Archive for June, 2010

Subterranean Sagada, and Book Review Update

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

30 April 2010, The Philippines

In March, at the beginning of our round-the-world trip, I started reading the book  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. At the time I wasn’t particularly impressed, but I did find the title to be an apt description of our experience hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand. In the Philippines I gave the book, actually a collection of essays, a second chance and had something of a change of heart. I loved Foster’s essays about David Lynch, the Canadian Open, the Illinois State Fair and his week aboard a luxury cruise ship. His writing style is informal yet intelligent, and each essay was informative, insightful, and completely hilarious. So much did I enjoy the book that on a flight bound for Vietnam, in seat 10F on an AirAsia Airbus A320, I briefly found myself in a state of panic at the prospect of finishing it.¹ I thought back to New Zealand, and wondered how it was possible that I initially thought the book so uninteresting. My only explanation at the time was that I’d been experiencing some sort of Southern Hemisphere bizzaro world phenomenon, where black was white, up was down, and I disliked things I’d normally enjoy. Since then I’ve reread those first essays and settled on a more grounded conclusion: I just didn’t like them.

This blog isn’t intended as a forum for my book reviews, so more to the point of this post I found an even more appropriate use of the book’s title in our Phillppines caving experience. In Sagada we signed on for the Cave Connection tour, a four hour underground journey between Lumiang and Sumaging Caves. A single trip through the caves was more than enough for Allison and me.

Sagada has great restaurants and some interesting hikes, but the area’s star attraction is clearly the cave tours. We’d contemplated caving since our arrival, and on our second full day we made a rather spontaneous decision to depart on an afternoon tour. Sagada has an association of local guides, and after inquiring at their office it took all of three minutes to find someone to lead us through the caves. Apparently there is no shortage of guides. We left Sagada on foot accompanied by our guide, Israel, and Jessie, an American we’d met the day before. Our caving experience began at Lumiang Cave with an easy descent past coffins piled from the floor to the ceiling. Over the next half hour the track became progressively more difficult, culminating in the first of several vertical descents through a hole no larger than a pizza. As Israel led us further into the cave we were a bit worried when he realized he’d made a wrong turn, and his coincidentally failing lantern did little to assuage our concerns. Fortunately he quickly recovered his sense of direction and lit a candle for us while he went to find another guide with a spare mantle for the lantern.

With our light source restored we ventured further into the cave. We lowered ourselves through several more cramped openings and inched down vertical rock faces without the benefit of ropes or protective gear. Jessie was more adventurous, at one point  hastening a ten foot descent by simply jumping off the rocks to the sand below. The steepest vertical sections of the trail were outfitted with ropes, but we had no climbing harnesses so a lost grip would have been catastrophic. When I wasn’t focusing on maintaining my hold I thought about the logistics of extracting an injured caver and how a broken leg or cracked skull just might put a damper on our upcoming travels.

As we moved from Lumiang to Sumaging the rocks became wetter and more slippery. We struggled to keep our footing, eventually dropping to our hands and crab-walking over significant sections. The moist air also grew pungent with guano, and at one point we looked up to see bats flying out of an opening in the ceiling. Shortly before starting the final ascent in Sumaging an optional side trip took us past the most impressive sights of the tour. We scrambled barefoot over large sheets of flowstone, waded through a waist-deep underground river, walked past colorful draperies, and saw fossilized snails frozen in the rock.

The sun had already set when we finally surfaced, wet and starting to get cold, after nearly four hours in the cave. As we walked in the darkness and rain back to Sagada we thought about how we were fortunate to have emerged intact, with the exception of a bloody big toe that I stubbed on a rock. We don’t plan to make a second trip through the caves around Sagada, but the experience was certainly memorable and we might even say we’re glad we did it.

Check out more pictures from the Cave Connection tour in the Gallery.

¹ Further evidence of my thorough enjoyment of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is my recent emulation of Foster’s writing style, particularly his extensive use of footnotes.

A Veggie Lover’s Paradise

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

28 April – 2 May 2010, The Philippines

There’s no doubt that Filipino beaches are top notch but after playing in the ocean for nearly three weeks, we decided it was time for a change of scenery.  We had heard good things about the small town of Sagada so we decided to head further north and into the mountains.  Bus travel in the Philippines is always an adventure, and the trip from San Juan to Sagada was no exception. During the 12 hour trip, our bus made three unplanned stops: twice because of landslides and once because of a downed electrical pole. By this point we’d learned to take it all in stride, and the cooler mountain temperatures made the trip almost enjoyable.

