The rains come early to the Cordilleras this year and we watch as the waters rise from the river below.
Slowly, inexorably, a few bushes disappear each day.
Our food supplies dwindle. We’ve eaten more than half our sardines and two-thirds of our rice. The tempting coconuts are stuck up in their trees, the slick palm trunks too slippery for even the nimblest climber to shimmy up.
Father Jojo frets.
“We need to find a way out or we might be trapped for weeks.”
Yes, Father. I keep busy by wringing out some clothes.
He and I – both of us working for the same charity, WWF – had been invited by a group of villages wanting to start an ecotourism business in this hard-to-reach region of Northern Luzon, an island in the Philippines.
We had climbed steeply for a day in a jeepney, the Filipino jeeps enterprisingly converted into circulating works of art. The road was wide enough for a single van and each time we met someone coming down – often a bus – we would either hug the cliff wall or worse, the cliff’s edge. Some maneuvers were so delicate I flattened myself on the ground, preferring not to witness my final minute.
The rains had caused mudslides and every so often, the dozen or so of us crammed into this particular jeepney got out to push. The fat tires rolled in the air for a few seconds until they hit the ground with a squishy thump, signaling contact had been made and we could again hope for a bit of traction.
After innumerable switchbacks we finally reached our village, itself located on top of a hill above a rushing river – the same swirling mess of dirty water now giving us such headaches.
Everyone is tired and hungry. To shower, I strip behind my hut and let the rain wash across me, applying my shrinking bar of soap. The combination of heat, humidity and rain keeps us drenched and slightly apathetic. My Thai sarong, the coolest piece of clothing I own, clings to my body like a wet sheet in the wind.
“We could paddle out of here,” Father Jojo suddenly says.
I stare in disbelief, horror even. I can’t swim, and paddling at the best of times requires life jackets and plenty of gear to ensure I don’t drown.
“All we need is a canoe.”
There is no canoe in the village but my relief is short-lived.
A long palm trunk lies on its side, awaiting its fate, smooth and straight and regal.
“We could use that,” the village chief points. “But you will have to pay for it.”
Of course we would. I huddle deep in my hut hoping for this moment to pass.
Everyone begins hewing, chopping, filing and whatever else needs doing to turn a tree trunk into a dugout canoe and over several days, our makeshift transportation begins to take shape. As we chisel and rub – I admit I’m doing more rubbing than chiseling – a long opening appears down its center, with room for two people, one behind the other.
My thoughts alternate between going hungry and drowning. The villagers can get in and out more easily but Father Jojo and I are city folk, for whom the idea of a canoe is almost as foreign as a spaceship. My flight leaves from Manila a few days from now and waiting for the rains to conveniently subside is as strategic as throwing a handful of sugar into a tornado and waiting for it to fall back in cubes.
So Father Jojo, myself and my terror – by now it is so palpable it occupies fully a third of the space – decide to paddle away in our dugout towards what can only be an ignominious death by drowning.
We have a slim margin. The rains have slowed and the river has stopped rising. Soon it will reverse and sink, making access difficult or impossible until everything dries and we can walk or drive out again. My flight would be long-gone.
On the morning of our goodbyes the villagers hold the canoe while we step in. Both Father Jojo and I nearly take a dive as we ungracefully tumble into that tiny contraption, and I wedge myself into a space not meant for the size of my behind. We are both handed a paddle, given a push and a wave, and sent off around the bend, possibly, I think, to meet our end.
We float downstream and the only time we need to paddle is to turn. I’m lulled into believing I’m on a (very wet) river cruise as palms and ferns gently touch the top of my head.
In my state of fear-induced quasi-hypnosis, I don’t count hours but we reach the first “dry” village well before sundown. From here we can catch a morning jeepney down the mountain again.
A sudden end on a slippery cliff-edge road now seems more likely than a ride to the bottom of the river.
Still, perhaps I should learn to swim.