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Monday, February 3, 2014

Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal
I'm back in the fish market.  Two times in two days.  I've tried 5 separate types of ceviche, consumed two, very fresh fried fish and watched Panamanian social culture unravel right before my eyes over an ice cold pilsner.  I have little to no time in Panama and I've chosen to spend it huddled around tightly packed tables, with blaring salsa music and the ever-lingering smell of fish.

I'm here on business.  I've been waiting about 10 years to say that while abroad.  I'm meeting a group of 50 U.S. doctors and escorting them to a conference we've organized in Havana.  It's quite an ordeal as this association has not been to Cuba since pre-Castro times. Expectations are high.
Fish Market
But Panama - I'm a true latecomer to this country.  My parents were here 7 years ago.  My sister and brother-in-law got engaged here.  I wonder if they spend as much time at the fish market as I did. I'll have to ask.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a wander around San Felipe, the historic colonial Old Town that has been well preserved and restored. It was nice, kinda charming, but it can't shake a stick at the fish market.  These are my people.  Believe it or not, smelly places like this usually offer some of the richest cultural rewards.  Unlike the carefully crafted, sterile, hospital like corridors that have been becoming so perfectly normal in the western world, fish markets offer age old commerce, tables wiped off with dirty rags and a perfect place for the brunt of humanity to take a load off and enjoy some beer and seafood.  This is a place without pretense, without issue. As long as the sea exists, so will the fish market.

Damn Good Fish
I'm staying at the Trump Ocean View Hotel.  I know right?  The help call me sir.  I call them sir.  They insist.  I insist.  Last night I ate a full fried fish on my balcony 33 floors up, purchased at the fish market of course. 

Like a good tourist, I went to the Miraflores viewpoint, overlooking the central lock of the Panama canal.  Massive ships pass through quite regularly.  Some have only about two feet to spare on either side of the walls.  The canal really is quite interesting.  When I caught a taxi back to town, the cab driver told me he used to live in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.  I told him I lived in Queens. After talking New York shop for a bit, he asked what I thought of the canal.  I said it was a man made marvel; a true accomplishment of early 20th century man.  Then I ask him what he thought if it.  He told me he had never been. "Looks boring" he said.  Then he asked if I had been to the fish market.  "Of course! Great ceviche," I said.  "No man, the best," he added.  It felt good to be amongst friends.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Undiscovered Cuba - Part 2 - Camaguey

Square with bronze figurines
I awoke to the sensation of dry lips and a rancid flavor in my mouth like I had licked an ashtray.  After 5 years of not smoking, the cigars with the fellow guides seemed like such a good idea the night before. I slipped on a shirt and brushed my teeth twice before venturing out the door to meet a friend for breakfast.  Over multiple cups of coffee, we discussed the plan of attach for the day.  We were headed to the central province of Camaguey, smack dab in the heart of the country.  I had been eyeing this part of Cuba up since I began working with Insight.  Central and eastern Cuba carry a different sort of allure.  Whether it be the general remoteness of the east side of the country, or that it is far less explored by the modern American eye, I was wonderfully enthusiastic to dig in and absorb all that eastern Cuba offered.

By the time we had arrived in Camaguey that afternoon, I was already beginning to absorb the infectious feel and flavor of the city center.  Bronze statues of life size figurines blended in on benches and street fronts in the most peculiar way.  We did double takes to be sure our minds weren't playing tricks on us. Flowers dressed the trees of neighboring houses and brightly colored facades made each street a veritable Kaleidoscope of activity.

Camaguey is punctuated with a simple yet inviting pedestrian promenade in the heart of the city.  It widens near the north side and spills into a small, yet effective public square that offers perfect stoops for rum consumption, as well as public performances by local theatre groups and oddly dressed clowns.  This seemed like a town of old.  Simple, central and personal, with enough edge to keep you alert, but enough smiles to keep you comfortable.

Contemporary dance troupe of Camaguey
Before darkness fell, we took the group to see a contemporary ballet rehearsal.  As we wondered into the dilapidated theater building, we came upon a simple stage with a huge and vacant orchestral gap that looked more like where you would keep lions, just in case the performers began slacking on their steps.  We sat down on dented folding chairs with little to no expectations of what we'd be seeing . Before long, dancers leaped onto the stage in acrobatic strides from both sides.  They glided and spun with tremendous conviction, consistently thrusting one another into the air with arms outstretched, as if blasting off into the heavens.  They lead interpretive dances to industrial music while pulling, tugging and contorting their bodies on the stage curtains that were perfectly position.  Where the hell was I?  This was world class by all standards and most travelers to Cuba had no idea this town even existed.  Undiscovered gems like this are the true beauty of Cuba.  A world class musician may be sitting next to you on a bus.  A Julliard quality dancer may be performing in a tiny venue, in a town you've never heard of somewhere well off the grid.  The talent per capita here  must be some of the highest in the world.

