Magical Mainit

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Asia » Philippines » Cordillera » Bontoc
December 31st 2013
Published: May 27th 2015
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Mainit produced the type of unforgettable magic that keeps travelers like us, hooked. We were only in Mainit for maybe 16 hours, but it was enough time for an incredible string of luck to unfold, and to take in the other worldly beauty and mystery of this tiny mountain village.

We'd end up having one of the best adventures of the trip (and our lives) in Mainit. We almost ended up homeless for the night, were invited to a traditional wedding in the village square, and went for an early morning walk through the village footpaths while steam from the hot springs rose up all around us. It was extraordinary. Here's the whole story:

It was time to leave Baguio. It was definitely a bummer that we didn't get to meet Vanessa's sister in-law's family, but it just didn't work out. That would have been a cool experience, and we'll probably end up regretting it, but that just makes one more reason to come back.

Before we left Baguio, we needed money, and the reason we needed money is because we understood that the mountain towns do not have ATM's that accept international bank cards, and many don't have ATM's at all. We were a bit short on the funds required to last the next couple of weeks, so we headed to a bank.

We were also short on time, and the PNB across the street from our guesthouse doesn't seem to accept international cards, so we had to grab a taxi to a bank downtown, and then back to the bus terminal.

There was an almost full bus heading to Bontoc when we got to the terminal. We were told the bus was leaving right away, so this was working out pretty well. The bus driver's assistant (or whoever it was, I'm not sure the title. It's a guy that stands around asking people where they're going and puts them on the buses that are going to those places) urged us to get on the bus immediately, but Vanessa hadn't had coffee yet. I was not about to let a six hour bus ride get in between Vanessa and her coffee. That would not be good for anyone.

So we told the guy if we missed that one we'd catch the next one. He warned us that the next one wasn't for a few hours, but, again, Vanessa hadn't had coffee. So we went to grab some at one of the kiosks around the chaotic terminal and returned to the bus after a couple of minutes, which was still there. And we got on, and Vanessa had her coffee.

It did leave right after, so I'm guessing they were just waiting to fill it up completely before they left, which is probably why they were trying so hard to get us to get on the bus before. The attendant knocked steadily on the side of the bus to indicate to the bus driver that it was all clear to back up through the congested bus terminal, and we were on our way out of Baguio.

Baguio is built on a series of connected mountaintops, so it's pretty dramatic when you can see it. It also means that the road leading out of town deeper into the Cordillera begins at the top of a mountain.... and it sort of stays up there.

This is one key difference between mountain road building in the Philippines and mountain road building in every other mountain country and region I've been to in the world. Instead of choosing to following the rivers near the bottom of a valley, the roads we were on to Bontoc ran along the top of the mountains. This seems like it would be much more difficult than building down in the valley, but I couldn't say it would be easier in the valley's here because the road never really got low enough to ever see the bottom of the valley. But I'm sure what they did makes sense somehow, and I have to say that the result is spectacular!

The narrow road wound it's way near the top of the lush, green mountains and along the saddles between peaks. There were times when the mountain dropped off steeply on both sides of the narrow road and the panoramic view was stunning. And a little scary...

The bus stopped for a lunch break in a small village along the way. There were some food vendors selling mostly prepackaged snacks, but they would also add hot water to “Cup Noodles”, so you could still have a hot meal. I went for that, and also some siomai that was being prepared (fresh?). Other than that, it was mostly the usual fare of chips, pork rinds, and nuts. There was also a small restaurant/cafe there, but we didn't know how long the bus would be stopped. In the end we would have had time. Bottom line is you won't have to starve on the buses or endanger your bladder. They do stop.

We got into Bontoc and found the jeepney heading to Mainit. We had read that there was a nice one day hike from Mainit to Maligcong through the rice terraces. So our plan was to spend the night in Mainit at a guesthouse and hike to Maligcong the next morning. And for the first time on our trip we saw a couple of other travelers on the jeepney to Mainit. So it seemed like a pretty popular if not a foolproof plan.

It wasn't.

We waited in the jeepney in the afternoon heat for about an hour before it departed at 2pm. It started off pretty empty, but as the departure time drew nearer it started to fill up. And then it was full. And then people filled the roof. And then people hung off the back. And then we set off. It was pretty nuts to us, but it was all normal to the locals.

