As sure as the day comes after the night, I promised myself never to go back to experience travelling the stomach-churning road to Buguias, Benguet. Characterized by cliffs and precipices, part of the highway could only accommodate one vehicle at a time and the one going down should always give way to the one going up, or vice versa. I really don’t remember anymore.
I had just finished my missionary assignment and was heading back to the headquarters near Manila to receive my plaque of appreciation. Somehow, I had a mixed feeling. Leaving the friends and people who had become part of my life for the last 9 months was breaking my heart. Somehow I wasn’t sure whether to stick to my decision not to come back. However, thoughts of the fearsome traverse up and down the mountain paths were convicting me of keeping my promise.
The steep and tricky climb I had to make at least once a week for several months enamoured me not to the place. I had enough of the hardship it caused each time I trekked the short but difficult ascent to where I temporarily lived. Otherwise, the easier but longer trail would take about an hour and half descent and was also tricky because of my weak knees. In fact I tumbled several times because my knees wobbled when going downhill.
Can I really turn around never look back? Can I leave the place forever and take only the memories with me?
Apart from that, I had far more wonderful experiences in the panorama that filled my heart with bittersweet memories.
Benguet, Salad Bowl of the Philippines
Part of the Mountain Provinces Region, Benguet was a fast-developing province whose main crops were vegetables inherent to the west such as potatoes, lettuce, carrots, mangetouts, cabbages. That was how it got the name “Salad bowl of the Philippines.”
Apart from its hearty crops, Benguet also boasted of a number of destinations popular among travelers and adventurers such as Baguio, the Summer Capital of the Philippines because of its cool climate all year round; Mt. Pulag, the second highest peak in the Philippines; Kabayan, where centuries-old mummies were buried in caves scattered around the town; Ambuklao Dam, a water reservoir used as hydroelectric plant providing 75 megawatts of energy to the northern Philippine grid; and many others.
Located at Kilometer 52 from Trinidad, the capital of Benguet, was the Highest Point in the Philippine Highway System at 7,400 ft (2255 m) above sea level. If that was high, the first village where I and Matilda, my missionary partner, first stationed was at least 50 meters higher. In fact, we could see the clouds below when we stood outside the house facing the west. The scene always prompted me to say, “I’m in cloud nine.” You bet it was always cold.
Beautiful mountain range
For the next couple of weeks, I started to get used to the weather and enjoy the sceneries around me. As a South Korean, Matilda was already used to low temperature.
Our host would take us mountain-climbing and at the top we would gasp at the breath-taking view in front of us. Pine-covered mountains stretched as far as our eyes could see.
The nearby mountains resembled the Rice Terraces of Banaue but instead of rice paddies, they were vegetable patches.
Around 7AM, the sun would break forth through the clouds for a couple of hours and by 10 AM would be overshadowed again. This happened nearly every day during our two months stay in Atok.
We kept our water in a large metallic drum that could hold at least 15 gallons of water and in the morning the top would be covered with thin layer of ice. The first thing we did was to boil a large cauldron of water for washing and kept it warm throughout the day.
I took shower at night under a starry sky. The bathroom was covered with sacks sewn together and there was no roof. I used a huge bucket of water half of which was hot and I would gaze at the stars while taking a shower.
The Roman Family
No, they were not from Rome but Roman (roe-MAHN) was their family name and they housed us for about a month or so. Though short and temporary, their warm hospitality will never be overlooked on my part.
More fondly called as Uncle Bok, he generously opened his house for me and Matilda, and made sure we were kept warm. He left early in the morning and came back after sunset. Sometimes he would be gone for a few days and always came back with surprises. In him, I found the father I lost when I was 8 years old.
Halsema Highway, Buguias
The only way in and out of Benguet by car, Halsema Highway was a precariously scenic pass that snaked up and down through the mountain range. Some tales claimed that those who hewed the pass out of the rocks were tied up in a helicopter.
Considered as one of the most dangerous highways in the world, it definitely is not for the faint of heart.
Further up Halsema Highway was a point that seemed to be higher than the highest point in Atok. Below us was a steep valley marked by a gorge. The dizzying zigzag that continued below appeared to be where we came from but no, it’s where we were going. Uncle Lorenzo pointed at a two-story house, the biggest in the neighbourhood, which was to be our home for next 8 months or so. From our vantage point, it didn’t look bigger than my tiny palm.
Continuing our journey, we left the Halsema Hiway, came to red a rough road and we drove even slower. My feet felt ticklish when the pickup seemed to be going downhill but Uncle Lorenzo was an expert driver in that kind of road. His old pickup didn’t look impressive but the performance was unbelievably remarkable in what I deemed a very dangerous road.
First day in Buguias
Walking up the first morning, Matilda and I decided to check out the river down the valley. Dressed in baggy trousers and a jumper that were sent over by my big sister, I looked more like a clown, thanks to our difference in height. She is 5’7 and I am 4’10. So, yea, imagine a four-year old girl clad in her ten-year old sister’s clothes. It certainly looked neither flattering nor attractive but agreeable for the sake of the weather. I was in a mountain. Who cared about appearance? What mattered was that I was bundled up and warm.
The terrain was terraced for a systematic and effective farming. After gauging the depth of the next step, I jumped over the ridge and the next thing I knew I was going downhill uncontrollably fast. I heard Matilda shouting my name but I just couldn’t stop. Panic-stricken, I frantically searched for something to hold onto to stop myself. Spotting a small tree, I grabbed it and landed on a small and shallow pit headfirst!
To be continued…