Cliffhanger

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
1
16
20
Trip End Mar 02, 2007


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Flag of Philippines  ,
Monday, December 25, 2006

The melody of water bouncing over worn rocks tinkled like ice in a frosted glass, as a cool, damp breeze danced across my face and woke me for Christmas Day.
Before my eyes had a chance to clear I grabbed my camera and legged it to the verandah to gaze upon what we could only hear last night.
Veronica was already there and I could see she was almost in tears, gazing out at the most beautiful sight we could possibly have imagined. The cloud hovered like a bohemian skirt along the mountain tops and the rice terraces segued perfectly into an elbowed snaking river that twisted it's way around the rocky obstacle course of banks and bumps. Homes hung multi-storeyed, leaning off the cliff like puppets trying to get a better view of the river. An impossible extension bridge stretched the expanse of open air between the hill we were on and the one we were gazing at, and a woman casually strode across it with a bright blue umbrella protecting her from the light drizzle the low lying cloud was shaking down on her.
I felt like my eyes were failing to clear on purpose. I was literally slapping my face and rubbing my eyes in astonishment as I tried to focus on the astounding view in front of me. It was a relief to see Veronica was as emotionally moved as I was because I could feel a flapping in my chest that I knew was the threat of tears.
Being touched by such breathtaking beauty is such a rare thing in anyone's life. I almost felt like crying for all the people who would never get to lay eyes on those images we woke up to on Christmas morning. Santa may have lost us in the hills of Banaue, but we were blessed by a gift much more profound. When your eyes fail to believe what they are seeing and your lungs forget to inhale. You can't feel your body shivering in the cold or the moist wood under your bare feet. You can't let go of whatever you're holding onto and you can't sound your voice to talk. You are rooted to the spot, breathless, and with no concept of anything but what your eyes are trying to take in.
The reaction finally escaped, and Veronica and I burst into laughter as we leapt on each other in joy. Erin appeared behind us and we all had one of those embraces they put in slow motion in films and start an emotional soundtrack to. Merry Christmas girls!
On running up the stairs we found Cora in deep negotiations with a mountain guide by the name of Elvis. Elvis used to be on the Filipino National Wrestling team until a broken knee threw him out of the competition. He now leads his life pulling unprepared tourists up the enormous steps of the rice terraces. At the age of 25, and a little too sexy for a mountain dweller, the girls and I started nudging each other in anticipation of a couple of days in Elvis' company.
We all but emptied our packs into the van to lighten the load we would have to drag up the terraces with us and hauled ourselves into the back of a jeep that smelled like ripe manure and diesel.
The spine jarring ride into the remote mountains outside of Banaue was equally terrifying and inspiring. The poverty seemed to little affect the smiles of the villagers who all waved enthusiastically and called out "Merry Christmas!" as we drove by. We hovered on the brink of cliffs to the point where, peering over the open side of the jeep we could look down and see nothing but a sheer drop hundreds of feet below us.
The mist continued to hover around the hilltops as we pulled into the tiny village of Banga'an to buy candy for the children we would encounter in the mountains. Elvis explained to us that they wouldn't have anything for Christmas and that they all thought he was Santa Claus when they saw him coming up the mountain with a red bag of treats for them. For one American dollar we bought enough candy to stuff Elvis's backpack to bursting point and handed some around to the wide eyed kidlets of Banga'an. They were a quiet bunch wearing mis-matched flip-flops, and shredded shirts, who gazed at us curiously. They were incredibly shy and quite reluctant to come out to meet us until their parents reassured them that we weren't ghosts.
With a happy "Merry Christmas" we were on our way again. 
Arriving at the junction where we were to begin our hike was a bit of a shock. There was to be no gentle climbing at a slight incline liked I'd hoped. Instead, the very first point of our adventure was to climb straight down a slippery slick vertical rock face, made all the more fun by the fact that the light drizzle had picked up to a gentle rain.
I pulled on my pack and immediately felt my lung capacity halve. This bag was not made for heavy duty climbing. The mountains stretched out before us and the terraces we had to edge over  were getting more slick with rain and mud by the second.
So we made our first climb, 12 ft straight down from the bus stop and arranged ourselves along the narrow rock wall of the terrace. My heart was already beating a little too hard for comfort, and the thought of the hours ahead of us was sending me into a premature panic.
I sucked it up however, not wanting to be the only one to burst into tears 3 minutes into a 5 hour climb and joined my pals as we edged our way across the rugged stone wall.
The Banaue Rice Terraces are a UNESCO listed site and considered the 8th wonder of the world. Construstion began on them over 4000 years ago and took 2000 years to complete, built stone by stone by the indigenous Ifugao farmers and villagers. They cover over 10,000 square kilometres of mountains and would stretch halfway around the Earth if laid side by side. The fact that this incredible test of ingenuity, architecture, engineering and patience was accomplished by small tribes of villagers by hand over 2 millenia ago is unbelievable considering the lack of tools and gadgets we all need to use today.