After chatting with the dancers, we moved on to enjoying some drinks with a large group of locals we stumbled upon at a small flamenco show, held in an alley near the main square.  The performance was jam packed and brought to life Camaguey's endearing magic for instantaneously invigorating an area of the city that could so easily be missed otherwise.  When the performance ended, we showed nonsensical dance moves to the locals of Camaguey, while they giggled and showed us actual dance steps that were fully in step with the music.  It turned into a great night.
Camaguey by night

The following day, we snuck into a baseball game during the 6th inning to expose the group to the way Cubans play ball.  It felt incredible to not only be the only Americans in the stadium, but most likely some of the only foreigners there as well.  Cubans stared on in interest for a few minutes before diverting their attention back to the game.  A baseball stadium is an excellent place to watch humanity push through an abundance of emotions in a short period of time.  Watching the meter tilt one way on the emotional spectrum, before gaining reverse polarity and flipping around to the other side, shows the fragile state of the human psyche.  Regardless of nationality, in a mob mentality setting, it only takes a moment for a unified emotional shift to occur.

New friends making noise well into the night
After dropping off the group, we went to a true locals bar in a shaded courtyard and begin enjoying drinks with a few new friends we had met the night before.  By the second bottle of rum, someone had handed Jason (my travel companion and co-worker at the time) a guitar and asked us to sing a few songs in English.  Jason can play like a son of a bitch and before I knew it, we were rattling off Ryan Adams songs to a group of toe-tapping strangers.

Camaguey is one of those towns that really requires a traveler to pop the hood and have a look around.  On the surface, it gives a decent showing.  But when you start fishing around, you'll find the magic that makes this place work. If you're passing through, but sure to stop in.  Bring a bottle of rum with you and you'll have companions to sing with, partners to dance with and new friends to wave goodbye as you finally pull away.  I'm definitely a fan.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Undiscovered Cuba Part 1- Havana and Santa Clara

Cathedral Square for New Year's Eve
When I sit back and think about it, I've spent a year and half of my life expounding the never ending virtues of travel to Cuba for every American under the sun.   I've taken 4 trips since January and have explored the island's nooks and crannies far more than the average Joe.  I've led groups as a tour leader, experienced several behind the scenes moments with locals and have formed a small, yet reliable cast of friends and coworkers in country.  Every aspect of my career revolves around the culture and politics of the island, yet I haven't once mentioned it here on my blog.  What is that about?

National Ballet
Honestly, I haven't the slightest idea why writing about Cuba has evaded me until this moment.  It's a robust and reticular culture that commands your full attention from the moment you touch down until the moment of departure.  It is beautiful hypocrisy in action; a full blown cultural conundrum.  Trying to understand it will twist your mind into damn near permanent knots, with no string-ends in sight. It's stubborn, sensual, enigmatic and straightforward all in the same breath.  It suffers from immense pride to the point of guilt, displays a sense of cast-iron courage at the expense of it's people, and proves highly contradictory through it's zealous campaigns that rampantly contrast its stifling authoritarian approach.  It's simply fascinating.

My first trip to Cuba was on our Undiscovered Cuba program, which for those unfamiliar, is part of a licensed program from the U.S. Treasury Department that allows for what is known in the industry as People-to-People travel.  The license allows any American with a valid passport to travel on a program that has been constructed by a tour operator or organization holding a specific license.  As part of a staff familiarization trip I was sent to scope out the landscape of our newest program, set to navigate the better half of 650 miles across the 780 mile island from Havana to Baracoa.  If you're a reader of mine, you know that I'm not much of a tour person.  I'd rather stumble through the unknown areas of a country to craft an experience that is purely mine, no matter how miserable it may feel at the time. My sense of satisfaction grows exponentially when I stumble across something that was not meant for me to discover; something that was not planted like an easter egg, but rather an organic discovery excavated from the landscape because I pushed a little further than the guide book suggested.  This has been a recipe for success many times over and has also proven to be a form of self sabotage on other occasions.  You live an you learn right?
Casa de Jose Fuster

