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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Heading into the mountains...

Laoag, Illocos Norte, Philippines

So it's been a while since I was able to write something. Mainly it's because I removed myself further away from civilization and headed into the area known as the Cordillera, home to many tribes here in the Philippines.

Day 12: Laoag. Let me first say that I did get my hair straightened but it didn't cost me P300; instead I bargained and got it for P600 + P100 (tip). Supposedly, since my hair was dyed, I wasn't an eligible candidate for the hair straightening and instead needed to get the hair rebonding...whatever that is. So far it's been about a week and my hair seems straighter but not sure if the look suits me. Oh well, it was a good deal! The worst part though was that it took 5 hours! The guy told me 'one hour, one hour, ma'am'. So I agreed. I was there from 1PM to 6PM. And because it's like in some one's house, and it is the Philippines, they don't have nice plush chairs where the hair dresser can pump his leg and move you up and down. No, it was just a very old uncomfortable chair. I was getting so restless but we'll see how long it lasts, I'm told that it should hold for almost a year!

After my last blog, while I was at the computer shop, one of the guys from the neighboring shops was helpful and helped me to find a card reader so that I could more easily upload my photos (he just so happened to be visiting the shop I was at). After talking with him and telling him of my plans to go to the countryside, he said that coincidentally, he was thinking about going as well and would 'escort' me. I thought it was a little weird but he seemed nice enough and thought it would be nice to have someone to hang out with since I'm usually solo.

I spent another night in Laoag hoping to fly out on my hot air balloon the next day but again the winds were too strong so I decided to hit the road. Before I left town though, I made a quick stop to the town's museum which showcased a lot of the local provincial history of the people. There was even a chalkboard before you exited in which I wrote a message to the employees of Highway Inn.
At the urging of one of Lavie's friends, I also decided to buy a new phone. I ended up with a "NOKIA" phone with dual SIM and a TV! Because it's made in China, it's not the best but it is unlocked so I will be able to continue to use it while I travel and I'll also be able to hold two SIMs simultaneously.

The route: So I wanted to go directly from Laoag to Sagada, a town infamously known for putting their dead in 'hanging coffins' but unfortunately there was no direct route. I thought I had it all figured out...looking at the map, it made most sense to go up north to Laoag and then down south east to Sagada. But nope, there were no buses that made that route. So, I had to go back through Baguio (I passed it going to Laoag) and take another 6 or so hour up north east.

Going to Baguio - the 'summer capital' of the Philippines because it's at a higher elevation - was a 7 hour bus ride. Along the way (1.5 hours south of Laoag), we passed through Vigan which is where Jeremy (see previous posts)is actually from. In hindsight I really wish I scratched the hot air balloon idea earlier and spent a day or so in Vigan. Vigan is known for its well kept architecture (combination of Mexican and Chinese styles with Filipino influence) including its Mestizo District where the mansions there were built by the Chinese merchants who intermarried and settled there more than 200 years ago and eventually became very successful establishing themselves as an elite group. Oh well, if I ever make it back to the Philippines, I will definitely have to make it a point to stop there.

Got into Baguio fairly late and ended up at the Baguio Village Inn for P300 ($6.60). They weren't joking that it was cold! Someone had told me before I left that Baguio could be compared to Mililani Mauka. For those of you familiar with Hawaii, Mililani Mauka is considered cold in Hawaii but it really isn't that cold unless you consider 60 degrees to be cold (I know, I know, all the Hawaii people are nodding their heads) but I was not prepared for the cold air in Baguio! I think it was down to high 30s or perhaps in the 40s. They don't give you much of a blanket either and I nearly froze to death! I didn't want to ask the hotel staff for another blanket because I didn't want to pay for it. Ha! I later found out that it's usually free or a nominal fee of P20 ($0.43). Oh well. It was a good experience!

