About those rice terraces…
The first part of our recent southeast Asia trip was a 7-day group tour of Northern Luzon, the province where Manila is situated. Luzon island, which makes up most of the province, is surprisingly mountainous and it’s where some remarkable rice terraces are. I decided about a year or two ago that I wanted to see one, when I first saw this picture of a terrace in China.
By luck, when I was researching considering trip to the Philippines, I discovered a G Adventures (I’ll refer to them as GA for the rest of this story) tour. The Internet article featured a photo of a terrace in Luzon. Our friend in Manila had also mentioned this part of the Philippines as a must-visit, though this was in a list of perhaps 50 possibilities, several of which were very attractive beaches and/or snorkeling opportunities for this person who by mid-January is usually desperate for a sign that Summer Is Coming. The photo certainly bumped it up the list.
After a few weeks of weighing the advantages against the disadvantages (of doing an organized tour rather than winging it on our own), we signed on. For me, this promised some hiking, some visits with locals, a brief tour of Manila, sampling some local cuisine, seeing some beautiful landscape, meeting some other like-minded travelers, and a generally thoughtful introduction to the local culture. Most of the itinerary was thus attractive or at least intriguing: the ”homestay” night of lodging in the itinerary was an unknown – should we have brought a gift, as I’d done years ago when billeted as a rugby player on tour? The promise of multiple bus rides –including one as an overnight– was daunting, but the fact that most of them were public rather than tour buses was appealing.
While a small part of me felt like I was missing a real adventure and personal growth opportunity with this decision, a much bigger portion of my mind (and body) was happy to put us into the hands of someone who would sort out a lot of the details for our first week in the Philippines and in Asia. I’m glad we did. The tour had a few challenges, which I think were largely attributable to how new the itinerary was for GA, but I’m pretty sure I’d have had a few more headaches and more lost sleep, had we tried to to manage all those details, ourselves.
Our group met about 20 hours after Steve and I arrived in Manila; at this evening meeting, our man from GA introduced himself and GA to our 13-person group. The latter he did by walking us through the core values of the company. I’ll use these values to loosely structure my story today, as they sum up things about this sub-trip fairly well. The first: We love changing people’s lives. The intention is, I think, to open travelers’ eyes, help them grow, and thus help us all improve as a species who truly cares about the welfare of all of its members.
My change story is twofold: The first: Within our first 24 hours in Manila, I had an encounter with a begging child in Malate. This wasn’t the first one I’d encountered, but this kid would not relent and in fact grabbed a hold of Steve’s clothing and I’d had enough. Despite the thoughtful tip from our Lonely Planet book to take things like this in stride, I glared at him and loudly said, or rather, screamed “NO!” Not more than that. And he didn’t care, though I felt humiliated and puny, maybe a little deranged. He just turned to go find a new potential donor. Losing face is a fascinating concept. While it’s a little foreign to Americans, it’s not that different from some of the behaviors I see at home. Maybe this is because I live in Minnesota, where many people tend to avoid confrontation and to practice emotional restraint.
As the trip moved forward, my skin grew a little thicker, which may or may not have been adaptation in the right direction (see note below under “…right”). I’m a pretty easily rattled person, though exhaustion proved a handy friend at times. I got too tired to get upset over some things.
The second life-changer for me: I need to do a better job of keeping up with world news. I’m glad I did some research prior to the trip, which included reading Luis Francia’s Philippines travel memoir Eye of the Fish and John Swain’s memoir of Cambodia in the 1970s, The River of Time, but I’m thirsty for more. I now have renewed interest and curiosity in what’s going on out there, now that I’ve traveled a little further away and met a few people with histories markedly different from mine. Our visit to Corregidor Island, a little over a week later, provided a helpful history lesson, on this world history and awareness front.
Our trip had a CEO
Our leader, Vaughn, was quick to point out that he wasn’t our “guide.” I don’t recall him using the term GA literature uses for his role, Chief Experience Officer (CEO), but I think it’s fair to think of him as our tour’s leader, especially as another core value is Lead with Service.
As someone who has had a few bad guides/trip leaders in her past travels, I can appreciate his aversion to the term “guide.” Sometimes a guide may move forward with a journey as if the only expectation for him/her is to show the trail to the travelers. This, in fact, happened to us with our Mt. Pinatubo hike, a week or so after our GA component.
I appreciated Vaughn taking the care and time to give us a brief introduction to some parts of Filipino culture, and his encouragements to explore on our own when we had small pockets of free time that wasn’t on 4+ wheels. He was a lot of fun to talk to: movies, music, other travels and literature were grounds covered, in conversation.
Vaughn encouraged us to Embrace the bizarre. The important thing here is to not only notice and appreciate the strange (to you) things you see, but to reserve judgement on them. It’s very possible that your own sensibilities will tell you that some of these things are not progressive; that they are so harmful that they are a bad idea for anyone. However, how can you know that they are bad, given all the factors that caused them to happen? It’s very likely that you don’t have a good grasp of what brought this tradition into reality, and what makes it still a worthwhile practice to maintain. Or, if it’s not a tradition, perhaps it’s a good reminder that you are extremely fortunate to have certain things your own first-world country.
I’ll list several things that come to mind, though it appears that not many of them offer profound lessons in perspective. Or maybe they all do, if you also include “what traveling teaches you about you” types of lessons (such as: you only live once; you can sleep when you’re dead; well, you do need more whole grain; isn’t Banaue magical at 4 a.m.?; and maybe American butchers have it all wrong, etc.).
