Morning revealed that our final resting place for the night was one of a row of houses hanging over a sheer cliff. If I could look through the floor where we slept, we would've seen where our cliff met the Chico River in the gorge far below. After breakfast, the locals encouraged me to wait for my kin, a Californian who resided two doors down from us, but we didn't have hours to wait for her to return from her week-long hiatus from home. Hours can quickly turn to days in a land where the only things you can count on are family, home, and food. Leave those behind, and you'll find that the land has its own time -- immutable and inescapable.
As a trio, Dominika, Piotrek, and I determined to hitchhike the rest of the way to the town of Balbalan. After all, the journey is the experience. The destination is, well, incentive to journey. Balbalan is the jump off for the infamous road linking Kalinga and Abra, the two most wild provinces in the Cordillera Mountains.
Very few vehicles exist as far north as we had traveled. The only gasoline was in Bontoc, long behind us. A short ride left us in a small town several kilometres down the road, where we were lucky to flag down a new pickup headed our way.
The driver wasn't a talker, mostly because he was insecure about his English. He also seemed very serious or static though he was plenty nice. We did ascertain that he was the driver for the Mayor of Balbalasan, which is rooted at the junction for routes east, west, and south.
Driving is excruciatingly slow on these routes cut into the sides of steep mountains. They would make better horse trails than roads. Boulders, plants, mud, and gravel make 4WD essential to passage. We approached Balbalasan in the late afternoon, when the ridge to the west was silhouetted on the opposite side of the valley. It was the most beautiful view I have ever seen. A tear escaped from sheer awe. The two ridges met far in the distance, angular greens sprinkled with sparkling rice terraces and tin rooftops. I was happy I didn't have a camera if only because a photograph would be an insult to the grandeur and memory of that place.
Though he hadn't said much the whole way, our driver insisted we pass by the junction for our road and visit the Mayor. Though eager to move on and find a campsite, we obliged. We had ridden in the mayor's car after all. We pulled up to Municipal Hall, which was buzzing with activity. People coming and going, we waited outside his office until he finished a conversation. All genuine smiles and masculine action, he welcomed us in and before we could speak a word showed us to the food. We were the first to fill our plates with pandit noodles, a condensed milk jello, and a local mascobado sticky rice, all astoundingly good. The occasion? We arrived in time to kick off the office celebration of a clerk's marriage the day before.
Once everyone had shovelled down a few mouthfuls, there was air to tell stories. We explained how we had come to arrive in his office at such a strange hour, where we were from, where we were headed. I spoke mostly with the mayor himself, projecting endless gratitude. Small talk, names, and stories quickly led to exchange of names and family history. When he heard my name, he said, short and sweet, "I'm your uncle." "What?" "You have an uncle named Victorino in Tabuk City [a distant relative I knew existed to the east but didn't have the time to visit]. He and I are fourth cousins, but we grew up as brothers." My jaw fell agape at the bizarreness of the world. I was in Kalinga to be as far away from technology and familiarity as possible, and here was related to the Mayor, our beneficiary, and brother to the Governor of Kalinga Province (who must also be a far-removed uncle). His English was better than any I've heard since from native Filipinos. He was down to earth, honest, and composed -- a living contradiction to the bumbling, dishonest weirdos who usually find themselves in such an office here. Conversation was smooth and frank. He was impressed the fact that I had gone so deep into the Philippines.
|The Kalinga-Abra Road|
|Sunrise from the Kalinga-Abra Rd|
|View from the Ridge|
We missed the jeep. But we were met at our destination town and we were given free lunch of noodles at a restaurant that likes to take care of travellers who came from the mountains. We were blissfully thankful for the food and we gulped it all down with finality. We took showers and chatted with an ex-professor about mines and other resource extraction policies in the Philippines. He knew of my uncle Danilo in Baguio because they taught at the same university for a time. He was visiting family for the holidays but needed to head back to the city for work. Finally, a cement truck was taking off for the lowlands and we hopped on.
|Cement Truck Bus|
The three of us were a little worse for the wear by the end of the 3-hour journey down. Dominika was roasting, fumigated in the cab with three chiseled labourers who occasionally glanced sideways to get a look at the pretty white girl. The balls of my feet were badly bruised, I was scraped up by vegetation, and burnt to a crisp by the sun. Piotr was in similar condition. Our headaches demanded silence, clean air, and a cool breeze. Instead, we had to disembark near the downtown of a hot, bustling city close to the coast. Slowly, we built the energy to look for food, water, and solace. We hopped a bus headed farther west and had it drop us near a beach to camp.
Thirsty, tired, and hungry, Piotrek savored a dip in the ocean, and Dominika and I rested in the sand. Some locals blessed us with full water bottles, a warm gift from a small, poor fishing outpost. We worked our way down the beach to a less populated area, set up camp, and started a fire. Hot dinner, stories, and early sleep under the stars were the order of the day. We had arrived at the coast more or less on time and dazed by the sudden major change of scenery from the cool, quiet mountains to the hot, busy lowlands. Only four days to Christmas...