Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Endless Journey of a Junk Van

About five years ago, when I was still in the Philippines, I had the chance to travel the Cordillera Mountain Ranges. The following narrative is my story of that unforgettable travel.

It was around 9:00 in the morning. We were seated comfortably in the van, all seven of us, eager to start out on a journey to the heart of the Cordilleras. I was especially excited for this trek, partly because I had never been to Sagada yet and this was my long-awaited chance to go there, and partly to appease the wanderlust that had been recently crawling throughout my body, particularly in the sole of my feet, giving me the itch to go about seeing new places again. This journey would assuage that itch.

The European driver, who owns the car, turned the ignition key. Nothing happened. He repeated the process several times. The car wouldn't start. What's going on? He had just pulled out his van from the repair shop the other day and he paid Php.30,000. for the repair, but still, the van was dead as a stone. He got out of his driver's seat, called up the mechanic and went off to fetch him and check the car. The rest of us marched back to our house in frustration, unsure if we would push through with the trip or cancel. We waited while my wanderlust was beginning to pass out in conjunction with my growing disappointment.

The mechanic tried to fix the "newly-fixed" van again, and it took him until past two in the afternoon to get done with it. We all assembled back to the car and started out at 3:00 pm. My sinking excitement resurfaced, and I started to visualize the mountainous panorama along the way, though at the back of my mind, I doubted if I would see anything on our way there since it would be dark soon.

Off we went, the trip uneventful except in some instances when we had to slow down and just let ourselves be enthralled by the gargantuan mountains somewhere in Sayangan. Somehow, the awe-inspiring grandeur of those mountains made up for our earlier frustration. When we reached Abatan, Buguias, the van started to break down again, some defect with the clutch and gear. Wow, that would put us all in danger, huh? Good we found a mechanic to fix the problem again.

It seemed an aeon for him to finish the job and once I voiced out that we might spend our first night right then and there in that van. It was already dark by the time he was through with it. And raining. In a way, the driver was undeterred, and he gunned the engine, driving through the meandering road into the dark recesses of the mountains. The night was pitch-black and was occasionally illuminated by fingers of sky fireworks that would slice across the black sky. I kept my gaze before me and watched the headlights playfully pointing to the right and to the left alternately while trying to resist the darkness that tried to swallow us. Everyone fell into eerie silence which was only broken by the sound of the engine. I noticed that my companions closed their eyes and seemed to retreat to their own worlds. I followed suit and let myself drift into an unpleasant world that prevailed in my mind at the moment.

I saw people, scheming people who would go about deceiving their fellows in the name of money. I saw them, the two sheepishly-looking persons who tried to cajole this European guy into purchasing this junk van which they presented as a newer model than what it really was. And it already broke down several times just a week after the date of purchase. When one problem was fixed, another would come up. Those dealers took advantage of this foreigner's innocence concerning Asian cars and violated his trust in them as reliable salesmen who had his best interests at heart. It turned out that they were nothing but deceivers who posed as caring and dependable friends and would pounce at their unwary prey and fleece him when their moment would come. And that's what they did. They took the money and ran, never a care in the world what would happen to anyone who would get into the car. By slyly selling that junk van to an unknowing foreigner who trusted them, they would send all his passengers to death. All for the love of money. And I was filled with loathsome feelings for such a sinister ploy. How could men who claimed to be good do that to their fellowmen who trusted them? Really a crazy world!

I was still wallowing in that crazy world when a sudden jolt took me out of my reverie. I drew the curtain down on that unhappy scene of man's insanity and came back to the present. The road had gone bumpy and the driver kept on revving up the mountain, into the darkness, into the dead of night. It seemed like we were winding endlessly in the middle of nowhere. We've already passed two eternities and yet our destination was nowhere in sight. I slipped in and out of my slumber which would soon come to a halt as I began to see electric lights scattered around us. The car's headlight beams hit the pine trees alongside the road, and the rain that washed the pine needles caught the light and sparkled at us. Not long after, we finally reached our destination.

When I got out of the car, the first thing that caught my eyes was the sky, covered all over with millions of stars hanging low as if I could just extend my hand and be able to pick them. And I was awash with cosmic pleasure as I gazed lingeringly at my celestial "friends". So this was Sagada at midnight. Serenely sublime! We proceeded to the nearest inn that we could find and I had a deliciously uninterrupted sleep. When morning came, I looked out through the window and was greeted by a refreshing mountainside scene where the pine trees stood majestically and the fogs that had blanketed them were beginning to lift off and seemed to settle on the treetops.

Later in the morning, we headed to the famous Sagada cave where we had an adventurous exploration. It was a dark and risky descent to the bottom of the cave but the beauty that awaited us there was worth the effort. The golden stalactites, stalagmites and some other rock formations, and the refreshing streams cascading all around had been waiting to fascinate us with their splendor, which was etched forever in our minds. After drinking in the sight and splashing and taking pictures, we climbed back to the mouth of the cave where a circular light overhead was a welcome sight to us.

It was in the middle of the afternoon when we set forth to Banaue because the van went into mechanical constipation again and the driver had to look for a mechanic to fix it again. We took the Bontoc route to Banaue which offered us a magnificent view of cyclopean mountains and dizzyingly deep ravines below us. The jagged road kept jolting us all the way to our second destination which seemed light-years away. It was a never-ending trip once again where darkness and heavy rain found us still snaking through the tortuous road. We got to Banaue late at night and heavy rain welcomed us.

The following day, we proceeded at once to look for the viewpoint where we could see the Banaue rice terraces. We savored the sight for a few minutes and took pictures, after which we started on our way back to Baguio. This time, we passed through Ifugao, which stirred heartwarming memories of my first visit to that place sixteen years ago when the rolling hills were still in their pristine beauty. The van kept on traversing the provinces of Ifugao and Nueva Viscaya. We had looked at the map for the shortest route to Baguio and noticed that the Aritao route was a half shorter than the usual Dalton Pass-Nueva Ecija route, and so we opted for that. It was a smooth glide across the cemented zigzag of Aritao, and the view of the grass-covered hills was staggering.

After a few hours, the road began to be rough as we climbed higher and higher into gigantic mountains. We have been snaking through the mountainsides for what seemed like several light-years again but the road seemed to go on stretching farther into nowhere. Later on, we began to spot huge trucks and road workers and we drove past them. It turned out that the road was still under construction and only the daredevils would try to traverse that perilous path. There were no other travelers there,  no houses, no trace of civilization at all except the construction equipments. What if the car would break down again, especially the brake or the gear, and nobody would fix it? I had that terrifying imagination about the car falling off the cliff and plummeting into the abyss below us, and the thought raised goosebumps on my skin.

But then, this is supposed to be a feel-good story and so, I'm happy to say that we eluded the hands of death waving for us down there in the deep. And the van kept on slithering resolutely through all those mountains that seemed to lead us to nowhere. After almost eight hours of traveling, we finally spotted the green waters of Ambuklao, which was a delightful sight after those risky twists and turns we went through.

A few minutes more, or an hour, and we would be back to "civilization". Soon, I began to see mountains full of lights like sparkling diamonds set in black velvet. My heart burst with relief as those diamonds became bigger and brighter, drawing us closer and closer to them. Home at last! Gradually, all those unpleasant events and thoughts from that endless journey that lay heavy in my heart went off to ozone. What remained were the lovely pictures of those places that I painted in my mind, which I can carry with me wherever my wanderlust would take me.

And the van? I think its journey will end after all because soon, it will go to the junkyard where it rightly belongs. Anyway, the European owner is ready to buy a new car.