Saturday, November 20, 2010

On To Greener... Terraces!

(As I write this post, Sandy, Kathryn and I are flying through the fog-drenched mountains of northern Luzon on a bus. In fact, we just passed the highest elevation point on the Philippine highway system, although I didn't happen to catch what the elevation actually was. Right now it is almost totally dark, raining lightly, and we are within three feet of the truck in front of us on these steep, winding roads. Terrifying to some, but I have total faith in our driver, and a big smile on my face!

Again, this will be posted as soon as I have an internet connection.)

Thursday began with the the three of us leaving our hostel around 10am for the Makiti area of Manila. The reason we were headed to that part of town is because they had one of their bank cards stolen earlier, and had to go to the banks office to sort it all out. The above photo is one of the many pedestrian underpass tunnels in the area, which were very nice.

So without a doubt my earlier assessment of Manila was overly harsh. Yes, Manila is smelly, dirty and full of hookers, but it is a large metro area of something like 20 million people, and also contains sections that are clean, orderly and full of businessmen.

Wow its hard to type on this twisting, bumpy bus ride... anyways,...

So to get to their bank, we went to what is known as the Makiti Business District, the heart of economic life in the Philippines, where the Philippine Stock Exchange is located, and probably every important bank in the nation. This part of Manila looks just like any western city really, and all three of us were glad to have seen this face of Manila after spending time in the neighborhood of our hostel.

This is a Bengal fig tree, decked out in Christmas lights, just one of the new and interesting bits of plant life along the way. This is part of Alayah (sp?) Triangle, a park which backs up against the stock exchange. The signage said it had free wifi, but it wasn't working...

So I suppose now would be a good time to introduce my new travel friends. Sandy and Kathryn are two sisters from Cape Town, South Africa. They have been teaching English in a Korean school for the last year, and are currently taking (a “much needed”) 6 months off to travel together. They are an absolute joy to travel with, and we are all thoroughly enjoying the new company on our respective journeys. They may give me a hard time for saying this (“we're going to read your blog and see all the awful things you say about us!”) but the way they interact and work together is absolutely adorable, haha. Naturally, I've offered up my place to stay should they come to the Seattle, and they have done the same for Cape Town.

So once they had finished their business at the bank's office (with some difficulty) we headed off, via a bus with a TV showing a Bruce Lee movie that takes place in Seattle (it was sweet, I'll have to see the while thing upon my return), and off to one of the countless bus stations in Manila. This bus ride took us to a new part of Manila, which was somewhere between the poverty of our hostel and the wealth of the business district. This day has been very good for giving all of us a much more rounded view (but still incomplete) of Manila and one I am grateful to have gotten. So this bus trip was to head northward, to Baguio, a 6 or 7 hour ride.

Around 11pm or so, we arrived in Baguio, and found a very helpful taxi driver who took us to three different places in our price range to find a place to stay. This little place was 250 pesos a night, and we had the 6-bunk room to ourselves. I ended up awake until around 1:30am, and woke for good at about 6am, listening to the sounds of the street. By 7am, those sounds included the many roosters in cages on the street corner (probably for cock fighting?), kids playing basketball, noisy vehicles, and a house across the street playing Elvis songs for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Once we all “showered”, which thus far generally consists of a large bucket of cold water under a faucet, and a smaller bucket with a handle to pour over your head, all in the same room as the toilets, which flush with varying degrees of success, meaning you just pour it all over everything and it goes down a drain on the floor, we went out in search of breakfast and information on our next bus. Breakfast was quite good, some sorts of noodle dish with eggs, meats and veggies.

Once we had figured out our next move on the bus, we headed to a place called Tam-Awan Vilage, 'a garden in the sky.” It was recommended by Lonely Planet, and was supposed to be a nice place to see traditional village life and arts of the mountain region, but it was really just a few huts and not much to see or do. We were all disappointed, but we ended up talking to a Korean girl who was learning English (she was quite good actually), and had a fun and hilarious little conversation with her (“Oh! So shy!!” *hands go up to cover face*) and with a local artist across the street who does bronze sculpture.

oh man, it fells like we are on a roller coaster ride in the dark, I don't normally get car sick, but this bus ride combined with trying to write is a real test of strength, but I will press on for my faithful readers!

(I do have a few faithful readers, right? I'm not just talking to myself here?)

Ok, back to the pictures. So this is just a typical view of the town, being the beginning of the mountain region, flat ground is a scarce commodity, if available at all. That said, the Philippine people seem to choose intentionally precarious spots and intentionally tall and precarious buildings to construct. This photo is tame compared to much of what we have seen actually. Maybe there is some logic to it, but it escapes me.

Kathryne and I in a jeepney back to town. I think I mentioned it earlier, but these are considered the 'symbol' of the Philippines and are everywhere. A ride costs 7 pesos, and you just pass your money to the next person down the seat, it gets up to the driver, he looks at it and gives correct change while driving, and the passengers pass the change back to you.

This is a shot out the window of our place for the night, on the top of a hill, but one of the flatter parts we saw today.

Because Sandy and Kathryne don't have a lot of time, and because we decided there wasn't that much to do here, we hopped a bus further north towards the original goal, the town of Bontoc near the famous rice terraces. This is just a child I saw looking out the window of a jeepney. The transit hub here was pretty impressive. In a rather small parking lot type area, there were just dozens of taxis, jeepneys and a handful of buses, in a chaotic looking but carefully choreographed system.

Another cluster of hillside homes.

And here we are getting farther up into the mountains.

Because the hills are so steep, and also a result of deforestation, slides are common. This was just one of many washouts we crossed. These roads and drivers really are crazy, but somehow it all seems to workout.

It's a twisting and bumpy 7 hour ride, but that doesn't mean you can't try and get some rest! That doesn't mean we got any, however.

(we have arrived in Bontoc, and I have more to add to this post)

During the last hour of the ride, we stopped and had no idea why. After waiting around for a short while, a woman on the bus who spoke English told us the road had been, surprise, blocked by a slide! Not knowing how long this could take, given all the major slides we passed on the way we got a bit worried, but we had created our own little compound of our gear in the back of the bus, and sat around in the dark playing silly name/word association games, and it ended up actually being pretty fun.

It turned out the slide was minor, and it was clearly an area where such problems were common. The whole section of hillside seemed to have slid many times, and they even had some heavy machinery at the site for just such occurrences.

Shortly beyond the slide, we arrived in Bontoc. Maybe 20 feet from the drop off point was a little police shack, where we asked for advice on a place to stay. The officer was very friendly and pointed us roughly a block away to a 'new hotel'. We were initially worried it may be expensive, but it turned out to only be 400 pesos for a very spacious, clean, double bed room!

In search of food, as we had not gotten a dinner stop on the bus, we were quite hungry and ventured off into the night. Upon hearing music coming from somewhere down the street, and we walked into a bar that had a live band. We ordered chicken and pork dishes that were only 100 pesos and quite good, and watched the unusual display going on before us. The band had males on bass, guitar, drums and keyboard, and a rotating cast of three females singing. Sandy and Kathryne recognized one of the songs as a Korean pop-song, and the other song we recognized was Poker Face by Lady GaGa. When one of the women was singing the others would dance, and at various times young men from the audience would walk up, pick a woman and dance with her for a short time. The most amusing part of it all was that the ladies seemed to make little effort to look interested if they didn't like the guys, and after a short dance would climb back on stage with rather unhappy looks on their faces, haha. For some reason, the music stopped at just 10pm, and we headed back to our room.

So tomorrow we are going to do some laundry, visit the Sunday market, and figure out when to visit the rice terraces. According to the sign, there is also a hot springs in the area, which sounds fantastic!

Well, goodnight and good bye for now.