From Cebu to Sagada and back (Second of three parts)

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Past Mordor to the land of momma and magic mushrooms

IT'S just like working in the office. You sit for hours straight to get the job done – getting from point A to point B. Extra hours spent on the road meant overtime. Or think about it as a job where you get to watch movies all day – the windshield or car windows the screen, where all those beautiful sights unfold past you scene after scene, reel after reel.

Well, that was the idea I tried to sell when this whole road trip thing cropped up, only that I somehow forgot that even supposedly good movies have parts that can make you cringe.


Bad scripts, pointless scenes, terrible endings: all these were flashing through my head as our two-car convoy crawled up Kennon Road that Monday afternoon, triggered perhaps by the sight of barren cliff walls to our left that looked like a colossal abandoned quarry, the edges cutting ruthlessly against the late afternoon sky above the Cordilleras.

Mordor, just like Mordor, I thought out loud, as I dealt with the road’s sharp turns and sudden climbs. Well, at least the road to Baguio city is well-paved and we needn’t have to ascend on bare feet like those poor hobbits did. Besides, we’ll get some good night’s rest in the summer capital, right?

Wrong. The moment we drove past the city’s edge, a horrendous gridlock 1,400 meters above the sea stopped us in our tracks. As our cars crept wearily into the heart of the city, we crossed paths with hordes of orcs steering garish passenger jeepneys, fighting for nanometers of road space, elbowing us at the slightest chance out of our lane.

Manila’s notorious drivers seemed like well-bred elves compared to their Baguio counterparts. Road courtesy must have disappeared along with thousands of majestic pine trees that used to cover the mountainsides, now strewn with shoddy dwellings that resembled none of the charming log cabins that our pretty script said we would find.

Lake Danum in Sagada
Young road trippers from Cebu gather around a bonfire while waiting for the sun to set at a viewing deck a few steps away from Lake Danum in Sagada. (Noel S. Villaflor photo)

The sorry state of this upland city shocked us. We felt unwelcome. Go away, the phantoms of Baguio past seemed to tell us, as we inched our way through its mind-boggling network of narrow roads, driving in circles past or under or around an improbable flyover that rose like an ingrown toenail – it looked painful – above choke points, street corners lined with shops that had seen better days.

We had to leave. Ditching our plans to sleep overnight in Baguio, our road trip party of 11 – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors, and the visual artist Jethro Estimo, who joined us in Mandaluyong city that morning – decided to drive straight to Sagada. The town, said Google Maps, was only 146 kilometers from Baguio. Jethro, who had arranged the accommodations in Sagada, sent a text message to the innkeeper that we were on our way.

At a refueling station, Jong jumped out of his SUV, the lead car, and approached a group of van drivers who had called it a day. How far is it from Sagada, Jong asked.

Five to six hours, said one. Just spend the night here – you’re not familiar with the road, said another. Jong relayed the message: “Mga lima ka oras kuno bai.” I nodded, “Payts.”

The locals sniggered, one of whom, head shaking, turned towards the group and remarked in their own tongue, in a half-incredulous, half-mocking tone, something that questioned our wisdom, if not our sanity. Crazy lowlanders, they must have muttered.

Crazy because Halsema Highway, it turns out, is reputed to be one of the world’s most dangerous roads. But at that time, we had no idea that it was, as we really didn’t do much research.

We said thanks and drove off along the Halsema Highway. The fresh air of Baguio’s outskirts filled the car as I opened the windows. Bretha and our three kids – ages 12, 8, and three – looked relaxed in the backseat, and so did Jethro on the passenger side.

By now we had spent some 30 hours on the road with two overnight stops: an hour from Cebu city to Danao, nine hours from Isabel, Leyte to Allen, Samar; 12 hours from Matnog, Sorsogon to Metro Manila, and eight hours to Baguio. We left on a Saturday morning from Cebu. It was now Monday night.

Momentary comfort

Hanging Coffins in Sagada
Hanging out under the Hanging Coffins are (from left) Angelo, Arwen, Angeli, Cyan and Amber. They walked through a cemetery and a pine tree forest, climbed down a steep slope all the way to the bottom of a valley, to get near the Hanging Coffi ns suspended from a karst cliff on the other side. (Noel S. Villaflor photo)

As I followed the Fernandezes’ car along Halsema, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and ease. I just focused on the road knowing the cliff’s edge was always just a few feet away. And there wasn’t anything to see there at night, except for the silhouettes of Mt. Pulag and smaller mountains, and the sign that said you were standing on the highest point of the Philippine highway system at 2,255 meters above sea level, which meant you had to stop and take the obligatory group photo.

