I hadn’t been to Baguio then (or the North for that matter). All I had with me was the name Abatan and a faint picture of my way there. So technically, this trip was Lagataw’s first legitimate adventure. The Halsema (I love putting the article the before Halsema because I feel its life the way I feel that of the ocean and the river) was still unpaved. Most parts of the highway could only accommodate one vehicle at a time. Occasionally, the bus you’re on would get stuck at one end of the one-lane highway, which was never a hassle because they always had this really cool country music on that you’d feel like you’re not in the Philippines. With that kind of music, and those locals in tight blue jeans, heavy leather jackets and cowboy hats, you’d ask yourself “Am I in El Paso or something?!”. But this sweet musing is intermittently disturbed by this sudden pang of vertigo every time the bus maneuvered along sharp curves on the highway. If you stuck your head out of the window, you’d know that the thin line between life and death can be seen on that inch-wide gap between the bus and the deep ravine. No wonder The Halsema made it to the shortlist of the World’s Most Dangerous Highways. But with this risk factor The Halsema adds the flavour of adventure to your journey in Benguet. What’s more, you get to see this stunning scenery of the calm tumult of blue, green and white on the horizon which city-dwellers can only see on the covers of Paolo Coelho’s books. From time to time the bus would literally vanish into the mist making you feel like you’re in Heaven! Well, that was back then! God I miss the old days!
Ten years and fifty mountains later, I am now writing this retrospection of a place that has become so dear to my heart. Benguet is the best place to relax and just get away from it all. When you travel in Benguet, you’ll see life from a different perspective. You’ll feel that you’re one with the universe. People there live in harmony amongst themselves and with nature. All they do is sustain and make the most of what Mother Nature has provided for them. I’ve been around Benguet pretty much. I’ve set foot on eight of its thirteen towns, scaled the three highest peaks of Luzon, seen the country’s oldest and best preserved mummies, stayed in arguably the highest home in the country, seen the most spectacular sunrise and sunset views and met the kindest of Filipinos in Benguet. I know the map of Benguet like the back of my hand. I may get lost in my homeland (Leyte) but never in Benguet. I just love Benguet! I may not live in Benguet but Benguet lives in me. And in my heart live these places which have made my journeys around Benguet priceless and incomparable.
Mt Timbak (aka Mt Singacalsa) is the third highest mountain in Luzon. It is accessible in Atok, Benguet through the KM 54 and KM 55 entry points along the Halsema highway. You can also access the mountain from Kabayan Barrio (Kabayan, Benguet). I first set foot on this mountain in 2006. Before then, Mt Singacalsa was to me just a name in random lists of highest peaks in the country. But when I got there, Mt Timbak (as locals call it) taught me that there is more to the Philippine Islands than just beaches and dirty politics! Its unique beauty (which transcends the physical) has made me write quite a few articles about the place. I have climbed Timbak five more times after that first visit and I have recommended the place to some friends and strangers who all go back to their homes with the hope of going back to Timbak someday! As a mountain, Timbak is not as mystifying as Mt Pulag. But the peace and warmth of the people that nurture this mountain will make you wish you never had to leave the place. I was lucky to have been taken in by the family who owns the highest home in the country. Yes, it pays to travel alone. It is in communing with the people that you get to know more about the place. You’ll sometimes even get luckier when they count you in as family.
Sitio Nabalicong is a hamlet peacefully nestled in a picturesque river-valley in Natubleng, Buguias, Benguet. It is one of those few places that make me want to build my house and raise my family in. Life is simple and peaceful in this little farming community.
Like most travellers, my first reason for visiting Nabalicong was to see the oldest and best-preserved mummy in the Philippines—Apo Anno. I did get to see Apo Anno in 2008 (thanks to the kindness of the key keeper, kagawad Lilia Catures) but it was the peace, beauty and simplicity of life in Nabalicong that made me go back there in November 2010. It is such a relaxing moment to see a place free from outside influence. You see its culture in its purest form. People there could barely speak Tagalog. Neither are they fluent in English. But they communicate with their hearts. Their smiles will reassure you that “Everything’s gonna be all right!” unlike the smiles in Boracay and Banaue which come with price tags courtesy of WOW Philippines. In 2008, I took on the Nabalicong trek as a side trip to my birthday climb in Mt Timbak. I was captivated by the peace and beauty of that village that I promised to go back there and spend one night with a family. And so in November 2010, I revisited the place not to disturb the peace of Apo Anno again but to see the place itself. This time, I was lucky to have been able to take part in a ‘kanyaw’, a ritual of animal sacrifice for thanksgiving, entertainment and good harvest. They had slaughtered a carabao and everyone was invited. I spent some time walking around the village alone and seeing up close the three waterfalls lining the slopes of the valley. Also, in the afternoon, sitting and gazing over the carrot fields, a rainbow suddenly emerged from the river below (beyond the carrot fields)! I spent the night at Ate Lilia’s BIG house which was still under construction. Me and the workmen had our socials over the lambanog that I brought! It’s pretty cheap to build a house there. Gravel and pine wood is provided for by Mother Nature free of charge. So this future mansion of the humble Catureses has a neat pinewood inner walling. I am looking forward to spending another night there by the time this mansion is completed.
