The Lizardo bus was small, the dirt road was narrow, and the cliffs seemed eternally perilous.
. The writer in me instantly provided a metaphor, perhaps to soothe my slowly fraying nerves: there must be sufferance first in order to behold beauty. Diamonds, for example, after years and years of heat and pressure in the bowels of the earth. Sagada was my prospective diamond, and I was traveling to it.
Sagada had always been my dream trek ever since my artist friend Krevo Apuzen journeyed to meet Eduardo Masferré in his pink tin house more than ten years ago (before the Father of Philippine Photography died in 1995), when we were still in college and dreamed the dreams of romantic backpackers. I had backpacked once or twice before when I was in my early 20s, but never around the Philippines. In the years since then, Sagada remained a dream, a dot on the map I would point to a friend to say, “I’ll visit that place some day,” knowing full well that this may be just talk—the idle chatter of dreamers who would never really seize the chance. Now, suddenly—at 32 years old—I wanted fulfillment while I was still young and had firm bones.
But first, there must be this perilous road, all seven hours of it, the last two a test of faith.
But my grey-haired bus driver, his old Ilocano face handsome but lined and browned by the sun, seemed apathetic to the difficult road he was negotiating—and there was somehow a strange comfort in that. He drove, in stretches, with the confidence of the reckless, but he was often steady. In the middle of the winding road up the Cordillera mountains, the bus got stuck in the mud, and he barked at everybody to get off to help push the bus out of the rut. There were moments in the journey where the bus had to tango with buses and cars coming from the opposite direction, the driver reversing and making space for traffic to get past the narrow spaces between the sides of the mountain and airy, plunging cliffs. Sometimes, in the middle of his driving, the bus driver would speak in a sing-song tongue that must be Igorot or Kankana-ey, and in a cutting manner that seemed to me brusque (was he angry?
I thought). Sometimes, there would be music from a stereo speaker. Country music. And more country. Later on, the artist Brian Uhing would tell me over dinner (my first one in Sagada) that that ubiquitous country pipe-in music can be the most challenging to deal with, more so than the rough road. “Can you imagine? If you fall into the ravine, the last song syndrome that would take you into eternity would be ‘Country road, take me home, to a place I belong…’”
Sagada reveals its charm to the first-timer slowly. The bus snakes its way, almost deliberately, into the junction in the middle of town, past pine trees and vegetable gardens and hills and houses with walls made of sheets of galvanized iron, some painted, some not. In front of the police station and the adjacent market place (just stalls lined up together, marked by big and colorful parasols), the bus makes its stop before it continues uphill towards Besao town. I got down, and there were more tin houses to behold, a beautiful stone church in the middle of a green field, and, of course, more tin houses lining three cemented roads (like branches of a tree) that would soon prove to the visitor to be the main arteries with which to see all of Sagada. The sight of these tin houses all huddled together can at first be disappointing, if you expect Igorot heaven and clusters of huts everywhere. The design of most buildings is haphazard, aesthetics bordering on chaos, but all pulled in by the common theme of A-frames and tin walls. Still, they somehow grow on you, and when that happens, you realize you have fallen head-over-heels in love with Sagada without knowing it. Like the native fishing basket for which it was named (a tale of miscommunication between Spanish soldiers and natives of yore), Sagada nets you in.
There are inns everywhere, which tell you how Sagada is fast-becoming a much-visited haven for the harried outsider (and there are a lot of us, everybody coming from the pressure cooker of the lowlands). There is St. Joseph’s. George’s Guest House. Rock In. Igorot Lodge. Sagada Guest House. Alfredo’s. A lot more. I chose Sagada Homestay, a 7-minute uphill walk from the munisipyo
, because many people suggested it, such as the artist Cez Nuñez-Uhing (Brian’s wife, who made her welcome through a flood of text messages as my bus climbed its way to town), and Kawayan de Guia, Kidlat Tahimik’s artist son, whom I had met at a videoke party in Camp John Hay the night before I left for Sagada. And Homestay proved ultimately charming, clean, and cheap—the three big C’s for budget traveling.
