A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Four
It’s not as though a 10-hour nighttime drive ever sounds like a good idea. I mean, maybe if the route is so hideous it could turn Lot’s wife to salt — but that’s not really an issue in the mountains of the Philippines.
The Cordilleras are gorgeous. Full of gorges, even.
What I’ve come to understand about not really sleeping for many hours in a van ill-suited to the task under dark of night is that while this was designed to be a money-saving option, it served more as a test of character.
My award? Getting to stay at a government-owned hotel/hostel hybrid that hadn’t been remodeled since its initial creation…in the 1970s.
The ride to Banaue (“bah-now-way”), the largest town in Luzon’s Ifugao Province, was a series of roadside bathrooms, fleeting impressions and lasting indentations. I had to pee no fewer than three times, but each time, Noni the Van Driver wouldn’t take me seriously until I asked a second time. He understood what I was asking, it’s just that he’d sort of forget as we entered the pitch-black reaches of each new town. It was like taking a road trip with a guy who has amnesia, except that he’s the only guy in the vehicle who knows where to find the bathrooms.
And the less said about these impromptu rest stops, the better. In a Philippine gas station loo (as in many other parts of the Earth), there are a few things you can’t count on: toilet paper, a toilet seat, a flushing mechanism and/or running water. Thankfully, JD had a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready, for which I will always be grateful.
In between the occasional hours that I was able to sleep, I’d be awoken with a start by a big bump in the road or a seatbelt buckle in one of many places a seatbelt buckle should never, ever be. When awake, I’d sit up and squint out the window like a hopeful astronomer seeking signs of life; I caught occasional flashes of ornately painted houses and low-hanging trees and free-range dogs and pergola-topped basketball courts. Even if I couldn’t really see it clearly, the Philippines appeared to be going on without us, just outside the van.
And then the sky decided it was morning, rousing itself from sleep with a glowing swath of peachy sun and oh my God is that a whole long mountain range over yonder in soft blue shadow? And are you kidding me, is that a rushing river down there in that plunging gorge, lined with 1,000 lush, green, tangly plants per square inch? Is that a freaking waterfall at the top of that jagged peak?
JD and I looked at each other without expression, silently mourning the thought of all we’d missed the night before.
Noni wound us way up into the mountains, around hairpin turns passing ramshackle wood-thatch-and-tin houses with yards full of chicken families and scruffy puppies, the tumult occasionally broken by deep-green valley views. It could have been Peru, said JD, if not for all the palm trees.
It wasn’t long before we reached a ridge spiked thickly with signage, and Noni turned the van into a dipping-down driveway. At 9 am in the morning, we’d arrived at the Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel right on time. (Sort of.)
Miles from charming, the BHYH is a looming stone fortress from the outside, while its high-ceilinged, dark wood, shabby couch interior is steeped in strange, musty smells and a summer-camp-mess-hall vibe. The wackadoodle glass-cup chandeliers are a cross between gaudy and delightful, and the women behind the front desk wear traditional Ifugao tribal skirts of hand-loomed wool, brightly-striped in patterns that belie their social standing. During my stay, these women were more than happy to tell me all about their outfits, but neglected to tell us about the refreshing pool out back; fortunately, I found it days later, while going for a wander.
Upon checking in, we were asked if we’d be willing to share our rooms with strangers, but we shut this down like the hatch on Lost. Wi-Fi here (which costs about $3 US) was available only in the huge lobby, so as far as we saw it, our rooms would be for sleeping and reading and not taking turns for bathroom time with backpackers and extended families.
Both of our rooms featured several single beds, their pale-pink satin coverlets and fabric-wrapped headboards dark with stains, the furniture scuffed and dusty. The dimly-lit bathroom had a shower with kick-ass water pressure, but all the cheer of a hospital. Nothing in here had been new since long before Ferdinand and Imelda had been run out of the country.
The one redeeming feature was almost enough to save the whole experience:
The view from our balconies was of this.
Sadly, joy was fleeting.
No breakfast had been listed on our itinerary, and we quickly dismissed the idea that this had been an oversight. It had made perfect sense to our trip planners to have us sleep in a van all night, then not provide us with anything to eat the next morning, prior to a day of hiking. We headed to the enormous dining room, busted out some pesos, scarfed down some spongy, half-cooked eggs, and slurped down coffee spiked with tear-away packets of Coffeemate (because milk is for sissies).
The gilt-edged logo on my coffee cup caught my eye: the Philippine Department of Tourism.
Why, yes. Of course.
Basically, aside from the view and the pool, this joint is a mountain-bound gulag that was quite possibly a big deal when it opened in the early 1970s. Now, however, it’s the kind of place you end up in because TripAdvisor has given it 3 1/2 stars and you mistakenly think it’s the only game in town.
Returning to the lobby, we saw Noni talking to a skinny young guy, their voices at the universal pitch of kerfuffle. Said young guy, Kelly, would be the only proper tour guide we’d have on this trip, and for only the next two days, at that. A 25- year-old Ifugao tribesman who walks a strong line between Western ways and ancient traditions, Kelly was slightly dismayed by our arrival at the hotel because, according to his itinerary, we were a day late.
Noni broke the news to us that there’d been a mix-up, and instead of being able to nap for an hour, we’d have to leave right away for a morning of rice-terrace hiking and village-exploring. JD and I decided in that moment that when we got back, we were going to put together an email for all of our contacts on this trip, and give them a piece of our quickly-fading minds.
In the moment, though, we gathered our gumption and followed Kelly downhill to the tribal village of Tam-An.
To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Six