Star Date: September 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Gawis Ay Agew
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting
Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)
Trying to leave El Nido, at the northern tip of Palawan Island, has added a whole new meaning to waiting for your ship to come in. The regular passenger ferry to Coron Island, 6 hours north, sank 3 weeks ago and the company stopped the run pending investigation. With our main form of transportation wiped out we decided to catch the cargo ship on Thursday. It never came. The Sunday boat went straight to Manila. The Tuesday overpriced pump boat didn't have enough passengers booked and was cancelled. Joseph, used his frustration to find a solution. When we saw a cargo boat pull into the dock he got to know the captain, who wrote his buddy a note of introduction on the next cargo ship. Only 2 days later, we finally laid eyes on our 'yacht' coming through the islands, The Banton Pearl. Exotic sounding, it was less than a gem. At least we were promised passage on this sturdy bucket of bolts which could whisk us away to Coron Island. But then again this is the Philippines. Our evening departure switched to a morning departure and we were happy because we wouldn't miss the scenery; plus had time to share a final dinner cooked by a new Sikh friend. As we made our way along the dark town streets at 3am we were relieved that the ship hadn't left early - as often is the case. They load and go. We looked for a place to sit but since cargo ships are not set up for passengers, there were instead bodies of crew members sprawled or hanging in hammocks in every conceivable position. Space was made for us on two cots on the open deck and after rigging up our emergency bedding we settled into an adventure we will not soon forget.
As the steam engines roared we had visions of days gone by on tramp steamers or freighters, stealing into the night. Heading out of the harbor at 5:30am, and catching the morning rays on the rose colored bay and surrounding mountains was surreal. The only problem was we just headed south instead of north. Soon we docked at the port of Liminangcong, a picturesque cove, 2 hours in the wrong direction. And it will take 3, no make that 7 hours to off load supplies then pack the fresh fish from the fishermen's boats on ice. Luckily it was an interesting little town to explore but although there were coconut palms everywhere, none of the young people knew how to climb up and retrieve a couple to sell. We then sat on the pier reading in the shade, that was until the tide rose enough that we could barely clamber back up the side of the ship. Oh, and did we mention that we will now be stopping at the leper colony on Culion Island to drop off that cement and we should arrive in Coron in the morning? Our noon arrival had just been pushed ahead to the following morning. Patience my son! Go with the flow. Get into it, and that we did. From climbing to the top deck to let the wind whip through our hair to cooking dinner with Aldy we got into ship life. When snapping a few photos only Aldy was literally left standing as 'chief cook' had passed out drunk on the floor. It wasn't exactly run like a tight ship. Well, letting the 'likes of us' stowaways on board, plus the ship's dog, this carefree attitude was to our advantage.
The sunset painted the clouds golden then pink while dolphins frolicked in the bow waves. As darkness descended only the white foam accentuated the endless expanse of black sea. Soon intense stars lighted the way for a visit of an almost full moon. Wind in our faces we drifted off, Joseph sleeping like a baby for most of the trip. The 'searchlight' of the man in the moon woke me up several times; once to catch a glimpse of the lights of the Culion Island Leper Colony scattered up the hill from the water. Twenty seven hours after leaving El Nido we woke up on the deserted ship docked in Coron Town, on Busuanga Island. Our polite 'concierge' had let us continue sleeping. We wondered if the crew had finished loading early if they would have just let us sleep. We would have ended up in Manila. Only 20 additional hours from here, for a total of close to 50 hours El Nido to Manila. Sometimes a 1 hour flight for $60 seems really sweet. But next time. We would have missed the adventure, the camaraderie of sharing life on a steamer, and the absolutely spectacular scenery of a sunny day and clear night, while weaving through the Calamian Islands. As we washed our clothes and ourselves in our little Coron Town guesthouse the skies opened up and almost washed us back into the sea. Had we been on board sleeping on the open deck, that would have been a distinct possibility. Either that or get too chummy with our new sailor friends indoors.
