The Journey is the Reward: Ifugao Rice Terraces

The northern regions of the Philippines are home to the nation’s only “cool” weather, where winding roads bring views of endless mountain ridges and the ocean is no where to be seen. Banaue is a popular tourist destination and backpacker haven in the Philippines. It is one of 5 sites included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation for its Ifugao Rice Terraces.

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And the rice terraces of the Philippines will take your breath away! This spectacle includes thousands of miles of small rice ponds, carved into the steep mountainside in a cascading fashion (imagine a topographical map come to life!).

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Members of the Ifugao indigenous tribe built the terraces roughly 2,000 years ago and they are still farmed today, producing the major dietary component of all locals. However population loss, as members of younger generations opt to move to urban areas like Manila versus continuing their ancestral traditions, threaten its future existence.

For the time being income generated from tourism helps to keep the rice terraces alive and running. And as a recent Banaue tourist, I’d consider this trip is the World’s 8th Wonder. My room Banaue Homestay looked out over the heart of the terraces, but what really made the experience for me was not just the view, but trekking within the terraces themselves.

Viewpoint
Viewpoint
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.

Leaving from “Viewpoint,” I took a small trail with steep narrow stairs down to the valley below and crossed a small bridge. From there myself and my 3 new French friends climbed up another steep set of stairs to a new vantage point with beauty comparable to the renowned “Viewpoint.” Only now we were a part of the terraces themselves, including their sounds and movements as gusts of wind swept over the bright green field of rice stalks bowing in response.

From there our trek wrapped around an unseen side of the terraces revealing a 3-stage waterfall. A former landslide rendered our trail to loose dirt where there were once concrete stairs as we bear crawled our way up another mountain. After this climb we were rewarded with a shaded, flat trail, however it demanded acrobatic balance because portions were not a trail at all but the 4in wide wall of the rice terrace itself. A fall from here poses minimal physical threat, but your choice is either mud-sopped feet from the rice pond or water-saturated feet from the water channel on the opposite side. I was lucky that my acrobatic skills rose to the challenge, however my French friends were not so lucky. One chose the water channel and the other two opted for the hobble split technique whereby you place one foot on the 4in wall and the other on the neighboring vertical wall of the next terrace level. Unfortunately this hobble split technique tended to yield mud-sopped feet if you can’t regain your balance at the end of the wall. (Might want to take up slacklining before your next rice terrace trek my friends.)

Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek
Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek. This section was slightly wider than the earlier bit that took some casualties.
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister's house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister’s house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
That's me in the pink.
That’s me in the pink.

Rounding the next mountain pass we could now look down on the town center from a vantage point directly opposite that of my homestay room. We took turns guessing which tiny building was the one we had woken up in just earlier that morning.

Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance
Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance

When we finally completed our loop and finished back in town, we gained a better understanding for life in this place of mountain rice farming. Along the way we passed local homes with children playing and chickens squawking. Our “trail” was really the standard walking path for locals traveling from the mountains to the town. This entire experience of finding our way, asking directions, following strangers, balancing on small walls, and skirting the remains of landslides is an amazing reward for those willing to venture out of the comfort of the all too numerous tourist vans and get your feet dirty along the terraces themselves. And if you don’t want the challenge of finding our way, there are plenty of local guides looking to make some extra income by giving you a personal tour.

You Know You Are Part of the Family When…

…They ask you to be part of the wedding.

On May 23, 2016 the youngest son of my host family was wed. The married couple of Prince and Roan asked John and I to serve as groomsman and bridesmaid in their wedding.

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The bride and groom: Roan & Prince

For the Famero family weddings are their specialty! My host mom owns a business making wedding invitations and party favors, while my host sister owns a dress shop selling wedding and formal gowns. Therefore no detail was forgotten in the creation of this incredible wedding!

The morning of preparations included hair, make up and photo taking at a local hotel. (I’m pretty sure I got dusted in whitening powder. Everyone is always trying to look lighter. ) This was followed by a Catholic church ceremony and a garden banquet reception. Filipino wedding traditions include a cord ceremony during the mass to symbolically bind the couple. Later during the reception there was a release of butterflies, doves, a prosperity dance where friends and family pin money to the bride and groom as they dance, and cake cutting.

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At the reception

John was somewhat surprised to learn that the intermission number he had been asked to play on ukulele was actually the mother/son father/daughter dance, however even this was a big success!

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John and Kuya Andrew perform for the mother/son father/daughter dance.

