Vail travel: Coffins hanging in the pouring rain | VailDaily.com

Vail travel: Coffins hanging in the pouring rain

Luc Pols
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Luc PolsVail travel: Women compete in a tug of war match in Banaue.
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VAIL, Colorado “-‘m leaving for Baguio on my “favorite transport” ” the bus, which is the only way and therefore, my only choice.

Surprisingly, of the seven-hour trip, the first four are quite enjoyable. Driving through the mountains of Northern Luzon, the so-called Cordillera, everywhere I see terraced farming and it is a delight to the eye. The mountain scenery itself is breathtaking, so for a while I am quite happy, as even the road is made of concrete.

Then, however, things change. The weather deteriorates drastically. It is now pouring and the cement has given way to pressed dirt which, with the rains, is now a mud path.

There are no more views either because of the low-hanging clouds. When I arrive at my destination Sagada, it is a tropical downpour. For a while I take shelter in the bus stop, waiting for the rain to abate, but I have no reservations (no telephone numbers in “the book”), so now I need to arrange something.

There are no hotels, as such, in this town, but I secure a room with bathroom in one of the guesthouses. You know, I purposely came here in the summer, but you could have fooled me. It has been raining virtually every day since I left Manila. On top of it, the old sweatshirt is working overtime because here, like in Baguio, I am at about 4,500 feet.

For the first time in a very long while, I am subject to a curfew. I make it back just before nine, but I am still subject to a look that says “you’re lucky!” Wow!

I wake up early the next morning (what do you expect having gone to bed at 9:30?) to the unwelcome sounds of cocks crowing, dogs yapping, a pig squealing while it is being slaughtered and the pouring rain. There seem to be certain places on this earth I am not supposed to experience, such as the famous rice paddies in Sapa, Vietnam, and now, the well-known hanging coffins of Sagada (even the names are similar).

What to do? Do I exercise patience and wait 24 hours to see whether tomorrow is better or do I just chuck it and move on? There is not a lot ” in fact, there’s absolutely nothing ” to do here. Either leave or spend the day in my dreary guesthouse room with a book. Were I here with my girlfriend, we’d find definitely something to do to pass the time, but alone? Yeah, quite boring.

However, in between rainstorms I manage to climb down to the coffins. It’s a steep and slippery trail down and then back up again, to where they hang. Unfortunately, the guide doesn’t speak much English, but he manages to tell me that the last coffin was hung here in 2005.

Most people are now buried in the cemetery you have to cross to get to the site. Definitely unique and I’m glad the rain held off for a while for me to go and see it.

It starts raining again, but the afternoon brings periods of dryness but no sun. There are three other sites where coffins have been deposited. It is an almost macabre feeling.

Two sites are just in the rocks, while the third one (with the most coffins) is at the entrance of a cave.

I have a very animated and fun discussion with a couple of the locals in the evening. We talk about everything from local economics to religion to travel and we have a great time. It seems there is a local language, which pre-empts the Philippine one and they are quite proud.

I also learn the reason why the coffins are hung on the walls: it brings the deceased closer to heaven. They believe in the Christian god but also have seemingly stronger pagan beliefs. While the Spaniards introduced and maintained Catholicism under penalty of death, they were never able to eradicate he old pagan beliefs.

By the way, virtually everybody ” except for my “guide” ” speaks some English in the Philippines. If you ever come here, get your guide from the tourist office, they do speak English.

I also have my first ride in a jeepney and it sounds much more romantic than it is. I sit ” or should I say I am squeezed ” in the back on my way to Bontoc and it is a hard bench.

Upon arrival I learn that my connection to Banaue has already left and I have to wait three hours for the next jeepney. I secure the front seat and the trip is on the worst roads so far: 25 miles take us three hours. Abominable is a compliment.

And, it starts pouring again, so now this pressed dirt road is once again a mud path with puddles the size of swimming pools. However we do pass some incredible rice terraces, especially at Barlig, and I can’t wait for my destination.

I arrive there at the tail-end of the annual festival and am lucky to be present at the women’s tug-of-war and the men’s final in volleyball. Quite exhilarating with half the population present for this fiesta.

My hotel is OK and I’m setting out my plans for the next couple of days, mainly viewing the two millennia-old rice terraces.

Have a travel essay you’d like to share with Vail Daily readers? E-mail High Life Editor Caramie Schnell at cschnell@vaildaily.com.