Mt Tabayoc in Ballay, Kabayan is probably my first totally unplanned destination. In August 2006, me and two of my best climb buddies, Joshua and Gian had planned to do a Bakun Trio (Tenglawan-Kabunian-Lobo) for our 1st anniversary climb. But at the bus terminal in La Trinidad, we were told that Mt Tenglawan was all but inaccessible owing to the damage caused by the typhoon. Then I saw a bus with ‘Buguias’ on the windshield and my buddies assented to my suggestion that we board it. That was when our adventure began. We had not the faintest idea of how the whole adventure was going to unfold. All I had was the knowledge that Buguias is right next to Ballay, Kabayan which is the home of Mt Tabayoc, the second highest peak in Luzon. We trekked longer than we should have. We were dropped off at the Kabayan-Buguias boundary and that was when we commenced our trek. The cool thing about not knowing the transportation route is that you get to tread on some ground that you will never set foot on again after you’ve known the most convenient way of accessing your destination. And it is in these paths that you see views that escape the tourists’ eyes. You see not just the destination but your whole journey. When we reached Ballay at sundown, the barangay captain was kind enough to offer us native coffee and directions to the foot of Mt Tabayoc (Lake Tabeo). We reached that little settlement around the lake a little after six pm. We insisted in pitching our tents outside but one old woman was more steadfast in offering us shelter. ‘You’ll be pounded by rain tonight!’ was probably the translation of her entreaty and repeated stomping! They barely speak any Tagalog or English there. Indeed, it was like typhoon at midnight. Believe these people when they talk about their place. They know the weather there far better than PAGASA does. There is no electricity in the place but there is one house which is solar-powered. The home where we stayed in was comprised of an old woman, a twenty-five-year old man and two boys aged sixteen and ten. They are all not related by blood but each assumes a different role that they function as one family living in harmony. They say they are just there to till the land and they all go back to their homes after every harvest. The ten-year old boy was our interpreter during our socials. Leaving Lake Tabeo the following day was filled with sweet sorrow. I couldn’t bear the sight of Nanay (the old woman whose name I have forgotten) waving and saying ‘Balik kayo ha!’, a line that she most probably had the little boy teach her while me and my buddies tried to penetrate Tabayoc early in the morning. It was this rare genuine request to share more moments and be together again. And I did come back two more times. But I doubt if they still would be as delighted and excited to see travellers now that they have started to get used to the presence of climbers in their habitat. A view deck has even been set up atop the bonsai trees of Mt Tabayoc for climbers. It is sad but true: the mountain often fails to change us; but we all change the mountain somehow! Sigh!
Another place that I will always revisit is Sitio Badeo in Kibungan, Benguet (you’ll know how to pronounce the word Badeo when you get there). To get there, you’ll have to traverse three nameless mountains and a steep mountain pass. While walking the land, you’ll be accompanied by curious eyes and innocent smiles of children and adults alike. Nice subject for photography…only, its immensity won’t fit in any panorama. A yet better subject is the sitio itself. It sits upon a terraced cliff facing the equally majestic village of Tacadang on the other side of the very deep gorge. This little farming community of Badeo still has clear traces of the disappearing way of life of the Igorots. They still have the traditional houses, they still make tapuy and they still keep traditional clothes in their closets. And if you’re in for WWOOFing, Badeo is the place to go. Everything is organic there including a number of rice varieties. There is no electricity in the village except for the local clinic which has solar power supply. The village sleeps at seven and wakes up at the first crow of a rooster. Life is that simple there. Rice is the life story of the people. Just like the trek to Badeo, their rice takes a long journey before it reaches the plate. It is painstakingly nurtured by the hand that it nourishes.
On my way back to Manila, I was forced to take the journey down to La Union instead of the trail going back up Benguet as my legs were still in pain owing to the long trek the day before. And more adventure and friends came my way. Again, the Dhammapada is right. “Travel only with thy betters or thy equals. If there are none, travel alone!”
I’ll end this article with an appeal for responsible traveling and a campaign against commercial tourism that has encroached upon Ifugao. The Benguet beyond the chartered city of Baguio is a place of honest, kind and hospitable people free of vanity and hypocrisy. Please accept their acts of kindness wholly and as much as possible don’t engage in any monetary transactions when availing of lodgings that they offer you hospitably. Don’t give them this sick thought that kindness could be traded for money. That’s what WOW Philippines has done to Boracay and most touristy spots in the country. It has put a price tag on people’s smiles. If you wish to return their act of kindness, return it in kind. You’ll know what they need if you just pay close attention. Think of other future travellers who also want to experience genuine hospitality. The people in Beguet are just like the devotees of Zeus in Homeric Greece. They consider it a divine duty to give lodgings to the weary traveller expecting nothing in return.
And don’t change the place your visiting, let the place effect a change in you!
Go! Start Exploring and Discover Yourself!