Getting Puzzled at Puzzle Mansion

The biggest collection of jigsaw puzzles globally, as formally recognized by Guinness World Records, is currently found in the Philippines. In fact, it lies next door to my hometown in the province of Cavite. A building called Puzzle Mansion, located within Tagaytay city, houses this collection of hobby items owned by Georgina Gil-Lacuna.

Xander Lopez, a fellow blogger, and I paid the Puzzle Mansion a visit on March 25, 2018. First, we arrived at Olivarez Plaza, then took a jeepney towards the town of Mendez. Xander checked constantly his mobile phone GPS app for the closest drop-off point on the highway. A visitor to Puzzle Mansion could choose between two travel routes via public transport. Xander and I came to a road sign where a nearby motor tricycle would take us directly to our destination for Php 60, for up to five passengers. The other route involved a jeepney veering off the main highway, following a road until a massive water tower appeared. The tricycles there would charge Php 40 inclusively for the ride. Driving your very own car to Puzzle Mansion would undoubtedly be the most convenient way.

Disregarding the tricycle, Xander and I took a stroll instead. We passed by verdant lawns of grass and plots strewn with pineapples. A few lodging houses lined the main road. Metal signs led us to Puzzle Mansion, with Xander’s app making sure we would not get lost. My companion and I entered a village. Several residents walked on cemented streets between cozy one-story homes. A group of men had a discussion while two boys rode on bicycles further up. Past the village, tall grass grew unkempt on vacant lots. We turned right on a luxurious-looking house. The path went straight to Puzzle Mansion’s entrance. Our entire stroll took at least 20 minutes. Fortunately, Tagaytay’s altitude kept the surrounding air refreshingly cool and breezy. We were not exhausted.

A steep downhill concrete path lay past the gate. Further below, goats grazed on a relatively spacious plot of land, keeping the grass trimmed. Puzzle Mansion consisted not just the building with the collection itself. The entire place also featured a swimming pool, rooms for stay, and restrooms of course. A statue of Puzzle Mansion’s logo, which were two dark blue jigsaw pieces stuck together, sat atop words bearing the place’s name.

A ticket for entry into Puzzle Mansion costed Php 100 per head. After buying them at a separate booth, we went in. A multitude of paintings greeted us. Yet upon a closer look, crisscrossing lines like on netting or a chain-link fence made up these works of art. These ‘paintings’ were actually jigsaw puzzles. I saw illustrations of animals, people, monuments, and landscapes. At one corner of the huge room, I distinguished famous paintings such as Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci,  and Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Among them hung a notable portrait by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon Bonaparte riding a rearing horse. The biggest puzzles could be found near the door. That of the Renato de Santa Columba by Rogier van der Weyden took 1,095 hours, or about 45 days, to be completed.

Other than two-dimensional, flat pictures, the Puzzle Mansion also had three-dimensional small objects. They varied in the form of dinosaurs, famous landmarks, aircraft, and even everyday items such as soda cans. They reminded me of robot and car toys in my childhood that came in pieces and then assembled with the help of a manual. I just learned that Xander also liked puzzles at the present. Additionally, layouts of major cities such as New York, Paris, and Sydney aroused my curiosity.

Xander and I stayed in the Puzzle Mansion not more than an hour. It might have likely lasted just thirty minutes. We did nothing but look and admire at assembled puzzle pieces. A fellow visitor recorded audio and video documenting the place, possibly for a school project or a blog. She kept on asking the guide, making sure her information was accurate. That Sunday morning saw about 10 visitors.

In my opinion, the Php 100 entrance fee was too pricey. I would suggest lowering it to Php 60 given the current setup. If it would stay at Php 100, I would recommend an interactive activity like building your own puzzles. Free meals and trinket souvenirs could serve as an alternative. Furthermore, some of the puzzle pictures depicted nudity so visitor age and discrepancy could be considered as well.

Despite a room for improvement, Puzzle Mansion remains the biggest collection of its kind and will stay that way by adding even more puzzles. Filipinos have a knack for breaking world records. An achievement by an individual, such as Georgina Gil-Lacuna, carries the prestige of the entire country as well.





A Hike for Two

My hike at Mt Talamitam on March 11, 2018 could be said as one of my best hikes ever. Given its proximity to my hometown, travel came with relative comfort. Walking on its trail felt less strenuous compared to many mountains in this rugged archipelago. It was also as if my prayer for an amiable weather got answered. Furthermore, I spent the day not with a group but with just one amazing person.

