Reading, Writing, Walking
Friday, April 25, 2008
TURISTANG HILAW™ - Batad and Sagada by Fristine de Guia
By Fristine de Guia

After nearly four months of wishy-washy planning and dreams of Camiguin; the whitest of sand, toes dipped in unbelievable hot springs sprung from seven volcanoes, the cleanest of salty water, White Island - the sexiest of all islets...I get to go gallivanting and traipsing in BANAUE.

What in the world did I do in Mt. Province when everyone knows I am the absolute worst in hand and eye coordination? I say and quote Laura Hogg (please check her out on the postcards I am to post later); "I thought I am the biggest klutz in the world, the worst in hand and eye coordination...then I met you." Two things after she said that while sinking my feet on cold mud, slowly hopping down the crude steps to reach Bog-ok (small) Falls: First, hopelessness - I may bid goodbye forever to spelunking (A sport I was inspired to take after sliding clumsily in Sumaging Cave and saw how Lornadahl kicked the head of our non-personable cave guide by the name of Errol), secondly, surprising mirth, bubbly as a newly opened champagne bottle. At least I made someone feel better, though at my expense.

This was the original plan: Celebrate Lornadahldahl's and Grace's solar returns in Camiguin. We will go to Cagayan de Oro, stay with Lorna's aunt for a few days, go to Camiguin, burn our bums on hopefully hot white sand and pig out on boxes of pastel (I proudly own an incorrigible sweet tooth). Go back to Manila with Lorna owning enviable tan lines and myself with more boxes of pastel. Reality was hard to ignore. As much as our plans were deliciously laid out, though haphazardly, our failure to save enough money to fly our buxom selves to CDO is the primary reason why we didn't get to see the reigning queen of all islands down south. I contracted beta streptococcus, medication is insanely expensive, and Lorna just...well...she just failed.

We decided to go to Sagada instead (It's closer, as we are generic Manileñas). First, it's cheaper; second, it might be the only place away from the city where Grace WANTS to tag along. I have to stress on wants, as this girl cannot ride the LRT without splashing alcohol all over her body and swishing her 20 lb. bag to kill everyone within a 12" radius. If Grace says she wants to give the trees a hug, Lorna and I are more than welcome to oblige.

We suddenly thought Sagada might not fit our budget so we decided to go to Batad instead, and perhaps later, we can drop by Sagada if our budgets will allow (mga purita). I then packed my 30 lb. hiking bag and giddily anticipated the trip. Arriving at the Victory Liner station, Lorna and I with our sumo packs and bloated bladders, waited for Mark (I secretly dubbed "Road Whore") and Ina (pint-sized bête noire). Formal introductions were made; in between hand shakes I realized we all have 2 things in common - infallible taste buds and bottomless stomachs.

After a five hour bus ride to Solano junction we hopped down from the bus, took three jeepneys to get to Banaue Poblacion, we heard a choir of growling stomachs. The Road Whore spoke of good beef tapa and bottomless brewed mountain coffee served in Sanofe. The beef was tough as rubber (chewing on marinated shoe soles would have been a better experience), the "garlic" rice didn't have any garlic and the refillable mountain brew coffee was not bottomless. Road Whore apologized profusely until we arrived in Baguio. It took him four days to get over it. Poor guy.

With full stomachs, we packed ourselves and our bags in a cramped tricycle and headed to Banaue junction, then hopped on a jeepney towards Saddlepoint. Seeing the huge jagged white rocks on the path to Saddlepoint, I realized that much to my disdain, a noisy tricycle cannot wheel to the said destination without destroying itself into smithereens.

Midway to Saddlepoint, Road Whore had the tricycle stop by Guihob Natural Pools. If not for the concrete dam, it would have been the most charming micro falls for toes to get frostbite (if there is such a thing in a tropical country). Smooth-round stones, ice-cold water...perfect for torturing pesky creatures belonging to the "bane of the earth" list. Trudging along the path to Saddlepoint made me wish I taped a piece of thick bubble wrap to my bum. My bottom suffered a battery of pummeling from the tricycle. From barely there bum to nonexistent.

Upon reaching Saddlepoint my breathe was taken away, not because of the scenery but upon hearing, "Batad is an hour away from here by foot." from the Road Whore. I have a pack as heavy as a sack of rice, scoliosis and nearly nonexistent sense of balance, I wished myself luck. After 3 or so stop overs, panting like a horse, we saw the blue and red sign to Simon's Inn, claiming to have the BEST pizza Batad has to offer, I instantly knew I had to try it. "...10 minute walk", it read.

I smelled Batad from the fresh buffalo dung dotting the trail. If not for the greenery I would have been driven crazy nuts. Ten minutes later, a wide view of the lush green terraces welcomed my tired body. It was worth every one of my overworked sweat glands, temporary crossed eyes from gauging each of the trail steps' depth, and my callused right toe.

According to Mark (The Road Whore), this place used to not know the definition of electricity just a few months ago. It didn't bother me, with this view, who needs electricity? (Besides, Batad is impenetrable by Smart, Globe, Nextel and Sun Cellular, no cellphone battery charging concerns)

We checked-in at the Hillside Inn, after enjoying our mountain-fare meals, mostly every available meat in cans stir fried with rice and lotsa garlic. We dropped our bags on the floor of our spartan room, and dropped on our respective beds like the dead. Lorna, Ina and I dreamed of Tapia Falls, but that would take a few more hours of hiking which our bodies cannot take at the moment. The fact we accidentally left our door wide open for our fellow Korean guests to see our wasted selves coupled with our hanging open mouths left Lorna in severe disgust. I was more concerned with the stink emanating from my body when I woke up.

The sun had set when we all woke from deep slumber, taking a bath was first priority on my list, never mind my growling stomach. I knew a wild hog smelled better than I did. The four of us trotted towards Mang Simon's Inn. Fresh from the bathroom, my mouth watered for pizza. The Road Whore have good reviews for Mang Simon's in-house pizzas, we had to try it. Upon entering Mang Simon's impressive place, along the hall, on the right side, we noticed gazillions of business cards, empty cigarette packs with notes, IDs, passport photocopies, wallet-sized photos tacked to the wall, all with the same message, "I SURVIVED BATAD". I just knew I had to tack my name on the wall with other "survivors". I should, and I did, since I carried my bag all the way to arguably the best if not the only rice terraces amphitheater. A mere biodegradable note will not do, so I rummaged through my wallet and picked a plastic card with my name solidly embossed. I will not be surprised if my spine delineated from the vertical axis at least 10 more degrees coming to this place.

I ordered a delectable 9 inch pizza, a mock marguerite. Slices of vine-ripened tomatoes and processed cheese food under a pasty spread of Del Monte's spaghetti sauce (which explains the sugary-grainy goodness) on a crispy thin and flat round bread. No torn basil, I was nearly disappointed, but as soon as the tomatoes played with my taste buds, it made me forget about the tiny misgiving. I am amazed that the crust put up a good fight under the weight of the tomatoes, and its thickness is only 2/3 of Shakey's thin crust. Culinary perfection achieved in high altitude. No one would think everybody over there can both say and spell "chapatti" like it's second nature. It's no surprise.

