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Published: April 1st 2009
Heading north from Manila the road and the transport serving it, with their gradual degeneration, mirror the disintegrating level of development of the surrounding areas. From the capital north to the city of Baguio is for the most part a smooth ride on a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned coach across the flat plains of Pampanga and Pangasinan provinces, the towns dusty and non-descript, the road only snaking up into the mountains of the Cordillera range during the last of the journey's seven hours.
From Baguio, elevation 1500m, the sometimes concrete, sometimes dirt road thrashes its way left, right, backwards, forwards and above all up, further into the Cordillera. Its path seems even crazier than that of an intestine and is capable of producing similar feelings of sickness; at its highest point the road reaches 2255m, barely has enough space for one lane of traffic let alone two and twists and curves around corners below which the sheer drop must stretch into the kilometers. Add to that a fog which blankets everything like snow, descending on the road two out of the four times I travelled it and reducing visibility almost to zero, the torrential rain that twice complemented the
fog, and the night, devoid of any moon or starlight, that around 7pm added the final touches to my growing suspicion that the driver could not see where he was going. All the ingredients for a truly terrifying six hours north to the town of Bontoc were present.
Continuing further after Bontoc, following the road during what I thought at the time must surely be the last, terrible stages of degeneration and neglect, we were taken so high that, had the sky not been as flawlessly blue as aquamarine, we would have been above cloud level. As we moved from Mountain Province into Kalinga, scenery unfolded so breathtaking that for eight hours in a jeepney my neck was craned round like an owl almost to a hundred and eighty degrees, staring out of the long glassless window behind me, my eyes glued to the vast, towering beauty all around despite the soreness in my neck that rapidly developed. The orangey-brown dirt track was so tiny that any encounter with a vehicle coming the other way necessitated both screeching to a halt and one backing up, sometimes a very long distance, until a place was found where we could pass.
Even had the road been a 6-lane highway, it would have made less impression on the giant into whose side it was hacked than a piece of thread wrapped round the outside of a sky scraper. It wound its way along the mountain slopes, sometimes nearing the bottom, sometimes passing over the tops thousands of meters above as if its designers had taken as much pleasure in their creation's bagging of local mountain peaks as I did in following their chosen route, in spite of my numb backside and complaining stomach.
Sometimes the drop was so sheer and vertical, and the clearance between the jeepney's wheels and the edge of the road so narrow, that if you stuck your head out of the window and peered downwards you found yourself looking directly at a river in the valley bottom far, far below. Other times the slope was gentler and the adrenaline pumping around your body less violent. Often the mountainside was cut into terraced rice fields, perfectly flat stone-walled allotments of land that glowed with the brilliant emerald green of their crop and descended, leading one into the other like a gigantic staircase, to the valley floor. Dotting landscapes
all over the region, they stood as a testament to a long Cordillera tradition of rice cultivation, the mind-boggling feat of their construction often dating to two thousand years ago.
Eventually the mountains around us became smaller and disappeared altogether, the road spitting us forward the final few kilometers into the hot, featureless, 1970s-built town of Tabuk. Our guide, Simeon, who we had picked up during a brief stop in the village of Tinglayan on the way from Bontoc to Tabuk, took us straight to the house of one of his relatives, Josef, who worked for the Department of Agrarian Reform trying in vain to redistribute land from the wealthy owners to the indigenous people who had lived on it for thousands of years. The plan was of course failing, he later told us, because the congressmen who had to approve these things were usually the ones owning the land to be redistributed.
"Welcome, welcome, I'm so happy to have you here!" Josef cried on our arrival. He had a big, friendly smile and the chubbiness often found in town-dwelling, office-working Filipinos. His house was concrete, standing out from the many wooden-walled, metal-roofed constructions to be found not
only around town but also sprinkled across the mountain slopes of the Bontoc / Tabuk road, interrupting the vastness of the otherwise natural green lushness. Parked in Josef's driveway were two public jeepneys he owned and his own private four-wheel-drive vehicle. His large garden was home to a water buffalo, a mink, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, pigs, goats and dogs.
"We'll cook a local speciality tonight," Josef told us, "it's called Pinikpikan." He went into the duck enclosure, grabbed the biggest bird he could find and brought it out onto a concrete patio area. His son, Rambo, the most well-built Filipino I have ever seen, held the poor bird by its legs, picked up a club and proceeded to beat it to death softly and over a period of several minutes.
