“Which way to the hanging coffins?”
“Sagada’s hanging coffins?”
Of the eight children, twelve hands have risen to point eighteen different ways. The four remaining hands are picking noses and playing with snot. The hanging coffins of Sagada are cursed with misdirection.
This is the second group of children we’ve asked, with identical results. They’re all in age to understand the question, and obviously know the true answer.
And so the flock of tourists-hikers slash wanderers reunite at a crossroads, for in the Kingdom of the Lost the One Who First Steps is King. And we follow, through a maze of pine trees and century-old tombs, up, down and along the hillside. Till we come to a Dead End.
And thus the Train of Lost Souls turns back, and the Last Becomes First, and the procession wanders forever and ever.
Welcome to the Sagada Games.
The Games of Sagada begin with its road: one of the world’s most beautiful mountain roads, winding through endless stacks of rice terraces.
After a short recoup from the hike in Batad, we leave Banaue at the last minute with the morning jeepney. D&V, the couple met during our hike, clamber onto the same jeepney, elbow to elbow.
We swap travel stories. D recalls the unforgettable experience of hiking Annapurna along with two military-trained Israelis on holiday after their mandatory year of service.
He remembers one sunrise particularly, the vivid imprint of the sun cresting the ever snowy mountain tops, but perhaps even more so, the smell of fresh coffee rising at 12,000 ft of thin air, campfire and all prepared by the Israelis thanks to their useful albeit unpleasant training.
My pair of worn sneakers is soaked from yesterday, I’ve thrown them under the seat.
I listen to the voice of Annapurna and think of Nepal, which is yet very far off. Still though, judging by the last challenges: She Can Do It.
We switch jeepneys for the final ascent to Sagada, D and I consider riding atop but end up staying with the girls. We enter the mountain village in the afternoon; charming. A few organic coffee houses have sprouted in the middle of the mountain, stoners and hikers slurping smoothies.
I forget my shoes in the jeepney of course, but am consoled at the thought someone might use them – should they fit. I’m also comforted by the allegorical value of this trivial event.
Coco and I ‘follow’ D and V to hotel, which is really to say we walk down the main, and only, street, behind them. We’re given a room next to theirs: apologize for invading their privacy, leave them to be.
For the first time in the Philippines, we settle into modest but comfortable surroundings with a peaceful view on farms and small houses tucked in the fields, surrounded whole by the pines and mountains.
Off we are again, in search of the hanging coffins. In company of dozens of other beguiled wanderers. We’re so many Alices in Wonderland, and the local kids so many Cheshire Cats, endlessly amused by their game of misdirection.
At last, after a dozen wrong turns, and with a great sigh of relief, the congregation finds its way through a discrete passage winding through the old cemetery, which leads to a real path.
We finally make it to the coffins, nailed against the mountainside, a hundred feet down.
Coco’s nerves are worn and she refuses to make it down the last stretch, along an albeit seemingly steep and slippery slope – I’m unable to convince her, to my dismay since just yesterday she was clamoring down stepping stones sticking out of walls.
I jog down to snap a few shots. Have little time to reflect upon this peculiar burial rite, or rather, its un-burial-ness.
As I return, we discover a new character, who’ll likely be a more typical sight in the years to come: Drone man. Late twenties, very dark shades, khaki shorts and brand new sneakers – as to say, I’m an outdoors man, and I know how to dress for it – hurried demeanor, haughty and unforgiving. Accompanied by a clump of a girlfriend, a little bit pretty, thanks to a healthy dose of artificial flavors, stand-offish, not because she’s shy, but rather because she’s been instructed to keep her mouth shut. Drone Man also has a servant in his suite, whose service is to carry the actual Drone (quad-propelled glob shape 4.0).
He arrives, points his finger towards the coffins, his servant rushes to his side and sets the drone down, hands him the remote control. A bulky, military-grade thing. Whoosh, whoosh, our hats are flying off, and so is the drone, hovering up, up, till it locks on to the target and dives like a bird of prey. The drone circles once, twice around the hanging coffins, and returns to the starting point (the servant also has the responsibility of catching the motorized vehicle as it descends, in order to reception the drone, and / or cushion any unexpected malfunction with his unworthy body).
And so Drone Man and his suite leave the scene, content to have gathered the full extent of a jaw-clenching experience, to have sucked the marrow out of life. On to the next Target.
Pray I never become him. I’m impressed by the drone though.
The afternoon lulls.
Coco and I walk slowly along the main road to the caves, past wooden shacks and families cooking barbecues. Our legs are worn from the hike in Batad.
We reach the caves at dusk, past their closing time.
(They’re nothing short of amazing from what we hear, months later, as we meet an interesting character a few thousand miles away from here).
An insignificant event occurs: as we pause along the main road, an old woman limps past us. She bumps into me unexpectedly, off balance, and resumes her lopsided itinerary. I get a look at her disheveled hair, black and powdery, her very dark skin, and her translucent blue eyes, as is common for aging women in the area. As I apologize for her bumping into me, she curses me, without looking back.
We’ve decided on a short stay despite the undeniable charm of this rural abode: the next morning Coco and I trudge early to the bus, in order to make it to Baguio, Luzon’s Holy City, in time for Easter.
The bus gruffs down the mountain, and through the sprawling vistas of stacked rice terraces: like no other. Its wheels screech and turn inches away from mile-high ravines, turn after turn.
(Word of advice: for those who aren’t prone to fear of heights – and even then – sit to the left-hand side when going to Baguio, or to the right if coming in to Sagada. The views are almost restricted to one side, as the bus hugs the cliff for dear life throughout. I’m in a sour mood for picking the wrong one.)
Also think of D and V, whom we probably won’t see again. We haven’t even had time to exchange contact information. Too bad, because we had an entertaining time swapping stories.
Ah, but that’s forgetting it’s a small world.
View the photos from Sagada, Philippines.