Sunday, June 28, 2015

Batad (Philippines)

After the carnage of the celebration, we headed out for a hike. Before coming, I had debated about packing hiking boots and trekking poles for this portion of our trip. Ultimately, I decided against it due to the weight in our packs and the protestations of Rich and our other companions, "Seriously, it's just a walk. How bad can it be?" Famous last words.

There is a reason the Batad terraces are the grandest and most majestic - maybe we should have expected steep terrain? While we did some traversing, almost all of the hike was stairs. Stairs too numerous to count. Stairs of all shapes and sizes and heights, which actually made it challenging to get a good rhythm going. We went all downhill, then all uphill, then all downhill. Comparisons were made to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, even. The knees were not pleased... or the thighs or calves or ankles. Rich and I chalked it up to being out of shape, but the runners in our group were also suffering days later. A few sections you had to edge sideways carefully along a muddy ridge, like some high-wire act. My sister had a full-blown freak out. We had to negotiate between slipping into the unknown muddy depths of a field or pitching over the edge of a 20 foot drop off behind us, with nary a hand hold in sight. Luckily, most of paths were, in fact, paved in stone or concrete. The really fun parts were akin to rock climbing, using tiny stone projections to pull yourself up to the next terrace. Narrow stone bridges in the irrigation channels - a few of which had a long fall into rushing water - reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The rice terraces are all different fields belonging to different farmers. When you walk in them, you are effectively walking along a farmer's fence line or irrigation canal. I gathered that many tourists just trespass and potentially disturb or damage their crops. One benefit of having our guide was that he had obtained permission to cross their lands and also knew where to go when the routes were blocked off. Since the terraces are like an amphitheater, we actually could watch the perils of a French couple in the distance, who had to keep zigzagging and back tracking, trying to find an alternate route from one of the road blocks.

Our destination was Tappiya Falls. The water comes thundering down 70 meters into a pool where visitors can take a dip. On our way to it, the pounding afternoon rains of the start of the monsoon season caught us just as we were leaving the last houses, and our guide asked for shelter on a farmer's porch to wait out the worst of it. As a consequence, the falls themselves were turbulent and brownish with all of the sediment from rain. Rich, a stronger swimmer, went for a paddle, but I stuck to wading in a little, well beyond the reach of the current. I had to keep my strength up for the hike back!

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Banaue and Batad (Philippines)

Not far outside of town, we stopped for a better view of the landscape. Archaeological research indicates that it took the native Ifugao people over 1000 years to carve out the rice terraces from the steep slopes and construct the stone walls. To this day, the sheer amount of time and manual labor required means that only one planting of rice per year is possible though other places, e.g. in the lowlands, can get in as many as three! One of the greatest challenges to sustainability of the rice terraces is that young people these days are more interested in seeking their fortunes elsewhere rather than following in the footsteps of their ancestors and maintaining the traditional lifestyle... confirming that brain drain is the story everywhere. We were lucky that we got to meet some of the tribal elders in our roadside break. Many still hold onto a belief that photos can steal a part of someone's soul, but we were able to get permission for a couple of snaps in their traditional dress.

There was also a typical Ifugao hut to visit. It's an efficiency raised on stilts. Nearly half of the interior was devoted to grain storage, and the posts supporting it had wide discs to stop rats and other pests from coming up and inside it. For protection sought in a more spiritual sense, a family may have rice gods ("bulol," or human figurines carved of narra wood and bathed in special ceremonies with pig's blood) installed as guardians of the granary/house. The exterior of the hut seemed a tad menacing with its wall-to-wall decor of dead animal skulls - even more unnerving when you remember they practiced head hunting only way back in the 1970s!?! - but our guide told us the skulls were a signalling of wealth. It makes sense when you think killing a water buffalo (or "carabao") means you're getting rid of what is essentially your dairy and your tractor... but more, much more, on that later. 

Clambering back onto the roof of the jeepney, it wasn't that long before we hit the literal end of the road. A construction site because it's not finished. The only way to Batad is on foot so it was time to haul our packs off and get walking. It was downhill all the way, a relatively easy hike, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, and a fair amount paved. The Batad rice terraces are part of the official UNESCO World Heritage Site and were actually the first property included in the cultural landscape category. The view from Batad was certainly impressive. The tiny village sits about a third of the way up the mountain with rice terraces extending around like a vast amphitheater. It has quite a restive feel - ideal for a quiet morning cup of coffee or watching the afternoon rains of the summer monsoon across the mountains - well, at least we discovered it could be so later.

