Kalinga: Closer to heaven

Originally pubbed by Inquirer.net.

MANILA, Philippines — Blame slow news nights. When there is not so much to do, I and numerous friends would end up chatting about places on our must-visit list, our frustrations about being cooped up in our offices, and our individual soon-and-not-so-soon travel destinations.
One painstakingly slow night, Don, a friend who mans the night news desk for a local news website, started posting photos from his recent escapade. By impulse, I pulled up the Facebook chat window and started cussing at him. I told him it wasn’t nice to show off. He just laughed. Okay, I was just envious.
That fateful night, it was decided – we had to scratch Kalinga off our bucket list.
Two weeks later, we were at the Victory liner bus station in Kamias, waiting for the last trip to Tuguegarao for the night. I braced myself for the 12-hour bus ride – one of the longest I was to take at that point in my life.
Armed with anticipation, our measly budget, and the insatiable need to see the world, we were off to our four-day Kalinga adventure.


It was one long ride, made even longer by the five-hour lag caused by a delivery truck that blocked the road somewhere in Nueva Ecija. It was a painful wait, being stranded in the middle of the road somewhere unfamiliar, but the view and the company of our fellow commuters were enough to at least make us see the bright side of things.

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Roughly sixteen long hours after, we finally hopped off the bus in Tuguegarao, only to transfer to a crowded, open-air van to Tabuk. The two-hour ride was a breeze compared to that of the bus, especially because if I was not asleep, I was mesmerised by the view of the mountains and the fast-encroaching sunset.
We got to Tabuk just before dark and were dropped off by the good driver at Tampco Inn which would house us for the night.
Tampco Inn had the friendliest staff. Their rooms were comfy, clean and very affordable for travellers. To top that, our room had a balcony which gave us a splendid view of Tabuk.
Being the night owls, we had trouble snoozing off early so we decided a few songs at Tampco’s karaoke and a bottle of beer would not hurt.

We were up rather early the next day, hoping to catch the sunrise while enjoying the well-known Kalinga coffee. The Tabuk sunrise did not disappoint, and was a good sign of a great trip ahead.
Before taking on the road to Tinglayan, where our guide would meet us, we were lucky to witness the parade in celebration of the Kalinga day. After taking a few stills, we were seated rather not comfortably at the top of the jeepney which would bring us closer to our final destination.

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We had the option to seat inside the vehicle, but who refuses an adventure of a lifetime? The top load had the front row seats to seeing the jaw-dropping mountains of Kalinga, so we braced ourselves for the not-so-easy ride.
We met a nice local, Lara, who made the ride easier and saved us from getting our heads cut off. Aside from having to anchor yourself so you won’t fall off, you had to look out for low-hanging wires and tree branches along the way. The locals were kind enough to shout you have to duck when there was danger. My reflexes were rather poor at first, but I managed to survive.
It was heart-racing and nerve-wracking, seeing that your feet dangled at the edge of the cliff while the jeepney tried to maneuver its way safely on the sides of the mountain. But the unhindered view from where I was seated made me fall in love.
Three hours, a numb butt, and painful arms later, we made it alive to Poblacion, Tingalayan where Kuya Francis, a well-known guide, met us.
The next part of the journey was the one hour motorcycle ride to Butbut. It was a strenuous ride for me being one not to ride motorcycles, but I was not one to back down on a challenge. Upon disembarking, the hot exhaust pipe of the motorcycle left me with a burn and a story to tell.

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Then the difficult hike started. It was literally taking the steps to heaven. Kuya Francis was kind enough to help me with my bags, or else throwing those heavy things off the cliff was an option.
After thirty minutes of walking, I asked where we were headed, and our guide pointed to the mountain behind the one in front of us. Maybe an hour of walking and countless stops passed and I asked again, and he motioned to the peak of a mountain, saying that Buscalan was nested there. I thought he was telling me crap because there was nothing there except trees and clouds. Well, it just meant we had to climb higher.

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The landscape during the climb kept me going. I knew that the higher I go, the better the view.
We got to Buscalan before I passed out (okay, passing out was not an option) and we were greeted by the warm smiles of the natives. I was so thrilled seeing native pigs run free without care, as if they were just dogs.

We stayed with Fang-Od, 93, the oldest tattoo artist of the Kalinga tribe. She used to be the last mambabatok, until recently she passed on the art to her granddaughter, Grace. Fang-Od has attracted a number of travellers and tattoo enthusiasts who braved taking the long journey just to be inked by her.
The night was spent getting to know the locals. Their stories of their everyday life amazed me – reminding me how strenuous the life in the city could be. Before we called it a night, we basked in the comfortable silence we shared with our guide, under the breathtaking Kalinga sky.

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We were up early the next day, psyching ourselves up for the long hike down and the painful hours we had to endure back to Manila. Farewells were exchanged, and after a few offers from the locals for me to just stay there and find a husband (and just politely smiling back in response), we began our journey downhill.
Before we completely lost sight of the village, we took a moment to catch a final glance – and both whispered a promise that we will return the soonest chance we get.

More images here.

-Hx

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