These days, Banaue lacks the folkloric charm that its Ifugao ancestors, who long ago settled in these parts, gave it.
When visitors arrive, they quickly scold the decaying colony of buildings with rusty tin roofs. There are better photographic subjects close by.
Some, like the sighted of the famous viewpoint on the outskirts of the city they are only an hour away on foot or much less in a motorized vehicle, but until the escape to the true countryside of the mountain range is consummated, the huddled reality of the village creates some discomfort and the pollution generated by the local fleet of tricyles e jeepneys – the last ones, jeeps of the 2a World War that the Filipinos turned into the national means of transport – suffocates any ecological pretensions.
By way of compensation, the city is central. Accommodation and meals remain authentic bargains compared to other tourist destinations in the Philippines. Besides, foreigners know what they're coming from. Usually, after an afternoon of logistical preparations and a night of rest, they leave in search of the magnificent views of the region.
The negotiation we got into is much shorter than we anticipated. There are many motorbikes circulating around Banaue. Every owner has to strive to achieve an acceptable number of trips per day and their livelihood. Filipinos, in particular, use and abuse the owners of these museum vehicles.
We even saw a tricycle loaded with three adults and three children, six creatures plus the bags and boxes they were carrying.
By comparison, we would be a sort of Customer of the Month for the driver who would have the good fortune to find us.
From Banaue to Hapao, Aboard a Picturesque Tricycle
Jon, that's how he was called, pulls well for the panoramic side of the trip. He assures us that we'll love our return and makes a generous price that guarantees us not to let the opportunity slip away. Convinced, we installed ourselves and the luggage in the cabin of the sidecar the best we can and we give you the starting signal.
The first climbs are steep and force the powerful but old bike to put on a long overdrive. As soon as the big slope is conquered, the route smooths out. Jon can finally relax. Turn on the panel's clumsy sound installation and put one of your favorite themes playing loudly.
The North American GI's left the Philippines after the end of the 2nd World War which unfolded atrociously in various parts of this Pacific archipelago.
already the music Country that they heard lingering in the Luzon mountain range and won thousands of new almost fanatical appreciators.
The Fascinating Filipino Passion for American Country Music
Jon was one of them. This one pinoy native of Banaue presents us with “Neon Moon”, a 1992 single by the duo Brooks & Dunn, their third consecutive hit to reach #XNUMX on the US Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
As he drives, he hums and invents parts of the lyrics that, despite the deafening noise of the old two-stroke engine and the gaps in the sound caused by the bumps, we perceive to describe the heartbreak of a man abandoned by his partner who, to overcome loneliness, passes all the nights in a Texan bar, by the light of a neon moon.
The absolute geographical gap in relation to the imagery of the soundtrack leaves us somewhat confused. Anyway, it's not long before we reach our final destination. The landscape demands all our attention.
Jon immobilizes the tricycle. He salutes the owner of the store opposite, his acquaintance. Give us half a minute to unwind our legs. Then he summons us to a makeshift wooden platform by the roadside.
From there, it reveals the green and drenched vastness of Hapao's rice terraces, with everything that gives them charm: the river valley they were molded into and which favors the distribution of water, the small rounded stone walls, the differences of shades from zone to zone, the areca palm trees around the few houses that dot the panorama.
The natives of Banaue who work with tourists are as proud as anyone else of the beauty of their region and know the fascination it provokes in those who travel so far to discover them.
Hungduan and Hapao are not even among the most reputable places like, for example, Batad, which we saved for the last days.
Still, from what we saw there, they proved to be a stunning introduction.
Downstairs to the Discovery of Hapao
We contemplated the scenery for a few more minutes until we decided to go down. We left Jon for a siesta on the motorbike. There is little or no point in worrying about the health of your back. When we questioned the dubious comfort of that makeshift bed, he responded quickly: “Don't worry friends, this has been my second bed for a long time. Have fun, we'll see you soon.”
A long staircase made of steps that are too high leads to the beginning of the terraces. From the last step onwards, we walk along the narrow stone tracks that smooth the top of each wall. But if from the top of the slope the structure of the landscape seemed easy to understand and follow, everything changes with proximity.
From one moment to the next, the terraces become veritable labyrinths that force us to go back more than once to try new paths.
We came across a few villagers from barangay (village) Hapao. Tolerant of the intrusion of outsiders, when they see us in bad ways, they show us the way out.
The first is a slight old man in a shirt and shorts well above his knees, rural fashion that shows us the dark skin of his legs. We approached him and questioned him. Your English is almost nil. As were our knowledge of the Ifugao (the regional) or Tagalog (the Philippine national) dialects.
