Entry 67 - hanging coffins, frost, meat

a little knowledge

As I’ve probably already said, Banaue is something of a one trick pony. True, it’s a terrific trick, but once you’ve seen the rice terraces, you’ve ticked that box. What the place needs is a swanky spa hotel or something. Then I could be persuaded to linger for longer.

So the following day, we took a jeepeny to ‘nearby’ Sagada. A jeepney is what you’d get if you mated a bus and jeep and painted it in colours that would make a pimp blush; they are unique to the Philippines. Our journey was four hours of jaw dropping scenery and jaw-dropping roadside drops. Plus there’s the odd fun manmade attraction. For instance, a 30 metre high concrete statue of the Virgin Mary. As the people of this province used to carve 3 metre high statues out of wood, I guess this is progress of a sort.

It was a beautiful drive on a terrible road. So terrible in fact that it caused our jeepney to shear its transmission shaft. This required a two hour stop while the men on board sorted it out and those of us who worked in the knowledge economy played played with our personal electronics. It’s times like this that really bring it home how people who do utterly useless jobs get paid the most (hello all you consultants!). Every now and then, I find myself vaguely hoping for the kind of total economic collapse that would shift things back in the favour of people who actually make things. Of course, in my brave new anyone who sold ‘solutions’ would starve, which would be a solution in its own right.

dog days

Once our personal transport solution (the jeepeny) had been solved, we were back on our way and headed down to Bontoc, a town that had a wild west feel to it. In fact, the whole landscape was heading in this direction: Banaue is wet, lush and tropical, but less than 50 kilometres away as the crow flies (or several hundred by road) it’s more like Spain. For grisly types like me, Bontoc’s only real attraction is a number of restaurant’s serving pooch, one of which proudly announced with a smiley face ‘Yes! We serve Dog Here.’ The northern Philippines has a long mutt loaf tradition, although it is supposedly illegal. A couple of locals tried to talk me into rice al fido, but I have eaten dog before and will not be doing so again this side of a famine.

missionaries, impossible

Two hours later we boarded another Jeepeny and pressed on to Sagada. There were a few traveller types – for Sagada is widely regarded as a terrific place to hang out - and then there were three American girls with an odd shiny cleanliness about them. As the jeepeny was very crowded, I let one of them have my seat, meaning that I spent an hour hanging off the back running board of the jeepeny, something which I did not do, presumably, for kicks. Did she thank me? Did she f—k. Later, when I got back into the jeep, I asked one of them to budge down the bench, a request she completed with a look that suggested I was something she’d found on her shoe. And later still, I would help one of them get a bag off the roof of the jeep; well, you get the idea. Then, I caught a snatch of their desperately self-involved conversation: they were missionaries.

Now, time was, I’d try and poke fun at missionaries in a gentle way, you know, nothing overtly nasty. The time for this is over. I hate missionaries. F—k ‘em. Pious twats: full of the word of God and empty of his spirit. Where exactly in the bible does it say that thou shalt climb so far up ones own a-rsehole that you can see your own teeth?

But actually the fact that missionaries are rude and self involved is a pretty minor niggle: plenty of people’s favourite subject is themselves. What really, really dicks me off most about missionaries is that not only are they hell bent on ‘saving’ the people (and destroying what little is left of indigenous culture, usually with a thin veneer of aid, a sack of rice and a brand new shiny church) but that they seem to largely come from places like the mid-west of the US or outback Australia.

Why people who clearly have no idea what culture is should be allowed to annihilate someone else’s I have no idea. The cannibals who used to boil these self-righteous f--ks in pots had the right idea. Now, I’m sure there are nice missionaries, but I’ve never met any. In fact, when all the missionaries of my acquaintance die, I will be praying to the nearest rock for them to go to an animist afterlife and get buggered for eternity by a tree root or something. Incidentally, all this makes me a lot more appreciative of non-proselytising religions. Yo! Big shout going out to Hinduism and Judaism.

hanging with the dead

But even these precious little God-bothering bitches couldn’t dent my spirits for long. Sagada is simply one of the most pleasant places in the Philippines. It is also highly atypical - with its wooden houses nestled among pine trees: it looks more like boondocks New Mexico than the tropics. Unlike most of the country it’s not remotely damp and has a climate of permanent springtime, cold in the evening. Oh, and it’s not Catholic, there’s an informal 9pm curfew and it only got mobile phones last year; in the cell- crazed Philippines, the last of these oddities may be most noteworthy.