We’d like to thank the feuding Japanese couple on our bus for providing us with entertainment.  Their lengthy argument mostly consisted of the woman repeatedly shouting one or two Japanese phases at her boyfriend.  This wasn’t the first time during our trip when I wished my Japanese language skills were better.  Initially we and the other passengers were entertained by the drama but after listening to her scream and cry for more than an hour, people started to get fed up.  Passengers asked her to calm down but their attempts were futile.  Finally the bus driver pulled over and asked a police officer to do something about the situation.  Her screaming didn’t subside even after this last ditch effort but she did eventually grow tired and fall asleep.  With the bus finally quiet, we also managed to get a bit of shut eye.

Our arrival in Sagada coincided perfectly with the beginning of the rainy season.  According to the staff at our hotel, the week of our arrival was the first time it had rained in four months.  At first we were disappointed but quickly realized the rain typically fell in the mid to late afternoon and this allowed us to see plenty in the morning and early afternoon.

Sagada is famous for its caves and hanging coffins that can be seen during many day hikes in the area.  Unsure if we wanted to spend the time and money to go caving, we spent our first day hiking to Echo Valley.  Along the way, we saw a number of coffins hanging from the side of cliffs.  We had opted for an unguided walk so we weren’t really sure of the reason for this ancient tradition.  We later learned that people from this area believed the higher your body is laid, the closer you are to heaven.  A local also told us this burial practice is still used today but a person has to have a lot of money if they want to be laid to rest in a hanging coffin.

Although we enjoyed our hikes in Sagada, what excited us the most was the cooler temperatures and delicious food.  Until Sagada, food in the Philippines had been okay but there was nothing really special about it.  It doesn’t have the spiciness or intense flavors of Thai food or the freshness or subtleties of Vietnamese food.  Most disappointing for me was the lack of vegetarian options as Filipinos really love meat.  Fortunately this changed in Sagada where fresh vegetables are abundant.

Although there were a lot of restaurants to choose from, we found a couple that we really liked and stuck to them.  The vegetarian options were so good that even Jason gave up meat while we were there.  Many of our meals were washed down with strong cups of ginger tea or mountain tea.  Dessert options were also endless.  Every time we turned around we were tempted by freshly baked pies, cake, banana bread and homemade yogurt.  One day we got a little carried away and ate chocolate cake and blueberry pie for lunch.  I felt like a little kid whose parents left her home alone for the first time!  Fortunately for our waistlines, Sagada is hilly and we walked everywhere.

As I mentioned in a previous post, our hotel in San Juan was quiet and very peaceful, particularly since we were the only guests.  Our hotel in Sagada was a completely different story; every room was occupied and most of them had televisions.  We didn’t realize this was an issue until nightfall when the people in the room next door settled in for a four hour television viewing marathon.  As midnight approached and we got ready for bed, Jason asked them to turn the volume down.  They obliged but in addition to being night owls, they were apparently early risers because the television came on again at full volume around 5 in the morning.

The next day we switched hotels and the noise levels were even worse.  Between dog fights, roosters and loud music, we were already fed up when our neighbors turned on their television.  As Jason chased a cockroach across the room and into a corner, he discovered a cable hooked up to a splitter.  When he pulled the cable out, we were greeted by blissful silence from the room next door.  Apparently the cable hook up in our room controlled the television in the next room.  Our guilt lasted for about as long as it took us to fall asleep that night.

Surfing, Bees & Barbecue Chicken

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

24 – 28 April 2010, The Philippines

Allison waits for a ride near Sobod Bay Scuba Resort.

An expat we met in Padre Burgos had recently purchased land and planned to build a dive resort.  After talking with him, Jason and I momentarily had visions of  purchasing our own little slice of paradise.  Reality soon sunk in and we reluctantly mapped out the next leg of our trip.  Since diving in the Philippines is relatively cheap it was tempting to continue exploring the diverse aquatic life.  However, Jason had read about a stretch of coastline known for exceptional surfing and he was itching to give it a try.  The beach, creatively named Surf Beach, is located in the town of San Juan on the island of Luzon. Researching potential travel routes, we discovered  it was going to take more than 24 hours to reach this surfers’ haven.

Scenes from our journey north to San Juan: the compartment under the bus isn't just for luggage.