Day 14: Baguio, Benguet. The following day, I walked around Camp John Hay which is a former US rest and recreation facility, the Filipinos weren't the only ones trying to escape the tropical heat of the Philippines. I just walked around and killed most of the day doing absolutely nothing. I was mainly waiting because Jeremy had just finished his concert the night before at Paco Park and he and Jared were making their way up to Baguio to meet up with me. Jeremy is actually studying Linguistics and is studying about the varying dialects and languages of the Filipino people. So it was perfect for him to come to Baguio the capital of the Cordillera.

Before heading down to meet Jeremy, I stopped by this beautiful house that was next to the golf course in John Hay. It was beautiful! I stopped because passing through the back side of the house, read a sign in big black lettering 'open house'. I love looking at houses so I decided to see if it really meant 'open house' in the definition that I am familiar with. And it did. I got to meet the architect who had just so happened to stop by before I was leaving. A young Korean, he had designed, built and furnished the house in its entirely all with Korean furniture and appliances. It was amazing: a jacuzzi, intercom system, beautiful pine wood views and nice furniture. Price tag: $500,000 USD. I don't know what the rule is for foreigners owning land in the Philippines, but if anyone is interested, please let me know! I can get you in touch with the owner.

Jeremy was still settling in his room so I decided to stop at Saint Louis University because I had read that there was a nice little museum in the basement. I had about half an hour until it would close so had Jeremy meet me there; I figured he would like to see something like that for his studies and would be able to possibly connect with some people who could help him. I went there and a young student named Pearlyn gave me an exceptional tour all in 30 minutes! Later she showed me how to play some of the musical instruments and let me try! I even got to perform in a band! It was great!


That evening at 3:00AM, my new friend from Laoag (who I will name LF - Laoag Friend) arrived in Baguio. I didn't know what to tell him but he was not coming to my room! I suggested that he book a place (it was so cheap!) and we could meet in the morning at 7AM. I went back to fetal position and tried to sleep for the next 4 hours.

The next morning on the dot, I get a phone call at 7AM. I was nervous to meet him. I couldn't believe that he actually came down (7 hour bus ride) and didn't know what to expect. I mean, I really didn't know him! (Almost sounds like my Malaysian family but it was weird!) The four of us, LF, Jeremy, Jared and myself went out to Tam-Awan Village which houses some traditional houses of the Cordillera people as well as serves as a home for local up and coming artists and their artwork. We did a quick tour, some dancing and breakfast.

We enjoyed our time there but LF and I had to head out to catch the 1PM (last bus) out to Sagada. I was again nervous that I would now be alone with this stranger. I was also worried about payment. Jeremy had made a comment the previous day. I had made a comment about how I thought it was a little odd that when we had gone out to dinner with one of the alumni (who ended up tagging along with us), he had not offered to pitch in on the bill. Yes, it was DIRT cheap but for me, I just expected him to make a gesture that he wasn't there for a free meal and that he would also put in his fair share. The guys and I had already divided the bill three ways so it didn't matter but it was the effort. Jeremy had mentioned that because we had 'invited' him that it was expected that we would treat him. I sarcastically remarked, but we didn't invite him! He invited himself! So this got me thinking about my situation with LF. Did I invite him? Or did he invite himself which means I invited him? I didn't know if I needed to now pay double for everything. Yes, it's cheap but mind you, I'm also unemployed! I can't be supporting no one but myself right now, no less a stranger?! So that was a little gray...

We got to the bus station, just minutes after the second to the last bus had left the station so we had a whole 1.5 hours for the next bus. It was good to have him there so he could talk to the people and figure everything out. I could do it; I would do it if I were by myself but he was there so I could just relax. When the ticket line opened, he rushed to the line to buy the tickets. I thought okay, I will not go up there with my money, I will wait until he comes back and pay him for just my part. Which is exactly what I did. He said 'later' which I'm not sure if that meant, 'don't worry about it' or really if he meant 'later'. Ha ha. I hate owing people money though, I like to take care of that right away so there is no confusion so I just gave him the money.

It was a long agonizing 6 hour bus ride to Sagada. The road was windy and quite undeveloped! It was also an old bus with no luggage compartment. So, the luggage went in the middle aisle to the front of the bus. Additional passengers took out and sat on the middle aisle chairs to the back of the bus. It was a full bus! It was actually quite entertaining to see everyone who sat in the first 3-4 rows of the bus having to climb, literally climb, over the luggage to get to their seats.

