Buried Churches and Bats….Spooky!

Guillermo Church. Not a recent picture, but a really good one that shows what lahar can do to the countryside and whole villages. Look how deeply the church is buried!

Recently we visited Pampagna on an all day excursion, taking in churches, traditional food and a lantern festival. About 2 hours north of Manila, its the home of the still active volcano of Mount Pinatubo.  When it erupted on 15 June 1991, lahar flowed from the slopes of the volcano onto the surrounding countryside, burying everything in its path.  The massive eruption and subsequent destruction was devastating and one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in recent years.  Towns were completely wiped out, and the landscape was changed radically.  Over 20 years later, you can still see evidence of the explosion in just the grey ash colour of the soil, not to mention the property damage and strange elevated roads.  Among the many half-buried buildings that still stand is the San Guillermo Parish Church in Bacolor, which we went to view.  I cannot find my SD drive with all the photos, so I will have to make do with descriptions, which is a real shame as the photos were great!  (I blame the cat, who probably batted it and chased it from my desk to some remote dusty corner of my office.)

The townspeople excavated the altar and the retablo after the volcanic eruption and relocated it under the dome in order for the wooden retablo to fit.  And clean up and other repairs were done, of course, but the main church still remains half-buried in the ground.  IF I had pictures you could see the main entrance to the church is now through the first story windows and the altar now sits under the eaves.  The congregation sits looking down out of half buried windows, and bats fly occassionaly around the altar.  (I saw a colony of them nesting high up in the ceiling.) It was literally, bats in the belfry….and very weird too.  You can see where the expression came from.

Other than these oddities, its business as usual inside the church.  Its decorated, clean and cared for.  There was a baptism while we were there.  Everything is just a little higher than normal.

We are planning another trip to Pampagna next month.  This time to visit the slopes of Mount Pinatubo’s crater and to swim in the crater lake.  So more on Pinatubo to follow…. (hopefully with photos next time.)

Latham’s Shiphrah Birthing Home Film

Shiphrah Birthing Home is one of the local charities supported by the US Embassy Club here in Manila.  Shiphrah do an amazing job of helping the working poor with pre- and postnatal care for pregnant women, including delivery of the baby.  They have done an amazing amount of good with very little, for a long-time, renting a property for over 15 years to use as the birthing home.  Recently, they have agreed to purchase the building and have been fundraising for the purchase price.  We haven’t been able to attend their fundraising dinners, but we were able to help out a little with publicity.  Latham made a short, informative film about the work that they do.  Hopefully it will help them get the word out about Shiphrah, Latham was able to get high school community service hours for his efforts, and I had the privilege of learning more about who they are and what they do.  Please take a minute to watch.

Ship Visit

Yesterday was a very long, hot day for me, standing on the Manila docks.  The USS Blue Ridge was in, and on a busy schedule of media and community events.  Embassy personnel have the opportunity to tour the ship and I helped out with the buses and strict lists for who can board the ship.  Its been years since I hung out for hours on hot, smelly docks watching all the activities.  Fortunately they provided us with a tented area and cold water.  I took an umbrella for sun and rain protection, although both both never really made an appearance.  It was just hot, humid and a bit pungent around there.  It did bring back memories though of our cruise ship years, and sitting waiting for ships to arrive in the strangest of places.  All docks seem to have the same look and smells though…and Manila was no different.

I wasn’t able to board the ship because there was always a reason I had to be dockside, although 99% of the time I just sat there.  Sitting and watching the world go by on the docks can be sort of interesting in a relative kind of way.  (More interesting than -say – watching paint dry!)  And I did see scores of US sailors returning from shore leave, hauling all sort of different treasures that they had bought from nearby Mall of Asia.  The passenger ferry next to me had a full wash along the port side, dozens of trucks filled its belly and by the time I was ready to leave, I watched hundreds of passengers board the ferry for Dumagete, (our Christmas destination, although we will be flying).  Not a day to recommend as a good day out, but an interesting slice of life nonetheless….