While Josef's wife prepared the Pinikpikan over a period of two hours or so we sat on tree stumps in the garden with Josef, Simeon and Rambo. One of the many youths I had noticed working around the garden or house brought us two bottles of gin and Josef's wife prepared us a polutan, or drinking snack, of duck's intestine fried in blood.
Popping one of the surprisingly tasty little lumps of blood and entrails into my mouth, I asked Josef who all the youngsters were in his house.
"They're my sister's children," he answered, "I'm paying for their education so they're helping me out. Rambo is my only son."
Changing the topic, he went on to ask, "So you want to go to Tanudan?"
I replied that yes, we wanted to go because we had heard that was where Kalinga culture remained most intact. Josef nodded slowly.
"It's a crazy place though, lots of tribal war," he told us. "But you'll be OK with Simeon. His wife's family's from there. Everyone respects him so they'll look after you if you're with him. In Kalinga, if you eat at someone's house then they will always protect you afterwards."
Everyone we had spoken to seemed to agree on the fact that Tanudan was very dangerous but absolutely safe if you went with someone who had relatives there. I remembered the words of the owner of our hotel in Bontoc, a native of Kalinga, when we told her that we wanted to walk from Tanudan to Tinglayan: "In Tanudan, if
someone's spouse dies, they aren't allowed to re-marry until they've chopped off someone's head. As tourists you'll be prime targets because they can kill you without provoking any revenge attacks from another village. If you walk from Tanudan to Tinglayan, it's two days through virgin jungle with no houses or villages. But if you take a guide who's from a village that has a peace pact with the villages in Tanudan, then everyone will respect that." Later enquiries had, however, proved this to be utter rubbish, the sort of rumours often circulating among indigenous inhabitants of undeveloped places about the most isolated communities in their area. Nevertheless, everyone we spoke to was afraid of Tanudan.
Simeon, a pencil-thin, grey-haired man in his late forties had been our only choice as a guide: no one else had wanted to come. At Josef's comment he erupted into one of his frequent fits of laughter that bordered on the uncontrollable. "Yes, yes, don't worry about that," he said through it, "you two will enjoy Tanudan."
"So does your village have a peace pact with Tanudan?" I asked him.
"Yes, yes, don't worry," he replied.
"What happens if there is
no peace pact between two villages?"
"Then the villages are at war. Killings are allowed and the police do nothing to stop them."
"The road to Tanudan's the worst ever," Josef informed us. "Hopefully it will be improved one day, but you know, the Filipino government's way of doing things is very slow. Lot's of corruption!" He poured himself a glass of gin, laughing. I could not tell if he really found it funny or if this was false mirth, blanketing sadness, but I certainly wondered how he afforded such a big home, the education of so many children, the vehicles, the animals.
"You guys are originally from Tabuk?" I asked.
"No, no, no one is really native from here," he replied. "It was built too recently. We're Kalingas but from Tinglayan. I'm supposed to be stationed in Tinglayan too, but it's so hard to get there, such a bad road, I haven't been there for several months. Maybe I'll go next week..."
My memories of the evening descend into a blur from here on in. One by one we took it in turns to knock back a glace of gin and follow it with
a larger one of water. Darkness fell, the smell of roasting duck perfumed the air and the conversation degenerated into silliness and exaggerated affection. Only Rambo, his biceps bulging from underneath a very short-sleeved T-shirt, remained comparatively quiet, methodically knocking back gins whenever it reached his turn.
No more than vague recollections of dinner remain but even in inebriation I could tell it was a typically uninventive Filipino speciality - large amounts of rice with a small portion of meat and strictly no herbs or spices used in the preparation. In the brief space between the end of the meal and bed time, I talked to Rambo.
"What do you do at the moment? Do you work, are you a student or what?"
"I'm in army training college," he answered. His voice was surprisingly soft and from what little I had heard him say I had the impression of a thoughtful, intelligent character.
"When do you graduate?" The slur in my speech stood starkly against the clarity of his.
"In one year. Then they'll send me to fight in Mindanao." Hearing this had a sharp, sobering affect on me and entrenched the conversation in my
memory amid the hazy blur of drunken nothingness that surrounded it in my mind the morning after. Many of the parts of the Philippines' huge southern island that soldiers were sent to were the realm of anti-government rebels, Islamic extremists and warring tribes.
"Are you afraid?" I asked.
