Cowboys, Sheriffs & Country Music
ONLY IN THE PHILIPPINES
By DOMINICK A. MERLE
CORDILLERAS, The Philippines---I’ve always thought this island nation was a bit out of step in this part of the world.
Oh, the Filipinos get along just fine with their neighbors---Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. But they really are quite different from all of them in custom, creed and character.
A better fit, I think, would be if these 7,000-plus islands were splashed across the South Pacific, the Mediterranean or even off the Pacific coasts of North, Central or South America. They might feel more at home there. (Actually, Filipinos feel at home anywhere as there are more of them living outside the country than in.)
On this visit, I travelled to two Philippine provinces far from the usual tourist trails and beach resorts---the Cordilleras mountain range at the northern tip of the island chain and the sprawling Mindanao region at the southern tip. They could have been on different planets.
The Cordilleras area, a 12-hour drive from Manila over serpentine and bumpy roads, is one of two provinces throughout the Philippines that is landlocked by a series of mountains. (By contrast, Mindanao is surrounded by four seas.)
But on those Cordilleras mountains, the Ifugao farmers of centuries past have constructed a series of rice terraces that follow the contours of the mountain like giant winding staircases leading to the sky. It creates a spectacular view, so much so that that UNESCO has added it to the World Heritage list.
“It was worth the drive, no?” asked our driver, Cecile, beneath his Stetson cowboy hat. “This is God’s country.”
Between his cowboy hat and the pure country music coming from his tapes, this also seemed like the Tennessee Smokies leading to Nashville. Country music is king in the Cordilleras, you hear it everywhere, nonstop.
“Life is slow and easy here,” Cecile explained. “We like our music the same way. Rap and rock and roll is for Manila.”
While the rice terraces are the showstopper in the Cordilleras, this region is literally a breath of fresh air from many other parts of the Philippines. Roaring fireplaces can be found in the simple but comfortable hotels and hostels, and residents bundle up in leather coats and tuques at early morning and after dark, although the temperature rarely dips below 10 Celsius (50 F).
The air is crisp and pure, crime is practically non-existent, and views are magnificent around every turn. Few North Americans set foot here, the bulk of the tourists are Asians and Europeans who hike these rice-filled mountains and explore the many caves in the valleys.
There are villages surrounded by rice paddies where Shamans are still revered as both spiritual healers and witch doctors. “The Shamans can cure you or curse you,” Cecile claimed. “I saw one heal a man’s paralyzed leg by rubbing leaves and oil on it. Another man, who was stealing from the village, had his head turned permanently in one direction by a Shaman.”
Other spiritual attractions along this mountain range are “hanging coffins” on some of the hills, small caves where mummified remains of the local ancestors can be found. The higher the coffin on the hill, the loftier the position the deceased had in his tribe.
The tiny villages on the hillsides are also an attraction in themselves, the houses scattered every which way as though they were dropped from the sky. The homes were constructed before the roads, which now snake through the hamlets, weaving in and out to get to the other side.
We stayed at the Banaue Hotel smack in the middle of 2,000-year-old rice terraces, and visited the nearby village and open market. At one point we had to clear the tiny sidewalk to make way for a man parading his pet pig on a leash on the main street! When’s the last time you saw that in your town?
He wasn’t dressed in his Sunday finest, and the huge pig could also have used a little touch-up, but the man seemed as proud as an aristocrat walking his prize poodle on Fifth Avenue during the Easter parade. That was our final unscheduled surprise in the Cordilleras.
“Now we go back to the noise, the pollution and the traffic,” Cecile said as he cranked on his never-ending country music tapes and began the long drive to Manila.
We spent three nights in Manila before heading south to Mindanao. There was an international travel show taking place called the Asean Tourism Forum (ATF) that we attended along with a number of show-connected festivals centered in the historic section of the city called Intramuros.
Meanwhile, Cecile met another group of tourists from Belgium for transport to the Cordilleras (I hope they liked country music) while we flew to the sprawling city of Davao on the southeast coast of Mindanao.
Like the Cordilleras, Mindanao is off the usual tourist trail, but not because it is difficult to get to, but because many travel advisories recommend not going there. Terrorist groups have flared up from time to time on the western coast near Zamboanga city.
As it turned out, east coast Davao could well have been one of the safest cities in the nation as the man-in-charge, Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, operates more like a Wild West sheriff than a politician. To put it mildly, the colorful and controversial Duterte runs a no-nonsense, tight ship.
He routinely, for example, announces the names of suspected drug dealers, sex offenders and other violent criminals and gives them until sundown to get out of town. Those who ignore the warning often end up as victims of mysterious accidents---like getting run over by a truck---and charges are rarely if ever made.
Right or wrong, Duterte has an almost guru-like following from his constituents, many of whom are encouraging him to run for the Philippine presidency.
Actually, I felt quite safe in Davao as security was everywhere and highly visible. Armed police and camouflaged militia routinely patrol the city on foot and guards inspect your bags and frisk you at all public places, including small convenience shops.
While Davao is not your picture-postcard city, it has an exotic charm and represents typical Philippine life with prices often one-third those of major tourist centers like Cebu and Palawan. It is spread over 244,000 hectares, making it one of the largest cities in land area in the world. (To drive the city limits from north to south would take more than two hours.)
A mere 30-minute drive from Davao is an exotic rainforest where there are giant eagles known as Haring Ibon. A full grown eagle can be as large as 5-feet in height with a wing span of 7-feet. They have been known to swoop down and whisk away full grown monkeys by clutching their shoulders.
Nearby in the woods are plants that actually eat meat! Called “pitcher plants,” they are about the size and shape of a coffee cup and have a tarry substance in the base. When a tiny rodent or bird enters, it becomes stuck and entombed.
Ironically, monkeys like to eat pitcher plants, with birds, rodents and anything else inside. And those giant eagles like to feast on the monkeys who ate the plant that ate the bird etc. Sort of like a revolving-door food chain.
In the distance, serving as a backdrop for this magnificent rainforest, is the impressive Mount Apo, the grandfather of Philippine mountains at almost 3,000 meters high. Ancestral tribes still live on the mountain and carry on life today as their forefathers did centuries ago.
They shy away from visitors, we were told. Maybe if I introduced them to country music…?
(Dominick A. Merle is a Montreal travel writer and co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
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