Northern Philippines • The Road to Banaue
It must have been a good 10 minutes after meeting Pauline when we were all sitting in the back of one of the three jeepneys that were parked in front of the post office in Sagada, waiting to leave for Banaue.
We’re sitting there surrounded by old ladies carrying big bags full of wares to sell and a chicken. Stef is talking to Pauline, while one of the ladies next to me asks if one of them is my wife and what are we doing in Sagada. The jeepney’s engine starts as soon as I open my mouth to try and answer the lady’s question, careful not to offend anyone or make the blushing in my cheeks too obvious. Suddenly we start rolling out of town and into the valley. Goodbye, Sagada.
Riding on Top
The road to Banaue takes us down the valley, through the center of a town that’s buzzing with lots of traffic, stores and the signature brightly colored buildings of the region. At one point I take a picture from inside the jeepney and it looks like an escort of tuk-tuks is surrounding our ride to protect it.
Although it’s unlikely, I pondered if somewhere in the city there were tuk-tuk gangs who rode and went drinking together at night.
Wishful pondering aside, the trip would take a good hour and a half, so the driver stopped in the city so the passengers could go to the bathroom and buy food for the road. Here I asked if it was ok to ride on the roof of the jeepney and to my surprise the driver said yes! Better yet, Pauline said she wanted to ride on the top too, so then this happened:
Riding on the roof of a jeepney can be really painful on your butt if you don’t have something to sit on. Most jeepneys have grills to carry bags and that’s usually where you’ll have to land your cheeks unless you’ve got a bag to cushion them. Worst case scenario, just lie on top of everyone else’s bags (it’s not like they can tell). Other than that you’ll want to hold on tight to said grill, specially when facing curves on a bumpy uphill road.
Once we came up the other side of the valley, the weather started to cool down and we got a drizzle of rain coming in, at which point Pau and I decided to join Stef inside the jeepney at the last stop: a nearby market where some locals needed to be dropped off.
Our ride reached the edge of town around noon and as soon as we got off we could already tell Banaue is a larger town than Sagada and the weather there is cooler as it is higher up in the valley.
We were greeted by a group of men playing chess who, when privy to our presence, smiled to reveal teeth stained with red, as if bleeding.
Yes, they were chewing moma, and lots of it. So much in fact, that the whole way down to the main Banaue tuk-tuk terminal was riddled with signs that read “No Spitting of Moma”, just like the ones we saw at the Bomod-Ok Falls. The signs were everywhere: written on walls, painted on improvised posts nailed to trees, on banners from stores, you name it. It seemed the whole town was waging a battle against this habit and with good reason, but I’ll talk about why later.
Jumping the Gun
Now, our main priority was to secure a place to sleep, to which end Pauline already had a tip. We followed her advice looking for this place, but by the time we got to it they told us there were no more empty beds left.
There was a moment when I looked around us and the town resembled a Scooby Doo door chase with people scrambling around trying to look for a good place to sleep. Thankfully, hostels in Banaue are more than used to this kind of rodeo every week, or so it seemed, because they had members of their staff chilling outside the storefronts just waiting to answer questions and check people in.
Even if you already have a place to stay set in mind, being flexible while backpacking can sometimes score you a good deal on accommodations. After realizing how close we were to sleeping under a bridge that night, Stef quickly transformed into her Terminator search and bargain mode, taking the lead in finding us a new place to stay, and she was all business.
We would walk up to a person and Stef would ask “how much for a room for all three?” and get the answer, make a mental note of it and move on with a simple “thank you, we’ll come back”. We went up and down the main street for about 10 minutes, checking three places before we settled on a spot closer to the main terminal in the center of town.
There was a kid outside the place who could’ve been anywhere between 15 and 21 years-old (aging in Asia is dubious at best because most people seem way younger than they really are), wearing jeans, a hoodie and flip flops while chewing on gum. His eyes looked tired, but the kid was sharp as a knife, which we noticed when he readily smacked the shit out of a hairy, bright, green and blue flying bug the size of a large grape. Here I thought the kid would avoid touching the bug, seeing as it looked poisonous as fuck, but just as the insect buzzed in front of him, I guess he just felt it was getting in the way of his speech, so he swiftly moved his hand like a ninja and tapped the bug on the head so hard it went to the floor and never got back up. Tango neutralized.
Stef asked to see the room before committing us to pay, but once they showed us the place we ended up paying 300 pesos each (around $6.80 USD) for a private room with 3 beds and a bathroom. That’s how pimp you live when you roll with The Terminator. She gets shit done.
