But none of it’s my fault, of course.
aving spent the first two days in the Philippines holed up in a miserable hotel with a cold, I’d come to the highlands of North Luzon—the largest of the country’s unfathomable 7,109 islands—in search of the world-famous rice terraces of Batad. Thousands of years ago the Ifugao tribesmen of the region were clearly in need of a challenge. Trying to reconcile their love of rice with the extreme peaks and valleys of their adopted homeland they carved thousands of stepped rice paddies into the mountains around them. What’s so remarkable about this “eighth wonder of the world” is that the Ifugao accomplished all this with only wooden tools, determination and one would assume complete ignorance of substitute staples, such as potatoes.
The front of a jeepney, the preferred method of public transport in the Philippines. And the scary thing is, the colour scheme on this one is subtler than most. Enlarge »
I’d spent a sleepless night and morning killing time in the pleasant enough mountain town of Banue en route, proofreading the deputy police chief’s English report in exchange for use of the town hall shower, then hitched a lift towards Batad.
Juan, the truck driver who’d offered me a ride, didn’t speak much English but still managed to ply me with four shots of rum from his dashboard stash. My feeble protests that it was well before the respectable hour of 11am and I had a day’s hiking ahead of me fell on deaf ears. I downed the fiery shots just hoping he hadn’t polished off a previous bottle before tackling the perilous mountain road towards Batad.
How did I not foresee that trying to hike through the remote wilderness of the Philippines without a guide, map or any clear direction would only end in me wounded, exhausted and stranded in the middle of nowhere? Because I’m drunk.
When Juan discovered where I was headed, he perked up and suggested I “you must walk in through trees. Very nice.”
How long would it take?
“Maybe five horas.”
Is the path well marked?
“Yah, easy for see.”
So fuelled by the bravado that only local moonshine can muster I’d let Juan drop me off at the foot of an imposing mountain range with a vague wave of his hand indicating the path was “that way”.
Of course he hadn’t mentioned that the path—if it indeed was a path and not the chance parting of grass every fifty metres or so—would be a hellishly steep incline that’d reduce me to a sweaty, panting mess. That I’d need a machete to hack my way through the thorn filled undergrowth. That I’d spend most of the day stalked by a creature that I couldn’t see, but whose stuttered purring sounded like the mating call of an angry, horny tiger. That with my water bottle empty, hyperthermia setting in, a nasty cut on my hand and the sun setting in a few hours I’d really need hurry up.
In the very-Catholic Philippines the local church is never too far away. This one in Baguio, though, was especially nice. Enlarge »
Yup, just the sort of relaxing holiday I’d been hoping for.
With the sun dangerously low in the sky I decide to turn back. Path or no path, nothing I can see around me looks like any human has set foot on this territory for years. After hours of hiking I’m on the verge of collapse and admit defeat: I’ll just have to spend the night at a guesthouse I passed along the way. I trudge back up the mountain, ripping out vines as I go to clear a return path. And after another hour’s walking, I’m deliriously happy, hopeless muddy and crying for water when I finally make it to the guesthouse.
Only to find it closed.
I yell out a word best left to your imaginations and mull my options. Devastated, I realise there’s nothing to do but struggle along for a another few kilometres until I reach the tiny village of Bangaan, a handful of nipa huts nestled among picturesque rice terraces and palm trees.
My arrival causes more commotion than I anticipate. A swarm of children materialise from doorways and backyards, squealing manically and darting between my legs to examine my rucksack. Meanwhile two women, one spritely but covered in mud and the other older and more wary, scurry towards an old shopfront and begin to unpack dusty souvenirs they flog to the occasional day-tripping tourist during the high season.
I strike up a conversation with them and explain my somewhat pathetic situation.
“Aah!” giggles the younger one, introducing herself as Mary and then translating my predicament in an avalanche of rapid-fire Tagalog for the others. “Tonight you can stay in our hut.”
I thank Mary profusely as she tends to my cuts, dump my gear in their very modest abode and offer to earn my keep. I’ve arrived during the first weeks of the annual rice harvest and am soon put to work threshing stalks of rice over my head to help separate the grain from the husks. As I inefficiently go about my chores I’m joined by men and women returning from the paddies with bunches of rice stalks hanging dangling from poles suspended on their shoulders.
When dusk finally settles on an exhausting day, one of these farmers ushers me to the outer edge of the village where a group of men are sitting in a small circle drinking home made rice wine and laughing uncontrollably.
“Hello, you join us!” insists a grinning but glassy-eyed man whose face has been ravaged by a lifetime of sunshine and work.
I take a seat and am immediately offered a glass of mud-coloured wine and a plate of cold rice and even colder stewed fish heads, both hidden beneath a congealing layer of smoky brown sauce. If it sounds like a meal you’d rather avoid, that’s because it tastes absolutely horrid, as if a can of sardines and twenty gym socks have been furiously copulating in the midday heat to produce a gag-worthy heir. But helped along by the sickly sweet wine, I manage to save offending the nervously inquisitive cook.
