On Tents and Camping

My first experience of camping overnight, in its definition as much as possible, was during the first year of high school. I did not have my own tent. My classmate had one. Instead of an untamed hillside or a jungle clearing, we made camp at the open ground in front of another campus of my school. The scent of sun-scorched grass filled my nostrils at times before and after noon. This smell mixed with that of synthetic material that comprised the tent, which also absorbed the heat of the tropical sun. Such weather condition would turn water in a plastic bottle from cool to lukewarm in fifteen minutes. My bag and clothes seemed ironed. This grassy area within the school grounds made me think of the Mongolian steppes, only hotter. In fact, the extracurricular activity appeared more as a fairground than as a campsite. Yet it went under the term ‘camping.’ At night, the grounds became alive with chatter, singing, strumming of guitars, and music from portable devices. It was back in 2004, during the heyday of the iPod. The air grew colder as midnight approached. Lack of trees caused the extremes in temperature obviously. It was the first time I would sleep in an actual tent, made of some waterproof cloth and propped up by bendable sticks. I could not doze off. There was no sleeping bag. The noise from fellow campers continued past midnight. The sound of snoring also echoed inside my ears. The transition from the bunk bed in my home to the interior of a tent could be described as abrupt. This went on for another night. Our camping lasted three days. When it ended and we went home, I felt like returning to the comforts of electricity, running water, and a soft bed after getting lost in the wilderness.

For the next three years I kept on attending this annual activity. Actually, my school held it twice. One was for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The other had an environmental science theme. I got assigned into teams, gave my best during competitive games, laughed with my fellows, and endured whatever was provided for us to eat. Still, I did not have my own tent. I had to ask my classmates or even students from another year for accommodation. Poor social skills characterized most of my high school years. Childhood came to an imminent end. Adolescence meant accepting the realities of adulthood bit by bit while dealing with hormones simultaneously. Fortunately, I got out of this phase a better person.

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It would be years later, after graduating from the university and getting employed in an office setting, that I would go camping again. I had taken three jobs already. Then in this seemingly paradise, I met a couple from another department randomly who happened to be outdoor enthusiasts. My interest in hiking began. It turned into overnight camping – this time the real deal. In fact, my first official mountain climb involved bringing a tent. In November 2015, our group stayed at Mt Daraitan for one night. We did not pitch tents near the summit. We settled down on gray sand at the banks of Tinipak River. It took us more than an hour of strolling beside a glimmering river, then descending a makeshift wooden ladder and jumping atop boulders, to reach this site. Despite being larger than usual, my backpack still lacked room for the cloth case for my tent and accessories. So I tied the handles to my bag or I would carry it all the way. I needed an even bigger backpack like my fellows had. Such was the challenge in doing something the first time. When our tents were finally set up, daylight faded fast. This time, there were no concrete buildings and open grassy spaces. Countless jungle trees surrounded us, sprouting out of hills with vertical rock faces that seemed to crumble. The river spanned wide enough for jumping on to it from a tower of limestone. Hearing only the sound of the current along with bird calls seemed lonely except that our chatter outdid the ambience. While my other companions swam and waded, some began preparing dinner. Our trekking party had more than just canned food. Our supper included chicken stew, hot dogs, and a vegan dish of mushrooms, tofu, and oyster sauce. The darkness of night might appear frightening out here but our tranquil surroundings offered more relief. I would prefer it to the vibrant chaos of the capital city after the sun had set. Only social interaction, reminiscent to that of prehistoric folks around a fire, delayed me from sleeping. This time, my tent also came with a sleeping bag.

More hikes followed, some of them came with camping. Over time, not only my gear improved but also I grew accustomed to spending a night outdoors, far from the comforts of a foam bed and a fluorescent lamp. It was not one hundred percent fun. Yet camping had its own incomparable joys such as the camaraderie of fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Camping would also build relationships. It would strengthen bonds from getting to know one another better and accepting people.

 

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Stars Covered by Clouds

I thought that weekend camping trip would be cancelled due to monsoon rains driven by atmospheric low pressure and a tropical depression. By Friday, the skies cleared up. Saturday came with a rather hot noon with the sun shining brightly. Yet by 3 AM on the following day, a downpour made us scurry into tents at our camp at the summit.

Located just north of Metro Manila, Mt Balagbag offers a weekend getaway that can be reached from Quezon City in more than one hour, even faster if not for the traffic. It rises 770 meters above sea level. Mt Daraitan (which I climbed before this one) has just the same altitude but the trail there slopes steeply in zigzag fashion, the rock surfaces and jungle bringing further challenge. Mt Balagbag has a friendlier terrain to navigate. Its trail difficulty rests at 3/9. Hiking here has been considered a minor climb.

A girl wearing eyeglasses and clad in a yellow shirt waited beside me at the entrance to the Jollibee® fastfood branch at Farmer’s Market, Quezon City. It was situated conveniently just beside the renowned Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). She looked familiar. I stood there waiting for Elena “Len” Ibana. She invited me to an overnight camping at Mt Balagbag. It also just happened that it was exactly one year since I met her at a fishing trip in Valenzuela City. She arrived just three minutes before 2 PM. I failed to notice Lawrence “Angel” Fetalvero, one of our companions in the trek. Later on, Cassandra “Cas” Gubatan and Juno Nario came. Meeting Cas made me recall how I met Ren Emradura, who organized my most recent trip to Mt Daraitan and invited me there. Cas and Ren shared a hairstyle and wore black when I first got to know them at almost the same spot inside that Jollibee® outlet. I had finished lunch. Cas, Juno, and Len dined as we compared our backpacks. I brought the one I used for overnight treks. It accompanied me at Mt Amuyao and the Purgatory traverse. Len tried to lift jeeringly with one hand. She could not. Juno commented that it was for a five-day hike. Cas bought Lawrence a new backpack. It was past 3 PM when we left for Mt Balagbag.

Some of my trips to a climb’s jump-off point, such as this one, involved riding a bus or jeepney rather than renting a van for a more convenient travel. The five of us then climbed on board a bus at Cubao, Quezon City with the destination called Tungko. At first, we had no seats. We stood up as chatting kept us relieved. One by one, our fellow passengers got off until we all had a seat. I shut my eyes and napped. Upon waking up, the bus had reached SM Fairview, a relatively large shopping mall. I stayed awake. Moderate to heavy traffic consumed time as our bus moved towards our destination. Distance was huge too. My mobile phone showed that it was 5 PM. Later on, vehicles of all sorts piled up in a line amid a scenery of rolling plains and wind turbines at the horizon. Passengers complained about the traffic, remarking about a car crash. Len asked us to just walk all the way. I could not answer. I had never been to this place before. The bus inched, halted, and inched again until we got out of the traffic jam. Our group dropped by near another SM shopping mall.

A short walk brought us to a local Jollibee® branch to rendezvous with two more companions. Aileen “Jessy” Epiz and CJ dela Rosa waited for us outside. We all sat down, had some rest, and filled our conversations with laughter. CJ remained to join his respective fellows. The rest of us rode a jeepney at a rustic place called Licao-Licao Terminal. It sounded like the Tagalog word ‘ligaw,’ which meant either ‘being lost’ or ‘courtship’ depending which syllable had the stress.

The sky had an orange glow as our public transport vehicle followed the lonely cemented rode under a sunset. We wished that we had arrived earlier, getting up the summit to witness this daily spectacle of nature. Time was not in our hands. Angel had the cheer, and audacity, to speak to our fellow passengers jokingly. He seemed fitting as a speaker or host to bring life to a formal event. Girls who were likely college students surrounded him to the left and right. Eventually, the surroundings went dim. Our driver turned the incandescent lights on. The black of night engulfed us as we got off the jeepney at a village. We bought cooked white rice in plastic bags, emptied our bladders, and began the hike. Another group of trekkers walked with us.

Just minutes ago, the full moon shone gloriously as a small white circle on the inky black heavens. Then clouds cloaked it ominously. Our voices echoed with tension as we remarked about it. I was rather unprepared to get caught under a downpour. Len shone her powerful flashlight on the way ahead as cement turned into dirt and mud. Mine did not give out light as brightly. I tripped into a puddle. Angel and I then followed her footsteps, literally. The three of us recounted tales from previous treks. Lawrence and Len described the trail at Mt Tapulao in Zambales province. Len could not forget how the rocks absorbed heat and then radiated it back to the already searing air. She could have felt like grilled in a barbecue. Walking in the darkness, this scene resembled uncannily the Mt Makiling traverse where Len and I, including our friends Brian and Xander, got caught by nighttime on a road like this. Back at Mt Balagbag, chatter from not only us but also the other hiking party broke the silence, replied with the distant barking of domestic dogs. A kitten’s eyes shone suddenly, distracting me. It then disappeared into the grass. Len thought I was hallucinating. I chuckled and did not mind. The air was hot. Humidity caused me to sweat much. In my mind I pointed out the cloud cover. Aileen, Cas, and Juno went ahead and disappeared from sight. Then the road turned into cement as the white wall of an elementary school lay to our left. The three of us caught up with our companions at the village hall nearby.

A moment after we registered for our overnight stay, my friend Dhon Develos arrived riding on a tricycle or what could be called a motor-powered pedicab. CJ came with him along with a bunch of our fellows. The group consisted of men except for one woman who went by the name of Jenelyn Francisco. Aileen and Cas remarked that she shared the name with an actress from the GMA-7 television network. Our trekking group was called Star Magic, after the sort of guild of actors and actresses in the rival ABS-CBN TV network. Aileen was Jessy Mendiola, Cas was Maja Salvador, Juno was John Lloyd Cruz, Lawrence was Angel Locsin, and Len was Anne Curtis. Later on, I found out that Dhon was Aljur Albrenica. I still had to come up of who would I be as an ABS-CBN actor. My friend Ren told me I resembled Rico Yan, who was already deceased. Once everyone had signed up and paid the entrance fee, the nocturnal hike commenced.

Shortly afterward, a pack of dogs stood on our way. Angel, Anne, and I were at the front of our now bigger party. The three of us approached the canines. One of the dogs barked as they all stared at us. It felt like we were encroaching their territory. As we walked by, another dog growled menacingly. One walked toward us as if to lunge and attack. Fear crept up my spine. It was the rabies virus, not the bite itself, that worried me. I always told people that dogs were like venomous snakes. Fortunately, no one got bitten at that time. The hounds knew better to keep distance. Still, that moment had the sensation of encountering a pack of wolves in the middle of the night. It made me recall the movie The Grey starring Liam Neeson. Angel lightened the mood by stating the dogs were his kin and he would shape shift later.

It became apparent that Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno were gone. Either they went far ahead of us or got left behind by using the restroom when we began walking. I suggested we rest a bit for them to catch up in case of the second possibility. Then we came upon a lit house that also sold snacks, beverages, and other stuff we could thank the Divine Providence for. Len asked a boy if he saw three people who passed by earlier. The boy said yes. However, Len expressed concern for the dirt road forked into two at this point. I assured her that common sense would lead them to the ascending path.

The uphill stretch of road sapped our strength. I could not think of anything but darkness, sweat, and fatigue. Our companions brought an incredibly bright lamp that gave us a patch of sunshine where everything was near-black. As our hike progressed, I chatted with them. I got to know Aldrin, Clarence, and Jasper. Jenelyn walked with us. Jasper held what looked like a sack of rice with other edible provisions for the night. I asked Aldrin if we had been together on a hike before at Mt Daguldol. He said no. Aldrin had a namesake during that climb back in June.

Mist shrouded our surroundings past a gate and a hut. We could not see beyond ten meters. Wisps of whitish smoke swirled in the air when shone by our lamp. The air grew cold. I was not sweating anymore. Lawrence and Len recalled a movie with that same frightening fog. I mentioned The Mist. Then it came to our minds. Silent Hill. The film adaptation of the the video game went on-screen back in 2006, followed by a sequel six years later. It was the mist upon entering the town called Silent Hill. Then the fog gobbled Lawrence up as he moved ahead of us. Len decided to stay in the rear. I chatted with Jasper. We advanced through the chilly mist like a party of trekkers climbing up a mountain in the Himalayas during a blizzard. We could also have been members of an expedition trudging the remote icy wasteland of the Arctic. Then a yellow excavator vehicle appeared out of nowhere, lying still by the road. It seemed a gigantic long-necked monster summoned by this fog, its sharp teeth giving a menacing look. This time, Silent Hill turned into Transformers. Yet the place only echoed with our voices. If we were not there it would have been incredibly quiet. Perhaps Silent Hill was fitting after all.

Our group caught up with Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno at an outpost. In fact, Len called Aileen earlier through mobile phone. The latter said she and her companions have already reached the summit. They did not and waited for us. It was too dark and I was quite tired to notice details of this building. I sat down with a parched throat, relieving it with sips of water and two tiny cups of jelly. We spent about ten minutes taking a break, chatting and laughing, before our ascent all the way to the summit.

We retraced the unpaved road a little bit then followed an alternative route at where it forked. Stones and pebbles littered the surface. The low air temperature also kept the ground firmly solid. Nevertheless, I stepped into something wet. It was more than just a puddle. Frigid water ran its course as a very small brook, trickling more than flowing. My shoe and sock got wet but not soaked. I did not mind. Amid the darkness our handheld lighting devices revealed that the area lacked trees completely. We hiked through a prairie – or more like a savanna. Dhon and I shared stories and caught up with one another. A full year had passed since we were together in an excursion. He missed the overnight getaway at Mt Gulugod Baboy with our mutual friends as he was at another relatively distant location at that time. Dhon carried a bag of provisions on his shoulder. My large backpack felt a bit lighter but it still strained my back. My fellows seemed as silhouettes, faces obscured by shadow rather than the darkness itself. I could not recognize who I was walking with. Thirty minutes passed since we left the outpost. Then I heard yelling while leading the way of our party. We had arrived at the summit. Two of our companions named Christian “Chan” Ararao and Jhay greeted us.

Going a little further, our hiking party walked back and forth on a grassy patch of land to determine whether it would be suitable as our campsite. A pile of rubbish lay near to a circle of ash and soot, which indicated the remnants of a campfire. Then we all agreed to pitch our tents at this spot. We helped one another. Bendable metal sticks propped up synthetic material that served as miniature temporary houses, gathered together as a festive village.

Once our camp was set up, we began preparing our dinner. Our menu included sliced salted duck eggs with chopped tomatoes and onion, sliced green mangoes, a bottle of shrimp paste, grilled chicken, and chicken adobo cooked by Cas. We cut black plastic trash bags in a way to become an improvised picnic cloth. Meanwhile, Clarence brought out a portable outdoor stove with a can of butane as source of fuel. Later on, he sautéed hot dogs with diced onions and chili, along with ketchup. My companions also brought out both hard and soft liquor. We laid the food on our improvised plastic ‘picnic cloth’ with boiled white rice in the middle. Then we dug in. Our group did not gobble food like a pack of wolves or hyenas. We ate with our hands but in an orderly and noble fashion. For me, it was one of the best meals I had while outdoors.

Later on, our hiking party played a game as we sat down in a circle. Someone would give a category of what to enumerate. For example, that person would say brand of clothing or color, then we would cite anything legitimate under that category without repeating what was already mentioned. It became a matter of general knowledge and a good ear. The game was mind-stimulating and fun at the same time. I knew my friend Dhon. He liked such intellectual stuff.

While in the middle of our game, bright and hazy lights shone without warning. Microscopic water droplets suspended in fog refracted the light, casting what appeared to be an aurora borealis. Aileen and Lawrence specifically remarked about it. Our imagination played with robots in Transformers again, along with other aliens (The Autobots and Decepticons were not of this world after all). The open ground at Mt Balagbag’s summit seemed ideal for an alien abduction. It turned out the distracting lights came from the headlamps of an off-road truck. The extra large wheels made it appear even more massive and imposing. The groan of engines came with the spine-chilling bark of a dog. From how the sound echoed we knew it was large and had pedigree. (On the following morning we saw with our own eyes it was a German Shepherd). I compared it to the dire wolves from the television series Game of Thrones, which was airing in its newest season. Then our fellow campers settled down and lit a campfire that turned into a bonfire like one for signalling rescuers. The whitish glare now had an orange glow. The smell of burning wood entered our nostrils. Regardless, our time for leisure went on. We teased one another playfully. Chatter and laughter kept the summit alive no matter how far we were from a bustling town.

Suddenly, an overweight orange tabby cat crept its way into our campsite. It was familiar to our fellows. People named the feline Garfield. It began eating our leftover food without our consent. Eventually, CJ had to lift up Garfield away from our camp. He sustained a few light scratches in the process.

It was 3 AM when our socialization event ended. Members of our trekking group entered the tents like farm workers retiring for the night. Then a drizzle came. Light rain escalated into a downpour. At this time, I took shelter in a tent with Chan, Juno, and Len. When the rain subsided, I went back to my own tent. The interior got only a bit wet. I unfurled my sleeping bag and slept on a dry but cold surface. Dozing off lasted only less than two hours, aroused once by the voices of passing campers from a group different from one with the off-road truck.

 

Gray haze shrouded the distant surroundings in the morning. Time passed and yet the mist would not let up. It lingered all over us with a chill that made my fellows wear jackets or shawls. I kept to my shirt made of material that dried easily. My body not only tolerated the low air temperature but also loved it too. Yet my torso shivered and my teeth chattered slightly. I just woke up. Had it been a sunny dawn, a scenic landscape with sailing clouds and dancing fog would greet us. It was not one of those days.

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From left: CJ, Dhon, Jasper, Jhay, Cas, Aileen, Chan, Calrence, Juno, Lawrence, Len

Mud stuck to our shoes and slippers despite the grass cover. This same mud tainted our tents. Everything literally was moist from condensation.

We walked around, trying to feel warmer in earnest. Some of us, including me, took group photos. Clarence heated water in a steel pot with a handle. The portable stove roared like a fire-breathing dragon at first before emitting only tiny flames. Then we could not boil the water anymore. The can of butane was fully expended. Two loaves of bread and uncooked luncheon meat in a can sustained us. We stood around the fire and food as a group, shivering with mud on our footwear and tents. We looked like refugees. The armed conflict at Marawi city in Mindanao, which began in late May, had been ongoing still. Some of the actual refugees from there were faring worse than our trekking party. Instant coffee powder got poured into the pot of heated water. It might not have boiled but hot enough to warm our bellies. Cas poured coffee into cups as we fell in line. I brought a steel and plastic tumbler distributed within my office for the employees. Two scoops of the invigorating drink with a dipper were enough. Now I really felt like a refugee. Past 7 AM, tents got dismantled and folded up. Litter were picked up and useful stuff were packed up. Only backpacks and a trash bag remained. The fog did not subside. It even brought drizzle that threatened us with heavy rain and soaked clothes. Len wore her yellow plastic poncho. I did not bring one. Most among us did not mind getting wet. Fortunately, water from the sky remained as widely scattered droplets as we commenced the hike down Mt Balagbag. Our hiking party would be heading to a waterfall. I wondered if bathing in a frigid current under a bleak sky would “kill” and “resurrect” me again like at Mt Manalmon.

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What’s this insect on my arm? Not a cockroach for sure.

Another path led us downhill. Dhon suggested we follow this route instead of going back the same way we took last night. It sloped drastically just off the summit. I avoided stepping on the slippery mud, keeping on the grass at the path’s sides. Slipping could not be avoided. I sprinted down while leaping like a hare. Dhon and I led the way. Our companions’ distressed voices faded as we walked farther.

The trail branched into two. The left path would lead us to the cross, Dhon said. It did. Before us stood two immense wooden crosses. This place could have been visited by the faithful of Christianity during the Holy Week. A bleak landscape of gray and green, comprised of the mist and grass, surrounded the crosses. I had the sensation of paying respects to the fallen of hostilities in this seemingly war memorial. The sun refused to shine. The cold prevented me from sweating. Then we regrouped to pose for photos. Aldrin, Dhon, Jen, and I decided to go ahead of them.

DSCN0701The four of us passed by a group of campers with a lone dog walking back and forth near them, like a jackal waiting for a flock of rowdy vultures to finish off a carcass. We greeted the trekkers and they did too in reply. Jenelyn wore slippers, which lacked the grip on our muddy and slippery trail. Dhon and I followed this path through grass, moss, and some rock outcrops with fog limiting our visibility. It felt like hiking in the Scottish Highlands. All that lacked was the familiar sound of bagpipes, carried by the breeze. Then Aldrin and Jen disappeared from view. The two shouted at us to press on as they would catch up. Wooden signs fashioned as the letter X stood silently like crosses where criminals were hung. That moment in our descent lacked cheer but not depressing at all. Dhon and I seemed lost in the wilderness. Then we all regrouped at a grassy spot with a boulder. A short walk from here brought us to the dirt road once again.

About thirty meters off the road to our right, an outdoor latrine offered relief to full bladders. From a distance it looked messy as if not cleaned for a year. Only approaching it would reveal if it smelled worse, or not as bad as we thought. I walked with Aileen, Cas, Chan, Dhon, Juno, Lawrence, and Len. Still to our right, a horse stared at us while standing idly. It appeared taller than most that I had seen before. The equine was at home in this patch of grassland in our archipelago of forested mountains. I imagined myself riding one like a nomadic horseman. A bit later, a rock formation reminded me of the Stonehenge in England. Our group of merry trekkers climbed atop and posed for photos. After that, ten minutes passed as we kept on walking and then reached the outpost.

Another hiking party gathered around the wooden table. I recognized them. Yesterday, I approached them at the fast food establishment in Quezon City thinking they were my companions when Len had not arrived yet. I was wrong. By sheer coincidence they also happened to be bound for Mt Balagbag today. So, I had a brief chat with two or three among them, introduced myself as a blogger, and took a snapshot. They seemed to be a group of friends rather than an official hiking group.

DSCN0716At the point where the path forked, the rock face by the road crumbled likely due to the extremes of chilly rain and scorching sunshine. It resembled the scene of a recent landslide. During my Purgatory traverse our group passed by one with more soil and less rock, fortunately. The sky cleared a bit. It was not raining anymore. Yet the gray haze still concealed most of the landscape like the fog of war in a real time strategy video game. The air remained cold. We climbed atop a rock formation, posing for photos to share through social media later. Flying insects swarmed around us, biting exposed skin and leaving reddish rashes. Instead of mosquitoes, they turned out to be lightly-built beetles. We stood casually, then posed as ninjas.

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Everyone’s smiling at this picture, and then Lawrence about to punch Chan (not really)

Time spent at and around the outpost lasted at least twenty minutes before our downhill hike resumed. Eventually, we found our way back at the excavator again. The nocturnal darkness and fog were gone. Even the distant mist began retreating to the unknown place where it came from. Houses, trees, grazing land, and hills showed up. The surroundings turned much friendlier than they were last night. Cyclists also headed up Mt Balagbag, exchanging greeting and best wishes with us. I chatted with Aileen, Cas, and CJ. Dhon and Len went far ahead.

Soon, we walked past a gate. At this point I strolled alongside Jhay and we got to know one another. We talked about hiking, occupation, and hobbies. Meek homes lined the roads. Hens clucked, roosters strutted, and dogs lay motionless. The sun shone brighter. It was 9 AM. This sort of rural community at Mt Balagbag simmered in the tranquility of a typical Sunday morning. A local man played on his portable stereo the songs from decades ago. Mud and puddles still lay on the unpaved road despite the heat of daytime. My forehead grew hot and turned moist with sweat. I needed an electric fan.

Later on, we came upon another large party of seemingly college or perhaps high school students, and a few adults, carrying saplings for a tree-planting activity. Someone wore a T-shirt that bore the words DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES. The continuous stream of visitors could provide a mountain’s local community with extra income. However, the downside would be its natural environment deteriorating slowly. Tree-planting activities assured sustainability and preservation of this country’s priceless treasures. If anyone would ask my companions during hikes, the most pressing issue came in the form of waste disposal. Sometimes foil wrappers, plastic bottles, and trash bags littered the trail. No one would sweep them away. They made the place unappealing to hikers. No one knows exactly how long would a piece of trash linger on forested trails. Perhaps it would not decompose after all.

