OZ, the Great and Powerful.

Welcome to Australia, Mate!!

After a week and a half in Perth, we’ve explored the city, hung out on the beach, made some friends, played some ultimate Frisbee, got bank accounts and tax numbers, bought a van, secured a job, and are now road tripping off into the outback! We’ll be driving the next few days 2,000 km to Alice Springs, where we’ll spend the next two months working at Glen Helen Outback Resort.

Meet Leland, our 1994 Mitsubishi Starwagon:

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Looks like home!
Lots of love,
C and J

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Beach times in Mindoro

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The last leg of our trip began somewhat haphazardly. After our backpacking trip (which had been preceded, remember, by 5 days of camping in the woods and bathing in streams) we were a hot, smelly mess. But we had places to be, so we bucket-showered in the bathroom of a restaurant and hopped an overnight bus back to Manila in order to catch the cargo ferry south to Palawan. As it turns out, our driver was so speedy and reckless on the road that 1) J almost had a heart attack, and 2) we arrived in Manila at 3:30am, 2 hours earlier than expected. So we spent the night sleeping at the bus station for the second time in our saga, no biggie.

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When dawn finally broke, we ventured to the pier only to discover that all of our online research was outdated or just plain incorrect and our ferry actually didn’t depart for another 48 hours. Quick change of plans, we decided all we really wanted was some island hopping and some hiking, and it didn’t so much matter where, and we found some wifi, changed some plans, and by noon were busing south to Batangas to hop another ferry to Mindoro. Flexible travelling for the win!

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Then we spent 5 days hanging out on the beach and hiking the hills. It was pretty awesome.

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Mount. Talipanan

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What d’ya mean it’s less than a dollar??

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Just napping in some grass on a mountain in the Philippines. Y’know.

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You can’t tell from this photo, but she’s eating rice with salted fish for breakfast. Filipino food was best described to us as, “An interesting blend of Asian and island food, plus a whole lot of extra sugar, salt, and oil.” Its more complimentary to say it’s comfort food. We found some delicious dishes, but it was a pretty mediocre culinary experience after spending so much time in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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We returned to Manila and the Fischelis family, where we arrived after everyone was asleep and quietly set up our camping pads in the playroom, happy to have a bathroom and a fan. Until the next morning, when we discovered they’d set up mattresses for us with sheets in the other room. Damn! Alas, it was also our last chance to sleep on a real bed, as we now find ourselves in Perth, Australia, sleeping in an orange van in the backyard of a traveller’s commune we discovered through couch surfing. It’s actually quite comfortable, and gives us a chance to use our sleeping bags at night, as it’s chilly way down here!

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We’ve now begun part three of the grand adventures, which will soon include buying a hippie van of our very own and finding ourselves some sort of employment! In the meantime, we’ve really enjoyed Perth as well as rediscovering things like speaking in English and white people with no us-them mentality. Also, $4 bus fares and $10 beers.  Cheers!!

A Comprehensive Guide to Backpacking the Banaue-Pula-Cambulo-Batad Route

There’s not a whole lot of information out there on this trek, so we’ll provide some!

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We took a morning jeepney down from Sagada, but were delayed in Bontoc and didn’t arrive in Banaue until 11a or so. We had planned to take the hour-long jeepney route to Batad Junction and begin the loop in that direction, which seemed to be more popular, but apparently the public jeepney runs only once per day, in the morning. We instead hopped a traysikel back up the hill to the Awan-Igid trail to hike in the opposite direction, which turned out to be a great idea, and I highly recommend it. If we had known we would be hiking in this direction, we could have hopped off the jeepney at the trail head when we passed it on our way into Banaue.

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At the trail head, we met a chatty woman from Pula who sized us up and told us it was a four hour walk. She did this walk every time she left Pula, often returning from Banaue heavily laden with any provisions not produced in the village itself. The only other person we met on the trail was a teenage boy balancing a log on one shoulder who passed us at a slow run. The trail went steadily uphill(sometimes very steeply) for about an hour, then was mostly flat with some rise and fall for about 2 hours, then downhill (sometimes very steeply) into the valley for the last hour. It was a beautiful hike and the trail was easy to follow the whole way.

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Campaign posters decorating a rest hut along the trail. There are several of these. Also, lots of extremely large planks of wood, just hanging out by themselves in the forest, two hours of hiking from anything. There are also fairly frequent pipes sticking out along this section of trail which spew “usually potable” water.

