The Road to Shangri-la : Sagada

“Are you planning to bring a puppy along?”, asks my companion, eyeing the fur-lined thermal jacket I was holding that looked like it hocked an extinct animal or two. It is a week before a trip to Sagada and a companion and I are raiding the Ukay-Ukay stalls Downtown, the smell of chemical on our hands, trying to imagine what 16° Celsius would feel like. Any choice of clothing seemed inadequate, it being made in the middle of sweltering Cebu.

A week after and we are waiting at the Mactan Airport, comparing gear before a 6:00 AM flight. “Why didn’t you bring a swimsuit along?” another companion asks accusingly, as if to say “What! We’re going to be stuck in the mountains where breaths turn into mist, where the cold serves as natural anesthetic, and where hypothermia is probably on the tip of everyone’s tongue. And you didn’t bring a swimsuit along!? How unprepared!”

I was. Not too soon after arrival in Sagada, in between the Cordillera and Ilocos Range, do I realize that the Province has been given the gift of inconsistency, where anything from 5-layered outerwear to a bikini top can be interchanged in the span of 30 minutes. Living in a backpack, I realized, is exercise in both preparation, and restraint. One starts thinking less in terms of “What can I wear with this?” but rather in terms of “How many times can I wear this?”. Value per wear. Value per use. This is a challenge when preparing for “all-weather” weather. A newbie at backpacking, the bag feels too loose, too jangled, and too unsteady on the back. And as early as going to, I find myself haunted by ghosts of the forgotten—a scarf, a shirt, an unsaid reminder—all seemingly essential from last-minute panic.

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It is Manila now – 7:00 AM- and the taxi driver who flagged down at quadruple the regular rate is snaking through the jungle of Pasay’s Highways. The Victory Liner bus going to Baguio, where the terminal to Sagada is waiting, is scheduled at 11:00 PM later in the evening yet. So the group of 4, all girls, spends the day taking in the sights of colonial Intramuros, where guardia civils walk between present and past and a kind kalesa driver lets us ride for free. From there, we move down to the streets of Cubao, the fruit stalls of Talipapa and pocket store called Liana’s beckoning with cheap goods and a smell that foreigners will politely call “robust”. The whole of Manila, it seems, is like one big mall, in its ideology of constant movement. One corner functions unaware of the other.  Constantly, constantly, there is movement. And consequently, noise. Caught in its crowds, we too constantly toddle on.

Rest arrived with the bus, although the seats themselves had to be fought over. On a long weekend, tickets are golden. The last scheduled bus sold out 9 hours before the trip, an occurrence that usually only happens on Holy Week or Undas. 6 hours and a comfortable night down the line, the bus arrives at Baguio, a continent away from the heat of Manila just long enough to hustle a taxi and buy coffee at Dangwa Terminal. From the window, a bedraggled vendor is selling gloves, taking advantage of our displacement. Rule books constantly tell you to be prepared, but it also tells you one can never be fully-prepared. Such is the case of Baguio, supposedly used as a halfway house to acclimatize one to the biting climate of the Mountain Province, but even the cool city isn’t a close indication to how cold “cold” is. Weather is often a subtle dictator. It prods you where to go, what to wear, what to eat under its bounty. And yet it does this with the softest push at the back, a tug of the hand. It persuades you to change without you being aware of it.

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Past La Trinidad moving to Halsema Highway, an intricate artwork of curves and drops, air starts to get denser and the cold biting. Mufflers and gloves come out, “decorative” accessories in any other place but here. The open window feels like an air conditioner set full blast on the cheeks. Atok, Benguet, appears hazy like in a dream. The fog is constant companion to passersby here and in seeing them, one wishes that if only, one could just take handfuls of it and pocket them for souvenirs. So in a much-needed day in the future, he could just take it out, spread it, and continue the same dream. By the middle of the ride after a brief stopover in Atok, there is no road, no trees, no cliffs. Just the mist, all-encompassing grays, and a runny nose.

Atok’s Barangay Paoay is where the highest highway point in the Philippines is found. When passing it, a sign will say that at that moment, one is 7,400 feet above sea level. The significance is easily missed, except the clouds seemingly below rather than above constantly remind you of it. If they don’t, then surely the vegetable gardens that bring out the bounty of a 16° climate- cabbages, carrots, beans- will. Atok serves as an in-between to Baguio and Sagada, and is where most Liners have their stopovers. A parade of colorful knitted hats top vendors’ heads as they persuade passengers to Kutsinta, Kropek, Mani.

The roads nearer to Sagada itself from the town before are unfinished. It is dominated by narrow dirt trails that only one vehicle, our bus, can get through. The unpaved road, susceptible to landslides, is sandwiched by two cliffs that have a direct drop to a thousand or so feet below. And fortunately or un, rides are made even more exciting when a driver, insouciant to the shouts of his tourist passengers, zigzags through as if it were a sin for wheels to touch ground. This continues on, 80-km. speed on uneven dirt trail, until there is a semblance of asphalt again, and houses on top of limestone formations, looking as natural there almost as if they were carved with it. And always, always, is the biting cold, made even chillier by a change in the wind pattern, a coming Tropical Depression. The coldness is the only welcoming committee needed; greeting even before feet touches soil. Only then have you reached Sagada.

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“Eh, kailangan mahirapan muna kayo.” (You have to undergo hardships first) says Kevin, member of the Sagada Genuine Guide Association or SAGGAs. “Kaya nga tinawag itong Shangri-la Town of the Philippines.” its inaccessibility only adding to its value. It takes a whole day to go to and come back from Sagada, to some a day from the itinerary lost, and yet Sagada’s roads teaches us that this isn’t so.

When do you start traveling? I found myself asking this trying to reach a place that constitutes about 15 hours of flying, riding and walking. For me, one starts traveling as soon as he’s pinned a destination in his mind just as surely as if he pinned it on the map. The very decision, whether followed through or not, already triggers a ripple effect that takes one to places further than what routine life will dictate, whether it’s to a far-flung part of town for a cheap jacket or to a travel agency for an inquiry. Planning and preparation alone constitutes traveling even when the road trodden is only in the mind.

This is the beauty of journeys, I think, that no map or itinerary or even accuracy of observing, timing,  recording or writing, will plot out just where you are or how far you’ve gone. One never knows where Significance, and later on, Memory will present itself.  Most of the time, it is never in the destination planned. Perhaps even, it is in the streets of Talipapa where different dialects mix with its blaring music, or in the cobbled Real Street in Ilustrado, or even in that corner Chinese chain restaurant where the Guard surprisingly spoke to you in your native tongue, glad to encapsulate his life story in a minute, in the span of you and him standing. There.

Too familiar are we with the adage that it is as much “the journey as it is the destination”. There is nothing like a 15-hour trip on dirt roads, vertical drops, landslides, thick fogs and an adrenaline-seeking driver—experienced even before arrival– to make you realize the wisdom of that.

Why else then do we go for pursuits in “real” life –art, religion, relationship-building—anything that involves rudiments in preparation and process, that oftentimes leave us spent, but whole?
*Published in Cebu Daily News 09.15.12


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