A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Seven
The journey to Sagada (“sah-gah-dah”), a lushly green, diesel-choked and crowded Mountain Province village about 90 minutes north of Banaue is stunning, winding and pretty much paved, save for that last gutted bit up the hill to town.
It’s famed for its large network of caves, as well as area residents’ unusual practice of hanging their dead relatives’ coffins from the faces of cliffs.
Sadly for me, though, neither was as exciting as it may sound.
But dog packs barking into an echoing valley, paired with chickens squawking, couples fighting and drunken soccer match-watching did make for a heady brew of a sleepless night.
Though you may not have heard of it before, trust me: Sagada has been discovered. Hordes of tourists from the Philippines, China and Europe have long since descended upon this formerly sleepy mountain hamlet, and it’s working sort of hard to keep up with demand.
Toward the top end of the town’s main street, there’s a tourist office where you have to register your presence, and freelance tour guides linger here looking for work. Hard to say how you tell a good guide from a bad one, but as with much of the rest of the Cordilleras, learning your way around requires a measure of trust mixed with a willingness to be annoyed, confused and/or uncomfortable.
JD and I were introduced to our briefly-bestowed tour guide when we picked him up by the roadside at the northern edge of town. Israel, a 33 year-old local who’s been a Sagada tour guide since he was 14, couldn’t have been less enthusiastic about his job, but I did learn one fascinating detail from him: while treating me to my first glimpse of the town’s famous hanging coffins, he shared that area farmers, who spend their lives focused on the Earth, see this form of burial as a way to finally dwell closer to heaven.
More coffins, these made of stone rather than wood, are stacked up at the mossy, jagged limestone mouth of Lumiang Cave (see the first photo in this post, above). Displayed without any boundaries or protection, these coffins bear a sign asking visitors not to open them or “get anything inside.”
Though Sagada is built atop a network of almost 60 caves, Lumiang is one of only two caves that are popular with tourists. Along the woodland path to Lumiang, JD informed me that Noni had mentioned to him just that morning, in passing, what to expect at Sumaguing, the larger of the two caves.
Sumaguing apparently takes about three hours to explore, requires your own headlamp or lantern (unless your tour guide provides these, which ours did not), is extremely slippery, and at one point, is filled with four feet of freezing cold water. None of these details were written on our travel agency itinerary, which mentioned only that we’d have a chance to see the local coffins “as well as explore some of the nearby caves.”
So, having slept only barely the night before at the Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel (and not doing well with slippery conditions even when I have my $#@% together), I gathered my rule-breaking gumption and opted out of the excursion. While the more-awake JD strapped on his headlamp and went spelunking, Noni took me back to our lodgings for a catch-up nap.
I’ve been to many a cave in my time, and certainly wouldn’t discourage you from this experience if it’s your thing; however, when I later learned from JD that guides are allowed to stand around and smoke inside the cave while tourists go a-wandering, I felt especially pleased with my choice.
Reconvening a few hours later (now sans-Israel), Noni led JD and I to the cliff overlooking the most famous of the hanging coffins. Just past the late-1800s Church of St. Mary the Virgin and through its adjacent cemetery, it began to rain softly and we found ourselves impatiently stuck behind an achingly slow march of Chinese and Filipino tourists, tip-toeing along a mildly hilly, hard-packed woodland path criss-crossed by pine roots.
Managing to dodge the herd and pull ahead, we soon achieved our goal of a view from way across a gorge of a few rope-hung wooden coffins dangling from a sheer rock face. What Noni failed to mention at the time was that a nearby path leads down into the gorge and right up to these coffins. Therefore, our photos — and the whole experience — was a far cry less than spectacular.
For our one night in Sagada, home was the Masferré Country Inn & Restaurant, which is steeped in log-cabin, lace-curtain mountain kitsch. The dining room is generally full of tourists, the menu is seemingly extensive, Wi-Fi stretches all the way to the guest rooms, the beds are spare yet soft, and the lack of air conditioning is offset by a little balcony.
The food is okay (gristly chicken in the adobo, tasty organic eggs, sweet mango, and spicy bread rolls called floss, which are topped with fish flakes), but service takes forever — until you stand up to leave — and every other thing listed on the menu isn’t actually available. Furnishings throughout the inn looked like they were scavenged from garage sales in the 1970s, and in my room, both the one clip-on reading lamp and the shower head were broken.
But the real Catch-22 of the night was that balcony, which looked out at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, a jumble of houses and an ash-pool where the inn burns its trash. With about 300 feet between the balcony and these adjacent homes, my only choice between nighttime air flow and none was an almost constant soundtrack of country music; a soccer game blaring on a TV, accompanied by the drunken cheers of devoted fans; and just past midnight, an arguing couple screeching at each other in angry Tagalog.
It was pin-drop quiet ’round 1am, but by 2am a pack of dogs thought it great fun to stand on the cliff just beyond the church and bark into the echoing valley, over and over and over. At 4am, local roosters began to crow, at 5am a baby awoke inconsolably crying, and that was then I decided to think of sleeping as something people did elsewhere.
Fortunately, Masferré isn’t the only place to stay in Sagada. There are a few concrete-block, multi-story hotels on the other side of the street and a handful of guest houses. There are also (at this writing, in May 2013) a lovely pair of mountain lodges being built way back on the road just as you enter town; to date, though, no one I’ve asked seemed to know what these are named or when they might be finished and open for business.
It’s also not the only place to eat. About a 5-minute stroll down the main street, the Yoghurt House restaurant is popular with backpackers and prices are very reasonable. Waitresses, who have to cover two floors on foot, are rushed off their feet, so don’t expect dinner to be a quick affair; also, in the kitchen’s frantic haste to feed you, some listed ingredients — like curry and shrimp in curry-shrimp noodles — may be missing.
But the homemade yogurt with fruit and jam is reportedly lovely, the cheese twists are very welcome after a day of schlepping, and they have a delicate way with pasta. Be sure to pick up a pack of homemade cookies for 1000 PHP, as they make a good snack for the ride back to Banaue.
If you’re into coffee, know that coffee-growing and roasting is big in this mountainous area. A popular place to try is Bana’s Cafe & Resto, just a minute’s walk from Yoghurt House. Coffee from here or one of the dry- goods shops in town makes an ideal souvenir from the Philippines, coupled with the colorful purses, scarves, backpacks, shoes and wallets from nearby Sagada Weaving.
The Masferré Country Inn is named for Eduardo Masferré, a Sagada local who between the late 1930s and mid-1950s photographed the ancient customs, culture and people of the Mountain and Ifugao Provinces’ indigenous tribes. Eduardo died in 1995, but his photography graces the inn and his gallery/studio remains nearby.
One of Eduardo’s granddaughters, Christina Aben, leads a rote, inflection-free and nonetheless absolutely fascinating tour of the small Ganduyan Museum in the heart of town. On its antique second floor, the Ganduyan Museum features a slew of artifacts from the local Igorot tribe (Ganduyan is the original Igorot name for Sagada), providing an intimate glimpse of the daily, status-driven lives of this tough and highly-skilled farming community.
Among many other things, I learned from the small, dried-apple Aben that Igorot tribesmen managed the arrogance of Spanish invaders by growing the Spaniards’ tobacco, keeping it for themselves, neglecting to pay taxes on their own land, and chopping off the heads of their oppressors.
Aben wouldn’t allow me to photograph her nor record her voice, but suffice it to say that when she shared this centuries-old information with all of us, it was clear she was deeply proud.
And I couldn’t help agreeing with her.
To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Nine