Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dangerous Roads and Chicken Buses in the Philippine Cordilleras

I let out a tiny squeal, but truth be told, more than a few of my fellow passengers heard it, too. I laughed it off but everyone knew there was a tinge of worry and fear currently brewing inside. I looked out of the vehicle from my window seat and I saw the tires rolling very close to the edge of the highway at speeds too fast for my comfort. Already frazzled from a two-hour trek through mountain trails that morning, I sank my fingernails onto the big backpack on my lap every time our bus made a quick left turn. The road was carved out of one side of a gorge several hundred meters in height. Funneling through the base of the valley, the Chico River flowed eroding solid rock faces and boulders. I shuddered at the thought of riding on the roof of this bus, a very common practice in the Philippine Cordilleras where open-air buses easily fit twice its passenger capacity plus cargo both inside and on top of it.

Bugnay Rice Terraces, Philippine Cordilleras
The Bugnay Rice Terraces and its highway stop on the other side of the river, the starting point of our harrowing bus journey in the Philippine Cordilleras

We were driving along a highway which ran from the lowlands of Kalinga Province in the west towards the city of Bontoc, located in a valley deep in the heart of Mountain Province, Philippines. That morning, we hiked down from the hilltop village of Buscalan, where we spent the night to visit the last traditional tattoo artist of Kalinga. We were making our way by bus to Sagada, a scenic mountain town located 1,500 meters above sea level which has grown in popularity as a tourist destination over the years.

Dangerous Roads and Chicken Buses, Philippine Cordilleras
The precipitous roads in the Philippine Cordilleras, carved on the side of the mountain, through which our bus was driving at speeds too fast for my comfort

Dangerous Roads and Chicken Buses, Philippine Cordilleras
View of the Chico River from the bus as it funneled through the gorge below. The water still flowed even in the warm, dry season of the Philippines.

Bugnay Rice Terraces, Philippine Cordilleras
A section of the Bugnay Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras located on a bend of the Chico River

Having traveled throughout Asia, through the remote mountain trails of the Nepal Himalaya at that, never in my wildest dreams did I think that it was going to be in my own country, the Philippines, where I would have the pleasure of getting on what could only be our own version of the South American chicken buses. We had to board one the previous day, too, to get to Buscalan, lest we hike steep mountain trails for two to three hours. Still reeling from a bumpy jeepney ride from the Kalinga lowlands to here in the Cordillera highlands, we hurriedly wolfed our lunches at the behest of our local guide, to catch the only bus plying this route that day. We had to squeeze through human bodies, sacks of rice, and overstuffed luggage scattered around the bus's interior to get to the three empty seats. Surprisingly, perhaps due to exhaustion from travel, I fell asleep during the ride.

I woke up a few minutes later right before our bus turned off from the highway up towards a narrow dirt road littered with loose, sharp rocks. Soon enough, we heard a loud pop, an explosion, from what could only be a tire being pierced by a stone on the trail. To my bewilderment, however, our bus trudged on the dirt road. Such occurrences seemed commonplace to the locals, who looked unfazed from the incident. It was not until one side of the vehicle rolled through a mound of earth and threatened to topple us over the ravine on the other side of the road did a few passengers let out a yelp. I know I did.

Chicken Bus along Dangerous Roads, Philippine Cordilleras
Someone was not very happy riding a chicken bus that morning.

Dangerous Roads and Chicken Buses, Philippine Cordilleras
Our bus slowly making a seemingly dangerous turn on a wooden bridge along the dirt road

Dangerous Roads and Chicken Buses, Philippine Cordilleras
A stream flowing through the base of a gorge in the Philippine Cordilleras

Fortunately, we made it through all our bus rides in the Philippine Cordilleras. Along the way, we found ourselves marveling through some of the most spectacular landscapes in this mountainous region of Northern Philippines. Rivers curved and formed u-turns through valleys and gorges. Villages sat on hilltops and the sides of steep cliff faces. Abundant pine trees rise on mountain slopes. Terraces of rice and various crops formed staircases from the river below sometimes all the way to the top of the mountains. After a few hours of visual delight, we saw up ahead the city of Bontoc, capital of Mountain Province, located on both sides of the Chico River. The tall buildings, concrete streets, and long bridges seemed out of place being surrounded by the towering sierras of the Philippine Cordilleras. When we finally got off the vehicle at the Bontoc city center, I was only glad it was our last chicken bus for the journey.

Rice Terraces near Sadanga, Philippine Cordilleras
Rice terraces near Sadanga in Mountain Province, rising from the river all the way up to the top of the hill

Riverbend near Bontoc, Philippine Cordilleras
The Chico River curved at a river bend near Tocucan, Mountain Province.

Rice Terraces near Bontoc, Philippine Cordilleras
Terraces of crops near the city of Bontoc, located just up ahead along the river.

Have you had the pleasure of riding in a chicken bus along dangerous mountain roads? What was it like? Did you also scream like a scared little child as I did?

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