looking down.

Mount Pinatubo:

Once near Angeles, I could tell that getting the rest of the way would have to be done a little more discerningly.  Angeles is a dirty, crowded town where little English is spoken.  People are willing enough to help you get to where you need to be.  But the drivers seem more to be out for the buck.

At the local depot, I was approached by lots of “tricycle” drivers asking to take me to my destination.  But I have learned that generally, you don’t want to just jump into the first offered ride when you’re fresh off the boat, so to speak.  So I haggled a little bit and met a few guys that were willing to discuss the idea.

The first price was offered.  I turned it down, of course.  Then I walked a little further and they sort of teamed up against me, saying that this was the regular price and that the distance was far away.

I knew that we were only about seven kilometers from the dropping point for what I had researched was the start of the hike for the mountain.  So I eventually just moved on.  They were not pleased that I had not fallen for their game.

Lesson from memory: be willing to walk away… a long way (in order to A, find out of the driver is serious and B, ensure that you’ve done as much as possible to help guarantee that you’re not the next white dupe to fall out of a bus and right into a scam).

Down the road a little bit, I hopped into the least formidable looking jeepney headed in my general direction and cut my lost time.  On the trip I found just what I needed.  A relative of the person in charge of the next leg of my trip.

Cindy, the cousin of Wendell, had told us that we were approaching O’Donnell Village and that we should stay at her relative’s place overnight and then, in the morning, take his jeep tour into the Pinatubo region for a quick day hike.

And just like that, I had a place to stay, a hookup into the trek up the mountain and the closest thing to a personal guarantee that I had secured the best price possible – the local price.

And what a hookup I had: Wendell turned out to be the president of the Four-Wheel Club in the entire area.  And as a bonus, it was his birthday.  So he was celebrating with a huge banquet of food, complete with servers and free beer.  So, besides the all night bash that included seemingly endless karaoke until all hours of the morning, it was definitely a good night to stay at Wendell’s place.

The next morning I was overcharged for my room and headed toward the mountain.  It was the first time I had been swindled, so I didn’t take it to heart.  And since I’d been given plenty of food and beer the night before, I didn’t really waste much time debating it.  But Wendell gave me a price the previous evening, 500 Pesos, which had somehow turned into a per-head price by morning.  But nevermind that, it was off to see one of the world’s most famous mounds of dirt.

Once at the gate and registered, it was 16 kilometers to the base camp.  From there I’d end up hiking another 12 klicks to the summit.  Or should I say what used to be the summit.

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo breathed its most recent breath (well, the lesser of the famous ones was actually in 1993), casting a billowing haze of smoke, ash and flying debris 40 kilometers into the air and combining its efforts with a tragically coincidental typhoon that had pummeled the west coast that same day, adding insult to injury.  The resulting lahar flowed down the mountain and through the surrounding villages, killing scores of people in its path.

Once I reached the crater left behind by this destruction, I instantly felt the helplessness that must have been a part of the psyche of the victims of this massive sleeping goliath.

Below is a part one 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:

[Wanna Help?  One way you can help is to sign up for blog updates.  You can also share this video (which can be found on my channel), my photography website and this blog.  Email at least ten of your email contacts who might enjoy it.  Help spread the word so others can enjoy my travels!  If you have any questions, just email me at: You can also follow me on facebook, sign up to receive my tweets on Twitter, and see my latest pins on Pinterest!]