Friday, December 9, 2011

New Heights

Let me preface this by saying that although I am an Environmentalist and I love being outdoors, the longest hike or camping trip I have been on is a couple nights and not too difficult of a hike (mostly in the coastal Carolinas). But I have always wanted to go on what I deem a “real hiking trip” - up a mountain and far from roads or cars or any other chances of escape. So when another volunteer suggested we go on a week-long vacation after MST (Mid Service Training) and hike Mt. Amuyao in the Mountain Province of Northern Luzon, I decided it was my time.

But let me back up for a second….
It is a PC Philippines tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving in the mountain village of Sagada. It takes a 12 hour bus ride to get to from Manila, so not every volunteer makes it there. Last year I was too new at site and it was just too far to travel. But this year I decided I needed to take part in the tradition and experience the cold weather of Northern Luzon. The other reason for making the long trip is a chance to see the famous rice terraces, considered a staple stop for tourist visiting the Philippines. The most popular place to go to see these rice terraces is Banaue, Ifugao. Most people take a short day hike around Batad to see the terraces…. but we (five of us volunteers) decided to go off the beaten track.

Our journey began with a 10 hour night bus to Banaue to meet up with our guides. Then we took a jeepney ride to Mayoyao, only 44 km away but the winding and unpaved mountain roads made the trip a 5 hour ride. It sounds grueling but the view along the way is spectacular! By far the best jeepney ride I have had! We had a fantastic view of the mountains and rice terraces. The rice terraces of Mayoyao are said to be over 2000 years old!
Rice Terraces of Banaue

We spent the night at the Barangay Captain’s house before setting out the next day.  Part of the experience of hiking in the Philippines is the Filipino hospitality. When we got into town, our guides (who speak the local dialect) asked around for a place for us to stay. It never took long for them to find a family that was more than happy to have us spend the night, offering up the best they had.

The Barangay Captain and his family where we stayed our first night.

Staying with a local family is another way to get to know the people and culture. My batch of PCVs is mostly in the Visayas (the middle part of the Philippines made up of all the smaller islands). Since these islands of the Visayas are smaller, most of the towns are coastal or have pretty easy access to the coastline. Therefore fishing is a major part of the culture. In the past year we have gotten to know this culture pretty well and often make the mistake of generalizing the Philippine culture as the culture we are familiar with. But our trek through the mountains gave us all a glimpse of a completely difference Filipino culture.

One of our guides preparing the chicken for dinner.

The mountain villages are so isolated that they have their own culture. And instead of fish being the main source of food and income, rice is the cash crop. Every mountain village has its own beautiful array of rice terraces up and down the mountain side. And the people there not only speak a different language, but they have an entirely different way of life, from the way they build their houses, to the way they prepare their food.

Our hike from Mayoyao took us 6 hours through the mountains, following around the mountain sides and to the town of Pat-yay, where we stayed the night with another generous Filipino family. We even bought one of their chickens to slaughter and eat for dinner (our guide did the food preparation part while us volunteers watched). This small town is home to barely 100 people and has no electricity. The only way in and out is the hike that we traveled to get there.  The bathroom was a log on the edge of a wall (so you squat with your behind over the log and do your business… and try not to look on the other side because it’s not pretty).

Hiking along the terraces.

Taking a short rest..

 The next day we hiked 7 hours up to the summit of Mt. Amuyao, 2702m (over 8,000 ft). The trail is not used often so it was a challenge, along with the cold weather, off-and-on rain, and wet ground. But we made it before sunset and the clouds cleared just in time for us to take pictures of our accomplishment. The view was breathtaking! Mountains as far as the eye could see, a truly amazing scene.

The trail had a lot of fallen logs to go under... not my favorite part.

We made it to the top!

Awesome view!

There is a radio tower at the top that is manned by two guards. There is also an old building with a bathroom, kitchen and two rooms, complete with fireplace. And since the weather was cold and getting colder as the night set, we made a fire and dried our socks and shoes for the next days hike down. (It was refreshing but also kinda strange to be so cold in the Philippines.)

Our "home" on top of the mountain..

And the stockings were hung by the... no wait, wrong story..

Our decent the next day took around 4 hours to get to the town of Burlig. The way down the mountain towards Burlig is the most common trek to the mountain top and as we hiked down we were passed by workers carrying supplies up. It was mind boggling to see these older men carrying jugs of water and gasoline up and down the mountain! I was going slow and shaky down the wet and slippery steps but they went up and down so quickly, making it look so easy!

My legs were tired and my feet hurt but I made it back down the mountain. It was an amazing hike and I will definitely remember it forever!

Made it to the town of Burlig.

Once we finally made it down, we thanked our guides who then accompanied us to Sagada for our PC Thanksgiving Day. There were around 25 volunteers there, which really made it a nice celebration. Here are a few photos from our PC Philippines Thanksgiving.

The chicken being prepared for Thanksgiving dinner.

The turkey waiting his turn....

The Sagada bags - hand made bags that have become a trademark of the mountain town.

Local women weave the fabric for the Sagada bags. 

Cutting the Thanksgiving birds.

Lots of yummy Thanksgiving foods made by PCVs.

I had an amazing trip to the mountains of Luzon and would recommend any traveler to the Philippines to visit the Mountain Provinces and see another part of the Filipino culture. It was a challenging trip but worth every moment!

Happy Holidays everyone!

p.s. Thanks to I.A. for sharing his pictures with me. We both ended up having lots of pictures of each other but none of ourselves since we were usually in front of or behind one another on the trail. So thanks for swapping pics with me :)