Narrative & Photographs by Sybil Pretious
“The beauty of the world is the diversity of its peoples.”
During the Chinese New Year holiday in 2010 (I turned 68 that year), I resolved to visit the Philippines. It was a last-minute thought, so preparations were minimal. Barry, in Australia, like me, made an instant decision and would land in Manila the day after I did, both of us just toting our backpacks as luggage.
The Philippines is made up of 7,640 islands and is situated in South-East Asia. The local language is Tagalog. Its position in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ makes it susceptible to earthquakes and typhoons and volcanic activity. I was interested in visiting the Taal Volcano which erupted in January 2020 and had had some of the country’s deadliest eruptions. Mount Pinatubo which last erupted in 1991 (the biggest eruption of the century). The islands are known for their stunning beaches and azure waters, but I was focused on the mountains.
Nine days was hardly time to take in this astounding country, so we limited our wanderings to Luzon. Even that was ridiculous, and it was one of the lessons I learnt on that trip – less travel and more getting to know local people should be my mantra.
There was another fascinating fact – the presence of the fire mummies, 2000-year-old bodies preserved in pinewood coffins, in the Kabayan area. This proved to be an inward as well as an outward journey of significance in my life.
Travelling in the Philippines offers a colourful variety of vehicles and we had great fun contorting ourselves into side cars, covered motorcycles, three wheeled vehicles, buses and the very distinctive Jeepney.
I arrived the day before Barry, so I travelled into Manila to see the old Spanish walled city — The Intramuros. I caught a ‘tricycle’ which is a motorbike with covered sidecar. It was rather hair-raising, squealing round corners and going over bumps. Chatting to the driver when we stopped, I discovered that he had had to work for many years to obtain enough money for a license, but he was very proud of his vehicle. Subsequently friends of mine had sponsored one of these drivers which I thought was a wonderful thing to do. I then caught a vehicle that I have never seen in any other country – a colourful jeepney. A big jeep-like engine in front and then the covered back has seats on either side and held about 20 people. This is the main form of transport and there are regular ‘jeepney jams’.
We took normal buses to get to Capas and Pinatubo Spa Town and up to the Volcano next day. At the Spa town I couldn’t resist a volcanic mud bath hoping that it might help my awful itchy skin. It wasn’t quite what I expected – I had to change into baggy shorts and top provided and then two young girls slimed the mud over me till I looked like someone from the coon carnival. I then sat around uncomfortably, in full view of everyone, till it dried and then showered it off. My skin was still awful but luckily my face was a whole lot better. Maybe I needed a few more treatments.
The trip in a jeep through rivers, volcanic ash, sand, mud took us to the Pinatabo volcano. The eerie, moonlike mud scenery showed devastated river courses and vegetation. A ferried boat trip across the turquoise blue lake to the volcanic island with some small ‘craters’ still bubbling beside the lake. It felt unreal, not of this world.
Our guest house was a double story wooden structure that felt unstable, but the people were charming. Off again in the morning on a bus driven by a manic driver through a very scary mountain ‘highway’ veering dangerously close to the crumbling edges on a single lane with very sparse passing places where we had to back up for other vehicles.
We stopped for food and a toilet break. I approached the toilet building and looked inside. It was enough to make me gag. There was a long ditch down the middle of the room. Somehow you got your feet on either side and did what you had to do. Not only that but it was used by men and women at the same time! No time for niceties on this journey.
Always along the way were smiling children happy in their circumstances. I was thinking the many privileged children I had taught, who hardly ever seemed happy with what they had. They would benefit from living in areas like these just for a few months.
Kabayan was the one place I really wanted to be during this adventure. The Timbac caves hold the ‘fire mummies’. We set out with three French people, to climb up to the caves, a climb we were told would take four hours. It took me six hours. At the start Barry and I did not have much water and asked the guide if we could get some. He indicated a village on the way, but there was no bottled water, only cold drinks, which we discovered were not hydrating.
I climbed wearily up grassy hills, pulling on my trusty stick, feeling that this was the last thing I wanted to do. I just unable summon any energy. We arrived at a ‘farmhouse’ where there was an open tank and running water from a spring and also a pile of carrots.
I tipped my head back and drank and drank, then filled my bottles and ate a couple of carrots. I can’t describe what that water did but it was as though every cell in my body had woken up after a long painful sleep. I was anew woman and resumed the walk. Barry said he would see us on the way down — I thought he was joking.
I set off, energy high and kept a steady pace enjoying the scenery as I got higher. I was walking on my own because the French couple had gone on ahead and the other one had cramp and was trailing behind. Eventually the guide caught up to me and said that he had been all the way back for Barry, who said again that he was not coming and then the guide went on ahead to check the French couple were on the right track before returning to me. He had done a lot of extra mileage for his clients. Another lesson in service from these lovely people.
