Robert's List



The hills of Luzon
 
Comfort is not the thing at twenty-two when there remains yet the energy to drive curiosity and the endurance to put plan to action.  The road across the mountains of central Luzon, the Philippines, from the misty reflection of Banaue’s hillside rice terraces to the provincial capital of Bontoc wasn’t easy.   Hours of relentless vibration negotiating the curves of the hills: it was like one of those alien exercise contraptions that attach a band around the human waist to deliver a continuous electronic tremor supposed to dissolve fat and make one look slim.  The bus and its passengers were the band, so it seemed, with all the rattling and shaking the bellybuster designed to flatten the very curves and bends of the rugged, forested hills.  It was quite a workout.

Bucketed by dust we must’ve looked not dissimilar to mud creatures getting off the bus, the mountain’s exercise machine, finally in Bontoc, but our relative youth didn’t worry about such things.  Of course along with the chickens, from grandparent to child the other passengers, the Filipinos, were not twenty-two.  What we called adventure was for them merely transport.

Luzon countryside

Beyond Bontoc on a more civilised road was the hillside town of Sagada, a modest settlement of about ten thousand people that for its caves and tribal influences attracts tourists.  Visually the most impressive sites of easy access are the cave cemeteries featuring the hanging coffins of traditional burial practice.  The hills around Sagada were remote enough for some traditions to have withstood the Spanish colonial period and the subsequent American colonial period; and it’s not just anybody who’s awarded a hanging coffin.  Among other things the person would need to have been married and to have had grandchildren to be eligible.
Along with the pleasure of the hills which seemed all the more beautiful when not trying to get across them on a bus, Sagada brought with it a problem.  It was a few weeks of detour, the Philippines, on our way home from Iran and, having left the bulk of our luggage in a Manila hotel basement so that we could travel light and fast we sought to move on from Sagada to the island’s western coast, then northward still.  But the mountains wished to push us southward instead, eight hours back to Baguio, a city we’d already seen, then the following day several hours northward again on the coast road.  The alternative, real only in our imaginations and eliciting serious contemplation from the locals with whom we briefly discussed it, was to hike westwards to challenge the mountains on foot.

By the time we understood the logistics there was just ten minutes to decide for the last evening bus, two hours, to the first village on the way to the sea was leaving.  Without a map or compass, with me wearing business shoes since we’d not planned on hiking, and with my day pack’s contents featuring two wooden buffaloes I’d bought as souvenirs at the carving shops along the Banaue roadside, we took the decision of our twenty two years, rushed back to the hotel, packed the few things and paid, and ran up the road to join the bus just as it was setting out for the first village, Besao.

There would be no hotel in Besao, we knew, for it was a village; and if there was no place to stay we might have no choice but to hike in the darkness back along the road for several hours to Sagada, plans defeated.  Yes we were concerned about that but we’d also learnt to trust the world for in our travels whenever there’d been a problem there’d been a solution and in any country there are locals who know well how to assist the traveller.  And so we threw ourselves into the care of the Philippines.  Why not?

Fortunately on that bus everybody was friendly and very curious about our choice of Besao.  Fortunately it was Mountain Province where English was widespread.

Besao
He lived like a hobbit, Robert, without perhaps the penchant for lavishness and comfort that hobbits are renowned for.  But in his simple house overlooking the paddies of the valley and listening to the silence of all the disconnected roads it was possible to imagine him blowing smoke rings with a pipe, like Bilbo Baggins, although the newspaper he leafed through was in English and I don’t believe he smoked.  We’d discussed our plans on the bus and thankfully he’d said he could put us up for the night.  His housemate Gem had cooked a simple rice dinner and we’d talked into the evening about our coming journey and life in Besao.  They’d been sure to wake us with the sun as there’d need to be time for a breakfast of eggs and the sea was far.

Storehouses on the roadside

Before we set out Robert gave three things: a list, a letter and a warning.  The list was of villages we’d need to pass through, asking in each the way to the next, to take the right largely trafficless dusty roads which he’d said started on the far side of the valley.  The letter was to his sister-in-law who he’d suggested we could seek out upon reaching her village in a half a day’s time.  But by nightfall, he’d said, we would have reached South Ilocano Province and while the people of Mountain Province were friendly, we should take care with the Ilocanos.  In this world it’s usual for people to have misgivings about their nearest neighbours but having heard of the Ilocanos for the first time we paid attention to his words.