"I have no choice," he said, giving nothing away. "But being in army training college is a big privilege. It's good pay and you have to pass lots of exams to get in. Do you want to get another bottle of gin, me and you?"
I remember being quite tempted by the idea but Simeon appeared from somewhere saying, "No, no, I don't allow it, we have to travel tomorrow!" He turned to me and said, "They have to do what I say because I'm the oldest, I have grey hair!" and erupted into gurgling laughter.
My last recollection is of Rambo staring silently ahead, me unable to tell whether he was angry at having to obey Simeon's command or whether he simply accepted it as normal. After that my memories are swallowed up into an empty, black chasm that only reopens at dawn.
The water that had accompanied every glass of gin spared me a violent headache the next day but did little to abate tiredness, queasiness or irritation. When I caught sight of the public transport vehicle that would take us to Tanudan I realised with mounting dread that Josef's comments about the road being the worst ever would probably turn out to be true. This was not the usual ex-US military jeep that served as public transport in the Philippines - this was a vile, hideous-black, colossal six wheel drive that was bearing down on us, towering at least twice as high as the next biggest vehicle on the road and blasting out an infernal cloud of poisonous black smoke. This was a vehicle whose proportions ensured that it need show no respect to any other, and you could tell this from the way it jolted, bumped and growled quickly down the road, seemingly oblivious to the enormous space it took up when it slammed on the brakes and parked next to us, blocking one lane of traffic and getting in the way of another. All its parts were built in monstrous dimensions - the wing mirrors were each the size
of a child's torso and the steering wheel almost a meter across. The head of the vehicle was vaguely similar to the front of a lorry while the back was a large platform walled only by the metal bars of a cage which stretched to about three meters above the seating area.
The road was the worst we had experienced in six months in the Philippines and one of the worst I have traveled anywhere in the world. If the vehicle had any suspension at all then we did not find out about it as we were rattled and shaken around over four testing hours. Occasionally I turned my head to glimpse with pity those passengers being thrown around in the caged area at the back. They had no seats or benches and were doing their best not to fall all over each other. Their lot was made even worse when, halfway there, we stopped at a primary school, picked up thirty wooden chairs and threw them in the back with them.
At one stage the road took us over a mountain top shrouded in cloud and, momentarily, the parameters of visibility shrank inwards. The world changed to
one in which an icy wind cut into us through the open windows and the sunlit valleys we had so recently passed through seemed suddenly far away and impossible. It lasted just ten minutes before we were bouncing our way down the other side, the sun reappearing to warm our chilled bones not long after.
The driver, a native of the village of Lubo, part of the Tanudan area, seemed like an amiable sort and spoke fluent English, as in fact did almost everyone we had met in the Cordillera. Now, far below us, was his village, the wooden houses with their rusted metal roofs clinging together with barely any space in between for streets like a big brown spider at the centre of the web of rice terraces that stretched out from it in all directions. Several times the driver offered to stop the vehicle so I could get out and take photographs. When we finally reached the end of the track, I asked him how much we owed him, though Simeon had already told us it would be 800 pesos total, a fairly expensive rate due to the damage that the vehicles inevitably suffered on the journey.
The driver, however, just smiled, shook his head and waved his hand to say "don't worry about it." To put this in context, a daily wage for a labourer in the Philippines is 120 pesos per day. The man was refusing what was for many people a week's wages. We thanked him, took our bags and descended a steep slope before beginning to wade our way across a wide river at the bottom. Halfway there I jumped at the sound of several loud bangs from behind us; turning round I saw the driver standing at the top of the slope, firing an M16 machine gun almost vertically into the air.
In more ways than one, Lubo was utterly different from any other village I had visited in the provinces of the Philippines. Not a single traditional house existed; the vast majority were built from planks of dark brown wood with sloping, rusted metal roofs, the odd one with a touch of concrete to reinforce its walls. Where most mountain villages were made up of scattered houses separated from each other by a few yards of earth or grass, Lubo was a labyrinth of cobbled streets so
narrow that for most of the day the sun did nothing to illuminate their shadows. Many of the cobble stones were so large that piglets, dogs, chickens and cats could scamper in between them while still being below the level of the street that people walked on. Occasionally several of these alleys would join together in a small open space around some gargantuan boulder that interrupted the densely packed dwellings.
We arrived at the house of Simeon's wife's relatives. Only one of them was not out working, a plump, thirty-something female teacher who smiled happily at our arrival and immediately set about making us food and coffee brewed from burned rice.
