Sagada’s Little Secret

When one has become particularly weary of the city's trivial frenzy - that is the perfect time to take refuge in Sagada.

It has to be at that time when one feels that he has spent his life in unimportant exertions: an endless getting in and out of motor vehicles, in and out of elevators, up and down escalators, in and out of the office, in and out of the supermarket. And so on.

And it has to be a time when one has gotten especially frustrated at seeing no more than snippets of the sky, one's fuller view of it blocked by those towers of concrete and steel that would, for all their arrogance, look pitifully ugly and puny beside the primitive majesty of any old mountain.

Now, then: anyone who begins I to take it personally against city j buildings is ripe for Sagada. There, one may, if one deserves it, discover a little secret.

The way to deserve it - or at least to appreciate the place better - is to go there through a difficult route. Fortunately, unless one has a private plane or a chopper, there is no easy route.

In sum, one's travails on the road to Sagada consist of these: being wedged into one's portion of a none-too-soft seat for eight hours, as the rusty Sagada bus hurtles and lurches with a great deal of clatter, winding ever upward on a steep, narrow zigzag that climbs as high as 7,000 feet into the highlands of northern Philippines. Through one's vertigo, one may endure or enjoy, as the case may be, the intermittent cackling of half a dozen hens, kicking up a few feather tufts as they protest the fetters binding their feet; there they lie under your seat - cross and smelling of their own droppings - where the farmer beside you had matter-of-factly deposited them at the start of the trip.

But every little aggravation one endures on the road sharpens the senses for one's experience of Sagada.

Only 60.4 hectares of land area, Sagada is the smallest of 10 towns comprising Mountain Province in northern Philippines. It has an equally tiny population, roughly about 12,000. Yet the smallness does not make one claustrophobic, for the town seems to stretch out in all directions - the undulating terrain gives one a variety of perspectives, such that standing on one spot, one may turn to one side and see the land drop steeply to deep, verdant valleys, then turn to the other side and find one's gaze climb to the mountains yonder. Overhead, the dazzling Sky seems so much vaster because there are no skyscrapers to block one's eye-level view - and because in Sagada, one remembers to claim his visual portion of the heavens.

Electricity came to Sagada eight years ago. I suppose that the townsfolk were rightly awed at that first burst of light at the mere flick of a switch. But they probably weren't impressed for long. After all, up there where Sagada is perched, the moon and the stars seem close enough overhead to be within reach, and they let fall upon the town's lovely, sleepy face on no-rain nights a light infinitely more lambent and more appealing.

The Igorot - the name for the natives of Mountain Province - are a squat, bronze-complexioned people who are proud even as they are childlike. One of the little surprises awaiting the visitor is that everyone speaks English as a matter of course, better even than Filipino, the national language, although slightly less fluently than Kankanay, the Sagadan's dialect.

The reason is that American missionaries settled in the town late in the 19th century with the result that a majority of the natives belong to the Episcopal Church - an unusual religious fact in. the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Curiouser still is how the Sagadans appear to find little trouble professing belief in Christian tenets even as they hold on to folk beliefs of the Igorot culture. Complex enough as the concept of the Blessed Trinity is, the Sagadan has little trouble balancing that mystery in his psyche with his pantheistic worship of the anitos or nature spirits.

In Sagada, life is pared down to the fundamentals. One is drawn to ponder life's larger questions there, you might say, as he considers such attractions of the town as its burial caves - where one finds the community's dead lying foetus-like inside uninterred, open pinewood coffins.

Every traveler is expected to enter the Big Cave, trekking up and down narrow footpaths that get quite steep along, the hilly terrain, 40 minutes from the town proper. If all the climbing and descending one has done in one's life has been on what a wise old woman has called electric stairs, entering the Big Cave can be a most humbling but exhilarating experience. It takes two hours to explore the whole dark, cold interior, an adventure that may remind those who feed on American movies of the thrilling escapades of Indiana Jones. At every step of the way, one is thankful to have rediscovered how to use all four extremities at once so that one does not slide off the slippery rocks down to the ice-cold underground river within the pitch-dark cave, which is illumined only by the kerosene lamp held aloft by the guide. Halfway through this underground journey, the urbanite is bound to get his closest intimation of early man's valiant struggles against nature - and for a few moments there, that mouthful won't seem such a pretentious thought.

Sagada's secret descends on one at some point in those moments, and the traveler who has earned it takes it home with him.