The stars were still out when the comfortable coolness of our room was replaced with the biting cold of Dawn in Sagada. Stars are a little different here, I think. They’re nearer, brighter, most of them with surrounding orbs of light that give the illusion of depth and closeness at the same time. I look to them for comfort. The Main Road ahead, by early morning a busy collage of tourists and locals, still void of movement. Most Igorots are early risers. But even they perhaps succumb to the blessings of weather where, unlike the rest of the Philippines, heat is the rarity.
This being the 5th and last day of the trip, we are familiar with the shapes of buildings, outlines of pathways, silhouettes of stairs by now. They are the maps we cling on to before light comes in with confirmation that There, yes, is Residential Lodge, Traveller’s Inn or Internet Café – all sparse names that echo the ideology that, in the Mountain Province, only functionality is key. No lights came out of these metal-insulated buildings, and even street posts are spread far in between. But the goal was to reach a popular lake before sunrise and that kept the group of three, all girls, on their toes despite. At least up to Sagada’s Town Center anyway.
Closed, we sit on the building entrance, eating leftover bam-i and Spanish bread from last night’s dinner, and waiting for light to give refuge. The lake was 3 kilometers away and walking in the dark was irresponsible, a trait so easily given to tourists that we were quite determined not to be tagged so. “How are we going to get there?”, we idly wonder, thinking of the terrain that can’t be just left to instinctual foot plays, landslides and vertical drops along the way. There is time pressure to this trek as well. The bus, another rarity in the Province, is set to leave at 10:00 A.M. So roughly, we had only a few hours to get to the lake, come back, pack, and catch the only transportation out. Again, “How are we going to get there?” is the dangling question.
All too sudden, the question was snatched off like a bone from our heads. This Dog, big, Huskey-like, looking as if he doesn’t really belong here except his demeanor, authoritative, establishes that this isn’t so. He does belong here, and he is in command. He came from nowhere, this Dog, and snarled as if demanding what “you, you and you” are doing here so early, like an old man reprimanding hooligans off his property.
“He’s eyeing us.” we whisper, as if Dog might understand. We are, by now, on top of a flimsy hollow-blocked fence that offered no real physical protection except in our heads. The dog follows, prowling. He is waiting. For what, we don’t know. We stand there for minutes on end, just enough to realize that the day just might be over even before it started. So we come down, despite his whimpers, only to realize that this might just be what he was waiting for. Because as soon as feet touch ground, Boss Dog barks, runs around, then runs ahead to the path leading to the lake. We eye him suspiciously but follow. He waits for the trio to catch up, then he runs ahead again as if he were a member of SAGGAs (Sagada Genuine Guide Association). And like the accredited guide that he proclaimed himself to be, he goes on to check the terrain, bark away stray dogs, and even wait patiently while his trigger-happy participants take pictures of the sunrise and every pine tree a camera could be pointed on.
“We should name him”, we talk amongst each other. And all throughout the 2-hour trek through dirt trails, choices such as Saga, Sagada, Ganduyan (the collective name of the people in Sagada) and Adagas come out. Along the way, the Dog continues to bark away cows blocking the road, stray chickens and even helter-skelter transportation. 2 hours and several pee marks later, the Dog, by pure intuition perhaps, somehow leads us to the Lake from a side road that can easily be missed if not for constant asking and the Dog’s navigational skills. He lets us roam around, never too far away. When we call, he comes out of a bush somewhere, circles around us in reassurance, and disappears again.
It is interesting how the spirit of Sagada is personified in this Dog. It brands itself as a congenial tour guide, eager to share its customs, its beliefs, and yet quite adamant in somehow telling outsiders that there are some things only they can understand. Sagada is hospitable, and yet they never say that “mi casa y su casa.” Outsiders are outsiders. Locals are locals. Very few perhaps manage to infiltrate truly its culture, so used are they to the isolation marked by topography, the closest city, Baguio, 6 hours away, the closest airport, Manila, 12 hours away.
“Customs should be respected.” many store owners admonish us, adding that although they don’t quite wear the expected garbs anymore, they are still at heart, Igorots. Even places are prohibited to outsiders at certain times of the year. Rituals, they explain. There are rituals for renewal, for birth, for death. Rituals that can’t be photographed. Rituals that cannot be shared by and to outsiders. This holds an important lesson in travel, that a place can only teach what can be taught, share what can be shared. All the rest is insight.
“Zero Crime Rate dito.”, explains a NOSIGA (Northern Sagada Indigenous Guide Association) member. “Kasi kilala na naman ang isa’t isa. Karamihan sa amin, dito na lumaki. Kaya wala talagang patayan o politika.” (We know each other well. Most of us grew up here. That’s why we don’t have killings or political shenanigans.)
It might be your weather, I joke with her. But really, I turn serious, “how do you deal with tourists then?” I prod her as we drink lemon tea from leaves picked out of their backyard. An isolated town, most of the time, wants to remain isolated.
“We already know this is part of our livelihood.”, she explains as do so many others I’ve asked, so confident is she that they have inner lives untouched by tourism, and the infiltration of outsiders, a mere occupation. A guide, for instance, will tell tourists his Christian name but will withhold their Igorot name, unless asked. An Igorot is given 2 names at birth, One Christian, One Igorot, representing their belief in both. “My name is James.” a SAGGAs guide introduces himself. “And what do they call you here?” I ask him. He will smile and lower his voice as if it were a secret, “Janno.”
The lake in itself was unblemished with very little sign of development. An unfinished building sits as a backdrop. We go around it. The cobwebs glisten in the sun while two fishermen wade in the water, catching perhaps mosquitofish, found too in their numerous pilapilans. They look at us curiously but don’t wave. It is time to head back.
Nearing the Commercial Center again, we are pressured to put a name to the Dog. Sagada is beginning to awaken. Workers in their backpacks, students in their uniforms, old women with their market baskets walk leisurely with the assurance of those who’ve learned how to time and pace their terrain. We hurry, excited to feed the Dog his promised chicken. He became Danum, after the lake he guided us to. But Danum doesn’t follow. He simply leaves us near the place where he originally found us, and watches as we walk away. We look back, call to him, prod him with Pinikpikan, their famous battered chicken. But he lets us go on, teaching us what the rest of Sagada already has. That for any fondness to grow, there must be first off, distance.