The Road Whore took us to the place where the townspeople and visitors hold bonfires during weekends. With the naked blue-black sky studded with stars paining my eyes while trying to count the bright little suns, I didn't seem to mind the absence of a huge bonfire to welcome our group on a Tuesday night. It was one of the clearest skies I had the honor of gazing at, my perennial pair of prescription glasses was not necessary. The Cam-Whore of course, had to lie on the stone table to have her picture taken in pitch black darkness. Akin to South American Indian tribe sacrifices hundreds of years ago, where they've slain hundreds of virgins. I didn't know the extent of Lornadahl's camera whoredom until I experienced it with both Ina and Mark first hand at that moment.

Our sore bums parked on the inn's veranda after supper. While staring at the mountain silhouettes, we talked about Batanes and fresh, sticky marijuana to be purchased at Sagada, how we will celebrate Lorna's birthday, Batad's reduced charm since electricity was introduced to the town, Road Whore’s and Ina’s past trips to places Lorna and I have never been to, and the locals’ undying love for American country music (Comparable to China’s obsessive adoration for ancient art reproduction, which is an art in itself). Interestingly enough, though the experience may be the most plain considered by many, listening to my fast-assembled group gave me the naked truth about themselves. My powers of observation amazed even myself, every single word that rolled out of their mouths I absorbed, like a brittle dry sponge to salty water. I may be with the best group of people to be with at that exact moment (Babayaran niyo ako, alam niyo ‘yan).

After a few minutes, my tired body decided to doze off. Ina and Mark repeatedly asked me to go back to my room. I heard snippets of conversation, going over to Mang Ramon’s place; take photos of Batad’s only preserved house, my funny soft snore, and what to eat tomorrow while hiking back up to Saddlepoint. Sandman dropped a huge bag of dust on me; I could hear my bed calling me then.

Lorna as usual, the most sleep-deprived and always the first one to rise, woke me up with her feet heavy on the wood floorboards. The eternal light sleeper, it’s a curse. The air was flush with the word “sore” emanating from our bodies. Needless to say, we had to scrap going over to Mang Ramon’s house, besides, our contracted jeepney will pick us up in less than two hours. Mark, though he will not admit it openly with us Tres Marias of the Underworld, was worried we might not get to Saddlepoint in time considering how fast we move (Ina was THE exception). We consoled ourselves with, “Mang Ramon’s house is something to look forward to next time.” What sorry liars we were I realized while paying our bill at the inn and signing the guest book.

The Road Whore foiled my attempt to order a fat chapatti with tomatoes and cheese, insisted we start heading back to Saddlepoint, chop-chop. A deep temporary furrow grew on my forehead, as I thought how am I to survive with just a pack of crackers and water on the way up. Our money-hungry porter (Yes, we cheated, us girls had our bags carried for a reasonable fee; I have to remind you, I have scoliosis so I’m excused) gloated he can carry them all at once. I told him he better be sure because if he passes out, I will not render any CPR if needed though I am a licensed first aid instructor and we will not pay him a single cent. With my hands free, I had my arms to help me balance myself on the way up.

Three-fourths of the way, after a few stop overs and fifteen minutes to spare before the jeepney driver comes to pick us up, I thought I saw an albino buffalo with a huge black pack (Excuse my 200/200 vision, I was not wearing my glasses), turned out to be a tall Caucasian male, dripping with his own sweat (Akala ko talaga luntian yung pawis, at pinagalitan ko na naman sarili ko dahil kung anu-ano ang nakikita ko. Later on, I realized why). He asked if where we’re heading to, he decided to share the jeepney as he had to go to back to Banaue junction. Why not? As long as we can cut our expenses. Mga purita kami.

Fork on the road! now, it’s a choice between a straight path up and narrow deep steps up. The birthday girl chose the steps. While silently cursing, we all climbed the steps. Of course, the Road Whore got to the top a fair ten minutes before Lorna and me as he has this perpetual itch to talk to strangers and turn them to not-so-strange creatures. Turns out the guy’s name is, Omer (or Omar). While Mark tended his disgusting knee wound from his previous trip to Sagada, the jeepney rolled into view. Knowing we made it to the top before this four-wheeled vehicle made my chest puff with accomplishment.

On our way back to Banaue’s Poblacion, I couldn’t resist talking to Omer. A few things about this South African native, whose base is located in Johannesburg; he’s a 26 year old real estate person who is currently at a crossroads with his career. He found himself roaming the Philippines after his job contract with another Southeast Asian country (I forgot which one). And his favorite Filipino reality show? Take a good guess…Pinoy Big Brother. Why am I not surprised? Perhaps I’m too tired and sore to show that I’m horror-struck. The show is a virus worse than Ebola inflicting millions of Filipinos and non-Filipinos combined.

Omer wanted to go to back to Manila (to his self-declared Philippine hub) then fly to Boracay. I can’t blame the guy, he’s a tourist for heavens sake and besides, he has two copies of that Lonely Planet book. Of course, excited as we are about Sagada, all we did was ramble about the place. Stopping by the Banaue junction, Omer decided to join us to Banaue Poblacion instead. At that time, he didn’t know it but he’s already half-convinced to join us to Sagada.

As recommended by our jeepney driver who loved to grumble in Ilocano, we should go to Las Vegas Inn and Café for brunch. With our packs on our backs, our driver happy with his thin wad of hundred bills, we plodded up along the path to Las Vegas. The place is a very interesting mixture of Las Vegas’ famous casinos and hotels memorabilia, black wooden statues and, Ilocano table runners and knickknacks. After a heavy breakfast of pork tapa and mountain brew, Omer announced, “Since I’m here, might as well do it (referring to Sagada)”. Alright! I thought meron na namang kahati sa gastusin sa pamasahe.

With our stomachs full of good food, we struggled (This word is only applicable to both Lorna and I) to get to the bus station where the mini bus that goes directly to Sagada stops. I tallied up around 20 heads of people all smoking at the same time, and it would be a shame if I’m going to be the oddball without a stick waiting for the bus, so I lit up a cig. Fifteen minutes passed by, still no bus. Halfway done with smoking, I noticed Omer was very much engaged talking to a couple. The Road Whore all of a sudden disappeared, to gawd knows where...again. While I searched for tiny Ina and my hands groped for Lorna, I found Mark talking to the couple Omer was talking to. Obviously, we didn’t want our excitement for Sagada be dampened by the mini bus’ penchant for the traditional Filipino time so the Road Whore ferreted out a jeepney to take us to Bontoc.

For some reason, I zoned out for about half an hour as soon as my rump touched the jeepney seat. I heard Lorna rambling; saw Ina’s thoughts running through her mind (her thoughts are so palpable it’s hard to miss) and Mark contemplating whether he should pee or not. Across my peripheral vision, I saw four Caucasian heads talking like they are enclosed in a tiny bubble of sorts, oblivious to the rest of mankind. Having experienced the same thing each time I traveled along North America, I was not offended. People are always drawn to their own kind each time they are a minority. It’s natural affliction, immediate affinity with people who share the color of your skin and the shape of your nose. Be thankful if you have a good nose and that I do preach all the time.

Two hours into the ride to Bontoc, and two stops courtesy of Mark’s always distended bladder, my right leg lost every feeling in it. Considering my bag was sitting on my foot and a French-Swiss guy’s pack kept hugging my leg, no wonder. I silently loathe uncomfortable silence so I had to talk to everybody after purposely listening to their conversations. Finally, I get to be the local who gets a kick out of foreigners’ commentaries and observations about my country, very refreshing. After four years in North America, mostly shuttling round and about the US and few trips to Canada during its winter months (Yes, I’m a proud masochist), I always get good-natured laughs from locals each time I say anything about their native terrain. I learned that these four, after weeks of staying in the Philippines, learned to be thankful that the bus arrived an hour or two after its expected time of arrival. Better late than never and find themselves with bound hands and feet in some dark vehicle trunk after being nabbed by mercenaries.

