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Saturday, April 28, 2007

On the road: Mountain Province, April 06

(From April 27-30, 2006 we were in Mountain Province to celebrate the anniversary of the local Couples For Christ community there. I posted this entry in my old blog soon after we returned to Manila. The feelings and insights still resonate a year hence...)

After a 12-hour ride aboard a bus sans air-conditioning, our faces blasted by dust and then whipped by bitterly cold air, traveling about a quarter of the way on a rocky, unpaved, landslide-debris-littered, winding mountainside pass that hardly admitted two-way traffic, we finally reached Bontoc, the capital of Mountain Province, where we were to conduct a one-day medical mission.

If you think I loathed this trip, let me make my point clearer:


The experience was quite new to me. I am used to big city fancy architecture- the likes of which you see in Makati, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. But nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in my 26-year-life has come close to the majesty of the breathtaking mountains, hills, and valleys, rushing waters, towering trees, terraced rice fields, craggy facades, and the calming mountain air of Bontoc and its environs like Sagada and Talubin. It’s like hurtling down a rabbit’s hole into a hidden Eden, its vivid cultured nestled far away from the mangling of urban ideals of “development” and “progress.”

From the top: Being impromptu guests at the wedding reception of the governor's daughter; trekking down to Talubin, site of our medical mission; rendering service to residents; the river skimming Talubin.

Now I understand why city folks, upon hearing of a three-day weekend, would drop everything and herd themselves to this remote corner of the Philippines. As one member of our team put it- you can see God’s signature in every tree, every shrub, every pebble, every drop of the river that runs through here.

From the top: The only way to travel enroute to Sagada; Sagada's rice terraces

And yet Eden is not so immune from the world’s ailments- physical and otherwise.

The burden of the burgeoning population is taking its toll on the land. Land is not given adequate time to recuperate after harvest. In so doing, people, too, are overworked, making them prone to a variety of illness. On the flipside, rice fields are being sold at breakneck speed to be converted to housing areas.

Bontoc town proper, early morning.

Those who do remain faithful to their centuries-old way of life are forced to co-exist too closely with their animals, so much so that they seem to be feeding from the same trough. Inevitably, the waste products they produce go through the same fate: they remain unprocessed, fouling a supposedly pristine river.

Swathes of forestlands are falling prey to slash-and-burn practitioners. Their handiwork is visible in not a few areas where forest cover has been lost with the grave consequence of erosion not far behind.

This place for the most part has escaped the pillaging of opportunistic lowlanders. Unfortunately, poverty has forced the hand of the people to harm the land that feeds them. For too long it remained a land forgotten and ignored, a showcase of government ineptitude.

I hope in some way we were able to fill the chasm between imperial Manila and this immensely bountiful place.

The trip home was more ‘humane’- we had the luxury of riding in an air-conditioned bus. Lucky for us because a light drizzle veiled us the first hour or so of our trip. But somehow the glass pane that separated me from the environment we were in was more stifling than protective.

The bus stopped. I looked to my right. It was raining but there was enough raindrop-less space in the pane to capture the scenery beside me. So I took the shot. This shot.

We took the same road home as we did when we first came to Bontoc. Of course it was no less rocky, unpaved, and landslide-debris-littered. The winding mountainside pass still hardly admitted two-way traffic. The same scenery accompanied us as we trudged homeward. And yet it’s a visual feast I never grew tired of. Just when you thought you’ve seen them all, a detail will pop out: of that terraced rice field, or the meandering river; from those quaint houses or the soaring pine trees; the wild flowers abloom or the birds hovering about the largely overcast sky.

(Above: Sidetrip to the Banawe Rice Terraces)

Now I know how it feels to be enchanted.

It’s been roughly 36 hours since we got back to Manila. Odd as it may sound, the sight of so many vehicles on the road or people milling about takes some getting used to again. God knows I paused for about two seconds before I snapped into action and actually got the car to start.

This trip placed me in that pensive-pondering mood. Somehow, despite the admittedly exhausting trip, it recharged my spiritual batteries. For a second there, I thought of actually moving to Mountain Province. I know my services will be most appreciated and welcome by people living there, 387-odd kilometers away from Manila.

Reality reeled me in though: while I survived four days without TV and newspapers and a working flush and I contented myself with surfing through WAP to find out who got the boot in American Idol and it was a thrill of a lifetime to ride atop a jeepney as it negotiated the roads of Bontoc and Sagada, I don’t know how long I can endure their very modest and basic living conditions. Of course the place isn’t all poverty- it has a Mister Donut branch, mind you- but it still won’t be… home.

Paradise is in peril. Yet I trust that somehow I can still do something even though I am here in the city. And more comforting is the glimmer of optimism I have in its residents and leaders who are more than willing to take up the cudgels and save their way of life themselves.

Hopefully, I will be back soon enough, often enough to experience this paradise on earth.

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