A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Five
Thanks for hanging in with me this far, folks. For your trouble, you’ll get to see some cool photos of rice terraces and a tribal village.
That is, the reasons anyone might actually travel all the way to the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines.
Also ahead? A summary of my correspondence with the travel agencies (because it turns out there were two) that planned this trip.
That is, before they disappeared mid-trip, never to be heard from again.
Anyone can walk down the stairs behind the Banaue Hotel (“bah-now-way”), wander through/along some stunning rice terraces, over a rushing stream, and go visit Tam-An Village where Ifugao (“if-oo-gow“) tribespeople preserve some of their ancient traditions. You might get a little lost and the paths are sometimes slippery, but the signage is decent and the whole journey is less than two hours round-trip.
However, it was lovely to have Kelly the Tribal Tour Guide accompany us, as he shared some details we might have missed. For instance, turns out rice terraces are only green in April and May, slowly turning brown throughout the summer and fall. Hungry snails move in to the rice beds when the shoots are young, and farmers must pluck them out by hand in order to save their crops; as a bonus, the farmers use these snails for food.
Tam-An itself is a strange hybrid of desperately poor village and tourist attraction. Villagers dress in Western-style clothes and consume modern junk food, but still farm the rice terraces by hand and maintain a few traditional Ifugao raised huts with thatch roofs, interior fire pits and handmade baskets for safely storing live chickens at night. If you want (for some unknown reason) to see the cloth-wrapped bones of ancient Ifugao ancestors, that’s on offer for a nominal fee.
The heat and humidity around the rice terraces, even with brief shower of rain, was enervating. By the time we returned to the hotel, JD and I were collectively a sweaty mess, while Kelly had little more than a fine, misty glow about him. We were given a few minutes to clean up before we were off on another adventure, this time with a different driver.
The road to the astonishing rice terraces of Hapao was almost hilarious, a logic-free mix of paved surfaces and abject rubble. And remember that bridge being built over the Guihod Pool? That’s on the route, too. The Banaue-Hapao area seems to be getting ready for more visitors, but no one seems to know when the road might be done. In the meantime, it’s not the most comfortable ride you’ll ever have.
The lookout over the rice terraces of Hapao, though, might offer one of the best views you’ll ever see. I climbed out of the van and full-on gawked at this yawning blend of gorge and valley, a wavy-line patchwork of every green in existence. Somewhere along the centuries, Hapao farmers started to build their houses right by their rice terraces, eliminating the need to schlep heavy bags of dried rice up the steep hillsides to the road. I gazed out at this scene for what felt like an hour, and if Kelly hadn’t mentioned the word “lunch,” I might still be standing there now.
Said lunch was atop a Banaue-area mountain, at the Native Village Inn & Restaurant. All smooth-hewn wood and rice-terrace views, this quiet idyll is where I wish we could have stayed. Sadly, the lack of reliable Wi-Fi would have been a deal-breaker on a press trip, and the sleeping quarters — seven small Ifugao-style huts with fenced-in hot showers set outdoors — might not have offered much more comfort than the Banaue Hotel.
That said, I found the peace and beauty there extremely relaxing, as I sighed out the dining room’s windows at a sea of greens. The chicken adobo was rich and spicy, the service polite, there were young cats to play with, and a macaque monkey in a great big cage was eating what appeared to be an entire cabbage. Clearly a hangout for visiting Europeans, the library of left-behind paperbacks was a mix of titles in German, Dutch, French and Finnish.
The day had felt like a small miracle: we saw some beautiful things and learned interesting things about them.
But midday exhaustion hit me like a freight train, what with only three-some-odd hours of sleep on the van the night before. Once back at the Banaue Hotel, I lay down for a quick nap…without setting my alarm. Eight foolish hours later, at just shy of midnight, I awoke.
And boy, was I bummed.
But I used my time wisely, carefully studying the revised itinerary I’d received in Manila to re-familiarize myself with the plan for the days to come. And that’s when I noticed that we were scheduled to leave Banaue and return to Manila on the same day that I was due to fly home to L.A.
I did a quick math problem in my head:
“If a van is leaving Banaue for a 10-hour drive to Manila to catch a flight there at 10pm, and there are places where the road barely exists, a metric ton of city traffic, and it takes 40 extra minutes to drive to the airport and approximately 2 1/2 hours to go through security three times (see: U.S. State Department Warning – Philippines), what time should the van leave Banaue in order to make the flight?”
The answer is:
“The day before the flight leaves.”
Just after (an amazing) sunrise, when JD was finally awake and we’d both been suitably caffeinated, our missive-drafting began in earnest. The email we ultimately composed and sent to all of the emergency contacts listed on our itinerary was twofold: an offer of assurance that we were safe and enjoying the rice terraces and all, but an expression of irritation and confusion at the lack of logic, attention and concern exercised thus far in the planning of our trip.
It turned out that two different travel agencies had been responsible for said planning, using a couple of Philippines-based contractors; one of these contractors employed Noni the Van Driver and Kelly the Tribal Tour Guide.
Responses from the main travel agency rep, based in Colorado, yielded the following:
-Finger-pointing at the ad/marketing/what have you agency for not providing them with detailed information about our specific needs/expectations as travel media, or a request for any sort of planned activities in Manila.
-A suggestion that the beauty of the “Banau” [sic] area was sure to make up for everything.
And in a single response from the secondary travel agency rep, based in Manila:
-Assurance that a swift change would be made to our itinerary, bringing us back to Manila a day early and booking us hotel rooms there for an extra night.
-Echoed finger-pointing at the ad/marketing/what have you agency for a lack of detailed information, in agreement with the main travel agency.
-Assurance not only that they hadn’t been asked to plan anything for us in Manila, but that this was “rightly so.”
-We were asked to remember that this was a culturally-relevant but remote area without flight service and we should have adjusted our expectations of comfort.
This secondary travel agency rep asked for specific information about the van, in order to follow-up with the tour company and adjust the “luxury” description. We complied, sending along a written description and JD’s van photo. I inquired as to the type of vehicle the rep had taken when visiting the area, as I felt this would be helpful information for my future posts and pitches.
Neither JD nor I ever heard from this travel agency rep again. We would later get confirmation from Noni the Van Driver that our itinerary change had been made.
That second morning in the mountains, our email session complete, we gathered our backpacks and piled into a jeepney with Kelly (and yet another driver) to set off for the Batad Rice Terraces.
This would prove to be the single most spectacular experience of the trip.
To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Seven