Ten minutes to Bontoc, the sun with all its effulgence, revealed a breath taking view of a small river and tiny terraces. I have never seen wild callas look so white and proud. The river nearly blinded me, but who gives a damn? The sight immediately made me stop talking. Majesty is always appreciated in silence.

Ten minutes later, we got off the jeep, crossed the street to the jeepney stop heading for Sagada. The nearer I was to Sagada, more of my arm hair stood on its roots. It was like anticipated sex with Hugh Jackman, it’s unbelievable. Turns out the jeepney parked on the stop cannot accommodate four long-legged foreigners, four short Manileños and ten heavyweight packs. We realized the locals have an implausible talent for stacking and packing sacks of produce in small spaces, but since the eight of us are too tired to be treated like sardines for canning, we decided to wait instead for the next jeepney.

Not willing to wait for more than 15 minutes, again, Mark contracted another jeepney to take us to Sagada. A private jeepney for P600, not so bad divided amongst the eight of us. Happily, we stuffed our bags and ourselves in our hired vehicle. With room to spare my legs, I stretched with abandon. This cost me P75, I would have killed anyone with my stare who would have dared to tell me not to. Less cranky and claustrophobic, I finally collected the names of the three foreigners. I learned two of them, Laura (researcher, works with UN) and James (chef), are natives of New Zealand who haven’t seen the sun rise in their homeland for the last four years. They are official globe trekkers/nomads who work without rest for 16 weeks at a time then take 6 weeks off to travel a foreign country with their hard earned money. Divers at heart, they talked about going to Malapascua, perhaps Bantayan Island, etc. Hats off to this couple, they hiked Batad and Tapia falls in a day, leaving their bags in an inn in Banaue Poblacion and then back. As soon as they got to Batad, they learned about a dozen cheaper inns they could have crashed into. They were just so nice not to curse their hired guide. The French-Swiss guy’s name is nowhere to be found in my mind’s database. Perhaps because he hardly talked at all, and he didn’t move his bag upon my request to bring some blood back up my leg. Needless to say, I didn’t like him very much. I knew I asked him twice in perfect English and once in very broken French. Damn, I’m an ineffective communicator.

Thousands of minutes later, a few bouts of prickly shush-ness, I saw the brown sign “Welcome to Sagada”. All of my arm hair stood up, I’m worse than a person distressed with LBM without any loperamide on hand to soothe the pain. All of a sudden, the air seemed to smell sweeter, it was familiar but not overly so, it promised me 48 hours of imperturbable and relaxing experience.

The jeepney stopped by Alfredo’s Inn and Restaurant. With our each of our P75 on Laura’s hand, I furtively twirled 360 degrees. I could not believe I’m back in Sagada. While they all gabbed about where we’re supposed to check in, and immediately planned out an itinerary, all I did was wonder how I can make it feasible enough to bottle this air in a pressurized container and bring it back to Manila. Being absorbed as I was, I did not even notice the French-Swiss guy split from our group. Alfredo’s was under renovation, Road Whore was disappointed (he prefers a thick Alfredo's mattress under his short frame) but there is always St. Joseph’s Inn squatting on a small hill with its stark white sidings, forest green roof and gutters, we knew that is the right place to be.

After twenty or so grunts and surprisingly dry underarms, a faint pine scent welcomed my nostrils. I saw portraits of nuns (this place by the way is a convent converted to an inn), newly polished broad wood plank flooring, display shelving with hand painted natural fiber/wool bags and shirts, captioned and illustrated maps, vcds and cds burned with local scenery and music. The inconspicuous front desk is a thing of beauty in its own right, polished narra and as heavy as four oxen. I couldn’t help running my fingers along the grain while they all chitchatted with the lady behind the desk with widened eyes due to the fact they couldn’t believe it only cost P150 per night per person in Sagada. One cannot help but be surprised that it’s way cheaper than wash-up rates of nondescript motels everywhere in the Philippines.

With our room keys on hand, like children, we all excitedly trotted/ran to our respective rooms. I shared mine with Lorna and Ina, of course as always; I’m drawn to the bed farthest from the door, but since the biggest window that showcased the best view is right beside the bed, Lorna just had to have first dibs on the bed (It’s the girl’s birthday). I took the bed in the middle and Ina right next to the door. Ina kept commenting about the dust floating around our room air, and I sniffed around looking for more than necessary dust – looking back at it, its no wonder my grandfather said I had rat genes. The opened windows and fantastic view was more than enough to compensate for the Nickelodeon pillow cases and shrunken and scratchy red fleece blankets, narrow single beds, carceral windows, bare mirror, and the rusty up-to-the-sky towel hanger. Not that I was expecting anything analogous to New York’s Waldorf Astoria, I merely want to stress out how beautiful Sagada is. To think our bedroom view was filtered by a clothesline and we haven’t seen all the good stuff yet.

After leaving our things in our respective rooms, we all walked to the famed Yoghurt House to have late lunch. Woven fabric hung from the ceiling interspersed with black and white photographs, wood tables and chairs and its small fireplace pumped up the restaurant’s charm. I ordered tuna and vegetable salad with roasted eggplant and garlic yoghurt dressing. While waiting for our food, we perused through its numerous guest books. One entry written by a pregnant woman found by Laura is the most memorable, this woman is a traveler, she’s been up north and everywhere down south, and she claimed yoghurt in Yoghurt House cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. Pregnancy did not deter her from going to Sagada to just have the yogurt made and served in this place. With that in mind, I knew I just had to have the yogurt then as I will not be able to wait for breakfast. Ina was devastated, she didn’t want anything else on her yogurt but honey, since the manangs any liquid sweetener aside from Karo syrup, she was forced to drag Mark to the market to buy honey – both of them didn’t find anything. In Ina’s devastation, Lorna and I finished our meals with a serving of water buffalo and cow’s milk yogurt topped with granola happily. Cruel I know, but sweet.

As the sun began to set, the Road Whore led the way to Echo Valley. Following Mark’s trail to the valley, we passed by the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church is quaint and petite, Anglo-Saxon in nature, very intimate and unique. The roughhewn stained glass windows and stacked chipped rock walls gave nearly all of its appeal, façade-wise. The church’s inside is naturally dark, big fat candles could make it a haven for cameras. Snooping around, I saw the nave gave way to a non-functional quasi-clerestory displaying saints dressed in full regalia, simple and no glitter. Instantly, I thought of the weddings that were celebrated inside. The church is perfect for unfussy clandestine weddings and vow renewals. Having to coordinate and arrange quite a few events myself in the past, every time I see beautiful churches/chapels, immediately my mind makes mental slideshows of the place with scaffoldings, flower arrangements, swags, candles etc. My snooping around left me at the end of our file, I quickly followed James who seemed to feed on the sight of the soon-to-set sun and tall trees. Five minutes from the church, Campo Santo came into view. Crude stone markers painted white beckoned to be noticed. Mr. and Mrs. Masferré’s plain graves stuck out from the rest thanks to its numerous vertical markers. Makes one wonder how this famous photographer lived his life aside from the photographs and I wondered more about the woman who lived under the shadow this man.