After a meal of rice, leaves and fried spam I mentioned that I would like to climb up above the village to photograph it and the rice terraces from above. Simeon and I trudged upwards for half an hour or so, picking our way in between the terraces and using the tops of their stone walls as walkways. Eventually we reached the highest terrace but the view was still not perfect so I said I wanted to go higher up the mountain. Simeon seemed hesitant but agreed to go further. We carried on up the slope until we came to the top of a small ridge and a group of men came into view, sitting across the path and blocking our way. They had very dark skin and many were clad in military camouflage clothes. Some had long, loose black hair falling down around their shoulders. All had bloodshot eyes and the red betel nut that stained their gums and lips gave them a hauntingly vampirish appearance. Most of them were carrying a gun of some sort, not the ancient rifles that I had seen villagers using to hunt in other parts of the Philippines and which could be bought for a few hundred pesos at a local market, but modern, high powered weapons, Uzis, Berettas, and pump action shotguns.
"They need them for hunting," Simeon assured me, bursting into laughter, before walking up to the men and speaking to them in the language of Kalinga.
As I listened and watched, a woman came down the path from behind them carrying a sack of rice on her head. "Hello, Americano," she shouted at me in English. "How are you, Americano?"
"I'm fine," I replied.
"What are you doing, Americano?" she shouted again. Her brashness was disconcerting after the two months I had spent in Mindoro where the Mangyan indigenous people are so shy that they can barely say a word to you or look you in the eye.
"Just walking around," I replied.
"Oh! I've been working!" she yelled in a way that suggested she thought this demonstrated her superiority over me. "Have you been working, Americano?"
"No, I haven't."
"Here, can you lift this bag of rice?" she cried, dropping the sack from the top of her head to the ground.
I picked it up and put it on her head. It was very heavy and unlike her I needed my hands to keep it balanced there.
"Oh, well done Americano! But can you carry it down the mountain from the fields for three hours to the village?" Her voice, full of sarcasm meant less to hurt me than to make herself feel better, rose and fell as if she was acting a part rather than speaking naturally.
"No, I can't. You're stronger than me," I said, suspecting in reality that I probably could but wanting to assure her of my inferiority and make her shut up.
"Oh, exactly!" she shouted theatrically. "Well Americano, I'm going to go now." She smiled genuinely, if a little sadly, at me and walked off down the mountain. After a few minutes we followed her, pursued by a crowd of laughing children that had been gradually growing since the beginning of our walk.
Passing through the village again, a smiling youth cried out to me from a window, "What are you doing here?"
"I'm just visiting, I'm interested in the culture!"
"Yes, here it's very uncivilised!" he replied, throwing me off my guard momentarily and leaving me unsure what to say.
"No but it's very nice here," was all I could think of before waving goodbye and returning to the house.
Our hosts were a strange lot. The husband of the female teacher, with a mixture of black and grey hair, had a lightly moustached and bearded face that reminded me of that of a hobbit or some small furry creature. Despite this there was no gentleness in it; the grim expression it was set in was never lightened by even the hint of a smile. Likewise his father, stranger still, showed not one sign of mirth or friendliness during our entire stay. His hair was almost entirely grey and like his son he sported a thin beard and moustache. But the most striking thing about him was his eyes: they were as empty as those of a blind man. They moved aimlessly this way and that, never focusing on anything or anyone, but it was clear from his movements that he was still in full possession of his sight. Both father and son kept machine guns under the sink.
The morning after our arrival they helped us find some people who still had the intricate body tattoos for which Kalinga is famous. Northwards from Bontoc, and even at stops along the Baguio to Bontoc road, we had seen plenty of women with arms entirely covered in the markings, but we had yet to see a single man.
The man they took us to must have been in his eighties and had a much kinder, less crazy face than many people around. Walking down the steps from his house with a spritliness unusual at his age he removed his shirt to reveal an upper torso covered in blue inked patterns.
"What does it mean? Why did he get it?" I asked Simeon.
To my surprise it was the old man himself who replied in faltering but understandable English. "It's because I was a successful warrior, about sixty years ago in a war with the village of Tulgao. It took one week to finish the tattoos."
I did not want to cause embarrassment by pressing him to explain exactly what he meant by "successful warrior" but I had already heard one story from a man who had written an anthropologically-oriented history of Kalinga province. The men upon whom the honour of being tattooed had been bestowed were those who, during a raid on another village, had killed an enemy, cut off his head and brought it back to their own community. A party was then held, and the warrior danced round a fire holding the head up high. Later the jawbones were used to make the handles of gongs, many of which can still be seen in the villages of Kalinga.
