The Hills Are Alive… With the Sound of Heavy Breathing (Sagada, Part 2)

*Originally posted in Multiply on 21 May 2007*

We woke quite early. We were told yesterday that the tour starts at 7am. Of course, we tried to be down that time but breakfast was what slowed us down.

Our guide, John, discussed what to expect on the tour while waiting for our food. When he said that we were going to walk, hike and do some caving, I felt I wasn’t fit to do it. Well, considering that it was how it was, I psyched myself to complete it. Ha! After breakfast, we were off.

Our first stop was Kiltepan, which was accessible by the van up to a certain point only. We walked the rest of the way. I was able to use the walking stick I bought at Banaue and it helped me big time. Since most of us were not that fit, we had a terrible time catching our breath. There was a running contest on who could inhale/exhale the noisiest. I think I won- hehehe. When we reached the top, it was worth all the shortness of breath. The view was spectacular! Mountains, trees- you name it, it was all here. Cameras clicked away, Rodel went down near the cliffs to get better shots, and the girls just stared out. I was just standing in one place, still collecting my breath. It helped that the view was so serene.

Kiltepan

The trek down was okay and we stopped at some points for some picture taking. We met the van at the end of the trail and went off to the next stop of the tour.

Bokong Falls

The trek down Bokong Falls (small waterfalls) was a respite but we knew we were going to have a hell of a time going back up later. The waterfalls flowed into an 18-foot pool. None of us swam- we just took pictures and rested. There were some trash lying on the grass and our guide said that it was supposed to be cleaned by another group. That’s the only thing that destroys nature trips- people who just leave their waste behind.

The trek back up was a real ordeal. As usual, the contest for the noisiest breathing continued. I guess I still won.

We went to Echo Valley next. We first passed the cemetery. John explained that any Sagada citizen can just bury their dead. There are no plots reserved. Most of the buried were foreign nationals who resided there. I was trying to locate Yamashita’s grave as I read that it was in this area and unmarked. Hmm, will look it up when we return.

As usual, trekking was the order of the day to Echo Valley. Not too exhausting but just a little care needed as some of the trails were narrow and had tree roots poking out. When we got to a spot, we stopped and admired the view. We could also see the hanging coffins on some of the caves below. I read, and validated by our guide, that the higher the coffin hangs from, the higher the position of the deceased is in the society. Pregnant women who died during childbirth, babies dead upon delivery and children have a separate burial area. Criminals, womanizers and other sinful people also have a separate burial area and is looked down upon because of its residents. Wow, that really speaks of one’s status in the tribe.

Hanging Coffins

Rodel shouted to “test” the echo- it was really funny. He yelled that he was handsome and other voices protested. The echo actually didn’t come back right- hahaha.

We went through the cemetery again but still could not find Yamashita’s grave. However, we saw his son’s grave (?). If you are familiar with Philippine history regarding Yamashita’s treasure, that it is still unfound, our guide allays this and confirms that it was already taken by Japanese soldiers posing as missionaries/teachers decades ago. Well, so much for treasure hunting.

From the cemetery, we passed by the Episcopal Church of St. Mary. The church was simple but had beautiful stained glass windows. We left after paying a parking fee of 25 pesos. Almost like Manila!

Lake Danum was next on our list. This lake did not have any visible source of water but it was always filled up. John said that the middle portion had a sort of hole and may become a whirlpool at times. There were cows grazing and drinking by the lake. We took some pictures then went off.

Lake Danum

The last stop was the Sagada Weaving Center. They still used the loom type of weaving. The designs were kind of intricate. It just makes one feel so proud of the art form. On the way out, we saw a dog that was a cross between a Retriever and a Rottweiler. It looked cute but was really big. Things like this, I pity the dog and the breed. Sometimes it works, others don’t.

It was past 1pm when we got back to our lodgings. John introduced us to another guide, Jake, who was going to take over as he had a funeral to attend to. We told Jake that we would have lunch first before we continued with the tour.

