When I left my corporate job late last year, one of the things I promised to do was see more of my own country. I can claim to have set foot in over twenty countries, but so much of the Philippines was alien territory to me. This week I lifted the veil on the rugged Mountain Province.
The starting point of my journey was Olongapo where I spent the weekend with some friends. As Sunday winded down, they all returned to Manila but I opted to stay behind. Armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook circa 1997 and a general sense that I wanted to go North, I weighed my options: would I do Vigan, the Hundred Islands, or Sagada?
Ultimately, the frequent bus trips from Olongapo to Baguio closed the decision for me. I took the six hour journey to the summer capital where I could then make my way to Sagada and other nearby towns.
I stayed the night with my friend Mario in Baguio. As I spoke of my plans, he caught my enthusiasm and decided to come along. Despite a year and a half of teaching there, he had never been to Sagada either. On my part, I was glad for a companion on this journey to parts unknown.
The following day we set off. Our first destination was Bontoc, capital of the Mountain Province, which would give us the choice of moving onwards to Sagada or Banawe. Rickety buses plied the route every hour from 5AM to 4PM, and we simply took the one that was about to leave.
Our route took us on Halsema Road, the winding trail that crosses through the Cordilleras and connects the different towns. Our ascent opened a breathtaking panoramic vista of rolling hills, mountains, and gardens. In no way was the journey monotonous for every turn brought something new into view: staircase terraces, rivers, cliffs, gigantic boulders, and so on. Up and up we went, and at our highest point we were more than three kilometers above sea level.
There was also the underlying thrill of danger. Despite years of development, Halsema is not completely finished, and in several places the road would thin out to one lane with sheer hundred-meter drop on either side. Scars of past landslides broke the greenery of the mountainside. If the glorious beauty of the mountainside could not inspire one to prayer, then certainly the dangers would.
It was quite fascinating to see people making their living along the 130-km winding trail that we followed. Not the best of places to make a living despite the wonderful view, yet people persisted. Several of the men were construction workers, either pouring concrete or erecting barriers; many more were truck drivers and machine operators. The women ran the roadside rest stops high up the mountain, and some were peddlers. And a great majority were farmers tilling their terraces for rice, fruits, and vegetables.
But it would be a mistake to attribute theirs to a life of simple subsistence. Elementary and high schools operated in those remote locations. Many of the folks we spoke to had a good command of English as well as a thoughtful cultured demeanor. I strongly suspect that they held fast to the land of their births simply because that is what men and women do.