On top of the Campo Santo hill, one can view Echo Valley in its quiet splendor. Gray toothed and serrated rocks of varying heights alternated with spots of tall pine trees. A Finnish couple (How did I know they’re Finnish? They both stayed at the same inn and one of them offered me freshly picked guavas before we headed to Yoghurt House) yelled two hills away to check if they are indeed by Echo Valley. Some rocks had stacks of hanging coffins, I was amazed to see how the barefooted locals years ago managed to hang and pin these wooden caskets when harnesses were non-existent then. Perhaps their feet had claws, who knows? After taking numerous photos and sharing sibling stories we headed back to St. Jo’s.

Everybody charged their cell phones and camera batteries and the brave took quick baths back at the inn (Foreigners are almost always scared of cold showers, needless to say, none of them washed the gunk off of their bodies). After my ice cold bath, though my blood cringed at its semi-frozen state, it felt good to take off the accumulated dust from my curls and crystallized sweat off of my skin. Mark, close to shrieking, ran like a miniature horse in the common room and upstairs. He cannot get over his room’s view, and he would not stop dragging all of our tired bodies to his room to boast. I looked for my group one by one and decided to join Ina and Omer in an absorbed discussion about quarter life crisis. Omer said the 30th year crisis is worse. I wonder how he knew when everybody in our group is no more than 28 years old. Laura and James headed for the inn’s restaurant to grab a few bottles of beer, Omer joined them of course. (Luntian kung luntian ika nga, iiwanan at iiwanan kami nitong mama basta si James ang magaya o makatabi niya. Bakit ako nagta-Tagalog? Kasi baka basahin nilang tatlo itong maiksi kong naisulat. I promised myself I will be true to this travelogue to the tiniest detail I could remember, and heck, blood tinged with a bit of green is hard to forget)

Of course, since we own bottomless stomachs, we decided we’re hungry for more good food. All of us fell in love with Yoghurt House; the two manangs were not surprised seeing us back for supper. The sisters (manangs) are superwomen. They run the whole place, tending the organic vegetable garden on the backyard, making the yogurt; they do all the cooking, dishwashing, cleaning and take the orders of every single soul who longed for a good meal. Since it was Lorna’s official solar return day, she decided to have a bottle of Tapey (Unfiltered local rice wine, rose in color, housed in a clean Ginebra bottle) to share with everybody. After a decidedly filling dinner and a few rounds of rice wine, ghost stories and folklore tales were in order. I can never resist scaring the shit out of foreign travelers; Lorna, Ina, Mark and I took turns scaring the three of them while Omer ordered another bottle of Tap-ey. Even if we didn’t succeed, at least we tried. I knew Laura and James are now subconsciously wary of manananggal, tiktik and Sorsogon, haha. There goes the income generated from Sorsogon tourism, another local giving bad rap to the place, tsk. I will be shot by the incumbent Secretary of Tourism. Was Omer scared? No one can tell, with his tongue burned from the very spicy hot chicken curry and alcohol drugging his veins, I doubt if he even listened. (Who cares? Katabi niya yung isa eh. Ikaw talaga Fristine nagtaka ka pa)

Following the path back to St. Jo’s, my body silently whined and complained about the cold air biting on my extremities. Mark had to knock on the local bakery door again for some more cinnamon rolls when he knows at 10 pm it is lights out in Sagada (It was past 10 pm). Plopping down on the common room sofa, I felt the effects of lactic acid in my muscles. Though sitting on the patio, a number of women smoking who would gladly massage my sore body for a small fee will ease my pain, I had to decline as I’m on a strict budget and ATMs are not available in this area. Sadly, I brushed my teeth and went to bed. While Ina traipsed with Bo Peep in la-laa-laaand, I silently observed Lorna quietly struggling to sleep. I called on Sandman to whack Lorna with a sack-full of dream dust. Unfortunately, Sandman didn’t hear my plea; Lorna again was the last to sleep and the first one to rise.

At around two in the morning, dripping water on my feet woke me up. It wet my bed and the floor. Since my brains were curdled due to sleep, I thought someone upstairs peed unceremoniously non-stop. The first name that came to mind? Mark. Gritting my teeth, I thought it better not be pee or someone will be very hurt come sunrise. I went back to sleep after moving my bed towards Lorna. The next day I found out Mark did pee in his bedroom, but he swore his empty water bottle caught every drop. Tsk. Katamaran is never an excuse for peeing inside the bedroom unless he’s an invalid. I dropped the issue, besides, the Road Whore was our guide. He doesn’t cost a fortune. Tour guides are expensive.

Dreams of the expatriate French baker’s goodies haunted my mind, my brain in the state and consistency of spoiled yogurt (Thanks to the cold wind) cried for bread and hopefully freshly churned butter. Everybody quickly dressed up, ready to go down to the depths of the earth and invade critters residing in Sumaging Cave and swim in the cold water of both Bog-ok and Bomod-ok Falls. Of course, before the hike we had to eat first, !nd guess where we went to eat? Yoghurt House. I had to set aside my dreams of freshly baked baguettes and beignets. The manangs are so used to tourists and travelers going back to their place for more. I had a plate of French toast with Karo syrup, Hangover’s Anathema (2 eggs and more toast) and a cup of coffee (I fell in love with Cordillera coffee, Arabica beans is one of my favorite coffee bean varieties, maniacally, I drank with abandon). Going back to Manila without their famous roasted eggplant and garlic yogurt dressing was not an option for me, I asked (actually more on harassed) the manangs to make me a jar-full of the stuff to take home with me. They said they don’t sell the dressing, I told them to name their price. My closest friends dub me as one of the best bargain whore/hunters they’ve ever known, so for me to say “Name your price”, it only means it’s that good. For P150 per jar, we sealed the deal; they made it ready for pick up the next day before we headed for Baguio.

With stomachs filled with coffee and good food sloshing around, we all stopped for Sagada’s City Hall to sign up for the cave tour and single out an authorized cave guide. After dividing cave tour fee amongst the five of us, (You may be wondering why not seven? Omer wasn’t feeling very well and Ina said she’s been to Sumaging) the seven of us hiked the concrete path to the cave. We passed by the French baker’s home, I was on tenterhooks just to have a whiff of baked bread, nada. Walking on by, the sight of Sagada’s rice terraces was breathtakingly beautiful. I nagged everybody with cameras to take false panoramic shots. One thirds of the way, Mark noticed our guide, Errol, carelessly forgot the kerosene lamp. What was he thinking? Maybe he thought we all had cat genes and we can all see in the dark. Errol spun his heels in his non-personable way to get the lamp. Upon reaching the opening where everybody begins their descent, we waited for our disinterested guide. Refusing to be more pissed at Errol, I chugged water from my bottle and asked both Omer and Ina if they will be ok once the rest of us explore the cave.

Seeing Errol fast walking with a backpack, we headed for the man-made steps and began our descent to the mouth of the cave. A strong fume of sautéed garlic, onions and canned sardines bombarded our nostrils; I learned later on, the bats in Sumaging are responsible for it. Throwing my water bottle by some cave rocks, I checked my pockets heavily laced with Velcro, leftover toast…check, alcohol bottle…check, prescription glasses on the bridge of my nose…check, cell in double Ziplocs…check, Ina’s ugly green hair scrunchie…check. I was ready to go in.

Upon reaching the end of the steps, Errol, in monotone said there will be 70 meters of slime-covered, slippery white stone steps we have to tread before we get to see the good stuff. The “weakest link” should be the first to follow him inside, he said. Just in case the biggest klutz slips and whacks his or her head on some of the rocks, the rest of the file can help him or her. Who was the group’s biggest klutz? Fristine.