About nine months, enough for an infant to be delivered, passed since I last climbed Mt Talamitam. A friend named Amena Mae invited me with her companions “Chinee,” “Ge-ge,” and JP. That hike served as a comeback following ample time away from the mountains. Honestly, it went well but not too much. In November 2017, I went to Mt Nagpatong in Rizal Province, invited again by a fellow trekking enthusiast. Then another span of time passed without hiking, opting to stay at home instead to watch movies online or sleep my troubles away.

In March 2018, I met Kristine “Kris” Camama. We both hailed from Cavite, living in cities adjacent to one another. The two of us shared common values and interests, hiking among them. I asked her if she wanted to hike Mt Talamitam. Kris agreed.

Darkness still cloaked the land at nearly 4 AM. Kristine and I first glanced at each other inside a 7-Eleven® convenient store along a highway. While she was clad in a red cotton jacket, I wore a bright orange long-sleeved quick-dry suit. It was the closest I could come up with blaze overalls for visibility. Kris and I brought ample beverages, snacks, and our lunch crammed in medium-sized backpacks. As soon as we met up, a bus passed minutes later that took us to the jump-off point. Sitting side by side, Kris and I chatted about random things. Both time and the bus flew like a swallow darting in mid-air. Homes and restaurants slid past the window. It was not my first hike without a guide but it would be with a sole companion. With optimism, I hoped every moment would be worth it.

At around 5:30 AM, the bus dropped us at Kilometer 68. The exactly same houses from last year’s climb still stood there. Back then, our group arrived at 12 AM, when nocturnal darkness and slumber kept people within homes or tents. We waited four hours in relative solitude to begin hiking. Today, fellow trekkers were already lining up to register. Kris wrote her name along mine. Then I signed. The two of us agreed to start walking when enough of the bluish light of dawn illuminated our way. We sat on a shed constructed of bamboo, tarpaulin posters hanging beside us. Kris shared a bit of sunblock lotion. She asked why I did not use it much. I replied with an inherent (or socially constructed) nature of males to be more rugged and grimy than our female counterparts. I maintained good hygiene but not too much.

As time passed, Kris recognized a fellow named Paul. It was her fourth time today at Mt Talamitam after all. I also recalled him. The three of us wished glad tidings to one another as Kris and I departed for the summit.

The tranquility of a typical Sunday morning marked our stroll. Kristine and I went past a noisy group of hikers numbering about ten people. My companion shared how she left her pair of shoes in a motor tricycle. I recounted to her how the sole of my shoe broke off on the trail during my first Mt Purgatory traverse. Those footwear could have been repaired but I forgot them in the jeepney.

Suddenly, two dogs from behind us came running and barking. No one ran. Kris and I both knew that taking flight would arouse their instinct to chase. The canines stopped and kept on barking. We stood our ground. Then a man driving a motorcycle with a sidecar came out of nowhere. Rather than stay on foot and be left at the mercy of those aggressive dogs, I asked the guy if Kris and I could hitch a ride. At least he could accompany us too. The man agreed. The three-wheeled vehicle sped off on a bumpy downhill road but the dogs ran beside us. Our driver said that he owned those canines and was on the way to the river. Regret seeped into my blood until it circulated my entire body. Kris and I held on tight as the sidecar behaved like an amusement park ride. Now the dogs were less scary for her. A few minutes passed. The still anonymous but helpful fellow dropped us at the river crossing. At least no one got bitten by his pets.

The familiar bamboo bridge emerged into view. Kris and I would be hiking without a guide and the trails forked to both left and right. We stepped on rocks to cross a creek, resting for five minutes beside the meek body of water. Kris recalled that she was advised to keep on going right. At this point we did.

Nothing but wild greenery surrounded the trail. My hiking partner and I strolled casually yet the feeling of being lost crept into my mind. Only our voices pierced the silence. Even the signs of other hikers disappeared. It was stark desolation. The dirt path went uphill until it led us to two rustic huts. We could ask for directions but no one was present, let alone awake. Then a white dog barked at us furiously. Kris and I turned back only to find a barking brown dog blocking our way. My heartbeat raced. Adrenaline rushed. A sense of fear got replaced by a readiness to slam my backpack and kick these animals, hence a fight or flight situation. Kris kept reminding me not to look at their eyes, as if they never existed at all. We trod amid the alarming noise until the defensive canines were gone. Silence filled the trail again. I had been coping with a phobia of dogs since I got chased by one at age eight. It was worse before. The sight of virtually every canine terrified me. Then I lost fear with mild-tempered dogs, such as those wandering the streets and not lunging at passers-by. Still, the phobia was rooted from the incurable rabies virus. I did not mind getting bitten by these four-legged results of humans breeding wolves artificially had they not carried the disease. Yet today, I conquered a significant part of my phobia.

