Sagada: Bokong Falls

WE don’t like the taste of development,” says Lester, curator of the Ganduyan Museum.

He says this in front of tourists, myself included, who have become walking symbols of the development he loathes.

Never mind that he continues to depend greatly on the very same outsiders to keep the legacy of his family alive.

His mother, the museum’s first curator, took it upon herself to collect knickknacks – ceremonial baskets, spears, pottery, headhunting bags, headdresses, vests, fabrics – on the second floor of their wooden ancestral house. Lester knows each piece. He grew up with them.

Ever since his mother passed away, Lester, or Malidum among Ganduyans, the youngest amongst his siblings, took it upon himself to continue what she started. He shows us her watercolor depiction of wooden beads. We pass it around. He hands us a floral embroidery pattern she started. We pass that around too.

Finally, he takes out a glossy catalogue, a guide to the museum’s artifacts and their individual histories. The gloss of the print sticks out from the rest of the house’s sepia tones, sticks out from his worn brown hands, a foreign object from another time.

“For P200 only,” he says, only unlike other salesmen eager to close a deal, Lester seems unconcerned. His monotonous sales pitch is in effect saying “Buy it, or don’t. I don’t really care.”

I envy his indifference.

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The peril and privilege of visiting a place twice

There’s a building unswallowable sensation at the back of the throat the minute you realize that what you once loved, a passion intangible to majority, one so carefully nurtured and private, has suddenly transformed into a profession – a job, a task, another to-do.

At the beginning of the year, I found myself traveling more, about three flights a month, with each trip spanning for a couple of days up to a week. The backpack would barely be parked before another trip came along. This had been my dream, to be a travel writer. But there was never enough time to take it all in. When once, impermanence held a certain romance, having had too much made it seem ordinary, unappealing, a norm.

There was no novelty anymore. Every place turned out to be the same. Every jaunt seemed to be a form of self-indulgence. Why am I doing this, really, I asked.

Just for the novelty it presented? Had the pursuit of the new – new places, sensations, people, clicks -suddenly become the disease of my time? And am I one of its carriers?

That was how I found myself in Sagada three years after the first time I had gone, to answer the very questions that lurked in pre-departure areas before any flight. Why am I doing this? I wanted to relearn what made me love travel in the first place.

Sagada, three years ago, seemed immune to the art of pleasing. Yet not everyone seems to think like Lester anymore. The very commercialism I tried to escape followed me endlessly on the path to Echo Valley where travelers whipped out their selfie sticks and shouted excerpts from a pop movie, its tagline asking “Where do broken hearts go?”

I wouldn’t know really. I certainly hoped not here.

Three years ago, Sagada could boast about its seclusion, sealed off via a 12-hour bus ride from Manila through non-asphalted roads, sometimes wedged between two cliffs on either side, bait for those entranced with inaccessibility. It seemed like a place where those looking for something amiss found something talismanic.

I found it, whatever it was, the first time around and hoped to find it again, to let the “land of the dead” as my guide fondly tags it, rejuvenate this disillusioned.

The peril of revisiting a place, though, is the encounter of ghosts lurking from the last visit. You are almost always given to nostalgia, a compulsion you try not to vomit to first-time companions.

There is the temptation to replicate the mysticism of the first time. The banana honey yoghurt in Yoghurt House is just as good. Yes, yes, the coffee in Bana’s too. The morning light through the stained glass of the Episcopal Church is just as hypnotic. And the walk up and down their Commercial Strip just as full of distractions – octogenarians in bright sweaters and piercing eyes, fresh strawberries sold outside of shops, etag on hooks, insulated metal houses and young ones with a non-dependence on technology (no kids carrying smart phones or tablets here) .

But what more, and what else?

That’s when you realize that the privilege of visiting a place the second time around is the privilege of answering just these.

The unconscious respite

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You might call it overpromising. Past the coffee farm, Rock Inn and the Masferre Museum is a small road that leads to a bar called El Cubano’s. There is “Marlboro” graffiti on its side and wooden chairs and tables beside a deck that faces a set of rice paddies. El Cubano’s is more shack than bar though. And on hot days such as this, the few truly scorching ones in Sagada, it becomes a halo-halo place where two locals will add in the quintessential nuts, flan and ube to shaved ice that has already made a pool of water under the table. El Cubano’s is the gateway to Bokong Falls.

Bokong seems to be more watering hole than it is falls though, and on particularly hot days such as this again, the gush becomes a trickle where teenage boys in their underwear make a climb to its tipping point and jump to a big pool of collected muddy water. Sometimes, a brave soul would make way onto the right side of the pool where a concrete shed transforms into a diving board. He climbs on the roof and makes a high dive. His trajectory will allow him a narrow escape.

Sometimes, he might also land on rocky ground.

Whereas Sagada has an overflow of water forms in rainy season, summer is a time for the art of making do with what you have. Bokong is just that – a small make-do in the middle of a rice field. Superimpose the image with foreigners with their blond, cornrows hair and skimpy bikinis, and chomping carabaos that watch from the background, and you get a fragmented view of the daily life in Sagada.

