Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I went back to the Philippines

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Filipinos have a well-worn repertoire of national Sights and Spectacles to recommend to visitors. There’s Boracay, of course, the country’s dominant party beach; the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, a series of brown papillary bumps in the earth; the tarsiers, the world’s smallest primates, also found in Bohol; Palawan’s underground river. Many Filipinos have never visited some or any of these sights, but the list is pretty standard, and near the top of that list can usually be found the rice terraces of Banaue.

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For me, the most striking thing about the rice terraces is not their appearance, impressive though they are, but rather their sheer antiquity. Some of the terraces have been maintained by Luzon’s Ifugao since long before such a people as “Filipinos” existed. And for all of modern society’s accoutrements, the terraces remain in use in communities far from any oceans, cities or Jollibees. The finest terraces of them all (well, such is the general consensus) are etched into the mountainsides at Batad, which is a reached by a long trike ride and a longer hike from Banaue. Batad’s small local community caters to visitors with its many simple guesthouses, and foreigners are no odd sight – on our hike in, many of the locals we passed asked in proficient English if we needed guides or lodging in the town.

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The truth is that, while the terraces are worth seeing, I was more interested in the mountain culture and the people who lived in what I thought of as an inhospitable place. Many of the trails are impassable by anything mechanical, and even on the well-worn road out of Banuae we witnessed a jeepney struggling through the mud mixed up by recent rains. (We also came upon a mysterious earth-mover digging out a hillside in a place where there seemed absolutely no way to way to get the huge machine there – the trails up and down the hill were far too steep and narrow. It looked like it had been airdropped by a truly monstrous helicopter.) Of course people there survive, working their terraces and housing and feeding curious outsiders, but their adaptations to life in and from the mountains must be marvelous to “urban” eyes. Even their bodies change: we saw that many locals had feet with remarkably splayed toes, tweaked to better navigate the mountain paths that wind around their valley.

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I didn’t return to the Philippines a month after my service ended just to see the rice terraces, of course, but I liked the sidetrip. I enjoyed visiting Japan and China, but I discovered just how huge the difference is between traveling and living. Back in the Philippines I felt comfortable: I knew how to get around, I could communicate, I recognized a lot of the local quirks. The Philippines was my home for over two years, after all, which was not enough time for me to understand it, but it was enough for me to become comfortable with a lot of things that were initially jarring – and enough for me to welcome the sweet sounds of Ilonggo all over again.

I spent Christmas back at my center in Iloilo, after a harrowing ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) trip from Manila involving three cramped bus journeys, two intemperate ferry jaunts and twenty-seven total hours. A few of my coworkers knew I was visiting, but it was a surprise for nearly all of my kids – and I was mobbed before I even got inside the center. It was fantastic to see them again, to go through our well-worn routines and conversations.

My third New Year in the Philippines turned, and this time I had a ticket home. But I wasn’t redeeming it quite yet.

5 comments:

audrey55 said...

You're right Ryan, most of us filipinos never visited those tourist spot across the country and it's a pity actually coz either most of us have limited budget or after college most pinoys busy looking for a job both local and overseas so only those balikbayan or returning filipinos from abroad w/ enough budget can enjoyed and visited those beautiful spots in the Philippines. I myself been working overseas for quite long but due to my limited 2 weekes home vacation i just spend it to have a quality time w/ my family at home or nearby places or either take a full 2 weeks rest to charge my energy.That's why everytime i saw a tourist blog and photos from people visiting the Philippines , i can't help but feel jealous that these people from far away countries are able to enjoyed seeing those places that our country has to offer. So seeing these unique places i promise myself that after my contract this yr. i will make sure that i have enough budget to go w/ those places even once in a while.
Thank's for these blog i enjoyed reading it and see all those local people living in that area, to be honest, i admired these courageous people living in a very difficult situation , that alone cannot be ignored and forgotten.
Audrey

Carren said...

Goodness. I envy you even seeing the terraces. I haven't been and I've lived in the Philippines for 2 decades! :) Glad you're sticking around some more.

Ryan Murphy said...

Thanks for your comment, Audrey. It's true that as an American I have more opportunity to travel within the Philippines than many Filipinos do, and that fact always makes me feel self-conscious and even a bit guilty. It's admirable that Filipinos (like you) who don't have much free time choose to spend it with their families... that's much more important than seeing tourist sites.

But I hope you do have the chance to visit all the places you want to see!

Marcos said...

I've always been curious why the mountainous areas of the Cordilleras attract a lot of backpacking foreigners. I would expect that you guys would be more keen to visit the beach destinations of the Philippines.

After reading your post, I understand now that it's not always about the raw grandeur of a place, which makes it memorable but also the interaction with people and culture.

Ryan Murphy said...

Marcos, that's usually what I find most interesting about a new place. I love beaches and I went to quite a few while I was in the Philippines, but even the best beaches were the ones where there were not so many foreigners and Filipino culture was still preserved (like Siquijor and Cuyo).