Subterranean Sagada, and Book Review Update

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.

One Response to “Subterranean Sagada, and Book Review Update”

  1. Andy says:

    Yeah, you clown DFW before and see what happens.

    Did you bring Consider the Lobster as well? I’ll ship a copy to you if you like

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