Back at the bamboo bridge, the large group that Kris and I bypassed earlier just crossed it and followed the trail we should have taken. My partner and I tagged along. We chatted with a guide named Greg, who stayed at the group’s rear as the ‘sweeper.’ This time, I recognized the way. Trees grew abundantly around the ascending path that stole our breath due to fatigue. My heartbeat, and Kristine’s as well, were already racing since encountering dogs twice.

A black cow showed up just meters from the trail, multiple tree trunks serving as obstacles between us and the beast. It was not a carabao. It was literally a bovine with fur having the color of charcoal. I recalled strongly my second Mt Purgatory traverse when my companion named “Len” referred a carabao to as a ‘black cow.’ Back here at Mt Talamitam, I took a snapshot and would send it to “Len” later, assuring this animal was not as mythological as a dragon or a griffon.

Calm mixed with happiness when Mt Talamitam’s famous open areas greeted us. We left the trees for seemingly hectares of grass constantly trimmed by grazing cattle. With livestock came innumerable pieces of manure on the ground, obviously. Kris and I both agreed that they were not that bad. ‘Cow pie’ lacked a powerful stench and it came solely from grass. It was not that bad.

29066286_1590281637715576_5245642570209427456_oKris and I sat beside one another on a hillside. On our front lay a sight made more majestic by the surreal lighting of the slowly rising sun. Beyond this spot was woodland, then more grazing land. Houses and villages dotted the green landscape. On the horizon stood Mt Batulao. I took a picture of the scenery as Kris looked how it was done. At this moment, I taught her the ‘rule of thirds’ in photography and the visual arts. Kris took her mobile phone out for a snapshot and applied this rule. My shoulder and cheek touched hers and vice versa. We sat down together on the grass for minutes, as if we had our own world away from our fellow hikers. It was an indescribable feeling.

A makeshift food stand served as our next resting point. A man and a woman, likely a married couple but I did not bother to ask, oversaw the place. They sold hard-boiled eggs, boiled plantains (called saba bananas in the Philippines), meat skewered in wooden sticks as kebab to be grilled, and mabolo fruits. Also known as velvet apples, these would not appear frequently in wet markets in my hometown. Curiosity got the better of me. A small white dog appeared to share my inquisitiveness. Unlike its fellows that Kris and I came upon earlier, this one did not bark at people threateningly. It stayed quiet as if one could call it his or her own pet. Then two men, riding on carabaos and accompanied by a pack of equally friendly dogs, arrived at the scene. It happened when Kris and I were leaving towards the summit. This group of animals and men eventually caught up with us. A thin little brown dog jumped at me playfully. I felt a complete absence of fear and confidence that this creature would not do any harm. I jokingly complained that dogs were chasing me but asked why women would not.

29101576_1590282107715529_6728909160810807296_oKris held my left arm. We walked side by side on this windswept patch of land. During my previous Mt Talamitam hike, my face seeped with sweat past 7 AM. Now it felt like trudging through a blizzard without the snow. At least Kris and I sort of got our wish for a clear but relatively cool weather fulfilled. It seemed a paradise on Earth. The sun shone with a light that did not glare and a warmth that did not sear. The constant wind kept us from perspiring. Yet Kris shivered, her body less tolerant of cold compared to mine. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her upper body. Meanwhile, I embraced the icy wind, hoping it would prevent me from contracting another bout of allergy. Yet there was a summer afternoon’s warmth in Kristine’s companionship. Additionally, this place seemed more of an otherworldly paradise with its lack of wild-looking trees. Short grasses stretched around us for kilometers. It was that place and moment I would prefer to stay eternal. I hoped time would freeze for the two of us. However, this meant breaking the law of physics. The best I could do was treasure every second as Kris and I approached the summit.

Another vendor stand served as a resting place. This one peddled coconut juice. Kris and I sat down on a bench, made up of pieces of bamboo toughened by age and the elements, to relax. Then we took a selfie. Kristine and I had been taking pictures of us together since sitting in the bus. Later on, we would have a selfie after the hike and compare it with one before walking, when we looked fresh. At the same time, trekkers nearby had begun dismantling their tents as their overnight stay came to a close. As these fellows packed their belongings, Kris and I went our way.

