Friday, February 28, 2014

Pongas Falls

As if our body pains from Cave Connection were not enough, we went and trekked for close to three hours to see Sagada's beautiful Pongas Falls.

It was a lot less stressful tho than our spelunking madness .  The ground was level and dry for the most part, we didn't have to do as much climbing or physical exertion beyond walking, and we were out in the sunlight with fantastic views like this:

Yes, they plant rice the terraces way even in Sagada.

The three-hour trek involved crossing a rickety bridge.  It was scary, but whaddahell - I already did the Cave Connection, I should be able to handle any old bridge.  Bring it on.  Hahaha.  Kids actually ran and played around on this bridge on our way back, which I guess was about the same time they were dismissed from school.  

We trekked along the terraces, dry earth, and this stream of water running by the side of the mountain. There's a cemented path at the start and I thought that was pork barrel well spent, but then the girls rightly pointed out it's probably the locals and tourists who shouldered the costs for building the path, not anyone's pork barrel.

It is not as easy as it looks - it's hot, tiring, and slippery, and we were doing this mostly on the thinnest strips of land so we had to be on red flag alert again like in the Cave Connection.  I actually almost fell into one of the rice terraces.  Yikes.  How embarrassing that would've been if I had made it thru Lumiang and Sumaging Caves only to die while trekking out in the fields.

Anji took the lead as usual.  She made everything look so easy while Thina and I struggled and whined away.  Thina was teasing her that she's used to trekking the fields like this bcoz she has a hacienda. Hahaha.  This picture is very telling:  Anji's up close to Sydney, I'm trailing a respectable distance, and Thina is way over at the back like she's not even there and is just part of the backdrop.  HAHAHA.  (Thina:  Kasalanan ko ba kung maliliit lang ang mga pata ko?)

In the middle of these rice terraces is an entire barangay.  Sydney said this is actually where he went to school.  He also showed us how most of the houses were made of galvanized roof, the better to withstand weather extremes.  Strange, huh.  We came by several kids who smiled and even talked to us.  Sagada people are very warm and look like they they're a bright and happy lot.

Sydney refused to answer when I asked him how much longer or how many minutes till we see the darned falls.  He said if he told me we might give up altogether and just turn back.  Hahaha.  Mostly he just told us jokes or trivia about Sagada.  Mostly we just teased him about Thina.  HAHAHA.  I like Sydney bcoz in the Cave Connection Gareth told us not to help each other out so we can rely on our own physical strengths. Sydney always extended a hand to me, tho, when I was climbing up or down or whatever.  I guess he could see how pathetic I was being and took pity on me.  Hahaha.  Not to mention he's cute.  Cute always helps. 

And finally, finally - the friggin' falls were there upon us!  Hahaha.  There were actually three of them, a bit far apart and of different dimensions.  None was as tall and majestic as Katibawasan Falls in Camiguin, but the place is definitely unique and picturesque, with the three waterfalls, gigantic boulders, winding steps - and three girls who have no qualms about projecting and emoting for my Sony camera held by Sydney.  Hahaha.  I love it!      

As they say, what matters is not so much the destination but the journey.  

And oh what a journey Sagada has been.

Suddenly the Spelunker

My take-away from our (exciting/frightful) Sagada adventure is:  huwag maging kaladkarin sa sariling bayan.

I normally read up on places we travel to, but since Thina was making all the arrangements for our Sagada/Banaue trip, I was overcome by sloth as usual and didn't do any reading or much else, beyond packing my luggage and tagging along.  I left it all to the girls.  I keep my life simple that way:  I just rely on the goodness of my friends, trusting they have only my best interests at heart and will not put me to harm.

Which is how I ended up doing Sagada's infamous Cave Connection, a minimum four-hour spelunking thrilla across two caves, Lumiang and Sumaging.  Me, the least adventurous, least athletic, least competitive person you know.

What I knew was that the thing would take a few hours of trekking, and I thought: I can handle that, I can trek in the malls all day.  (So brainy, I know.)  If I had bothered to read up, I would've found out that 'a few hours of trekking' to describe the Cave Connection is The Understatement of 2014.  Aaargh.  I probably wouldn't have done it at all if I had known what I was in for.  So maybe it was a good thing I was clueless, after all, bcoz now at least I can say I Did It.  Yes, me!