My Forever Disappearing View….

Whether I manage to blog or not.  While I sleep or while I eat.  While I watch or while I completely ignore it….the construction goes on.  Glimpse for a moment the view from window shown below at three earlier points in the last year or so:

December 2010

December 2010

Feb 2011

September 2011

September 2011
















Now 16 months after our arrival, this is what’s left of my view:


March 2012

March 2012

A narrow crack between a bank and an office building.  That sneaky building on the right has edged its way up and up so it is now taller than the camouflaging building that it hid behind before.  Wonder how high it will go? Of course, if the car dealership in the foreground decides to sell out, it won’t matter.  The entire view will be gone.  Period.  However for the time being I can still see a strip of mountains and some of the Fort.  And even if they decide to level the car dealership tomorrow, surely there isn’t enough time to demolish, dig a basement, and build 20 stories to entirely block my view…is there?

Banaue Public Foot Bridge

Not sure if it warrants its own post, but it was kind of interesting and didn’t fit into any of our other tales….  so meet Banaue’s unique footbridge, which cuts off a good 20 minute walk from one side of the town to the other- by going directly from A to B — via a very large rice paddy filled ravine.

We first spotted it on the map on the day we arrived, and set out (in the wrong direction) to find it.  We, of course, failed and tried a second time that evening.  Failed a second time too…this bridge was well hidden…  However on our return visit, a third try was successful when we nipped down an alley next to the police station and caught site of it.

It was well used.  We watched locals move swiftly and deftly over the metal bridge, which swayed quite considerably with all the use.  We looked at each other to gauge whether or not crossing it would be a smart move.  After all the footing looked like this:

I remember thinking that the odds it would collapse the one time I used it were pretty slim, so we ventured out onto the rickety construction.   If Indiana Jones can do it, so can we!  With all the people coming and going, and the slippery, inconsistent bridge floor, I just couldn’t bring myself to use less than two hands and I certainly wasn’t going to take the camera out and take pictures.  So I did the best I could to capture the bridge from the safety of the other side:

Wow, did it ever buckle in the middle!  It wasn’t just the vibration from walking or the swaying of the wind.  The whole metal construction had warped, so midway you had a very distinctive sense of leaning to the left.  Scary stuff.  We arrived on the other side, just a little glad to be alive.  However, we were then faced with the reality as everyone else, now you’ve gotten there..you’ve got to go back (or walk 20 minutes around).  So back we went again – I mean, what are the odds, right?!

Caving in Sagada

Well camouflaged and hard to see, but the coffins are hanging midway down in the centre

Our trip to Sagada was part two of our travels in Northern Luzon last month, which I am unfortunately only getting around to writing about now. Sagada is about a 3 hour drive north from Banaue.  Its not really that far, perhaps about 50kms or 30 miles, but the roads are long and windy along the edge of the mountains, and a fair section of them are unpaved, or partially paved, so it takes much longer to go a short distance.  Originally we were scheduled to leave early the next morning to do the bumpy drive to Sagada, and then do the same 3 hr drive back to Banaue at the end of the day and then immediately take the 10 hour night bus back to Manila.  Sounds exhausting, right?  So with a little negotiation, we managed to turn our 3pm arrival back from the rice paddies into a 4pm exit for Sagada and started the journey out of town.  All went well until a flat tyre en route, which was fixed pretty promptly, but the 30 minute delay meant we arrived in Sagada after dark.  After quickly finding a room for the night, we managed a quick dinner before a local restaurant closed.  The hotel was reasonably clean and the room big – or “too wide” as our hotelier had warned.  We were the only guests in what had once been a fairly fancy governor’s house.  Of course, the obligatory visiting cockroach just had to make an appearance, but this time I got him with my shoe!

Early morning Sagada had plenty to see.  The Saturday market was in full swing selling everything from vegetables, to pig heads, to household items.  Fresh local yoghurt seemed to be the thing to have, judging from menus on different walls.  So we enjoyed it with fresh fruit, and very good it was too.