The climate in the summer season (from March to April) is temperate, mildly hot at noontime, but it gets really cold when evening hits, and the town, by 7 p.m., becomes dark and quieter still, the narrow twisting streets illuminated only by the lights streaming out of the cafes and restaurants still open. There is a 9 p.m. curfew, but everybody tells me to pay no need. There is no use staying out late, though. There is no nightlife, but there are bonfire picnics, mostly in the backyards of inns, where one warms up with other fellow travelers, sharing a beer, a smoke, and small talk. The travelers are mostly young. Most are in search of something.
By daylight, Sagada wakes early, but only barely. That’s one of its odd charms. In town, nothing stirs much, except for the people walking
everywhere. There are barely any vehicles, and so everybody walks. One has to know this fact, again and again: you walk
in Sagada, uphill and downhill and everywhere else. You walk till blisters come and muscles ache—but it’s all worth it. Good shoes or sandals are thus of prime importance, and so is a warm winter coat.
The tourists crawling all over town are the most obvious to spot—they’re the ones dressed in the strange lowland garb, looking both lost and expectant, with cameras forever slung around their necks. They’re the ones that are often red in the face, huffing and puffing from the endless hikes from here to everywhere. They’re the ones who are often boorish, with bearings strange to encounter in a mountain culture: a couple liplocks in the middle of town; an American girl goes around with what almost looks like a bra; one city slicker in Masferré Café was eating his lunch with his shirt off; and a European in another café was demanding that she be given a sachet of instant coffee without a sugar mix—“I don’t take
sugar,” she barked at the waitress. But the waitress just looked at her with a bored expression, and promptly went to the store downstairs to buy just the type of instant coffee the woman was demanding for. Locals secretly call the main road that starts from Sagada Homestay down to Yoghurt House as “The Snake Pit,” simply because the stretch abounds with tourists, some of whom can be quite assertive; and so many of the locals—especially those whose trade directly involves dealing with visitors—have learned to be a bit more brusque. “The farmers,” Brian said, “are often a friendlier bunch.”
The locals strike me as hardy people, short and squat, and dressed in the common uniform of long-sleeved shirts—all of them exuding shy warmth, although their friendliness can prove to be quite tentative. I took that instead as a distinctive mountain people hospitality. They have an earthiness to them that seemed to slow down the demands of the universe. From them I learned to adjust to new bearings: slow down
, I told myself. True enough, my first meal in town, in Francis’ Restaurant right smack in the center of Sagada (where else?), took time to come. But I didn’t mind. I had already bought a touring map, and was busy taking in the history of the place and the suggested sights to see. My map promised that there were caves and waterfalls and rice terraces to hike to, each spot with an estimate of how long it would take to walk to from the munisipyo
’s zero point (15 minutes to Matangkib, 25 minutes to Bokkong, 2 hours and 30 minutes to Bumod-ok Falls…).
I chose not to do the nature treks—no spelunking or rappelling for claustrophobic me. (Negros brimmed with all those things anyway.) I chose to do anthropology. That meant going down to Echo Valley, past Campo Santo behind the beautiful Church of St. Mary the Virgin, to see the hanging coffins. That meant visiting Masferré’s pink house, and going through his gorgeous black-and-white photography of old Sagada. That meant visiting a dap-ay
. That meant going to the pottery workshop to look for Lope Bosaing. And that meant getting a chance to talk to Villias Jefremovas, a Canadian anthropologist and art aficionado who was married to the photographer and anthropologist Joachim Voss. They had come to Sagada thirty years before to survey its anthropological heritage, and stayed. Now she was known to be a culture maven around town (and even in Baguio), hobnobbing with the region’s artists and cultural movers and shakers, and occasionally giving what was reputed to be the best dinners in the highlands. We met quite by accident, when she came by Cez’s place for tea, where I had been invited to have a welcome vegetarian dinner, which was quite a relief after a week of eating meat in Baguio for the U.P. National Writers Workshop. There we were, drinking rose tea, Cez, Villias, and I, while Brian was off somewhere in the mountains, painting. Villias—in a blouse of black flowered print, her curly hair muddy blond—talked fast and gave me, in an hour or so, Sagada 101, a breathless narrative through Cordillera politics, culture, and gossip. It was enlightening, although I had to think fast to sort through the barrage of information and the multilayers of narrative (at one point, she was talking about her daughter and the techniques of painting at the same time
). She knew absolutely everybody, from BenCab to Kidlat to Butch Perez, and talked about them as one would his neighbors. She knew all the little details of things. And when dusk came, she simply stood up, and said, “Since I live at the opposite end of town, I have to go before it gets too dark and chilly.” And off she went.
