A Piece of Home at the Rice Terraces

For the second half of our Easter break, Jeff and I set out to complete our October break plan: hiking in Banaue and Batad. The plans we had made earlier in the school year were scrapped after Jeff tore his ACL, so we had to spend that break island hopping in and around Caramoan. I know, boo hoo.

After saying our good-byes to Jeff’s parents who were brave enough to come visit us, we made the 9-hour drive to Banaue. It was pretty miserable, and we didn’t even have the reward of a beautiful view once we reached our destination because it was well after sunset and completely dark and cloudy. After dinner, we met with our guide, Denwil, to make an itinerary for our two days in Batad; then we headed straight to bed.

I woke the next morning (early) to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and groaned inwardly. I had forgotten to pack our rain jackets. I checked the time – 5:00 AM – and hoped the rain would subside before our 9 AM departure. Lucky for us, I got my wish.

We had a nice breakfast on the deck of Sanafe Lodge, overlooking the Banaue terraces, which are considered the 8th Wonder of the World. Gorgeous as they were, I had my sights set on the terraces of Batad – much harder to get to and supposedly well worth the effort.

The jeepney picked us up at 9:00 on the dot, and we made our way around the curves of the mountains, clinging to the handrails for dear life. Our driver played old Conway Twitty and George Strait, and as I looked out the window at the 2,000 year old rice terraces, I couldn’t help but think of home. Sure, Iowa is a lot flatter and about 1/10 as old, but there was something about the atmosphere that reminded me of home.

After about an hour, we arrived at Saddle, the point at which we said good-bye to transportation and began our hike. From Saddle to Batad was about a 30-minute descent. We passed a few groups on our way, and entered Batad at it’s apex, the terraces and the village spread out beneath us. I had seen plenty of pictures of Batad’s terraces prior to our trip, but the old cliche still stands: the pictures do not do it justice. The terraces wrapped around the sides of the mountains, and tucked in the center was Batad with its houses perched on the sides of the man-made terrace ridges. It was like standing in a giant, open ampitheater – like the Coliseum had been split down the side, filled with lush, green plants, and magnified by 100. In short, it was magnificent.

After a quick stop to register and pay our environmental fee, we made our way down to our inn, Pension Guesthouse. To say our room was simple would be an understatement. Our room was upstairs (this becomes important later on) and had walls made of plywood, brightly painted with one thin coat of yellow. The windows swung open with no screens, which meant bugs if you turned on the lights at night. The bed was pretty narrow for two people, and there was barely enough room for it in the space provided. We knew what we were getting into, coming to an out-of-the-way place like Batad, so the accommodations weren’t really a disappointment, just a reality check. The perk I most looked forward to at the swanky Pension Guesthouse was that it boasted the only hot water showers in Batad. Up in the mountains, it was MUCH colder than down in Subic, so a hot shower was a must.

We had a quick lunch and set out on our hike to the waterfall. From afar, the terraces just looked like steps, but up close, those steps were about 5-6 feet tall and had smaller steps for traversing. We would walk up several set of stairs, then forward on the ledge of a terrace, then up some more, and so on. It reminded me of a giant vertical maze. We wound up and around the village of Batad and across to the opposite side of the crescent. Our inn was visible directly across from us before we began or descent to the waterfall. At the start of the stairs, several groups of people were resting and taking in the view. While we took a quick break, several groups made their way up from the waterfall, panting, gasping for air. One girl breathed, “I’m dying. This is hell.” What were we getting ourselves into?

My question was answered quickly as we started our descent – straight down. The stairs were incredibly steep, and sections with out stairs contained loose gravel and rock. The trip down was a bit of a challenge, but it was the climb back up that was truly daunting and explained the pained looks on the faces of those we’d just passed.

But I forgot about the return trip as soon as we saw the falls, which we could hear long before they came into view. A small hut sat on cliff, and several hikers were taking a rest and photographs. We stopped to do the same; then Denwil pointed out the way to the falls – more descending. The mist from the falls was incredibly refreshing after all that hiking, and though it was clear that the water was COLD, Jeff and I had planned to swim, and swim we would!

The floor of the pool at the bottom of the falls was all mossy rocks, which eliminated any chance of quickly jumping in, so we had to wade s-l-o-w-l-y out into the frigid water until it was deep enough to dive in. The water was freezing! It was impossible not to scream once fully submerged, but the shock to the system had a rejuvenating affect. Several other hikers made their way down to the falls, but weren’t “man” enough to take the plunge with us.

After we dried off, we started the long hike back up to Batad. Fortunately, the hike up went a lot faster than I expected, but I was still gasping for air when we ascended over the ridge and the rice terraces came back into view.