The terraces are fed by a complex irrigation system connected to the rainforest above and they are still farmed in the ancient traditional ways they have been for thousands of years. The mountains reach as high as 1500m above sea level, and the feat of engineering that it took to harness the water flow and direct it to the terraces is incomprehensible. It is easy to see why it took 2000 years to build. The sheer scale of the mountains and the size of the terraces point to an amazing dedication on the part of the Ifugao people.
The rain started to pick up once more and we were forced to stop and don our raincoats. Not only did we look like flourescent yellow hunchbacks, but the thick vinyl plastic was choking and uncomfortable. It wasn't long before we decided to opt for dampness and tore them off. Thankfully the clouds gave a break and eased off for a while, which would have been a blessing, except it meant we really started sweating in our clammy hot clothes.
When we reached our first 'steps' - large rock upon giant rock that needed to be climbed on all fours like a baby learning to use the stairs, I seriously thought my heart was going to give out. Every time it looked like we were nearing the top of the path and would be given a respite from the burning pain in our thighs, the path would vere off in another, steeper direction that forced us into an even harder version of painful exertion. I almost cried with relief when Elvis took off his pack and sat on a boulder so we could have a breather.
If I thought the climb was a breath-taker, it was nothing compared to the view we found at the top of our first mountain. Once the blurriness of my eyes cleared I was blown away by the assault of green everywhere.
The mountains undulated like a woman's body, entwining into each other and diving into smooth valleys, only to rise again in a seamless never-ending embrace of verdance and moisture. The air was thin and damp, and hard to suck in after our arduous climb, but our break was to be short lived.
Elvis soon had us back on our feet and edging along in formation like baby elephants, all holding hands with the person in front of and behind us as we gingerly stepped along the foot-wide trail against the sheer cliff.
I had to stop often, ostensibly to gaze at the view, but really just to give my heartbeat and my lungs time to catch up with each other. A lot of the climb rings back as a blur. There were moments of danger fuelled adrenalin, where we were forced to jump from one tiny outcrop of rock over a sheer empty drop and land on another piece of rock no more than a foot wide. A tumble down the mountain-side would end in nothing but a painful death, as the vertical cliffs dropped off into chasms of uncushioning air and usually ended in more rock.
The unrelenting drizzle made things all the more dangerous, as our footing was constantly challenged. We were often only saved by the firm hold of our friends as we started to waver too far over the vast empty space when we lost our grip on the earth beneath us. I was glad to be wearing decent shoes (well, Skechers), while Veronica and Erin had set themselves the maniacal challenge of climbing the terraces in nothing but rubber flip flops.
As we started to slide straight down the muddy steeps that would have been pushing 70 degree angles and stretching 10-15 feet each, Elvis took pity on us, pulled the knife from his belt and cut us all a walking stick from the growth around us.
Having what amounted to a third leg was much more helpful than I would have imagined, and I found myself driving it deep into the ground to steady myself on the uncontrollable slides and excruciating climbs back up the cliff. The hours passed us by as all our brain power was concentrated on the path under our feet. Every time by mind started to wander away I found myself sliding, or falling or putting my foot in the wrong place which would throw the entire line out of synch. Everyone else was unsurpassably kind as they reassured me that I was doing really well and that they were suffering too, which was a small mercy.
There were times when the horizon of the mountains were right before us, falling in a precipitous plunge at our toes, and times when they seemed to disappear completely as we lost ourselves in thick rainforest and dense growth over the path.
About three hours into our climb we saw tiny huts sticking up from the trees ahead of us. This, Elvis told us, was where we were delivering our candy. Sure enough, as we passed by the cliff-hanging gardens created by the locals, we began to hear the excited movement of children anticipating a treat. These villagers live in traditional houses, which amount to nothing more than a raised platform with a grass roof. They experience unbelievable poverty, some of them half naked and almost all of them with no shoes. There seemed to be an overabundance of children and not enough space to put them, and the cooking fires were depressingly useless. As we clambered into the village, the children sprang out of the forest and houses like elves and instantly formed two straight lines in front of us, holding out their hands with big grins on their faces.
It was an honour to bring these adorable little people a Christmas they never would have experienced had we not been passing through. The mothers looked on indulgently as the kids eyes boggled at the mass of candy we were set to hand out to them. They all politely said please and thank you. When I ventured to speak Tagalog to them they looked about in confusion and started giggling. Elvis explained that these remote mountain people couldn't speak Tagalog, the native tongue of the Philippines, but in fact spoke English - the result of too many missionaries and not enough effort to maintain a cultural tradition.
