#061: Steaming Towards Sagada (Philippines)Tak's dispatch released on 17 February 2016

Northern Luzon Philippines

The wide-eyed passengers turn their heads slowly, affixed at your peculiar presence as you hit the top step and swing yourself in the direction of the aisle, continuing towards the last seat remaining. The heat is climbing inside the metal box which sits silent on the dirt road. All manner of possessions and people are aboard—old and young, large and small. As more people arrive, more invisible seats—to your perceptions—become clearly visible: seats on laps, seats on fold down apparatuses, seats on packages in the aisle way.

A loud blast of the horn, followed by another, ricochets around the small town center and beyond. The whine of an old bus starter and the kick of a grouchy engine springing to life take the reins. The sliding of the glass windows are quickly followed by the cooler air, now mixing with the black exhaust spitting from the tailpipe. The jolt of the transmission clears the air and sends you along, as per your wishes.

The Bus to Banaue from Mayoyao

As the bus rumbles out of Mayoyao, it pauses intermittently to pick up one passenger here, another passenger there, filling like a clown car at a circus. Yet, for each additional person, there is an additional seat, or passenger willing to stand. The breeze from the forward progress is a blessing; it was getting hot sitting lifeless in the strengthening sun.

How many times has this bus, worn and pockmarked with surface rust, rumbled over these mountains? How many people have been helped? What journeys did it help make possible? It is questions like this that you always seem to ponder upon when aboard an old bus, with the characteristic marks of age and experience worn into it’s being.

Passing on the fringe of the mountain side, you are looking straight down. Straight down usually means something like a couple meters (10’). Today, straight down is probably thousands of feet in a straight drop-off just an arms-length or three from the bus tire. Is this typically unsettling to you?

You glance at the all too familiar site of stripped vegetation on the hillside. Trees, weeds and bushes have been slayed from the steep roadside exposing dirt. When it rains, the dirt turns to mud and the mud turns to an angry force that closes off roads or worse, destroying them altogether.

If the earth on the driver’s side of the bus were to give way, it would come crashing down onto the road, flicking the little tin can you ride into the deep abyss that you are staring down at. If the earth on the opposing side of the bus were to give way—and you see much of that has been clear cut—then you meet the same consequence. Why they strip the vegetation and destabilize these steep hillsides above and below the road boggles your mind. You think about the conversation you had the other day where the locals blamed the herbicide for the landslides. “But why do you even strip the vegetation in the first place?” you asked.

Well, the breeze is nice, the view, awe-inspiring: distant mountains, the insane vertical drop which comes and goes, some far-off rice terraces, the snake-like road which winds itself around the various mountainsides.

More people are getting on than people getting off. If you don’t make this bus, you aren’t getting on a bus for a while and so, it isn’t a matter of just waiting for the next bus. Everyone realizes this. Everyone is probably quite grateful that there is a bus at all. Are you the only one wondering about bus capacity? Probably.

The bus lurches forward, gears shifting, belts squealing, disappearing from Banaue with a cloud of dust and black exhaust swirling from the tail. You wander down to the large dirt lot where all the transportation options await. Should you go to Bontoc? Should you go to Sagada? Should you hang out in Banaue? Your eyes locate a minivan going to Bontoc. “Is there a Jeepney to Sagada?” you ask, trying to figure out your real options.

“No, this is the last one to Bontoc. From Bontoc you can get to Sagada tonight.”

Looking around, the answer seems quite valid. The morning bustle and activity has been supplanted by empty vehicles sitting lifeless. You climb in and wait.

“If you want to pay for the empty seats we go now,” the driver offers after five minutes.

“I don’t mind waiting,” you counter, “I’m okay.”

He shifts in his seat and gazes out the window. You really don’t mind waiting; the same cannot be said for him. Some minutes later, a family of four shows up and climbs in, and with it, your private ride. On the upside, the extra passengers are enough to get him to call it a day. Once again you hear the whine of the starter, the engine springing to life and before you know it, you are slowly climbing the long hill that takes you out of Banaue.

Steam is billowing out from the engine. Some of that steam is finding its way into the cabin of the minivan. He pulls to the side, cuts the engine and flicks his hand with a gesture to get out. The family in the back remains, indifferent. He reaches in the back on the floor and grasps some worn, plastic bottles.

There is a drainage ditch on the side of the road, and within it, a pipe that carries water from higher elevations down to the town. He walks nonchalantly over to the pipe and fills the bottles. Walking back, he accesses the engine and pours the cool water into the steaming radiator. He repeats this several times. It is but a temporary pause on the journey and you realize it won’t be the last.

Bontoc from the Road

You experience several more stops beside mountain springs, to cool the simmering beast. The remainder of the journey consists of mountain views—which rolling clouds vanquish—and rice terraces, small villages and standalone shacks.

The van pulls into Bontoc and he tells you to get out and points at a Jeepney half-filled with people. “Sagada,” he notes, with a point of the finger. With that, you climb out of the van and hop in the back of the Jeepney, waiting for it to fill.

Looking out the Jeepney

In the meantime, you observe the hustle on the street. Moments turns to minutes and continue to stretch until finally the back is full. The Jeepney moves forward and is not more than 5 minutes on its way when a man yells up to the driver that he needs to pick up something quick at a business or house nearby. The driver pulls to the side and waits as the man scrambles out.

You wait and wait some more. The driver grows restless. You watch him continually check in his mirror for signs of the delinquent passenger. The Jeepney starts to crawl and then stops. It starts to crawl again, and then again pauses. Another look in the mirror, a furrowed brow, the squinting of eyes and then what you were waiting for, that final impulse in the driver’s mind to give up on this soul; the Jeepney roars forward.

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