#054: Banaue, PhilippinesTak's dispatch released on 15 December 2015

Rice Terrace in Banaue, Philippines

The cold air is blasting from the ceiling vents. It’s been hours since the repetitious highway lighting streaked across the bus. Now, it is the pushing and pulling of the accelerator and brake pads as the bus climbs hills, winds around tight curves and passes the seemingly endless supplies of choking, rusty trucks attempting the same.

Everyone seems asleep, bathed in the flickering light from the anonymous movie playing overhead. Some have pulled themselves under blankets, wisely brought aboard in spite of the sweat-inducing temperatures before they climbed aboard. Others are snoring, from which the sounds waves are mostly over matched by the rumbling engine.

At daybreak, it is quite evident you are far from the metropolitan regions from whence you came. Green hills afar, deep ravines beside the wheel and foliage as far as the eye can see. Rudimentary shacks, and the bustling activity of early risers—whether starting a fire or tending to the laundry—dot themselves adjacent to the road when the ravines do not.

Banaue, a town in the Philippine Cordilleras mountain range, lies perhaps 9 hours north of Manila by car. Situated .6mi (1km) above sea level, it is populated by more than 20,000 people.

You are met by some gregarious characters as you step off the bus. They invite you into the visitors center and start offering various tours. Most of the other foreigners appear eager at the comforting notion.

“Which way is the center of Banaue?” you ask, having already exchanged pleasantries.

“Oh, well we can drive you there,” they counter.

“No, I am okay, I walk,” you note, and start your way out the door.

It is the typical, personally unpalatable, scenario in any tourist-inducing place. You just want to wander, to bump into things, to live as it comes. You aren’t in a rush nor have an itinerary or a checklist or even a fear to succumb to, and so you find yourself taking the independent pathway, which, in this case, is out the door.

“That way,” one calls out, “but are you sure you don’t need a ride. I can take you.”

“No thank you, but I appreciate it,” you respond.

Central Banaue, Bus Station, Philippines

You walk down the dusty road towards the center of Banaue, feeling good to leave all the tour talk behind. Sure enough, after a short walk, you find yourself in a cleared out center, with shops on the perimeter and what looks to be a bus terminal within. However, rather than buses filling the lot, there are a scattered assortment of minivans, sidecar-enabled motorbikes (trikes) and jeepneys. The minivans and jeepneys have large signs of their destinations prominently displayed in their windshields.

“When do you go to Batad,” you ask the driver with the Batad signage.

“Afternoon,” he replies, and shuffles away.

After the second world war, a surplus of American jeeps were left in the Philippines. Industrious and creative Filipinos got to work making modifications, both visually and structurally, turning the army jeeps into vehicles that suited public transportation perfectly. They are now the most popular form of public transit in the Philippines.

“Tour, tour?” and “Where do you go?” and even the simple “Hello” ring out amongst the motorbike drivers as you or they pass by. You continue down the road, past the jeepney terminal. The road snakes around what appears to be a school and then levels out on the edge of a gully. It becomes quite obvious, especially after reviewing a map, that the road you are on is the one that leads to Batad.

Metal Bridge, Banaue, Philippines

A bridge, with interspersed metal sheets, hangs over the gully. Not wanting to turn around, but not wanting to keep heading towards Batad—which would be a sizable walk in itself—you turn onto the foot bridge. Each step finds the metal twisting, shuddering or shouting back at you. Towards the center, the bridge swings laterally with just enough with movement to send you wisely to the other side with purpose.

You climb the steep steps located on the hillside, wondering where exactly you will pop up, until, you find yourself back at the perimeter of Banaue’s jeepney terminal. Tucked away at the end of a dead end path, you find a produce and meat market in the shadows.

Meat Market, Banaue, Philippines

Small battery-powered motors send long strips of material thrashing around in a circular motion over the freshly cut meat, preventing flies from a bountiful feast. A woman sits behind a pig’s head tending to her meat supply.

Banaue Fruit Market, Philippines

Despite your preconceived notions of a tropical paradise filled with fruit, the row behind you in the market, half-filled with tired vegetables and pale fruit, dismisses such notions. Perhaps this shouldn’t be such a surprise for the northern mountainous rice-rich climes of Banaue.

Fish Delivery, Banaue, Philippines

A trike pulls up and two kids hop out. A plastic bucket and other necessities are thrown on the ground and they get to work, throwing fish onto a scale, filling the bucket with the order and running the fish into the market. You wonder where the fish come from; perhaps farmed, perhaps wild, but most definitely local. You stand in the shadow watching the process. Bucket after bucket go in until they get very particular, weighing just enough to meet the buyer’s request.

