Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sagada Part Two: Coffins and a Cave

Good mornings in Sagada on our veranda and the street below.

We were struck by how much the mountain town reminded us of central Oregon.  The pine trees and mountains felt a little like home, though with the smattering of tropical trees it might have been a stretch.  (Maybe we are just really missing home after being away for fourteen months!)

After our unexpected full day trek, we took it easy for a day in Sagada.  We went on a leisurely (emphasis on leisurely) walk through town to a vegan organic cafĂ© and enjoyed lunch on a patio with a view.  

On our last full day in Sagada we made sure to see the city’s most amazing attractions. 
Echo Valley is home to the most famous hanging coffins in Sagada.  We took a walk through a cemetery, down a narrow path and into the deep valley to see what all the fuss is about.

We also booked a guide to take us inside Sumaguing Cave, Sagada’s most mysterious.

Once inside we followed our guide’s gas lantern and worked hard to steady ourselves among rocks slippery with water drips and bat poo.
We were amazed at our leader’s sure-footedness, who told us the first time he entered the cave was at age twelve.   He pointed out multiple massive formations as we went, including this turtle.

Later he showed us  the formation of a pregnant woman...
 ...and the father of her child. 

“Does he look big enough for her?” our guide asked.  
“Uhhh….” Ryan and I answered in surprised unison.
“No,” the guide said smiling.  “The water is cold.”

Indeed it was, as we soon found out.

We removed our shoes and dressed down to our swimsuits.  Unique, sticky rock made the walk fairly easy as our guide led us deeper into the cave.  

We crawled through narrow openings, where it was impossible to stand.  We swam through chest deep water and shimmied across rope through small pools and across intricate formations.  Finally we came to a large pool where we had one last swim and marveled at where we were (hundreds of feet underground) and how we’d arrived.  After scaling another rope swing back up (shockingly a first for me) we made our way out of the cave.   

Ryan and I both agreed exploring Sumaguing is one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done.  Again, we feel so lucky to be taking this trip together.
Look for updates on Bali and Lombok soon.

Two months and three more countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand) to go!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sagada Part One: The First Day

Hello from Lombok!
We made the jump from Bali on Saturday and after a short stop in the quiet surf town of Kuta  (not to be confused with the party city of Kuta on Bali) we are now on the western coast in Senggegi.
We were sad to leave Bali and its beauty but are excited to explore more of Indonesia.  More on our time there soon.

Our computer is up and running!  Thanks to an amazing friend of a family friend in Bali, our little netbook has a new hard drive, and for only 500,000 rupiah.  Don't worry, that's only just over $50 US dollars.

Now on to the updates! 

After our adventure in Batad and Banaue we headed east to another mountain town.  The views on the way were amazing and our jeepney stopped along the way for photo ops.

Sagada is a sleepy mountain town in North Luzon famous for its hanging coffins and intricate caves.  We truly enjoyed the leisurely pace of the small city, laid-back and calm compared to the hustle and bustle of other places we’ve been.  A certain "green herb is indulged in regularly, making the locals quite relaxed.  Police seem to look the other way on this issue, though in the evening the smell is hard to ignore.

We quickly settled into "the pink room" at a colorful guesthouse on our first night in town.  

For dinner we indulged in a buffet put on by a local restaurant. 
Every Saturday the resident  French chef  gathers fresh ingredients from the local farmer’s markets and prepares a feast.  We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for the first Saturday buffet since June.  It was incredible.  Local greens and  tender vegetables, smoky bean soup with fresh herbs, hot sliced foccacia bread, potatoes cooked perfectly, and savory chicken and pork roast to satisfy Ryan.  We finished the meal with egg ice cream, walnut apple pound cake and a yogurt tart served with mountain coffee.  It felt like Thanksgiving.  We welcomed the home cooking after weeks on the road. 

Still tired from our trek through the rice fields in Batad, we decided on a low-key day around town the next morning.  With a Canadian guy we’d met the previous day we strolled along the sunny streets and made our way to Lumiang Cave and its carved wooden coffins.  A peek inside a splintered coffin confirmed it-bones.  Those who are buried in the stacked coffins had to have been very wealthy, with multiple animals to sacrifice (upwards of forty pigs or an equal number of cows).