One hundred percent humidity, slimy rocks, poor eyesight and lack of balance are responsible for the dozens of mud and bat poop spots everywhere on my body. As long as I keep the poop away from my head, I’m good I thought. With only a scratch on my left knuckle, we hit pay dirt. Tan rock formations, trickling and small pools of mountain water and pairs of footwear welcomed us all.

Leaving our footwear behind like everybody else, we were forced to rely on our bare feet to move ourselves throughout the cave. I knew I had good traction; my feet haven’t had any spa treatment in months. My calluses kept me slip-resistant. Cave rocks in forms of sleeping turtles, rice terraces, king’s curtain (check my photo out, I still think it looks like chocolate curls), pregnant women etc. A beached whale and dinosaur fossils inaudibly made their presence known to us, and fossilized crustaceans decorated the walls. Squinting my eyes behind my wet glasses, I tried to see more than the outline. I’m deeply astonished how this used to be part of the sea, now it is home to gazillions of bats who smelled like cooked sardines. The way nature preserves its past, showcases its present and conceals its future is stupefying. Sometimes I think about the people who are less appreciative, they’re missing out on half of their lives.

I asked Errol (three times actually) for how long he’s been a cave guide, the guy curtly replied, “Three years.” No wonder not a lot of people find him personable, he exuded simple disinterest in what he does, and it is turn offish. He talked in this monotone, synonymous to firing an automatic shotgun. It is hard to find respect in people at work emptied out of passion, at least for me.

Fork on the road! Or shall I say cave? We were told by Errol there are two ways out of the cave. Way #1, comfortable wide spaces to walk on by, knee-deep water –or- Way #2, claustrophobic spaces, craniums susceptible to cracking courtesy of rocks and chest-high water. Everybody looked at each other; Laura was dying to take the hard way out but very sweet enough to take the consensus of everybody, then said, “You guys can always come back here anytime.” Taking the hint, I said, “Let’s take way #2”. Her face lit up brighter than a halogen lamp. After stuffing all our electronic gear inside James’ bag, we followed Errol.

I was so proud of myself, three-fourths of the way; all I got is a knuckle scratch. I very much enjoyed exploring the cave and heard Lorna “accidentally” kick Errol solid on the head. I didn’t crack my head, I didn’t slip and slipped a disk, I had to give myself a pat on the back. Slowly plodding through the rejuvenating cold water and dodging cave rocks, dreams of spelunking filled my excited mind. On our way back up, Ina and Omer were still sitting on the same spot we left them. Ina took a photo of our disheveled tired selves. Of course, on the way back, we decided we’re hungry again. But since we were near Sugong Cave, we had to see the coffins it houses.

Steep and narrow steps said hello on the way down to Sugong cave, instinctively, I groaned inwardly. Here we go again, I thought. At the end of our file, I watched my group silently while they take photos of the coffins, I instantly marveled at the ancient locals who thought of hanging all these coffins on cave walls. Gifted with a hideously hyperactive imagination, of course, mind sketches of huge feet with claws packed my mind. Huge feet parallel to Chinese lotus feet, gnarled toes and the most supreme of calluses might belong to this people. Hey, with great things, everybody had to sacrifice something. Who cares about visual appeal when you are the first (if not the only one) to think of making mummies in a tropical country and hang them in caves?

Small unrefined wooden caskets giving the illusion of being stacked played with our eyes. An elderly couple from Australia on their way back up from Sugong stayed put to wait for me get to the landing. Given the lack of balance, I was atrociously slow in my descent. After getting to the landing, I promptly thanked the couple, then I thought, “Wait a minute, I am at least three decades younger than those two and they’re the ones who had to make room for me.” I’m a shameful hussy. At twenty five, without my glasses I’m nearly blind, how can I feel I’m twenty five? My birthday gift to myself as soon as I turn thirty? Epilasik sight correction surgery.

The wooden coffins were superiorly crafted, without any chemical treatments, they strongly stood against humidity. They are surprisingly dry, I wonder if the ancient locals rubbed something on the caskets. These people never cease to amaze me. There were several casket lids with lizard relief. I learned from Anarinda (A local artist from Angeles, Pampanga, responsible for the tiny baby tees with lizards, colorful woven earrings and painted woven bags with suns in Sagada souvenir shops), the ancient Sagadans’ symbol for the god of harvest is the humble lizard. I wonder why. (If you’re sick of my “I wonder whys”, you’re on the wrong page. I ALWAYS wonder why. If I don’t, it’s either I’m dead or already inflicted with Alzheimer’s disease)

Sensing everybody was sick of sight seeing upon hearing the chorus of growling stomachs, eating in a different place other than Yoghurt House was in order. Heading back towards the town hall, and over cold bottles of Lipton’s Green Tea, we decided on Log Cabin Café over Masferré’s Inn and Restaurant. We happily trotted to Log Cabin. Only to find out they do not serve lunch, however, we can pre-order dinner. Priced at around P160+ per plate, a bit of hesitancy was obvious. With food described as follows: Chicken Paprika – one fourth roasted chicken with sour cream gravy, served with cucumber salad tossed in yogurt dressing and Belgian styled fries; order me a plate baby! Laura asked what adobo is, of course, I had to explain it Fristine style. She had to order it of course as Fristine’s way of describing food never fails to make everybody promptly listening to order the dish being described. With a gamut of salads and pastas with Italian sausages and cilantro pesto, pork medallions, chicken paprikas and chicken pork adobo listed to be prepared and eaten by 7:30 pm that night, we started going back to Masferré’s Inn and Restaurant to shut our growling stomachs up.

With Laura and James with a double clamoring for more local food, they ordered binagoongang gulay and lechon kawali. Omer, our admittedly lazy traveler without a bone of adventure for food, ordered something so usual I can’t even remember it (How grossly ironic don’t you think?). The four freaks from Manila cried for sinigang na baboyand lechon kawali. Waiting for the food, I walked around the inn/restaurant. My eyes were drawn to the photographs framed and hung on the wall. Masferré knew how to photograph women, they all looked stunningly beautiful. Somehow, the photos seemed to have a life of its own. Some of the captions were disgustingly misspelled though, I couldn’t help but cringe. Considering all of these were older than I am, I decided not to say anything. But I knew I had to write about it.

Masferré’s pork sinigang is different, they have chunks of ginger in the soup base plus the pork was chinicharon for some reason. While waiting for our mountain lunch fare, we girls treated ourselves to Masferré’s hot chocolate special with panutsa. I can eat a bowl that raw brown sugar in one sitting, if only I’m not carrying the diabetes gene. Lunch was over after fifteen minutes counting from the minute of serving.

Big fat drops of water fell on the ground which dampened our desire to go the falls. Since we cannot go back to Sagada on an instant whim, rain is something that should not be highly considered. We scrapped the idea of going to Bomod-ok Falls, but hiking towards Bog-ok Falls was permissible by the weather (Not without a quick pit stop over at St. Jo’s of course).