Denwil took us through the village and stopped at his mother-in-law’s home to visit. His daughter was staying there, visiting for a few days. While they spoke quietly, Jeff and I took a rest and just observed our surroundings. The homes in Batad are extremely simple. Many people live in small huts raised off the ground. The interior is one simple room used for sleeping, eating, and cooking. Underneath the raised platform is where most people spend their time during the day, sitting on benches, working, and preparing meals. These are the traditional homes, which some villagers still live in, but modern homes are becoming more popular. These look like well-constructed versions of the traditional huts with tin roofs and wood walls. Denwil explained that these homes are much sturdier and nicer, but they also get a lot hotter, and the noise during rainy season is magnified by the metal roof.

After the visit with his mother-in-law, Denwil took us down through the village, and we stopped to visit with the village weaver. She had blankets and traditional clothing hanging up for sale. I asked how long it takes to make one blanket: 20 days.

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The village was tiny and took no time at all to wander through. As we exited the village limits, Denwil asked if we wanted to go straight back to the inn or take the long way up the other side of the terraces. Jeff and I are fairly stubborn and prideful people. I don’t know how he was feeling after our two hikes, but I was exhausted. Still, there was no way I was going to admit that, so we agreed to take the longer hike up and around the other side of the terraces.

It was tiring, but the view from that side of the terraces was beautiful. We stopped for awhile to sit and enjoy the view before continuing on. As we sat looking out at the terraces, a man carrying 5 or 6 7-foot long logs on his shoulder came down the hill beside us. I stared in awe as he made his way down the steep trail, carrying his cumbersome load of wood. He didn’t seem to be struggling in the least. In our time in Batad, we saw several men carrying heavy loads of bamboo, wood, or rebar. We saw farmers working when the sun was barely up and after it had set. We saw women and children hulling rice. People we were working day and night, but they always found time for fun. They knew the importance of hard work and hard play. I was again reminded of Iowans.

We made it back to the inn before dinner and decided to shower. After all that sweating and the cool breezes, I was chilly and ready for a hot, refreshing shower. Imagine my disappointment when I turned on the water and nothing but ice water poured from the faucet. I held my breath and bit back shrieks to take a 15-second shower, at which point I couldn’t take the cold anymore. I inquired after my shower and found out the water heater was broken. Perfect.

We ate dinner, and with nothing much else to do (no TV, no internet, no cell service, and no books!) and exhausted from hiking, we went to bed. Vacation and we were in bed before 9.

The next morning, we both woke up to incredibly stiff and sore muscles. Those stairs became a nightmare. Our bathroom was on the main floor, as was the dining area. Every step was painful! And we had a full day of hiking ahead of us. We popped a couple of ibuprofen, ate a big breakfast, and headed out for a day hike to Cambulo, the next village over.

The hike to Cambulo took about two hours. After we got moving, our muscles loosened up and the aches became tolerable. Most of this hike was through the forest, but we were still traveling paths on the mountainside, so the views were breathtaking. The first 20 minutes of the hike took us through the Batad terraces. Our paths along the edges of the terraces were extremely narrow, and the “steps” leading up and down the tiers were small rocks jutting out of the terrace walls. It was clear that this path was far less traveled than our previous hike down to the waterfall.

We made it to the village border faster than expected (something Jeff and I couldn’t help but feel proud of) and took a short break for water and rest. Just up the hill and around a corner, Cambulo came into view. Unlike Batad, Cambulo was right on the river. The terraces didn’t go as far up the mountain, and a lot of them were overgrown from neglect, but the view was still amazing. A father and his daughters planted rice in a terrace, listening to American country music as they worked. They stopped to smile and nod as us as we passed by.

We walked through Cambulo, stopped at a guest house for a drink, and watched some children playing… with an axe. After a quick trip out to the suspension bridge on the other side of the village, we headed back to Batad. The hike back felt a lot longer, but we still made it in the estimated two hours.

Denwil had to head back to Banaue to pick up his next tour group, so we had the rest of the afternoon and evening to ourselves. I talked Jeff into expending our last ounces of energy hiking back down to the Batad village to buy a blanket from the weaver.

After dinner, we got massages! Many of the women in the village make a living as masseurs. They come to the guesthouses and give massages to the weary hikers. Had I not been so ridiculously sore, I probably would’ve enjoyed the massage a lot more, but some of my muscles were so tender I could barely stand to have them touched. Jeff felt the same way. It would be three days before we felt 100% again. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I can check a UNESCO World Heritage site off my list. I’ve seen a place on earth few people ever get the chance to visit. Disconnecting from the outside world for a few days was refreshing. All the aches and pains just made me feel like I earned it.