The gentleman kept his face well protected from the tropical sun by a white cloth frame that covers his neck and his entire head, except for the face. Over this mask, he wore a cap.
Fitted to the top of the cap, a mini sun/rain hat provided ultimate protection.
We appreciate your help. In return, he gives us a more than peaceful, ethereal parting look that makes us feel welcome in his world.
As we walked away, we peeked back to admire her walker's umbrella profile advancing in a natural balance over one of the stone walls that divided the rice field.
Wall after Wall, Hapao Outside Rice Terraces
We proceeded with great care, flap after flap. Every time we miss a step over narrower sections of the walls, we put at least one foot in the water and get wet, sometimes almost to our knees.
After two or three of these mishaps, we reach a house on the half-slope in front, with a high hedge of areca palms. At that hour, we didn't find a soul in the home.
But in the good manner of the Ifugao region, the family was a consumer of the nut produced by those trees, a stimulant in which the natives – the Ifugao, like many other Filipinos and from other parts of the world – become addicted and chew several times a day to continue to feel stimulated.
We reversed path. We descend to the banks of the Hapao River that divides the rice fields into two areas with different slopes.
Upstream, we are approaching the nucleus of homes in the village. There, we find many more signs of village life than before. A group of workers were repairing a higher wall of a rice field that the rains had nearly collapsed.
Peasants bent over the stewed green, took care of the purity of the plantations, uprooting whatever weedy species might have and reinforcing the vigor of their rice handles, mere future berries of a millenary rice domain of the greatest of all 7000 Philippine Islands.
The Core of Hungduan and the Remote Origins of the Ifugao People
It is known that the rice terraces were built in the mountains of Ifugao province by the ancestors of the homonymous people using only basic equipment. Its location, at an average altitude of 1500 meters above sea level, allowed the natives to develop extensive irrigation systems from the rainforests above.
And when they confirmed they could rely on gravity, builders continued to add more and more terraces.
The relief and threat of hostile peoples isolated them from the flat lands beyond the mountains and made their lives depend on this endless work.
In such a way that, at one point, the terraces already covered about 10.000 km2. Some say that, placed side by side, they could “embrace” half the globe.
More complicated has been, until now, to ascertain undoubtedly the ethnic identity of the pioneer authors of the terraces. There are no written records of the responsible cultures and even the most logical and popular theories lack factual foundations.
Some historical studies and evidence have established a relationship between the terraces and the Miao tribe that thrived in the cold, mountainous regions of China between 2205 and 2106 BC
At some point, this tribe will have revolted against Emperor Yu – founder of the Xia dynasty – who surrounded it and tried to eliminate it. And it is known that survivors of the massacre fled to the southeast and that some crossed the China Sea.
Despite its history being lost to the world in Luzon, several scholars have inferred that part of the fugitives reached the mountains of the island where they found an environment similar to the one they had been forced to leave.
Other factors substantiate this hypothesis. It is known that the physical traits and “Chinese” behavior of the inhabitants of northern Luzon and the beliefs and traditions of the Igorot and Ifugao peoples are similar in many respects to those of the Miao culture. For, even though they are not the only ones, the Ifugao and the Igorot have always been considered the best terrace builders.
A Busier Late Afternoon Than Expected
Back to the current daily life of Hapao, all of a sudden, we started to see kids running down a steep path, with little backpacks on their backs. With such speed that only a race could justify it. Almost as fast as the stampede of the kids, we concluded that the last school shift was over.
The way out of the school overlooking the homes below passed over small bridges over the Hapao River, over canals and steps attached to the terrace walls. The first kids flew softly past us and disappeared into the vast rice farm.
A third or fourth, he misjudged a jump, lost his balance and fell a good few meters down to the bottom of a channel that led to the river. We heard him cry and ran to check on him.
We arrived almost at the same time with two other villagers who were working semi-camouflaged in a higher rice field. They are the ones who remove the kid from the ditch. Luckily, he had landed on a few clumps of grass and injured only one arm.
The mother was not long. Before taking the sprout to the medical center of the barangay, he even slapped him. And that was the event of the day in quiet Hapao.
Our phones said 4:30 in the afternoon, an hour longer than we had agreed with Jon. We return in a hurry, committed to reducing the damage to a minimum. We found the driver, delighted, chatting with the young owner of the shop he knew and, as such, little or nothing concerned about our delay.
We fit back into the old cabin of the tricycle. Jon, turn it on and get us on the road. It doesn't take long to reconnect your kind of equipment as well.
As in the coming, it is to the sound of the most outdated American country that we return, at night, to Banaue.