Our hiking party regrouped at the barangay hall. Then we marched anew towards the water falls. That span of time strolling by the elementary school and more homes could be described as mediocre but for one exception. A purely black rooster charged at Dhon suddenly. Dhon yelled in surprise but not in a way that he was panicking. The rooster, more shocked by our companion, fled away on its two scaly legs. We all laughed. Eventually, we arrived at a house that served as the entry point towards what people called the Otso-Otso Falls. According to a senior-aged resident there, the body of water assumed the shape of the number eight, which was ocho in Spanish and transliterated in Filipino languages as otso. I could not imagine how what he said looked like.

A descending narrow trail led us down to Otso-Otso Falls. We walked in single file. I felt uncomfortably hot. Less than one-fourth of my beverage supply per bottle remained. Noontime came closer by every minute. Surrounding vegetation exhaled seemingly as if animate, turning the air warmer. At one point the trail had a slope between 45 and 60 degrees. Then it turned left where trees clustered densely. The path grew muddy. We walked slower to avoid slipping as we were also going down. Then the sound of rushing water reached my ears. Air temperature changed from hot to cool in an instant. Our group skipped onto rocks rising from what appeared as a creek to cross to the other side. Then we put our stuff down and began bathing at Otso-Otso Falls.

Essentially, Otso-Otso Falls consisted of a waterfall and two pools that lent the place its name. From its source, small to medium sized rocks slowed the current for a smoother flow. A large elongated rock just beside the higher pool could serve as a bench for bathers to sit on. Water then rushed at the side as it should behave when pushed into a narrow gap. This pool was one and a half meters deep (four to five feet in the English or Imperial system). We stayed at this spot as another group of holiday goers swam and bathed at the bigger lower pool. Up here, water accumulated as if in a basin or tub before plunging down a sheer vertical rock face. The actual falls stood about ten meters. Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence jumped in. The water was five meters deep, enough to catch a person unharmed. Beyond the waterfalls’ base lay the larger pool. After wading, one would feel on his or her soles the bumps of the bed’s scattered rocks . I preferred the smooth tiles of the swimming pool. Here at Otso-Otso Falls, at least the pristine water was naturally cold and smelled of mixed soil, rock, and leaf instead of chlorine. Our party stayed at least 30 minutes at this natural wonder. We plunged, swam, waded, talked, and laughed. Then it was time to head back up.

Len trailed behind me in our single file line. I told her that going down was more difficult than going up due to one’s weight bearing down on his or her legs, along with the increased chances of slipping. Len argued it was the other way round. Yet she proved right. The uphill walk made me pant and complain of the heat. At first, Len lagged behind. Then I looked back and she was just right behind me with a smile despite the ordeal. It was a stress-free day after all. Still, the entire walk from the falls to that house by the main road took about ten minutes, even less.

I sat down with Aileen, Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence. We waited for one of those motor tricycles to pass by so we could hail it like a taxi. Not one arrived. Then the five of us decided to walk all the way. We had been through here last night. Now I could see my surroundings clearly as crystal. At first, we followed the lonely dirt road on a seemingly untamed place with its trees, rock faces, bushes, and vines. Aileen and Cas chatted about the Disney movies Frozen and Moana. We also talked about show business along with recent experiences.

Dhon and I then found ourselves way ahead, leaving the three behind. We had a conversation until arriving at the jump-off point where CJ, Juno, and Len waited for us. We bathed with soap and shampoo, donned fresh clothes, and sat down before our entire hiking party regrouped and rode a jeepney back to Tungko. The noontime heat penetrated the vehicle’s interior. It seemed we bathed twice for nothing. Rashes appeared on my forearms. It could be one of those allergic reactions again. My companions noticed it. Len knew about my sensitive skin by backing my tale. In one of my previous treks, a fellow advised me to gulp down soft drinks. Sugar would alleviate the allergy. The jeepney brought us away from Mt Balagbag. Then one of the passengers also brought her sacks of merchandise, filling the entire interior. Such was life in a nearly rural area with limited means of mass public transportation. Later on, we arrived near a highway intersection and enjoyed a lunch of grilled chicken with unlimited servings of boiled white rice.

The excursion at Mt Balagbag did more than just enabled me to see Dhon and Len again in person. I had more acquaintances with whom I also felt a sense of belonging. Hopefully, I would hike with them again sometime in the future. I also chose to be the actor Derek Ramsey as my sort of code name in the group.

 

 

 

 

Return to Mt Daraitan

There had been no bliss like going back to the first mountain I climbed while getting ready to move forward with life. It all began at Mt Daraitan nearly two years ago after an unexpected invite from a group of acquaintances at work. Then one mountain followed another like episodes of a television series that captured one’s interest. Now it was time to return to my so-called ‘mother mountain’ – a term used among trekkers in the Philippines for the first peak climbed.

While waiting for my companions in a hike at Mt Daguldol in Batangas province, I met Ren Emradura. She organized treks at mountains mostly, having acquainted with drivers and nature guides since she started in January of 2017. One day in June, Ren and I talked about climbing Mt Daraitan. She posted the event on social media. The day hike would take place on two consecutive Sundays for two batches of climbers.

Mt Daraitan can be climbed within three to four hours, even less than that with quick pacing. It has a trail difficulty of 4/9 and rises to a height of 739 meters above sea level. This may sound easy but the mountain has been famous for its steep rocky trails. It is situated within the boundaries of the town of Tanay, in Rizal province. Mt Daraitan lies close to the National Capital Region, making it a weekend getaway for residents of Metro Manila. At the foothills flows the Tinipak River where visitors can dip and plunge into the cool water with a moderate current. One can also admire rock formations sculpted naturally by the elements.

Ren and I arrived first at our hiking party’s meeting location in Quezon City. It was the exact place where we first met. One by one, our companions arrived. Jem Lorenzo came first. Miguel Gutierrez, Jerome “Kamote” Bitudio, Vicka Dorado, Dexter “Dhex” Pacaanas, Marlon Fordan, and Clifford “Cliff” Tagsip then followed respectively. ‘Kamote‘ meant sweet potato in the local mother tongue. It sounded cool for me. I knew a veteran hiker who went by the nickname of ‘talahib,’ or cogon grass. Rosemarie Endaya brought her siblings Len Len and Marlon. She was addressed as either Rose or Marie. Kelly “Trudis” Abaño and France Jaucian then arrived. Dhex, France, Trudis, Rose, and Vicka worked in the same petroleum company. Later on, only two were missing. Ren contacted them again. Then our group walked to their location and notified our transport’s driver to meet us all there. Neil Bolandrina and Enzo Ponon waved their arms as they saw us.

20170702_010951We went inside the Toyota HiAce van and chose seats of our own. Ren and I sat in the front beside our driver. He introduced himself as Rodgie. In fact, Ren already sought his services as a driver for a few times now. Later on, I realized why. Rodgie did not own the van but he could use it freely. The vehicle came with a sing-along system or karaoke, complete with a microphone with cord and a small television that displayed the lyrics. Our van also had WiFi, providing Internet access for our gadgets. It was the first time I had a transport for trekking that had these perks. As an organizer of hikes, Ren deserved my compliment. Rodgie turned the karaoke on. It had a scoring system. Whoever gets 100 points would be treated with a bowl of noodle soup, according to our driver. Reluctance from shyness overcame us at first. Then Rose sang first. On her another try, she got the 100 points. Of course there was no noodle soup. In the Philippines, one would not always take someone’s words literally. Joking had been entrenched deeply into local social behavior. Yet our group had less cheer than expected despite the karaoke. We also needed to doze off. I could not do it. Just days ago, I drank black coffee to do laundry after a tiring office shift. Caffeine helped me accomplish the task along with a bit of writing for this blog. After that, I was desperate for sleep. Drowsiness eluded me. It could simply be described as having a bad dream while awake. This time, I was going back to Mt Daraitan in good company. Perhaps the nocturnal work schedule kept me awake for most of the road trip.

At nearly 3 AM, our van crossed a bridge. We had arrived at the base of Mt Daraitan. I recalled this location, scanning for a shack by the river. Then we would get out, float across the body of water on a raft, then ride to the village by a motorized three-wheeled transport locally referred to as a tricycle. Our transport simply crossed a bridge and kept on going. Then it hit me. The bridge had been newly constructed, easing access by road to Mt Daraitan.

Rodgie parked the automobile on a vacant lot. My fellow hikers and I went out with stiff legs and insufficient consciousness. The air felt unusually warm instead of cold for this hour. Ren signed us up and took care of fees. I ended up walking with Vicka to a small food and snack establishment near the barangay (village) hall. As the two of us sat down waiting for rice porridge while talking to Cliff, France, and Marie, I had a flashback. After descending from Mt Daraitan’s summit in November 2015, I snacked and chatted with my companions named Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, and Marc here at this exact spot. A couple named Carla and Neil led the excursion. Now it was just a distant memory that faded with my dissolved job position and the lack of communication. I shared that moment to the lady who served us porridge. She said they did serve hamburgers before but no more at the present. Some things had changed indeed. Still, nostalgia crept into me. Ren joined in. We had instant coffee too. Soon, our trekking party gathered at the cemented road as my fellows rented headlamps. Then we strolled to a roofed basketball court for a briefing before our hike. Two groups of fellow hikers had already assembled19239679_1629918810365077_1471915032_n on one end of the venue. Our party huddled with our guides named Alex, Jhun, and Golis. Then I recognized Alex. He was my guide during my first climb here. Aged in the forties or fifties, Alex also accompanied Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, Marc and I at the campsite by the river nearly two years ago. He looked at me and also remembered me. The briefing last no more than five minutes. Then group photos were taken before the actual trek began.

We took the cemented road lined by houses. It all felt familiar, only this time it was still dark and residents were sleeping. Dogs did bark at us though. Then the ground turned uneven and rock-strewn. I stayed at the rear with Cliff and Ren, chatting with them too. Cliff had already climbed Mt Apo, the highest mountain in the Philippines. Alex led our hiking group. Golis and Jhun served as sweepers, a term for those last in line to make sure that no one would be left behind. I brought a hand-held flashlight instead of a headlamp. It presented a bit of a challenge. Only one of my hands was truly free. We had not reached the steep ascending part yet.

Small lighting devices turned hikers into bioluminescent insects from a distance. The scene before me seemed that of an elven forest. Our respective group stopped as the party ahead of us took time in making way through the ascending rocky trail. The path had a slope of 60 degrees, perhaps even higher as I recalled. Our march grinded to a halt. Nevertheless, I welcomed some rest. Sweat oozed profusely on my forehead. My throat yearned for a sip of energy drink, which I brought in a 1.5-liter bottle. Aside from that, I also had another 1.5-liter bottle of purified drinking water bought at the grocery store. That would make a total of three liters. On the other hand, Ren decided to have only one third of my beverage volume. She challenged herself with drinking as less water as possible. Additionally, Ren asked Jhun to carry her relatively light backpack as she had not fully recovered from dental surgery days ago. It felt liberating to the back, according to her.

It was my turn to overcome the slopes. No wonder the itinerary and locals alike advised us to wear gloves. I gripped on bare rock with one hand and with a flashlight in the other. I did not regret it. It was something new. It felt challenging. Mt Daraitan was the first mountain I climbed officially. Back then, I nearly panted to death at this point. This section not only took my breath away but also caused cramps on my legs. Those muscles ached from even a bit of movement. When we reached the rest station atop this slope, my lower extremities collapsed. I sat down. I told Kenneth and Kaye that I would be going back to the village. Then the two gave me jellies. They said the water and sugar content of jelly would re-energize my body. I also sipped some water. Minutes passed. The aching subsided. I got up and decided to keep on pushing towards the summit. This time, going up that nearly-vertical slope was easier than its counterpart at Mt Amuyao during my excursion there. Only the darkness and limited grip upset me. I did not breathe as deeply as before. The pace improved tenfold. Yet I could not see Ren anywhere. Other female members of our hiking group advanced uphill behind me. Then I bumped into more people. I thought they were our companions. They proved otherwise. Unfamiliar faces greeted me back.  In a way, I floundered through the lack of lighting. A rustic shelter made of bamboo offered respite as a lady sold coconut juice. After some rest, it was back on the trail again.

Miguel accompanied me. Enzo and Neil were also nearby. Ahead of us, Cliff walked as if he did not feel fatigue at all. Moving through a rocky trail sapped less energy and morale than through a muddy one. Despite the rough ascent, branches and tree trunks were always there to be gripped as to not slip.