We rested up and recovered our land legs before hiring a boat to look for hidden treasure amongst the Calamian Islands. A full day of snorkeling and hiking revealed Siete Pecadas Marine Park for amazing marine life and Secret Cove which was only accessible by swimming under an arch in the mountain at low tide. Hiding inside was a thermal lake with layers of water of varying temperatures, each boasting a different ecosystem. We climbed up jagged rocks and trails with a couple of petite and often elusive Tagbanua people of Coron Island and swam in unspoiled Barracuda, then Cayangan Lakes. These tourist wary Tagbanuas get real friendly when it's time to collect a fee to hike over their island but it is worth every peso. As we joked around with the other 4 travelers, from China, on our small pump boat, we discovered that the once weekly Super Ferry from Puerto Princessa was stopping at 10:30pm that night on it's way to Manila. At 5pm when we got back, we made a quick change of plans, canceling our plane reservations and boarded the ferry, waking up the following morning near Manila. The naga hide bunk beds on the top deck were luxury compared to our recent 'cruise' on the cargo steamer. Make sure you buy tickets in the airy upper deck - the same price as the stuffy deck below. Hind sight is 20/20. Fly from El Nido to Busuanga then catch the weekly Super Ferry on Sunday nights from Coron Town to Manila. Or throw caution and your schedule to the wind and see what the sea washes up to provide passage on the high seas.
We buzzed through Manila, pausing only long enough to collect the refund for our unused plane tickets and found ourselves near dark in Angeles, 2 hours north. A brothel extravaganza servicing the now shut down Clark Air Force Base, we caught the bus the next day straight up to Baguio, in the cool Cordillera Mountains.
The crispness of Baguio was a welcome relief, even if the few roads winding their way through the city, were crowded with smoky vehicles. Modeled after Washington, D.C. as a cool hill station, Baguio has been rebuilt twice in the 20th century, once after it was flattened by US bombers trying to drive out the Japanese (who, by the way, had already left) and following a massive earthquake in 1990. The market displaying the plethora of vegetable from nearby fields is a treat to the senses. Hidden amongst the nearly 3 sq. km. of market under cover, try to discover the lane sporting gourmet vegetables, fruit, and strawberry wine and jam. A kaleidoscope of colors and tastes.
Baguio to Sagada is an exhilarating trip as you fly around hairpin turns and gaze down at the vistas from the edge of the mountain. Once you arrive you will be soothed by the wind whispering through the pines.
St. Mary's Episcopal Church on the top of the hill is worth a look as is a walk east down the road to Masferre Photographs. This world renowned photographer, famous for capturing life in the Cordillera Mountains in the 1930's and 40's, has some excellent shots. His widow opens her house to visitors once in a while and we had an enjoyable conversation with her. From many locations in town you can hear the whirring of sewing machines as women work in co-ops turning the traditional hand woven fabric into modern bags such as daypacks, money belts, etc. Very inexpensive. An interesting hike leads you up through the cemetery behind the church, to the cross on top. Walk to the edge away from town and scour the lower cliffs on the other side, looking for the intriguing Igorot hanging coffins, tied to the side of sheer cliffs like wooden loaves of bread. Follow a path down and up again to have a closer look. Don't worry about getting lost, as you may end up at other burial sites, complete with bones. It is advised that you retrace your steps unless you have a lot of time to bushwhack through the steep valleys. We also hiked through pine forests up to the top of Kiltepan tower hill. We gazed across the valley to the little villages surrounded by rice terraces before following the dirt road back towards town, stopping at a small farm to rest. Surrounded by gardens, we were offered white bread, cheeze whiz and kool-aid. Boring as we have become, we gratefully declined and simply shared some conversation and a glass of cool water.
Tonight we will be in Banue. Then again, flexibility is the name of the game when traveling. We put our bags on the jeepney bound for Banue and decided to walk to the Bontoc Museum to fill the 2 hour wait. On our way up the hill we met Francis and after looking at some pictures he had we decided to take our bags off the jeepney and put them instead on the one bound for the pristine and rugged province of Kalinga. After all we were only 3-5 hours away.
