Saturday, March 10, 2007


THE first time I visited Sagada, which is in the Cordilleras of Northern Luzon, was with my friend Elizabeth. After years of telling her back-home stories, she finally went with me to the Philippines. We were determined to see out-of-the way places. I must mention that even though Elizabeth was born in New York, she spent two years in Guatamela, on a Peace Corps stint, and her tolerance for provincial life is quite high.

Our plan was to visit Manila and Cebu, then travel to Banawe, Sagada, then Baguio, the most exotic places we could think of in the Philippines.

Without prior hotel reservations, and completely on our own, we took the bus to Banawe, traveling from midnight until early morning. The so-so bus ride, restaurant and comfort room conditions didn't faze Elizabeth one bit.

In Banawe, we found an hotel near the marketplace. It was a strange room they gave us: the shower stuck out above the toilet and flooded everything when you took a shower.

We looked at it, shrugged our shoulders and declared it didn't matter because we would only spend one night there.

We spent our day in Banawe by shopping in the marketplace, buying gorgeous woven blankets for the most part, and finally having to buy woven bags to accommodate our purchases. We also visited the section with weavers and carvings. Elizabeth took many pictures and promised many of the local people she would send them pictures; which she later did.

Our only night in Banawe was spent in the hotel's restaurant that faced some rice terraces. There was a tree nearby that was filled with fireflies; and Elizabeth and I ate our supper totally mesmerized by the flickering tree.

The next day we hired a jeep to take us to Sagada. Seven hours, the driver said. The bus driver from Manila had said it would take seven hours to get to Banawe. By this time, Elizabeth and I were getting the idea that people like to say "seven hours" for a long trip, regardless of how long it really took.

We had coffee in the hotel restaurant, forgot to pay the bill, and left with our woven bags and blankets in a jeepney with God-awful shocks.

Our driver brought us to more rice terrace sites where old people in costume wanted their pictures taken for a fee. Then we took off for Sagada.

I'd been hearing about Sagada from people, artists and writers mostly, who raved about Sagada. They talked of a fantastic waterfall; they talked of memorable hikes; of lush forests; of mysterious caves with mummies. My imagination hung on to Sagada and wove all sorts of fantasies. I swore to Elizabeth that Sagada was an enchanted place, even though I could not give her details about the place.

We drove over bumpy, unpaved, dirt road, so narrow, and so high above cliffs that tumbled down into a sea of green pines. It rained, the road now turned muddy, and several times, the jeep stalled, and I was certain we would be stuck in this unnamed mountain in the Cordilleras.

But eventually, we made it to a town called Bontoc, which had a restaurant, a bathroom that didn't flush but had a barrel of water available. It even had a museum with artifacts about the people and culture of the Cordilleras. What stays with me is the display of a dead man strapped onto a chair; it had been the custom of the ancient peoples to keep their dead that way. For weeks they sat in that chair, a spirit guard now, in front of their homes. And even when body fluids oozed out of the openings, the corpses remained. At some point, the bodies were wrapped and kept in their homes. Later the bones would be cleaned and buried in a jar.

This gruesome information lingered for quite a long time.

We should have suspected something was wrong when the restaurant owner mentioned a fiesta in Sagada; but we didn't know what that meant exactly. More precisely, we didn't know a "fiesta" meant there would be no hotel rooms available in Sagada.

"There are no more rooms," the German tourist told us when we walked into the best hotel in Sagada.

"What about ..." and we mentioned the other hotels in town.

No, all full. "I took the last room here," the German said. "You'll have to go to the hospital.

The hospital?

I looked Elizabeth and said, “We should turn back right and return to Bontoc.”

There was a little fire in her eyes when she said, "No, let's take a look at the hospital."

Our driver took us to St. Theodore's which had been built by Americans at the turn of the century.

Our driver looked energized, as if he couldn't wait to return back to Banawe and report about our goings-on. "No, I'll take your bags in," he insisted.

I was whining. I know I must have whined: Let's just turn back and go to Bontoc. I'm sure there's a room there. A hospital? What are we doing here?

Elizabeth talked to the nurse behind the desk. "Oh yes," she acknowledged, "all hotels are full. We have a room down here with only three sick people." she said.

