The image of a rusted, squeaky old bus on a foggy mountain road can hardly be listed among the most festive. Yet there we sat, my friend Chris and I, on Christmas Eve.
The bus careened blindly around hairpin turns, laboured up steep mountain roads and flirted with the edges of a perilous foggy abyss as we sought to reach the remote Banaue Rice Terraces, deep in the highlands of the Philippine island of Luzon.
In my 27 years I had spent every other Christmas in the rather more convivial setting of a New England colonial house in snowy northwestern Connecticut, more often than not beside a roaring fire, with the smell of a nearly finished ham drifting in from the kitchen and mingling with the tang of a freshly cut Douglas fir. As our bus strained and jolted through every inch of rough terrain I had plenty of time to consider that a different path might have led to a cozy evening with my girlfriend in my arm, a glass of strong ale in my hand, and a home-cooked meal in my stomach.
As private-school teachers spending the year working in South Korea, Chris and I faced the reality of a Christmas without family, trees, presents or campy 1960s TV specials. Without these deep-seated traditions, Christmas simply didn’t seem possible.
Our chief objective was not how to find or embrace the festive spirit in some remote region of the Philippines, but how to forget that it was Christmas at all. We planned to lay low among the quiet splendour of the rice terraces, ignore the holiday entirely and re-emerge some time shy of the New Year.
A series of increasingly dilapidated buses and tricycle rickshaws had carried us to Baguio City from Manila, up to the town of Bontoc, and finally through to Banaue, where we were left standing alone at a muddy trailhead Christmas morning.
According to our map, this footpath wound up through the mountainous cloud forest to the farming village of Batad, where the most picturesque of the rice terraces are located. We hiked slowly, cursing our lack of preparedness for rain and mud. Our only thoughts were of hot showers, generous food and dry clothes. Emerging from the trees above the village, we beheld a narrow and lonely outcrop fixed like an island in a sea of fog. Atop it were a few wooden structures, seemingly deserted. A rooster crowed from somewhere far off in the mist.
We were gazing out indifferently, wondering what to do next, when the curtain of white abruptly drew away from us, revealing the terraces. The sight was like a Dr. Seuss illustration brought to reality. The terraces clung to the sheer sides of the mountains, looking like an enormous amphitheatre sporting an infinite number of levels. Built by hand more than 2,000 years ago, each row of the terraces held a shallow pool of water, fed by an ingenious and ancient irrigation system leading down from the mountains.
Some terraces were green with sprouting rice plants, some brown and forlorn awaiting planting. Others had been abandoned to weeds. Between these colossal structures, smaller stone stairs wound upward or stood perilously in the air beside dizzying drop-offs. At the base of it all sat tiny Batad village with its houses perched on the cliffsides, some sprouting at odd angles from the near vertical incline of the mountain.
Awestruck, we hadn’t even raised our cameras before a boy emerged from a building, regarded us silently, and disappeared back inside. He re-emerged with his father, Freddie, who offered us the amenities of his inn and his services as a guide – despite it being a few hours before his Christmas dinner.
With the sun setting rapidly, we hired Freddie on the spot and left our bags. We thanked him, apologized for inconveniencing him and made sure that the price of his services was more than generous before embarking on our trek through what Filipinos have dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Freddie was a fascinating man, well aware of the opportunities existing beyond his mountain home, but content to raise his family quietly in his small slice of paradise. He had inherited two rice paddies from his parents upon marrying, but made his income serving as a guide and as owner of a newly opened guesthouse located high above the village.
With Freddie leading the way, we navigated a labyrinth of terraces, footpaths and secret shortcuts. The trail was full of character. There were no straight lines or easy ambles: Every turn, fork or path seemed to hold the promise of a hundred possible destinations. Yet Freddie could have walked it blindfolded. Without his guidance we likely would have spent our afternoon floundering about in the muck and walking in endless circles – doubtless to the great amusement of the locals.