Friday, April 29, 2005

Northern Exposure, Part 2

A Rational Technology entry

Sometimes, you just have to leave your hometown in order to be able to appreciate it. It was with this frame of mind that I undertook my norther expedition. Ungrateful as I may sound, Dumaguete's charms were wearing a little thin, so I thought a change of scenery was in order. It turned out to be a most salutary decision.

The first leg of my journey through the Mountain Province ended in Bontoc, the capital city. Bontoc sits in a valley 900m above sea level in the middle of the Central Cordilleras. The city proper is quite small – smaller, in fact, than Dumaguete's. It consists of a few narrow streets. Only a few tricycles zoom by, most of the traffic being buses and jeepneys in transit to the other cities.

Bontoc's business endeavors center around farming. A local entrepreneur set up a satellite/cable TV company with nine channels and branched out into the tourist trade with a couple of buses. Other than that, the facilities were pretty basic, all of which added to its rustic charm.

If we had stayed a few nights there, we might have gotten a tour to the nearby Kalinga villages the following day. However, my friend and traveling companion Mario suggested that we head over to Banaue instead. Banaue was only 46 km away, he pointed out, and received far more press than Bontoc.

Two hours later, close to sunset, we reached Banaue a little worse for wear. If Halsema Road connecting Baguio to Bontoc was beautiful but deadly, the route from Bontoc to Banaue was more so! Halsema was lengths of paved winding road interrupted by rough paths, the Bontoc-Banaue road was lengths of rough paths interrupted by paved roads.

But what a view! The rice terraces made the trip so very worthwhile. While terraces literally littered the mountainside throughout the trip, Banaue's were far sweeping in scope and beautiful in their verdant regularity. As dusk was falling, we hurriedly snapped pictures before heading to the hotel.

Owing to the terrain, the Banaue town proper literally hangs along a cliffside. Facilities were far more basic than even Bontoc's. There was a school, a public market, a tourist information office, a fire department, and several inns, but not much else. By 7PM, the place was quiet, and by 9PM the town had gone to hibernation.

In keeping with our marathon pace, we struck out for Sagada the following morning. Once more we braved the Banaue-Bontoc road on the return trip. Back at Bontoc, we took a jeepney heading to Sagada, another hour's journey up more mountain roads.

Sitting higher up in the mountains, Sagada's main draws were its limestone caves, hanging coffins, trails, and waterfalls. I had expected it to be far more rustic than either Banaue or Bontoc, and in part, it was, but the overall atmosphere was quite pleasant.
Sagada was quite inured to tourists, and majority of the businesses catered to that industry. In our brief stay, we met college students on hiking vacation and backpacking Poles, Japanese, English, and Americans.

This time, we did stay long enough to see the sights in depth (and quite literally, too). The highlight of our journey was a short spelunking expedition into the Sumaging Cave, descending 500m below the surface. Quite an exciting time it was, too, because I nearly drowned in one of the pools (well, I like to exaggerate a bit).

The last leg of the journey was the return trip to Baguio, then onwards to Manila. Having traveled at this breakneck pace through the mountains, I decided to cap it off with the 400-km return journey in one day. A fool thing to do, but the miles and miles of road left a lot of room for thinking.

Banaue, Bontoc, and Sagada were as close to the edge of civilization as I had ever gone. Clear evidence of that was the merciful absence of fastfood joints like Jollibee and McDonald's. Nevertheless, these were thriving communities slowly and determinedly edging their way into the mainstream of society. Thus, set into motion, there is no turning back.

One of the things which bothered me, though, was the helter-skelter growth of the towns and cities. With the influx of tourists as a spur, you can sense their urgent need to modernize and grow, but it's clearly coming in at some cost to the environment. At a certain point, something is clearly going to give.

Ironically, while the draw of the Mountain Province is the beauty of its surroundings, the mountainside is overrun with buildings constructed mainly out of GI sheets, giving them a shantytown look. This might be excusable for a city or town just edging out of subsistence, but eventually, zoning and architectural harmony will have to come into the picture soon.

I think the same lessons also apply to Dumaguete and Oriental Negros. We're clearly ahead in many respects, and with our stately buildings, we can hardly be accused of looking like a shantytown. But if we continue to build as we please, without any clear architectural vision, we are ultimately doomed to an ugly patchwork existence.

In any case, I've traveled there and back. I've seen fantastic sights and I've met interesting people. The cool mountain air and the spectacular view of gigantic terrace steps were a most welcome respite, as, too, were the thrill of danger and the aroma of adventure. But it's good to be back to familiar surroundings, where I can smell the salty see air and see a clear night sky. Dumaguete's charms are again as I knew them.

It's good to be back.

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