The black of our surroundings turned to a color tone of mixed gray and blue past 5 AM. It came to a point that I could not make up my mind whether to still use the flashlight or not. Tree roots and slippery rocks still lay on our way. Time passed as our hiking group advanced steadily like someone late for school or work. Eventually, darkness flew away and got supplanted by a surreal bluish light. Clouds amassed at the horizon.

My camera began to malfunction at a platform where we spent ample time for photos. Every snapshot was blurry. It had that look when one opens his or her eyes after coming out of the surface of a river or the sea. My blog needed presentable pictures. I turned off the flash. I restarted the camera. The photos were still blurry. They had to be deleted. Carelessness caused me to get rid of all snapshots I took since the beginning of this hike. They were all gone in seconds. I expressed my frustration rather loudly. I told Ren about my mistake, hoping to alleviate the regret. She would share our group photo at the basketball court. During our conversation, I remarked that deleting memories should have been as easy as losing those photos with one press of a button. Then they could not be retrieved anymore, lost for good. Ren replied that not all memories should be discarded. Beautiful ones should be kept. Later on, my camera worked normally again. They were like human eyes, adjusting to the period between nighttime darkness and daylight. That explained why the photos turned blurry at that point.

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Back row from left:  Miguel, Neil, Marlon, The Blogger, Vicka, Ren, Enzo, Trudis. Front row from left: Len-Len, Rosemarie, Jem, France, Dhex, Jerome, Marlon  

Jem walked relatively slower due to leg cramps. Nevertheless, she kept on going. I forgot to mention the ointment again. I asked her if she was okay. Jem honestly answered that she was not. I agreed happily with her point. Saying that I was fine would be easy but in reality I was feeling otherwise. No one would know, better yet care. Jhun accompanied Jem, advising her to take slow yet steady steps.

Alex and I recalled a chat about plants growing in the area along with the medicinal properties of some of them as I stared at a ravine to my right. The terrain plunged starkly. I could imagine myself falling and rolling downhill. Trees clumped beyond the edge. Mt Daraitan could be described as a forest growing on a ground of mostly rock. He knew this place very well, spending much of his life on the trail, river, rock formations, and towering trees. His forefathers also called this mountain their home.

Not everyone in the group had been avid in hiking but we collectively moved in a relatively quick pace. I learned that this was Enzo’s, Neil’s, and Vicka’s first taste of mountain climbing. The four of us would have the same ‘mother mountain.’ They walked continuously. Vicka also played badminton so I would not be surprised. Some first-timers could have complained of aching legs, sitting down for at least fifteen minutes and giving up on the trek. Mt Daraitan had notorious steep trails that might intimidate beginners. The uneven terrain of mostly rock did not matter for the trio. We all kept on going.

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A caterpillar was crawling on my pants when suddenly it took a dump. I removed it unharmed.  

I spent some time with Rose, Len Len, Marlon, Miguel, and Ren. Trudis and France were also there. We chatted, slurped jellies, and posed for pictures. Everyone agreed that Trudis was the most talkative and humorous among us in our Facebook® group chat. Yet I noticed frankly that she spoke less as we approached the summit.

Soon, our own bunch of hikers arrived at Station Two. There were three. Our guides confirmed it. I thought Mt Daraitan had eight stations in total. Either my memory got blurry or I included spots with benches in the count. Fellow climbers from other groups also sought rest and refreshment at Station Two. A vendor sold carbonated beverages, instant noodles, snacks in foil packs, and even hard-boiled eggs in his small makeshift stand. Visitors to Mt Daraitan sat on benches made of hardwood or bamboo. Some sat on the ground itself. It would only be ten minutes of walking to the summit.

Those ten minutes felt like only two. Mountain trails seemed shorter and easier when one hiked them already before. No wonder the guides who spent much time at their respective peaks would say at one point that it only takes ten minutes to reach the summit whereas it would be longer for climbers.

Nearly a year ago, the sun shone on my left on a silvery sky when I reached Mt Daraitan’s summit. Now it did on my right. The sky also had a tranquil hue of blue with much less glare. It was 7 AM. This time, my hiking party was not the only one admiring the view. A few groups of hikers reached our destination ahead of us. Chatter and laughter filled the air. I sat down with Ren, along with Enzo, Neil, and Vicka. Those three received my casual compliment for climbing Mt Daraitan as our first mountain. Then I went to take snapshots.

With the steadily rising sun turned the air hotter, I took out my shemagh (pronounced sh-MOW) from my backpack. This iconic scarf from the Middle East was also called a keffiyeh. It offered some protection from burning sunshine here in this tropical forested archipelago as it would in the sandy deserts of its land of origin. I had been wearing caps and boonie hats on my treks. It was time for change. Besides, I also brought this garment during my first climb here at Mt Daraitan. It served more as a bag for my 1.5 liter water bottle. I also liked the shemagh for its versatility.

A metal flagpole seemed out of a place in our surroundings with gnarled tree branches and coral-like rocks. Miguel and I took pictures of one another as a team. More of our fellow under Ren’s organized group flocked in. Then something hit me. It was not the summit I remembered. A monstrous rock formation stood at the farthest edge, acting as a platform for ten people posing for photos. I recalled Kenneth and Kaye asking me to take snapshots of them back then. It was not the end of the dirt trail. Rock and undergrowth choked the path. At one spot, it looked impassable. It only looked impassable. Emerging from a grove of small stunted trees, a memory came back.

Cliff sat down with our guides Alex and Golis. If I heard it correctly, he reached the summit in about 45 minutes. My companion wanted to witness the so-called ‘sea of clouds’ from the summit itself. Cliff showed me a photo in his mobile phone. Clouds behaved a like soup stirred in the indigo-colored light of dawn. He accomplished his goal. The two of us talked about various things. I also recalled Alex singing a Bee Gees song at this spot during my previous climb. A group of fellow climbers, composed mostly of DSCN0636women, exercised patience as they waited to pose one by one. The guides acted as photographers for everyone. Around 40 trekkers lingered at the summit at that time. Each one consumed at least three minutes in getting photographed. I spent the time chatting with my fellows. Then our turn came. We tiptoed on two bamboo poles, crawled up a smaller rock that jutted out of a ravine’s edge, and let wit do its work as images were captured. Once done with solo pictures, we proceeded with a group photo atop that huge misshapen rock formation. It was far from standing at a stage during an event. The risk of falling off from slipping or misplaced footing made finding each one’s spot a real challenge. Still, we pulled it off. Some among us were not contented yet, posing for more snapshots. I had a brief chat with Dhex about the sensation of joy and relief from mountain climbing. Behind us lay a large crowd of fellow visitors, waiting their own turn. They consisted of a mix in gender, age, physical build, and clothing style. At 8 AM, our group started our way down Mt Daraitan.

Descending took less effort and time. All we did was jump while gripping on bare rock or tree trunks. It felt more like being pulled downward as if the barangay (village) was calling us. In no time, our party found ourselves back at Station Two and its comforts.

We decided to have lunch there before making the final push downhill. I sat down with a group that included Neil, Rose, Ren, and Trudis around a bamboo table shaded by leaves just above our heads. Far atop them was the forest canopy. Both Ren and I brought canned tuna paella, a rice dish with flakes of the said fish, green peas, and tomato sauce. Boiled rice kept edible by preservatives did not taste as appetizing as its warm freshly-cooked counterpart. Yet all we needed to do was pull off the metal lid and have an instant meal. Rose and Trudis brought their own packed lunch of rice and a meat dish. Buttered crackers, sandwiches, and more jellies were shared. Ren stayed mostly quiet. On the other hand, I got rather talkative at this point. We chatted about food, jobs, and mountain climbing. Our lunch lasted about 20 minutes. After that, we disposed our trash and gathered for making our way back.

I walked with Ren and Alex as we led the party. Our guide then took us to another trail. On my first climb with a trekking group called the Akyaters,  we simply retraced our steps. Alex said this alternate route would be closed following a rainy spell or if the ground was too muddy and slippery. I would find out later why.

DSCN0639The way ahead simply sloped downhill, twisting and turning as I gripped whatever I could to avoid slipping. We had a relatively quick pace. I went ahead with Ren and Alex. I could remember Vicka and Jerome behind us, respectively. The rest were out of sight but their voices echoed through this patch of forest. Then the firm ground transformed into an even harder rock surface. The soles of our footwear could not dig into it. We slipped a bit upon a misstep. Exercising caution, our descent slowed down. There was also a part where each of us squeezed into a rock formation that resembled a cave. To describe it more accurately, it appeared as a cave the size of a telephone booth or portable toilet. Someone DSCN0640with a lighter body build would go through this passage easier than someone heavier. My backpack snagged. I had to literally slither like a snake to avoid tearing the bag’s brown fabric. It had been already subjected to the wear and tear from the elements and time. That ‘cave’ halted our hike down Mt Daraitan. There was another one of this obstacle about 20 or 30 minutes later. According to Alex, walking from the summit to the base through this route would take about two hours given our pace. I recalled his tale before where a hiking party spent twelve hours on this mountain with participants taking constant breaks and even sobbing. Not everyone would feel at home in the outdoors, hence the word. Alex also mentioned a climber who slipped on this section of the trail, seriously injuring both knees. That unfortunate fellow had to be carried. More intimidating rock lay before us. Yet the rock faces were also sculpted naturally like statues of sleeping guardians of Mt Daraitan.

One hour after walking from Station Two, we arrived at a rest station with coconut juice and bamboo benches. I sat down panting and somehow dehydrated. With the tree canopy in its abundance providing shade, my shemagh acted less of a protection for my head. In fact, it became more of a towel to wipe off sweat from my face. The forest shielded us from direct exposure to the sun but humidity still made the air warm, if not hot. It was a sunny day after all. My vision blurred not only from perspiration but from the impending exhaustion too. I longed for the cool pine forests of the Cordilleras. My supply of water and energy drink ran low already. After a short respite, we kept on moving. Another thirty minutes passed as we jumped, climbed, and made careful steps on the same treacherous uneven rocky terrain. A time came that I had to slide down on my rear and legs. Getting my hands dirty did not matter. Then we reached another rest station where two make kids sold ice candy. This treat essentially composed of fruit juice and milk mixed and then frozen in small and clear tubular plastic bags. The finished product resembled an elongated ice cream. At this point I came in last. Yet I wanted to finish this trek sooner so when the first batch left, I joined them.

DSCN0652Ren trudged her way just ahead of me. Later on, I noticed that the ground turned even muddier. One of my feet sank a bit into the ground. I also slipped more often after stepping on rock, fortunately not in a way I would stumble. It came to a point that I did not want to place my foot on a hard moist surface anymore. This only meant we were approaching Tinipak River. Three men and their guide had to slow down behind me. I let them pass. Soon, our ordeal came to an end on an even-surfaced dirt path in the midst of tall grass, bright green and lush. It felt like having a splinter removed from my foot or ointment applied on a sore leg. It had the sensation of indulging in a hearty buffet. The long arduous walk was about to end. The final stretch involved a zigzagging trail that led down to a few houses. My chat with three female hikers along the way lasted mere seconds as I bypassed them.

DSCN0655Members of our trekking party arrived gradually as we regrouped in a hut with wooden benches stuck on its three sides. We sat down wiping sweat off our faces and relaxing our battered legs. Ren asked who would continue to the Tinipak Cave later. I had an overwhelming thought of declining. I was there before. Additionally, the way to this natural feature had an even more slippery rocky ground compared to the last bit of the descending trail before. Most among us got involved in the second phase of our tour. Ren organized another trip here last week and saw the cave too already. Jem and Vicka stayed behind too, drifting off to sleep because of too much fatigue. Ren reclined too on the bench in the most comfortable manner she could. I decided to remain too, watching over our backpacks and stuff. No one dared to approach our belongings. Later on, I could not help join them in the realm of unconsciousness while sitting down and my shemagh covering my face. Arriving hikers and a curious dog that sniffed my leg woke me from time to time. A hen moved about briskly, always trailed by its nearly-grown chicks. More visitors came to this spot by a cemented lane. They kept going or stopped by for snacks and chatter.