Just in front of a grove of trees lay a lush field where three carabaos stood lazily. A few hikers followed the curved unpaved path that led up the mountain. I discussed with Kris where should we head as the trail split in two. We went down a low slope near a larger makeshift structure with sturdy poles, a roof, and benches. Everything was normal until one of the carabaos blocked our path. Rather than risk getting gored by an unpredictable beast, Kris and I veered off the trail and found our way round. Purple flowers grew on the grasses we disturbed and trod. I injected humor by pretending as a host of a nature documentary, uttering sentences in fluent English. We were chased by African wild dogs and now buffaloes surrounded us in the heart of the savanna. Kristine could not help but laugh. It felt natural rather than another scheme to impress her. One of my traits involved putting witty humor when the opportunity came. As I presented my mock documentary I thought of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin. I even remembered the Nickelodeon cartoon series The Wild Thornberrys, which I watched often as a kid. I would be Nigel and Kris would be Marianne. My hiking partner even suggested recording this moment on video. We made it past one carabao but a bull with its apparently bigger horns stood nearby. Kristine and I just walked calmly past it.

The topic shifted from nature documentaries to wilderness survival shows. Kris and I both watched Man Versus Wild, starring Bear Grylls and aired on Discovery Channel. We recalled scenes such as making shelter out of branches, eating snakes, and of course drinking piss.

An enormous hill, with the summit of Mt Talamitam atop, loomed before us. Our uphill ordeal began. The ascent drained ample amounts of energy and oxygen from our bodies. I felt a strain in my legs and saw it more apparently in Kristine. Her latest climb dated back to October of the previous year. Our faces and arms brushed against tall grass. It was exactly like my first Mt Talamitam hike except for a few differences. While I bathed in sweat before, this time the dim sky and the wind gave me the feeling of standing in front of an electric fan turned on with maximum power. Instead of a short-sleeved gray T-shirt, I wore a long-sleeved orange outfit that protected my arms from grass blades. Kris and I took five-minutes breaks rather than a fifteen-minute rest. Furthermore, there were no horses and their riders today. My companion and I caught up with that large group of fellow trekkers. They stopped from time to time for chatting, laughing, and taking photos. Greg still accompanied them. Kristine and I pushed onward until a small vending stand marked the summit itself.

29062941_1590282021048871_6900380893970432000_oPeople of various ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds nearly filled an uneven space about as large as a basketball court. They already occupied the best spots for viewing the surroundings. It did not matter. Kris and I had been here before. Photos of the breath-taking landscape could be forgone. We put our backpacks on the ground, sat next to each other fondly, and shared personal stories. Bit by bit, more of our lives and character were revealed to one another. Our heartfelt conversation lasted at least twenty minutes. Then we decided to take a few snapshots of our own. Kris and I waited for our turn as three girls, most likely still studying in college, sought out perfect angles and facial expressions. Then Kristine and I did it relatively quickly.

The adjacent Mt Apayang lay patiently in wait for us. Another trail passed through a spot with grass cut down by machetes as if harvested. The place accommodated a few tents to pitch. Then the path twisted and turned as it ran downhill. Kristine and I did not have to endure mud this time but the loose sandy soil challenged our balance. We took careful steps. Then the ground grew even. We knew it would then be uphill all the way. Bushes and tall grass cloaked steep surfaces where one would roll down painfully or worse after slipping off the trail. I advanced past Kris at this point so I stayed behind her instead for us to match our pacing. We did not talk much. Personal connection could still be formed through silence. I told Kris that the distance from Mt Talamitam’s summit to that of Mt Apayang could be covered in fifteen minutes. I proved to be mistaken. When it appeared that we reached our destination, another hill strewn with rocks and wild foliage showed up. The ordeal lasted about thirty minutes.

A group of hikers lingered at the summit of Mt Apayang. They were about to leave. I wondered if the shack here still stood. It did, to my relief. Kris and I would have our lunch here instead of down there at the jump-off point, vulnerable to the lack of space from crowds along with cats and dogs begging for scraps. Our itinerary went smoothly so far. Fermin, the same popsicle ice cream peddler I met last year, was also present. This moment turned into a reunion. He then showed Kris which mountains could be seen at the horizon. She might have climbed Mt Talamitam four times already but this was her first experience of Mt Apayang. Again, Kristine and I laid down our backpacks and had another time-stopping chat, sharing more aspects of our personality. We took selfies of us beside one another, looking adorable as if people thought of us as a couple. I felt comfortable with her as if she was a loved one from another life. Kris noted that our faces looked alike. I agreed. She joked that we could be long-lost siblings. Then we laughed heartily. The two of us had more snapshots on a rock near the edge at one corner of the summit. Another group consisting of three men and a woman greeted us.

