Monday, February 6, 2017

Sagada - Bontoc - Buguias: Tripping, Pondering through the Cordilleras

Heavenly light at Loo, Benguet
There's a reason why I keep coming back to the Cordilleras apart from the want to travel.  Hieing off to the boondocks, walking the terraces, hiking the woods are my ways to reconnect to the earth.  The older I get, the more I yearn to put my feet literally on the dirt after weeks of being hemmed in by concrete.  One long-running joke I share with friends is that they'd know I won the lottery if and when I leave the city and go farming - a half-meant joke really as close friends know that's really my dream.  In the meantime, I enjoy learning and exercising my brain in walking through fields and forests, identifying plants I recognize and adding to my know-how on the many more I cannot yet identify.

This year, I've spent the first two weeks doing just that, traveling for an ocular in Eastern Visayas and a guiding assignment for foreign guests in the Cordilleras.  The guiding engagement took us to Sagada, Bontoc and Buguias in consecutive days.  In Biliran, we were hiking everyday in between shuttling via tricycle to various sites across the island so I was quite tired coming home for a day before leaving again for the highlands.   Dunno, but there's something invigorating about going back to nature that makes all the long travels seem trivial.

Honestly, I wasn't so keen about going back to Sagada though for so many years, I kept coming back to it.  It's my personal observation that the influx of tourists have somehow diluted the initial feelings of serenity, quiet, solace that it used to offer me due to mass tourism.  I've recently written about my experience of seeing a sea of crowds instead of a sea of clouds in Kiltepan.  Sure, any place would want more tourists but I guess nature is not like a rock concert where the more the crowds, the better the experience.  I know this is happening in a lot of places that only mountaineers (and ex-mountaineers like myself) used to go to and in a lot of ways, it's sad.  Not to say mountaineers are faultless but then again, we know the merits of hiking far and wide, earning our equity in sweat to enjoy places seldom reached by people who chose to ride their vans and 4-wheel drive vehicles.   To add salt to the wound, Sagada was one of the places featured in a popular, local, rom-com movie which stoked the imaginations of a selfie-generation, wanting to go here even if just to brag on Instagram or Twitter.

Harvest of carrots in Buguias
Lest I be accused of pandering to the merits of being a mountaineer or being able-bodied to hike more (believe me, I'm old enough to be a dad to quite a lot of hikers I meet or hike with), my concern is also about places like Sagada and more recently, Mt. Ulap in Itogon both of which gets a lot more tourists than the place can handle and sustain.  Case in point: the fictional place in Benguet called La Presa, featured in a popular teleserye.  The tourists waxed romantic about the place that existed only on the TV screen, came in droves, and left more trash than can be handled and properly taken care of.   I maybe digressing a bit here but it's worth mentioning an anecdote I heard from a farmer tending a strawberry farm in La Trinidad.  He says that the practice of allowing tourists to experience picking fruit from the vine damages quite a lot of the plants, especially since it's hard to teach (or admonish?) the tourists how to properly handle the plants, or even where to step on the plots to minimize impact.  So what sounds like a nice immersive tourist attraction is really a stunt that does more harm than good.

Anyway, I have no images to share taken in Sagada as the sunset on Lake Danum turned out differently than expected and sunrise on crowded Kiltepan view deck was, well, foggy at best. 

ONWARDS TO BONTOC.  Heading to Maligcong in Bontoc was more enjoyable not only for me but also for the group.  I've walked through the terraces so many times but the thing never grows old for me.   I was actually psyched up to hike up Mt. Kupapey anew but our guests weren't up for a hike so early in the morning.  Still, they found toploading on the jeepney and heading to the main village in Favarey and hiking back to Favuyan a swell experience.  When I told our guests that part of the magic of walking the terraces is coming up-close to the rice plants and learning how they're grown, I really meant it.  Too often, we see the fields and the terraces from afar, not fully realizing that they're teeming with life, and that some of our food comes from here.

ROAD TRIP AND VANISHING TRADES.  We took a little road trip to Banaue, passing through Bayyo and the now-green terraces of Kachog, before we headed to Buguias.  It was sad to see the Banaue Rice Terraces main viewpoint in such a sorry state, heavily damaged by a storm.  After befriending the brown dog of Manong, we chitchatted a bit and he told me he's having a hard time finding laborers to help rebuild the areaThis is a phenomenon I keep encountering in Bontoc and Benguet: the lack of young people willing to learn a craft whether it be carpentry, masonry or plumbing.  These trades seem to be going the way of farming in these parts: laborious, blue-collar and looked down upon compared to going to college and working in an office.  Points to ponder upon.
The carrot plants have grown
TO BUGUIAS AND BEYOND.  It's a different look Buguias that I saw compared to over a month ago when I first visited and stayed here.  The carrot plants have turned the brown fields into a green expanse that a friend of mine called "Nebraska-like".   On the western side, one of my foreign guests described the scenery as "Tuscanesque", the same description I had my first time seeing it.

It was even colder here in Buguias than in Sagada and Bontoc; even my foreign guests were usually swaddled in fleece jackets and long pants.  The weather changes quickly in these parts, alternating from sunny to foggy to rainy in a matter of minutes.  The staff at the hotel who remembered me from my previous visit told me that the fog can be so thick so as to affect the cellphone signal.  It's that foggy a place.
Buguias boys
In the morning, I and one of my guests spent the wee hours waiting for the sunrise which came after hours of staring at the thick fog banks to lift.  Spending breakfast in the dining room, I overheard the son of the hotel's owner telling a colleague that the incredible views of Buguias nearly prompted a popular TV network to consider turning it into the fictional "La Presa".   Well the thought made me think real hard.  If that plan pushed through, I doubt if the terraces around here that grow a lot of the veggies (primarily, the carrots that find their way to Manila), would still be as lush.  Or it could be worse, what with the trash problems left in the wake of tourists visiting that place in Benguet where the teleserye was filmed.  

I've come to terms as to why a place as beautiful as Buguias must remain largely as it is.  Yes, it is indeed postcard-pretty but its beauty goes beyond the aesthetic.  It's a productive agricultural land that feeds the people and benefits the community.  If mass tourism comes in and changes that dynamic, let's just say the effects wouldn't only be superficial.



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