Day 15: Sagada, Mountain Province. Hours later, we finally made it to Sagada. Although the elevation in Sagada is a bit higher than Baguio (1477m vs. 1450m) it didn't seem as cold as Baguio. Oh now, the part that I was were we going to have the sleeping arrangements? Of course it would be cheaper to share a room but I was starting to realize that this guy was a tad off. He wanted to go to a place that he knew but I insisted that we went to one of the places recommended in my book; that way I know what kind of place we were heading to. The first place that we went to only had doubles and I politely refused we couldn't be in the same room. So we went to the next place listed in my book. He really wanted to go to his place but I just walked away from him...started to look like we were going to have some compatibility issues!

The place that I chose: Ganduyan Inn which is also home to a museum (which I missed because they were closed on the day that I was going to go!) was where we settled for P200, less than $5! But talk about BASIC! Up until now, all the P300 places had a mirror, a bar of soap, towel, and usually a roll of toilet paper of there would be toilet paper in the bathroom. For P100 less, you got NOTHING! It was just a bed. I mean, not even an outlet for me to charge my phones and other electronics! Seriously, I rather pay the additional P100 please! I also learned that there was no hot water! So for P50 (about a buck), I had them boil a bucket of hot water. Lucky I used to live in Japan and know how to bathe furo-style (Japanese hot bath), pouring hot water onto yourself. This is how I bathed here. The things you become grateful for! Even a mirror! There were no mirrors in this place! Not even in the bathroom! I think the first morning we were there, because I don't rinse my mouth out after I brush my teeth (I'm told that it can be deadly because of the bacteria in the water), I just spit out. But because there was no mirror, I couldn't check to see if there was any toothpaste left around my mouth and chin. There seems to have been because when I greeted LF in the hallway, he chuckled. The things we should not take for granted! A mirror, among many other things!

Anyway, that day, we also learned that there were guides to do certain activities. I hadn't really read much on the area except that there were hanging coffins which would be a curious site to see. I didn't know about their caves and their hikes! LF informed me that the guides would be P400; we kinda agreed that it was expensive so I was leaning toward not having a guide and doing something else. After talking to a guy at our hotel and then later seeing other guides take other people around, I thought I was maybe missing out on something important. LF convinced me that we could do without a guide. After checking out the entrance to one of the caves (you need a lamp to go into the caves)I started to think that maybe I should just do it. After talking to some locals at a small store nearby and seeing some photos posted on the wall, yes we were missing out! So I told LF that I was going to do the caves. So the lady at the store called the guide office and had someone come down to meet us. I thought (hoped) I was going alone but LF decided that he would come along.

The caves were AMAZING! By far one of the most challenging and amazing things that I have done in my life...and I do have some crazy experiences under my belt! I am so glad that the lady encouraged me to do it. At first I was only going to do one cave. Yes, I was trying to be cheap but I forgot to mention that I only had $100 to last me the next 5 days. Because Sagada is small, population approximately 1700, there are no ATMs! Money changes but at bad rates so Lonely Planet says. There was also no ATMs in Banaue - the next town I was going I needed to be conservative. But then I saw some photos that were of the second cave. It was the cave connection where you could go in one cave and out the other. So, I just had to do it. I also found out that there was probably an ATM in the town right over; we'd have to go there to get to Banaue anyway.

We had an amazing guide, Erwin, who was only a couple of years older than us (LF is a year older than me). It was fun hanging out with him and watching him do all these crazy maneuvers in the caves. As I mentioned earlier, the caves are dark so you need a lamp. Erwin carried a kerosene lamp into the caves to guide our way all throughout the tour.  Ah, the smell reminded me of Japan and the days that I needed to buy kerosene from the gas station to fill up my portable heater. Some smells bring you back to a certain time. Anyway, I you'll have to see my photos of the Lumiang Burial Cave and Sumaging Cave. But to try and better describe the experience, it's not just walking into a cave and walking out; there are some parts of the cave that are very small places. You literally need to crawl into little holes to get into other parts and move along. There's also water running in the caves. There was one point that the water came up to our hips (we were warned) so our guide, stripped down and dropped his pants. I wasn't sure if he had clothes under there or what? I tried not to look but couldn't help it. Okay, he did have undies on. He then with incredible coordination rolled up his shirt so that it wouldn't get wet, somehow held the lamp and jumped over the rocks to avoid getting wet. I wish I could have taken a photo of that but since I'm not as agile as he is, I wasn't allowed to hold the camera for fear that I would drop it or break it.