I caught up with the others before making the final steep climb to the caves. I was so glad that I had made it.
The guide took me on my own to the caves.
There, in small rocky caves, scattered around, some agape, some closed were the tiniest coffins. Surely these were for children? But no they were adults who had been placed in that sitting position. I had read about this mummification process which is no longer used in the Philippines.
Wikipedia has it that the unique mummification process was said to actually begin before death, with an individual participating in the initial steps. As death approached, the individual would drink a beverage with a very high concentration of salt. Drinking saltwater is known to dehydrate the body, so this initial step was used to start the drying process prior to death. After the individual passed away, the rest of the mummification process would take place. It is estimated that this process took anywhere from several weeks, to several months to complete.
The body was thoroughly washed, and then placed above a heat source in a seated position. The body was not exposed to actual fire or flames but remained suspended above the smouldering kindling. Rather than burning the body, the heat and smoke would slowly and completely dehydrate the entire body. The internal drying process was ritually furthered along by blowing tobacco smoke into the deceased’s mouth. This was thought to help remove the fluids from internal organs.
Many of the caves had been looted but the one I visited had a rusty iron grid in front of the opening with an ancient padlock attached. The guide produced a key and opened the gate for me.
I sat down to look inside. A feeling of sadness pervaded my senses. I went in to take a closer look and to say a prayer of thanksgiving for allowing me this privilege. When I came out, I turned and kneeling with hands together I said, “I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
The guide simply said, “Thank you. You understand. Not many people do.”
We made our way back to the Guide’s Hut to wait for the Jeepney that was to collect us. I wrote in the visitors’ book while I waited:
“A wonderful, tiring walk with amazing scenery, friendly people and a very energetic, caring guide. Maybe tell the climbers to take more water. AND THEN The Mummies – what a privilege to see them. Please guard them with more security.”
The jeepney never came and as the light was fading my guide said we should make our way down. He knew a shorter way.
The road and path were not easy because of loose stones and I fell twice slightly pulling a muscle on my left side and knocking my head and bum. Good thing both are soft. We took three hours going down and the last hour was particularly difficult because it was dark and we had to use a torch. I stumbled several times wanting to give up and just sit on the road till morning. My guide steadied me and encouraged me.
Finally, back at the lodgings, I stumbled in ready to collapse onto my top bunk. Barry, looking fresh as a daisy made some stupid remark about my appearance that had the others laughing at me. I said nothing and went to our room but wondered why I had this effect on men when I had achieved something that they hadn’t.
The following day we left on another tortuous mountain road journey to Abangeg to climb Mt Pulag. We met up with six young Belgian doctors who were doing their internship in a hospital in Banguio. They walked right from the base of the mountain whereas us oldies took a jeepney to the Rangers Station and stayed the night there before attempting the summit climb of three hours. I did not find it easy — too much climbing in too short a time. We had to leave our guide half-way because she had tummy trouble. Barry seemed confident that he knew the way. The top of the mountain is not marked but we presumed we had made it as there were no higher peaks around. It was just covered in plain old grass!
We were lucky to get a lift back with the doctors in a 4×4 driven by Father Eugene who had been in the Philippines for 42 yrs. Lucky did I say? He drove like a Formula 1 driver over precarious mountain roads and sometimes I just closed my eyes and prayed — seemed appropriate seeing he was a priest!
After a very long day traveling in many vehicles, we got back to our hostel, The Green Mango Inn, and on the following day took a trip to Taal Volcanic Lake and the smallest active volcano in the world. Yes, no rest days in between! We travelled from the town by tricycle. A boat that looked like a gondola with bamboo stays on either side took us across the water to travel to the Taal Volcanic Lake.
We were to ride on mules for the final part of the journey. I am not a rider having come off rather badly a couple of times but their minder assured us they were docile. Looking like bandits we had to wear masks because the fine black volcanic dust was not good to breathe in.
To my shame I never thought about the mules right then. They did not have masks on and would have been breathing in that fine dust every time they valiantly took tourists to see the lake. Another lesson in being less self-centered.
The lake was calm, but I was not calm. There seemed to be a ‘presence’ and I was not comfortable especially as there was still the ride back on the poor mules. Maybe I was just over-tired. I slept fitfully that night and went over all that I had experienced while in the Philippines. It was a jumble of thoughts and I realized for the first time during my backpacking adventures, I had done too much sightseeing and found out too little about the important parts of travel — the people and their lives.
I arrived back in Suzhou feeling very tired and older than my years but perhaps a little wiser about what travel should really be about.
“More is less.”
Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.
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