There are things I would much rather do alone, which include but are not limited to: eating sushi, masturbating, and travelling down the Halsema Highway. All three activities provide sensual pleasures in their own ways: slurping on a fat slab of hamachi atop a bed of sushi rice, sticking my fingers inside of myself and getting off to the idea of you that I’ve created in my head, fighting the buzz from sleeping pills I had taken a bus ride before this one, straining to stay awake until we reached Atok (the highest point in the Philippine Highway System, 7,400 ft ASL), at least. But I can only talk about one thing.
Benguet Province seems to stretch on forever. No matter how many times I wake up during the 12-hour trip it takes to go up this way, it always seems like we’re still there. You’d think I would have memorized it, the amount of times I’ve gone this route, but I still don’t. Every trip along the Halsema is different.
Let me tell you a story about the way it was before that movie was made: the only people on the bus (the rickety G-Liner buses with broken doors and lots of legroom, surprisingly) used to be people going home to their provinces from Baguio, occasional gap-year backpackers with flaxen hair, body odor, who wear the same pants/have the same piercings I do, and lots of hardcore mountaineers from the lowlands.
These days, the buses are filled with people I would hardly consider the outdoor type. People huddled in groups, clutching cameras, insecurities, their significant others. I mean, we’re all searching for something as we travel. That’s why we do it, right? Meaning, tadhana, whatever. Choose your own adventure, fulfill your own cliché. I realize that I’m pretty fucking jaded and need to lighten up. But that’s exactly why I went up here in the first place.
The bus rumbles to a stop and I find myself in the town proper. I ask the barker when the next bus to Bontoc leaves; he says I’ve missed it. The last bus left an hour ago. I shake myself fully awake and fumble for a cigarette, realizing I’m stuck in Sagada for the night. A split second of panic ensues, but I calm down; I know exactly where to go. I haul my backpack and make the uphill climb to the edge of town. My body strains under the heft of it; I always pack too much. Finally, I arrive at the little pink house on the hill.
Ate Sigrid is the first to see me. I run into her arms for a warm, welcoming embrace. Chiki, their dachshund, mills about us curiously. She was a puppy when I was here last. Ate Sigrid berates me jokingly, telling me I should have told Kuya Awing to come fetch me at the plaza, that I have been gone too long. I shake my head in agreement, saying the walk wasn’t too hard (I am lying through my teeth). She fusses over me the way she would a family member. The reason why I keep coming back to this little pink house on the hill is precisely because anyone who enters here is instantly treated like family.
Ate Sigrid puts me up in my usual room, the one with a view of the forest and limestone crags peeking over the horizon. I apologize that I cannot stay long, for I am only here by accident. She then leaves me to my own devices.
I am sad that Tito Ed is not here. He was my first friend when I went here alone for the first time, but I know I’ll see him again, randomly, as is our custom every time we come up to this little pink house on the hill.
The weather is turning colder; I’ve come up during Typhoon Season because I like to joke that I’ve got a death wish. The truth is, I can’t be bothered with tourists. This is the only time I can enjoy this place the way I remembered it when I first started coming here, before that movie was made. Later that evening, Kuya Awing lights up the fire place. The smoky smell of felled pine fills the room. Huddled in front of the fire, I can’t help but think that in this moment, I am exactly where I need to be. I would worry about getting to Bontoc tomorrow. For now, I am alone, but there wasn’t anyone in the world I would rather be with. And I am happy.