Fish Delivery Motorbike, Banaue, Philippines

The unsold fish, still aboard the trike, get the various equipment thrown on top of them and then its off to the next buyer. The runner comes back out of the darkened market and they motor off. It’s a far cry from refrigerated tractor trailer trucks picking up fish just offloaded from an international airport, but it seems to work just fine.

You’ve decided you aren’t going to stay in Banaue for a couple reasons. First, the atmosphere or soul of the town seems empty; it seems more of a transit point than anything else. Perhaps it is an unfair read, but it is what it is. Further, there don’t appear to be many points of interest.

The overall Banaue marketplace is small and uneventful. Half the stores surrounding the Jeepney lot appear closed. There are a handful of restaurants but none catch your affection. You wander into an empty coffee shop with a soft-serve ice cream machine. You sit down on a bench, nicely hewn from a large tree. After a couple moments, a man appears with an inquisitive look.

“Can I please have an ice cream,” you ask. He nods, grabbing a cone from a box and pulling the handle on the machine. He fills the cone up just past the top, putting in as little as possible, and hands it to you. He wanders off. No small talk, no questions, no commentary, just a small soft serve cone and you are back to yourself sitting on a bench in an empty coffee shop.

You have always heard how helpful and friendly the Filipinos are. If they are, they are very reserved you opine. You grasp the handles of your bag and head back outside. The purpose of the ice cream cone was not the ice cream cone. You decide to head out of the downtown area.

Up a hill, you pass a large hog tied up on what looks most like a rudimentary stretcher. Totally immobilized, it grunts weakly as you pass by. Its eyes seem so sad, glazed over with despair. It wants you to help it out, or perhaps it doesn’t care at this point; its energy is almost completely drained.

Further up the road, you find yourself in a restaurant. It seems much more promising than the options located around the busy Jeepney hub. A girl comes running in. It is another empty establishment. She seats you outside on a porch which overlooks the first glimpses of what drew you to this region—rice terraces.

The tranquility is much appreciated as you eat; a nice breeze blowing to take the edge off the rising temperature. Having finished, you head back inside. She hops back up, breaking off a conversation with her friend, to settle your check.

Continuing further up the hill, you pass the lazy dog, the man with a gun on the back porch, the disabled vehicle on the roadside and the curious child running out from the dark of a small wooden convenience store. You walk inside and buy a large bottle of water.

“You want a ride,” he yells. He is old, with wisps of hair on his head. Wrinkles of friendliness are creased into the skin around his eyes and mouth.

“Where?”

“Anywhere you want, we go,” he notes. “You pay what you want,” he adds.

And then, like every traveler before you, you tell him your wishes. “I’d like to see the Banaue rice terraces.”

And then, like every traveler before you, he says what he always says: “We can do four lookouts, and then I can take you to another rice terraces and a village and…”

“The lookouts are all, that’ll be good enough. Then I will need a ride back to town.” Having ironed out a price to avoid disappointment or resentment, you hop in the trike and he rumbles up the hill. The bike wheezes but climbs nonetheless.

He pulls up to a lookout. Nothing can be seen from where the bike stops. You climb out and wander behind a building and then you see it. Built onto the mountain side, in ascending rows, is the miraculous rice terrace system, created and utilized for thousands of years. The rice is green, getting close to the yellows of harvest. The rocks are laid out just so, capturing water in each, as it trickles from high.

Each outlook is better than the next, and you are sure he does that by design. Some of the outlooks have peddlers selling wares. Others have old people dressed in traditional garb, trading money for photographs.

Having spent 15 minutes now, and seeing all the lookouts, you hop back in the sidecar and start the descent. You are now certain, there is little point of staying in Bananue. You don’t know if Batad will be any better, but it is worth the shot. Bananue will probably have more restaurants or things to do you imagine, but it has an empty feel to it, and not a feel you require.

Back in town, he drops you off and you saunter back over the Batad Jeepney.

“Batad?” A voice calls out from another motorbike with sidecar. It’s a kid, probably in his early twenties. The motor sputters rhythmically. “I’ll take you to Batad for the same price as the Jeepney and you can leave Banaue now,” he offers.

You had read that sometimes, you are dropped off where the road from Bananue meets the spur that leads to Batad, also known as the Junction. Others will bring you to the point where the Batad Jeepney goes, also called the Saddle.

You look him in the eye, pausing as if to think long and hard. “Will you go all the way to Batad Saddle?” you ask. You don’t want him to think you are a lamb for slaughter. There has to be a catch somewhere in the offer. All the accounts you have read about are at much higher rates so something isn’t adding up. But then again, sometimes you just have to go with your gut, ignore your mind and take that chance.

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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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