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Amazing Grace at the Top of the World: The Philippines' Northern Luzon

Amazing Grace at the Top of the World: The Philippines' Northern Luzon

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There it was the rim of the world. Taking corners against a bottomless drop, we wound our way up the pass, from sea level upwards into the heights of Northern Luzon. Michael was sitting on the roof of the bus with some local bagets, inside had run out of seats. Better him than me! In the back row of seats, I was sandwiched in between a small boy headed to Sagada for work, and an evangelical woman humming Bible songs. The Philippines is a country of devout Catholicism.

"Do you know any church music?" the woman asked me, a huge smile on her face, decked out in a traditional baro at saya dress. I was trying to force interest while white knuckling around the turns.

We were heading for the Banaue Rice Terraces, just one of the clusters of the terraces in the Philippines Cordilleras. Built by hand 2,000 years ago by ancestors of the indigenous Ifugao people, Filipino's call them the "8th Wonder of the World." Stairsteps of Giants.

In my left hand, I held styrofoam cup filled with the remnants of instant coffee.  Ah, the all-too sweet taste of travel! Tagalog ballads drifted in and out of radio reception as we swayed awkwardly with the rhythm of the curves. Jeepneys, festooned with dashboard Jesuses and names like Ezra Jude painted on their tops whizzed by, more Noypis dangling off the roofs. Manny Pacquiao posters The boxer! The politician! hung loosely on roadside billboards. Kids peppered the side of the road; a debate here between Filipinos and priests goes on about free contraception and the population, but the amount of children lingering about was staggering.

The rice terraces came into view, an endless stretch of green staircases leading straight to the heavens.

Uh.. I can do Amazing Grace alright," I replied to the woman. It was the only religious song I knew, and if that was going to keep us from being flung off the cliffs of infinity, then I was definitely open to a quick rendition anything to pass the time!

  Surrounded now by a luminous view of green, I could see families harvesting in their own paddies down below. Men wrestling with ornery water buffalos as they settled into a tilling rhythm, young girls flinging laundry over the clotheslines, chickens pecking to and fro.

People had been working in these rice terraces for thousands of years sans technology. Submerged in earth and water, waiting out storms, planting and harvesting by hand, day after day. Patience, craft, lifeblood. It was astounding.

By the time we had sung our way into Banaue, my new friend was holding my hand. As she got off the bus at her exit, we waved goodbye.. a mutual understanding that though we'd never see each other again, we were happy to have spent this day together on this imminent bus ride to the top.  

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