As we walked through villages, a bare breasted Grandma with tattoos greeted us. Old men with shirts on were possibly hiding tattoos but we did catch a glimpse of an old man sunning himself on his porch in the early morning, with tattoos marking heads taken. One teenage man strutted comfortably around butt naked. Most now sport second hand clothing from nearby towns. Let's see, spend 6 months weaving and sewing a traditional shirt or pick up a t-shirt from the market for 25 cents. Except during celebrations, I wonder where the native costumes of old have gone?
All hesitancy quickly evaporated as we sat with the village folks outside their huts. Soon they were all coming up to us and Camelia, at first shy then stand offish, told us she wanted a foreign friend. Balloons and stickers flew and as we had tea with the old bare breasted Grandma, we offered the gift suggested by Francis, a lump of raw sugar for her coffee in the morning. She was thrilled. Everyone hinted for matches to light the heavy cigar stumps they were chewing on. Villagers were excited when we instead promised to send pictures of them via the weekly mail delivery. That makes 5 photo promises to mail off at this time. Knowing that they have never owned a photo, we are more than happy to send them a thrilling memento.
When approaching a village smile and ask directions. Take it slow. Sit, visit, relax, show photos of family and your home country, take a few pictures and show them their digital image. Blow up a balloon for the kids and play a circle game. Always be genuine, kind and mindful. Like children, they can spot insincerity right away. Have fun and watch as they open up like a flower unfolding. Try matching the warmth of their hearts.
The Cordillera rice terraces have been dated over 3000 years. These tribes have lived in harmony with nature on this land since then and when Marcos announced in the late 70's that they were starting construction of a dam that would flood all the villages lining the river, the natives were less than amused. When talking was futile these feisty people joined forces with the NPA (labeled communist rebels). Not the least bit interested in the NPA doctrine, the Kalinga tribes were simply fighting for their lives and land. As with the Japanese who tried to occupy the area, heads flew. They defeated the government troops in bloody guerilla type battles, and the project was finally stopped. Today these quiet people are still labeled as terrorists, the new buzz word for anyone worldwide who questions the ruling power. Violence is never condoned but put yourself in their sandals. Always try to find out the true facts in every situation, often deeply hidden. How do you think CNN would report this situation?
Across the river from the Liglig bridge, we said goodbye to Francis and his tattoo sporting mother, and started up the mountain on our own, towards Butbut. Though a tough hike, we made it up the mountain before rain or darkness. Perseverance has served us both well in life. As we climbed close to 3000 ft straight up and had our lunch along the trail, we enjoyed the view created by 'Afuliyin', the god of Nature, worshiped in these mountains. What a spectacular place he has created. We were a little concerned the afternoon rains would wash our dirt path away, but we came across a dirt road which allowed a safer retreat back to town. As the clouds moved in we decided to skip the village 4 km along the ridge. Good thing. As we were having a bucket shower back at our room the skies opened and reminded us it is the rainy season.
Finally off to Banue, we knew why this town is touted as the 8th wonder of the world by the Philippines. Ancient rice terraces, carved out of the surrounding mountainsides by the Ifugaos utilizing simple wooden tools, still stands as not only a spectacular scenic display but an engineering marvel. The water is still brought down the mountain with a series of bamboo tubes and mud channels, producing a bountiful crop each year. Reaching up to 5000 ft in places, supposedly if laid end to end these well studied rice terraces would stretch half way around the globe.
Enjoying our breakfast out on the balcony overlooking the terraces Joseph suggested we take a little walk. Before we knew it we were 3500 ft up the mountain looking back down on our guesthouse. We followed school children home for lunch and ended up spending a lovely day tasting rice wine for the upcoming harvest, discussing symbolism with wood carvers and sitting in smoky Ifugao huts visiting with tribes people in the villages dotting the hillside. That night amid the star filled sky, fireflies, and chirping frogs, there wasn't a single light on the mountainside. Without electricity, everyone rolls in with the setting of the sun, preparing for an early morning of labor in the terraces.
