For many, the idea of freeform traveling without a schedule means go where you want, do what you want to do on the spur of the moment, free from worries and plans.
I suppose that might be true at an early stage or in some places, but that kind of thinking can get you in trouble. Can you imagine getting off a bus on a whim because a particular view was so great, then discovering that there is not another bus for days and there is no place to stay or no food? Or deciding to explore somewhere, and discovering that you don’t have enough money for a hotel and food, and there’s no ATM? Or going to some destination and when you get there, you discover that the nights get cold and you don’t have warm enough clothes? Or getting to some waypoint, and discovering that the last bus of the day just left and the next one comes too late for some place you were trying to get to to be open?
Trust me, these things and worse can happen…traveling without a plan means you are CONSTANTLY looking at plans, and adjusting them as you go. This is what I call ‘logistics’, and if you don’t like doing logistics, then freeform traveling is not for you. You need to be on a packaged trip where all the details are laid out for you, someone else has done the legwork, and you are along for the ride. You pay extra for that, and you definitely lose the freedom to adjust your plan, but you don’t have to do the logistics.
I like freeform traveling, but I also have carried some lessons over from my days as a river runner. Nobody with any sanity just launches themselves into an unknown rapid and ‘trusts’ that they will find a way through. You always scout.
And when scouting rapids, you start at the bottom: Is there a way out of the rapid? Yes? Then how do you get to that exit point? Then you start backtracking upstream, connecting the dots, until you have created a ‘line’ through the rapid that will ensure your safety and success as you run it, if you can stay on (or get to) that line.
I do the same thing when traveling. I want to get to some town in the mountains….is there a bus that arrives at that town? Yes? Where does it leave from, and when? Can I get to THAT point on time? And again, from the destination backwards, I create a ‘route’ that will get me to all the buses and bus stations on time, which will ensure that I can get to my destination safely and successfully, if I make my connections.
Then, just like river running, I never really expect that plan to work out: it ALWAYS changes. But when I run a rapid and I get off my line, I know that I can go ahead and work my way through any way I want, but if I get in trouble, all I have to do is get myself back on the line and everything will work out.
Same with traveling…if I miss a bus, or I change my plan, I just know that if I get to certain points at a certain time, then I know I will be able to make my destination, or that there is a hotel there, or whatever I define as ‘safety’ for that leg of the trip. Maybe I’ll be a day later or something, but I’ll get there and be safe.
For this next leg of my journey, I was in Pagudpud, and wanting to get to Sagada, up in the mountains. From what I could figure out, there were two ways to do it, and both of them involved changing vehicles and being very aware of schedules, vehicles and hotels (or lack thereof).
The easiest way was to backtrack through Vigan, get off the bus at Tugudin and flag down a local bus through the twisty mountain roads, get off at Cervantes and find a jitney to Bontoc, where I catch another jitney to Sagada. Fortunately, there were lots of blog posts about this route with bus times, etc, and a high assurance that it would work out. If I started out of Vigan at 7am, I should be in Sagada by 4pm, no worries.
But it involved backtracking almost my entire route, and if I decided NOT to go to Sagada (like, if the weather closed down or the temps dropped) then I would backtrack my ENTIRE route back to Manila. And I hate backtracking.
The second (and more convoluted route) involved taking a bus from Pagudpud to Tuguegarao, getting there before the last 4pm van to Tabuk, spending the night in that god-forsaken place, and taking the once-a-day jitney at 7am to Bontoc, where I catch a regular jitney to Sagada. The problem with this route was that if I didn’t get to Tuguegarao by 4pm, I’d have to spend the night there…then spend the next night in Tabuk (only 90 minutes away) since the morning jitney would already be gone. An added bonus was that, if I bailed on Sagada (weather, temps), I could continue south from either Tuguegarao or Tabuk and not do any backtracking.
The downside is that almost no one does this route…there are rumors of bandits in the hills and the road was only finished about 6 months ago, so there are almost no blog posts about it or details on places to stay, bus schedules, etc. If I got off my line, I might be in trouble. Also, the ride from Tabuk to Bontoc to Sagada was on a jitney…which I don’t fit inside. So I’d have to ride on the roof…in the cold air at 50 mph for 8 hours. So I’d have to find a store and get a warm sweater and windbreaker, as well as a cheap cushion to sit on.
There was a third option: leave Tuguegarao in the very early hours, ride south on the National Highway to a remote intersection (no facilities, no store, no nothing) called Bagabag Junction, and flag down a vehicle going up to Bontoc. But apparently you have to leave Tuguegarao VERY early since it took about 5 hours to get to Bagabag, then you had to hope for a good ride up into the hills. Or maybe a series of rides.
One downside of this flu is that I cannot do early mornings. If I get up at 6am, it takes until about 8 until my head clears, the fever abates, and I can even think of getting organized to get out of town. Getting up at 4am to get to Bagabag by 9 or 10 was unreasonable, and the idea of getting stranded at Bagabag because of a late start just seemed to risky to me, so I rejected this option.
At this point you are probably thinking “Oh for gods sake Myron….it doesn’t matter…just choose one and go for it. Work it out as you go!” But like I said….without researching I could quite easily find myself doing something extremely stupid, like getting off somewhere that there is no bus, or no hotel, and having so spend the night sitting on my pack on the side of the road, shivering, waiting for dawn. Like it or not, obsessing over these little details and all the variants is a very real and time-consuming part of traveling. And by this point, there were NO other westerners anywhere. I am the only White Guy on the Bus, so there is no ‘safety in numbers’ thing going on. I’m not going to run this rapid blind.
So I went to bed having decided that I’d go with the second option: head eastward to Tuguegarao; if I made it by 4pm I would spend one night in Tabuk, if I was late, I’d spend a night in Tuguegarao and another in Tabuk. I knew where I had to be, by when, to ensure that I got to my destination. I had my Plan A (and a Plan A2). Having that knowledge let me sleep very well that night.
And of course…the next morning, the plan changed almost instantly.
The tricycle driver dropped me at 10am at the highway where the bus would come. I waited for over an hour, watching that 4pm deadline become less accessible, but had a very nice time chatting with a retired schoolteacher who was headed home after visiting her grandson in Pagudpud for a week. When it finally DID come at 11:15, the driver told me that we would be about 5 hours to Tuguegarao, which means I would not make it by my 4pm van.
The ride along the north shore was stupendous; unbelievably nice scenery, green trees, blue skies, turquoise water and stunning white clouds. We made a food stop at a nice roadside restaurant, and the schoolteacher joined me at my table.
“So where are you heading?”
I told her my plan was to get to Tuguegarao in time to catch a van to Tabuk, but it looked like I was not going to make it, so I’d spend the night there. She asked why I wanted to get to Tabuk, and I told her I was going to go up to Sagada from there.
“Oh, why don’t you just stay on this bus all the way to Santiago City, south of Tuguegarao? We have nice hotels near the bus station, and there are regular vans and jitneys that run right up to Bontoc.”
Well, that was news…none of my blogs had mentioned basing my last night out of Santiago City instead of Tuguegarao! I could stay in Santiago and get a morning van all the way to Bontoc; no riding on the roof of a jitney, no shopping for a sweater and windbreaker and cushion, and no standing at Bagabag hoping for a ride.
So I had a new plan. And other than not having enough cash on me for the fare to Santiago City, it seemed pretty good.