I would have made a good truck driver, I think. Since I first got that magic piece of plastic in my wallet at 16 years old, I have always been fascinated by travel. Where does the road lead? What’s around the next corner? Why would anyone go here?
Last weekend, we were in Abulug for a birthday party. We have some overseas guests coming for the wedding, and we need to find places for them to stay. One group are avid golfers, and they had heard that the casino in Santa Ana had a golf course. So, Becky and I drove out to see the hotel and check things out first. Where is Santa Ana? Quite literally, it is where the road ends. As far North in Luzon as you can go.
Northeast Luzon has always been sort of the Philippine “Wild West” or “Last Frontier”. No one, from the Spanish, to the Americans, to Marcos, truly tamed this part of the country. Santa Ana is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, an area that few outsiders have ever ventured or even have the ability to get to. To this day, there are no roads, only a few tiny villages accessible only by boat. The area beyond Santa Ana is also one of the few remaining “pristine” tropical rainforests in the world. The area has long been the refuge of rebels (Huk and NPA), Smugglers, and Tribal people with little to no outside contact with the modern world. Because of the close proximity to the mountains, Santa Ana is the modern outpost and “haven” for some rather unsavory characters and activities.
One of Rebecca’s uncles was the Chief of Police in Aparri for many years… Santa Ana was considered in his jurisdiction back then. He occasionally had to venture into the mountains and to search for rebels, bandits, and so on. Most of the time, the bandits would go into Aparri for Mass or to buy supplies once a month or so and then leave quietly, but every once in a while, someone’s pig, or rice, or whatnot would get stolen, simply disappearing into the hills. He was often shot at by the NPA, sometimes chasing the rebels for weeks through the jungle before finally losing them. Needless to say, this area is full of superstitions about monsters, rumours of old Japanese prison camps that operate to this day, NPA who were trained by Khrushchev himself, Old Marcos sympathizers, pirates, headhunters and cannibals. In other words, if you live in the Cagayan Valley, you simply don’t go up there.
A couple of Rebecca’s brothers have been… One told me a story about one of the tribes he met. It seems there is a splinter Ifugao tribe that holds the female form sacred. Not the whole female, but just the breasts. They walk around nearly completely naked, except for the breasts. Now, one of her brothers told me that in this tribe, when you meet one of the women, you can go up and cup her private parts with your hand, as a way of saying “Hello”. But…. Touch the breasts, and you lose your head at the end of a sharp bolo. Was he full of it? I think this might have been a case of too much nipa wine, but this is the type of story that goes around.
So, what’s in Santa Ana today? It is a beautiful drive from Aparri. Paved, but I use that term loosely (No real reason to go there!) Well, first off, you go through several AFP checkpoints just getting there. They are looking for smugglers, NPA, and all of the other characters I just mentioned. Secondly, Typhoon Fengshen, a few weeks ago, really did some damage up there (one side of each mountain was completely bare of trees… felled by the typhoon. Still no electricity after 3 weeks). After you pass the last checkpoint, you see Port Isabel on your left. This is the official port of the Special Economic Zone. What does that mean? Quite simply, in the town at the end of the road, this is where many cars and other goods of questionable origin officially enter the Philippines. If you are not too choosy, you can buy a fairly new truck for under 200,000 pesos there. I wouldn’t bring it to Toyota for repairs, though….You know…. serial numbers and all. There is a car lot with dealers and several thousand Japanese cars being converted to left-hand drive right by the road. Cash only (You think a bank will touch that????).
Keep going down the road and you find the casino. I have been to many casinos around the world. But I’ve never seen one surrounded by razor wire and guard towers before. Forget going in… They will not let you in unless you hold a Chinese passport and a RP Government invitation. Huh???? Figure that one out for yourself… I withold comment here. Needless to say, there is a hotel where you are not allowed to stay without said passport and no golf course.
Finally, you enter the town. This consists of about half a dozen sari sari stores, a dilapidated Petron station, a half dozen run-down resorts and one that was nice before the typhoon, a small but excellent fish market (we bought 10 kg), a relatively nice beach, nice views of the mountains and offshore islands…. AND…. FINALLY…. The end of the road. A concrete barrier right there and nothing but jungle and mountains as far as the eye can see. Some pictures: