Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Cave To Remember

Today, I am writing from our hotel in Bontoc after a fantastic day in a cave. But starting at yesterday:

Yesterday, we awoke to another beautiful day in Mountain Province. The weather is in the 70s or so, the air is clean, and humidity is low. Very different from Manila. This is the view from our hotel, Sonnorah's Inn, Cafe, & Restaurant (highly recommended by the way).

Our plan for the day was mostly just to walk around and see what the options were. It is a fairly small town with one main drag, containing stores and restaurants that look the same as nearly every other small town we have passed through. I don't say that as a bad thing, it is very pleasant, it's just difficult to decipher one mountain town for another. The photo here is one of the tricycle taxis, and a particularly nice one at that. These things are quite funny, most have English phrases (often religious) like "She think my tractor sexy" on them, and frequently have names like “Red Red Wine”, “Sandy” and “Gumbler.”

According to the Lonely Planet guide, the Bontoc Market was supposed to the be the thing to do in town, so naturally we checked it out. The downstairs was food: fruit, vegetables, dry goods, meat and so on, where we looked at pig brains and intestines, and watched kids blow-torching (already dead) chickens, plucking and cleaning them on the spot. Upstairs was the same type of stores you see everywhere in the Philippines, pirated movies, cheap toys, t-shirts and cellphones and accessorize, as well as booths for cooked food which we had for lunch (pancakes and a rice/egg/chicken soup).

While most people in the Philippines are very friendly towards us, none more so than the small children. They are always saying “Hi!”, smiling at us and asking our names. Naturally we try to be as friendly in return. In the last town, Sandy and Kathryne bought some bubbles, which these kids were just loving.

A little farther down the road, we found a playground, and spent some time playing with the kids who were there. While I was at it, I also did some climbing and exercises, gotta fit it in where I can!

Thus far, one of the biggest differences between the Philippines and the States, and one I expect to see throughout this trip, is how active street-life is. Unlike the empty streets of America, where everyone goes into back yards or inside to play, the streets here are almost always noisy and throbbing with life. While most of these people don't have a lot of material goods, it seems to me like they probably have much richer social ties than we are used to in the western world, and I see more smiles here in a single block than I do any day of the week back in America.

In the afternoon, we split up and I wondered around town by myself for a few hours. On the other side of the bridge, is actually (from what I gather) a different town, that is literally one road. I walked to the end, found a group of kids who told me where to access the river, and went down to where more kids were playing. After sitting by the river and relaxing for a while, I ventured off the single road up the hill. This brought me into a poorer area than where we are staying: a hillside of 3-foot wide paths between homes, and more pigs and chickens than I could count.

That evening, we had a great meal of chicken beef and veggies over rice, and Sandy and Kathryne found a local church where they attended a service. Like many Asian nations, the Filipino people love their karaoke, and church is not spared from this. At the service, they told me during a time to sing hymns, after someone else had stood up to sing once the group singing was done, another man stood up and did his own completely tone-deaf hymn, after which he apparently was very proud of.

We then went to the same bar as the night before, where we saw the same band preforming songs like 'Eye of the Tiger', 'The Final Countdown' and Guns and Roses. This time the band seemed much more energetic, and there was even a decent guitar solo, where he played behind his head.

In the morning, we hopped a jeepney to Sagada, about an hour away. As usual, the driver was a maniac on the steep winding roads, but nothing I was worried about. Once we got there, we found a tourist information booth which was very helpful, and got us a guide to take us to see some 'hanging coffins' and take us into the cave. His services cost 500 pesos for the three of us, and he was very helpful and friendly.

The area is full of limestone, which has created these fantastic stone pillars. If you look at the bottom of that picture and see the horizontal lines, those are actually coffins. The people here in this region have been putting their dead in coffins on the cliffs for a few hundred years (from what I was able to gather) because it allows your spirit to be close to god, as opposed to being buried.

Further down the road, our guide took us into the entrance of the limestone cave. It was wet, and very noisy with the sound of bats on the roof, as well as slippery from the guano on the ground below them, haha.

Without a doubt, this tour was one of those “it could never happen in the west” kind of experiences. All we had for light was a single kerosene lantern, all we had for footwear was flip-flops, because our laundry was being done, between us we were wearing a swimsuit, a dress and jeans, and other than some stone steps getting to the entrance, we were climbing and slipping down guano covered rocks into the depths.

A ways into the cave, the rock changed almost exclusively to this orange/brown limestone, and we continued on barefoot, wading through the surprisingly comfortable water, and climbing down some pretty steep sections.

Our descent ended down another steep section, where there was a deep pool we could jump into. Again, the water felt amazing. Swimming in pool, in the end of a cave maybe 200 feet below the surface, by a single kerosene lamp, was an incredible experience. Turns out my wearing a swimsuit was the perfect thing! Naturally, I had to climb all over the place, and some brief rock climbing above the pool, then jumping in again.

Sandy (in jeans and a t-shirt) joined me in the pool as well, and then we all climbed out of the cave and back to the outside world.

Due to a very common lack of information, we discovered the last jeepney out of Sagada back to our hotel in Bontoc left at 1pm, which cost 40 pesos each, and if we missed it, we would have to hire one for 1500 pesos. As a result, we only had about 3 hours to see Sagada and the cave. That was unfortunate because I could have spent all day in the cave, but even so, we all had an amazing time. It's only a week into my 4-month trip, but I expect this cave to stand out as a highlight.

Kathryne, riding in the jeepney back to Bontoc. On the jeepney, we shared cookies with the other riders and struck up a conversation with a missionary from New York, who has lived in the Philippines for the last 30 or so years.

Another thing we have constantly noticed, and is surely connected to the issue of strong social ties, is the old fashioned human-networking that seems to go on. For example, today on the jeepney, we stopped at a tiny little hut on the side of the dirt road, the driver honked the horn, a woman came out, and was handed a cellphone charger that she must have needed. On the way back, we just stopped in the middle of the road, a woman got out, and right away, another bus appeared behind us. She got on the other bus, and a passenger of that bus got out and jumped in our jeepney. Infrastructure may be limited here, but despite this things just seem to run so smoothly, it is rather amazing.

Back in town we talked to the missionary a bit longer, picked up our laundry (which cost 60 pesos more than we were told it would 'because it had underwear in it' ) and got lunch. We ordered one of these meat-stuffed sweet rolls and two pizzas, but due to a miscommunication ended up with 3 of the rolls instead. No worries, we ate them up, and the pizza as well.

It is now evening, we are about to have dinner in a bit, and probably a lazy evening. Tomorrow we are headed to the famous rice terraces.

(oh, and I'm watching some 3-inch lizards climbing around the walls and ceiling right now, I wish I could catch one!)