After a quick exploration at the mouth of the cave, we ran into a local expat who suggested a scenic hike within the area.  The three of us set out for what the man said should have taken an hour and a half to two hours.   

Along the way we noted the simple houses and buildings of Sagada.

We made our way along a ridge overlooking the city and were met with beautiful views at the top. 

From there we discussed how to find our way down and back. 
Turn around?  Find a path on the other side? 

Ryan found a path leading down, so off we went.  Unfortunately the path quickly forked, and we had more decisions to make.  One looked more traveled, so we made our choice.  Awhile later we realized there was another looming ridge between us and the way back to town.  

More decisions.  
Do we turn back now?  Do we follow what might be a path up the other tall ridge? 
We decided to keep on trekking, noting a road that we hoped would run into the path we were on. 

It didn’t. 

Instead we strolled on (did I mention it was laundry day and I was in a long dress for what I thought would be a ‘walk along the road?’).  

Along the way we met cows, makeshift bridges and lots of frustration, but since it was still early afternoon we were certain that we’d make it back into town before dark.  We saw a farmhouse and some fields in the distance and decided it would be our best bet to make our way there to ask for further directions.

Don't be fooled by my smile.  I brought new meaning to the word "trooper." 

After we wound our way through his neat rows of cabbage, a nice man told us where to find the road leading back to Sagada.  A couple of paths, one pond, and more tired legs later, we found our way back to town.  
 Five. Hours. Later.

Starving, we were never more thankful for Yoghurt House, a local place where we ate most of our meals in Sagada.  The sandwiches, salads, pastas, and of course, yogurt were delicious.  It was hard to leave without some of  their fresh chocolate chip or lemon oatmeal cookies after a meal too.  Yummm!

We certainly earned our late lunch and beer that day. 

Still smiling after our five hour hike.  
In a dress.  

Hey, it’s the mishaps along the way that make traveling fun. :)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

South of the Equator

Hello from Bali! We arrived from the Philippines on Thursday into Kuta, closest to the airport and the island's most popular surf and party city. After a couple days of taking care of business issues (searching for a place to cash traveler's checks and finding someone to repair our broken netbook) we left behind the bustling city and arrived today in Padang Bai for some relaxing. We have already adapted well to the small beach city and are excited to sightsee and swim tomorrow. The update on Sagada, our last stop in the Philippines will have to wait. Until then, here are our first impressions of our first travel destination south of the equator.

1. We love this island.
2. Southern Bali is full of drunk Aussies on holiday.
3. Due to the strong Hindu population, there are numerous vegetarian restaurants and options specified on every menu. (love this!)
4. Driving here is just as crazy as everywhere else in Asia.
5. The beaches are Increible. Think white sand and turquoise sea.
6. Prices are amazing. As in the Philippines, a clean room at a guesthouse with a private bathroom and breakfast included is $15 or less. A whole red snapper and a half pound of shrimp selected by us and grilled at a local fish market last night was $13. With 2 large beers.
7. We have already discussed extending our existing 30 day visa.
8. We love it here!

When our netbook is returned I promise more detailed posts and pictures. Hunt and peck on the iPod is tedious at best. But just be assured that we are having a great time. Did I mention we love it here?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Into the Mountains: Batad & Banaue

{After our relaxing El Nido days of boat tours, card games, and rum with sweet pineapple juice, we headed north to the island of Luzon.  We have arrived in Sagada, a sleepy mountain town and our last stop in the Philippines.  We are tired!  The last few days have really pushed me both mentally and physically but I persevered and am so glad I did.}

The night bus ride out of El Nido was a bumpy one, and that’s putting it mildly.  When we initially took the van over from Sabang, it maneuvered carefully around half paved roads, taking its time.  The “RoRo bus” however, barreled along the roads with purpose, slowing down for nothing.  Let’s just say, sleep was impossible and we were exhausted as we arrived back in Puerto Princessa at dawn for our afternoon flight. We found an open coffee shop, where a middle aged American ex-pat revealed that he’s married to a Filipino woman younger than his daughter, and that his daughter doesn’t know.  He regaled us with stories of his last ten years in the Philippines including a recent battle with Dengue fever and stories of his work experience on Boracuay, the Philippines’ main party island.  He warned us of the one place to avoid: Port Angeles and its surroundings, the area outside of Clark airport which was once home to a US military base, and whose sex industry is bustling.  Later that night, that’s right where we ended up.