What surprised me was that such a person would know English. Although education had been introduced to Kalinga in the 1930s, I had assumed that members of remote tribes still warring with one another would not have been popping into the classroom in between battles. It was so different from other parts of the Philippines where even many lowland town dwellers cannot speak English. I assumed that the difference was to do with being part of Luzon, the island on which Manila was to be found, which had had a higher level of development ever since Spanish colonial times.
Having moved on to the house of two tattooed women, I asked them about their tattoos.
"It was a great privilege when we were young, to have these tattoos," one of them told me. "My father had to pay a whole pig to the tattoo artist. It made a woman much more beautiful. Now young people don't like it, they think it means we are illiterate, uncivilised. But they just have a different style of tattoos now, modern ones done in the town."
A small crowd had gathered to watch us, including the young man who the previous night had shouted to me that "here it's very uncivilised!" His skin was lighter than many of the others and his hair was shaved short and neat. His eyes were clear, not bloodshot and he was not chewing betel. His smile was broad and welcoming. He talked to us from the bottom step of a staircase.
"I used to work in Manila, four years," he told us in confident, impressive English. "But I didn't like it."
"Yes," I said, "it's crowded, stressful and polluted."
"Yeh, and you work in a factory very hard, sometimes you don't have enough money to live, you get into debt, then you end up having to shoot someone to pay it back..."
We listened in horror.
"One time some Dutch terrorists tried to recruit me, they were young, like 25 or 30, white-skinned men and women, they had power, money, girls, everything... but I didn't join them because their purpose was really pure evil..."
Who were these terrorists recruiting from the poor of Manila? By terrorists did he just mean criminals? And what could be so evil that it prevented him from wanting to do it, he who had been willing to kill for money?
Back at the house we rapidly agreed that we should go back to Tabuk as soon as possible. Neither of us felt comfortable here and the walk to Tinglayan was out of the question. Whether or not people respected Simeon, there were some here willing to break all the rules and kill to gain money, and we were not going to risk two days alone in the jungle if that was the case.
As it turned out we had missed today's ride back to Tabuk so decided to go ahead with our plan of walking to the next village of Gaan, sleeping with Simeon's relatives there and leaving the next day.
The walk to Gaan was forty minutes, mostly through rice terraces then over a small hill into a neighbouring valley. On arrival I noticed immediately that I no longer trusted the people of this area. Everywhere I looked, even among children, I saw those ghostly, bloodshot, predatorial eyes, the wild hair, the vampire mouths. It was a look that was mirrored among the dogs of the community who slunk around the alleys hunting for scraps, their eyes half glazed over yet with a certain docile savageness lurking behind them which made me feel that had they been in a pack, or had I been incapacitated, they would have seen me as an opportunity for an easy meal; they looked as though they had been bred with wolves.
When we arrived at the house we were to stay in for the night the mother of the family could barely contain herself with excitement. When I shook her hand and told her I was pleased to meet her she almost went hysterical and had to draw in breath in a large, airy gasp that produced a strange whistling sound in order to stop herself laughing.
Burned rice coffee was brewed and, as we sat around a table waiting for our mugs to cool down, a tiny, smiling, gurgling baby girl crawled up on to the table. Too late I saw what was going to happen and she knocked over one of the cups of boiling coffee, burning several large patches of skin off her leg and exposing the raw pink flesh below. Lizz and I cupped our hands over our mouths in horror and had to look away as the infant, standing on the bench next to where her mother was sitting, began howling in agony, her previously pretty face distorted to a hellish picture of suffering, only to be greeted by shouted reprimands and blows to the head from her mother.
The six wheel drive that took us back to Tabuk contained enough weapons to stage a small coup. We were sitting in the back of a different vehicle from our previous trip and there were benches lining the sides. Opposite me an infant, despite the roughness of the ride, managed to suckle from his mothers breast; another, a few places down, coughed like a ninety-year old lifetime chain smoker; another sat in the middle astride a sack of rice, eyes staring vacantly ahead, a trickle of snot running from each nostril down to his upper lip. At the front an old man in a loincloth sat at right angles to everyone else, showing them only his back as if to blot out the amassed Americanization of his culture displayed in the back of that hideous vehicle. The elderly man next to me chattered in my ear while opposite a loaded telescopically-sighted Uzi sat on someone's lap, barrel pointed directly at us. I prayed that, on this bumpy road, he had remembered to put on the safety catch.