Our spelunking started at Lumiang, a burial cave.  Note the sign not to take anything from the coffins.  There are actually people who steal the bones and bring them home.  Sheesh.  Whatever happened to buying shirts as souvenirs?  Note, too, how small the coffins are.  Gareth explained that the bodies inside are in a fetal position, under the belief that the way you came into this world is the same way you should go out.  I asked him if there were funeral parlors that specialize in this kind of burial, and he said there are no funeral parlors involved, this thing is done right at home.  Gasp.  (Cue:  Six Feet Under theme.)      

Gareth took pictures of us from several angles, saying it's all the better for us to see the spirits floating behind us when we have the pictures printed.  Terrific sense of humor, this guy.

These are our Before pix:

And then Cave Connection started and we found ourselves doing some serious spelunking.  We shimmied into holes that hardly fit our heads much less our entire bodies.  We climbed giant rocks and if our legs were not long enough to reach the other side we used Gareth and Sydney (our other guide) as human ladders.   We were under strict orders not to hesitate to step on their legs or have them literally carry our entire weights on their shoulders if instructed.  (This last bit is called the elevator ride, which Thina got a lot of on account of her having the shortest legs among us.  Hahaha.)  We waded into freezing cold waters up to our chests.  We actually saw water lines reaching up to 6 feet or more, so when it rains and floods, you should go into these caves only if you're either (a) a strong swimmer, or (b) very, very tall.  We did the monkey walk and crab walk as Gareth taught us.  We crawled.  We rappelled.  Me, rappelling! Imagine that!  It was like being an impostor to my own true self.  My boys would never have recognized me.

And we did all these madness for a solid 4.5 hours.  Unbelievable.  Gareth said foreigners who are acrophobics or claustrophobics do the Cave Connection to conquer their fears, and a lot of them end up getting hysterical and bawling it all out inside.  As you know, I'm your resident acrophobic, so I just closed my eyes in those areas that were way too steep to even be looking at, much less climbing over.  Gareth also said there were 15 obstacles we had to go thru in the caves.  I slid and almost fell to my certain death in at least three of those obstacles.      

Gareth took this pix before we were halfway thru, and I was already raising my arms in surrender.  Sob.

What got us thru were all the wonderful sights to behold inside the caves.  

This area is called the Dance Hall, bcoz it's wide and relatively flatter than most of the other areas.  Gareth referred to it as Starbats bcoz of - you guessed it, you genius! - all the bats that congregate in this specific spot.    

I was going for Charlie's Angels, but I don't know about the two girls.
Our version of The Evolution of Man.
I need to explain coz it's not all that obvious.

My favorite rock formation is this mini-me version of the rice terraces.  Look at all those ridges.  Gasp.  Can you imagine how many millions of years it took to form this beauty?

There is also The Bear, right down to the dark nose.

There is The Turtle semi-hiding inside what looks like a giant clam.

And then there is what Gareth called The Snake.  I told him to me it looks more like The Bacon.  Hahaha. He had told us as part of our spelunking instructions before going in that we would see a lot of these formations, which they already have names for, but if we disagree and see them as something else, we should feel free to say so and if our guide is convinced then maybe next time he will name the shape after us.  So Gareth said at his next Cave Connection he will refer to this no longer as The Snake but as Jewel's Bacon. Yes!  Hahaha.      

It was sad to see this part being vandalized.  Seriously, you go all the way inside these majestic caves just to inscribe your stupid names?  On the bright side, if you look closely at the date, this was in 1963 yet.  Gareth explained stricter rules have been enforced since then, and desecration of the caves like this has been contained for the most part. 

These caves are also known as The Porn Caves bcoz of rock formations that resemble big and small vajayjays and penises, which they call The King, The Queen, The Prince, and The Princess.  Whattariot! Here's an ad for the Department of Tourism:  "Spelunking - it's more porn in the Philippines!"  HAHAHA. (DOT, I'm giving away my copyright of that for free, all in the spirit of nation-building.)

Well well well, look do we have here!  Anji spotted a condom floating on the water!  My initial reaction was, only the horniest people on earth can summon the libido to do the deed in a place like this.  Not to mention the presence of mind to practise safe sex even under these circumstances!  But Gareth explained that people use condoms to store their mobile phones in while spelunking.  He did admit tho that this is his first time to see a floating condom in all his years as a tour guide.     

