After nearly nine hours on the trail, we finally arrive in Les-eng. One is tired and can’t wait to just lie down and recover some sleep lost to driving from Bulacan to Baguio. The other just wants to wash up maybe for lack of anything else to do. I, on the other hand, am just anxious that the only store in the village won’t open tonight.
Paul was the first to wash up using the stored water in the daycare center and Jepoi was busy unpacking. Meanwhile, I was asking Manong Elio for directions to our destination the following morning while securing pans and pots for the night’s meal. When Paul finished, I tried to connect the waterline to the daycare center from Manong Elio’s. As it turned out, the waterline had just been cut off from the main source. Talk about a stroke of fate’s folly! We went down to another house in the village and got only a trickle of the last drops left from the water source. We looked farther and I remembered there was a waterline from a different source just below the kagawad’s house. When we got to the spot, I noticed that the faucet had already been replaced by a hose leading to a pigsty. I knocked at the nearest house and exhausted what little Kankana-ey and Ilokano I had. I kept repeating the keywords danum (water), wada (there is), and agdigos (bathe). All I got in return was the word ‘Tagalog’ in a murmur of unintelligible words rendered in a tone of confusion and surrender. The last time I repeated ‘agdigos’, the old woman pressed a switch and the pigsty was lit up. We thanked her and we bade her goodbye. There was no use denying the current state of affairs – we have to wash up among the pigs. When Jepoi settled, I left him and prepared dinner. Paul was already sleeping.
Curious kids joined us in the morning. Jepoi kept them at bay while I was preparing breakfast. He was showing them magic tricks. Paul was immersing himself in the grandeur of Les-eng. There was no need to rush. Even though the continuation of the route was going to be new to all of us, I knew, based on the endurance of my companions on Day 1, that we could manage the downhill trek to La Union. We left at ten. We had lunch in Sugpon, Ilocos Sur. Then at a little past two, we had our exhilarating Amburayan River crossing. The current was very strong. It was as if all the mountains of western Benguet had poured all their tears down to Ilocos Sur through the mighty Amburayan. I fastened myself onto the bamboo raft as manong skillfully negotiated with the raging water. After what seemed like a demo, Paul, who didn’t know how to swim, was the second to get onto the raft. I was nervous for him especially because manong had already told us that the color of the water was threatening a flashflood. But he survived the scariest 3 minutes of his life. When Jepoi got to the other side, we were all consumed in recounting the thrill we had just had.
|the scariest three minutes of his life|
It was an uphill trek again. Finally at 8pm, we got to the highway in Balaoan, La Union after more than an hour of precarious muddy motorcycle ride. Paul was convinced his driver deserved more than 300 pesos. He was prudent enough to ask me first. My driver was also dropping a hint that it should be 400 pesos. But I was quick to reestablish the agreed-upon price—the same amount that my friend paid one of our drivers the weekend before under the same circumstances—rainy, muddy and late. We caught the bus back to Baguio where Paul had left his van. It had been a great weekend!
The lessons we picked up
It was my eleventh birthday as Lagataw. In August, 2005 I had my first communion with nature in Mt Romelo in Siniloan, Laguna. Every year I celebrate my anniversary by spending some time away from home regardless of whether I have a companion or not. And just like any travel I do, I always pick up bits and pieces of lessons along the way.
The value of giving depends on what is given
And while Jepoi showed some learning in how he found something to give the kids other than candy and coins which introduce an innocent child to the concepts of greed and begging, Paul and I can pick up some important lessons from the search for water during the first night and our dealing with the habal-habal drivers during the second.
A tip for tips
As travelers, it breaks our hearts to see the ordeal the locals go through doing what they do on an ordinary day—things we normally can’t and aren’t willing to do ourselves. This necessitates us to give a tip. But we’re forgetting that our willingness and ability are not the standards which set the price. This practice of paying more than the value someone deems right for the work he does is the birth of the ‘standard price for tourists’. And eventually this results in other travelers asking ‘Why is the cost higher than that of the locals?’ We actually sometimes contribute to the creation of something we complain about. Goodwill is good but tipping is another story.
Travel beyond tourism
I’ve always enjoyed traveling like a salmon. I love to go against the mainstream. But this recent travel slapped me with the realization that it’s been eleven years and I still travel like any other tourist after all.
When there’s a glitch in the envisioned trip, a typical tourist tends to blame everything on the system of the place he has come to. When we were becoming frustrated looking for water in Les-eng, my impatience led me to a string of vain poetry ‘This is the paradox here Jepoi! For a place where springs and streams abound, it is almost impossible to find water.’ It led me to the selfish thought of how the villagers were too indolent not to be doing anything about the problem. ‘No wonder there is no progress in this place!’ I quipped. Our own selfish affinity for comfort and convenience makes us forget that it was not a problem as far as the villagers were concerned. We forget that none of them would feel the need to wash up at nine in the evening at any time of the year. And in the first place, none of them might feel the need to be awake at that time of night. We forget that we are the problem that has arrived in the village; that we are the intruders that stirred the dogs and the babies into a confused chorus of distress and panic. Our romanticized notion of traveling makes us assume that it is right and proper for the old woman to rouse herself up to open her door and attend to the weary filthy travelers because that’s what the oft-repeated dogma of hospitality has inculcated in us. Our vanity and self-importance have made us believe that we are the guests that need to be accommodated and that the villagers were not responsible enough to learn Tagalog. For us we are not a disturbance; we are a spectacle to behold. And this shame dawned on me as I woke up the following morning to once again see how an ordinarily uneventful day would transpire in Les-eng. It was difficult to forgive myself.
|Don't keep the kids at bay! Come to terms with the fact that curiosity is natural to kids.|
But that’s just the way it is. We focus too much on things that are easily seen. We are fanatics of the LNT principles and the BMC. But we forget to look into the very element that constitutes our persona—our perspective! And while our perspective is not readily observable, it dictates the way we behave in the place we’ve come to. It determines to what degree we’d demand for beer in a place where the nearest store is 4 kilometers and 3 hills away. And it decides whether we’ll take a plain question like ‘What brings you here?’ as an ordinary inquiry or an accusation.
Sadly, the Department of Tourism appears to be taking the perspective of the tourists. They accredit guides who are fluent in English and Tagalog and keep the more able and adept locals from guiding visitors. They prefer homestays with raised toilets. And they allot funds to replace wild trails with the more civilized footpaths and banisters because tourists can’t walk on a slippery terrain. They need to be conveyed safely and comfortably to their desired selfie spot.
And so with the influx of visitors who try to impose their culture on their hosts, some indigenous practices are slowly disappearing. Precious cultural entities like the day-un have been labeled as pagan. The locals have become frogs and the intruders, kings.
So are you traveling to really be in a different place? Or are you traveling to look for your origin in your destination? As for me, in Benguet, I choose to be in Benguet.