The soles of my shoes hit the tarmac of terminal one for the first time on December 31, 2012.  What a day to arrive!  After settling into the hotel and visiting the home of renowned artist Jose Fuster, our group went to Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana for an opulent celebration with a few hundred other people wearing goofy hats and blowing kazoos in celebration of New Year's Eve.  The wine and rum flowed heavily and before I knew it, a group of us were on stage dancing to the wild rhythms of Cuba salsa. For some reason, my colleagues and I felt it was more appropriate to dance in a funky hip hop style mash up of moves, rather than bastardizing the actual moves required to look eloquent. The band played well into the evening and slowly we dropped off one by one to head back to the hotel, swimming in a sea of exhaustion. Face down in an aged pillow, I prayed that the morning wouldn't come as quickly as I expected.  4 hours later, my alarm went off and I rolled out of bed cursing the activities of the previous evening.  After a few sips of expresso in the hotel lobby, my eyeballs evened out and the haze began to lift.  It was a hell of a way to spend New Year's Eve the night before and I wandered into the New Year with great cheer and optimism.  

The next two days were spent exploring the people and places in Havana, including the National Ballet with Alicia Alonzo, several artist studios and a plethora of cultural activities that began providing a more comprehensive picture of what life for the average Cuban was really like in Havana.  Our nights were spent passing around bottles of rum on the Malecon with local Cubans near anti-imperialist square, while live music pulsed in the background.  We were beginning to adopt the "a lo Cubano" mentality and it felt so natural.

Che Memorial
The following day, we made our way 4 hours east to Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara mausoleum where Che, the face of international leftist revolution, has been preserved in full cannon for generations to admire.  After being killed in Bolivia by the national army while trying to overthrow the government, Che's hands were promptly cut off.  He was then buried in an undisclosed location near an airstrip, only to be discovered nearly 30 years later.  His remains were then repatriated to Santa Clara, which served as the site of the most decisive battle in the Cuban revolution led by Che Guevara.

After our visit to the monument, we found our way back to the the center of town where we drank cold bottles of Cuban beer and watched a tired sun tuck itself in behind a welcoming horizon.  As night drew to a close, we gathered together with our Cuban partners and smoked enormous cigars poolside at a local hotel.  I was only a third of the way into my trip and already I was planning my next visit back to the island in my mind.  Cuba was proving to be everything I needed it to be and more.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

El Nido and Bacuit Bay, Philippines

After Port Barton and a second flat tire, we doubled back to Puerto Princesa and ditched the bike.  The following morning, we caught a van to El Nido, roughly 6 hours to the north.  Upon arrival, it took me less than 20 minutes to realize that the town was lackluster at best.  The streets were a chaotic malaise of generic tourist crap.  Shakes, crepes, pizza and pasta, along with shops exploding with beachy tourist junk.  This town was a perfect example of a mad dash for money.  Unfortunately  Southeast Asia is dotted with places like this.  I should have known better.  The noce part is, there are so many nicer places to visit around El Nido, making it a great jump off point for world class diving, snorkeling and island hoping.
The following day, we hired a shared boat with two backpackers from Slovakia, as well as a solo traveler from Colombia.  As we cruised from island to island, we stopped periodically to explore hidden coves, isolated beaches and to snorkel through incredible coral reefs.  It was a hell of a way to spend the day. 
The following day we caught a flight back to Manila on a small prop plane.  Upon arrival at the airport, we were.met by the father of one of Laura's colleagues.  Along with his driver and wife, we traveled to Tagaytay for the next two days to eat, relax and and recover from our travels. 
We hiked a small volcano the next morning and spent the remainder of the day remembering tthe high points of our trip to our gracious hosts.  This was the perfect way to cap off our journey and left the greatest of impressions on our mental landscapes.  This is surely a country I will return to in the future.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Messy motorcycle adventures in Palawan