As the jeepney slowly rode up the rough dirt road to Mainit higher in the mountain, I got into a conversation with one of the young men hanging out of the back of the jeepney. He was a super nice guy, and his name was Jones and he is 22 year old English teacher in Baguio. He said he mostly teaches foreigners from other Asian countries (primarily Korea) who want to learn English. This is probably because people speak English so well in the Philippines, and it's going to be a lot cheaper to learn it here than it would be in Canada, the US, Britain, or Australia, for example.

At one point, he told me, “I'm sorry if I seem a little, you know.. .strange, it's because I've been drinking rum since this morning.” It was the holiday season after all. And he had been to a family reunion in another nearby village the day before, so this was definitely justifiable. Now he was travelling to his family home in Mainit for a night before heading back to Baguio the next day.

It was a good thing he
The "Streets" of MainitThe "Streets" of MainitThe "Streets" of Mainit

There are no roads, only these concrete footpaths
struck up a conversation with us on the jeepney, because he would ultimately shape our Mainit experience, and the experience of the Belgian couple and Japanese girl that had also made the jeepney trip to Mainit.

When we arrived in the village, I could see how spread out it was. There were also no roads through town, and only stone boardwalks. So I asked Jones if he knew where we could find a guesthouse or a hotel. Jones spoke to his aunt and told us “My aunt will take you there.”

Awesome! Lonely Planet only has about two paragraphs about Mainit, and no specific details or maps. It does say “If you need to overnight, rudimentary guesthouses are popping up all over Mainit.” So we were confident we would find a place without issue.

Jones' aunt led us along a trail next to the village, past the stream with plumes of steam rising out from the hot springs. She took us along the stone boardwalk to the guesthouse, and knocked on the closed door. We waited. Nothing. We knocked again. Nothing. She called out the owner's name, knowing he was a bit hard of hearing and might
The Village of MainitThe Village of MainitThe Village of Mainit

Houses, steam, pigs, and hot springs.
not hear us knocking.

This was when the Belgian couple (Noemi and Sebastien) and the Japanese girl (Kanam) arrived at the same guesthouse. We introduced ourselves and we repeated our attempts to get in. No success.

We had starting to think about our backup plans. There were probably other guesthouses in town, but returning to Bontoc was not an option since the two jeepneys a day from Mainit leave in the morning and it was now late in the afternoon. So we had to make something work in Mainit, and we were still comfortable that something would work out. And now there were at least five of us together that could work together on a solution.

Jones' aunt told us there was another place we could try, so she led us further down the village along the footpaths to another locked door. There was no one there either.

It seemed like the owners of both guesthouses had just gone out for the day and would return later. Jone's aunt had a lot of conversations with other people in the village to try and find out where they were, but no one seemed to no exactly where to look.

I should take a pause to mention how blown away we were at how much effort Jones' aunt, a total stranger, was putting in to helping us find a guesthouse. She'd been with us for about twenty minutes guiding us through town. We felt a bit guilty for occupying her time like this, but it didn't seem to bother her in the least. She didn't even let on that it might be an inconvenience for her. This is another example of how unbelievable kind and friendly Filipino's are.

And it kept getting more unbelievable, because she led us back to the family home and we ran into Jones again. They spoke to each other briefly, and then Jones said to us “For now, if you like, you can leave your bags here and we can wait together until the guesthouse owners return.” And he led us into his grandmother's home. We took off our shoes and our five enormous backpacks and stepped inside. We smiled and said hello to Jones' grandmother who was taking care of what I assume was his great grandmother who was lying on a bed in the living room. She was very frail looking woman with not a lot of time left. I'd be surprised if she lived another year. She spoke to us in a language we obvioulsy don't speak, and responded to her in English by saying generic things like “You have a very lovely home!” Her arms were tattooed, which is an old tradition for the mountain peoples around here that isn't practised much anymore. So she was very old. Jones even later commented that she is “very close to death”.