We were meeting our guide at 8.30am at the tourist office, but were still pretty vague about the day’s plan.  Caving and hiking in some sort of mix, we hoped.

Sagada is famous for its hanging coffins.  The local tribes didn’t believe in burying their dead, so they hung the coffins off the sides of mountains allowing the deceased spirits to be free.  Sort of a nice idea actually, unless you’re the person assigned to get the coffin up there.  Goodness knows how they managed it.  Our guide explained that it was a community effort, starting with a long procession.  The coffin was carried to the site and everybody participated in raising the body up to its precarious resting place.

Wooden coffins camoflauging into the cliff face

The alternative to a cliff-side burial was a cave burial.  All over the countryside around Sagada are numerous burial caves, their locations kept secret.  But one or two are opened for tourists to view and our guide took us on a short hike to one of them.  This particular cave had many coffins piled on top of one another.  As our eyes adjusted to the light, more and more coffins appeared.

Most were shorter than the average human height because the dead were buried in the foetal position.  However, I noticed that some were a more standard shape, and our guide told us that coffins had also been brought in from different locations.  Coffin construction was simply a hollowed out log with a plank lid, held in place with a wooden toggle.  From the side, all piled up, they kind of looked like funny faces.

While we were discovering the coffins, at the back of the cave we watched a group of people gather with headlamps, kerosene lamps and ropes.  Our guide explained that the group were going to do the cave connection – a 3-4hr underground scramble from this cave to another one a few kilometers away.  I was curious.  I would sort of like to do that next time, as long as it wasn’t too taxing.

The stone steps at the cave entrance…about as far in as my camera would register

Our guide had a kerosene lamp too.  A big one – about three times the size of the usual kind you might use as dinner table lighting.  He explained that we were going into the cave and that after a while the steps would stop, and we would have to scramble over rocks to descend.  All the while, neither of us really knew what to expect.  I thought perhaps were being taken into a chamber to be shown a few stalactites and stalagmites and we would take pictures and come up.  We had in fact booked to go hiking, so at this point who knew..   Down and down we went in the dark, lit only by the kerosene lamp.  At the rear, Michelle was having trouble seeing the next foothold if the guide went a few feet too far ahead.  My all-terrain river sandals were quickly dubbed “no terrain” sandals, as I felt the potential of every step as a slip.   Sure enough, the stone steps stopped and the rocks began.  We descended into a chamber.  Our guide held his lamp above his head and we looked up.  You could sort of hear a high pitched noise, but the bats were so high you couldn’t make out individual animals, just masses of bats clumped together.  We descended further down and the smell of bat urine filled the air.  I tried to grab rocks without bat shit coating them, but it was slippery (because of said bat shit) and I grabbed what I could.  Better to be slimmed than fall…  We went down further and further.  You could hear voices and giggles from other cavers further down and the sound of running water.  Next our guide told us to remove our shoes.  We had now crossed the limestone and marble rocks and had arrived at the polished sandstone that was easy and safe to walk on with bare feet.  We walked through pools of cold cave water and Michelle took pictures of weird and wonderful rock formations.

Standing on a sandstone boulder in a rock pool in front of “curtains” – one of the amazing rock formations we saw.

Rappelling down a boulder with a rope. The only caving “convenience” on offer during the whole caving experience.

On the other hand, as my camera flash was dead, I managed to take zero pics.   So without Michelle’s blessing I am stealing borrowing some from her FB page to bring this tale to life. Thanks Michelle!

We were in the cave approximately 2 hours and descended about 200 metres.  What made this cave experience unlike any other was that it was left completely natural inside. No gravel path ways, signs, concrete steps or taped music.  And no lighting….save the kerosene lamp.  Michelle had actually had the foresight to bring headlamps on the trip but then left them in the jeepney!  But that always seems to be the way with these adventures.  Its hard to know what to prepare for, what justifies the extra weight in your pack, and what to actually take out for the day.  But that’s part of the adventure I suppose, the unexpected!