"Everyone here's poor," the old man said. "The government doesn't care about us. The only good thing is that we can get free wood to build our houses - all these are covered in virgin rainforest!" he said, pointing at the surrounding mountains that formed the high walls of the valley at the bottom of which Lubo was a rapidly diminishing blot on the landscape. "The sad thing is there are so many animals that will die out when the rainforest is gone - there are deers, snakes as big as your thigh, monkey-eating eagles..."
As if to underline his point the vehicle jolted to a halt and two men clambered in with their chainsaws, adding to the not insignificant arsenal already arrayed.
Back in Tabuk we stayed one more night at Josef's house. He strongly contradicted Simeon's claim that all those guns in Tanudan were just for hunting, and eventually Simeon gave in and admitted that he had been lying.
"They're for killing," Josef told us, "and not only in wars. You saw how everyone takes guns with them to the field when they work? That's to protect themselves against attacks from people in their own village. No one is safe from anyone else apart from their own family. There are hundreds of generations-old conflicts still alive within each village. The only way to end them is marriage. As for tribal wars - one broke out while you were in Tanudan. A car with people from Tanudan was shot at and people were injured when it passed through Lubuagan. Then yesterday people from Lubuagan killed a guy from Tanudan here in Tabuk, at the market place. It's only going to get worse." The next day we would have to pass through Lubuagan on our way to Bontoc.
I wondered at how Tanudan, and to a lesser extent the whole of Kalinga, was built on these two opposing principles of chaos and order and could alternate between the two at the drop of a hat. A tribal war could break out and disappear again almost in the blink of an eye. Back in Gaan, we had been in a room full of happy, playing children and the mother had seemed like a kind parent and warm host. Suddenly, over no more than a spilled cup of coffee, the scene had transformed into one of raw savagery that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I thought back to the smiling, confident man in Lubo who had been happy to kill for money. What had caused such savagery to develop in this area? The last indigenous people I had visited, the Mangyans from the island of Mindoro, did not even have words for war or hurting someone physically. I remembered hearing about one theory linking agriculture to violence. Intense agriculture leads to surplus food, leading to population increase and eventually overpopulation with wars for land and resources. I wondered whether the Cordillera's ancient rice terraces were also the reason it had developed such a brutal warrior culture.
"Is it safe for us to pass through Lubuagan tomorrow?" I asked.
"Well for me it's never that safe," Josef replied. "I'm from a different tribe. One time a load of people managed to stop me there when I was on my motorbike. They were trying to rob me. I had my pistol so I thought about trying to shoot them all but I knew if I did that they'd kill me on the spot. So in the ended I waited, talked, and when they let go of my bike I sped away. Jeepneys sometimes get robbed there too."
The jeepney was approaching Lubuagan. Dust was flowing freely through the windows and the day was scorching, even this high up. I was sweating and felt dirty, hot and nervous. We passed men at the side of the road digging trenches and I held my breath, half expecting one of them to whip out an M16 and hold us up. I fancied I made eye contact with one man who then suddenly threw down the wooden planks he was carrying in anger. The drive through Lubuagan and the stop in the centre of the village were fifteen very long minutes but passed without event. As the last houses of the settlement disappeared round a corner I exhaled deeply. I felt as though we were home and dry. Tinglayan was the next major village and was, apparently, gun-free and the only place in Kalinga visited by any number of tourists.
Suddenly there was an explosion from just behind me and to my left. The jeepney veered off course and ground to a halt. My teeth were gritted and my lips curled up to bare them. Only an instant had passed and it was too early for any fear to have set in but these were reflex reactions, my body uselessly bracing itself for the worst. An moment later relief was washing over me as logic dictated to my brain that nothing bad had yet happened so it must have been a burst tyre, no more. And sure enough, seconds later, the driver was scrambling up onto the roof and descending with a spare and a spanner.
Minutes later we were on our way again. The conversation I had had the previous day in the vehicle from Tanudan to Tabuk was continued here with a different old man.
"Everyone's poor here," he said, "and the government doesn't care. Lots of villages don't even have electricity or roads. Maybe one day everything will get better when they build proper roads."
"Maybe some day," I said. But I did not think, in those rice-terraced valleys where the coffee brewed hot and life was cheap, that it would happen any day soon.
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