This is where our Western cultural instincts made us feel like assholes. If we weren't already inconveniencing this family enough by having them lead us around town looking for a guesthouse, we were now invading a dying woman's house to leave our backpacks. This caused each of us to ask ourselves two questions: “Is this OK?” and “What choice do I have?” And the answer to the second question is more important at this stage because we were stranded in a town without a place to stay and all we had to rely on was this family offering their help. And there was no sign from anyone ever that they were even the least bit annoyed with us, so the answer to the first question becomes “Um, sort of? Maybe, I guess?”

So we followed Jones upstairs to one of the bedrooms where we put down our bags. We offered to buy him a drink at the bar to thank him, but he explained “There really is no bar in town, but if you like you can come to my parents house. They have some beer we can drink.”

And so we continued to feel like assholes when we followed him to his parents house (at least we were leaving the dying woman alone, although she also seemed friendly and not bothered by us at all either). We sat in their living room on a couple the couches and Jones brought us some big bottles of Red Horse to share as well as some rice and meat to eat. So we tried to eat and drink as little as we could manage, even though we now knew there were no restaurants in town.

Jones family was there, and there were lot's of little kids running around and taking turns playing a computer game on the laptop. One of the little girls was chewing on a sugar cane. “Are those your brothers and sisters?” Vanessa asked. “No. Cousins. There's a wedding tonight so everyone came here for a wedding tonight.”

Great. So now we think we're keeping him from going to a wedding. “If you need to go to the wedding go ahead. We'll look after ourselves, it's no problem.” But Jones insisted that it was ok. “No, no! It's ok! The wedding goes all night, and I'll go later. And you guys can come too, and take some pictures if you like.”

“Hang on a minute. We're not going to someone else's wedding. It's their wedding and they wouldn't want a bunch of strangers showing up like it's some spectacle. We're definitely not going.” But Jones persisted “It's fine. The whole town is invited, and it's a big party. You can come take a look. We have traditions that are unique to this region with traditional dances and music. You should come and see!”

By this point, we just had to accept that Jones and his family were absolutely relentless in their hospitality, and there was nothing we could do. So we offered a compromise “Maybe we could go and stand and a distance or peer through the bushes or something, but we definitely don't won't to get in the way or draw attention away from the couple. But first we really have to figure out where we are sleeping.” Jones had an answer for that too. “My brother went to check the hotel down the hill by the lower hot springs pool. We found out that the owner of the guesthouse went to Baguio for the holidays so it's closed. I think the hotel will be full, so you can stay in my grandmother's house in the room where you left your bags if it's ok with you?”

Is this OK? What choice do we have?

“Yeah, that's ok with us, but we don't want to impose if it's not ok.” Of course, they insisted, and the hotel was full, so that's what was happening. And again, no one was annoyed, or appeared inconvenienced by us at all. Their kindness was genuine. And genuine kindness is all we've found in the people in the Philippines. So this reinforces their title as the nicest people in the world.

We needed to try and balance things out a bit, and try to pay back some karma. Luckily, Jones' mother ran a small shop outside the house. So we were able to buy some water and some snacks from her, and they were things we were going to need for our hike tomorrow anyway. Also they did let us pay for the beer we drank and the food we ate, but only after we insisted.

Jones also kept mentioning the hot springs and asking if we wanted to go swimming. It sounded pretty cool, but it was separate pools for men and women and it was after dark. So it didn't seem like good timing really. But it is an attraction here for sure.

But would not have topped our next experience. Jones had worn us down and we had agreed to go check out the wedding, so we headed up to the area that most closely resembles town square. There were men cooking meat on spits over fires, and a crowd of people gathered around nearby watching traditional dances. We snuck into the back row and stood in awe.

This was nothing like a Western wedding. The entire town was there, there was no white dress, no suit, and no tables and chairs. People sat on bleachers, or on the concrete terrace that was on the side of the hill, thanks to the rising footpaths out of the square. Everybody sat around and watched the dancing and the gongs.

The traditional dances were done in traditional clothing (but most people at the wedding weren't dressed up at all). The gongs were something special. There were around ten different gongs all together, all giving a different pitch. The gongs themselves are small, and about the size of a frying pan. Actually, they look a lot like frying pans... They might have been frying pans at some point in history, but now they're gongs. They looked like they might have been made out of brass, but I'm not sure. Each player in the group takes a gong and beats a rhythm with a mallet. Once the group has established their rhythms, they start following each other around in a circle, dancing slowly. It's hypnotic.

