His name is Novi. He greets us with a generous smile and welcomes us to this country. Sagada, The Philippines.
We had just arrived, after a whole night spent in a shabby bus driving us from Manila to Banaue. It was only our first day in the Philippines and we already started to feel the adventure, crammed in the back of an overloaded bus, among dozens of tourists and locals. In Banaue we took some time to admire the famous rice terraces in the crisp morning light. An almost otherworldly view.
We arrived in Sagada after a two hour ride on the roof of a colorful jeepney, the whole journey trying to find a sweet spot between backpacks, building materials, sacks of rice and other adventurous tourists and locals.
We meet Novi in front of the Tourism Office. He is our guide for what will soon be our greatest adventure in the Philippines: a 2,500 feet and three hour long underground journey between Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves.
At the cave entrance we linger for a while to look at the wooden coffins that are hanging on the walls. It is an ancient funeral custom seen in different parts of Southeast Asia. During this time, Novi gets ready for the descent, lighting the kerosene lamp that will guide us through the blackness.
At the beginning it’s not that bad. We get used to the slippery rocks quite quickly and we advance with confidence. But very soon the whole picture changes completely: to go futher, we need to squeeze through narrow passages, us ropes to rappel downwards, slide on rock and even use Novi as a ladder in order to get down.
But our guide is calm and keeps joking. He makes sure that the light from his kerosene lamp always points towards us, making us feel a bit safer through the overwhelming darkness. Novi knows his way well and he is sure of every move he makes. He shows us the way down impossibly tiny passages, which we hardly believe we can squeeze through (but actually pull it off) and he double checks the rappel ropes.
By now we became less and less tense, we laugh more at Novi’s jokes and we start telling stories from back home. He lives in a small village near Sagada, but he comes here whenever the Tourism Office needs him as a guide. The money he gains is enough to cover his family’s basic needs, but he dreams of a better life. He asks us about Romania, he wants to know if he could get a job there. I’m a bit surprised by his question. I never considered my country to be a place where people come searching for a better life. Actually a lot of Romanians are leaving their country precisely for that reason. Novi says that in the Philippines there aren’t too many job opportunities, so he’ll go anywhere he can find better employment. He’s determined to try no matter what. Maybe going to Hong Kong or richer countries near the Philippines could be a better idea.
As we talk, we continue sliding further down into the cave and admiring the strange rock formation around us. Novi leads us to a small pool and asks us if we want to swim in it. He places the lamp in front of us, so that we can see the rocks surrounding the underground water. After a moment’s hesitation, we jump in and instanly feel the icy water trying to swallow us. It is not too deep but it’s freezing cold.
Surprisingly, when we get out of the water, we feel warm. We put our clothes on quickly and continue exploring. Shortly after, we hear other voices and see more kerosene lights flickering up on the rocks. We just reached at the end of the cave, a more touristy part of the circuit. We look around to see the different formations Novi is pointing out to us: a stone frog, a chocolate cake, a queen and a king, lions, huge curtains.
As we climb out of the cave, we feel a bit sad that it’s over. What felt like a great adventure will now become only a memory. We are finally out and exchange a few more words with Novi, thanking him for this wonderful experience. He invites us to his village, 4 km away. But it’s a long way and we are tired. It’s been a tough day, but loads of fun and good memories.
Not to miss in Sagada:
- Eat dinner @ Salt&Pepper, they have a delicious food and cozy atmosphere
- Grab a delicious pie @Lemon Pie, once you finished the exhausting cave connection; it’s a wonderful little coffee-shop ran by a family. We enjoyed mostly the egg pie, though the lemon one is pretty ok as well. When we got there, it seemed like all the family gathered together to serve us with a slice of their delicious pie :);
- Start your morning with an amazing breakfast @ Yoghurt House, and try the fruit&yoghurt mix, it’s made with fresh seasonal fruit and the mango is a.m.a.z.i.n.g!