We had lunch at the Masferre restaurant. We all ordered rice as we were really famished from all the walking and trekking. Butch ordered sandwich and we were really surprised with that. She said that she wasn’t that hungry. When our orders came in, we couldn’t help laughing because Butch’s sandwich was as big as the rice orders that came in. Ha! We consumed every bit of our food, preparing ourselves for the next feat.

As we were almost done, the rains fell. It also brought with it the ice we experienced yesterday. Another hail storm! It was so peculiar looking at ice dropping on the streets. A native said that it was the first time this happened. Was it our presence? Were we of divine status? Hahaha- maybe we were just lucky to experience it. It took us almost 30 mins. before we were able get out the restaurant and continue the tour. We picked up Jake and Bingo, another guide needed for the caving part. The real fun now starts here.

It was still drizzling when we got to our first stop. We were shown the burial caves below and were on our way down when the guides found out that the caves were locked. Eh? How can caves be locked? Apparently there must be some kind of gate barring it from unwanted visitors or something. So, with that problem, we had to abandon that outing and go to the caving part. Too bad, we were really set on seeing the coffins and the caves where social hierarchy was dictated.

Outside Sumaguing Cave

Sumaguing Cave. The name sounds so harmless, just a tribal title. Apparently, so was its occupancy and importance during the early Sagadans way of life. And the biggest feat I went through in my lifetime.

We decided not to bring any of our cell phones or stuff for this part of the outing. Reading from the blogs, these are useless inside the cave and may even get wet. So we were all hands-free and pockets-free, except for Rodel, who insisted on bringing his camera.

At the mouth of the cave, we waited while the guides gassed up their lanterns. It was really dark below and wondered how far down we were going. The guide must have read our minds because he said it was 50 storeys below. Whoa, that was a scary fact. The amazing thing was none of us backed out the moment he said that. We were all gung-ho! When all the lanterns were lighting properly, the guide gave us pointers:

1. Nobody holds onto anybody, this is an individual trek. This is to avoid one person dragging another in case he/she happens to slip/slide.
2. If there is difficulty in going down, it is better to sit on the rocks and slide down. Love the rocks, he said.
3. Call the attention of the guide if any assistance is needed.

We then arranged ourselves from the slowest trekker to the fastest. This is so the slower speed is capitalized and nobody gets left behind. Rodel went first as he had the camera and will be stopping from time to time to take pictures. He was followed by Mario, myself, Ly Anne, Butch, Monica, Jovit then Neri. Bingo was the guide at the end while Jake was in front. With this, we started our descent.

The first thing you think of when going down is how careful you step on the rocks. Some are loose, some just small. Sure footing is the key to it. After a minute down, we were shown the “heart of the cave.” It was a formation on the cave wall that looked like a heart. Cool. We then moved onto bat territory.

Everywhere you look there was bat dung and piss. Yes, you could count on the smell, too. Rocks were slippery here so there was no choice but to hold onto the dung-covered rocks. There was a time I really had to sit and slide down to avoid having a slipping incident. We were still going down from here. Suddenly, Bingo dropped the lantern and we were in the dark for a few seconds. We had to hook up with another group so as to have enough light.

It took a few minutes before we stopped and looked at limestone formations. One formation was named “Queen of the Cave” due to its sort of suggested female anatomy form. I could already see some water on some parts of the stone formation. We were advised to take our slippers/sandals off for better foothold. The limestone formation was on top of each other and offered some way down. So down we went, careful not to slip.

The water was cool. As usual, I sat down on the rocks so as not to slip. As soon as we got down, we saw a crowd. There were more groups before us. They were having their pictures taken at a limestone formation called “King’s Curtain.” When they left, Ly Anne was the only one who went up to have her picture taken.