Time passed idly on a Sunday noon. Our companions were supposed to be back by now. They probably fell in line with the crowds just to enter the cave. Only ten minutes had been allotted for each batch to explore the subterranean wonder that boasted a small waterfall ending on a bubbly pool. It could be compared to a Jacuzzi® bath tub, only frigid in contrast to the cave’s steamy air that smelled of ammonia. Ten minutes would be sufficient already. The refreshing pool could be reached from the vertically dropping entrance in just three minutes.

It was past 12 PM when our fellows returned from a tour of the cave. Cliff showed some photos. Dhex and I talked about the place and his experience there. Bananas were shared. Some of our companions dined on rice, a sort of eggplant omelet called tortang talong, and a meat dish I could not recognize at a nearby shack. The establishment also sold assorted snacks and fizzy beverages. Then there was nothing to do but head to Tinipak River according to our itinerary.

At first, I imagined another lengthy trek to the spot by the river bank where I pitched tents with Carla, Kaye, Kenneth, Nil, and the rest during my previous excursion. That would mean returning to the village, walk for about another hour, simply dip in the river, and spend another hour trudging back to civilization. This time, our group took another way. We followed the cemented path to the left. Then the surface beneath our feet transformed into dry compact dirt. Tall grass surrounded us. Verdant mountains stood to our left and far ahead. I could never wish to be in another place. The tranquility made me forget my stress and personal struggles. We remained mostly silent while strolling. Meanwhile, critters crawled and buzzed around. Despite the time being 1 PM, the sun’s heat already waned and the presence of a large body of water kept the air cool.

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Tinipak River came into view. According to Jhun, we were at a river crossing. We could wade in and look for the perfect spot to dip into the river. I could see reluctance on my companions’ faces. In the end, we settled at this exact spot. Placing our backpacks on the sandy ground next to a group of huge smooth-surfaced boulders, we called one another to enjoy the water.

I left my eyeglasses on a rock bulging from the sandy riverbank, its metal frame slowly warmed by the early afternoon sun. I wanted desperately to take a bath at this instant. My shirt smelled strongly of sweat. My hair felt sticky to the touch. My skin was hot. Immersing into the water took all that discomfort away. I stumbled a bit on rocks underwater as I wandered farther from the bank. The current grew stronger as it became deeper. Dhex and Kamote told me that we could suddenly submerge and get swept by the river just beyond where they stood. A boulder to our right served as our point of reference. Nearby was a rock that looked like a table without legs. I sat down. Then I sank my face into the water, holding my breath. My cheeks could feel the flow filled with an energy more controlled than chaotic. France, Neil, Rose, Trudis, and Vicka joined me later on for a dip.

Sitting in the shallow part of the river with three-fourths of my body submerged felt familiar. Then I had a flashback. It took place at another river below Mt Manalmon in January 2016. I was doing the same but on a cloudy dawn. A freezing cold penetrated my body. It made me severely ill that I could have died and then resurrected fortunately. Personal sorrows haunted me at that time. Yet even during this excursion at Mt Daraitan, I was not free from stressful thoughts. The week before this Sunday came with disappointment, frustration, and anxieties that even affected my work. One of the causes could be described as something reincarnated. I had trouble sleeping. Sadness turned into rage. I did not bring those negative feelings here at Mt Daraitan. The sun shone brightly. In turn it warmed the greenish water and made the river’s surface glimmer with light. I joined the hike to get away from worries, even for just a day.

As my companions and I bathed while chatting merrily, another group of trekkers waded in. A guide from the village led them in crossing the river. Water rose to their waists but could not go even higher. The task did not seem as difficult and risky as I first thought. Everyone got through, having only soaked pants or shorts. On the other hand, the river ran deep about fifty meters to our left. Men jumped from immense boulders into the innocent-looking water, causing a splash. I was content with getting that sweaty feeling swept by a light current. Bits of algae and even tiny biting insects that resembled worms bothered us. No one wanted to leave. Yet we emerged from Tinipak River past 2 PM, carried our stuff, and made our way back home.

A trail led us along the same river. Grass and bushes grew in plenty around us, much greener than the body of water that ran its course. A few verdant peaks stood around us like skyscrapers or towers. It felt more like hiking outdoors in Vietnam than in the Philippines, based on popular imagery of the neighboring country’s landscape. Soon, two goats chewed on leaves in silence. Horse manure lay on the sandy stretch of this trail characterized by boulders as big as the van we rode to arrive here. I remembered this place. I had photos of it in my first Travel Stories entry here in this blog.  It was situated past the village after beginning the trek at the barangay hall during my first visit at Mt Daraitan. If we would go the other way and keep on walking, we would eventually come upon a rustic restaurant, some makeshift ladders, and the riverbank where the Akyaters and I made camp. Our stroll eventually ended at a plain-looking building of cement and wood where noisy motor-powered pedicabs fell in line nearby. It did not exist before, affirming how things had changed much around Mt Daraitan.

Our group split into four or five people per vehicle. In the Philippines, these iconic three-wheeled means of public transport would be referred to as a ‘tricycle.’  I hopped at the seat behind the driver. The engine growled. The tricycle sped like a boat tossed back and forth on a choppy sea. I was wearing my flip-flops. Then one of my shoes I was holding slipped out of my grasp. I yelled about it. Then I chased my piece of footwear, fetched it, and sprinted back to my seat. The bumpy ride went on. Our convoy passed by the same cemetery I saw on my first climb. It had more resting places than before. Houses then showed up. Children walked on the street and played.

DSCN0662The tricycles dropped us at a newly-built guest facility within the village, just a short stroll from the barangay hall. Gray and dull, the walls had not been painted yet. However, the building featured at least twenty shower rooms for hikers yearning to wash the dirt, mud, and sweat off them. Again, it was not here before when I last visited the mountain. The barangay hall also had a restroom where visitors could also take a bath with a pail and bucket. I remembered waiting tediously in a queue back then. Now the locals had solved this problem with long lines of people. I bathed already in the river but a shower with soap would be better. One by one, we changed our outfits for fresh clothes. I had a last chat with Alex. He insisted that I return to Mt Daraitan from time to time. I told him I would see what I could do. Then we all rode on the van before 4 PM for a two-hour trip to Manila.

Along the way, I passed by an attraction in Tanay, Rizal province called Bakasyunan. In the Tagalog language the name would translate as a place for a vacation. I was there with my office colleagues on June 10 for a company outing. Bakasyunan featured an activity hall, swimming pools, houses for overnight stays, and activites that ranged from basketball to all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rides. Coincidentally, the hall where we stayed and dined was named the Tinipak Hall, after the river we visited earlier. Sitting again with Ren beside the driver, I recounted to her that day I sort of wished to forget.

My first climb at Mt Daraitan would be one of the most memorable among the hikes of this kind that I had. The second might not have that same value but it was also worth it. Who knows when I would be returning to the mountain where this blog also began.

(Photos also courtesy of Ren Emradura)

 

The Relentless Wanderer Marks its First Year

DSCN0196It has been exactly one year since this blog came into existence. The first story, or should I say formal entry, recounted my climb at Mt Daraitan. It was appropriately entitled Trial By Slope and Mud. No matter the difficulties, it paved the way for more treks at peaks throughout Luzon Island in the Philippines. This blog featured not only mountain climbing but also travel in general. One of the best moments was a day tour of Baguio that spanned twelve hours of nothing but pure bliss.

My travels had its share of ups and downs. Frustrations, or should I say challenges, were constant in the world we live in. Not everything would go according to plan. The weather could turn from moderately cloudy to a downpour, ruining not only the view but also the enthusiasm. I left important stuff behind, making me under-equipped. I had skin rashes from an allergic reaction more than once. The antihistamine tablet brought relief but the side effects made me intoxicated and out of mood. Yet sometimes it was the seemingly bad moments that cast memories magically when traveling.

More importantly, it was the people who also made trips enjoyable. Visiting a scenic location did not feel complete without someone o share the experience with, talk with, or have lunch with. I have met many people along the way. Some left my circle of friends and acquaintances while some stayed. To those who did stay, I wish more travels and merry times with them in the future. Hopefully, this blog would be continuously filled with not only stories but also insights and information.

A Brief Look into Philpan Resort

Philpan Resort does not have the sandy beach one would expect for a vacation in the Philippines. However, what attracts visitors to this place is its diving experience.

Situated in the municipality of Mabini, Batangas province, Philpan Resort can be reached around three hours of driving from the country’s capital Manila. It is found in the southwestern corner of Luzon Island. Just off the place of interest lies the body of water known as the Isla Verde Passage. Separating Luzon from the nearby island of Mindoro, this strait boasts a treasure of marine life. In fact, Isla Verde Passage has been renowned as the richest area in the world in terms of marine biodiversity. This means having the most number of sea life per specie, not having the most quantity. That is why it is called biodiversity. Fauna that can be found here include starfish, clams, eels, and even sea turtles, along with a huge variety of tropical fish.

DSCN0528A downward sloping lane from the main road leads visitors to Philpan Resort. At the end lay a parking area. Beyond it lay a rocky beach and the azure sea. The entrance fee amounts to 100 Philippine pesos (Php). Visitors can also rent a cottage, which consists of a roof, table, and benches, for Php 500. The price climbs to Php 1,000 if visitors want to stay the night in that cottage. Reserving a feel-at-home room for an overnight stay costs at least Php 2,000 for two people. As for Philpan Resort’s main attraction, diving can be enjoyed for a price of Php 2,500. Divers can also visit farther spots by motorboat but the rate also goes higher. From the resort, tourists can also head to other places such as Carmico Beach and Sombrero Island by boat with their respective fees. Simply talk to boat operators and resort staff about pricing. Philpan Resort also has a Facebook® page for inquiries. Prospective visitors may look into blogs or ask friends who have been to the tourist attraction.

Yes, Philpan Resort has rocks instead of sand but the clearness of its water quality amazes visitors in fair weather conditions. At the shallows, one can see rocks of all shapes and sizes. When dipping, moving around can be described as more of trudging than walking due to the uneven surface. Still, some prefer it to have their feet sink in sand. A mini pier resists the waves and all the beating from the volatile sea. A roofed raft made of bamboo floats nearby, dangling steadfastly from the pier through a durable rope. Swimmers climb and cling to the raft for relaxation, chatter, and respite from the noontime sun.

The seabed off the resort plunges dramatically, explaining why the place has become a diving spot. Fish and other marine life seek the deep water and the flow of nutrients. Prey in turn sustain the predators. Eels, perhaps even the dreaded moray eel, hide in the cracks on the underwater rock formations. Shellfish filter food from the water as they sit idle. Schools of colorful fish add life to a seemingly dull blue world. A lucky snorkeler or diver may even spot a swordfish or a sea turtle.

DSCN0533Philpan Resort also features amazingly clean shower rooms and restrooms. The cemented walls, tiles, and well-maintained plumbing make one feel as if relieving oneself or taking a bath in his or her very own home. Visitors can use these for free once they have paid the entrance fee.

 

Most visitors to this resort in Batangas also have hiked or will hike the nearby Mt Gulugod Baboy. This mountain offers relatively easy trekking without the steep slopes and choked trails.

The Hike that Lasted Only Ten Minutes

The idea of a ten-minute hike would sound strange, even absurd. Yet it happened literally in one of my trips.

Listen to my story and find out how it came that way.

Weeks before the event, I had been notified of an outdoor excursion with a particular set of friends. I met them on my second climb at Mt Marami nearly one year ago. On Facebook® we went by the group chat name of Team 28. Aside from hiking, these fellows also loved running, cycling, swimming, and plain sightseeing. We would stay overnight on a beach or at a campsite at a mountain according to them. I felt uncomfortable. I just came back from a long absence from trekking. My focus was on day hikes. I was simply not yet in the mood for bringing my tent and portable cooking set. Yet most members of the Facebook® group would come for the anniversary event. Deep inside me, I could not refuse. It would be a reunion. They proved friendly, supportive, and sincere in the months since I got acquainted with them. Such kind of people would not always come easy in life.

