Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Banaue Rice Terraces: Experiencing the Solitude of the Sky and the Self

Published by Pilmap Magazine, 2007

Happy faces with permanent blushes, crossing mother hens with her brood of chicks holding up the traffic and trail ways that kiss the clouds: these are the images I take with me as the twitch on my sore calves slowly becomes a memory. And as I remember the feel of the sun on my cheek while the chilly air cooled my skin, I think to myself that Banaue is a place of beautiful contradiction that anyone, who wishes to claim that he has truly lived, should experience. 

Image by Karlo de Leon
Banaue is home to the rice terraces, ancient sprawling structures and true testaments to God’s greatness and man’s ingenuity. The Banaue Rice Terraces remains a secret to us city folk who prefer the luxury of white sand and cocktail drinks or the artificial chill of a freezing mall. Up in the Cordilleras, breathes a quiet place where the hands of commercialism have barely reached, a place undiscovered by many, secret only to most Filipinos. Located in the Luzon Province of the Northern Philippines, the 2000 year old Banaue Rice Terraces is a dream destination, the eight wonder of the world for many foreign tourists.

Long cold road to the sky

The nine hour bus drive to Banaue is more than enough reason for many to opt taking the short and comfortable plane ride to kiss the pristine sands of our beaches instead. The Autobus liner takes several trips to Banaue everyday for 462 pesos per person. We took one of the last trips on a 45-seater at the Autobus Terminal at Espana Boulevard around ten P.M. and got there around seven in the morning in time for breakfast. If you don’t have all the time in the world, the most practical thing to do is to take the evening trip so you can sleep most of the way up. By the time you arrive, you’ve had your eight hours of solid sleep and will be raring to go for a day of trekking. At least that’s the ideal scenario, assuming you can sleep like a log through all the stops and the freezing air conditioning. That wasn’t the case for me, especially with a snoring seatmate who only wakes up at the rustle of a bag of potato chips being opened.

 When we got there, we discovered that getting around was relatively easy. Although the province’s major industries are rice production, vegetable farming and wood carving, it seems that tourism is another prevalent industry in Banaue. According to many, it is the tourism industry that’s been helping keep the terraces alive. I noticed that almost everyone catered to the visitors, a large majority of which are foreigners. Jeeps and tricycles wait outside the hotel and the bus station to ferry guests around. At ten pesos per passenger, short trips are quick and cheap. But jeepney tours can cost you anywhere from 300 to 3,000, depending on where you’re going, so it’s always best to travel in groups.

The local life

After we’ve deposited our bags, we took an hour’s drive to Bangaan Village. The ride was a treat in itself, albeit bumpy. Jeepneys can be hired for the tours. It would be a shame to travel in an air conditioned car with the windows closed. The best way to experience Banaue is to inhale the sweet air and soak in the gentle sun. The ride gave us a peek into the local life. Small houses, hanging precariously on the edge of the mountain, lined the narrow dusty road. Most doors were wide open, revealing locals weaving baskets or watching the sluggish parade of tourists making their way up to the different viewing points.

Halfway to our destination, our driver pointed out the view below. Right at the very base, surrounded by mountains on all sides, laid a tiny village. About ten huts were clustered in a tight circle, surrounded by rice paddies. “Bangaan Village,” our driver said smiling, revealing red stained teeth. He spat out the betel nut he had been masticating, leaving bright crimson spatters on the ground, and explained that the village was named after a banga or a jar because the little community is enclosed by mountains.

With photographer Karlo de Leon

The valley village is a thirty minute hike from the road. For city slickers like us, who consider shopping a good work out, thirty minutes is forty five minutes. Halfway through stone carved steps, steep trails and rice paddy borders, our knees started to shake. Kids running home from school kept us going. The public school was at the foot of the trail. As two little boys overtook us, I realized that these children take the same path everyday, back and forth. After a few minutes, they were near the entrance of the village, looking back at us with gleeful faces while we bent over catching our breath, counting the terraced paddies we had to conquer before we reached the village. 

Of culture and commerce

A make shift sign, made out of a slab of wood, welcomed us to Bangaan Village where it is said that Ifugaos lived with their traditional indigenous culture strongly intact. A woman transplanting seedlings, chickens clucking around under Ifugao huts and clay colored spatters on the stone ground confirmed the Village’s pride. However, a closer look contradicted the claim that Banaue is the only part of Luzon that has completely resisted commercialism. Upon entry, we were greeted by a hearty “good morning” by locals who seemed to have the art of tourism down to a pat. “Welcome,” they said in English with nary an accent. My suspicion grew as we found tiny souvenir stalls on every corner and a couple of refreshment stands serving cold soft drinks. It was a stark contrast against a little old lady squatting under a hut. Her almond eyes squinted against the light of the camera lens, wrinkly fingers toying with the dry ground.

Image by Karlo de Leon

If you happen to wander to that secret place, you will find Virginia and her Ifugao hut (bale) which was handed down to her by her ancestors. She used to sleep in that small space with her children. All nine of them huddled on the wooden floors where they also cook and eat. Now that most of her daughters had gone off to marry, there is a little bit more space to move around.

On a sunny day you would find her under the hut weaving a table runner. It was from Virginia where we also found place mats made of wood bark. “My mother used to make our dresses out of these,” she said in perfect measured English and a motherly voice. “They were very hard to wear, but after several washings, they became very uncomfortable.” We foraged through all the souvenir shops in the town center and could not find the same place mats that Virginia made with her own hands.