After 20 something hours of bumpy and body contorting travel, Laura and I made our way from the mountains of Sagada in northern Luzon, to the pristine beaches of remote Palawan.  Making this trip required first, a jeepney to a van.    From the van we caught a motorized tricycle.  From the tricycle, we took a frigid overnight bus to Manila, in which Laura cornered the driver at a rest stop and implored him (with almost brute like force) to turn off the GD air-conditioning. From the bus we took a taxi to the airport.  From the airport we took a flight to Puerto Princesa.  From Puerto we hired a motorcycle - and here is where the adventure began.
I love motorcycles. Along with the teeth grinding adrenaline rush they provide you with at top speed, they also keep you attached in a fundamental way to your immediate surroundings.  Unlike the separation created between car and landscape, motorcycles keep the rider woven into the fabric of his passing environment.  If the trees are getting wet, you're getting wet.  If dust from passing trucks coats the sidewalk, you're tasting it in your teeth. This brings you into the fold; it makes you part of the scene.  It can be a vivid, rich and acutely invigorating experience.  However, bikes can also make you incredibly vulnerable to poor conditions and reckless drivers. Add personal distractions to the list and if you're lucky, you can avoid the "sausage creature," as Hunter S. Thompson so eloquently put it.  This time it was the road conditions that got the best of us.
Upon arrival in Puerto Princesa, I hired a Yamaha 125 with a lunch box sized rack on the back.  I wanted something bigger, but this was the Philippines, so I took what was available. The plan was to stack our bags on the back of the bike and for Laura and I to squeeze onto the seat.  By buckling various straps to metal bars and using my belt as a synch strap, our bags were secure and we were soon barreling northbound along the national highway.  We set our sights on the tiny beach town of Sabang, about 2 hours north of Puerto.  The winding roads offered beautiful views of rice patties, woven shacks made of palm reeds and tropical blue ocean vistas. 2 hours on a motorcycle isn't terrible.  But with packs and nearly 25 hours of travel behind us, we were eager to dismount and dig our toes into the sand. Upon arrival, we found a great little ocean front Guesthouse with nipa huts for rent. After a bit of negotiation with the owner, we were given a perfect spot, with a perfect view, near a close-to-perfect beach.  We were exactly where we wanted to be.
The following afternoon we waited out a brief rainstorm before taking back to the highway, en route to the super remote town of Port Barton, noteable for its amazing beaches.  We rode for more than 2.5 hours in the piercing afternoon sun before hooking a hard left onto the 22 kilometer dirt road for Port Barton. Little did we know what awaited us.
2 kilometers into the ride, we came upon a massive mud puddle (less of a puddle, more of a bath) that consumed the width of the entire road and ran on for more than 50 feet.  I shifted into first and slowly began wading the bike into the muck, putting both feet down.  3/4 of the way in, the front tire dove right and sent us sideways.  We caught the bike at the last second by pressing our feet firmly down while I wrestled the handlebars back to straight like the horns of a steer with all my strength. Between Laura and I, along with our 2 packs and 6 inches of slick mud below us, we were relieved the bike hadn't dropped.  Not only would we have become a muddy mess, but the 2.5 hours on the bike made the exhaust pipes pretty damn hot.  The last thing we wanted to do was to be laying in the mud with no traction, trying to lift a piping hot motorcycle engine off our bare legs. 
From here, the conditions began to deteriorate.  Another kilometer or so up the road, a sister mud bath appeared, and then another, and another.  We keep our cool and stayed the course but began to wonder if this would continue for the entire 22 kilometers.  Sure enough.....
Around 5 kilometers further up, the road began resembling something from a Sunday afternoon monster truck rally.  We got off to push the bike through at a few spots in order to keep ourselves from buckling on the slick surface. I remembered riding in similar conditions along the muddy power lines of the Poconos as a child, but this was a bit different: I had a rented bike in the middle of nowhere, my lady was on the back and oh yeah, I was in the Philippines.
As we pushed on, a brief clearing in the road allowed us to make up a bit of the time we had lost, having previously been moving at a sluggish pace.  This respite was short lived, as around 10 kilometers in, we came to a terrible track of road that we should have immediately walked the bike through.  Instead, I opted to try and navigate a muddy single track right along the edge of the road.  As soon as we hit the rut, the bike immediately sunk in up to the bottom of the crank case.  Without a seconds hesitation the bike stalled out.  "Dammit!  We better get off and walk this through" I said to Laura.   "We'll never make it with this weight."  As we backed it out of the pit and muscled it through the mud, we climbed back on with an air of excitement.  We would hopefully be getting there before we knew it.  I restarted the bike and rumbled forward.  Less than a minute later we pulled to a screeching halt after our back tire began fishtailing.  As I put my feet down, I already knew our fate.  "Johnny, we have a flat" Laura said.  My heart sunk.