Through social media we agreed to climb Mt Gulugod Baboy in the province of Batangas. The name translates as ‘spine of pig’ in the Tagalog language, which is the locals’ mother tongue. Situated two to three hours of driving south from Manila in light to moderate traffic, Mt Gulugod Baboy stands within the municipality of Mabini, Batangas. Last April, the town became the epicenter of a series of magnitude 5 earthquakes. The peak has an altitude of 525 meters above sea level. A trail difficulty of 2/9 makes Mt Gulugod Baboy a recommended place to begin enthusiasm into mountain climbing or just enjoy the weekend with friends.

In the night of June 17, 2017, I arrived haughtily at Team 28’s meeting place in Alabang, Muntinlupa City – the National Capital Region’s gateway to the provinces of Laguna and Batangas. There were too few buses. I stood nearly an hour just to get a ride. Yet it did not matter now. At first, I looked for them in a convenience store. They were not there. Then Christian “Xtian” Villanueva appeared and told me to join them. With him was Cecille “Cess” Olivarez, who introduced me to their group in the first place, and Sherwin “She” Lomibao. They had two companions – Rey Ar Roderos and Ry Aguilar. Later on, Abigail “Abby” Asuncion showed out of nowhere and joined us. Our transport would arrive late. The van and its driver got caught in traffic. We stood and sat on the sidewalk as pedestrians passed by, our bags grouped together like a cache of supplies for an expedition. While catching up with stories, our fellow Leslie “Les” Litong came. Time passed merrily. Our van came past 8 PM and we did not notice it.

Heading south to the town of Santa Rosa, Laguna, we would pick up more companions. This other group composed of John Vincent “JanBi” Chua, Jepoy “Jep” Dichoso, Marie “Chacha” Fetalino, Hency Joyce Gamara, and Aldous “Doy” Moncada. It was a brief pickup. Our van sped off, leaving behind the distant glimmering lights of the Enchanted Kingdom theme park. I tried to doze off but without success.

Our vehicle flew like a swift on the highways of Batangas province. We passed by both completely dark pastureland and lit 24-hour food establishments. People would be sleeping soundly in their beds. We at Team 28 stayed awake on the van’s seats.

A statue of Apolinario Mabini, one of the heroes of the Philippine War of Independence against Spanish colonization, marked the town that bore his last name. We seemed lost. The 24-hour convenience store seemed elusive. Our driver even brought us to a pier unwillingly. He turned back. All we wanted was tube ice. Eventually, our trekking party found our way to a 7-Eleven® after making turns on the concrete lanes. About ten minutes passed before our road trip resumed.

Later on, a sign informed us that we already arrived at the vicinity of Mt Gulugod Baboy. I could hear the van’s tires struggling with the uphill drive. We leaned back to our seats. Cess was aroused from sleep. Jepoy remained silent. Xtian kept on talking. Somehow, he seemed to initiate humor more than Sherwin as far as I remembered. Riding shotgun, Hency and Janbi looked for the registration center for our climb. This idiom actually originated from the American West during the latter half of the 19th century AD. It was a time when a stagecoach driver’s companion had to brandish the said firearm to fend off both outlaws and hostile tribal folk. Despite the Philippines going through a war on drugs at the present, crime was far from a threat for us at Team 28. In fact, the smell of cow manure bothered us more. Then we braced for possibly seeing supernatural beings, even for just a split-second, in the dark of the night.

We could not find the registration center. The van continued its ascent on a twisting cemented road lined by silent groves of trees and equally quiet houses. Then it became apparent that we unintentionally drove to the summit. It was possible at Mt Gulugod Baboy, unlike at most mountains in the Philippines. Now our group would register at the top, or at least near it.

My fellow passengers and I mistook a man for a ghost. In reality, I seemed more of a specter than that person due to my nocturnal working shift. The road trip ended past 11 PM at the parking area near the summit. We bailed out. The air felt hotter than I expected. I should have left my jacket. It only added to my backpack’s weight. The mostly yellow lights of urban settlement lay towards the horizon. They outshone the stars overhead. I went to Mt Gulugod Baboy to escape from city life, which was now reminded to me by that distant artificial lighting. Our group stopped by a shack that also served as both a registration center and store. We settled transport and entrance fees, checked our belongings, and rested a bit. Then we began walking with headlamps and flashlight to look for a campsite.

The ten-minute hike began as most of my long walks in the outdoors would. We walked single file. Those in the rear carried our food stuffs, potable water in plastic containers, tents, and the rest of our camping essentials. Still, our group packed lightly compared to a few overnight treks I did. We only wanted to get together, chat, and enjoy food and drink in the cool air under the stars. Yet it was surprisingly warmer than expected. Our feet followed the dirt trail. Then my sole of my right shoe sank a bit into the ground. My companions began to complain about the mud. Abby told Chacha to step on the grass instead. Getting one’s foot wear muddy would be normal in outdoor excursions on a rainy day on a forest trail. There was not even a drizzle. Open terrain surrounded us too.

In the very dim light of midnight, I could see a hill ahead of us. To my right lay a steep yet grassy ravine. Beams of light shone on all directions. It was as if a rescue party was searching for a missing hiker. In this circumstance, we looked for a suitable spot to pitch tents and lay down food for a small feast. We marched towards the summit. Someone shone a light on where it should be. The summit appeared near but for my legs it felt like kilometers away. Walking in near-total darkness did not make it easier.

Eventually, our party decided not to push towards the summit itself. We all wanted to settle down and get on with it. We searched rather frantically. There was a nice grassy spot wide enough for all of our tents. Then we got discouraged. I would like to use the euphemism ‘cow pie’ for excrement that was littered all over the place. The round pieces of scat seemed as biological land mines that brought nuisance and smelly soles. We kept on walking. Another group of mostly male campers chatted and listened to music from their electronic devices. Our group greeted them, passed by, and sort of envied their camping spot.

We all agreed to spend the night on a grassy spot below a hill after minutes of wandering. Corn husks were piled nearby. Cow pies showed up but not densely, allowing us to pitch our tents relatively  close to one another. I helped Aldous, Hency, and  Janbi set up theirs. Cess, Jepoy, and Leslie had their own. Rey ar, Ry, and Xtian’s tent looked rather too small, allowing two people instead of three regardless of physique. Abby, Chacha, and Sherwin offered me hospitality in theirs after a polite request. According to She, six individuals could fit within it.

Xtian took out a large piece of synthetic material called a ‘trapal’ in the local vernacular. Its waterproof quality made it useful and  versatile for wet weather conditions. He placed it on the dewy grass. Then we laid out bit by bit the food we brought. My companions packed a variety of home-cooked dishes in durable plastic box containers. Our companions from Santa Rosa, Laguna brought grilled slices of chicken and pork packed separately. Boiled white rice came in plenty. Of course, we had potable water too and plastic disposable cups as containers.

DSCN0490Our nighttime picnic got intruded by a few dogs. They simply stood a few meters from us. Yet a canine would sometimes approach silently like a predator stalking its prey before pouncing. Then one would appear right behind my back. They surrounded us, cloaked by nocturnal darkness until either one of my fellows or I shone a flashlight on them. It felt like having dinner in the middle of the African savanna or the mixed woodland and grassland wilderness of North America. The dogs’ occasional barking pierced the festive ambience and might have instilled a bit of fear in our hearts. Thankfully, the dogs did not behave aggressively. They simply waited in all patience to be handed scraps of food. Yet later on, they also carried away a plastic bag or two of our leftovers. We wished that our trekking party would not be blamed on the following morning for a mess consisting of wrappers and chicken bones.

Hency then brought out tiny tubular plastic packets filled with semi-liquid chocolate. There were marshmallows too. She also had those brown Graham crackers often piled into layers with a mix of canned condensed milk and all-purpose cream in between. This in turn would be refrigerated until the sweet dairy mix softens the crackers into a home-made cake. DSCN0492Tonight, we would have hard Graham crackers instead. Hency taught us a sort of dessert recipe for camping outdoors. Janbi’s crude and portable stove cast a flame. We stuck those marshmallows at the end of wooden kebab sticks and toasted the squishy treat. Yet there was more. We snapped those Graham crackers into smaller pieces, making a crunching sound. Then I spread that semi-liquid chocolate like Nutella® on a piece of sliced bread. The marshmallow was sandwiched in between.  The combination of soft and hard texture characterized this ingenious treat.

DSCN0496Time passed by. The soup-like sky cleared for a while before concealing the stars again. I could feel droplets of water falling on my hair. Xtian, Rey Ar, and Ry hung another large ‘trapal’ over our picnic setup with ropes fastened to the four corners then tied to branches and tents. Rain would not dampen the mood of our merriment. We then huddled together closely.

We at Team 28 shared stories and inquired about our companions’ upcoming trips. We also teased one another and even those not present. Xtian took care of the liquor mix. He passed it among us. I declined politely, settling on cheese-flavored popcorn and boiled peanuts instead. The snacking, sipping, and chatting went on until we retired into our tents one by one at around 3 AM. I lay down at one side just next to a wall of waterproof fabric, shut my eyes, and drifted into the unconscious.

 

The weather in the morning could only be described as surreal. Cloud cover cast soft lighting but did not accumulate much to foreshadow a rainy day. The sky had pastel hues of violet, blue, pink, and white. It felt like waking up only to find myself still in a dream. Sunrise revealed how breath-taking the surrounding landscape was. Beyond the rolling hills was the sea sharing the same color with the hazy sky. Tall grass surrounded us everywhere, broken by groves of hardwood or coconut trees along with open meadows. Groups of tents seemed as individual villages in a world that was Mt Gulugod Baboy.

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DSCN0501A single file of hikers ascended on a trail to my left. Then I saw someone familiar. I jogged to meet up with him. By both predetermination and chance, it was Brian Estares. We met each other last year during a hike at Mt Marami in Cavite province. In fact, he invited me to an excursion at Mt Gulugod Baboy with another group. I told him that Team 28 and I would be at the same place and the same time by coincidence. Brian held a branch he used as a hiking stick. We had a brief chat. He said they would also swim at the beach after running on this trail. My friend wanted to be a triathlete. After that, Brian was off with his fellows.

Past 7 AM, we had a light breakfast of whatever snack we could grab. Xtian boiled some water and mixed it with instant coffee powder in light blue sachets. With a dipper made of heat-resistant plastic, Hency shared it among us in our respective containers as if in a soup kitchen. I sipped that coffee from a tumbler distributed freely in my office, complete with the company logo. My stomach grew warmer. That heat radiated all over my body

The air turned hotter as our surroundings became brighter. It was time to pack up. We at Team 28 set up a tripod and took group photos. Their companionship had the same temperature as the caffeinated beverage I drank earlier. I felt a sense of belonging. They expressed genuine concern during hard times. We helped one another. My friends at Team 28 would find a way to socialize through an outdoor activity. They joked and laughed. It seemed my troubles disappeared and replaced by pure bliss. Yet this moment would end soon.

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Cess: “I’ll help you later, right now I’ve got an important text.”            

Once the tents, ‘trapal’, and the rest of everything had been packed, our group began the ten-minute return hike to our van. The starkly brown trail snaked its way through the damp green grass. Aldous carried stuff like a porter. With a light heart I walked and appreciated the scenery. Then we passed by the ravine again. Tall grass concealed the edge. It seemed harmless to the eyes until one would trip and fall down a 60-degree slope. Minutes passed by without anyone noticing. Our chatter was minimal. Then our party arrived at the shack where a few vehicles, including our van, were parked.

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From left: Cess, Abby, She, Chacha, Aldous, Janbi, Hency, The Blogger, Jepoy, Ry, Rey Ar, Xtian, Les

A discussion ensued. We would either walk all the way down Mt Gulugod Baboy and make this an authentic trek or simply ride the van for our descent. A guide told us that if we went on foot our group would show up farther than our intended destination that was Philpan Beach Resort. In the end, we hopped into our transport, sat down, and later navigated the winding downhill road.

That was how the ten-minute hike happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

One year has passed since I met the Hayok Hiking Club. Then they invited me to climb Mt Daguldol. I told them I was interested weeks before the scheduled excursion on June 4, 2016.

Located in the town of San Juan, Batangas, Mt Daguldol offers a mountaineering experience suitable for beginners in this outdoor activity. It has a trail difficulty of 3/9. Mt Daguldol stands 672 meters above sea level. According to my fellows in the group, the hike up and down the mountain can be completed in under half a day.

