On day 2 in a Manila hostel, I was sat in a chair without a plan or an idea. Salvation arrived in the form of the bubbly Filipino owner called Benjie. Sitting across from me, between spoonfuls of curry, he suggested I travel to see the ancient rice terraces in Batad: the`eighth wonder of the world.`
Batad is a bugger to get to – an 8 hour overnight bus ride from Manila, a 30 minute bone-jarring jeepney journey from Banaue, then an hour hike along a footpath. What is wrong with a bullet train? I could see why in their 300 years of rule over the islands, Spanish monks did not bother visiting Batad much.
I spent two days in a hilltop guesthouse, living like a lord, occasionally watching the farmers in the muddy fields below. I was not alone. Guzzling beers and bottles of gatorade, red-faced, tubby tourists lounged about, one expressed disappointment in the lack of green shoots. Most visitors came for the view, not simply because Benjie told them to.
Late one afternoon, on the chicken-infested narrow path outside the guesthouse, a porter ran past me breathing heavily, his face creased in pain. He must have run all the way from the road: a wooden pole rested on his shoulder with two wooden baskets hanging off either end. Each basket was full of 20 bottles of gatorade.
So farming is not the only career in Batad. In total, around 50 porters and guides work in the village. To be a guide, you need to be bi-lingual, or preferably, tri-lingual. At elementary school, Batad children learn 3 languages: their own, Tagalog – the national language, and English – the language of tourism. A gruelling curriculum, it is perhaps designed to make digging drainage ditches appear an attractive career.
In England, we concentrate on learning one language, then use it to order french fries and a large coke.
At the village entrance, standing in huts or sprawling in the shade, guides wait for custom. You need a guide to go into the village and onto the waterfall; otherwise you risk trespassing and annoying the locals.
My guide was called Magellan – named after the 16th century Portuguese explorer. With long, dark hair, he had not a french fry of fat on him. Patient and knowledgable, half his life has been spent guiding. He started at 10 when his father, also a guide, gave him a group of tourists and told him to: “Take them to the waterfall.”
Climbing stone steps between fields, we passed a farmer, shin-deep in mud, digging a drainage ditch. Water has to keep moving along the terraces. If the water stops, the fields will die. Fully exposed to the brutal midday sun, I did not envy him. Looking at my tubby, blotchy body I doubt he envied me either.
The rice fields are only part of Magellan`s life. He might be the first Batad resident to idolise Tom Cruise, become a fan of US folk music. and to write comments on facebook.
Early the next morning, Magellan met me at my guesthouse, perky as ever, after a chicken and rice breakfast. In flip-flops, he led me out of Batad, via a 2 hour hike to the village of Bagaan.
We walked through the villages emergency food supply: sweet potatoes and corn planted in frighteningly steep scrub above and below the path. After a while, the path became a road. Dug by hand and dynamited out of the hillside, a road to Batad is under construction. The new road will make the porters redundant. Coca-cola and french fries should get cheaper though.
Magellan told me the village is divided about its benefits.