We woke early on our travel day, determined to get started at a decent time.  Mentally preparing for the long journey, we ate breakfast and said our good-byes.  I won’t go into too many details but I will say that we utilized an extensive number of transportation options during our 27 hour journey north.  Along the way, we made a brief stop in Manila to pick up some luggage we had left at the hotel.  Always looking for ways to keep expenses down, we opted to take a jeepney rather than a taxi from the bus station to the hotel.  One and a half hours and three transfers after leaving the bus station, we finally arrived at the hotel, filthy, dripping with sweat and stressed from not having known where we were going.  Quickly calculating the cost of our ride, we determined that a taxi would’ve taken us a third of the time and only cost about 46 pesos or $1 USD more.  Kicking ourselves, we vowed to make smarter choices moving forward.

When we finally arrived in San Juan, the bus driver dropped us off at one of the resorts mentioned in the guidebook.  Walking from the road to the beachside resort, we felt like we had stumbled into a photo shoot for an Abercrombie advertisement.   In other words, it was not exactly our scene.  To make matters worse, it appeared as though the owners had spent all their money on the beachside bar and restaurant.  The rooms within our price range were reminiscent of dank jail cells and offered little more than a thin mattress.  I won’t even begin to describe the condition of the shared bathrooms.  We hightailed it out of there and found a resort further down the beach that was cheaper, much cleaner and very peaceful; during our three night stay we were the only guests.  Another bonus was the absence of roosters, our archnemesis in the Philippines.

Since most visitors come to San Juan to surf, all the resorts along the beach rent boards.  The longest board our resort had was still slightly too short for Jason but it could have been a whole lot worse.  The first day we arrived we received a very abbreviated version of Surfing 101 from one of the staff and he then set us loose to try what we had learned.  A couple of hours later we still hadn’t made it to our feet but not for lack of trying.  Fatigued from battling the waves, we decided to call it a day.  San Juan’s  waves are ideal for surfing early in the morning and late in the afternoon and their reliability determined our schedule for the next few days.  Each morning and afternoon, we paddled into the ocean and tried our best to catch a wave.  The result was probably comical to the few onlookers on the beach but we had a lot of fun trying and both of us even managed to stand up a few times.

One morning Jason went out by himself while I slept in and a friendly local offered him an impromptu surfing lesson.  When I joined them an hour later, we struck up a conversation and found out he was a pastor at a local church. After chatting for awhile, he invited us to have dinner with his family and friends.  Later that afternoon, as promised, he and his friend picked us up on their scooters and drove us to the local university where some of his parishioners work in the apiculture (beekeeping) lab.  I could write an entire post on everything we learned about bees and honey during our visit.  However, rather than bore you, I’ll just post a picture and say I was amazed to discover that they don’t wear any protective equipment when handling the frames filled with honeycomb.  I have to admit, I was a little bit out of my comfort zone when they pulled out the honeycomb completely covered in bees.  We left the lab a couple hours later, brains overflowing with information and rode to his house where we were greeted by his wife, two young children, sister, brother-in-law, cousin and a couple of other people.  Many Filipinos live in multigenerational homes and theirs was no exception.

We ate a simple but delicious dinner of barbecue chicken, rice, bread, cheese, veggies and an astounding amount of fresh fruit.  The conversation flowed easily and Jason and I were thrilled to learn more about Filipino culture.  I think they also enjoyed learning some new things about the United States.  After discovering that Minnesota is very cold in the winter, they asked the standard questions about snow and cold weather.  Moving onto other topics, they found out that Jason and I have different last names and asked with amazement, “Is that legal in the US?”  Apparently name changes are automatic after marriage in the Philippines.

Other than attempting to surf and our rap session with the beekeepers, our primary focus in San Juan was catching up on our blog and researching future travel destinations.  Since our hotel had slow internet, we made our way into town one day to find a faster connection.  The internet café we found was similar to most we had visited throughout the Philippines: filled with kids and teenagers playing noisy video games, updating their Facebook status (even the kids who look like they’re about seven years old) and listening to loud music.  Having spent too much time in internet cafes throughout the Philippines, I now have no doubt that Taylor Swift and Facebook truly have taken the world by storm.

We enjoyed the slow pace of life during our four days in San Juan but were also anxious to spend time away from the beach and extreme heat.  This desire to see a different side of the Philippines shaped the remainder of our time in the country.