My efforts at conversation with the group are somewhat hampered by the fact that they’re enjoying a fifteen-shot headstart and struggling to construct cohesive words, let alone sentences.
Traditional Ifugao nipa huts are guarded by a fertility statue in Tam-awan village. Enlarge »
“How many children do you have?” I ask of Allo, the man who’d invited me to sit.
He cocks his head skyward and squints. “Ahhh. I hev Leeeeeeni. I hev Joyceee, ah…”
“Rose!” helps one of his friends seated behind us.
“Chit!” offers another.
“Yaah,” agrees Allo. “Meybeee one, three, five. Meybee, I theink eeleven.” In the very Catholic Philippines, this seems about right.
“Pleasshh excushe my friend,” slurs a younger man with a bright pink cap seated nearby, “Allo is a little bit drunk.” Having dispensed this earth-shattering news, the man doffs his cap, nods his head wisely and falls backwards off his chair.
The group erupts in laughter at the figure splayed on the ground, but without missing a beat the farmer reaches out to me with a grin on his face and a bottle in his hand. “More wine, my friend?”
I’m woken at dawn by a chorus of roosters to the sounds of water cascading through the mountains around Bangaan and the smell of freshly cut pineapple.
I breakfast quickly and repeatedly thank my hosts, throwing myself yet again at the muddy green path to Batad. After just a few minutes I stumble across more innocent victims of the mountain: a group of young Filippinos with the same goal, and clearly the same lost and confused expressions. Jimmi and his friend Pane are merchant sailors from the Visayas who have dragged their grumbling city-slicker female friends along for a hike to Batad, thinking it’d be a pleasant few days out. But when I find them mid-argument, one of the girls is throwing her flip-flops—yes, she’d decided to hike for hours through rugged terrain wearing designer flip-flops—at Jimmi and sitting defiantly on the ground with a string of what I can only assume are unsavoury Tagalog verbs.
A local farmer returning from the rice terraces around Bangaan with bushels of rice. Enlarge »
We compare notes and decide to team up; I’ll try and decipher their vague map in return for putting all the girls’ belongings into my fairly empty rucksack. It seems a fair deal and we’ve soon found a trail, making impressive headway despite the constant whining of a girl worried about the mud on her jeans. It’s an exhausting, hot, six hour hike in the midday heat, but having traversed the spines of lush ridges and cut our way through vine-strewn undergrowth, we begin our descent through the valleys towards Batad—just over twenty-four hours after I had set out on my ‘five hour stroll’.
And nothing can quite prepare me for the view that sits quietly waiting. A shimmering green blanket laid over hundreds, if not thousands, of graciously stepped rice terraces beneath us, above us, around us, all diligently combed by dozens of villagers doubled over with machetes. These mountains have been completely tamed by the villagers they dwarf; all with patience, sweat and the seeds of rice stalks that are now turning in parts from a bright meadow green to the ripe golds calling for harvest. And as I stare dumbstruck, I simply cannot fathom that I’m standing here with just five other Filippino tourists and a village of rice farmers. Why aren’t there queues of photo-snapping Germans or Australians ooohing, aaahing and haggling over beer? How can something this beautiful—something that’s up there with Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China and most definitely the over-hyped ode to phallic insecurity that is the Eiffel Tower—be totally devoid of tourists, rainy season or not?
Imagine waking up to this stunning view of ancient rice terraces in the monring. Why the village of Batad isn't overrun with camera-toting tourists is totally beyond me. Enlarge »
Note to self: I think I’m enjoying myself. A lot.
Once we’ve drunk our fill of the view, our clan of six hikes through the village itself and over some more mountains to the Tappia Waterfalls just forty minutes away. Jimmi, Pane and I take one look at the spectacular mountains and sweet water around us, holler in delight and dive in. We backstroke beneath the thirty metre high falls and scream out till we’re hoarse, then open a bottle of rum to celebrate our find. But a distant rumble soon turns to rain as the ominous clouds that have taunted us all day finally break loose, throwing walls of monsoonal rain at our helpless group.
We consider our options and realise there’s little chance of drying off, and even less chance of staying that way. Instead we shrug our shoulders and start the wet hike back to Batad. We scurry along the amphitheater rice terraces—a stairway of green that disappears into the charcoal clouds above us and descends out of sight into the mist-lined valleys below—while arcs of lightning dance across the sky to the booming applause of crashing thunder. I’m leading the group but stop for a second, oblivious to the driving rain and failing daylight. As waves of fireflies begin to crystallise in the air around us, I just have to remind myself that I’m standing drenched amid one of the most spectacular sights on Earth as the sky erupts around me. That I’ve got dry clothes, dinner and friends waiting for me at my guesthouse. That this is just one Filippino island, and that I’ve got 7,108 left to explore.
Two local farmers cool off at the foot of the 30 m high Tappia Waterfalls, a 45 minute hike from the rice terraces of Batad. These two would join us later for rum, pork rinds and a swim, and returned the favour by plying us with all the betel nuts we could chew. Enlarge »
I guess that sometimes you just have to get hopelessly and desperately lost before you find what you’ve been looking for all along.