Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sagada, Philippines

I had been in the Philippines for a week before I ventured into a grocery store, quite a contrast to touring in most other places where it is nearly a daily event. Roadside cafes are just so common and their food so cheap, not much more than a dollar for a bowl of noodles or a pile of rice with a wide range of stews, that I have been doing little dining on my own food.  I'd hardly made a dent in my peanut butter and had only eaten one packet of ramen.  And the snack food I'd brought was also holding out just fine.  

I've bought some bread and bananas from small stores that are everywhere, but don't amount to more than a few shelves, rather than aisles, of bare essentials.  From the very start I have been curious to see what kind of food fuel a full-sized grocery store might offer. So it was a significant event when I finally introduced myself to a Philippine grocery store.  I was delighted to discover a variety of locally-manufactured peanut butter, perhaps a byproduct of the Philippine's past as an American colony.  I no longer needed to ration what I had brought, and in fact began eating it by the spoonful with bananas to finish it off so I could give  the local variety a try.  I was also happy to discover a tasty calorie-packed yogurt drink and also a wide range of ramen, some for as little as fifteen cents.  And this was at a small grocery store in a small town in the mountains.  These discoveries boded well for what I might find at one of the full-size supermarkets in the large cities.

I didn't have to worry about my bike as I perused the shelves of the grocery store as it was back at my lodging for the night, a small room above a small restaurant in the small town of Sayangan high in the mountains that rarely attracts an overnight guest.

I felt lucky to have found it.  When I asked a policeman if there was a hotel in this small town I fully expected a "no."  Then I was going to put myself at his mercy and ask if he would  let me put my sleeping bag down somewhere in the police station, even in an empty cell.  I was desperate.  It was thirty minutes until dark and for all thirty-one miles I had ridden that day through the mountains, I had not seen anywhere to disappear to off the road to camp.  I had climbed to over 7,000 feet and all along the way any wide spot along the road had a home or a business, often someone doing auto repair.  The slimmest of spots, sometimes perched on a cliff, had all been appropriated.  That has been the story of the Philippines so far.  There is not much elbow-room in this densely populated country.  

I was plenty exhausted after back-to-back days of extreme and prolonged climbing.  The grades were as steep on this stretch out of Baguio as they had been up from the coast.  It was not unusual to gain 400 feet or more, eight per cent, in a mile.  Despite my late morning start from Baguio, I had still put in nearly five hours on the bike, averaging just a little over six miles per hour for the day.  If Baguio had been more attractive I would have spent the day there resting my legs after the huge effort to get there, but the legs were surprisingly willing.

The rugged mountain scenery beyond the roadsides at least gave my gaze something to enjoy.  Unfortunately it wasn't a steady climb as the climb up from the coast.  I was now in the thick of the mountains and would climb up one ridge and then plunge a few miles and have to repeat the effort.  I couldn't have the satisfaction of gaining a few hundred feet knowing that I could soon lose it.  A bigger pain though was all the trucks overloaded with hefty bags of stinking chicken dung hauled up from the coast for the mountain folk to fertilize their fields of vegetables.  Not only were the trucks slow, but the pungent stench from the dung was powerful enough to knock me out.  I tried to speed up when I could begin smelling such bags ahead stacked along the road waiting to be lugged up or down the steep paths to the fields.

This was farming one does not see in the US.  My lodging was similarly third-world rustic.  The restaurant had no shower.  I bathed from a five gallon bucket of water heated up by a rod placed in it.  The walls in my room were plywood thin.  I felt as if I were in Nepal or Bolivia and was thoroughly charmed.  At last I was off the beaten path and having a genuine travel experience.  The woman who ran the restaurant thought I was German, as have been the majority of her occasional foreign guests. She was pleased that I was American and could speak an English she could understand.  She warned that it would be too cold to start too early the next morning, but I knew that my day would begin with a two mile climb to the highest point of any road in the Philippines at 7,400 feet, so I knew that would warm me up.

The temperature was 51 degrees in my room when I awoke at seven.  I put on four layers, shirt, swea, vest and wind-breaker and had gloves warmer than my cycling gloves at the ready.  But the strong sun quickly warmed the air and a 7:30 start was not too early.  I needed as much time as possible to reach Sagada sixty miles away knowing that an untold amount more of strenuous climbing awaited me.  But it was through some spectacular scenery that gave me a foretaste of the World Heritage terraced farming in Banaue that awaited me.

I only had a few miles of these terraces but they helped make this stretch of nearly one hundred miles through the mountains a world-class ride that I was happy to have the strength to manage.  It could easily make a list of great, little known places to ride one's bike. 

After descending for a few miles from the highest point I had to make another climb to almost the same altitude.  Then began a long gradual descent that went on much longer than I wanted to 3,000 feet.

I knew I would end my day at 5,000 feet at Sagada.  I was hoping that it wouldn't be much more than a few hundred foot climb from the main highway, not a couple thousand. Sagada was seven-and-a-half miles off the main road. When I came to the intersection I was tempted to continue my gradual descent to Bontac five miles away, and then to return and make the climb with fresh legs the next morning.  But that would almost be conceding defeat, so I chose to make the climb.  

I had two hard boiled eggs for extra energy.  I ate one at the start of the climb and the other mid-way up.  Several stretches of gravel where the road had washed out was a further strain on my legs.  With eight per cent grades I had to push the bike through several patches of the gravel.  The last mile I was like a car running on fumes.  My legs were so depleted they were throbbing from emptiness keeping me awake later that night when I thought I would immediately plunge into sleep.  I had no concerns as the next day would be a day of rest, just doing a little hiking in search of Sagada's famous centuries old hanging coffins on the surrounding limestone cliffs. 

On the outskirts of Sagada I encountered a couple of European backpackers emerging from the forest, the first travelers I had encountered in my time here.  They recommended a place to stay.  They said it wasn't the cheapest place in town, but easily the best value.  There were a handful of inns catering to the backpacker set drawn to the serenity and the oddity of this isolated mountain village.  I was too exhausted to dine with anyone else.  I saved my conversation for some FaceTime with Janina.  She said she had never heard me so worn-out.

1 comment:

Jeff Mease said...

Wonderful. Sounds like things are looking up. Thanks for sharing!