Philippines Day 4: Escape

Before reading this know that at the time of this writing we’ve returned to Manila and moved onto our next destination safe and sound.

The day started with a plan, get down to Banaue town by 9am to catch the public Jeepney to Bontoc and then transfer to another jeepney to Sagada. From there we would try to get back to Banaue by 7pm for the night bus back to Manila.

We had a wonderful night’s stay in Native Village Inn. The weather was brisk and we had thankfully asked for extra blankets for the night, they sure came in handy. Our little cottage was wonderfully fun, and the bed fine for the night’s sleep. The pitter patter of rain on the roof was soothing, and likely why we didn’t have any mosquitoes. We did though wake up at 6am to a weird buzzing sound that at first we thought was coming from our room, but later deduced was coming from the cliff. I got out of bed to figure it out, but by the time I got close to the source it stopped. This got us up just before 7am when we had set our alarm.

I got out first and then went and opened the window to the room and told Jenn to look outside the view was absolutely breathtaking. The clouds were higher than yesterday and curling off of the tops of the mountains and peaking behind ridges but leaving a clear view to the rice terraces. The whole scene was very atmospheric.

We rushed through to get our breakfast order in and shower because unlike most of the others we had to check out. Our breakfast was ready right when we were drying off from our shower and they served it on the outdoor table with the best view in the house. I really enjoyed my English breakfast with tea, beans, toast, and 2 eggs. Jenn also enjoyed her breakfast. The view though was the main course of the meal as we soaked in the last minutes we had with the rice terraces. We slowed ourselves down to make sure we got the most of that moment.

In the main dining area everyone else was having their breakfast. The Dutch couple lagging behind unprepared for the care the kitchen takes with their food. We had to be down in Banaue in time and it was starting to get a bit tight. I get stressed out easily when I have to be somewhere at a certain time and I was doing my best to not start stressing after such a wonderful breakfast.

The Inn has a pet monkey in a cage right outside the front door, I almost missed the poor fellow when we first arrived, but this morning he was feeling extra cuddly and was sitting right near the fence getting pet by one of the guests. I feel sorry for him, a bit of primate sympathy I guess, but joined in scratching his back.

I went to go settle up our bill but was noticeably light on Philippine Pasos, and asked if they took credit card. Of course they didn’t, they barely have electricity. I felt really bad but asked if they took USD. They said they did so I figured out the price with a somewhat generous exchange rate and paid our bill with US cash. I felt badly afterwards because I heard from someone else that the cost of exchange was really high in Banaue and I worry I might have shorted them a little. This especially irks me because we had such a nice time there and I want the owners to do well.

Back in Banaue we were dropped off near the Bus terminal where the Jeepneys wait on the main road in and out of town. We found a van with a Sagada sign in the window written in pencil and were flagged down to take their bus to Sagada. We asked the price and though it was a bit high we liked not having to worry about the bus transfer or wasting time with that in Bontoc. Thirty minutes passed however and the van still wasn’t moving, or filling up. In fact the driver was nowhere to be seen. We asked around and the van doesn’t leave until it’s full. When would it be full? No one knew, it depended when the next bus arrived, or maybe another jeepney. Clearly we weren’t in control of our fate and we started to worry about the other direction too. What if we got to Sagada and couldn’t easily get out? We could end up wasting a day just by the ill luck of no one else going the same way as us when we needed to. Walking around town we weighed our options and ended up talking to a man near one of the Jeepneys hoping that the public jeepney to Bontoc might be filling up. He told us he didn’t know when it might leave, and suggested a private tour. After talking about price and having our own little powwow Jenn and I decided it was worth not taking a chance with losing a day. We’d pay the 3000 pesos, roughly $75 US, and be sure to get back in time for the night bus. We told the guy sure and bought our bus tickets back to Manila. He took us to a friend’s van and told the driver what he needed to do, where to take us for the tour and when to make sure we were back by so we could squeeze in a dinner before the bus. Everything was set.