This lack of electricity, televisions, cell phones, and modern ways in general made the grueling hike into Batad worth it. Planning to spend a couple of nights and carrying only our small shoulder bags with a few vegetables and fruit, we hiked up the mountain and dropped into this remote valley decorated with an amphitheater of rice terraces. Our hikes in the Cordillera Mountains thus far had prepared us for this extremely difficult trek, something these villagers do without batting an eye. We awoke to gongs sounding the following morning and climbed down the vertical, often ladder like stone steps and dirt paths leading to the small village of huts. Celebrating the transfer of rice terraces from one family to another, the beating of gongs guided a group of locals from a neighboring village; carrying a pig for the feast and coming to help with the harvest. 'Referred' by elderly Romeo and Rita from our guesthouse, we were soon banging gongs, complete with human jaw bone handles, with the men. As the rice wine started flowing freely we balanced our way across the terraces towards the roaring 100 ft high Tappia Waterfall. We plunged into the chilly water, clothes and all, and were dry long before we made it back up to our cliff side balcony. Having once again climbed up two class 4-5 ascents in 6 hours we were proud of what good shape we were in. We slept like logs, enveloped in the stillness of a valley lost in time. No rest for the wicked, we were up at 5:30 to climb the 2000 ft path up to the waiting, once daily jeepney back to Banue. The previous day we had sat half an hour down in the village with a man under his hut discussing life. Turns out he was the only jeepney driver to service this remote, road-less village and we were given the prime front seats for the return trip. It probably would have been easier to walk the 2 hours to the junction as with washouts the road was nonexistent in places. Joseph stopped and filled our bottles with spring water rushing out of a bamboo tube jutting from solid rock, catching one last view.
Before we knew it we were speeding down towards the plains of Bumbang and towns north. The Cordillera Mountains with it's remote villages, friendly yet rugged inhabitants, and spectacular scenery left a lasting impression in our minds.
What started as a grueling hike out of Batad Valley, followed by riding in 3 jeepneys and two buses; ended 18 hours later as the local policeman gave us each a ride on his motorcycle down dark side streets to the beach in Calveria. By that time the fact that he balanced the barrel of his machinegun on my leg as we sped along didn't even phase me. We slept soundly and awoke to discover the north coast of Luzon. Wanting to make up time we had sped up the valley between the Sierra Madre and Cordillera Mountain ranges, passing up a chance for more arduous trekking in the pristine mountains of Sierra Madre National Park, home of 4000 acres of prime jungle and supposedly close to 100 billion dollars worth of buried treasure left behind by the looting Japanese forces during WWII. Maybe next time. Right now a few days lazing along the beach sounded ideal. Joseph was walking through town, just being his usual friendly self and he was invited to look at a lovely private home along the beach, where we settled in for the next 4 nights. Sunsets were spectacular over the bay of this small fishing village and talking to and cooking with Ruby were delicious times. While stopping for a coconut one afternoon the slightly eccentric 70 yr old owner of the Bayview Inn wove her tales of drama around me, ending with her hauling out bags and bags of money to prove she was rich. Unimpressed I reminded her that you can't take it with you. ATM cards seem a lot easier!
Having a vegan lifestyle we wanted to visit our namesake. Bypassing the body of Ferdinand Marcos, lying in his eerie mausoleum in Batac and the ridiculously expensive resort town of Pagudpud, we settled into colonial life of Vigan, complete with town plazas, Cathedrals from the 1600's, cobblestone streets and horse drawn carriages, or 'kalesas', still used as taxis. We had a relaxing late afternoon tour via horse (150p/hr. and only 10p per person within the city). Remember to include Crisologo St, and the oldest bell tower (1572) near St. Augustus? Church. Not a vegan dish to be found we cooked nightly at the 'Sanitary' Restaurant after visiting the market and once special ordered a tasty wood fired pizza near Max's Restaurant. On an ancient silk route from China, most of the old town mansions were owned by the town's aristocrats, mainly Chinese merchants married to Filipinas.
