Last Leg of Luzon: Jeepney Journeys and Holy Week Lessons Learned

Last Leg of Luzon: Jeepney Journeys and Holy Week Lessons Learned
San Agustin Church, Paoay

I hadn't originally planned to travel any farther north than Vigan, but after enjoying it so much, I decide to spend more time in Ilocano territory. It's a short two-hour bus ride to Laoag, the capital city of Ilocos Norte and roughly double the size of Vigan. It's not on most tourists' itineraries and doesn't have many attractions outside of a bell tower that is sinking into the ground at a rate of about an inch per year. I use it as a base to visit tiny Paoay, which doesn't seem to have a lot of places to stay.

I dine at a restaurant specializing in Ilocano dishes. Filipino food is generally heavy on fried meats and light on vegetables, so I keep circling back to the Ilocano meals of pinakbet (a stir-fried mix that might include eggplant, bitter gourd, okra, string beans, and other veggies) and poqui-poqui (yes, it's pronounced like "pokey pokey"), a roasted eggplant dish that's reminiscent of baba ghanoush, but mixed with scrambled eggs. Interestingly, the empanadas in Ilocos Norte are often colored with annatto, which makes them bright orange.

I take my first jeepney ride for 40 pesos ($0.75 USD). The looks I get from other passengers tell me they don't often share rides with foreigners. Compared to cities further south, the jeepneys in this part of the country aren't very colorful. Most still don their original chrome, have little in the way of decorations, and are called something simple. I have to look closely to even find the name of mine – Evelyn. I suppose fewer competitors means there is less of a need to be distinctive.

Jeepney drivers seem to view their operations as highly scalable businesses. No matter how many folks are crammed in already, they are always willing to stop and pick up more. More passengers equal more profit for the same amount of work and have only a negligible effect on fuel economy. Sometimes, folks have to stand on the rear bumper and hang onto the rails.

As more and more people pile into the shiny silver box, we resemble a sardine can on wheels.

For a not-so-big city, Laoag has a surprising amount of traffic. We spend at least 15 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic before breaking free of the congestion and cruising through vast cornfields. The vehicle nearly empties out as we make a stop in Batac and then quickly fills up again.

As I had hoped, I manage to arrive at the San Agustin Church of Paoay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before several busloads of tourists arrive. The original version of the stone-and-brick church was completed in the early 18th century and has been rebuilt multiple times since then due to earthquakes. Between the church and bell tower is a well-maintained garden with various proverbs etched in stone, such as "This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfection" and "O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet!"

After a coffee at a shop right in front of the church, I snag a t-shirt for a few bucks at a souvenir shop, since I always seem to be running out of clean ones, walk around a bit, then hitch a ride aboard a jeepney called Eldridge on its way back to Laoag.

While some jeepneys have a laminated sheet showing the rates depending on where you start your ride and how far you go, I don't spot one in this particular vehicle. If there is one, most passengers don't check it or even ask about the fare. They simply hand the driver some coins or small bills at the end of their ride and hop out. He doesn't even seem to check how much they give him. He just drops it in a cup and keeps going. He can't possibly keep track of all the people getting in and out and how far they ride. It seems to run on the honor system. I guess many of the passengers are regulars who take the same route often, so the transaction doesn't require any more than that.

He charges me the same 40 pesos that the previous driver did. Maybe it's a perk of being in a devoutly religious country or maybe it's naivety on my part as a first-time traveler here, but I feel that the people are mostly honest. Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, I don't feel like I've been ripped off or scammed nearly as often here, outside of Manila. When I am quoted prices for trike rides, they almost always seem reasonable.

I venture even further north to the beach town of Pagudpud. The bus makes a stop at a place that calls itself a "Salt Refinery and Water Station." Several locals reboard with big plastic bags full of salt and large jugs of a dark liquid that I later learn is vinegar. Coconut, sugarcane, and nipa palm are just some of the sources of vinegar made in the Philippines.

Unlike the rocky beaches along the coastal highway on the way from Laoag to Pagudpud, Saud Beach has soft, white sand. It's often called "The Boracay of the North," a nod to the country's top island destination.

There is a group of several dozen windmills in Bangui, just across the bay from Pagudpud, plus several more beyond the Northern end of Saud Beach. It's one of the most photographed spots in the area, but I find them to be eyesores. Still, Saud Beach is certainly picturesque, with its curved palm trees and lack of major development.

