Head On

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the trip.
–Babs Hoffman

On one lazy afternoon we decided to go to the movies. The Outlaw Josey Wales had just been released and was showing at one of the swankier cinemas in town. The movie was subtitled so there was little incentive for the locals to keep the noise down and throughout the show balut hawkers walked the aisles loudly advertising and selling their chicken embryos.

When the show finished, we walked out through the ground floor foyer and on the balcony above were about thirty Filipino men looking down, and directly at us. Carmel was wearing a classy Chinese-style dress she had picked up in Penang. It was essentially held together by small cotton hooks and loops. We were the only strangers in town, which is apt for a Western I suppose, and she turned to me.

Why do you think they’re staring at us? 

I turned and cast my eyes downward. A loop had left its hook during the movie.

Probably because your right breast is out of your dress. 

We left for the rice terraces of Banaue very early the next morning.

Our bus consisted of six rows of timber benches from one side of the bus to the other. That meant that there was no central aisle and the entire left side of the bus was open to the elements. I found out later that our escape route from Baguio was to take us on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The ‘mountain trail’, as it is locally known, goes as high as 2225 metres with some sheer drop offs of over 300 metres. This road takes your breath away and potential death has never looked so green and lush. We were heading to the staggeringly beautiful rice terraces of Banaue.

There were only a few passengers, which was unusual for a local bus. But it was clearly on a delivery run, as the roof was seriously overloaded with cartons, chickens, a pig, a couple of tyres, a small motorbike and somewhere, our backpacks. The driver was a dedicated smoker and once in that driving seat it was clear he was above the humdrum business of stacking the luggage or dealing with passengers. We paid the young offsider the fare and waited. And waited. Finally, a young soldier joined us on our bench and we set off. He had no bag, just his M-16. In his right ear he sported the biggest silver earring I’ve ever seen – it was the size of a saucer. In his left ear, like most of the other passengers, were one or two peso coins.  I’m guessing he was our escort for the journey since this part of Luzon had only been re-opened to foreigners in March 1976. Although still active, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National People’s Army, had been quiet of late.

With our young bodyguard on board, we spend the next 10 hours making our way cautiously around steep mountain sides, often stopping to assess the safety of a crumbling edge on a narrow curve, or playing chicken with the occasional oncoming vehicle on the one lane gravel road. When the road widens at the occasional small settlement or lone bamboo roadside stall, we might stop so our driver could have a cigarette standing up and the rest of us find some relatively private place to pee. Any reasonably wide flat space along the length of the journey seemed to be taken up with rice and chilli drying – sometimes on plastic or bamboo mats, sometimes not.

We arrive as the mist settles and the moon is on the rise. The village of Banaue is small and feels like an outpost of some kind. After getting off the bus and retrieving our packs, which have been thrown from the roof onto the dirt road, we find ourselves outside the lone hotel. It is a pale green, two-story timber construction, slightly askew, with a downstairs restaurant open to the night and a few rooms on the first floor. Kerosene lanterns orbited by night insects light the downstairs tables and the kitchen area. There is no electricity although we can hear a generator somewhere off in the darkness. Two of the tables are occupied by young soldiers, their M-16s stacked haphazardly in a nearby corner.

At another table towards the rear are a couple of travellers about our age, so we walk over and ask to sit down. Chris and Juliette are from New Zealand and have only been here for twenty-four hours. Chris is recovering from an illness and enjoying the mild days and cool nights here in the mountains. We order some rice and warm San Miguels. The soldiers are not staying at the hotel, so after our dinner we take an empty room upstairs and fall into bed. I wake at first light and walk to the shuttered window. Arriving at a destination at night usually brings unwanted complications, but one of the enduring joys is that first look at your surroundings in daylight. In that moment just before opening the peeling shutters I am of high anticipation. As I unhinge and pull them back, there is a murmur from the bed:

What can you see?

Nothing much. Just some impossibly green, thousand-year-old hand-made terraces, climbing about three hundred metres up and around the sides of this out-thrusting ridge. You can see the morning clouds reflected in the water of each terrace. You hungry?

We spend the next few days wandering the local paths about the terraces and encountering the local Ifugao (‘people of the hill’). The hamlets we pass through are generally small with clusters of seven or eight timber and palm single-room, pyramid shaped dwellings raised about a metre or two off the ground. Animal skulls often decorate the rims of these houses and many have a pig’s skull at the doorway. On one walk we come across a couple of dwellings that have human skulls at the entrance. In the normal turn of events the Ifugao bury their dead only to dig up the bones after six years and then later repeat the process. It’s not that uncommon, I’m told, to be asked if you would like to see the bones of an ancestor, for a small price. We were to meet with the Ifugao later in our travels but not in their mountainous home.

On our last night overlooking the terraces, we again share our meal with soldiers, their weapons, and Kurt, a recent arrival who brings news that there is money to be made in Manila working as an extra on a movie, and that there is a casting call approaching. He shows us the clipping from a Manila newspaper. It reads:

Want to earn P200/day? If you are a Negro, Caucasian or mestizo, call them up at Hemisphere Pictures, tel. 87-45-81 (to 83) local 15 and 12 and 85-17-43 today. The outfit is looking for 500 males between the ages of 16 – 40.

Instead of heading further north, we leave for the capital the next day and do a crash course in navigating the country’s telephone system. In a cheap Manila hotel we meet Paris, a fast-talking San Franciscan who does imitations. I drift off to sleep thinking of searchlights in the sky, cameras, cigars and Paris doing Groucho.