Our “hostel” turned out to be a family-run business which in fact was mainly a restaurant in the lobby floor that happened to branch out into rooms and dorms in the floors below. Our room was two floors down in the basement, which was nice because we were as secluded as we could be from the noise upstairs.
We got in and dropped our bags for a minute before deciding what to do next. We weren’t really tired, but I noticed that Stef became more relaxed with Pauline around, probably because she realized that being The Terminator and going her way alone could make things weird. Now she had to account for another person who might want to do her own thing or hang out with me instead. So rather than dropping our bags and running out, we stayed and went to get something to eat in town and talk things through.
Right before leaving, Pauline asked about tours to the rice terraces for the next day and again we were given a nice group price for all three of us.
Walking down the street across the main terminal we saw a karaoke bar, plenty of tuk-tuks and a few mini-markets. We decided to eat on the second floor of a restaurant overlooking the end of the main street, with the awesome smell of pastries coming from a bakery a few hundred meters away. Here’s where we learned more about our new French travel buddy.
Pauline comes from Lyon, one of the biggest cities in France, located between Paris and Marseille. This instantly made her appealing to me, but not long after she began talking about herself, I got the impression she was a bit of a walking dichotomy. Here’s a girl who’s very much into yoga and holistic medicine, but who also carries around this huge book about learning to be successful in the stock market and how to make money with broker investments.
To this day I find that hilarious, because Pauline shattered the mold that had previously been made by pretty much every yoga-loving girl I had met, who also happened to be vegan or vegetarian and couldn’t stand our capitalist consumer-driven society. I loved that Pauline enjoyed eating meat and was all “hey you have to take great care of your body and soul… and your pockets! You gotta have big pockets full of money too!”.
She used to be a dancer and later I would find out that she’s really into souk and dancehall reggae, which is awesome because we had some moments to exchange cool music before we parted ways.
It was always fun to be around Pauline and straight out the gate, she struck me as the type of girl who’s gotten good at making charming conversation on the road. She said she wanted to go back to Lyon and open up her own business, so Stef and I could visit her when she turned into a millionaire.
The best part for me was that now I had someone who would counter Stef’s arguments against me. Where Stef was strict (“move your ass!”), Pauline was more relaxed (“look at him! He may look dumb, but he’s trying so haaard!”.)
Granted, it’s very easy to get an impression like that out of a person you’ve met for 2 days in your whole life, but still, I think the same would’ve happened if I had met Stef for only two days, but then again, I haven’t seen Pauline again and we don’t keep in touch these days, where as the Terminator… well, she’s a keeper.
Less Money, Mo’ Problems
After we got out of the restaurant, the idea came about to get a massage, which is a big deal when you’re in SE Asia simply because of how cheap they are and how much physical effort you’re making every day.
Unfortunately, this little writer (I wasn’t kidding with the dumb thing) took very little money out of the ATM in Sagada before leaving for Banaue, which made me realize that if I wanted to see the rice fields the next day I would have to eat on the cheap and couldn’t enjoy things like massages in town.
Banaue didn’t have an ATM at the time we were there last year, so my best bet was to grab a taxi or rent a motorbike to drive to the nearest town with a bank, which was about “30 minutes” away. I’d heard that one before, and since I had never driven a bike I thought I’d just suck it up and hold on for the next two days, instead of riding off a cliff while trying to go up and down a valley on wet streets.
The girls went to get a massage and we agreed to meet later that evening to go see the daily cultural show downtown. Normally I would’ve gone to take a nap or read a book, but instead I took my work equipment to the restaurant to work while I awaited their return.
The place was full so I had to ask two girls at the end if I could sit on their table to work. They were both German backpackers whose names I can’t remember, but they were chilling and eating ice cream after doing the very same hike I had scheduled for the next day.
By the time Pauline and Stef came back, I had finished my work and was resting in the room after a shower. Stef and I chilled for a brief moment before we witnessed Pauline doing a stretch routine outside the room. Stef joined in and I recorded the moment because it just looked so awesome and I was starting to get the idea of writing a blog myself.
You could say this is the instant where I actively decided to chart whatever I could in my trip through Southeast Asia. Up until this point I wasn’t sure that my travels would be worth reading (read: not boring) even to myself, but thanks to people like Stefanie and Pauline, I found that even when I wasn’t looking for adventure, it somehow had a way of finding me.
Almost an exact year later, here we are.