At first, I thought the name Hayok sounded like the Tagalog transliteration of the English word ‘hike.’ During one of my office breaks, a colleague told me that the word ‘hayok’ actually meant excited. (I confirmed this later during the trek.) I met the Hayok trekkers in May 2016 when I decided to join their climb at Mt Marami. It was a bit challenging because I did not know any one of them personally at that time. I simply coordinated with Darenn, who organized the hike. Nevertheless, the long walk at Mt Marami turned out fine when it came to socialization. A number of my companions became acquaintances and friends. One of them was Mark, who was also going to Mt Daguldol.

The Cubao Farmer’s Market branch of the Jollibee fast food chain served as our venue for rendezvous. Located in Quezon City, which is within Metro Manila, it gained a reputation as the hikers’ capital of Luzon, if not the whole Philippines. People of various ages with backpacks, dressed in quick-dry shirts and leggings, filled the place during Friday and Saturday nights. I arrived there at 10 PM the evening before the day of our event. I did not expect the traffic to be amazingly light. Sitting beside a vacant table, a few seemingly hikers approached the adjacent table. The girl next to me turned out to be a hiker too. With no shyness towards strangers, I introduced myself and joined in. This was where I met Nicole, her cousin Ro-Anne, and Mhelbyn. I also got to know Ren, who organized their trip to Mt Ulap. She had been doing this job for some time.  I told the group that I had been there before. Time passed as Ren’s party left for Benguet province as I waited for my respective companions to arrive.

Seats and tables were kept away as floors shone from a layer of soap. It was well past 11 PM when my companions came one by one. First was Noel, who went by the nickname of “EngNR,” then followed by Joy and Cheekay. Later on, Darenn arrived. He still organized the Mt Daguldol hike and Mark assisted him. We caught up on each other’s lives. Still, minutes passed tediously for the Hayok participants to be completed. Mark came and this time he was accompanied by Mikay, his girlfriend. I did not recognize Ceejay until I recalled he was also part of last year’s excursion at Mt Marami. Another trekker who joined went by the name of Cheska. After eating one choco mallow pie in a rather messy fashion, I slumped to my backpack atop a table and fell asleep. Next thing that happened was I woke up after Darenn told us to go to our van. This was where Aldrin, Cath, Cy, Dolphy, Jason, Levine, and Robert showed up. I thought Cath and his boyfriend Jason were from another group until it proved otherwise. Then we rode in the van. We had a fellow who came in late but managed to catch up. A moment later, Dianne hopped in and sat beside Cath. Sitting between Darenn and Levine at the back of the van, I closed my eyes and let fatigue do its work.

It was 3 AM of the following day when I got aroused. Our van stopped by at a 24-hour McDonald’s branch. I had no idea where we were. Upon buying a cheeseburger and apple pie, the cashier answered that this was Rosario, Batangas. Then I had a chat with the subgroup of Aldrin, Cy, Dolphy, and Robert. Then I had a conversation too with Dianne. Across the road stood a church with blue lights turned on, placed to form a gigantic cross. Darkness still had its grip throughout the land. At least fifteen minutes passed before we continued to our destination.

Headlamps got strapped on foreheads and flashlights were held as the Hayok hikers got off the van. It was 4:20 AM. We strolled towards the registration area. Handheld lighting devices lit our way as we followed the cemented road. I could describe it as simply convenient. Usually, our treks began on dirt and even mud. The road seemed never-ending. Even a convoy of three vans passed by us. I could hear complaints delivered humorously. Our group kept on walking. The first light of dawn peeked from our left. Slowly, pitch-black darkness faded away until there was no need for our headlamps and flashlights. When hikers converge at a summit at this time of the day, there would often be a so-called ‘sea of clouds’ to see and appreciate. Yet here I commented to Dianne that there was an actual sea. Beyond the coastline, saltwater stretched towards the horizon. Somehow, the scenery took the hikers’ breath away. A few resorts lined the concrete road. With Dianne beside me, we quickened our pace and then approached our guide who went by the name of Zakarias. A man into his senior years, his trekking shoes caught my attention. His fitness and endurance seemed to defy his age.

DSCN0356The Hayok members regrouped at a shack. Beside it was a restroom that was essentially an outdoor toilet, only having walls of cement instead of wood. Two men oversaw the shack this morning. They sold us a cup of hot instant coffee for Php 10. We gave our backs respite as our backpacks lay on top of benches. According to several of my companions, Mark had his first taste of climbing here at Mt Daguldol. No wonder it was called a homecoming. Hayok had been famous for funny and pun-filled titles of events. This one had something about moving on, which I was trying to do. Then Mark got agitated. He lost his collection of bag tags. Each one had the same size and composition of an identification card for school or work. However, it had a picture of a place that Mark visited. In other words, he lost memories. Mark might have dropped that bundle back when it was still dark. He would not be appeased with letting go of them. Fortunately, it was just a prank. Jason handed the bag tags to Mark. Our day just had a lighthearted start.

Zakarias veered off the concrete road when we came upon a newly-constructed bridge. It was just stark gray. After we posed for a group picture as my request, the guide led us to a dirt path that disappeared into dense vegetation.

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From left: Levine, Dolphy, Aldrin, Cheekay, Jason, Joy, Noel, Cy, Mark, Robert, Mikay, Chesca, Dianne, Darenn, Cath, The Blogger, CJ  

It seemed that I simply went out of home straight to a hike at a mountain. I wore shorts and a T-shirt like I would do on a weekend day of rest. Then I also wore a pair of yellow flip flops instead of my hiking shoes. Sandals that were designed for the outdoors would have been better. Yet my stubbornness, curiosity, and a tight budget made me wear those flip flops. I hoped and prayed for sunny weather. My footwear would likely slip than grip on wet rocky ground during a rain. At least it was easier to wash off mud.

The trail proved to be rock-strewn. My slippers’ rather vulnerable soles struck hard surfaces rather than dig slightly into soil. Our stroll came to a point that the path ascended continuously in a zigzag fashion. It took my breath away early in the day. Worries aside, my body was just adjusting to the rigors of this tiring yet self-fulfilling activity.

A makeshift hut greeted us upon a curve in the uphill path. A few large rocks stood by it, serving as seats other than the wooden benches of this seemingly bus stop in the woods. Our hiking party stopped and rested a bit. Sweat oozed from my face. I wiped it readily with my white face towel. I made sure that I would always carry this or a handkerchief during treks. The hot and humid climate evaporated much water from my body. As I sat down with Cath, Dianne, and Jason, the azure sea glimmered far beyond this hut and the trees. The view drained our fatigue just as the long walk did to our energy. This time, I also did not carry my personal frustration and worries with me. This day would be all about enjoyment and socialization.

DSCN0374We followed the dry, rocky trail until it was broken by a creek. The water trickled more than flowed. All it took was a leap to get to the other side. In our front stood a wooden shed with a bench. Another bamboo bench nearby gave respite to tired legs. Our group paused for another break. We were not in a hurry and it was supposed to be a leisurely hike. I checked the time. My mobile phone showed 6 AM. Walking a bit further, the barking of dogs shattered the tranquility. Yet our time for rest already lacked silence thanks to our chatter. A few domesticated canines kept barking at us but stood their ground. Their handler hushed them as she kept on sweeping her immediate surroundings. Then the dogs behaved accordingly. There was nothing to fear or worried about.  My fellow hikers also had a conversation with the locals in that hamlet or small village. Coconut trees stood proudly ahead of us. Someone among us mistook a jackfruit for a coconut. We simply laughed it off as a joke and went our way. As I had one last glance of the place, my eyes caught a woman, likely in her thirties, doing laundry on the creek.

In fact, the worsening heat bothered me more than barking dogs. It was another day in June when the sun rose earlier than it would in December. At 6 AM during the twelfth month of the Gregorian calendar, the sky would only have an orange glow on the horizon. A cold breeze would also blow on my face. Yet this was June. The sun already appeared and would resume its journey towards the west. Everything was well-lit except for the forest and its shadows. The heat made me sweat profusely. It felt like being put inside a microwave oven. Our continuous walking, added with talking and laughing, increased our body temperature further.

DSCN0378The Hayok hikers conquered what seemed a hill where we came upon three white goats at the top. A dog did not greet us as amiably. It proved to be more stubborn than the ones before but was calmed later on. A rooster moved around, pecking the ground for bits of what it could eat. We also would like to eat halo-halo, a Filipino dessert made of shaved ice, canned milk, and various sweet toppings. None sold it at this village for the moment. However, Zakarias said there would be another stall ahead that sold coconut juice. Beyond a rustic-looking house with a patio, a makeshift wooden fence lined the dirt path. Only our voices could be heard in this Sunday morning so we toned it down. A humble chapel stood nearby what looked like a basketball court.

Beyond this small settlement, the trail descended steeply around patches of ground for growing vegetables. They had conspicuously black soil. I thought a part of my yellow flip-flops would snap from the hard surfaces I stepped on. From time to time I would chat with Dianne, along with Cath and Jason. The bellowing of either a cow or a carabao resounded through the air and the dense vegetation. A few among us imitated its sound in reply. Just before we reached another stopover, there was a hole on the ground to our left. It looked like an entrance to a network of underground tunnels. According to our guide, it was used to burn wood into charcoal. This explained the soot and scorched appearance.

DSCN0383Zakarias led us to another shelter next to a house with unpainted hollow cement blocks and wood planks for walls. Two huge boulders, standing at shoulder-height, seemed a meteorite housed by this shed. A man placed a coconut atop a smaller rock beside the two. With his bolo knife (some people would call it as a machete), he hacked away effortlessly the coconut’s exterior that was as tough and also quite slippery to the touch. A hole with white flesh appeared. Juice dripped from it. How to drink this seemingly miraculous beverage without a straw became a challenge. I also tasted what I could describe as newly-varnished wood. Nevertheless, this drink came not only with energizing nutrients but also with coconut flesh with its firm texture. This whole package came at a price of just Php 20. Even the dogs, a cat, and a few chickens feasted on coconut flesh. In a way, they were healthier than most domesticated animals.

Darenn began chatting with the man who hacked the coconuts for us. A resident of Mt Daguldol, he went by the nickname of Onad. We from the Hayok Hiking Club learned that Onad also served chicken tinola to visitors to this mountain. The main ingredient for tinola would be chayote, which looked like a hybrid between a pear and a squash. Originally from Mexico, Spanish conquest and the Galleon Trade centuries ago brought this fruit (technically) across the Pacific Ocean here in the Philippines. Other ingredients included sliced ginger, some salt and pepper, water for broth, chili pepper leaves for that extra flavor, and the meat itself. What made Onad’s tinola special was its ‘native’ chicken in comparison to its counterpart raised speedily in poultry farms. ‘Native’ chicken supposedly tasted more delicious. Darenn and Onad made an agreement. The latter would prepare tinola for us when we return on our way from the summit. In turn, Darenn would collect money from our hiking group’s members to pay for our lunch. It was not a problem.

Following ample rest with a refreshing drink, we continued our trek past 7 AM. At first, it seemed a routine stroll on a rural path in one of the country’s far-flung provinces. Then the trail went uphill and grew steep. The exposed skin of my feet bumped hard into the rocky ground surface. I felt a bit of aching but there was not cut or even a bruise so far. Still, I did not regret wearing flip-flops that day.

A massive boulder on the trail’s left served as a landmark for the Mt Daguldol hike. Leaves grew sparsely on the giant gray ball carved over time by the elements. Moss appeared where sunlight did not shone fully. Our trekking party came upon a similar boulder up ahead. This one was rougher and higher. Robert climbed on top of it and posed for adventurous photos. We all took a break by sitting down or standing. The sun rose even higher on a clear sky. Fortunately, tall leafy trees instead of just tall grass surrounded us. Darenn asked me about my blue camera. I told him it was waterproof so I could take photos for the blog during rainy weather. Then I stood next to Dianne. There was sudden and stinging pain on my feet. I just stepped into a line of ants. In fact, there were ants everywhere since the hike began. The pain was gone in a moment after I changed position. We resumed the long walk after ten minutes.