And for the first three hours, the steady uphill climb on smooth concrete roads never felt risky, the dips, turns and ascents almost predictable. This was going to be one laid-back stretch to Sagada. That’s what I thought.

We had passed a number of sleepy villages that were hours apart, but there was one I’ll never forget. On the front wall of what seemed like the barangay hall was a sign that read “In memory of…” Since we merely slowed down past the hall at a curve, I couldn’t read the rest of the message and the list that followed.

A few minutes later, as the highway descended along the mountainside, we plunged – without warning – straight into thick, heavy fog that covered a dozen kilometers or so of road. I had to tailgate Jong’s car otherwise, I would lose sight of him, the headlights and fog lamps of my pickup no match for the endless, impenetrable blanket of fog blocking my view.

I then realized what the sign on the barangay hall was for: it must have been in memory of those who drove their last in this perilous stretch of invisible road, and the list... never mind.

While we did not expect to traverse such a scary road, the strenuous drive to Allen a couple of nights ago somehow prepared us mentally for the remaining stretch that would lead us to Sagada. So we drove on, tired but confident, but not after having goose bumps in this bone-chilling Cordillera air, which cleared eventually.

In the backseat, the wife and kids were sleeping soundly, even if all four of them looked like they were trying to pull off submission moves on each other: limbs intertwined, a tiny foot or two resting on someone’s face, cheek pressed against cheek. To while away the time, Jethro, a trivia wunderkind, would throw historical anecdotes about Sagada (e.g. Do you know that many locals in Sagada are descendants of the Chinese pirate Limahong, who sought refuge in the Cordilleras after a failed invasion of Manila in the 16th century?).

Finally, we reached a junction with a signboard that pointed to Sagada. (Take the road to the left, the one to the right will take you all the way to Bontoc, texted the innkeeper earlier.)

We drove up a dirt road – half of which was being paved – and reached Sagada in half an hour. It was one past midnight, a Tuesday.

Our innkeeper was waiting at a street corner, and led us down an alley to a small parking lot several meters from Kanip-aw Pines Lodge, where our austere rooms, sitting on the edge of a karst cliff, were waiting. From the balcony where it was freezing cold, I stared into a coal-black chasm below. Right across was a swathe of dark grey.

It was time to rest.

The following morning while the kids were still asleep, Bretha and I stepped out onto the same balcony that was just as freezing cold as the night before, and gazed at the vision before us: a limestone ridge covered with pine trees all the way down to the valley below, a veil of fog hovering above. We wanted to stay for as long as we could.

But in our two days in Sagada, we saw what needed to be seen: the Hanging Coffins, the Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves, Kiltepan Peak, the Sagada Rice Terraces, Lake Danum, an elevated clearing for sunset-watching.

And the town proper – it seemed like a place from some make-believe land: houses covered in plain metal sheets for insulation, odd selections of food (e.g. pinikpikan side-by-side waffles and yoghurt salad), fruit wines that were more addictive than we cared to admit, free-range fowl that’s half-turkey, half-chicken.

Magic mushrooms

And then who could ignore those ever-present signs that read: “No spitting of momma” on roadsides, one that got Jethro and I curious? The prohibition, our tour guide said, had to do with sanitation issues and the crimson stain the spit left behind. True enough we couldn’t find anyone selling momma, or betel nut anywhere.

Instead, what we found – or what the hyperactive sidekick of our tour guide found – was something that had more “magical” effects, something the youth of Sagada were probably just as familiar with. While trekking down a trail that led to a burial cave, the sidekick suddenly jumped with joy at what he found at the foot of a pine tree.

“Look!” he exclaimed, like a child showing off his discovery.

“Oh, a magic mushroom,” I said. It was a guess – I hadn’t seen a magic mushroom up close yet, but I’d heard about it a couple of times. I asked Jethro to take a look. He chuckled.

With a “how-did-you-know?” expression on his face, the sidekick looked at me, then at Jethro, at Jong, father of two, then at his find.

“It’s bad for kids,” he said, then threw the evil thing to the ground among pine needles and cones. We were sure he’d pick it up on his way back.

But while magic mushrooms and momma are definitely bad for kids, a long trip to Sagada isn’t. Ours was an enchanting experience for the children, the town chockfull of magical tales of cursed mummies and talking skulls, with sceneries straight out of a movie about the unbelievable that came true.

I’d like to think of the 1,500-kilometer trip from Cebu to Sagada as one plotless narrative, one that didn’t make sense, one that has been excruciating at times, but one that moved us in an indescribable, inexplicable manner. And we were only halfway.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 30, 2014.


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