Sagada, Mountain Province and Banaue, Ifugao, the Philippines

March 1 – 2, 2015

My squad and I pushed and pulled one another up to the Echo Valley lookout in Sagada. Our party of five – Melds and Sukwoo, Cindy and Sham, and yours truly – was partly inspired by a local rom-com released the year before. A pivotal scene showed the main character pouring her heart out (hugot in vernacular slang) to the wind, her bitter loss echoing through the pine-covered valley. I sang the chorus of the Whitney Houston power ballad Where Do Broken Hearts Go at the top of my lungs on that very spot. I had not broken up with my boo, but, in retrospect, it foreshadowed the dissolution of this travel squad.

TTT @ Echo Valley Lookout, Sagada
The Bear Squad @ Ohayami Trans
Happier Days @ Sagada
Echo Valley @ Sagada
Sagada @ Mountain Province

Our decade-long bond met on common ground – and that was on the road. Too bad, though, because conflicting schedules never allowed us to take a trip all together except this one time. Somehow, the universe conspired to free up all five of us for a weekend off to Sagada. The logistics were simple enough: the destination was just a bus ride away – a long one though – and the trip was the most affordable we had ever planned. Time and budget, double check! And so it came to pass that, for an entire Friday night, we were crammed at the back row of Ohayami Trans because “we were in it together.” Our clingy level was off the charts.

Happier Days @ Sagada
Happier Days @ Sagada

The weekend getaway mirrored the years we had as a squad. There were ups and downs like the rugged terrain we negotiated from the borderline eerie Latang Underground River (the towers of rock art looked ominous against the light at the end of the tunnel) to the decidedly creepy Hanging Coffins of Sagada. The challenging climb of just over a kilometer stretched with our legs as we strode across boulders the size of cars and slopes as slippery as slides. Each of our heavy asses was the butt of the running joke. It was a hike that could only be finished with collaboration and comic relief.

Rock Art @ Latang Underground River, Sagada
Sukwoo @ Latang Underground River, Sagada
Hiking to the Hanging Coffins @ Sagada
Hiking to the Hanging Coffins @ Sagada
Hanging Coffins @ Sagada

As a limestone mountain range, the Cordilleras were pockmarked with caves. Our descent down the perilously craggy and cavernous Sumaguing Cave effectively put an exclamation point on our Sagada experience. Again, it was not a trek to be made alone, the mandatory guide notwithstanding. Spelunking required courage in numbers and, of course, as many trusted hands or as many trusty witnesses as needed in case of mishaps. This cave could well be a crime scene if visited with frenemies.

Going Into Samaguing Cave @ Sagada
Sumaguing Cave @ Sagada
Limestone Cliffs @ Sagada

Ours was not a friendship powered by intense experiences. It slow burned around food with as much bantering as eating. Sagada provided appropriate chill stops to newbie hikers to fill up before a trek and to refill after. Yogurt House delivered its namesake with strawberry on top. Davey’s Town Inn and Restaurant served its own Sagada lemon pie. I was known to devour all things pie, but the lemon variety turned out to be an acquired taste. So it was in a squad. Some members were the extra fruit topping while others were the extra tangy filling. In the end, friendship was about the wine, not the label.

Melds and Sukwoo @ Yogurt House, Sagada
Pinipikpikan Haus @ Sagada
Lemon Pie and Sagada Coffee @ Davey’s Town Inn and Restaurant, Sagada
Cindy Photobombing My Lemon Pie @ Davey’s Town Inn and Restaurant, Sagada
Furbabies of Sagada

All through our Sagada experience, random dogs would follow us around. They were man’s best friend, after all. Alas, that kind of loyalty did not follow us. As tadhana or destiny would have it, this Sagada trip would be the first and the last. A couple of years later, Cindy and I had a major falling out that compelled her to cut all ties with me. A year later, Melds passed away from a lingering illness. Not even her death could bring Cindy and me together. In retrospect, Melds was our gang’s glue. We were hardly complete for any meet-up, but in all our random combinations, she was the common denominator. The following year, Sham migrated to the US. He initially kept in touch through social media, but, without warning, he unfriended me and completely dropped out of the radar. Finally, the pandemic forced Sukwoo to head back to his family in Seoul and, perhaps more importantly, to heal from the loss of Melds and the life they had built.

Melds and Sukwoo @ Sagada
Cindy & Sham, Melds & Sukwoo with Crescio (Tour Guide) @ Hanging Coffins, Sagada
Cindy and Sham @ Davey’s Town Inn and Restaurant. Sagada

The main character in that hit rom-com said, “You don’t easily give up on the people you love.” While that would be true of certain relationships, perhaps family and marriage ties, it could not hold up as a blanket advice. Friendships should not carry such a demanding expectation. From then on, I saw friends as fellow travelers on the road of life. They may walk together in stretches, not necessarily through the entire journey.

Our weekend at Sagada wound up at a makeshift bus station in Banaue. It was a dilapidated structure of wood, cement blocks, and iron sheets. The unsightly building, though still temporarily functional, was close to being condemned. Some things just crumbled through time and circumstance.

Ohayami Bus Sation @ Banaue, Ifugao
Cindy Having an Online Class @ Ohayami Bus Station, Banaue, Ifugao

The trip gave us our final memories, the echoes of our friendship, as it were. Soon after, it was EOF (end of friendship) or its equally curt synonym, FO (friendship over). Squad goals achieved, indeed, but soon after we all moved on to our separate ways. Where Do Broken Hearts Go did not apply to friends as much. It was not about where they would go but simply letting them go at the fork in the road.

The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them, and to have believed in them, and sometimes, just to have accompanied them, for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

David Whyte
Sham @ Echo Valley, Sagada

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