- People riding on top of Jeepneys (maybe not bizarre but certainly not recommended by CEO nor any mom)
- …or in coach buses in too-tiny seats with insanely varied and loud music playlists over the PA. It’d go from bubblegum pop to death metal to country to folk.
- Me eating rice for breakfast (often).
- Coach buses arriving two hours early after an all-night ride.
- Eating absolutely delicious ginger-chicken soup in which the chicken appeared to have been chopped in a cubed grid (the bones were kind of hard to navigate around).
- A child, maybe 3 years old, wandering down our hotel’s street alone. Barefoot. And not stopping at the food cart.
- LOTS of kids milling about, dangerously close to high-speed traffic.
- Going to a restaurant and having one item on the whole menu be the only one available that evening.
- Enjoying a delicious curry dinner at a place called The Yoghurt House.
- The traffic! The roads there are rivers. Not liquid, but flowing like liquid, liquid going downhill. Why do they bother with lane stripes? And yet it was a thrill to be a rider – and one very appreciative of experienced Filipino drivers.
- Asking about 15 Taft Avenue stall vendors and apothecaries for ear plugs and getting blank stares from every single one of them. Then finding them at an Ace Hardware store in a huge mall in Baguio, 6 days later.
- Getting a “foot” massage, on a bunk in a rice farmer’s hut, with a monkey skull hanging above your head, from a woman who had just taught us to dance Ifugao-style. Then going back to the campfire to sip plum wine with the proprietor.
- Confirming that yes, they do sell semi-developed duck embryo (Balut) at truck stop food carts, as a snack.
- Eating a bright purple snack sold at a similar truck stop – a rice cake flavored with purple yam.
- Seeing the Incredible Hulk – and Batman – at a rural truck stop.
- Not flushing the toilet paper.
- Those gorgeous rice terraces really are strange. To build and use them seems like a heck of a lot of work to try and master water flow. Later in the trip we saw rice being grown in a more predictable wide, flat area (in Cambodia). At any rate, I really enjoyed hiking to the top of one, then around the corner to see the huge Tappiya waterfall.
- Rice is grown in mostly standing water. Cranberries are, too, but: that’s unusual.
For us, it was plenty bizarre, to wake up each day and say, “oh my god, we’re in the Philippines!”
…as in, the way Bill Cosby says it, when his character (I’m thinking of this version of the biblical Noah) is having an “are you kidding me?” moment. Do the right thing is this anecdote’s core value. The right thing, as in the ethical thing, may not be as obvious, when you’re visiting a foreign culture. You might even be incredulous, when faced with it. Should you give money to a begging child? Or make much effort to recycle a glass or plastic bottle? Or completely avoid riding in taxis? Get upset when your hotel room’s shower isn’t functioning as expected? I found that the answer is always: it depends, keep your mind open, and be compassionate.
This didn’t happen during the GA part, but if I hadn’t gotten the spiel from Vaughn, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed it when it happened. There was young girl in Cambodia, who took a picture of us at the start of our Tonlé Sap boat ride with a pretty nice point-and-shoot camera. I mugged for her, even. I was surprised a couple hours later when she reappeared with my photo printed and inserted into some sort of large Christmas ornament/plaque thing. There was one of Steve, too. It really wasn’t attractive – not something I wanted to pay money for nor to have in my possession, though admittedly the photo was not a bad one. I’d likely throw it away as soon as I determined there wasn’t room in it for the luggage, later in the trip, which was very likely to happen. And I’d feel horrible about it.
So, I turned her down, as I’d never asked her to do this, but as we drove away I noticed some western-dressed guy (he looked like a photojournalist – cameras and over-pocketed vest, etc.) paying her for what appeared to be the ornaments with our photos on them. He was the one encouraging her to keep on with her entrepreneurial action, not me. He was more comfortable with it. Now, it’s possible that she was conscripted with him to do this business in some really ugly, seedy way, and in the end it was not a forward-thinking venture for the kid. Regardless, this whole experience was a lesson in perspective for me.
Would it really have hurt me, to just give her the tiny amount of cash she wanted for this effort and souvenir? It was an exchange, at least: she wasn’t begging, though she certainly was persistent (as were the boys with turtles, pictured above, whom we encountered the same day). This was Cambodia, and I’m an American: No one there needs me ignoring a simple request for help. I still feel that I did the wrong thing that day.
We did not buy a turtle, either. Those can’t go into the garbage.
C’mon get happy
If you write promotional material for a company that assembles groups of strangers and sets them off on adventures in foreign lands, it’s a good idea to speak to the group dynamic. Hence: Create happiness & community. I took this as direction for the CEO to follow a motto I learned in my group-fitness and yoga certification courses: set people up for success. It’s making sure there is at least one guaranteed win in the plans or options for the day. For Steve and I, this was easily delivered several times, by allowing us some down time to lengthen our legs and stretch our backs, after several cramped bus rides or bumpy jeepney journeys.
Outside of that, those rides allowed us to see some of the landscapes that form some of our fondest memories of the trip. So, happy we were, with the first 8 days of our trip. I hope this article gives you an idea of what’s to see and do in Northern Luzon, though there’s plenty more and we hope to return there, perhaps to visit Vigan, see Camp John Hay and try a few more restaurants in Baguio, and to stop by a few more choice historical landmarks (Coconut Palace, anyone?) and fun nightlife hotspots and restaurants in Manila. And of course visit more of those glorious beaches! I hope this story encourages you to visit the Philippines, if not to set out upon your life’s Big Adventure, soon, too.