The next part was a first for me: rappel down an 8-ft limestone with flowing water. The guide said to make sure both feet were flat on the stone. Of course, I sort of forgot about that part. As I was going down, unintentionally tiptoeing, I slipped. Ha! I was actually near the bottom and just slid down a bit. Hmm, that was fun.

The next thing we had to do was go through a crevasse that curved down to a narrow opening. Jake advised to go through it face down. It worked as I was able to go through it with my size, hehehe. From here, there was a very long line of people waiting to do something.

That something turned out to be the most challenging of all. It was a sideways rappel from one side to the other, crossing a small pool then dropping down a bigger one with chest-high water. Looking at the others going through it, I was wondering how the heck I was going to make it. The guides were saying “step here” or “put your right foot here” or some other foothold instruction. Well, when it was my turn, I just went through it. It was a mixture of acrobatics and balancing (and wishing I could elongate my limbs), but made it through. Whew! That was some trip!

The pool was really cold. Ly Anne, who was ahead of me, was just staying in one area. The lights were gone again and we were waiting for a guide to shine it our way. Unfortunately, the group before us was on the landing area and was not moving. One by one, our group started dropping into the cold pool and staying stuck there. My first thought was hypothermia and we started to really yell at the guides for light and space to move on. Finally, after a minute or two, we were moving. We were shaking a bit from the cold.

We reached the landing area and found that it was the rappel part again. So, it was now a rappel up the 8-ft wet limestone. I was reminding myself to keep both feet flat on the stone. I started my ascent, was doing quite okay when my right foot made a tiptoe. Ha! You guessed it, I slid and it hurt. I planted my feet back on the limestone and made it to the top. I had a nasty gash on my right knee and it was bleeding. Well, I’ve had worst- hehehe.

We went up the limestone again where we left our shoes and slippers. The ascent was quite slow as all of the groups were there. There were even children.

After putting on our sandals, we all made the slow climb out of the cave. We passed by the slippery, bat dung-covered stones. It was quite harder to climb up than it was going down. I could never have imagined how far we went. Going up, there were alternate routes, one even involving a tire ladder (bike tires roped up). There was one time I was on the tire ladder when the light again disappeared. Everybody was shouting Bingo’s name, specifically Jake, who sounded really cross. After a few seconds Bingo appeared with the light and I continued my climb.

When I finally saw the stairs to the mouth of the cave, I raised my arms and shouted “Yes!” I was really ecstatic when I saw it. Still, I knew I was going to go through the breathing contest just climbing up the stairs. Somehow it didn’t matter because I survived the cave- hahaha.

When we got out onto fresh air, we were all smiling and happy to have experienced this. It was really different and gave us that sense of adventure one would never know one had. I was the only one who had a reminder from that venture and am proud of it, even if it was due to some clumsiness.

We were all smelling like bat-dung and needed a bath quick. We thanked our guides when we got to our lodgings. The others lined up for the bathroom while I went down and paid them.

John was there to accept the payment and also relayed an incident in the cave when Bingo suddenly disappeared with the light. It turned out that one person got paralyzed from the waist down when he (?) got soaked on the chest-high water and they had to assist him out of the cave. This was why all the lights were needed. I smiled at Bingo and said it was okay. I thanked them for all their assistance and they noted that it was too bad we did not go to the burial caves and some areas. I said that we were going back to complete it.

After the bath, I really felt tired, specially my arms and shoulder. Since it was too late to have dinner out, we bought bread, canned food and instant noodles at a sari-sari store and had it cooked at the lodgings. Over corned beef and La Paz Batchoy, we recounted all that we experienced a few hours ago. We even met our neighbors, who were going caving the next day. We only had positive and wonderful advises to give them.

I cancelled our reservation at Banaue for the next day, since we opted to go to Baguio instead due to the road condition. We didn’t want to go through another flat tire. We thought of and looked at places to stay in Baguio but were just too tired to do it. Maybe tomorrow will be better. For now, we were just thinking of how we made it through that cave.

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