Needless to say, it was an incredibly heart-warming experience watching them overcome their shyness for the reward of some candy to share with their families on Christmas Day.
We continued pushing deeper into the mountains, once again losing all sight of civilization for long stretches of time until we stumbled upon more terraces that seemed to rise out of the middle of nowhere. This became more and more frequent as Elvis told us we were getting closer to the village of Batad.
The final part of our journey brought us to the foot of a mountain-side of terraces which we had to climb to gain access to Batad. 
These terraces are all at least 12 ft high each, completely vertical and have no stairs. You truly have to pull yourself up with your hands, digging your toes into any gap you can find in the rock and sacrificing your fingernails just to get enough grip to keep your body clinging to the rock face while your every inch of flesh quivers under the strain.
In one single breathless moment I reached up and grasped only air, clawing away helplessly at nothing while the rocks under my feet started crumbling in slow motion. Just as the weight of my pack tipped me backwards, my knees buckled and I started a stomach churning backwards fall into the empty space below me, I felt Elvis' incredibly strong and sure grip around my wrist. He held me there with one arm, his other grasping the rock above, while I dangled in mid-air, frozen with shock. I looked up and locked eyes with my rescuer who gazed back at me with total assurance; "Be careful, I don't want to lose you." With that he hauled me up the rock face with only one arm, until I could grasp the wall myself, long enough to re-evalutate my life and recover from my brush with mortality.
It wasn't long before I heard a primal shriek as Erin took a similar course towards the Earth, only to be rescued herself by our ever-watchful hero Elvis who never even seemed to breath heavily despite the painful climb
The near fatal plunge filled me with an incredible surge of adrenalin and I all but Spidermanned my way up the remaining walls.
The final feat was to slither up a hillside on our stomachs with nothing to gain on except wet, unforgiving mud. I only managed it by digging my nails in the way a cat does to climb a tree and using all the strength in my arms to haul myself and my wet heavy pack up to the top of the last hill. As well all made that final clamber onto flat land, we had a chance to stop and take in the amazing climb we had just accomplished. The steps of the terraces laid out before us like enormous pieces of a 3D jigsaw puzzle a bored giant had put together millions of years ago.
Elvis noticed a cut on Erin's arm and ran off into the bushes. We were all a little perplexed until he came back crushing some leaves and started rubbing them on Erin's injury. A hero, a witch-doctor and a guy who likes a good wrestle. What a man!
We finally pulled ourselves up and walked the last few hundred metres to the tiny village of Batad, our goal and Mecca. We slid on jelly legs down the steep steps to the lodge where we would stay, collapsed into some hand-carved wooden chairs, gazed out exhausted at the amphitheatre of terraces surrounding the village and watched the twilight settle in over the valley. With a few bottles of San Miguel in front of us, this ecstatically happy group of friends sat back, chilled out, sang along with Elvis playing the guitar and relaxed our aching bodies.
I've never been so happy to be so filthy.
The night hummed in, bringing fireflies and a fog that masked the hillside completely from our sight.
Our meal was amazing:
Our first dish was Horse Penis Soup. Not only did it taste deliciously strong, it felt like it was charged with electric energy that buzzed on your tongue as you held it in your mouth. Cora told us that it was an aphrodisiac soup, considered to be very potent. This is said about many foods in the world, but when Elvis appeared before us with no shirt, every one of dropped our spoons with the shock of lust that bolted through our bodies. We watched him unashamedly as he passed by and we herded into a giggling whispering mass "Oh my GOD! Did you SEE that? WOW!" We also showed off our maturity by saying things like, "This is the best penis I've ever had. I could put this penis in my mouth all day."
Our next course was vegetables dug up from the garden, a chicken that had been killed especially in our honour and rice that had come from the terraces behind us, or as Cora so neatly put it, "This rice comes from our behind!" I never imagined that rice could be so tasty. This is the kind of rice you crave afterwards. It has never been put in plastic bags and left sitting in storage, it is fresh, straight off the hills and onto your plate. Absolutely divine.
We indulged in the ultimate cultural experience of washing from a bucket, squatting in the washroom surrounded by bugs and beetles that we had to ignore as best we could. It was still amazingly refreshing - in fact - the best bucket I've ever had. That made the best penis and the best bucket all in one night. Batad works miracles.
We passed the remainder of the night singing along while Elvis serenaded Erin (to no avail) and slowly made our way to bed for an early night. I crashed out in our room and fell into a deep sleep, saying farewell to the most gruelling but satisfying day I've ever spent. The sense of accomplishment at achieving something I never would have thought myself capable of was overwhelming. I almost felt my heart bursting with pride as I thought back over the climb I had done against all my doubts, hesitation and lack of self-belief and felt that indeed, I can do anything. What an amazing Christmas gift.
 
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