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The village of Pula was visible as we descended into the valley, but we unfortunately had to climb a never-ending, steep stone staircase to get to it. Also, Pula is the second, larger settlement, not the first small collection of houses you pass through, where we were briefly very confused, and then very disappointed that we had not, in fact, arrived at our destination, but instead had yet another long, steep staircase to climb.

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Less picturesque than our last campsite

Here’s where it’s useful to have a guide: they arrange with the village guesthouse for you to stay there. As it turns out, the guesthouse is a family home whose family happened to be away, so no one really knew what to do with us. Luckily, we had our own tent, which they found very funny and told us to pitch it on the basketball court in front of the school. If the inn is open, it’s fairly easy to sleep and eat there, but I’d recommend bringing all your own food, just in case. We were a source of endless entertainment for the local kids, who spent a lot of time gawking at us and giggling.

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We chatted extensively that evening with a young guy who was a university student in Baguio, but was home visiting his family for summer break. He spoke impeccable English and gave us interesting insight into Filipino culture, politics, and mindsets. After watching about 9 kids of varying ages play a form of baseball with no bat and stones for bases in which everyone wins, we bought some delicious locally-grown rice to eat with our canned adobo for dinner and went to sleep.

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The next morning, we packed up and headed out for Cambulo. We were warned several times that this trail was more difficult to follow than the previous day, but we also saw many more people. We frequently asked the way, but always seemed to be on course simply by following the largest, most used-looking trail option. The trail winds in and around beautiful rice paddies. After about 2 1/2 hours, we arrived in Cambulo and were accosted by local kids asking for candy or money (generally, don’t give them any. If you’d like to support the village, employ guides or buy food or wares. Giving money to the kids enforces the Westerners-as-walking-ATMs mentality). Pleased with our progress, we descended to a rickety suspension bridge across the river, where we stopped for a snack and J washed her hair, much to the amusement of some local kids. Another hour or so later we actually arrived in Cambulo. Whoops.

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The trail passes through many small villages or collections of houses, which is the only place it’s confusing to follow. “Which way to Cambulo?” Generally means, “Through whose backyard/front terrace/living room do I pass in order to follow the trail to the main town of Cambulo, although this town is also technically Cambulo as well.” Generally, people were helpful and kids especially pointed the way without even being asked. We also passed many people working in the fields and kids playing in the streams or mud. Be warned that you should fill water in the villages or carry a lot with you, unless you have iodine or water treatment tablets, as we didn’t see a single spigot until after Batad.

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This is what staircases look like.

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After Cambulo, another 3 hours or so passed before we finally arrived in Batad, and boy was it an impressive sight. The rice terraces are stone-walled and up to two thousand years old, and they line the entire valley like an amphitheater. It’s another UNESCO world heritage site, and also lauded as the 8th wonder of the world. There is also a side track down to a waterfall, which we skipped since we had a bus to catch. Apparently it’s a steep hour down and a steep hour back up, but a very nice falls.

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After wandering through the paddies a bit and fending off day-tripping tourists with our large packs and un-kempt appearance, we began the hike out – an hour of hiking, all uphill. In Batad, you may get stopped and asked for an “Environmental Fee” of P50 per person. If it actually goes to a fund which helps the environment, I’d be surprised, but so be it. From the trail head, it’s another hour walk on the road to Batad Junction, but it’s preferable (and fairly easy) to befriend a day group and catch a ride in their jeepney right from the trail head all the way back to Banaue.

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We had an amazing time despite not knowing at all what we were in for – hope this is google-searchable for others looking to do the same track!

Pilipinas.

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The Philippines is an interesting place. It is part of South-East Asia, yet its history and culture are heavily colored by 400 years of Spanish and American influences. The nation is home to breathtaking, fairy-tale vistas of mountains, forests, and beaches and amazing biodiversity, both on land and in the water. The public education system is good, and just about everyone speaks at least a little bit of English. Yet the country is plagued by huge overpopulation problems, rampant corruption, and extreme poverty. The rates of unemployment and homelessness are enormous. However, the Filipino people are jovial, open, and friendly. There is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and hospitality and even a bit of a Latin flair.  We loved it.

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Manila: Beautiful, except for all that trash. . .