Omer, feeling ill, decided not to come with us (Kahit alam naming lahat gustong-gusto pa niyang makasama at masilayan and mukha nung isa, talagang hindi niya na kaya). He then checked out of St. Jo’s and checked in to Ganduyan’s Inn. Six disgustingly bloated stomachs sauntered towards Bog-ok Falls. Fat drops targeted our heads, we checked out the houses, saw Sagada Weaving and Masferré Photos, and discovered poinsettia blooms bigger than my already big head. With the art of shirkers, we all managed to avoid stepping on buffalo dung mushrooming the concrete road. It seemed endless. (Not the road but the dung piles)

Like everything there is to see in Sagada, the road to Bomod-ok included rudimentary steps. This time around, it’s all carved out of dirt. So, even armed with my hands as supplementary to my feet, I cannot hold on to anything as the dirt is too soft as I began my descent. Lorna and I both relied on blades of grass for support. If that spot lost all its grass, Lorna and I are both liable for the grass extinction.

Our efforts were rewarded with the sight of a small but puissant falls, water running towards a pool twenty feet deep. Reluctant to jump in as my toes felt ice cold water; I watched James take off his shirt, climbed the rocks and jumped in. Lorna, giddily took off her shirt, with her perennial swimsuit she took her time before she jumped into the water. After seeing James, I knew I had to follow suit. So screw it if I’m wearing disposable panties and did not wear any bathing suit. It wasn’t so bad, the water was very rejuvenating. I thought, I might suffer from nagging pains from my bad knee later, but I didn’t care. I dove several times to reach the bottom, I miserably failed. It was like swimming to reach inside a whale’s stomach to reach the bottom wall. We took turns watching the Road Whore befriending a lonesome carabao who seemed to not want his presence or his attention. Laura refused to go in, she’s afraid of cold water. Ina didn’t want to take a dip either but climbed the rocks just to see view from up there. Feeling the slimy rocks, I wonder what the bottom of the pool looked like.

It was getting dark, so before the sun set, we headed back to St. Jo’s. My body felt like unstable heavy dark matter, I felt so heavy it took me at least twice the time to climb back up than to go down. The sound of a pig inhumanly slaughtered across the fields by a local who obviously didn’t know how to slaughter stopped James and I on our tracks. With a wrinkled forehead and twisted eyebrows, the urge to yell “Just stick the damned thing straight through the neck and twist the blade!” was overwhelming. Poor pig. The pig must have yelled for twenty minutes straight.

I’ve never been so happy to see my small bed wrapped with a shrunken piece of scratchy red fleece upon entering our room in St. Jo’s. My wet body screamed for a quick bath. As much as I wanted hot water, knowing a small pail of it costs P40, I didn’t mind bathing with one of the coldest waters in the universe. Resting my tired legs on the steps to the inn, while Ina and I waited for both Lorna and Mark, the sight of Sagada sunset made me awe-struck. The splashes of purple, reds and orange cannot be sucked out of my mind. And I knew from then on, I will never forget seeing one of the most stunning sunsets ever painted by the cosmos.

Ina and I decided to grab a quick drink to relax our muscles a bit. Since Ina doesn’t drink beer, we searched for Tap-ey. We nearly rummaged through St. Jo’s Restaurant, we found out they only had San Mig’s Pale Pilsen which, at the time pretty disappointing and their filtered rice wine costs a small fortune. We started walking to the stores by the station. Still, we couldn’t find a good enough rice wine for Ina and she thought we should start shopping for souvenirs. This girl is the ultimate souvenir babe; she can’t stop with just one item to bring home to her mother, Cocoon, her brothers and their girlfriends. She’s very sweet I think and for sure she had more money than I did.

The unavailability of good enough rice wine brought the two of us to Ganduyan Inn’s Souvenir Shop. We took our time checking out locally made tchotchke. The usual shirts, both printed and painted, dream catcher pendants, framed sketched portraits of local people, Masferré’s post card sets, and arrays of earrings and other accessories, wood carvings, bags and more knickknacks we can ever bargain for. I bought a black woven sling bag with hand painted lizard which I know my officemates are sick of since I hardly changed bags since I got it.

Back at St. Jo’s Lorna had a fit knowing we shopped without her. We all took a quick bath and right after, we headed to the Log Cabin to eat. The banyagas had a round of beers when we got to our table. Our bodies were greeted with a lit fireplace, pine kindling and lit votives on the wooden tables. Once our food was served, we stared at the humongous plates of good food laid out on our table. No wonder the food cost at least P160+ a plate, as one plate can feed three heads. Soft piped music is the only thing missing to make the gastronomic experience even better (It’s not the only thing, I itched to throw the two grossly misplaced monobloc chairs by the fireplace). I couldn’t finish my fries, finishing my roasted chicken was already a struggle on its own.

With our already distended stomachs bigger with food, we talked about reality shows. Reality shows is the newest virus to be contracted from the telly. It’s a shame that more people are tuned to what’s happening on their favorite character in Pinoy Big Brother, or their favorite contender in Average Joe than to know what is truly going on around them. Watching the local news is nonetheless never startling anymore, it would be nice if someone can come up with something to show what pressing matters at hand we all should attend to and hopefully prod everybody what needs to be done to make our disoriented but beautiful country a better place to live in.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a great dinner without a serving of ghost stories. Going back to the inn filled me with a smidgen of sadness. I knew the next day everybody will be riding the bus to Baguio, thus the end of our Sagada trip. I contemplated whether I should remain to stay for another night since I am to meet my family in Baguio the day after we are expected to leave. But the storm made the decision for me, staying and be stranded in Sagada was not an option given it’s my two cousins birthday celebrations that coming weekend.

While watching our cell phones and batteries charging in the common room, Mark ran downstairs and showed us his camera. He took a photo of hand painted shirts laid out to dry upstairs. We all went upstairs to see ourselves. A tall woman, with long hair and with two beautiful boys sleeping inside her room was responsible. She introduced herself as Ana (aka Anarinda); she painted the most beautiful Sagada lizard and the prettiest pipe smokers on shirts. I knew I had to buy me one with a pipe smoker but with my little modifications. I asked her to paint me a pink pipe smoker with boobs, curly hair, a fresher face, and to use red glitter paint and to accommodate one small lizard in the picture without it seeming like a huge fleck of dandruff on my black shirt. Mark commented that’s a little too much modification for a P250 shirt, I told him to shut his trap. Besides, Ana seemed happy to do it for me.

We slept fitfully listening to the strong wind blowing outside the pristine white walls of St. Jo’s. It was a bit scary; the mountain wind during a storm is expectedly and magnificently burly. The following morning, we had to scratch Bomod-ok Falls from the list of Sagada to-go-tos. With the storm and signal #2, who can get a hold of the nerve to walk on slippery rocks? No sane and normal person would.

There are three buses that leave Sagada for Baguio everyday. We decided to take the second bus. And while we waited for ten o’clock, we had breakfast. Where? Yoghurt House of course, where else? I made sure I get my yogurt dressing before leaving. Stomachs full of coffee; we shopped for last minute items to bring back home. I went back to Masferré’s to buy packs of their organic sugar (aka panutsa) and Sagada coffee.

We tried to force everything we bought with our dirty clothes inside our bags. Ina had the hardest time amongst all of us. I believe she bought the whole of Sagada and brought it back to Manila. While she was packing her bag, her bed was strewn with piles of folded souvenir shirts, vcds and cds of local music and scenery, two jars of yogurt, and every possible tchotchke available in Sagada. It was a surprise her tiny frame managed to carry the whole bag, I was scared that she would topple over like a pick-up stick.

Suddenly I heard Mark yelling and calling us to run down to the bus station. It made me wonder why on earth would my legs give up on me during my time of need and risk us being stranded in Sagada...traitors!

