Time, mankind and Mother Nature have not been kind to the Seven Wonders of the World. Six are gone and most people probably couldn’t even name them. According to the Philippines tourist people, however, there is an additional Wonder, and it is in remarkably good shape.
This eighth Wonder lies high in the Mountain Province on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, and comes in the form of rice terraces.
Wonder-hunters should be warned that their quest, which begins in the capital, Manila, will not be an easy one, though.
Hurdle one is airport taxi drivers.
This column is fond of the Philippines. It’s no exaggeration, however, to state that in the course of six visits, and despite considerable field research, we’ve been unable to locate a taxi driver at the airport who is not suffering from the sort of inflationary disease that led to the downfall of Germany’s Weimar Republic.
Take a figure: “X” pesos. OK, it’s harsh but at least it’s agreed. En route to town the “X” stays the same, but not the pesos. They inflate and turn into U.S. dollars. Novices then start grumbling that getting into Manila is slightly more expensive than hiring a cab from Narita to Shinjuku.
Grubby little quasi-official notebooks are produced by the drivers as evidence of government set rates.
How to clear the hurdle? Just nod agreeably. Enjoy the drive (if it coincides with dusk you’re in for a real treat — courtesy of air pollution, Manila Bay sunsets are sensational).
Upon arrival at your hotel, pay the wheedling taxi wretch in “X” pesos while he’s standing next to a hotel guard armed with a pump-action shotgun. Then tip the guard, who will escort the guy from the premises.
Presto! Hurdle cleared.
Manila is a vibrant, exuberantly chaotic city. It’s got garbage, holes in the pavements, beggars, prostitutes, very, very rich people, very, very poor people. Some visitors loathe Manila. Others endure it. Some actually like the place.
One thing to be said in defense of Manila, indeed the Philippines in general, is that it does not want for drama. There’s always something unlikely going on: rumors of a vampire stalking the Tondo slums, a beauty contest judge inadvertently detonating a hand grenade in the middle of a beauty contest, presidential impeachments or collapsing currency.
Ignore any Manila rumors vis-a-vis headhunters and communist rebels in the Mountain Province. The Mountain Province tribes did take heads — rather a lot of them, in fact — but not any more. There are communist rebels, but, unlike southern militants, they’re not out to bother tourists.
Wonder-hunting hurdle two is getting to Banaue. A bus is the cheapest bet. It’s a long, wild ride and if you are seated next to the driver you’ll be treated to a harrowing introduction to the realities of a Luzon road.
Madly racing chickens, obstinately immobile water buffalo, vehicles driven by lunatics, and when the bus occasionally stops, vendors selling you what you think are boiled eggs but which aren’t. They’re a local delicacy balut, semiboiled duck eggs with — eek! — a visibly formed duckling fetus inside.
If the bus breaks down or hits another vehicle (and ours did both) then the rest of the journey is by jeepney. Jeepneys are a Philippine specialty: flamboyantly decorated converted jeeps, they usually come with squealing pigs strapped to the roof, religious messages painted by a driver who graduated from the Mad Max driving academy and lots of flashing lights.
Once you have arrived in the not overwhelmingly attractive village of Banaue it is time to clear hurdle number three — actually getting a glimpse of the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Low cloud is a Mountain Province specialty. Days can go by without a glimpse of the sun as the moisture drips from the fir forests and tree ferns, and a fine drizzle comes down.
While you are waiting for the Eighth Wonder of the World to put in an appearance, Banaue offers some unusual shopping opportunities. Crafts shops here have perfected the art of forging antiques.
Grisly rice gods, leering smoke-blackened pig skulls sporting chicken feathers, hats with bones on them and blow pipes are all reasonably priced and guaranteed to spark animated conversation, to say nothing of nausea, at your next cocktail party.
Curling postcards are also scattered on the dusty shop shelves depicting solemn Ifugao tribesmen in loincloths and wrinkles. But you don’t need to buy these. The real thing’s just outside. Although T-shirts and jeans are in evidence some older people still stick to feathers, loincloths and bite on long fat cigars of local tobacco: The people of the past rubbing bare, tattooed shoulders with the present.
|Sadaga Village boasts headhunter skulls piled in caves (above), while Banaue Village is home to magnificent rice terraces.|
In the area, while you wait, is the delightful backpacker’s mecca of Sagada Village. Sagada has headhunter skulls piled in caves and coffins hanging from cliffs (one even has a chair suspended beside it so that its ghostly occupant can more comfortably view the world). It also has caves, lovely mountain rambles and hospitable inns. Very pleasant.
Enjoy Sagada but don’t drop the Banaue ball.
When it happens in Banaue, it happens! The clouds break. A day dawns clear. The rice terraces, more poetically known as the mountain stairways to the sky gods, stretch out before, below and above you, climbing the sheer valley walls right to the 2,000-meter summits.
Tier upon tier gleam green with young rice in the sunlight. Lay the terrace walls end to end and it has been calculated that they would stretch completely around the world several times.
Everything you see was excavated out of the mountainsides some 2,000 years ago and has been perfectly maintained ever since. The sheer human effort involved in the construction of the terraces, not to mention the manufacture of the bamboo aqueducts that funnel the water between the paddies quite boggles the mind.
Cheers! Applause! Two millennia of agricultural sustainability! This in a nation currently characterized by rampant modern deforestation and catastrophic land-slides. It’s truly wondrous.
As a service to readers who can’t name the seven wonders of the ancient world here they come (in no particular order of wonderfulness): 1. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon 2. The Colossus of Rhodes (a statue so large that it straddled the harbor) 3. The Lighthouse at Alexandria 4. The Mausoleum at Hallicarnassus (temple to the underworld god Mausolos) 5. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus 6. The Sculpture of Zeus at Olympia 7. The Pyramids at Giza — the only wonder of the ancient world that survives intact.