Delicious stopover

After conquering Bangaan, we had second thoughts about taking the whole day trip to the Batad Rice Terraces. The locals assured as that it would be an easier trek on flat ground. Although it was a two hour hike, one way, we fooled ourselves to believe that it would be easier because we didn’t have to go through steep steps and sloping trails. And so with sore legs and renewed spirits, we laced up our hiking shoes and set out for Batad. City folk can be so naïve. Karlo, the travel photographer, was right. “Once you get there, you wouldn’t want to leave,” he said, not because the panoramic view is so overwhelming that you will want to stay longer to soak it all in, but because no amount of will power can push you to take the six kilometer climb back up. Gravity never cooperates.

Conquering the Batad Trails with our guide

After hurdling four kilometers, hikers can opt to stay and rest on the viewing deck. Local authentic cuisine can be sampled in the few restaurants. Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m talking about restaurants with Monobloc chairs and linoleum topped tables. They serve the freshest vegetables and red rice mixed with an assortment of greens. Oddly enough, the dish to try in this part of the mountains is the pizza. Served on thin dough, crisp on some parts, soft on others, Batad pizza is an interesting plate of tomatoes, onions, garlic and cheese sans the usual tomato or pizza sauce.

These restaurants-cum-lodge also offer a decent bed and bath for150 pesos a night. We didn’t have the luxury of time to stay over night so I don’t know if they have hot running water. For the sake of the students on a field trip staying for the night, I hope to God they do have hot water. At about 20 degrees centigrade, they would need it.

Give me money

What normally takes locals half an hour, took us about an hour to get to Batad Village from the viewing deck. It was once again a precarious descent. We held on to clumps of earth and vegetation to ease our descent, our feet balancing dangerously on jagged rocks and crude stone steps. One wrong step can send you spiraling down a jagged ravine. If the rice gods are smiling down on you, you’ll land right on the soft rice paddies. At this time of the year, the season when seedlings are transplanted, paddies are filled with water. March to August is the time when the terraces are lush and green.

Children sprinting past us with agile little limbs distracted us from our slow and painful slog. Used to visitors with spanking new hiking boots and cameras slung around their necks, the children piped out in unison: “give me candy. Give me money.” Several clamoring kids and empty pockets later, we shook our heads. They were obviously used to this game and sang out instead “give me ruler. Give me pencil.” We blamed the sweet air that was getting into our heads for the absurdity of it all. Later, my boyfriend, who backpacks almost every year, explained that tourists are encouraged to bring school supplies instead of giving away candies or money.

Love affair with the self
During the trek, we were too busy catching our breath and looking for stable footholds to notice the splendor of the silver paddies slowly unfolding before us. 

Image by Karlo de Leon

At the view deck, the terraces looked like an elaborately designed maze, a patchwork of brown, green and silver. The high sun bounced off on the surface of the water filled paddies, mirroring the sky. If we had come a few months later, we would have been greeted by an emerald cascade.

At the foot of this amphitheater shaped terraces, it was a whole different experience. Up close, we could see the cleverly stacked stones forming the terraces. At the edges were makeshift steps, rocks jutting out of the sides.

The sound of squealing children and young tourists horsing around gave way to a moaning echo that reverberated throughout the open sky. It was almost as if the mountains were mourning the degradation and erosion of these two thousand old structures. Ravaged by time, neglect, the elements and calamities, some of the paddies have collapsed, others overtaken by the jungle.

As we sat to ourselves, each of us perched on one of the tiers of the countless terraces; we contemplated the meaning of this trip in front of the Creator’s masterpiece. Here lay another contradiction, amidst the splendor of the mountains lies the simplicity of life, the peace of existence. In a place of romance, supposedly a haven for intimate escapes, Banaue is the best place to romance one’s self. To hold not a lover’s hand, but to embrace that part of yourself you had never acknowledged before.

Away from the blare of horns and the ruckus of a travel group, here is where you acquaint yourself to an inner strength that you never knew existed. In the solitude of these steps, products of the brown callused hands of the ancient Ifugaos, you discover a physical strength, an iron will and a stubborn pride, to put one foot in front of the other, ignoring screaming tendons and groaning muscles, to reach your destination.

It is a place where you are also forced to listen. In the quiet of the gaping valley, in the serenity of beauty, in the voice of the mountains’ silent but powerful whispers, here you are forced to listen to the echoes of silence.  Faced with the grandeur of the terraces, one contemplates the smallness and significance of one’s existence.

Kissing the clouds

Our last day at Banaue, we visited Hiwang, a native village inn where Ifugao huts are available for lodging at 800 pesos per night. The bales, some of them 250 years old, can accommodate up to four people each. Electricity is available, but don’t expect five-star hotel treatment. Immersing in the Ifugao way of life means the barest essentials. This means no hot water, no TV, and a bamboo ladder you hang by the door before going to sleep.

caught in the act by Karlo de Leon

The view and experience however are more than enough to compensate for the lack of room service and fluffy towels. Three kilometers from the bus station, Hiwang offers a panoramic view of the rice terraces. The view that you will see from that point is the exact picture that you will see on your 1,000 peso bill, except for one big difference - this picture breathes. This point also allows you to kiss the clouds. At 8000 feet above sea level, this is probably the closest you can get to heaven, at least in the Philippines.

Hiwang also boasts of an interesting collection of antique carvings and artifacts like the solibao, a Japanese canyon that was converted into a musical instrument, or carved stone seats where the Ifugao leaders and elders met or danced around severed heads. Scattered around beautifully landscaped gardens are sculpted giant ferns that display the people’s artistry. The Banaue museum, a nice leisurely walk away from the market, is also home to many antiques and artifacts. Before heading home, we walked back to the town center to shop for baubles and bibelots. Everybody knows souvenirs are always cheaper at the market. It’s the best place to find bargain hand carved trinkets with basket trims that will soon gather dust in our shelves as the memory of this trip becomes as hazy as the fog-lined road that led us back home.


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