Intending to stop in La Union or San Fernando we looked at each other and decided to power through to Bolinao (visited in 1342 by an Italian priest headed to China) at the NW tip of Lingayen Gulf. One bus dropped us off and before we sorted ourselves out the next one was revving it's engines. So it went for 12 hours and when we settled into our quiet beach room between Bolinao and Patar Beach we were glad we had 4 nights to rest before our flight back to KL. We would need all our strength as we journeyed from the "land of headhunters" over to the "land of cannibals" in Papua!
And so it goes.....................................................Next the Wilds of Papua. From one remote, rugged area to another. Hope everything is going well and that you are enjoying the fine Autumn weather. As with "The Alchemist", try exploring the treasures hidden in your own back yard, until venturing to the other side of the world. We are glad you stopped by our site. Until next month Keep Smiling and Keep in Touch. Take care.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 47 pesos.
(North of Palawan):
Ricardo Lim, Sea Coral Lodge - the original Eveready Bunny, does everything in town from sell newspapers in the market to organize a boat trip combining interested people. Cell: 0918-5410-575
Pouring rain for a day
cancelled our plans to seek out Calcuit Island, home of over 500
imported African animals - a successful attempt to scatter the gene pool over
the globe. We will have to wait until we reach Africa.
Baguio Harrison Inn, No. #37 Harrison Rd., phone: 442-7803, rooms 304 or 404, 560 pesos. Clean, quiet in the back, central.
Vegetarian Center, 4th floor, Abano Square near market, run by Ram and Rashimi. Vegetarians and practitioners of Yoga for over 12 years, this Pilipino couple cooked for 5 hours every morning and brought in a delicious smorgasbord of dishes, aimed at increasing the awareness of those around them. After stumbling on their sign, they invited Joseph to speak about health to an interested group of business people, a doctor, dentist, parents, etc. on the second day after we ate lunch there. They made us promise we would put down our ideas on health on our website. Check out the new: 'Thoughts on Health' link on the homepage (at the top left of the list above 2003).
Friendly James and family, in his little art shop, Ayonas, next to George's Inn further down the hill, is worth a look. We had a pleasant time creating necklaces using the fertility brass symbols worn by the Igorot.
After talking to Francis Pa, local guide of 20 years, we offered him 400p for a days trip. We enjoyed his innocent energy and sincerity but since we never hire guides we felt hampered by his presence. We mutually agreed to cut it to half day and struck out on our own. Judging us on the abilities of former westerners he guided Francis recommended we not climb the mountainside. Though a tough hike, we made it up the mountain just fine in the needed time. Perseverance pays off. Maybe hire Francis for a hike deeper into the mountains. A good day trip you can do on your own is: walk north out of town and across the suspension bridge to get to the village of Ambato. Unannounced, shirts will probably be popped on, but friendliness will prevail. Continue walking through the house compounds (just ask directions to Old Tinglayan) and across the rice terraces parallel with the river. Paths lead to Liglig and another suspension bridge back to the road. Hiking up the hill on a path directly across the road gives a breathtaking view of the valley and a glimpse at Sleeping Beauty Mountain. We ate lunch half way up the mountain and continued to the top, coming back down on a road we found. Trails to the waterfalls or distant villages may be more tricky to follow. Again this is a difficult hike..
Northern Sierra Madre National Park: worth a trek to see 1st growth jungle, that is if you aren't too tired after Kalinga and Batad.
Elsie (cousin) Home Phone: (078)-866-1154 Cell:09204660238
Coco's Beach Resort #1, take a
tricycle for 70p out of town 5kms towards Parta Beach.
Extremely genuine and friendly Sidney, the daughter of the helpful owners, makes your stay a pleasure. (At 36 years old she would be a great companion to meet). She keeps her prices more realistic than the silly, always vacant neighboring hotels charging 2000-5000 p.