Elizabeth and I both howled. "No!"

"Upstairs I have a room that's empty," the nurse said.

We followed her up old wooden stairs that creaked with each step. Our driver was right behind us, his eyes glinting with laughter. I really wanted to race to his jeep and get out of the hospital. Hospitals are for sick people. People die in hospitals. Hospitals are not cheerful.

The nurse opened a door and showed us a huge room, dorm-style, with around ten beds. "Here it is!" she declared.

She marched to a corner of the room and pointed out two beds. "You can sleep here." She dragged two wooden dividers to section off the two beds. "Here, this is your room," she declared.
The nurse walked off to another part of the room. I stared at the sad-looking metal beds. Just then, Elizabeth gasped.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

She was whacking one of the bed mattresses. "There's blood," she said, "on the mattress."

"Quit hitting it!" I screamed.

"And here's the bathroom," the nurse said from afar, her voice sounding like it came from the deep bowels of the earth.

"A bathroom. There's a bathroom," I said, hopefully. "Is there hot water?"

"There's running water," she replied.

I left the bloody mattresses and went to the bathroom, which was built during the turn-of-the-century. Some American missionaries had traveled deep into the interior of the Philippines and had created a then-modern building with then-modern bathroom. The watercloset was above, near the ceiling, and you had to pull the chain to flush the toilet, which was a simple hole on the ground. There was running water, but the water was ice cold.

Our driver saw all this and noted our reactions. "I have to stop by Bontoc on the way back home," he tempted.

I grabbed my bags and was ready to go to the jeep, but Elizabeth looked at the nurse and smiled, saying, "We'll take it."

And that’s really when the fun began.

First, let me tell you about our supper. We went down to the hospital cafeteria and standing in line, we looked through the window to the kitchen where we saw a couple of people struggling with a dead animal. They were scraping off the skin, cleaning it, as if for roasting. I gave it a cursory glance; roasted pig is not uncommon in the Philippines. But then Elizabeth started hyper-ventilating, “Oh my God, oh my God – it’s a dog!”

And indeed it was. In this part of the Philippines, dog is a delicacy.

The person attending to us quickly said the dog was not for the guests, but only for the local staff. In any case, Elizabeth and I made sure the pansit we ordered did not have a scrap of meat on it.

Then later, after supper and it was getting dark, Elizabeth and I decided to go to the play. We had seen a billboard announcing a play in a nearby school. Sagada is cold in the evening, and we had to wrap ourselves with the Banawe woven blankets that we had with us to keep warm. Down the stairs we went in our strange get-up, and the attending nurse and doctor looked up at us, mouths agape. “Where are you going?” the doctor asked.

“To the play,” we replied in unison.
“What play?” he asked, astonished.
“The play in the school house.”

He told us it wouldn’t be good, but undaunted Elizabeth and I walked to the school. We passed by a vendor selling fried day-old chicks -little fingersized brown things with feet and beak and little wings. Elizabeth took flash pictures of those. And then the play – it was out in the yard, with a stage and numerous chairs for the audience. It was an elaborate production, a kind of local epic story that had to do with lovers being separated. We sat down, then moved because the people in front of us sat on the backs of their chairs to be able to see the stage (and never mind the people behind them). Where we moved, a drunken man sat beside us and made an attempt to pick us up. On the way back to the hospital we had to constantly check to make sure he had not followed us.

We had originally planned to spend a couple of nights in Sagada, but as we looked at our hospital beds, and listened to the wild slamming of the shutters at night, and felt or imagined ghosts in our dorm, we decided to leave on the first bus out of Sagada. Something like 5 a.m. We were on that bus, and couldn’t wait for the driver to get us out of that place.

(Above pictures show: Cecilia Brainard, Doug Noble, Elizabeth Allen, on a 2007 trip back to the Cordilleras; and a shot of Bangaan, Banawe. The Sagada trip was around 1995)

Tags: travel, Sagada, Northern Philippines, #travel #Philippines #ceciliabrainard


emilie said...

hope you made it back to Sagada. It's a beautiful area, with excellent hikes and generally sleepy when there's no fiesta going on.

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard said...

Thanks for your comment. No, I haven't been back. Maybe someday, if God wills it.