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Jeepneys are the national symbol of the Philippines. Old army trucks lengthened and decked out in flashy paint jobs. We were told they are the perfect metaphor for the Philippines themselves – bright colors, charismatic names , and bursting with personality and often gaudy religious references, but essentially uncomfortable, old, welded-together rust buckets that rattle, shake, and spew pollution. Also common in cities is the motorcycle-with-side-car contraption we’ve seen variations of across SE Asia – here called traysikels (we discovered many such words in Tagalog – difficult at first, but very simple once you say them aloud).

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Filipinos really like Manila because it is so Modern! And Western! This means there are some very large highways and lots of malls, which Filipinos are very proud of. Especially the malls. It’s a strange cultural phenomenon – we even found entire rack of postcard featuring malls, highways, airports and other modern attractions.

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Getting outta dodge. We arrive in Sagada and trek off into the Cordillera mountains of Mountain Province.

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Our tent (the turtle) on our ridge overlooking Echo Valley.

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Rice festival practice parade.

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J oversees locals swimming at the watering hole outside Sagada.

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Whee!

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Planking near some hanging coffins.

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More coffins stuck into nooks and crannies in Lumiang Cave.

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Look! Coffee!!

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This is pretty much how we bathed for our entire stay in the Philippines. Guesthouses? Showers? Who needs em.

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J serenading the forest.

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Bontoc civil parade!

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On to Banaue!

Luzon!

Poor internet connection for now, so no photos. Which is a shame because boy, is it beautiful here.

We arrived in Manila and stayed a few days in the city at the home of friend Bill and his family, who were wonderfully hospitable. They took off for an Easter vacation to Korea and J and I played house – doing laundry, cooking our own meals, and exploring Manila!!

Which we didn’t end up liking very much. We had been warned, but we strode on – attempting to wander until we found something charming. Which we didn’t. So we settled on some cheap shopping and replenished the holes in our first aid kit and and wardrobes before we leave SE Asia for Australia (where everything is ridiculously expensive). After finishing our real business in Manila – the heinous ordeal of renewing C’s passport – off to the aptly titled Mountain Province!! First stop Sagada – a tranquil mountain town in the Cordilleras famed for caves, pine forests, and hanging coffins (a Kankanay tradition – short coffins stuck haphazardly into high crevices in the rock faces or slung from pegs like picture frames).

Easter week crowds and hiked up prices led us to inquire about camping, which we hear is possible at the parish grounds? Except we’re told at the Parish that camping would be quite impossible, because there are cows about that might disturb us. Eh? Filipinos are not real big on camping, so its possible that the woman thought she was doing us a service by giving us a ‘way out’ and an excuse to seek proper housing. Unfazed, we circumvent the issue by hiking off into the forest and finding ourselves a beautiful isolated ridge with a view and a soft bed of pine needles, which serves us quite nicely. We explore some caves, do some hiking, see some hanging coffins, find the best local swimming hole I’ve ever seen, and enjoy the forest immensely until our last night there, when there’s a forest fire. Damn.

Apparently it’s a pretty common occurrence around here, pine forest and all, aided by the fact that they burn trash without much by way of barriers and flick cigarette butts in every direction. Either way, no one seems particularly worried except for us, and we find ourselves packing all of our things and trekking through the dark (and the smoke) down to the parish grounds for a safer camp site. Adventure!! We wake up at dawn to pack up our tent and hope no one sees us, down amongst the cows.

On to Banaue! The departure point for a two day backpacking trip through the forests, villages, and rice terraces surrounding this UNESCO area, but are delayed in the morning in Bontoc, when our jeepney is held up by the civic parade. Oh boy! A parade!

What begins as a column of immaculately uniformed army regiments, police and fire units all marching in unison slowly makes its way to security officers, then meandering groups of people holding fans and umbrellas representing the “Office of family health and young mothers services” or the “regional district re-zoning commission.” Likewise, high school and regional marching bands, then middle school, then there are eight year olds marching down the street banging on handheld xylophones and snare drums. Two hours later, off to Banaue!

The backpacking trip is so awesome it deserves a separate post. It was also exhausting, and immediately followed by an overnight bus, 3am bus station bench napping, and some last-minute plan-changing, from which we are now recovering with a few awesomely relaxing beach days (and a couple of short waterfall hikes, just so it’s not too relaxing) on the island of Mindoro, just south of Luzon.

The days are just packed.
Love and beaches,
C and J