When we arrived, it was actually a cacophony. The patriarch of the family who owned the homestay had had an illness so serious that no one expected him to return from the hospital. It was now the  anniversary of his miraculous recovery and were they going to celebrate! The entirety of Batad was invited. We were lucky that they still honored our reservations as the rest of the rooms were full up with out-of-town relatives and friends for the big occasion. In addition to the personalized vinyl banner - even in the remote Cordilleras! - honoring the patriarch and praising Jesus, there was music and traditional dancing. But the pièce de résistance was the slaughtering of 2 - count'em, 2! - carabao. It took about 30 men, heavy duty ropes, and giant bamboo poles to pull, push, and hold down the first water buffalo. The appointed man wielded an intimidating machete and proceeded to slit the carabao's throat and hack the body into pieces. It was an incredible sight, although decidedly not a humane one. The stench when he cut into the stomach was overpowering but did not seem to deter the packed crowds. They had a vested interest though. Rather than cook it whole like some kind of pig pickin', much of the beast was divided into portions for people to take home with them. Hours passed, and the butchering was still going on, interrupted occasionally by the calling of a name. That person would rush up to pick up their plastic grocery bag of still warm meat. The blood was scooped into large buckets, and our guide told us this would likely not be eaten and instead used in ceremonies. He also told us the extravagance was a cultural signifier and display of the family's thanksgiving and largesse to the village and guests, which, even as a first generation Filipino-American was not at all a surprise... er, our wedding, anyone? Guilty as charged.

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WARNING: Contains animal carnage.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Banaue (Philippines)

When you've spent days sweating profusely the instant you step outside, and taking a walk longer than 15 minutes brings real concern about heat stroke and dehydration, the concept of wrapping up warm almost just doesn't compute. Yet we had heard dire warnings from multiple sources - practically comical in their repetition - about how cold the overnight bus from Manila to Banaue would be. Well... it ain't no joke. Even with a hat and five layers, I would awaken with a jolt every time an icy draft from the bus's relentless air conditioning penetrated. Honestly, we were convinced it blasted harder every time the driver revved the engine up the mountain inclines. But if you want to see the famed rice terraces of the Cordilleras, short of hiring a private driver, this 8 hour ride in the freezer section is pretty much the only game in town.

Banaue is the place that springs to mind for visiting the rice terraces, although this portion is not part of the official UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is more of a jumping off point for visiting the surrounding areas in the Cordilleras mountain region in northern Luzon. Our first glimpse of the rice terraces was over breakfast at a local homestay. A Filipino breakfast favorite is silog. This is a portmanteau: your cured protein of choice + "sinangag" (leftover rice fried, usually heavy on the garlic) + "itlog" (a fried or sunny side egg)... So with tapa (thinly sliced beef), it becomes tapsilog; with longganisa (pork sausages), it's longsilog; with tocino (sweetened pork belly), it's tosilog; etc. There's even spamsilog because, yes, Filipinos love Spam! A little harder to find in the States, I went for bangsilog, which is with salted and dried milkfish, or bangus. Yum!

Fuller and greasier, we walked into town to catch transport to our next stop. This was Rich's first ride on a jeepney. When we got offered a chance to ride on top, we climbed aboard. It was a good decision. Sure, the seating options were either a spare tire or a piece of cardboard on the rails (hint: go for the tire every time), but the views are incredible! The road is an endless string of switchbacks overlooking drop offs with lush forests. Brilliant bougainvilleas were in bloom, and we were surprised to see towering tree ferns like those in New Zealand. Scarlet dongla plants (possibly cabbage palm?), sacred to the indigenous Ifugao people, line roads and mark territories. The ride itself is a bit of excitement as well. You have to keep your wits about you for dodging and ducking power lines and palms. The knuckles may get a little white as the jeepney plows down the center of the road and careens around blind corners because the drive takes long enough as it is, right, so why slow down? You'd never be allowed to do this in the States. But as the wind rushes by, one can't help but think, a la Mad Max: Fury Road, "Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!"

