Today I got up and decided to explore the wonderful area around the town of Sagada. Unless you know the area around here, hiring a local to take you around (for very reasonable prices) is the thing to do. I started by hiring a guide, who took me up to the highest mountain in the area and then along a ridge. My guide spent most of the time stopping in at every house where he knew people so that he might borrow everything he needed: a water bottle, his hat, water from another place, then a pack of cigarettes from his friend. He was a nice guy though, a fact which he repeatedly pointed out along the trail during his smoke breaks (can we say fishing for tips?). It was a nice day, but extremely hot. Needless to say, I was drenched with sweat.
The afternoon turned out to be the real adventure though. Having previously recommended that I take a tour of the local cave (under his excellent and very knowledgeable services of course), we met shortly after lunch to decend into the depths of the Earth. We met up at the prescribed time, this time with him toting a big glass bottle of liquor. At least I thought it was liquor. He later told me it was oil for the lamp. Ah, so that's what they use for light around here.
We walked a little further, stopping at one of the same houses where he picked up a coleman lantern, the kind with the glowing mesh bulbs inside. He also brought a rope along for rappeling, but I didn't see that he had a harness or anything else (and indeed he didn't). In fact, I didn't see that he had a backup source of light save for his cigarette lighter.
So after leading me down a small dirt road, he leads me into a giant gaping hole in the ground, and quickly points to a pile of boxes lined up on a ledge. Below the ledge was a 4o foot drop into the cave. He told me the boxes were "hanging coffins" and an ancient tradition of the people in the area. He said I could take pictures of them, but I couldn't open them. As we were descending, scrambling down some rocks on the other side of the cave, I noticed several coffins had fallen into the shadows below.
Weaving our way around, over, under, and through a boulder pile, we quickly found ourselves devoid of any other light source. Our only source of light was this coleman lantern which my guide held up at the base with his hand as though he were scrambling down the rocks to deliver a pizza. At this point I should note that he had convinced me to take the "adventure" entrance to the cave. People who know me, know also that it didn't take much convincing. As he disappeared in a tiny hole in the cave, pulling our lantern through, I began to wish I had brought my headlamp, which at this point was still in Japan.
Then he slipped and almost fell, catching himself with his one free hand and lofting the lantern into the air. Oh good! He didn't drop it! On one other occasion, he climbed down a 20 foot chimney I normally wouldn't do without my climbing rope. He tied the rope to a stalactite and insisted I use it, but stemmed his way down this convoluted drop with one hand holding our only source of light. While I was somewhat impressed with his skill as a climber, his common sense and knowledge of basic mountaineering and spelunking safety left a lot to be desired.
As a side note, stemming is when there are two rocks or walls close to each other, and one makes an arch of your body, pushing off the walls with your hands and feet to climb. For anyone who is interested, I could have done what he did with two hands, but not while holding a coleman lantern over my head in the dark.
We continued weaving our way through these boulders. With each airy step into the dark, I'm filled with images of this hairbrained yo-yo falling 20 feet, dropping a flaming lantern which explodes all over him, and forcing me to dig my way out with a cigarrette lighter, camera flash bulb, and the LED on my watch. I've obviously spent far too long in safety concious Japan. 3 years ago, this wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest.
Anyways, the worst move came when we were in a bottleneck for a natural river. The guide pointed to the waterline, with minerals forming several lines on the side of the cave up to a point where everything drops off into the darkness. I looked over the edge, and noticed a 50 foot dropoff and asked how we were getting down. He said we were going up and asked me to hand him the lantern after he climbed up a big, smooth beehive looking thing. He made a few bouldering moves onto it (right beside the dropoff I should add) but couldn't manage to get up. He asked if he could stand on my shoulder, and only then pulled it off. I then handed him the lantern, and he lowered a rope for me to climb up.
I shined the lantern into the enormous cathedral-like chamber below me. The volume of this cave rivaled St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I simply cannot explain how big this cave was. He led me through an easier passageway through a tiny tunnel and around to the floor where the previous dropoff ended. We then had a long straight section of smooth, slick rocks to walk through. Only now, there was a river below us, and bats chirping and squealing in the sanctuary above us. We came across several pools, and he called one particularly large chamber the "dancefloor" Music was of course provided by the bats above us. This place was huge.
We kept going, and finally came to another tributary and down into several lower chambers. The only similar place I've ever been was Havasu Creek, in the punchbowls just before its crystal clear waters dumped into the Colorado River. Only there was nothing above us but expansive blackness and the distant sound of bats and waterfalls echoing across the walls.
Most of the punchbowls were only about waist deep, and one could see to the bottom of them. Smooth slick rocks greeted my feet beneath the water. When the punchbowls would end, there would simply be a wall below which would be beehive shaped forms with water silently trickling over in all directions. Only occassionaly would one hear the sound of water spilling like it would in a stream or a creak.
He took me down through a couple of smaller chambers where the water came up to my arms. I held my camera aloft while he held our light source. I figured it was marginally safer here, because if he dropped it, there was no risk of fire now.
At some point during this whole ordeal, I lost the hotel key that was in my pocket. It had a large wooden handle, and must have simply floated out of my pocket.
He took me back out another entrance, and on the walk back, I took pictures of the beautful rice terraces, shocked and amazed that these were not the supreme mother of all rice terraces in Banaue, but simply minor ones in Sagada. I'm definitely in for a treat tomorrow.
But right now, I'm watching a bunch of people eat dinner in a tiny eatery with an internet connection. I guess I had better go back to my hotel and face the music about losing my key.