Like most mountain folk, the Sagadans have their own rice terraces, though these are more of a backdrop than a destination in their own right. But they also have waterfalls, beautiful walks and, if nature is not enough, an agreeably spooky death culture.

To get to Sagada’s eeriest attraction we walked down into Echo Valley, an impressive karstic gorge that bisects the town. Our trip started out in a Christian cemetery and ended in a far older and more unusual burial place –the side of a cliff. Traditionally (and occasionally even now) the Sagadans smoke their dead like kippers in ‘death chairs’ and ‘bury’ them in hanging coffins suspended from rock faces or in caves. The cliff is the weirdest, sort of a vertical cemetery. But the caves are pretty sepulchral too: the most famous is stacked with hundreds of coffins some over 500 years old. And, in fact, everywhere you look in the gorge there seems to be a nook or cranny with a couple of coffins.

With the death culture done (but not to death) we hiked, we swam, we drank the decent local coffee and generally hung out. I could see why Sagada is a place no-one wants to leave. Actually the reason no-one wants to leave is a little more complex than that. OK, it may just be one of the nicest towns in the Philippines. But, more importantly…well, by this stage it came as no surprise - Manila is a 12 hour road journey in one direction and seven hours, plus a 45 minute flight in the other. You can see why people procrastinate, can’t you?

chilled meat

Eventually we plumped for the flight. For this we had to drive from Sagada to Bagio. This is not a very nice drive. OK, there are some spectacular views, but we’d been up in the mountains for days and one kilometre drop is much the same as another. Also the landscape had gone from agreeably western to sort of dry and dusty in a grey kind of way. Sort of like the difference between new Mexico and Nevada. And it was foggy.

There were a few attractions on the way down. One was that Filipino farmers in these parts always seem to plant a big tag in their fields to tell you what kind of pesticide they’re using. I have no idea why this is, although I did ask the man next to me. He had no idea either.

Four hours later and after a two hour wait where the dust was being reshaped into a road where a landslide had occurred, we stopped in a small town. It boasted half a dozen ‘Meat Booths’ (for where else would you buy it?) and a restaurant selling meat. It wasn’t very good meat. You know how in say, Vietnam or Thailand, you know that pretty much everything you buy is going to be good? In the Philippines, you assume the reverse. Perhaps I should have gone to a meat booth; they certainly seemed to be doing a brisk trade.

We passed through the little town of ‘Frosty Valley’. This is rather sweet – in a country at the Northern edge of the tropics, on the high peaks and valleys in winters you get frost. I asked a man about this and – in the way that the Eskimos have fifty odd words to describe snow, the Filipinos, understandably, have none. He told me that the grass looked like their was sugar on it, which I found an agreeable description, although with global warming, I fear Frosty Valley’s days as a hiemal tourist attraction may be numbered.

Paris, Negros?

Finally we passed someplace that the Americans had bombed the shit out of and then we were on a long downward slope to Bagio. I have to say, I’d held out high hopes for Bagio – summer capitals are usually nice places. The approach was pleasant enough, but the City was what we’d come to expect, albeit with a slightly more pleasant climate. Apparently it was laid out to resemble Washington DC. But I couldn’t see it, and even so, Washington is hardly what you should be aiming for. We bought plane tickets for the next day and hung around its modern centre, which, although leant an agreeable atmosphere by the university students, did feel a bit like the grimier bits of DC.

I love the Philippines and the country’s beaches and coral reefs are second to none, possibly the best in the world. Its people are some of the friendliest I have ever met and I now know that its mountains are stunning too. But I just cannot get on with its cities. If I return – and this is my third visit – I will be visiting Silay on the island of Negros. It is supposed to be a city of great beauty and charm – ‘the Paris of Negros.’ Perhaps it will have Parisian style restaurants too.