With nearly 12 kilometers to go and less than 2 hours of sun left in the sky, I knew we were smack dab in the heart of a tight spot.  There were no houses behind us for at least 3 kilometers.  It was extraordinary hot for this late in the day.  We couldn't ride the bike another inch with a full flat and had no idea if anyone would be remotely close and equipped to help us out.  And so we began pushing. We pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed.  We pushed along flat stretches, up never ending hills and along coasting downhills.  Pushing became our ephemeral existence that felt fully permanent.  Sweat soon drizzled into our eyes.  We panted heavily with parched lips.  We would never get this machine to Port Barton before nightfall.  Hell, even leaving the bike, we couldn't get there before dark by foot.  We were in the most remote region we had traveled to the the Philippines at this point and were tasked with a 375 pound burden. 
A random man finally rode by on a bicycle.  "Mister! Mister! Is there a vulcanizing shop (tire mechanic) close by?" I said.  "No.  Port Barton," he responded in his limited English. Now I knew we were in a jam. 
A few minutes later, another motorcycle approached but offered the same response. And so we continued to push.  The few houses along the way did not have any helpful equipment or advice for us.  Rather, they all had that "ohhhh, you're screwed" look as we continued wheeling the bike past their place. After nearly 2.5 - 3 kilometers of pushing, Laura finally said "let's leave the bike here and try to get to town as soon as possible.  We can hopefully get it fixed tomorrow."  I agreed that it was best for us to try and double time it to town, as we had less than an hour left of daylight and were on a remote   dirt road surrounded by incredibly dense jungle with nowhere to stay along the way.  Considering the distance we needed to cover, the walk would have taken nearly 3 hours more with our backpacks.  I had one liter of fresh water to drink and some cough drops.  I think Laura had some Mentos. This was going to suck. 
As soon as we had the bike off the road in a small patch of grass, another bike with three people on the back hummed past.  I flagged  down the driver, while frantically asking  "Do you have a pump??"  The driver responded with a quite "Yes" and hoped off the bike to help.  As we tinkered around, he discover the tube had a hole and need a proper patch.  He told us he did not have the equipment, but that we could push it up to his house around the bend, nearly 200 meters up the road, in order to keep it safe while we hiked to town.  I stuffed a few bucks in his hand and thanked him.  We pushed on. 
A few minutes later, fully exhausted and covered in a paste of tropical sweat, sunscreen and dirt, we deposited the bike into his driveway.  It was now time to haul tail.  The sun began its slow decent behind the horizon while our feet militantly crunched the unwelcomed earth below us.  Would this day ever finish?
A few turns in the road later, we came to a common area of 4 or 5 huts with a small and simple gazebo centrally located.  Exasperated and feeling unlucky, we asked a group of local women "Is there vulcanizing here?"  Down the hill they pointed.  "Yes, yes.  Vulcanizing."  My eyes widened, blood once again filled my face and with a bounce in our step, Laura and I bounded down the hill.  I approached three indifferent teens in front of the house we were directed to a moment prior.  They were playing some type of game where you throw a coin toward the ground with vigor, and it hopefully stays within the box you've drawn in the dirt.  We interrupted and asked if they could help.  "Ah" was all I got in response.  They preferred to finish their game. After a few more throws, they leisurely went into their shack and came out with a few simple tools.  With minimum English and interest, one finally eeked out the works "Where motorcycle?"
5 minutes later we are walking back with the group in tow.  10 minutes later one is pulling off the tire.  20 minutes later they've found the hole. 30 minutes later they're melting a small patch of rubber on the tube with a simple hand-cranked heated press.  The tire is now getting pumped up.  Its holding air! The tube is depressed, tucked back in, and the bead restruck.  This is it! We're going to make it with the bike tonight!
The next thing I know, I'm slapping money in their hands, waving goodbye and hoping back on the bike.  The road is still so bad it takes us another hour, but who cares, we're moving.  By the time we get there, the sun is down and we're fully exhausted.  We find a place by the beach and order a beer.  I tell Laura "I know, that sucked.  But we can laugh about it now over a beer.  We're at one of the finest and most remote beaches in the Philippines."  She says "Johnny, we still have to drive out of here on that road in a few days."  She right and I'm worried, but I assure here that everything will be fine.  2 days later, we clear the road flawlessly, only to make it to the national highway and an hour later, to get another flat in the middle of nowhere.  "Screw it" I said.  Let's take this damn thing back to Puerto  before both of our heads explode. And another visit to the mechanic, that's exactly what we did.
Did I learn a lesson you might ask?  Definitely. Bring spare parts.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Rice Terraces of Banaue, Philippines