I ran disgracefully to the bus station as fast as I could and jumped right on the bus that started to roll ever so slightly. According to Lorna, my pack whacked at least two heads while I looked for familiar faces. My thanks to Laura who asked the bus to wait for four lost souls.

After settling down and fighting with my pack who didn't want to stand up on its own, a man in his mid-fifties asked me where I'm from. I guess he couldn't resist talking to the only person in the bus who unceremoniously (and unknowingly, I want to make that very clear) knocked down a couple of people with her ugly maroon bag. He spoke of Baguio's irreclaimable glory and the beauty its denizens, uneducated visitors and local government destroyed without beneficial purpose for the future. I did not feel like talking about politics at the time with strangers so as soon as the lady right across Ina left the bus, I traded seats with another passenger who seemed eager to talk with the man beside me.

Getting to Baguio was not as easy as I thought it would be. The five hour trip turned to seven hours. Owning a distended bladder at the time did not make it as painless as it ought to be. Traffic in Trinidad Valley was atrocious, worse compared to Recto, Manila. To prove it, my hair by the time I got to the Backpacker's Inn, my hair was crusted with a thick film of dust and other pollutants.

I thought at the sight of both Macapagal and Session roads, I will be comforted. Instead, I felt a throbbing headache eating away at my neurons. Then there's this problem with the banyagas accommodations (Courtesy of SEAG) in Manila as all of them will take the bus back before midnight. As for me, I will spend the night at the inn run by Tita Gay (One of the most tightfisted Baguio local I have ever met) and Tito Abe (One of the most ingenious Japanese men I've ever met; the man can speak Ilocano, Tagalog, English, Ilonggo, and Bisaya, aside from Nihonggo - the man is well blessed). All I was looking forward to at that moment is to leave my wretched bag in the inn then go someplace nice to eat supper.

A few minutes away from Quezon Hill road, the austere inn came to view. Right after meeting Tita Gay, she immediately had us all sit down, drop our bags and stretch our legs inside. I checked the whole house and picked a room in the attic, since I'm the only guest, I did not dare sleep in the basement. The house was impeccably clean, I doubt if there was a single speck of dust inside. I felt at home in an instant.

We all headed for SM to eat dinner and buy a gallon of Arce ice cream. Our feet dragged us to Dencio's. SM Baguio is my favorite SM, its architecture is the most unique and its humongous skylight makes one feel closer to the heavens, coupled with the welcome fog and chilly air, on the verandas with furiously lit chimneys to warm cold toes and fingers, unbeatable. After feasting on shrimp gambas, chicharong bulaklak, grilled tuna, kare-kare, the perennial pork sisig and bangus belly everybody quickly marched to the grocer for Arce ice cream (non-existent in their freezer, James had to satisfy his Arce ube ice cream craving with a scoop of Fiorgelato's purple yam), green tea to take to the bus and breakfast to start my day before my family picks me up.

I settled on a half loaf of Gardenia's chocolate and mocha marble and two packs of Maggi's instant creamy carbonara. My family is late 99.98% of the time, so I figured if they said they will pick me up after breakfast, that means they will around lunch time. The loaf will keep my stomach from grumbling 'til then.

In the cab back to the inn, melancholic anxiety crept all over me. In a few minutes, I will be left alone in an almost empty house. Mark did sell me the idea of staying here, grateful as I was, still I didn’t feel comfortable being left alone. After the rest of them freshened up, they all started hauling their bags on their backs. James and Laura kissed, hugged and thanked me for a wonderful two days. I knew instantly I will miss these two wonderfully odd couple. After giving them all a kiss (pwera si Omer) and giving all of them my farewells made my stomach cringe. Being with these people for days and days; it will be strange without them while I stay behind in Baguio.

I started nibbling on my chocolate loaf after a long hot bath and engaged in a conversation with Tita Gay. The sweet couple prepared my bath water. After days of extremely cold baths, savoring tubs of hot water inside the inn’s immaculately clean bathroom was more than welcome to my incredibly sore body. I learned Tita Gay and Tito Abe moved back to Baguio after years of raising their children in Katipunan, Quezon City. They decided to be the caretakers of the inn and run a college cafeteria after their prime years as they called it. Tito Abe used to tour Japanese soldiers after the WWII around the Philippines thus explaining his gifted tongue. Every shilly-shallying, round and about person would envy the contentment oozing from these couple’s pores. Someone said “Youth is a mistake, manhood is a responsibility and old age is regret”, seeing this couple would dispel the quote in an instant.

With eyelids drooping, I walked to my room, propped up a couple of pillows and wrapped myself in two fleece blankets. It was odd to be in a room where I can hear a pin drop in deafening silence; I missed Lorna’s soft breathing and Ina turning on her bed. Tomorrow, I thought, will be spent in silent reflection. Upon realization of the fact I hardly spent enough time in silence for so long made me decide to take pleasure in the opportunity to do so.

The following morning, Tito Abe gave me thermos-full of hot water, San Mig coffee, some bread and a tub of butter. “If you need anything, just call me, your Tita Gay is just a text away”, he said. I hardly said a word aside from “Thank you”. Tita Gay sent me an sms saying, “If you need anything, just call your Tito Abe. Anong oras ka raw ba susunduin?” Hospitality is one word these two revere obviously; nobody can resist the feeling of being ultimately at ease. After buttering a few slices of bread, I heated water for my carbonara and looked around the house. What a curious mix of local bric-a-brac and Japanese customs of maintaining everything inside.

While I waited and waited for Buda and Jolan, I picked up an old copy of Reader’s Digest and devoured every word. After a long nap and breaking my glasses, I carried my bags downstairs, grabbed my yogurt dressing from the freezer and paid Tito Abe. He then told me I can always come back anytime I wanted, and if my family is interested they can check out the inn too. As soon as a washed-up gray van pulled up by the gate, Tito Abe bent over Japanese style and said, “Arigatou gozaimasu…” and something else that meant “please come again”. Having replied with a soft sounding, “Domo arigato, itte rasshai” (Thank you very much, see you later), I could not help but feel I’m inside Furusato Restaurant in Manila.

Perhaps you’re thinking where I learned a bit of conversational Japanese? I used to be an anime addict. I AM the #1 Inuyasha fanatic and watching English-subtitled Japanese cartoons is one of my bonding pastimes with my younger brothers.

On the way to the house borrowed from a distant relative (Hey, I have an Ilocano relative. Very surprising since all I knew was that both sides of my family hailed from Cavite), the heavy traffic and very polluted cool air bothered me from the top of my head to the to the roots of my unshaven leg hair. Baguio, especially the Session and Macapagal Roads section to me looked like CAR’s Quiapo. I was immediately informed the house is located by La Trinidad strawberry farms. My forehead without delay made soft burrows. Going back to that hellish traffic was not a great experience. In fact, heavy traffic anywhere is never a good encounter, unless of course one is having sex with someone like Brad Pitt or Hugh Jackman, or that new Batman guy inside the vehicle.

After dodging tens of vehicles, shopping for more food, and scratching the van, we finally reached our destination. In an instant, I knew my family’s was within 10 meters from where I stood. My whole family, with all of us together, is the eternal sound of stampeding and screaming kids and crinkling thick foil. Nobody asked how my trip was because everybody else is covertly jealous, but didn’t forget to ask me if I bought a loot of Marijuana.