After accidentally walking into a private event in search of food, I have a humble lunch of longganisa (Filipino sausage), egg, and rice at a small shop away from the beach. Three generations live together here with the matriarch doing the cooking. She tells me in her basic English that her grandson can speak the language very well from watching videos on YouTube, but both he and his younger sister act terrified of me.

Her husband talks so softly that I can barely hear him over the roosters, construction noise, and occasional passing motorbike, but I gather that he used to live in Saudi Arabia and speaks Arabic.

She informs me that all the places to stay are fully booked for Holy Week. I managed to arrive in the calm just before the storm. She laments owning the land across the street, between a lodge and the ongoing construction, but not being able to afford to develop it. They tell me about how the Marcos family still runs the local political scene – in addition to Ferdinand's son Bongbong being the current president – and seem none too pleased about it.

I settle in at a beachside bar, hoping to catch a nice sunset at the West-facing Saud Beach, but the sun slinks behind some clouds unceremoniously. My host advised me against swimming at night due to the risk of slicing my foot open on some coral, so I simply retire for the night early.

I swing through Vigan for a couple of nights in order to break up the trip back South and to get some laundry done. It's a much different experience the second time around, as the vacation period for Holy Week has already kicked off. The market is filled with women preparing palaspás (decorated palm fronds) for Palm Sunday.

Crisologo Street at the start of Holy Week

Crisologo is packed. I suspect two young boys flanking me a little too closely on both sides might be pickpockets, so I suddenly stop walking and act like I'm doing some window shopping. They also halt and do a very poor job of trying to look inconspicuous. I go farther up the street and they resume following me. This time, I duck into a souvenir shop and observe them walk past a short distance, then turn around and loiter outside. I exit the shop and turn down an empty side street to see if they will follow me, and this time I finally shake them.

I'm not sure if I'm just being paranoid or if I pegged them correctly, but I decide to grab the last free outside table at Café Leona at the base of Crisologo to do some people-watching in safety.

My next stop is San Fernando in La Union province. It was recommended by an expat I met in Vigan, which seems like as good of a reason as any to go there. It's also crowded, and making a last-minute reservation forces me to stay quite far from the main part of town.

I notice many homes have barbed wire or broken glass on the walls surrounding their homes. Despite my mostly positive experiences with people here, it's another reminder that there are thieves everywhere and I shouldn't let my guard down too much.

Urbiztondo Beach in neighboring San Juan is considered the surfing capital of this part of the country, but when I go there, the waves are unassuming and I don't see anyone riding them. Still, it's colorful and has a very laid-back vibe. During off-peak times, I'm sure it would be a great place to relax for a while.

Tired of fighting the crowds, I retreat back to Manila, partly because there was a bus about to depart when I arrived at the terminal while still unsure of my destination. I figure it might be the best time to be there – while everyone else takes the chance to escape it.

Despite millions of Manileños flooding Vigan, San Fernando, and virtually every other desirable spot in the country, the city is still plenty busy. It takes around an hour and a half just to make the final 14-kilometer segment of the journey from Quezon City to the Pasay terminal on Manila's southside. I crash in a tiny room in a budget inn near the bus station with a plan to transfer to an accommodation more suitable for a stay of a few days.

Many places are closed down for the holiday. I learn this as I walk around looking for a spot to eat or have coffee, with my bags strapped to my back, in between checking out of the inn and the time when I'm allowed to check in at my new room.

I have to hold my breath as I cross over putrid-smelling canals filled with waste. I see the fly-covered legs of a small dog sticking out of a reusable shopping bag, tossed out on the curb with the trash. Judging from the stench, it has been dead for a while. A biker, with his head down, swerves and just avoids hitting me as I walk at the edge of the street because the sidewalk is too narrow to actually walk on in some spots .

I arrive at the building where I reserved a room but get stopped by the security guard. He won't let me inside the complex until I can provide him with the unit I will be staying in. I try to call the number listed in the app and discover it isn't a working number, nor does the property respond to my messages. It's a fraudulent listing. The guard tells me it has happened before.

It's certainly not the first time I've been scammed in my travels, nor will it be the last. I have acquired the ability to not let myself get too jaded by bad experiences, but I'm still learning how to avoid idealizing the places I go and the people who live there. In a nation of well over 100 million people, there are bound to be some bad apples, and I won't let them change my general feelings about the country.

But I am definitely ready to get out of Manila. Although there are still more places I would like to visit around Luzon, I arrange a flight south to Boracay for the day after Easter – just as the crowds will be leaving.