As you can see by the photos, it was an incredible experience! It was estimated that it would take us at least 4 hours but if we were slower, maybe 5. We came out in a record 3.5 hours even with some time for me to SWIM (yes I swam!) in ice cold cave water.


Erwin also wanted to show us more of his town. We decided to go to the big waterfall Bomod-ok Falls (sounds Korean?). We got to walk through rice terraces (which is actually what Banaue is known for) a 2,000 year old tradition of cultivating rice for the people in the area. Our path ended at a waterfall which was also very nice. Having already swam in the underwater river in the caves, I thought I was ready to swim in the little pool. Mind you, I'm not a great swimmer. But, I wanted to do it. Once I got in though, I quickly changed my mind. It was freezing! Erwin kept encouraging me to jump off one of the rocks. I was terrified. I'm not afraid of heights but because I'm not totally comfortable being in the water, jumping into the water is not something I typically enjoy doing. Erwin didn't have his swim shorts but he agreed that if I wanted to jump, he'd jump with me. I told him I wouldn't jump unless he jumped with me. So were going to do it but then later I realized, it was too crazy and the water too cold. To get to the rock, I would probably slip so it was probably not the best idea. We decided to head back. I think LF started to feel left out because Erwin and I got along so well. I couldn't help it though LF was just boring.

Later it was getting dark so we decided to stop at a restaurant that Erwin wanted to take us to. Since I had already blown the bank that day, I told the guys that I would treat them to dinner. We got to the restaurant and waited by the campfire as we waited for our food to be prepared. LF not getting any attention decided to be a DRAMA QUEEN and didn't want to join us. What a liability. He complained of being tired. I didn't know if we should take him home so we wouldn't have to hear his bitching and could enjoy ourselves or if we should just make him eat it up (he is a grown man -33!) and deal. Later, he started talking to us about 'family problems' he was having and all Erwin and I could do was listen. OMG torture. I don't even know what he was talking about and he's just whack. Started talking about how he had a gun (guns are legal here) and how he told his brother or someone that he would kill them?! I was staring to realize that this guy is a loner and plays the victim card a lot! He refused to eat but so somehow when I suggested karaoke (yes they had a magic mic there!), he was all into it and somehow he was having the time of his life! Anyway, a beer and 12 or so songs later, we headed out.

When we got back to our hotel, the outer gate was closed. AH?! Where we locked out? Erwin said, 'oh yeah, I should have called your hotel to let them know.' oopsies. I guess there is a curfew because everything shuts down at a certain time. Later that night, I get a call from LF apologizing for his behavior. Was he trying to get some brownie points after making us listen to his nonsense?! I accepted and hung up.

The next morning, I was dreading having to have Erwin leave us and be alone with LF again. In the morning, I left him and told him I'd go out for breakfast and come back. I came back about 45 minutes later. We were already making our way to Banaue but we still had not gone out to Echo Valley (named so because you can hear your voice echoing through the mountains) and the hanging coffins, the two must-sees in the town! LF said he knew the way (and we didn't want to pay for a guide!) so we made our way. As we started walking on the trail, away from the town, I started to think what if he goes crazy on me? There will be no one to help me! I just decided to have my phone ready and just be ready. Anyway, I guess it was all in my head and that his weirdness just makes me feel uncomfortable but we went to Echo Valley saw the hanging coffins and came back. Such a dufus though, when we got to Echo Valley, he didn't emphasize that we were there that I didn't get to try it out! We left without ever experiencing Echo Valley. :(

We made our way to Bontoc first. A one hour jeepney ride over to the next town. The ride is on a small little jeepney/bus so we decided to ride ON TOP of it! They have a rule that they will seat 8 to a side = 16 people in these little things. I wasn't having any of that so I decided to go up top and enjoy the breathtaking views while also being able to breathe! It was a bumpy ride but it was fun!