And here come the stalactites and stalagmites!  Gareth had a very effective tip to remember which is which. Stalactite = letter c = from the ceiling.  Stalagmite = letter g = from the ground.  Brilliant.  Now if only he also had a tip for which is left and which is right.  This has always confused me.  I've been known to tell taxi drivers:  Sa kaliwa po.  And when the taxi makes that turn and I realize it's the wrong direction I say:  Ay, sa kabilang kaliwa po pala!  AAARGH.  It's a basic skill required even in spelunking, too.  The steps are so far apart sometimes that you have to strictly follow the guides' instructions and perfectly coordinate which foot or hand goes where.  Needless to say, I ended up putting my foot in the kabilang kaliwa several times. Groan. 

What we lacked in physical spelunking skills we made up for with our sense of humor.  We wouldn't have made it thru the 4.5 hours if we weren't joking the whole time.

Gareth, pinapaalam ko lang sa yo na lawyer ako, hindi mo ako pina-sign ng waiver and quitclaim, hence may liability ka kung may mangyari sa akin dito ... 
Lord, hindi na po ako magmamaldita, makalabas lang ako dito ng buhay!
Thina, where's the Magic Jack?
Anj, may lakad ka?  Baket parating nagmamadali?
Dead-end na, balik na tayo!
Ayoko na, hindi ko na talaga kaya.  Dito na lang ako, may baon naman akong candy!
Thina, I need WiFi here ...  
Bata pa mga anak ko.  Kawawa naman sila pag nahulog ako dito ...
Kuya, sabi mo 15 obstacles.  Over na to.  I demand a refund!
Anji, umihi ka na lang basta.  Basa na tayo hanggang dibdib, hindi na halata!

We also sang songs along the way.

Lord, patawad ...
Malayo pa ang umaga, hanggang sa dilim, naghihintay pa rin ...
Hindi kita malilimutan, hindi kita pababayaan ...


It was a testament to the graciousness of our guides that they put up with all our craziness (and literal heavy weights).  They actually joked right along with us.

Thina was talking about some character in a teleserye.

Me:  Sinong bida dyan?
Thina:  Si Kim po.
Anji:  Kim Henares?
Me:  Kim Kardashian?
Gareth:  Kim Jong-il!


And finally, finally Gareth announced:  "As they say, there is always a light at the end of a tunnel.  And there it is."

Yes!  Thank you, thank you, Lord!

Now I can understand why my friend J from law school, an atheist, started believing in God again after she had done the Cave Connection the summer before our fourth year.  She told me she wouldn't have made it thru the thing alive if there wasn't a God.  Sob. 

Our After pix:

This post will not be complete without a shout-out to our two guides, without whom we could never have done the Cave Connection. Thina found Gareth online as he is widely recommended by several bloggers. Rightly so.  He clearly knew his stuff and took pains to explain Sagada's culture and history.  He was confident without being overbearing, helpful without being patronizing.  He told me only locals are allowed to be tour guides, and if they are all as qualified as him, I have no complaints.  For me, beyond the sights and adventures, it's people like Gareth who exemplify The Best of Philippine Tourism.

Not that our acquaintance started out all that well.  I was showing off my Ilocano-speaking skills since Baguio bcoz I wanted to prove to the girls that I'm not entirely as useless as I look and could help us find our way around.

Me:  Gareth, Ilocano ka?
G:  Igorot po.
Me:  Pero Ilocano ang dialect mo?
G:  Kankanaey po.


Gareth brought Sydney along to be our light keeper and guide for our trekking to Pongas Falls.  Thina said she only contracted Gareth's services but maybe upon seeing the three of us he realized he couldn't possibly be lugging us all around the caves, so he got Sydney to help out.  Hahaha.  Sydney's Igorot name is Oolong, which only happens to be one of my favorite Moonleaf milk tea flavors.  Hahaha.  He's too cute.  We were pairing him up with Thina the whole time.  There was actually a point in the caves where he undressed down to his boxers, and of course Anji and I hooted and squealed and verbally molested him.  Hahaha.  Thina was too shy to join in.   

The caving rules are pretty simple.  My only other tip:  get a guide as good as Gareth.

This sign badly needs a make-over, but its message is potent and spot-on.

" ... these wonders are millions of years old.  Man was born only yesterday.  We ... have no right to destroy these legacies...

I couldn't agree more.