Sunday, April 20, 2008

Day 25-28: Cordillera Mountains (Bangued-Bontoc)

April 17

Left Bangued at 5.40 a.m. accompanied by 5 Abra bikers with a support vehicle and 4 motorbike escorts.
The first 3 hours was easy gradual ascent on paved winding road. Then the climbs became steeper on rough roads.The rains fell at 3pm by the time we reached the Malibcong welcome arch. The Abra bikers loaded their bikes on the support vehicle and returned home. I biked the remaining 10 km to Malibcong alone. What followed was just terrible. The road was wet and slippery and the tires were covered in mud. While on a long steep descent I crashed and my knee was bruised. I arrived in Malibcong by 5 pm and was welcomed by Fr. John Bala - an Indonesian SVD priest. Upon seeing the bruises on my knee, he volunteered to apply his homemade oil.
Malibcong is the hometown of Fr. Conrado Balweg - the SVD priest who joined the NPA guerrillas during the martial law era. After the fall of Marcos, he came down from the hills and entered into a peace agreement with the Aquino government. He formed a break-away group the Cordillera People's Liberation Army. Several years later, he was killed by his former comrades led by his brother. The NPA continues to be strong in the area. The culture of violence and death persists.


I concelebrated with Fr. John at the 6 am mass. After the mass I met some of the elders of the village and had picture take with them.
By 8.30 am, I was biking along the Abra-Kalinga highway. The road was just terrible - loose sharp rocks on steep climbs and descents. I did a lot of walking with my bike. It was very exhausting but the view along the Balbalasang road was stunning. By 5.15 pm I reached Bolantoy, Balbalan. I had only covered 54 km and I was still 35 km away from Lubuagan - another 4 hrs of biking. I stopped by a store and asked if if there was any nearby parish rectory where I could stay for the night. The owner - Joy - offered hospitality which I immediately accepted. She said it would be too difficult and dangerous to bike to Lubuagan in the dark. She told me that 4 priests had been killed there over the years (the last one killed was Fr. Francis - an SVD Indonesian priest). Joy also suggested that I should just bypass Lubuagan and instead take the jeep from the Pasil junction to Tinglayan. It appears that the culture of death reigns in this part of the Cordilleras.


As usual I left at dawn after my morning prayer and meditation. After just 5 min of biking I had another flat tire. It took 20 min to fix it. There were lot of descents until I reached Pasil. Then I did a lot of climbing. I kept looking for the junction to Lubuagan. I was considering Joy's suggestion. By 9.30 am I stopped by a place where there were lot of vendors selling coconut juice and delicacies. It was there I found out that I was following the road to Tabuk. I felt dejected. I had to retrace my steps for 10 km and I wouldn't be able to reach Bontoc before dark. I was tempted to ride a jeepney to Bontoc. After waiting for a while decided to bike back to the Lubuagan junction. I was worried about my safety and pedaled as fast as I could everytime I saw some people on the road. I reached Lubuagan by noon-time. After lunch with the parish priest I continued biking until I reached Tinglayan by 4 pm. I decided not to continue to Bontoc and seek hospitality of the parish priest - Fr. Loy
I left Tinglayan early this morning. As I biked along the narrow mountain roads, I saw the rice terraces below. I stopped several times to gaze at their beauty. The roads got better as I was nearing Bontoc. Being late for a day already, I was wondering if I should continue onward to Abatan - which is over 60 km away or just take the afternoon off in Bontoc. When I reached
Bontoc at 11:30 am, I decided to just rest and prepare myself for the ascent to the highest highway in the country - the Halsema Highway. I was welcomed by Fr. Vento - the parochial vicar. I will concelebrate with him during the 4:30 pm mass.
The last four days have been the toughest and most challenging legs of this journey. I was alone most of the time. I had to confront my fears. The limits of my endurance was tested and I survived. Another long and tough day awaits for me tomorrow.
One of the lessons that I learned these past days is that I should be flexible. I should not push myself just to follow a fixed time-table which cannot be followed. Anyway, I can make up for my lost time tomorrow.
After 28 days, I have already covered 2,481 km. I'm halfway there.

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