Leaving town the road was wet and our driver was going really slowly. I wasn’t sure if we would make our schedule with his tortoise like pace. I wasn’t about to harass the man to drive quicker though. Eventually it would become apparent however. The drive was nice, we were treated to more breathtaking views of the terraces leaving town before climbing up into the clouds that had added so much character to our breakfast. The road was under repair for rock slides all over, but our driver had picked up the pace now. Eventually we descended from the clouds and down into picturesque valleys with a winding concrete highway. Many of the terraces here had been turned into vegetable gardens of some sort or another which just added more character. Mixed in with rice we now saw plantings of lettuce laid out in spirals and many other crops. Talubin, a town outside Bontoc, was especially cute. Everything seemed so much more taken care of here.

As we entered Bontoc, our day started to unravel again. Our driver stopped and then backed up parking the van on the side of the road. Apparently there was a checkpoint for permits or licenses of some kind that he didn’t have. He explained with the help of a friend that all this unneeded paperwork was stifling business and they could just wait 20 minutes and pass. We felt uncomfortable with the situation but figured if we could still make Sagada we would keep our mouths shut and move on. Sure enough 20 minutes late the checkpoint cleared and we sailed into Bontoc.

Before we could leave for Sagada we had to make a stop in Bontoc for currency change because USD was not as expensive to change here. We got the normal rate of 40 pesos per dollar and jumped back in the van which had been parked a couple blocks away.

Back on the road again we headed on our way to Sagada, only we didn’t make it very far. Just outside of town we ran into another checkpoint, this one our driver didn’t know about. It came on so suddenly he was quickly bookended by police. Our driver got out to the talk to one, and I wish I could have heard and understood the conversation. In the end though he didn’t get a ticket but got turned around and sent back to Bontoc.

In Bontoc he tried to put us on another set of Jeepneys that might leave at some point and told us he would meet us there, but where wasn’t clear. We looked at the time, there was no longer any way for this to work. With all of the delays we were now only going to have 1 hour in Sagada if we could have kept to our original plan, just enough time to see the hanging coffins in Echo Valley, and not much else. Jeepnesy though go slow and pick up and drop off passengers all along the way taking much more time. We weren’t sure what to do. We certainly didn’t feel like we owed the driver his pay having not been able to reach our destination and back as we were told we would be able to. Our driver sat on the corner talking to a friend, and we felt sunk. A German backpacker was sitting nearby and we chatted him up. He felt sympathetic to us and suggested we should just walk away. What if we got to Sagada and on the way back the checkpoint was there again, we could really be stuck then. He suggested just walking away and catching the Jeepney back to Banaue and let our driver sort things out. This was a bit passive aggressive because with this plan we would have to tell him we wanted to bail and surely he would argue with us over price, and if we had him drive us back, might we still get stuck at the checkpoint? Unsure I deferred to Jenn, but I’m not sure she felt especially committed to this path either, but we did know we both wanted to be back in Banaue that night, and were over this whole thing. To me the quickest way to just leave the problem behind was to walk, and so we decided to just leave. Plus I didn’t like the illegality of dealing with this guy, I could just imagine getting caught on the wrong side of the law and being tossed in a Philippine jail for a night or more, and that’s not how I wanted to spend my vacation.

We were told the Jeepneys were across from the police station which was perfect. They weren’t however. Turning up the street we saw our guide and he recognized us. He looked right at me and made a face like “oh there you are!” but then notice we were making a path towards the police station and turned around walking away. After looking a little more we asked a police officer which way. He indicated to us but realized we were a bit lost and flagged down one of the many “Criminalist Interns” we had seen walking around and had him walk us right to the station. This seemed perfect.

We put our bags in the bus and waited for it to go. Another backpacker was waiting named Russell from Essex who we talked to for a bit recounting our story to this point. The Jeepney left not long after and we spent the rest of the ride making a new friend.

Russell has traveled to over 100 countries now, and has had some crazy Journeys like doing a rickshaw rally all across India with a friend. I loved hearing his stories and trading travel suggestions. This made the trip pass quickly.

Our nerves were shot to pieces again though when we arrived back in Banaue when our driver says he got a call from his friend, our guide, saying he haven’t paid him yet. We told him we didn’t plan to, he took us on promising to take us to Sagada and back and he wasn’t even legally allowed to and failed to get us there. Since he didn’t fulfill his side of the deal neither would we. The driver wasn’t happy but went about his business and we headed down to the Sanafe guest house for some food and warm drinks.