My favorite part was watching their wedding video put together by “Same Day Edit,” meaning footage of all of us from the morning preparations through the reception itself was debuted at the reception’s conclusion.

Another highlight was when the immediate family of the groom was asked to take a photo and John and I were included. It’s now been nearly two years that I have lived in the Famero home and they truly are my adopted family. (I usually say I am their imported daughter)

To Beat the Heat

The month June marks the transition from summer to rainy season in the Philippines. Students return to school after their summer vacation of April and May and slowly water rationing is becoming less imperative. The El Nino phenomenon of this past summer meant it was one of the hottest and driest seasons to date. Many corals have bleached from this thermal stress with long term damage to coral reefs that is still being determined. On the Great Barrier Reef scientists have even explored options of shade coverings to prevent extreme ocean warming on certain key reef locations. (This solution was ultimately rejected from what I heard.)

Filipinos are also fond of the shade covering solution not for the coral reef, but for personal use. In Filipino culture white skin is beautiful and locals will go to great lengths to prevent themselves from “getting dark,” including applying whitening lotions and wearing long sleeves in the blazing heat of summer.

I would have expected to see lightweight, thin, and breathable long sleeve shirts which protect from the sun, but also allow you to keep cool. However a warm, zip-up jacket with a hood on and pulled tight around one’s head is the apparel of choice on my tropical island. (See gentleman in the lower left of the photo below)

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The port of Odiongan where you must pass to enter or leave our island. Notice the typical Filipino dress on the lower left: standard sun protection. It could easily be 100 degrees out (F).

Warm winter hats with the faces of animals and thick straps that hang down over one’s ears are also stylish and can be see year round. Thus clothing is not the best judge of temperature. Filipino bodies are clearly built for hot environments because despite long sleeves and skinny jeans they never seem to sweat as much as me in my tank top and shorts. A sweat bandana and a refillable water bottle are two essential items I carry wherever I travel.

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My nalgene water bottle. When I first arrived everyone thought that my stickers were a unique bottle design. Notice that DAN and WMI are the 2 stickers that have held up of the past 2 years. I would advocate their product for any scuba diver (DAN diver’s and travel insurance with amazing coverage for any emergency) or wilderness enthusiast (Wilderness Medical Institute training courses in first response)

Mysteriously, I rarely see Filipinos drink water. Coffee, a 3-1 coffee, creamer, and sugar instant mix, is the expected drink with breakfast (my morning run is never complete without at least one person offering me coffee as I jog by). Soda products are common at morning and afternoon snack times. (Sometimes soda is cheaper than bottled water and I was shocked once to hear that a store sold only soda, no bottled water. Needless to say dentists would have flocks of patients in the Philippines.) And finally a Filipino might drink a single glass of water after he or she finishes a lunch or dinner meal. So unless Filipinos are secretly guzzling water when I’m not looking, their bodies are just much more efficient in managing heat and water conservation.

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And so we each have our norm in the heat of the summer: They don long-sleeve jackets, hats and pants, and tote umbrellas to avoid the sun. I go running in a tank top and shorts for maximum cooling at the expense of tanning my “beautiful” white skin.

Snorkeling the Mangroves

If you have a mask and snorkel packed in your suitcase and a plane ticket to a tropical country, chances are you are planning to visit the coral reef. It’s true, the coral reef is a breath taking array of color and biodiversity, but the mangrove ecosystem lining the coastal shores may also hold tales of impressive beauty.

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A baby mangrove seedling sprouting up. Notice the pencil-like roots from mature mangroves coving the sea floor.

Mangroves are only found in the tropics and subtropics, however climate change is slowly causing their range to expand further north and south from the equator. They provide a home for juvenile fish who will move out to the coral reef as they mature.

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Look for sponges, tunicates, sea slugs, crabs, snails, sea stars, sea urchins and many different species of fish as you snorkel.

Want to snorkel the mangroves and the coral reef on an isolated island in the Philippines?! I would recommend Buenavista Fish Sanctuary in Looc, Romblon.

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Buenavista Fish Sanctuary Island, Looc, Romblon, Philippines

From shore you will take a small boat out to this tiny island, big enough for a one room hut and a cooking area. It is the perfect place for a picnic cookout. Jump into the water and explore the shallow waters of the mangrove habit, then swim a bit further from shore and see the coral reef. Buenavista is the lesser known fish sanctuary in Looc Municipality, but it is a beautiful tropical retreat!