On the priviledge of being hanged
Curious as it was: after spending one week on a paradise island together, swimming with turtles and whale sharks together and even sharing a family room in Oslob and in Cebu we started feeling as if a part of us was missing when we had to say goodbye to Alexis and Laetitia at Cebu airport and head towards Manila, only the two of us.
Time was passing by too quickly in this charming country, which is to become among our favourites with India. We had only five days left to visit the Cordillera area in Northern Luzón. Our first destination there was the little mountain village of Sagada, located in the so-called Mountain Region north of Ifugao. As the name may already suggest: it lies deep inside the Cordillera ranges and public transport to go there is both scarce and kind of an adventure.
Arriving at Manila took a night bus to Banaue in Ifugao – one of the main tourist destinations in the Philippines – and from there it is still a three hours jeepney drive to Sagada, while it is necessary to change jeepneys after two hours in Bontoc. One public jeepney leaves Banaue for Bontoc in the morning at 8:30 am. As there is not many other transport options in the same price range, the jeepney usually leaves stuffed with passengers, so that when we wanted to jump in, was already full inside and were moved to the top. While we were at first cursing the driver for charging us the same price in such an uncomfortable position, we were to notice after some meters driving that we had been actually very lucky.
The seating may not be among the most comfortable and even though the jeepney rarely is able to move faster than 50 km/h one must always pay attention of grabbing hold of something – but the lack of comfort is ten times offset by the breathtaking views of the rice terraces surrounded by rising mountains and an azure blue morning sky. The panoramic views are half of the experience when visiting the Cordillera in Luzón and through the small, milky windows of the jeepney in-cabin we would most probably have been unable to get them. Moreover, given that the road doesn’t stop turning, sitting on the top prevents carsickness – an issue particularly myself always has to worry about.
Concerning the safety aspect – if there is something like safety on a jeepney at all: Yes, roads are bad and yes, they have loads of curves and few stone delimitations at the edges, which is why the jeepneys generally are not moving very fast and take three hours to make the 70 km from Banaue to Sagada. In case of an accident or a jeepney slipping down the precipice we were seriously thinking what would be more dangerous: sitting inside or on the top? We chose the cabin, as from the top one could at least try to jump off pretty fast, instead of being locked up inside. Nevertheless we are happy that during our jeepney trips we never were to actually make the decision.
The jeepneys driving around the Cordillera are among the oldest and most shaky we’ve spotted in the Philippines, with their motors coughing and chattering on each ascent up the serpentine mountain roads. On the road from Bontoc to Sagada our jeepney broke down three times due to engine overheating, so that each time the driver had to jump out and pourred water over it to cool it down, while each pour evaporated inmediately with a loud fizzling. He also filled new water into the the cooler which started boiling and sprinkling like a fountain. Javier tried to help the driver so we could go on quickly, which made one passenger after the other descending from the jeepney, observing what this funny white tourist was doing.
Located inside a valley on 1600 meters elevation and difficult to access even today, Sagada is one of the few places in the Philippines rarely visited by conquistadores during colonial rule. As a consequence, it experienced relatively little Spanish influence and was able to maintain its local culture, religion and rituals. Thanks to its geographical location and related microclimate, it features an exceptional landscape of pine tree covered mountains, surrounding rice terraces framed by banana trees, clear mountains rivers, water falls and lime stone rock formations.
The tiny village is made up of merely three streets, built up a hill slope. Nearly every house is a hotel, guesthouse, restaurant or shop, but surprisingly Sagada had maintained a calm, untouched and pretty authentic ambiance – maybe thanks to its remoteness.
Sagada is most famous for its mystrious hanging coffins, a particular burrial technique also ecnountered in Sulawesi (Indonesia) and in several more Southern regions of China (Fuian, Hebei, Sichuan, Jianxi, Yunnan). The corpses are kept insidepainted wooden coffins and fixed at an upright stone wall. In Sagada there are two of those “hanging cementeries”, where this kind of burrial ritual is still practised today. Being hanged is a priviledge which doesn’t correspond to anybody. Only local being descending from a family enrooted in Sagada for at least three generations allowed to be burried on the stone wall. Locations are attributed according to social position and prestige of the dead inside the community. The higher the coffin, the more priviledged, as locals believe higher hanging coffins make the soul of the dead being closer to heaven.
A very curious detail for us was to see wooden chairs fixed besides some of the coffins. We learned that as in some of the coffins the bodies we not laid straight, but in a bent position, similar to a foetus, people believe that lying in such an uncomfortable position for long time makes their extremities and articulations hurt. So the chair invites them to come out of the coffin from time to time to take some rest from lying bent. A very logical reasonning, we had to admit.
The hanging is however not the only curious burrial technique practised in Sagada. A little outside the village are two huge limestone caves, Sumaguing and Lumiang, interconnected by an unlit subterranean passage, which can be passed with a guide in a four hours trek. At the entrance of Lumiang cave there are around 100 wooden coffins stuffed into the wall. Some of them are said to be more than 500 years old, even though we could not figure how the wood would not rot in such a long time period and in tropical climate.
The size and impressiveness of the cave entrance and the multitude of coffins is difficult to capture in words and pictures, but we can tell it was one of the most mysterious sites we saw during our trip.
The walk to the caves is short one, but one of the nicest views Sagada has to offer. On the way there is a beautiful wooden house built on steels at the mountain slope, hosting an organic café offering excellent – and for once neither heavy nor oily – food, local coffee and – not worth mentionning – stunning views of the valley.
The only drawback of Sagada were the heavy rains pouring into the valley each afternoon at about 2 pm – and not ending until late at night. It was nice to get an idea of what the rain season in the Philippines must look like, but nevertheless limited us to sitting inside the hotel, watching the water come down and wait to leave for Banaue the next morning – of course, on the top of a jeepney!