You had noted her canopy tent set up at the cemetery entrance just behind the big stone church in Sagada. You had purposely veered to an alternate path as to not cross paths with her. When you explore, you want to explore; you don’t want to be sold tours, trinkets and pizza meals.
You continue walking. There is now a tinge of anger in the voice and you sense it will grow violent in tenor. You turn your head to acknowledge her, you have nothing against her. You just want a peaceful walk. The difference between a tourist-centric area and not is whether travelers are constantly being harassed or not. You were hoping Sagada would not be a tourist-centric place.
“You are not allowed,” she coughs out in a hurry. “Come!” she demands.
This is your first experience in Sagada, a mountain village about a mile (1.7km) high, swathed in fragrant pine trees and cool air.
“What are you doing?” she asks. “Where are you going?”
There is nothing more pleasant than being jostled about in a peaceful mountain village.
“On a walk,” you reply.
“You must pay for guide,” she retorts.
“I don’t want a guide, I’m just going for a walk in the cemetery.”
“You must buy guide for 200PHP ($5USD).”
Is she legit? Is this a scam? You ask her about her validity and why you need a tour guide. You have no interest in a guide and since you aren’t trying to find anything, it is difficult to get lost.
She pulls out a copy of paper with a regulation typed on it which states a guide is required in certain areas. Is it a true regulation? It is known that just past the cemetery are hanging coffins—coffins that have been hung from the rock mountainside. One of the reasons people come to Sagada is to see these hanging coffins.
Do you pay $5 for a guide you don’t want and kneel before this lady frothing with supremacy under her canopy tent with a piece of paper that might or might not be legit? Or do you just go explore somewhere else?
“If the town doesn’t want me to see the attractions, then I will go to another town,” you tell her. You thank her for her information and walk back the way you came, all the while noticing that it would be very simple to walk through the pine forest and get to the cemetery without her knowing, but that isn’t even the point.
These are the kinds of things that happen in tourist-centric places.
5:03 is staring back at you. Since you are going to catch an early Jeepney out of town, you might as well explore in the morning light.
The air is crisp, clean and silent but for your footsteps crunching the sand and pebbles as you head uphill. You pass the tourism office where they mandate visitors pay a fee, continuing up to the basketball court where you then turn off by the church.
This time you walk right in front of the empty canopy tent, following your shadow as the sun peaks out. You wander through the cemetery and head down towards a small valley where the hanging caskets hang. Not a soul is stirring and the cool Sagada air mixing with the warm sun makes the walk more pleasant than you could have asked.
The Jeepney from Sagada to Bontoc is just about to leave; all the seats in the back are filled with patient passengers. You grasp the metal ladder and pull yourself upwards towards the roof. Your legs dangle over the side. A metal bar runs along the perimeter, just high enough to keep your butt from sliding off the roof for the hour ride through the mountains.
Bontoc is bustling. Bontoc has a nice, real feeling to it and you are glad to be back, even if just to catch a ride back to Banaue. The first thing you do is seek out a ride, finding that quickly.
“Where can I get a Jeepney to Bananue?”
“Oh, one just left.”
You are the first one and ask if you can have the front passenger seat, this time hoping to get some photos of the mountains. “Sure,” the driver replies.
“When are we expecting to leave?”
“Shouldn’t be too long”
It’s around 9:30a and you need to be back in Bananue quite late to catch a bus to Manila, so rushing isn’t necessary. You hop up on a cement wall in front of the Bontoc Municipal Building and watch the traffic, notably the colourful and unique motorized tricycles.
“Do you think I can go for a walk?” you ask.
“Yeah, but don’t be gone too long.”
You head off through the streets. You pass a butcher shop with a pig’s head out front. A mechanized electric fan twirls a piece of cloth over the pork meat to keep flies at bay. The young attendant reads a newspaper in the back. No refrigeration and everyone lives, imagine that.
It’s certainly not a hygienic or put together Disneyland town, just an authentic place full of people running errands, buildings filled with texture and streets full of grit—nobody hawking tours, nobody collecting fees for your presence, no pretense.
It’s now 11:30 and there still aren’t many people lined up for the ride to Banaue. At this point you start wondering if you should take a short diversion to Maligcong to check out the rice terraces there. You have the time to do it, but also don’t want to end up stuck in Bontoc and miss your ride to Manila. You decide if it’s a quick trip, you can probably pull it off.
“Do you think we will leave soon?”
“We shouldn’t be too much longer.”
You head off anyways.
“Where is the Jeepney to Maligcong?” is a question that gets several different answers and you get sent around in circles. By the time you finally find it, you see the dust from its tires—you just missed it. You take that as a sign and walk back to the Banaue Jeepney, which naturally, is still sitting there.
It’s 12:30 and you are getting hungry.
“Is it okay if I get some food across the street?”
“Yeah, but don’t take too long”
Stacey’s Restobar is just across the street, dimly lit, haphazardly decorated—decorated is much too kind—and inviting in that “hole in the wall” kind of way.
“Is that for here or takeout?” she asks. You have ordered a soup and a rice dish.
You glance back at the Jeepney. “I guess I’ll have it to go,” you respond. It would be terrible to wait 3 hours and then miss the darned thing.
You are sitting at one of the tables waiting and she comes out with your soup. “You might as well eat this while you wait,” she says. You burn your tongue. This isn’t a good thing to rush.
A man pushes open the door and they converse in Finallig; it’s the Jeepney driver telling her that you have time to eat it there.
It’s now 1:30pm. You’ve been waiting for a half hour by the Jeepney, content after the satisfying meal, and the driver has just decided it is time to head to Banaue. An old lady opens the passenger door and pulls herself up onto the seat—so much for the photograph idea. You climb into the back with a handful of others. Everyone is very keen to get going, and it’s a relief to be moving.
You drive down the busy road, take a right over a bridge and pick up speed on the exit. A horn blasts. The Jeepney’s brakes dig in and a return horn sounds. The speed of the Jeepney picks back up. You are in the back having no idea what is going on, more so when the Jeepney is pulling a U-Turn on the road and heading back the way you came.
He pulls up along the street and stops. He yells back in Finallig.
“We are getting out here, he has decided not to make the drive.”
“What?” you respond.
“He got a better offer just now since he didn’t have a full ride, so he is going to do that instead.”
You just hang back observing what is going on. Before you know it, one of the passengers has arranged to rent a minivan from some guy at the right place at the right time. If we all decide to share the cost, it will be a little more expensive than the Jeepney, and will leave right now.
“Sounds good,” you respond and next thing you know, you are in a beat up, blue minivan heading through the mountains through torrential rains. The rain isn’t letting up and the inside of the van is fogging up uncontrollably.
You are now waiting in the rusted blue van watching the rain drops slide down the foggy windows. The little old lady unlatches the door and climbs out of the vehicle to buy some vegetables from the wooden stand that sits somewhere in the mountains between Bontoc and Banaue. You watch her pick through various specimens finding the best one as the rest of the ride waits patiently.
It’s more fun in the Philippines.
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