After we’d figured things out a bit more we resolved to talk to the police right around the corner and get their take. If they said we should pay the guy we would, if they said we shouldn’t we wouldn’t. This way we would always be on the right side of the law in this agreement and have their approval. After telling them our story the older police man shrugged and said he shouldn’t have taken us and questioned what he was thinking. The younger police woman asked if we’d enjoyed our time in Banaue as we left which made me think she saw the longer picture that bad dealings like this make for bad tourism, which makes for a poorer town. I told her we had enjoyed our time greatly. Confident we had done the right thing we headed back to Sanafe to use their internet and have more hot drinks as it was quite cold.

We waited until 15 minutes before the bus was to leave, walking in the rain to the bus. We expected there to be some hassle about the money but hoped we could slip by with the other tourists. That thought was dashed immediately as the baggage handler said “hey you’re the ones to Sagada, your driver is looking for his money. He knows many people here” a thinly veiled threat. We told him we had been to talk to the police and ask what we should do and that they said we shouldn’t pay, but he just kept repeating the same thing as he put our bags in the under carriage. We hopped on the bus and sad next to the window looking out at the baggage compartment door. I was very tense now, we had all of our valuables with us but my bag alone is worth as much as what the guide wanted, and worse I was worried about some kind of violence. I did feel safer knowing the police supported us and that we were with other tourists now, one of which, Dave whom we met over lunch is a world class martial artist apparently who competes internationally for Belgium. In turn we had 3 people come on the bus representing the guide trying to convince us to pay. At one point we were told the police wanted to talk to us and it would take just 5 minutes. We told them that was a lie, we had been to see the police and clearly they hadn’t. We were not getting off the bus. I can only imagine what would have happened if we had. An American tourist in front of us stood up for us saying that the charge for wasting our valuable day was 1500 pasos each and so they should just consider it even. That’s not far from the truth, if we amortized our flight cost over the length of our trip, we pay nearly $100 per day! At this point I didn’t want it escalating further, I told Jenn if it gets worse I’m just going to pay him for gas and be done with it. She held steady though quoting Lonesome Dove “I can’t tolerate bad behavior in a man”. At this point it was less to do about money and more to do with principal for her. I on the other hand felt like I was being a realist, it would be stupid to lose our luggage, or worse be hurt in retribution just over $30. But before anything else could happen the bus closed its doors and we were on our way.

I didn’t sleep hardly a minute that 9 hours back to Manila. We arrived at 4am exhausted, nervous that a friend of his was waiting for us at the bus terminal. Exiting the bus there were a ton of taxis as one would expect vying to take us to our destinations. We found the first one to agree to use a meter, and we had no trouble finding that and jumped in. Just to be sure I wrote down the guy’s license plate. Off we went. I think his meter was doctored with, it cost us 450 pesos from Sompaloc to the airport when it had just been 250 pesos from the airport to Intramuros not THAT far down the road. We didn’t want another argument today so we just let it pass. When I asked for change I only got 500 pesos back, 50 being the customary tip according to lonely planet. We finally felt safe for the first time in over 12 hours. We were past security and in Manila airport. We were on our way on our next leg of our adventure, a nice tropical island.

I’m leaving this entry off at technically 4am the following day, so I’ll carry on in the next journal from this point.

I’m still not sure looking back what choices I’d like to change, or what we did right or wrong. While I think we were Just to do what we did, I can’t help feel a bit guilty for the guy who already probably has a hard time making a living especially with a government being so strict. I’m not sure if me thinking that he was wrong to have taken us in the first place is me being logical, or just justifying our actions. My sympathy is dampened though by how he went about it, getting friends to threaten us while never talking to us himself. I’m also not sure if from a pragmatic standpoint it wasn’t more correct to pay him and avoid any violence or trouble. That sounds like giving in to terrorism as Jenn pointed out. While we came out of it fine, I can’t help but think that while the result of a choice might end up with the right result, if that only would happen 10% of the time that doesn’t make it the right choice to make. I’m also not sure how open I am to other’s opinions on this either; it’s hard to make the right decision while you’re in a situation like this, and I’d like to just be happy with the fact that we’re safe and sound after things got a bit tense instead of looking back too much. I’ll probably come to a decision in time as to how I feel I should have handled the situation after thinking about it more. Maybe Jenn will agree, maybe we won’t, but were in this together all the same.

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