The next morning we set out early for Saddle. The last part of this ALL up-hill hike was a staircase of something like 300 steps. I wanted to cry when I saw it looming before me. Jeff turned on his “coach” persona and had me up those stairs in less than 20 minutes. We finished with a Rocky-style fist pump and rejoiced. At Saddle, we finally had cell phone service, and Jeff checked his phone to find that our friends Ryan and Ashley had gotten engaged! After the first moments of excitement and listening to the messages, we looked at each other, both thinking the same thing: we’re missing out on another important milestone in the lives of the people we love. Glenna’s baby was weeks old, Jeff’s parents had left just a few days ago, everything in Batad reminded me of home, and now we had this wonderful, yet bittersweet, moment. It was right then that I felt so far away, so remote and removed from my life that I wanted to cry. I was in the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, and all I wanted was to go HOME.

I know there will be many more moments like that. No one ever said (least of all me!) that this would be easy. I try to look on the bright side: living so far away has taught me to appreciate the people and places that make my life so special. Our trip home this summer will be full of fantastic moments and memories because we’ve learned to value the time we have with the people we care about.

After waiting over an hour for a jeepney ride back down to Banaue, we were finally on our way. We got back to Sanafe Lodge and wolfed down a warm breakfast. I had spent most of the past 2 days FREEZING when we weren’t hiking. Nothing had prepared me for how much colder it would be in the Mountain Province. (In reality, the temperature probably never got below 65. I have completely acclimated to tropical weather and will no doubt freeze to death when we come back to Iowa this summer.) While eating, we called several inns and hotels in Sagada to try and find a room for the night. Easter holiday is a very popular time for Filipinos to travel, and we had made a poor decision by procrastinating on booking lodging. Luckily, our third call was successful, and we had a nice room right off the main road.

The 3 to 4 hour drive to Sagada was beautiful and… adventurous. The roads were extremely windy and often unpaved, but the trip was well worth it. I loved Sagada! It reminded me of a really laid back college town. We saw a lot more tourists here. The town is made up of mostly independent business owners, farmers, and skilled laborers. Aside from food, the area is known for weaving and pottery.

Our room at the Canaway Inn was in a second building off the main road made up of 3 floors with a living room, balcony, and bathrooms for each floor of three rooms – ideal for larger groups of travelers. Although small, our room was the nicest we’d stayed on the whole trip. I dropped my bag and hopped in the shower, relieved to feel the steaming stream. It’s the little things you learn to value while traveling in remote places!

After showering, we headed out to find food. I’d been told by other teachers that Sagada was known for its yogurt. I know this sounds like a ridiculous thing to be known for, but yogurt is pretty hard to come by here. I hadn’t had any since June, so I was ecstatic to try some of the homemade variety. It didn’t disappoint. The mountainous regions are also known for their strawberries, which I ate every chance I got. Strawberries in Subic can cost upwards of $5 for a small carton.

We made our way out to the hanging coffins, Sagada’s main tourist attraction, and I was shocked by the sheer number of people we saw. The short hike down to the coffins was packed with people, and we had to wait for several large groups to go by. Once we got down to the coffins, the crowds were a lot thinner, so we were able to get up close and take our time.

As we passed a group of hikers, Jeff mentioned that one of the guys looked like a basketball player from BSM, a school we had played at the ISAC tournament. I didn’t think much of it, but Jeff’s not shy, so he asked them if they were from BSM. They exchanged weird looks and explained that they were all college students studying abroad at Ateneo University in Manila. We talked briefly, and it didn’t take us long to find out that one of the girls was from IOWA! What are the odds?!?! As is customary when meeting a fellow Iowan, I started asking her about where she was from: Des Moines and where she went to high school: Dowling. Jeff’s Uncle Jerry is the president of Dowlng. When we mentioned this, she explained that she had worked for Jerry while in high school! Such a small world. We ended up hanging out with them that night and found out that Liz (the Iowan) is also the cousin of one of our friends. We figured this out while vehemently arguing for Iowa’s awesomeness with the “city” boys from the East and West Coasts. In our debate, we were listing amazing restaurants in Des Moines, and she asked if we’d ever eaten at Latin King (YUM!). I explained that we knew the owner’s niece and had eaten there with them. She laughed, “Tina is my cousin!”

Hanging out with Liz and her friends that night was wonderful. It was like having a piece of home in the Philippines. Liz embodied everything I love about Iowa: warm and friendly, welcoming, and full of Iowa pride.

Our last day in Sagada, we hiked to another cave to see more hanging coffins, but decided not to do the cave tour. On our last test of clothes and still sore from the hiking in Batad, we didn’t feel up for slippery walks and neck-deep water. Another time.

The trip was an amazing experience, a must-see for anyone visiting or living in the Philippines. Aside from the stunning views, what made the biggest impression on me was how much it reminded me of home. The people, the atmosphere, the country music. If I wasn’t homesick before, this place made it so. But at the same time, it was refreshing to find a little piece of home so far from it. It’s a place I will definitely visit again.
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