Bokong is less-glorified amongst the visited falls in the area. Its accessibility is held against it. Because it is more reachable than its counterparts like the farther Bomod-ok, it becomes less mystical, more suited for the everyday. But its power is held in the notion that it is overlooked, and so it is less of a tourist spot and more of an unconscious respite. One does not dress up, in trendy hiking gear and colorful tribal tops, for Bokong. You dive in whatever clothes you have and dry off just as quickly under the sun.

The man from the highlands

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“Death is everywhere in Sagada,” my guide says ominously. It is also perhaps one of the main reasons why I like coming back. The place seems to hold a certain grounding for life and along with it, an easy acceptance for endings. Some residents bury their dead in their own backyard in an effort to remain close to the two worlds. Panag-apoy, or All Saint’s Day, in Sagada is a celebration of both light and fading embers. The dead, they say, still cry out loud for attention, and so they light huge bonfires instead of plain candles to light the path.

Echo Valley has a newly-erected tombstone. Unlike the rest of the whitewashed concrete and peeling paint sticking out of the ground, this final resting place is made out of pristine pink marble. It stands separate from everybody else’s, this grave of P03 Noel O. Golocan, one of Special Action Force’s Fallen 44.

Golocan passed away on long stretches of flatlands in the South, a stark contrast, it must’ve seemed, to this place he grew up in where even on its hottest days, the wind is still welcoming.

A Ganduyan must hold true to his belief even in death. The nearer you are to the heavens, they say, the closer you are to God. And so it is here that PO3 Golocan can finally rest, 5,000 feet above sea level. It is elevated enough so that no man can touch him. It is elevated enough so that perhaps the God he believed in, can.

We pass by his tomb on our way to the deeper trails of Echo Valley. Close to Holy Week, the long holidays, the valley is filled with a cacophony of shouts, cries that only a mountain and its uninhibitedness can invite.

The shouts, going back and forth the valley’s walls, the lure of release, might be the very sounds of freedom Golocan fought so hard for. I hope he hears each one of them, ranging from a strenuous “Ayoko naa!” to a wider range of “I love you-s” and “I love you too-s”.

Near the Hanging Coffins is a new rock climbing wall, a huge slab of gray that seemed to stretch endlessly above. I climb it three to four times, and very quickly realize what the lure of elevation might be: this innate, insatiable need to reach higher. Go further, and you realize there is always somewhere further to go to.

“Awat na, Ma’am,” my spotter tells me when I have unknowingly reached the top. I hang suspended for a couple of seconds, then a couple of minutes, midday sun glaring back, and then jump down slab by slab. Knees apart, he instructs.

“Huwag mo nang isipin. Basta talon lang,” he shouts.

I can’t. My self-consciousness suspends me, and so I slowly teeter down.

“O, ba’t mas mahirap yata sayo ang bumaba?” he tells me. I have learned not to fear heights. It is the coming down I am not prepared for.

On the last stretch, with my arms spent and my crotch gashed from several rope burns, I continue to climb, embarrassed to be stopping midway, stubborn enough not to admit fatigue.

“Okay ka lang dyan, Ma’am?,” he asks me. He is on a standstill as well, his body reclining to a 45-degree angle to support my immobile weight.

“Yes.” I insist, trying and continuously failing to get through a particular slab. I go left and right but the foot annoyingly doesn’t hold to any opening.

Finally, mercifully, my spotter senses my annoyance and he pulls me up until I find a loose tree root to hold on to. I go down spent and humbled.

It is Monday. Echo Valley is walkable again. The people traffic has lessened to a group or two. The weekend crowd that I bumped into everywhere from Kiltepan Peak to Sumaguing Cave to the Pottery House has gone back to the city. The restaurant crowds are muter, carrying on conversations kept amongst themselves. The main road looks local again. Construction workers are going home for lunch. Children are sitting on the store steps, waiting for the rest of the world to pass by.

Sitting on the front steps of their public market, while waiting for my companions to finish with their last-minute pasalubong shopping, I spot a group of friends in their multicolored hiking gear and youthful faces. They looked luminescent as if they held a secret the rest of the world didn’t know. Then I realized I must have looked quite like that when I came here a few years ago. New. Eager. Uncompromised.

Part of me will always be apprehensive of revisiting places for fear that I will not love it as much the second time around, that I will find wounds on its skin, warts on its back. Or perhaps I am more afraid to face my own vulnerability, choosing to put moments in a time capsule, refusing to believe that it is not so much that the place has changed, but so have I.

To go back to any place, to relinquish any moment, is to realize that you are not the same person as you once were. You almost always go back older, more shadowed, more appreciative of not just new sensation anymore, but sometimes the absence of – of silence and repose, darkness and emptiness.

The roads less traveled are often those we keep in the dark, forested corners in our minds. I close my eyes and realize, that like the last, I will never have this moment again.

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