March 2008. Click here for photos.
During my final days in the Philippines, I traveled with Rissa, Ryan, and Riva to Sagada and Banaue in the Cordillera region of northern Luzon. We took the overnight bus to Banaue (almost 12 hours on a bumpy road) and had breakfast overlooking the famous rice terraces. The ancient indigenous Filipinos constructed these staircase-like irrigated terraces so that they could grow rice even in the extremely steep terrain of the mountains. Interestingly, this is one of the only ancient engineering feats that was accomplished without the use of slave labor (compare this to the Egyptian pyramids).
We then took a Jeepney up the steep dirt road to Bontoc and eventually Sagada. When we got out in this ethereal village, the first thing I noticed was the frequent splotches of orange coloration on the concrete pavement. Ryan explained that this was caused by locals chewing Betel nut, a mild stimulant, and spitting out the juice, which stains the pavement. Our jeepney driver allowed me to sample one from his pouch. He wrapped the nut in a ‘betel leaf’ and added some white powder. I tried to chew it but the bitter taste caused my cheeks to pucker as if I was eating a sour persimmon. I quickly spat it out, with an anguished expression which greatly amused the local passers-by.
Sagada was a wonderful contrast to Manila, with clean air, a very slow pace of life, and relatively safe and predictable foot and vehicle traffic. We enjoyed pancakes for breakfast, swimming in a giant cave, hiking along the spiny Karst ridges, exploring the steep cliffs where local ancestors were buried in hanging coffins, and meeting some of the other travelers. We befriended four German visitors; two were biochemistry and stem cell graduate students. They taught me how to say “I am a beautiful angel” in German: Ich bin eine wunderbare Enggel! I kept repeating it as we walked back to the town from our caving adventure because it was cold and raining and I wanted to keep my mind occupied.
On the long, sleepless return to Manila, I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels between Sagada and Monteverde, Costa Rica, where I spent 5 months in college studying the rain forest. It seemed fitting that my studies of tropical life, and my inspiration to apply for a grant that would send me to the other side of the world, away from everyone and everything I knew and loved, would both begin and conclude in a small town surrounded by cloud forests and cow pastures. I wondered what my friends from Costa Rica, North Carolina, and Washington and Lee were doing back in the Western Hemisphere, and felt for the first time a strong tug homeward.