We had not yet crossed the first valley, mist rising, morning not yet of full form, when we came across an old lady ambling through the rice terraces with a walking stick.  Instinctively I wished I could talk to her but in many countries where English is not the first language it’s reasonable to assume the elderly in particular may not know it.  ‘Good morning,’ she said with clarity the sky was yet to achieve.  Ah yes, this was Mountain Province!  We could pause to explain our plans, discuss the rice crop and the beauty of the valley.

Swing bridge

After an hour we had found the first swinging bridge of the metallic and wooden rung type that cross the small mountain rivers in central Luzon, and made our way up the far side again to the first village on Robert’s list, Kin-iway.  We took in the village church, the wooden storehouses by the road we found there and the views back to Besao from whence we had come.  And so it went, up and down in pursuit of the river that became our companion from village to village on the list.  At a side stream by the roadside we met Jane, who was busily washing her clothes by hand in water directed through a bamboo pipe.  She wanted our opinion on a hydroelectric project planned for that valley.  It would inundate areas of rice paddy but there was the promise of electricity.  Did we think electricity was good?  The best part of electricity, we said, is that you don’t need to wash clothes by hand.  That’s hard work!  But if the benefits outweighed the disadvantages in the case of her valley as outsiders we couldn’t say.

Jane
By mid afternoon we had reached the village of Robert’s sister-in-law and we sought her out at the local school where she was a teacher.  She was surprised by the arrival of foreigners but we were able to deliver Robert’s letter.  To this day I don’t know the words he wrote but it might’ve had ‘feed them’ written in it for she took us to her house for lunch.  Her village, Robert had said, was last in Mountain Province; after that the Ilocano lands would start.

It was a very long way to the next village and afternoon was on its wane while still we walked not knowing how much further it would be or what we would find.  Fortunately there came a jeep full of passengers, a rare sight on those roads and rather than leave us they offered a lift and suddenly the last of the way into Quirino was made easy.  I wondered what they’d do next, our first Ilocanos, and they also wondered because we heard discussion going on.  Ultimately it was decided to deliver us to the house of the mayor where we stayed as guests.

At the mayor’s house were sacks of food aid, rice with the word ‘Australia’ stamped across them.  We’d hoped to see the sea from the Ilocano side but of course from Quirino you can’t see the sea: there was another quite large mountain in the way.

A village house

The way over the mountain was tricky, the mayor of Quirino told us but his sons had agreed to be our guides to make sure we took the right paths the following day.  It took several hours, there was no road and it was steep but eventually we made the pass near the summit and there she was!  In the distance, across a plain with the outline of what looked like a decent road to it, we saw the sea.

The mayor’s sons continued with us down the far side until we reached the outskirts of the village of Gregorio del Pilar.  Then they bade farewell and turned homeward.  It seemed the only treachery to be met in the Ilocanos was hospitality; but I guess when ordinary people meet the most likely outcome is friendship.  It’s not from there the divisions come.  And it’s just as well we’d learnt to say ‘thank you’ in Ilocano: ‘agyamanak.’

There’s an irony in Robert’s warning, which I discovered only recently.  The name of Robert’s village, Besao, may have been derived from the Ilocano word Buso meaning head hunters.  There’s a likelihood that once it was those from the Ilocos Region believed the earlier people of Besao took part in such activity.
It’d taken a day to cross that mountain and once more in Gregorio del Pilar we were directed to the house of the mayor.  He sought our opinion about how to protect the environment, explaining that in the past several logging companies had been active in the area and the locals had not properly comprehended the damage they could do.  More recently he said they’d better understood how important the environment was and that logging company promises sounded perhaps better than what may eventuate.

Upon hearing there were foreigners about, several of the villagers came to meet us that evening.  They took us on a tour of the village, to show the school and the other public amenities.  They showed us the main square where the annual village fiestas were held and we saw village kids hanging about on slapped together billycarts they’d made to race each other down the hills.  From Gregorio del Pilar, we were informed, there was a bus to the sea on the next day.

And so on the fourth day, at twenty-two, with me in business shoes and with two wooden buffaloes in my luggage, we reached Candon City on the main coastal highway northwards.  It is said we get wiser as we age but in truth if there came again the choice between the bus to Baguio or walking across the mountains of central Luzon, my choice would be the same.

The river that was our companion in Mountain Province




If you've made it as far as the Philippines, it's not that much further until you suddenly become a golfer, or meet the frog and the snake or retrospectively take up buffalo farming.  Just about anything can happen when on the road!


This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Robert's List

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