After our flight we had to transfer to a bus terminal which would lead us into the mountains.  Our jeepney dropped us off in an alley reminiscent of the areas in Portland under the bridges at night-dark, seedy and scary.  Children begged for money and everyone stared.  Our goal was to get out of there as quickly as possible.  Cue the next bus to Tarlac, a city where we could transfer and head further north on a night bus.  Instead we spent the night in Tarlac, washing away the sketchy bus terminal with our first hot shower since leaving Korea.  We ate at McDonald’s for breakfast (and for dinner, I have to admit) and pushed on to the city of Baguio.  We drove higher and higher until we were literally in a cloud and all we could see was white.  Upon our arrival we strolled through Baguio’s famous market, bursting with local honey and jam, fish delicacies, and unusual tropical fruits.

  Later we climbed higher into the mountains still, on one of the world’s highest mountain roads en route to Bontoc.  The drop offs (at the highest point 7200 feet above sea level) were enough to strike fear into the bravest souls.  We watched in awe as local Filipino toddlers played right on the edge of cliffs.  The bus stopped midway through the ride for a snack of duck embryo, but we stuck with instant noodles.  

Finally in Bontoc, we crashed hard in our small, no frills hotel room and awaited the morning for the last leg of our journey.  In the morning we had breakfast on our guesthouse's veranda and watched the small city go by.

The morning ride to Banaue led us through small terraced rice fields and fresh waterfalls.  Wild Calla Lilies grew on the roadside.   

Finally in Banaue!

We were hassled for a tricycle ride taking us close to Batad, our last destination, gateway to the 2000 year old UNESCO rice terraces.  I had been hesitant about making the trip, one that requires a long hike in to the isolated villages.  In the company of four other travelers determined to make the trip, Ryan and I decided we would join them. 

After a forty minute tricycle ride the makeshift vehicles will go no further.  Only jeepneys make the trip up to the saddle of the mountain’s ridge.  We decided to forgo the jeep and walk it out from the junction, loaded with packs that carried all our belongings.  An hour or so later, we arrived at the top, only to begin the descent into town.  No vehicles are capable of doing so.  We took the recommended shortcut: a hike down many steps and across narrow paths, all along a steep mountainous drop off covered in jungle.  The rain started as full exhaustion hit, and we made our way to the first guesthouse we could find, recommended by a small toothless woman living in a shack at the junction.  Ryan suggested she start up a business selling water to hikers; she told him she didn’t have the capitol.  I told you they spoke English well here!   

After our two and half hour trek, we made it to her cousin’s inn and spent the rest of the evening around a long wooden table enjoying chicken sinigang, “pizza” and cold beer with our new friends.  Ryan and I enjoyed well deserved massages before we slept like babies in our wooden room. 

The group awoke early for a trek through the gorgeous and spectacular rice terraces and Teppia waterfalls  where Ryan cooled off with a swim.  We wove through a native village where old women still worked on traditional "g-strings" that men wore during work in the rice terraces.  The views were inexplicable, which made the journey to get to them (and through them) worthwhile.  At parts of the hike I wasn’t sure I’d make it, climbing between small rock staircases and steep, slippery paths.  But I did.

Later that afternoon our tired feet (and burning calves and sore glutes) led us back to the junction.  En route to the saddle those stairs which had been downhill on the way into town were even less fun now that they were uphill.  Luckily the views along the way were still amazing.

We spent the night recouping in Banue.  The next morning we strolled through the local Saturday market and indulged in some goodies at the local bakery before our jeepney took us out of town.   

That leads us to where we are now, possibly our favorite destination in this country.  We will spend the next few days exploring Sagada’s hanging coffins and mysterious caves, just in time for an early Halloween.  And on Thursday: BALI!