We were very fortunate to have Jones there to explain things to us and answer our many questions. He also introduced us to his friends and apologized a lot saying “I'm sorry,
The Ghostly Hotel in the MistThe Ghostly Hotel in the MistThe Ghostly Hotel in the Mist

The hotel that was closed...
they are very drunk.” As though we hadn't seen (or been) drunk people before. And everyone was really nice. We had some great chats with the people around us.

We kept being told that we could try the gongs if we wanted to, and all we'd have to do was tell the MC that we had a group together that wanted to go next. But since this was someone else's wedding, and there were about two or three hundred people standing around watching, and we were the only foreigners at the wedding, this didn't seem like the right environment to just give it a shot. We were more than happy to sit on the terrace stone and soak it all in. We all knew very well that this was truly a once in a lifetime travel experience unfolding in front of us, and we didn't want to change a thing about it.

Jones offered us a taste of some local gin, and also some water to chase it. It wasn't so harsh that it needed to be chased with water, and I kind of wanted to say to Jones, “Listen, you're only 22. When you get to be around 25 or so, you'll discover that you can drink hard alcohol straight. It's just something that happens.” Instead, I accepted the water and had a drink.

We sat there for probably over an hour, even though we were all very tired after a long day. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we wanted to let Jones hang out with his friends without feeling like he had to host us. And the prospect of some sleep seemed like a good idea. So Jones led us back to his grandmother's house and we started to get ready for bed, but he took us over to his uncle's place nearby to brush our teeth.

Houses are pretty basic here. The toilet in Jones' grandmother's house is literally just a hole in the floor. I figure it's best not to think about where that hole leads, but I wouldn't recommend drinking from the streams (there are also a lot of pigs and chickens that roam freely around town). Still, they are all sturdy and made of concrete, and most are actually rather large.

Jones' uncle has a small covered pool in his backyard that's fed by the water from the hot springs, so it's like a hot tub. Jones told us we could bathe in it if we wanted to, but we were happy to just splash our faces with the hot water and brush our teeth.

“You can spit your toothpaste here” Jones told us, so we did. And that's when Noemi spat on a pig that was living in the hole under the pool that Jones told us to spit in. This made us all laugh uncontrollably for a few minutes. This whole experience was pretty unreal, and it just wasn't going to stop.

Eventually we had all finished up and went back to our room in Jones's grandmother's house and fought over who got to sleep on the bed and who got to sleep on the floor. The problem was we were all trying to be accommodating and offering to sleep on the floor and no one wanted to take the bed in case someone else in the group wanted it. We sorted it out though, and got some sleep.

But we got up early the next morning, since Jones had offered to give us a tour of the village the next morning at 6am before we caught the jeepney out of town. I'm not sure Jones slept much. He had told us that weddings last all night and all day the next day, and that people come and go as they please. I think he took advantage of that.

Of course, they had a light breakfast ready for us, and we were very grateful again. It included some cane sugar brick that Jones' mother had made. As you might expect, it was very very sweet, but delicious. I'm not sure if it's part of a balanced breakfast exactly, but I was glad to try it.

We left our bags once more as Jones led us around town in the early morning light. And it was absolutely magical!

The steam from the hot springs combined with the morning dew, and the morning light, and the character of the town created an amazing scene that will be burned into my mind forever.

The wedding was still going on as Jones had predicted, but it was toned down quite a bit. Only the hardcore were still out, or they were passed out anyway. The sounds of the gongs could still be heard though as we walked around the village along the concrete footpaths, past the random gravesites scattered throughout the town (some built right into the sidewalk), past houses, and to the various steaming hot spring pools and streams. We went to the hot spring pools and chatted with a few men having their morning bath. Children were running and playing, and a pig had gotten loose and was exploring life outside the sty.

And we took two million pictures. It was absolutely perfect in every way. I'm positive none of us will ever forget our experience in Mainit. Jones's grandmother accepted some money from us to thank her for the accommodation, but there's no way we could ever pay them back for the unforgettable and unrepeatable experience they gave us. If this is what it's like when we go to places where the guesthouses are closed, I hope they're never open!

Additional photos below
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