The road to Sagada

For the longest time, my friend, the late Cordillera-based historian William Henry Scott, had been inviting me to come to Sagada.  But I never found the opportunity to visit this magical place that he called home.  The closest I got to Sagada was in the late ‘70s, at the height of the Cordillera resistance to the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam.  I was with a group from Baguio and Manila that had been invited to witness the 3-day bodong that was called to forge a solid alliance of Cordillera tribes against the dam.  From the bus that brought us to the village of Bugnay in Kalinga, I glimpsed the “to Sagada” road sign indicating the crucial break from the Halsema highway.  It was all the image I had of Sagada.

When my wife, Karina, told me she had been invited to speak at the graduation ceremonies of the University of the Cordilleras, Sagada – for some strange reason – flashed in my mind.  “I’m going with you,” I told her; “let’s proceed to Sagada from Baguio.”

The weather on the first week of May, which was when we made the trip, had the golden color of ripening rice fields.  But when we left Manila heading north, the sun slowly disappeared behind thick gloomy clouds. It began to rain on the new expressway to Tarlac. Then, just before the Tarlac City exit, our Starex van stopped.  Our driver said the battery alarm was flashing.  There’s something wrong with the alternator, he muttered.

A big downpour propelled by strong winds started to pound our vehicle as we entered the old highway to Baguio.  We found a roadside mechanic who took the trouble to guide us through the second-hand engine shops of Tarlac in search of a “surplus” alternator.  Finding none, he suggested a temporary remedyo that would allow us to proceed until we could get a brand-new replacement.  For two hours he worked on the minute parts of the broken alternator, while the strong rains ushered in a full-blown storm.  We did not realize we had driven into the path of a typhoon.

Thanks to Pinoy ingenuity, we were able to resume our journey to Baguio.

In Pangasinan, flood waters began to fill portions of the highway.  I wanted us to stop and seek shelter, but our driver said we could be trapped by the floods.  It was dark when we entered the Marcos highway.  Fallen trees and stalled vehicles barricaded stretches of this beautiful road.  We proceeded very slowly, hoping that the battery would not conk out in the middle of nowhere.  We reached Baguio just before midnight.  It had taken us 12 hours to get there.

I had cancelled our booking at the Sagada Rock Inn in the meantime. The only thought on my mind was how to get back to Manila on a limping van.  But, wonder of all wonders, morning brought out a crisp blue sky that bore no traces of the violent winds of the night before.  I called Bang, the young Sagadan who runs Rock Inn, and asked him about the weather up there.  Sunny and bright, he said; but he will let me know what the road conditions on Halsema are like when the first bus from Baguio comes in.  He texted later: all clear, a few landslides and muddy roads after Mt. Data, but the rain has stopped.

I forgot all about the alternator.  Sagada beckoned like a long lost relative who had waited all these years to welcome me.  Karina’s innate sense of adventure overrode the inertia of retirement, and I myself was overcome by a feeling of fulfillment just thinking of Sagada.  It was the most pleasant long ride I had ever taken.  I made a promise to myself that I would come again, on two wheels next time.  That thought persisted especially after we entered the winding road to this pine-carpeted village up in the mountains.

Two kilometers before the town proper, a narrow path led us to Rock Inn, an isolated pinewood hostel surrounded by an orange orchard and ringed by a limestone formation that lent the place the look of a majestic open-air theater.  Bang said we were practically the only guests that weekend because of booking cancellations.  He gave us the best room in the house, with a stunning view of what seems like the orchestra pit formed by a natural limestone garden.  The strangest calm came over me as I drew the curtains and saw the garden.  I went to the veranda to smell the air and hear the birds. The faintest bird call was magnified several times by the limestone sounding board; the exchange of notes from every corner of the garden seemed like violins clearing their chords before a grand performance.

This place has good vibes for me, I remember telling Karina. Wherever we went, the people of Sagada proudly showed us facets of their enchanting life.  Identity, I told myself – the Sagadans know who they are; their collective biography is everywhere etched on these mountains.

The visit would have ended as touristically as it began had I not taken up the suggestion of our host Bang to go bird watching on the trail towards Kiltepan, a high place with a view deck where visitors usually await the sunrise.  With my binoculars, I took what seemed like an endless rough road going up to the sky itself.  I made a mental note of the challenge that this badly-scarred path would pose to a dirt bike rider.  When I got to the top, the clearing led to a spot by the edge, marked by a sitting stone, from where one could make out, through the clouds, the loveliest rice terraces.  I suddenly felt humbled, and frightened.  It struck me — this is what Kant called the “sublime.”

You’re overcome by awe, and you desperately search your puny vocabulary for words to capture the indescribable as a way of dealing with an awkward moment.  I don’t know why, but I found myself, my modern secular self, quietly saying the Lord’s Prayer. I felt at ease after that.


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