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Manila and San Pablo City (Philippines)

Previous visits to Manila with its ridiculously snarled traffic, e.g. 2 hours to move 100 meters, have not left us with the greatest of impressions so this trip to the capital was strictly limited to visiting family. The size of our group meant staying in other accommodations. Our hotel was in Makati, the financial district and home to what appeared to be a branch for every major global luxury brand imaginable. With an Hermes, Prada, and Peninsula hotel, it's hard to remember the Philippines - at least the rest of it - is still very much a developing country.

Outside Makati and other affluent parts of the capital, this is more obvious. The drive to San Pablo City in Laguna province (~ 100 km south of the capital) could be reminiscent of many other places in Southeast Asia, Latin America, or the Caribbean - tin roofs, brightly painted concrete buildings, roadside fruit stands, roaming dogs, and crowing roosters. The most distinctly Pinoy (slang for Filipino) characters in the scenes are the jeepneys and tricycles.

The Philippines spent nearly 50 years under the Americans following the Spanish-American War, and jeepneys are a remnant of that past. Old U.S. military jeeps were refurbished with Filipino ingenuity and repurposed into what has become the main transport of choice. Privately owned and operated, each one is tricked out with stylized lettering - usually referencing a romantic sentiment, family, God, or all three - and all manner of bling whether that be highly polished chrome, colorful streamers, or elaborate tunes when the horn honks. The back has bench seats facing each other, and people hop on and off along the route written on the outside, e.g. Rosario to San Pablo.

Tricycles, on the other hand, are modified motorbikes with a sidecar. A roof and windscreen extends to cover both the driver and passenger side. Besides the driver, we fit 4 adults comfortably into one. My mom fondly recalled getting 10 people plus baggage into one, a testament to the tricycle's abilities as a clown car.

Another common sight in San Pablo (and later in other towns) were vinyl banners. The combination of photo printing and Filipinos' love of celebrations seems to have taken the country by storm. Personalized banners decorated nearly every block, announcing everything from who was having their second birthday to who graduated cum laude in nursing from the local college. When your academic success has been announced to the town at large, talk about pressure!

San Pablo is known for its seven volcanic crater lakes, and we started a stroll around the largest one, Lake Sampaloc. Before the heat of the day finally beat us down into submission, we got to see quite a few interesting sights. On the lake itself, fish pens cluster next to huts built on stilts for the people raising tilapia in the waters. Along the shore, teams were lashing together sturdy bamboo stalks and coating the edges in heavy crimson, turquoise, and fuchsia lacquers in preparation for a raft race in the upcoming town fiesta. Spaced every few meters, proud roosters were tied up to individual A-frames, which my dad pointed out meant that they were for the popular sport of cock-fighting. Another beloved sport - despite the height challenge of most Filipinos - is basketball so it shouldn't have been surprising to see a full-sized DIY backboard and goal in the middle of the path. This gave Rich a great opportunity to represent Tarheels and try out his best Michael Jordan impression.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Qatar Airways (somewhere between the U.S. and the Philippines)

Flying to the Philippines from the States is no picnic. The flight paths for most U.S.-based carriers involve connecting flights to hubs in the Midwest or West Coast to a long layover in Japan and finally Manila, the capital. We hoped going the other direction on Qatar Airways would offer a modicum of comfort for the 30 hour journey, like say on Emirates to Australia. Sadly, this was not the case.

What we did get was an aging plane, an unnavigable menu, an unintelligible crew, and not one, but two crying babies (!) like some natal rendition of dueling banjos on repeat for the duration of the 16 hour leg. Relief - if you can call it that - came in the form of babies quieting to the dulcet tones of "Wheels on the Bus" blaring from an iPad.

In our exhausted states, we could only laugh at a still questionable exchange with the cabin crew.

Chinese (?) flight attendant: Something to eat? Sandwich cheese or cereal?
Rich: Cereal, please.
[Result: A granola bar.]
Flight attendant:  Sandwich cheese or cereal?
Arabic seatmate and me: Cheese sandwich.
Flight attendant: No cheese. Here is sandwich. Sandwich tuna. TU-NA.
Arabic guy and me: Ok.
[Me opening package, careful examination of sandwich.]
[Arabic guy opening and carefully examining sandwich.]
Arabic guy to me: This is not tuna.
Me: No, it's not. I think it's eggplant.
Arabic guy: Yes, I think so. Eggplant.
[Careful munching of eggplant - no cheese or tuna - sandwiches.]