Tuesday, November 30, 2021

From Cebu to Sagada and back (Conclusion)

BEAUTY, the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal wrote, has another side to it, and a beautiful place, “like a round loaf of bread,” offers the question whether one could love even what is imperfect, unpleasant, neglected.

The Cebu-Sagada-Cebu road trip, foremost, was about seeing all these beautiful places, those that we only saw in postcards and had dreamed of visiting ever since. And then there’s the entire process of getting to these places and going back. In both cases – the seeing and searching – were marked by extremes.

During our long drives, the scenery shifted from breathtaking to dismal, from dramatic to depressing, all without warning. At several points, one could no longer distinguish the urban from the rural, the sprawl of progress from decay. But travelers in a hurry have no time to mull over these sad realities, whether there is something to love in spite of these imperfections, unpleasantness and neglect. All there was to do was to get away as fast as we could to reach the next picture-perfect destination.

That was the story so far on the road – leaving the environmental sob story that was Baguio to get to Sagada, and now two days later, leaving Sagada via a different route to avoid Baguio. This meant passing the road that cuts through Bontoc, then down to Banaue, in search of a famed man-made wonder. And along the way, the unexpected began to unfold.

The good thing about not having done much research for this road trip was that we were always in for a surprise, bad or good. But along the last remaining stretch of the Halsema Highway in the soft Cordillera daylight, it was all good – smooth roads, stunning scenery, landslides that procrastinated. Then slowly from down below, rice terraces carved on the edge of the river banks appeared. The Kadchog Rice Terraces, we’d later learn. And farther down we’d find the Bayyo Rice Terraces. We were all bent on seeing the “world’s eighth wonder” some 60 kilometers from Sagada, that we didn’t expect to see these other earthen monuments to Ifugao expertise.

Banaue Rice Terraces
At the viewing deck of the Banaue Rice Terraces in the province of Ifugao; the eighth wonder of the world. (Photo by Noel Villaflor of SUn.Star Cebu)

The two-hour descent from Sagada – including a stop in Bontoc, where Jethro was overjoyed to find, at long last, packets of momma sold along the sidewalks – took us to the Banaue Rice Terraces, the most popular destination in the Cordilleras. This 2,000-year-old man-made marvel 1,500 meters above sea level covers 10,000 kilometers (nearly half the area of Mandaue city). Shops selling woodcraft and souvenir items lined both sides of the road. A few dozen steps below is a platform that offers lowlanders an expansive view of the terraces.

Lessons on the road

It was a perfect time to enthrall the kids about how the Ifugaos carved these terraces from the mountains with their bare hands, how they irrigated the rice paddies, how they cultivated rice and crops. And while all of which were feats of engineering and agriculture, the terraces, the kids had to know, are the wellspring of life, art and culture in this idyllic part of the world.

It was tempting to stay for a couple more days and venture to Batad with its stone-walled terraces and witness how the upland life is in this village of some 1,500 people. But we had to leave, our desire to see beautiful places barely satiated, stirred all the more. Nevertheless, we – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors and Jethro, perhaps the biggest traveler in these parts – were grateful for a tranquil drive through a magnificent landscape that makes any traveler vow to his inner anitos of a return.

We drove further down the Mountain Province-Ifugao-Nueva Vizcaya highway, until we reached “civilization,” driving through Nueva Ecija, then past the insufferably monotonous flatlands of Tarlac, before we found ourselves hurtling along the expressways at breakneck speeds, neck and neck with Luzon’s notorious buses, straight back to the metropolis.

Bayyo Rice Terraces
The Bayyo Rice Terraces in Bontoc, Mountain Province. (Photo by Noel Villaflor of Sun.Star Cebu)

After dealing with Edsa’s moderate late evening traffic, we reached our hotel in Mandaluyong, where the betel nut from Bontoc was sampled (nice, it was). We realized it was Maundy Thursday, six days since we began this pilgrimage of sorts from Cebu.

Except for Jethro, who would be taking the plane back to Cebu, tomorrow, Good Friday was time for us to retrace our route. That meant close to half an unclimactic day’s drive to Legazpi city in Albay.

The plan earlier was to spend a day in CamSur, but time had run out. We decided to stay overnight in Legazpi. I tried to recall the 14-hour drive from Matnog, Sorsogon – Luzon Island’s southern tip – to Mandaluyong city five days ago. It was uneventful, if not for the few exceptional minutes through Albay, when the elusive Mt. Mayon suddenly emerged from the skyline, then disappeared, before it emerged again, and a good spot drew us out to take snapshots of this beautiful volcano that had gained notoriety for hiding its peak behind clouds from tourists. How lucky we were that Mayon revealed itself to us that Sunday.

The 10-hour drive the next morning came to an abrupt halt in the heart of Legazpi where the main roads where shut for the Good Friday procession. Going past flagellants with bloodied backs, we drove around in search for accommodations (that is correct, we did not make reservations for the Albay stop, bravo).

After two hours, we finally found a decent hotel, whose guard was nice enough to point us to a good place to eat. And by good, that meant street food preferred by locals of the Bicol region. Two tricycles took us to the middle of town, where a number of food carts converged every night on an otherwise empty lot. Various Bicolano fare was served alongside goto, fried chicken and silog dishes. I had tapsilog with the best binagoongang rice on the planet.

The next morning, Black Saturday, we went to the town of Daraga to visit the Cagsawa Ruins, or what remains of a church that was buried in rocks and lava when the nearby volcano erupted in February 1814. Again, it was an opportunity to impart some knowledge to our kids, our well-behaved passengers, who endured dozens of hours on the road, just to see with their own eyes these natural and man-made wonders that they read so often about in their textbooks. This time, it was a story about how the lives of Bicolanons have been built around something so beautiful, yet so destructive. And it was right in front of these youngest of travelers: rising close to 2,500 meters to the cloudy sky in all its terrifying elegance.

We finally left Luzon in mid-day. As Jong in his Fortuner, and I in my Strada, “expertly” negotiated the desolate highways of Samar, the less than 500 kilometers to go no longer seemed that daunting.

I looked back at the last few days and the 2,500 kilometers behind us and what we saw that will leave permanent impressions on our minds, perhaps begging us to return one day: Mayon, Banaue, Bontoc, Sagada. But what was this trip all about?

Own two eyes

Another European writer, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, said tourists are motivated by one thing when they travel: to confirm with their own eyes what they saw on postcards and travel magazines. Our trip was like that in some way, I admit. But by traveling 3,000 kilometers from Cebu to Sagada and back, there was something we longed to experience and discover, and we did, from the mundane to the, well, profound. And how we experienced for ourselves the things people endure to see something beautiful.

True, this road trip confirmed how beautiful this country is. But what of loving the other side, all that imperfection, unpleasantness and neglect that tried to call our attention – dilapidated roads, bad architecture, the sad state of our Ro-ro ports, Baguio – reminders that something went wrong somewhere? Did we learn to love those as well? Probably not. It’s something one learns to accept, but only as a traveler.

As I drove through the highway that leads to Ormoc city, where we’d take a boat straight to Cebu city the next morning, Easter Sunday, fatigue and drowsiness had set in. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light. What apt words for a Black Saturday night. To keep myself awake, I had to slap myself so hard, the foundations of this lovely republic shook, the earth’s axis shifting slightly each time. But I made it, we made it back.

Back home, after traveling 72 hours on 3,000 kilometers of road, I was asked: would we do it again, drive from Cebu to Sagada and back? No, probably not, I said. Because we’d be driving off to somewhere else, some other place that’s just as achingly beautiful, imperfections and all. (Sun.Star Cebu)
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