Things take their time here, and they move like molasses. I took note of that quality when I woke up the morning of my second day ready to do some more walking. Cez had already told me that in Sagada, time warps, and twenty-four hours can become forty-eight. “A good thing, or a bad thing?” I asked. She smiled, and said, “I suppose, both.” Soon, it was 9:30 a.m., and I was on top of Calvary Hill, negotiating a path that took me through the town cemetery. The quiet from everywhere first overwhelmed me, and then it became quite soothing. I decided that the morning was a good time to do some reading, and so I spent a whole hour just sitting there on top of that hill, content with being quiet, just reading. In the distance, the buzzing of a chainsaw cut through the stillness, the sound carried by the breeze, but when the whirring stopped, it was quickly filled in by a palpable silence. And that was when it struck me: the universe, as concentrated in Sagada, was like molasses, and any disturbance was quickly swallowed by the thickness of stillness. The whole experience—being alone, breathing the cold mountain air with a view of distant cliffs and pine trees everywhere—somehow moved me to pray. And I did. I prayed on the mountain, the sky tapping me on my shoulder. And I must have cried, too, because I felt a strange wetness around my eyes. Sagada, the roof of the Philippines, is where you come to meditate, to make peace with who you are, to reach out to the Divine and actually get an answer. The answer comes in birds chirping everywhere, and you are suddenly privy to their secret vocabulary. And they tell you: It’s all right
Why are the best of journeys ultimately loaded with the cloaking of pilgrimage? When I scanned the notes I’d made in my journal before I boarded the Dangwa bus in Baguio to this little town tucked in the heavens of Mountain Province, I noticed that I had made a testament for why I had thrown myself into this movement of packing bags and going to a place I had only longed for in my dreams: “This will be a journey of self-rediscovery,” I wrote.
Thinking back to that moment I had penned those words—so laden with angst (or perhaps quarter-life melancholy?)—I remember a vague awareness of how I was
in the scheme of things spiritual. It had always gone this way: the passing years a baptism of fire and ice to life’s endless dramas. I must have felt that there was no getting away from being marked by too much grownup disappointments in difficult people and simmering anger towards stupid things, as well as the brutal joys and the rare celebrations of affirmation. The number years being stuck in the humidity of Dumaguete had perhaps bled me of any original gesture, of a full-blooded sense of living. Not that I don’t love the place where I have made my home—but perhaps I have stayed too much within the dangerous borders of my comfort zone that I had come undone in the burdens of small things I had mistaken as “things-to-do” and “life’s urgent responsibilities.”
I must have thought, writing that note of “self-rediscovery,” that there was a way of getting out of that spiritual drowning. Traveling, it readily seemed, was the perfect antidote to all that. In traveling, the self and the outside world converge to draw a map of divine awareness and earthly practicality, etched little by little with every byway and cranny one treads and trespasses. I have come to believe that when you move
, on the road, you are most aware of who
you are and where
you are, and most aware of the dynamics between these two realities.
Often we do find ourselves in our travels, as I had in Sagada; often, we get answers to some of our life’s questions—but often, we also find more questions in need of more journeys. That’s okay. Life is a process.
But I must say we do hear
ourselves more clearly in the middle of traveling to unfamiliar places, the just rewards for coming so far from the stultifying banality of the familiar to test our spirits and how it copes in the challenges of making the road.
Sagada has given me that test, and even while still on the road, I am already home.