Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Welcome back to our Friday series, documenting the trip I took with Tony and 2-month-old Axa to the Philippines. Last week we managed to avoid ending up in one of the famous hanging coffins of Sagada. If you missed that episode (or any of the previous ones), have a look here:

Philippines, Part 1: Have Baby, Will Travel
Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to XOOM?
Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby (Vigan)

Philippines, Part 4: Strawberries and Cotton Candy (Baguio)

Philippines, Part 5: Hanging Coffins! (Sagada)

Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Philippines, Part 7: Revenge of the Cockroaches (Manila)
Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)
Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)
Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style (Cebu)
Philippines, Part 11: Nuts to the Huts (Bohol)
Philippines, Part 12: If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island . . . (Panglao)
Philippines, Part 13: The Chocolate Hills (Bohol Again)
Philippines, Part 14: Trouble in Paradise (Malapascua)

And this week I promised to tell you about jeepneys. This story goes back to World War II and General MacArthur’s departure from the Philippines with the memorable declaration, “I shall return.”  He did indeed return after two and a half years, to end the Japanese occupation. A few months later the war was over, and American troops were packing up to return home. They had only one problem: what to do with all those leftover military jeeps. In the end, they decided to sell or give most of them away to the Filipino people.

Resourceful and ingenious, the Filipinos stripped them down, added long benches to pack in as many people as possible, and made metal roofs to keep off the blazing tropical sun. But that was just the beginning. Jeepneys are painted in fantastic colors, often with political figures or cartoon characters airbrushed on the sides. They usuallyhave large decorative bumpers, flashing neon or Christmas lights, and sirens. The dashboards tend to be so full of stuffed animals, religious icons, and bobble heads that the driver can barely see. Picture The Magic Schoolbus on LSD, and you have the beginnings of an idea of the appearance of a jeepney.

Nowadays, jeepneys are much longer than a jeep, and ride fairly low to the ground. There are no doors on the sides. You just enter through the back, which is completely open. So yes, that morning in Sagada I found myself sitting on a metal bench, holding on to a bar with one hand and a baby with the other while we bumped along much too fast on another mountain road. Actually, I took the precaution of putting the baby in my didymos baby wrap so I could hold on with both hands and prevent one or both of us from rolling out the open back of the jeepney. The ride was probably not as long as it seemed, and we eventually got to change into a bus, which change I sincerely appreciated.

In spite of it all, it was a spectacularly beautiful journey. I felt like we were riding through a wild, misty land forgotten by time. We rolled into Banauae and were greeted by a bizarre procession of Ifugao tribesmen beating together sticks and dancing in the streets. They were wearing red loincloths and tall headdresses with multi-colored tropical leaves stuck in them. We later found out that one of their people had died, and they were doing a ritual mourning dance. The rice terraces at Banauae were beautiful, but we wanted to go somewhere a little less touristy, so we took an hour-long trip in yet another interesting form of transportation: a “tricycle,” which in the Philippines means a motorcycle sidecar. By this time I really was getting a little more blasé. My main complaint about riding in a motorcycle sidecar with my baby (and of course no helmets) was the noise. The tricycle dropped us off at a remote trailhead, and we hiked in 15 kilometers on a mossy, jungle trail with stone steps in the mountain, to reach the isolated valley village of Batad.

As luck would have it, just a few moments before we reached the valley, we were caught in a sudden downpour. So we reached the village soaking wet and first saw the gorgeous green natural amphitheatre of Batad through mist and raindrops. Words cannot describe the breathtaking beauty of those pristine emerald terraces, over twenty centuries old. My respect for the Ifugao people expanded as I took in the perfection of that poetically practical way of farming rice on a mountainside.

We didn’t have the luxury of staying too long open-mouthed at the scenery. Axa was as filthy as only a fat little baby who has been hiked to the top of a muddy mountain can be. Worse, all her clothes besides the ones she was wearing had gotten wet in the rain. After we gave her a bucket bath and took her down to dinner wrapped in a blanket, the owner of the lodge where we were staying lent her some clothes We paid $2.00 a night to stay at that rough little lodge overlooking a more awe-inspiring view than most 5-star hotels.

When we met our guide Maribel the next morning, she was wearing her baby too. The Ifugao people in the valley laughed and laughed at the number of times we wrapped our baby wrap around ourselves. And here we were thinking we were so hip and primal with our Western babywearing.  Maribel took us to Tappia Waterfall, where we did not swim (although we were exhorted to dive right in by our indefatigable Rough Guide), due to the fact that I had a nasty cold.

After hiking back out to the main road, we caught another tricycle to Banauae, intending to take the night bus back to Manila. We expected a night as restful as one can have sleeping in bus seats with a baby on our laps. Unfortunately, like many Filipino malls, this bus took the idea of air conditioning to an extreme. It was cold and rainy in Banauae, but as we boarded the bus we felt the temperature drop several degrees. We put on another layer of clothes, and watched the other passengers take out blankets, scarves, hats, and anything else they had to warm themselves (which was not much, considering that most of the Philippines is so hot that anything more than a T-shirt is stifling).

People had told us that the bus to Manila would be cold, but we had assumed they were just talking about air conditioning in a tropical world. This bus driver was a veritable sadist. Despite repeated requests to turn down the A.C. (one group of four sent each of their number up separately at intervals), he kept the bus an ice box for the entire journey. It seemed to be a point of honor for him to create the coldest little bubble of air in the entire Filipino archipelago. There were people pitifully trying to cover themselves with the curtains, covering the vents with towels, and moving from seat to seat to find the warmest place. We wrapped our baby up in two layers of clothes and blankets, and she was probably the only warm person on the bus (and the only one who got any sleep that night). It was truly bizarre. Tony says he will buy a car in Banauae and sell it in Manila before he takes that bus again.

Stay tuned next week for Philippines, Part 6: Revenge of the Cockroaches.