The following images are of the 2000 year old rice terraces in Banaue that are still fully in use today.  The images speak volumes so there is not much more for me to say, except that this region is truly and completely spectacular to see in person.  It's worth the journey.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sagada's Hanging Coffins

95% of the time in life, I've expected coffins, that's right, coffins to be buried.  The remaining 5% of the time accounts for the mausoleums of the world, periodically dotting cemeteries and places of worship.  0% of the time do I expect to see coffins hanging overhead, and if I did, I sure as hell wouldn't have believed they'd be hanging in limestone caves roughly 100 feet high above the ground. 
In comes Sagada.  This hard-to-reach mountain paradise is a welcomed respite from the sooty streets of Manila and its manic, sprawling suburbs.  Like every backpacker destination, Sagada has its own notable jewels that attract hardcore travelers from around the globe. But unlike most other destinations, it offers its visitors a superb glimse into its mysterious past with an all access pass.  Unlike the sterilized and controlled attractions of the modern world, Sagada allows its visitors to walk right up and touch history.  They may not suggest it, but there are no signs telling you to stop.  Honestly, there are no signs telling you were the attractions are.
After settingly into the top floor of a simple yet comfortable Guesthouse, we took to the road, heading in the direction Echo Valley.  After passing a church along a small trail, we took a hard left and headed in the direction of the local cemetery.  Following a crudely drawn map, we followed a small footpath to what we had assumed was the much anticipated lookout.  After happening into a dead end, I climbed a few limestone karsts to gain a greater view.  In front of me sat a beautiful valley, with lush green mountains tracing up to the sky.  Limestone rock faces broke free of the trees and gave a good showing.  Although the view was a fine one, we were in search of something more.  We doubled back up the hill to retrace the footpath in order to find the right spot.  We then stumbled down another path thinking this had to be it.  After a 5 minute decent to another dead end, we headed back to the highest point in a steady state of confusion.  With great care, we oriented our map and compass.  Where the hell was this trail? 
We found a few workers near the cemetery and asked them where the lookout sat.  With a nod of the head and a dismissive air, he pointed us across the hill.  Up and over we went, in one last attempt to find our prize. After toppling out and rounding the hills edge, we noticed and even smaller footpath about 50 yards below.  We wondered down and happened upon a more cheerful worker with a 10 foot log on his shoulder.  After dropping the wood, he called out to us and introduced himself in perfect English.  We did the same and before we could squeeze out another word, he said "So you're looking for the hanging coffins?  I have to cut more wood and bring it from the valley floor.  I'll show you the way down."  2 minutes later, we found ourselves descending a steep and slippery trail, following a complete stranger with a machete in his waistband and a wood saw in his hand. 
He quickly brought us to a small cave housing 4 coffins in various condition, dating back more than 100 years. Some of the coffins were greatly rotted, exposing skulls and bones on full display. 
As we traversed the valley, our new found guide, Ben, pointed high above our heads to the sides of the surrounding limestone cliffs.  With each place he pointed, our eyes would slowly focus in to see a short stack of coffins in small caves across the face of the mountain.  Ben explained that his ancestors would either climb the extremely difficult rock face and raise the body into it, or would lower each other down with the coffin first, and the body second.  As we continued along the densely covered valley floor, we quickly found ourselves standing below a tremendous limestone rockwall with an overhang about 30 feet up.  Comfortably situated out of the elements, dangled multiple coffins directly underneath the natural eave.  Attached by ropes, they sat suspended against the rocks in a timeless arrangement.  It was truely a sight.
We continued on for another 30 minutes while Ben shared the ancestral history and proceedings that brought this valley to its present state.  While providing us this local history lesson, we walked through his coffee fields and past a massive cave with a strong underground river.  We soon came upon a hidden path towards the road that only the eyes of a keen local could identify.  As we stumbled up through the brush, Ben chatted with continued excitement, fueled by our enthusiasm.  When it was finally time for us to part ways,  I shoved a few bucks in his hand as a small sign of gratitude.  He refused the money, stating he was not a guide.  I insisted and thanked him profusely for taking us along a path we never would have negotiated on our own.  He soon relented, and hopefully had a bottle of rice wine on us that evening. 
If you happen to find yourself in the Philippines, and don't mind spending next to 12 hours on bus, and 2 hours on jeepneys, go to Sagada and find a man named Ben in Echo Valley.  I promise, it'll be worth the ride.