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What a fine sunny morning to do some hiking…

DSCN0396From time to time, we stopped for momentary breaks. I have never joined a climb without resting from the jump-off point to the summit. Yet I felt an unusual strength within me that urged to go on. There was no time for stopping – only advancing forward. It sounded like the infamous Order 227 of Joseph Stalin back in the Second World War. “Not a step back!, ” it commanded. It applied to life in general. There were some things that once done or committed, there was no turning back – not even a single step.

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This is a millipede. A centipede has antennae and looks more intimidating. Still, it was big.

DSCN0398We came to a point where the trail zigzagged evidently up the mountain. To our left lay a vast expanse of the sea. It might look endless but it was just a channel between Batangas province and Mindoro Island, called the Verde Island Passage. White fluffy clouds floated above the horizontal line where water met air. I was so glad we hiked Mt Daguldol. It was just beside the sea. The scenery took all that fatigue and replaced it with indescribable joy. Yet to the right still lay a trail to follow until the summit, accompanied by the heat and humidity, branches that cut skin, and a host of critters. Getting separated from the main group worried me more. In fact, it already happened. It came to a point that Cath, Dianne, Jason, Noel, and I found ourselves isolated. Chesca, Darenn, and Levine were even further behind. Our smaller group simply followed the trail. Then we heard one of our fellows yelling that we should turn right. If there was a fork in the path, we had not reached it yet. Our leg muscles got strained bit by bit in every step of our uphill advance. The trail twisted left and right. Then we came upon a point where the path ahead diverged into two directions. That was when we took right. I also lost sight of our companions. They disappeared up ahead, concealed by a wall of countless leaves held together by twigs and branches. All I could also see to my left was a rocky slope of ground carpeted by multicolored leaf litter. Then I blew my neon blue whistle in the form of a carabiner, which looked like a metal hoop that could be fastened to rings and also part of a safety harness. The sound echoed all around us. Then I heard yelling. All that the five of us needed to do was follow the main group. Later on, the trail forked into two again where sunlight turned the vegetation more yellow than green. Dianne, Cath, and I followed the path going to the right.

Our smaller group kept on going. Towering trees offered that shade I grew fond of when walking in the woods. Then there was a commotion. A lizard gripped the tree trunkDSCN0403 motionlessly. It looked far from the house geckos that scurried on the walls of bedrooms and kitchens. We were truly in the wilderness after all. The reptile aroused our curiosity further. It resembled a chameleon. I even hoped it was a gliding lizard, also known as a flying dragon. Members of the genus Draco could not fly like bats do. Instead, they leaped from trees and glided with their wing-like skin membrane on their torso. Such a lizard did not breath fire. Yet the appearance could at least inspire the myth of dragons despite the tiny size. Still, it would look ferocious had it been the size of a monitor lizard, locally known as bayawak. Imagine a reptile the size of an average domesticated dog darting through air above one’s head.

Atop the ascending and winding section of trail lay another shed. We stopped over and had a rest. I chatted with Mark breifly, then left him and Mikay in the company of each other. He was certainly enjoying his situation at the present. Mikay interacted with her fellow hikers cheerfully and was fond of taking photos and videos.

DSCN0408The dirt trail led us to a spot with a boulder lying on the ground, surrounded by a sea of broad-leaved bushes, ferns, and grass. In front of us stood coconut trees instead of their wild tropical hardwood counterparts. Near this point, the trail forked into two paths. The one going left would bring us to the campsite. We took the one to the right, which would finally get us to the summit. Zakarias said we could reach it in ten minutes. Frankly, I was too accustomed and tired of hearing these ten-minute time intervals to the summit whereas they actually took twice or even thrice as long. Still, Zakarias might be right.

Dianne was my hiking buddy for this excursion but she decided to rest for a while at that boulder. I went up ahead. Leading the way behind Zakarias were Cath, Jason, and I. Just below the summit as our guide noted, jungle plants engulfed us literally. A certain spot smelled strongly of aroma from herbs that resembled oregano but I could not identify. Sooner, there was a point where a misstep would cause an unfortunate hiker to slip and plunge down a ravine. I took caution.

DSCN0410Then the way ahead sloped drastically that it felt more like climbing a ladder than merely walking. Tree roots became handle bars. Mountaineers in the Philippines would call it an ‘assault.’ This kind of trail drained the energy and enthusiasm from hikers. Some people would be panting and cursing simultaneously. Strangely, I had a burst of energy I could not explain easily. Perhaps it was the immense desire to finally reach the summit. Perhaps it was also the lack of worries and frustrations, only pure bliss under the fine weather. I simply told Cath and Jason that I was pushing forward because I did not feel tired. I moved like lightning. “Not a step back.” The sentence, or more of a rallying cry, echoed inside my head.

A break in tree cover revealed a crystal blue sky. Before me lay a surface of just bare rock. It resembled the summit of Mt Manalmon, located in Bulacan province north of Manila. To my left, hills and the shadows of sailing clouds overhead cast small waves on a green-colored sea of plant life. On the other side was an actual blue sea. I could not wait to dip into it at the beach after a sweaty hike. Cath and Jason went to this rock formation’s highest point. After a brief chat with Zakarias, I followed the two. A nearly-vertical deep gap separated two platforms of rock. We stretched our legs as if doing a split to get to the other side. More of our companions streamed to this spot. I simply basked in awe of the landscape and seascape that surrounded us at all sides. If I was not mistaken, I could see Mt Banahaw from here.

Just as I was in the mood for more snapshots, my camera exhausted its battery. My gadget called a power bank remained at home this time. I would bring it during overnight excursions but this one only lasted at least half a day. To make matters worse, my mobile phone was also running low. I grabbed the opportunity to ask Darenn to take photos of me for a profile picture in Facebook®. To return the favor, I used his mobile phone for eye-stunning pictures of him and the landscape. My mobile phone’s battery level fell 10 percent. I shut the device down. Now I resorted to absorbing scenes into my memories. I had a few photos from this spot. The nearly 360-degree view came with a price. We were exposed to the unrelenting heat of the sun. It was nearly 9 AM. I had a cap. Dianne asked me if I could lend her my umbrella for a while. It was not a problem at all. She had relatively fair complexion. Yet despite the full force of sunshine, a gentle and soothing wind blew every now and then. The Hayok hikers took photos and videos while chatting joyfully. Darenn contemplated about the existence of worm holes and teleportation. I was okay with this kind of topic, especially if it stimulates thinking.

This climb at Mt Daguldol was one of my few excursions where I felt pure bliss. Even my profile picture showed it. The happiness I felt could not be expressed in words. I thanked Darenn and Mark for this event and reuniting with the Hayok Hiking Club again. It really pays to let go of troubles and just live in the moment.

According to Zakarias, the rock formation was not the summit itself but a vantage point. The actual summit lacked views that were also hindered by vegetation. It did not matter. We hiked not for accomplishment but for leisure. What was important was we all enjoyed the company of each other amid the raw beauty of nature. Yet we would not stay here forever. Our hiking party departed after about 30 minutes of lingering in that spot that could be easily mistaken as the summit. Such was life. Things would be not as they seem. After all, servings of chicken tinola also waited for us.

I decided to fill the role of a sweeper during the descent. This time, I stayed in the rear instead of advancing in the vanguard. Darenn volunteered as a sweeper as the event’s organizer. As usual, going downhill proved more difficult for me than the ascent. My legs bore the weight of my whole body in every step. I also wore flip-flops instead of my hiking shoes with soles that ensured grip. A slower pace prevented me from slipping. Yet one of my feet bent from time to time following a misstep. It was not painful though.

Noel limped due to a cramp in his hip. Chesca also noted that both of her legs were aching. I accompanied her. Darenn stayed with Noel behind us. Chesca and I kept on moving until we lost sight and sound of our two companions. All of a sudden, the surroundings grew dreary from the shade and shadows complemented by the ordeals of our fellows. We seemed isolated from the rest of humanity. It would be advisable to always have a companion rather than hike alone. If anything unfortunate happens, there would be someone to help.

Chesca and I found our way back to the shed before the trail would twist downward in a sort of labyrinth. She sat under the roof while on my part a springy bamboo pole supported the weight of my gradually fatigued body. It felt like sitting on a seesaw. Another group of hikers accompanied us. They were on the way either to the campsite or the viewing point, stopping over for some rest. They played a bit of music with a mobile phone. They mostly talked about romantic stuff and hobbies. I munched on chili-flavored green peas. Chesca simply took the time to relax speechlessly. Then she also asked what might have happened to Darenn and Noel. Minutes passed and they were still not in sight. Something caught my eye. I stared upward. A crow flew against a gloomy gray sky as a background. In my imagination, I could hear waves crashing violently to the shore below this mountain. Crows, waves, and lightning appeared in my mind. I wished that it would not rain.

About twenty minutes passed when we saw Darenn and Noel walking toward us. The latter now held a branch as long as half of his body. It served as his hiking staff and eased the aching of his hip. The two rested a bit. When we were all ready, our descent resumed.

The five of us, including Zakarias, followed our footsteps up Mt Daguldol. Going down took less time. We had a significantly faster pace. Chesca noted this before. However, the skin of my feet bumped hard on rocks littering the ground. I thought I would have cuts that bled. My toenails might have cracked slightly right. I wore flip flops and knew the consequences. I had to accept them. My eyes veered away from the ground. Later, I would just find out what happened to my feet. What mattered now was reaching Onad’s place for lunch.

At 10 AM, the Hayok trekkers were sitting and dining on sumptuous tinola. The broth cooked with native chicken did not look oily. Chili leaves made the dish more appetizing. A hungry hiker would not care about taste but Onad’s chicken tinola would make him or her pause and appreciate. The extra food we bought before the hike were also laid on the table. Rice was wrapped in paper as a ball. There were other chicken and pork dishes. Jason sliced what was usually called in the Philippines as an ‘Indian mango.’ It was eaten unripe and best served with salt or shrimp paste known as bagoong or alamang. Some among our companions took a nap. The rest sat on wooden benches while eating, talking, or simply staring at the surroundings in relaxation. Meanwhile, the dogs bullied the lone cat for scraps that fell from the table. Mikay held the feline and cuddled it. Mark did the same. The flimsy-looking roof gave shade and coolness from the searing heat of approaching noontime. It was tempting to stay here a little longer but we had to go on. At 11:30 AM, our party left Onad’s place with gratitude and goodwill.

We walked in single file. Aldrin, Cy, Dolphy, and Robert moved ahead of me. Dianne was behind me. There was some distance between us and the rest of the group. Then we found ourselves at the chapel again with two paths to choose. One went straight ahead while the other curved to the left. Our party preferred the easier choice. In the end, no matter what we picked we would arrive at the same spot. Our mouths were mostly shut. Only the music from a Bluetooth® speaker broke the silence. The birds and critters seemed dead in the heat of noon. The smell of drying vegetation hang in the air. Once more, Dianne borrowed my folding umbrella.

Soon, the Hayok hikers regrouped at the first rest station that overlooked the forest and the sea. Cath, Dianne, Jason, and I sat on grayish boulders beside the hut. Our fellows rested their feet on a bamboo floor. Our discussion began with a trip to Vietnam that expanded into the Vietnam War, the Russia-Philippines military deal, calibers of assault rifle ammunition, and the video game Counter Strike. We felt nostalgia from back in high school.

Dianne had my umbrella throughout the last leg of our group’s journey. We talked about gadgets, careers, and the love of going outdoors. I did not feel singed by the sun despite the time of day. A cool yet slightly salty breeze always blew from the nearby sea. The path ahead zigzagged downward. It looked familiar. We were almost at the jump-off point. Dianne joked that we could simply slide down a slope and land at the cemented road in no time. Of course, that would injure us. Our party simply followed the trail for a few minutes until we reached the newly-constructed bridge. Darenn already contacted our driver, who was presently out of sight. Dianne, Mark, Mikay, and I strolled a little further and then sat down on the roadside. We seemed as wandering homeless folk. Then the four of us headed to the shack where I drank coffee this morning.

Our hike at Mt Dagulgol concluded with glasses of potable water and cola, made cold with ice. There were servings of unripe mango and preserved tamarind. The mountain’s trail difficulty would be friendly for beginners in hiking. Only half a day would be consumed while some treks would last the entire day. I had another look at my feet. Fortunately, they did not sustain cuts, even a bruise. My extremities only ached from tiredness. Then we all looked forward to a dip in the nearby beach of Barangay Hugom.