Thursday, October 15, 2009

Banaue Rice Terraces

from the travel journals of Serge Kabamalan, supporter of Our Melting Pot

Banaue in the northern part of Luzon Island offers an exciting and breath-taking view of the Philippine highlands. It showcases a very ancient way of living in harmony with nature, crowned by its rice terraces built by hand by the Ifugao tribes who are believed to be related to the Miao tribe of China. Popularly known as the Banaue Rice Terraces, it is actually a part of an ingenious and sprawling system of rice paddies called, the “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As a young boy, I was taught more than once by my grade school teachers that it is “The Eighth Wonder of the World. I would often gawk at pictures of it that look like steps in green mountains going to the heavens. If its pictures could be so enthralling I wondered how much more if go to see it. So, I vowed that I shall visit the place one day. But I only got the chance to see it when I was already working. Taking a leave from work for 2 days that straddles over the weekend, I took a 10 PM bus from Espana, Manila and alternately watched the DVD movie shown on board, slept (when I could) and took refreshments during stopovers (which are adventures by themselves).

After that 9 hour ride in the darkness, I was ready to concede to an uneventful day of rest for the coming day while making a mental note of adjustments I had to make on my itinerary. But as the sun's first glimmer revealed the mountain fastness of the Philippine Cordilleras, what I beheld made me gasp with excitement and wonder, and I quickly forgot about my longing to rest. Wherever I set my eyes on captivated my interest. Majestic view of mountains clad with pines and embraced by low lying clouds as far as the eyes can see! Cascading waters running along the roads and under the bridges! Quaint villages nestled on gently rolling slopes of vegetable gardens set against the towering peaks! In no time, I was transfixed by the passing sceneries which augured well for a beautiful adventure in Banaue. The travel may be long and tiring, but the early morning view and the crisp coolness of the air was enough to invigorate me, as I was filled with so much expectation.

I hailed a tricycle to bring me to the town center where I was told I could get a cheap accommodation. And true enough, without even reserving a room from Manila I got one for only PhP 400 with a private bath. Later, I would find out that there were accommodations as low as PhP 100-150 per bed in various inns and hostels around. But the room I got had a great view of the Banaue Rice Terraces.

On with the plan despite a fitful sleep on the bus! I spent that day hiking the mountain trails, visiting some museums and old traditional Ifugao houses. People were friendly and helpful. The children would greet me and ask for candies. A hike along the road leading to several viewpoints afforded me priceless sights of this ancient, human-made structure, part of a sprawling rice terraces system that straddles different provinces in the Cordilleras. From these viewpoints, it is easy to believe that these hand-made terraces placed end-to-end could go half-way around the globe.

I was there during the planting season and was mesmerized. So, I could only imagine and pine for its glory when the rice paddies are filled with golden grains ready for the harvest!

A talk with some locals surprisingly gave me an instant introduction to the place's history. One even invited me into his family house to see pictures and mementoes of Banaue's past, and of a people that depends so much on nature's harshness and bounty.

The next day, I went to Batad, a spectacularly tiered and amphitheatre-shaped terraces with a small village down where the terraces begin. I went through a 12 km jeepney ride which was not for the faint of heart. It was bumpy and tremulous. But the jeepney driver showed great dexterity in navigating the narrow passages especially where we met cars and buses going the other way. At times, I felt that one wheel of the jeep was over the ravine, and just one strong kick would send all passengers and baggage into free fall. But picturesque mountains, verdant valleys, rivers and waterfalls continued to captivate all my attention. So, worry and fear were easily replaced with excitement as nature’s wonders unfold one after the other which became even more apparent when I began hiking, up then down, toward my destination.

At Battad, I was really amazed by the sheer beauty of its terraces, the warmth and hospitality of the villagers, the simple but creative culinary fusion in the food served at local eateries (e.g. pizza topped with cabbage, tomatoes and cheese, spiked with local herbs and spices), the small stone and wooden benches offered to weary hikers while cooling our feet, the friendly and helpful guides, the distinctive flavor of tapuey or rice wine, the allure of Tappia Falls, the tall sampaloc trees lit by fireflies like a living Christmas tree at night, the long and winding hikes in and around the terraces, and countless other wonders along the way. To top it all, I had the privilege to stay in one of the traditional Ifugao houses that still stand proud, blending well with the splendid view. It is designed well for the cold climate of these northern Luzon mountains, and I was kept warm and comfortable through the night.

I still carry the memory of that trip fresh in my mind, savoring it while promising I shall go visit it again!

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