Lugging my bag by the family room, I decided to visit the kitchen and put my yogurt dressing inside the fridge. Mama then told me I am to cook tomorrow’s picnic spread in celebration of both Karen’s and Maxine’s birthdays. My grandmother couldn’t see my muscles are silently quivering due to lactic acid, my whole body was screaming in pain and begging for a masseuse and she nonchalantly ordered me to make a picnic spread for thirty people without even asking, “Are you up to it?”

Being the overachieving granddaughter for the last twenty five years to her, of course she thought I’m up to it. This granddaughter of mine loves challenges, she thought. I don’t like disappointing people I care for so I hit the bed early after playing charades with the rest of the clan and I gave my tong-its coins to my brothers. Playing cards with my family means I have to smoke more and drink alcohol, these two vices of mine I have to keep at a bare minimum, if possible, at zero levels. Sleeping was the evident option, besides my arms should be ready for the kawa the next day. Even the air smelled like pig poop (No wonder, the house is a few houses away from a piggery), I didn’t care, I was simply too tired to care.

The boys said we will go to Camp John Hay for the picnic. I told them only unimaginative and lazy people go there for picnics, and besides, what’s the use of bringing a mountain of food over there when the place is already sprawled with restaurants? Taking the hint, they all took the van and searched for another place. How I prayed at the time for them not to take the hint, I was not up to cooking anything. While they were gone, I decided on baked macaroni, Diablo style with sun dried tomato pesto and béchamel sauce. It’s not an official kid’s birthday party without fried chicken, but I had to make mine with beer. Fried beer battered chicken, the kids loved the fact it has beer, but they’re too young to know before it hits their mouths, the alcohol is gone. With muddy heels, the boys excitedly told us we’re all going to Tam-awan Village that afternoon.

The absence of an oven presented a problem. It will not be called baked macaroni without an oven. How does one improvise to melt grated gruyere cheese? To solve the problem, I borrowed a welding torch. Nobody could tell the difference afterwards. Pare-pareho lang ‘yan sa bituka I know, but it had to look good.

I always loved going to Tam-awan Village. The clandestine Igorot houses turned picnic areas and coffee are always a treat, not to mention the artists one can always find in the village. I remember as a kid, I like going under the faux Igorot houses, climbing the ladder and finding out of place things obscurely attached to the house. Like that house named “Batad”, one would find a huge sculpted penis protruding by the support beams. I guess people in the village are sometimes are just too energetically creative.

While waiting for everybody to settle down, I dragged my brothers along to the core of the village where the artists hang out. We first entered the village café, knowing the type of individuals who frequent the place, one can always hear politically-driven conversations and see people sketching and painting while sipping coffee. I was too spellbound by the paintings hung in the cafe that I missed the birthday cake blowing, I really didn’t mind since I was given the chance to meet Jordan Mang-osan personally (For the clueless, he is the only solar painter in the world, he uses magnifying lenses to give his paintings its outlines and texture and usually paints over them with acrylic).

Feeling lucky, Jordan Mang-osan personally introduced me and my brothers to his new paintings in the gallery. If only I had P15,000, I would have bought one of his paintings right then and there. Upon purchase of his paintings, half of it goes to a charity of his choice. Noble people are hard to find nowadays and I wish I had more money to support more causes. For years it pained me to see art appreciation gradually dying in our country.

The artists by the mini plaza asked me to have my portrait sketched in exchange for an undemanding donation. I told them I will bring my whole family over after eating so more people would give more to their donation box. These artists without a smidgen of belligerency try everyday to make do with what they have. I saw one young artist who sketched my cousin’s face with a two inch orange wax pencil. I’m no sketcher but I know it is very hard to sketch with wax that small, unless one is using bare charcoal. Most of the donations I learned go to art supplies and workshops they conduct regularly.

Each of us had at least two artists to do our faces. Being the last face sketched on paper, I had the luxury of watching the artists at work. Some started with the eyes, some with the outline of the face, some with the nose, some prefer thick charcoal to charcoal pencils, some like their sketches sporting the unfinished look and some are too bent on sketching every detail delicately that most eyes miss. Bay-an, the artist whose style Jolan and I both liked, sketched my face. I never saw my face that way before, but my brother swears he could recognize me in the portrait. It is so different from every portrait of my face that I knew I will have it custom framed. As I told Titan, I like hand sketched portraits better than photographic portraits in the sense that it solidly depicts how others see you without going through the unfeeling glass eyes of a small machine that are always dictated by lighting and angles.

We bid our goodbyes to the artists and Jordan after the sun had set, and drove back to Trinidad Valley. The next morning I knew I’m going back to Manila, looking back at my whole week in Mt. Province, the trip in its entirety seemed surreal. As I tore the lettuce and tossed the salad, a feeling of not wanting to go back home hit me hard. It’s hard to be away from home for too long and traveling not so often, I always find myself not wanting to go back for some insane reason. With Sandman refusing to leave my back at the time, instantly I fell asleep right after asking Mama to buy me foodstuff from the Good Shepherd Convent. I hankered for the ube jam, angel cookies, pastillas de leche and blueberry jam. I know these nuns overprice everything, but remember, as every sticker on the lids of their products denote, “Your money help put us through college – Cordillera Youth”. Who would mind an extra hundred per jar of the good stuff?

Inside the twelve o’clock Victory Liner bus, I was torn in between not wanting to leave and raring to go home to write all this down and finish it in the next 24 hours. I did not finish this in a day, of course but I managed to bring it all together in four weeks. Before I wrap this up, I have people to thank.

Lornadahl – for being the best friend that she is to this girl, for introducing me to Ina and Mark, for always co-creating Turistang Hilaw™, for being the Camera Whore that she is because without her cam-whoredom, I will not be able to share and show pictures of this trip to prove I traipsed in Banaue, for being the original Bratinella, and for being the woman I have always known her to be.

The Road Whore– for giving me a hand each time my balance seemed to disappear, for sharing Batad and Sagada with us and taking us every place you have been to and frequent, for that revolting knee wound you had giving us immeasurable entertainment value while we all watch you bleed and I do hope to be with you and your travel faction in Batanes.

Ina – for the listening ear and her struggle to remain prim during the week-long encounter with me and Lorna, for that involuntary recoiling your petite frame does each time you hear profanity, and for your incredible sweetness and thoughtfulness fatal to every diabetic. I will visit your shop in Malate any day now.

Laura and James – for making our trip all the more interesting, enjoyable and worth writing fifteen pages of grueling recount, for the amazing sense of adventure you both harbor, for sharing your photographs. James, for never shying away from everything we tried to feed you. Thank you for an amazing two days and for giving me newfound friends.

Omer – for being the way you are and for being the only lazy traveler in the list of everybody I met since birth.

Titan – for the attempt to share my experience and rubbing your undying enthusiasm and love for Sagada on me. My second first time wouldn't be the way it was if not for you.

So where to next time? I don’t know. Turistang Hilaw™ might invade Mindanao next time – where exactly? We’ll see, the possibilities are endless. I hope next time around, our wallets are swollen fat with blue bills.
Re-reading this last night made me laugh all over again. I loved your vivid images, your comical comments and enthusiasm for adventure and good food.

But this is just too lengthy. Perhaps you can divide it per destination? Or into theme/s?

Thanks, too, for being a part of this birthday adventure. Lampa man tayo, we survived Batad and Sagada! Yay! You know what's the hardest part? Writing about it. I still can't find the courage to write about this magical trip. Hahay.
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