We arrived in Bontoc safely and I quickly withdrew money! I also had a famous delicacy here in Bontoc. Making up for the last week though, this post is way too long so I'm going to save my lunch in Bontoc for another post.

We caught the next bus out from Bontoc and made it to Banaue, its rice terraces said to be the 8th World Wonder. Yes, it is pretty amazing! Terraces of rice, ingeniously carved alongside the rugged mountain terrains over 2,000 years ago. We got here in 2.5 hours. I didn't think that I could ride on top again for that long so (wo)manned it up and sat inside. LF decided to sit on top. Poor guys, there were 8 of them. It started to rain and a lot of the ride over was on roads still being constructed. Lots of smoke and dust blowing in their flaces along with the rain and cold temperatures, it must have sucked. The ride inside wasn't pleasant either but I do think it was better than what they experienced.

Got into Banaue and the weather was terrible! We could have spent more time in Sagada with our friend Erwin! Oh well, it was back to me and LF again. After we settled in, we were faced with the room situation again. Apparently the cheaper rooms, P200 were not available...I guess there was one left. There was a P500 one with own private bath with hot shower. BS! I decided to take the P500 just so I didn't have to share a room with LF. So LF got the P200 room which had 2 twin beds in it. I suppose, we could have shared that room but NO! I don't know if that insulted him but I didn't care. I went into my room and settled. A few minutes later, I walked to his door across the hallway and told him I was going downstairs. Basically, I needed to do my own thing. The hotel that we're staying at has 3 computers with only one real functioning one. FINALLY got onto the computer after being disconnected to the world for almost a week. 10 minutes later, the power went out! It came back out a few hours later but the internet was disconnected for the rest of the night! So, I enjoyed a nice cup of joe overlooking the rice terraces. It was wet and very cloudy but it was still beautiful. Then I decided to walk up to the bus stops to figure out how I was going to leave town on Thursday night.

Came back later, much later (2-3 hours later?) and found LF eating dinner alone. Sat and listened to him ramble for what seemed like hours (actually maybe it was...I secretly took a short video of him while he was going on talking about God knows what. If you want to see more about my travel through my eyes and what I had to live through, message me and I will give you access to this 3 minute video). I guess it was my fault because I asked if his family problems were resolved. I didn't know what else to talk to him about. I encouraged him that maybe he should just go and take care of his problems.

Later, that night he told me that he was going to leave for Baguio the next day. Okay I said. He asked for my email and I gave it to him then quickly closed my door. No hugs, no good-byes. Yes, I was grateful for him coming along but really, I don't think that's what I had expected or asked for. He came to my room later that night but I ignored his knocks, I really had nothing to say to him. I also shut off my phone. This may paint a very ugly picture of me but this RARELY happens to me where I am just so turned off by someone! Anyway...

So FAST FORWARD to today, the weather again was terrible so didn't want to pay for a guide only to have it rain down. I asked the owner of my hotel if she had any suggestions on things to do. She recommended that I take a 4KM walk up to viewpoint. I set out shortly after 10AM and I didn't get back until 4:30PM! I actually think I did the walk UP HILL fairly quick but I made many stops along the way talking to the locals, saying hi to the kids! It was a great day.

Finally found a place with internet. It's actually about 1.2 KM away from my hotel and it's extremely dark right now (I've been here for 3.5 hours!) so I don't know how I'm getting back...I guess I'm walking back. LF has been texting me since he's left and I'm trying to be cordial but it's trying!

Hopefully the weather tomorrow will be much better and I will make a day trip out to Batad which is said to have the most beautiful rice terraces in the area. Tomorrow night, I'll be making my way back to Manila for my flight to Taiwan! Can't believe it's almost 3 weeks since I first got here!

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