The time for lunch came. Kris brought two pieces of the so-called ‘Uncle John’s’ fried chicken she bought from a convenience store, along with two balls of moist rice. I packed rice in a tough plastic container. My meal came in the form of canned tuna caldereta, consisting of tomato sauce, peas, and tiny potato cubes. Kristine and I shared food as if it was a picnic. Instead of sitting on a picnic cloth on the grass, we sat on a bench constructed of cut bamboo pieces. The roofing seemed flimsy but it already withstood typhoons. That group of four climbers also sought shelter and dined with Kris and I. Amiable and somewhat humorous conversation improved the mood for lunch. We ate until we finished meals completely. Pieces of trash would be disposed later.

Kristine and I became the only people staying at Mt Apayang after our acquaintances left. They would head for a dip in the river near the village on the jump-off point. A guide advised them not to take a seemingly mysterious trail, which was closed to the public for reasons we did not know. Kris took a nap, lying her back on the bench. She asked me to wake her up after ten minutes. My hiking partner shivered, her shawl functioning as a blanket too. The sky grew gray as clouds gathered suddenly. The lighting went dim. The air temperature dropped down, making me restless. Ten minutes were up. Concerned with getting caught under the rain as the only two people at Mt Apayang, Kristine and I hurried down the mountain.

Descending at Mt Apayang took only about half the time as making our way up. As with many climbs I had been, something more than gravity dragged us down with ease. Perhaps it was the desire to rest continuously and take a shower. It might be our side trip in Tagaytay city. Here, it was simply to escape a downpour. Kris and I were exposed to harsh elements and lacked rain gear. Yet the weather disagreed. Past 10 AM, the nearly midday sun scorched us with intensified rays, scattered while unseen. My skin and clothes felt hot. I panted. Meanwhile, Kris walked quickly ahead of me. Our recent meal gave her a driving energy. She teased me jokingly to chase her. I found her a woman to share plenty of laughs with. Our conversation also grew gradually from minimal to ample. It gave life to an otherwise silent mountain devoid of any human being. I felt humbled once realizing that Kris and I were virtually alone, surrounded at all sides by raw nature. Soon, we reached the lowest point between Mt Apayang and Mt Talamitam.

Another trail led to an alternative way to our jump-off. We agreed to trace our way from where we came. It would lead us back at Mt Talamitam’s summit. It might not be the easier way but it was surer. Additionally, Kristine and I would come upon fellow hikers to be far from isolation and subsequent peril. (Later on, a guide advised us to head back and follow that ‘shortcut’ but we insisted otherwise.)

Kris and I kept strolling. Then we returned to that inclined part of this trail with little to hold on to. I crouched to distribute body weight more evenly and avoid slipping. Kristine thought deeply of the verb for leaning forward. It was crouched, she recalled. Her eyes lit up like those of Archimedes when he uttered “eureka.” After that, our ascent felt effortless as if a mere minute passed before we approached the summit. Two Caucasian-looking women were hiking towards Mt Apayang. I initiated a casual conversation. They parted from us as soon as we met them. Kris and I muttered that they spoke in a ‘British’ accent. ‘English’ would be the more accurate term. Still, I could not distinguish whether it was Northern, Southern, or from the Midlands.

We found ourselves back at Mt Talamitam’s summit with no time to stay. Kris and I simply did not want to. We walked onward. Descent now went slower for us as the likelihood of slipping increased. Careful footing was the key to staying uninjured.

29063114_1590298127713927_5074423948062490624_nSoon, the wide expanse of the eye-pleasing pastureland lay before us. Kristine and I took additional pictures with it on the background. Suddenly, droplets of water fell from the sky. The two of us faced impending rain. Yet miraculously it did not progress into a downpour, not even a drizzle. As tall grass gave way to its way shorter counterpart, the sun unleashed its full force again. We were glad for bringing a cap. That of Kristine was plain green with a short brim. Mine bore a woodland pattern similar to those worn by hunters in North America.

29063316_1590298287713911_4359380939172741120_nThe excursion became leisurely once more as a relaxing stroll. Kris wrapped her arm around one of mine. We talked about a wide range of topics — romantic relationships, work, and even television shows. The two of us exchanged greetings with fellow hikers still ascending to the summit. Despite the absence of trees, the wind kept the surrounding temperature mild and tolerable. Yet walking all morning was taking its toll. Kris and I rested at the coconut juice stand, helping ourselves with a cup of that drink maintained cold by ice. After bidding farewell to the kind vendors, Kristine and I continued on our way. At one instance, we ran past other hikers while holding hands and laughing. She was enjoyable to be with and I hoped she felt the same with me.

Shadows littered the ground as trees popped up everywhere. This walk in the woods should take up less time compared to those of my previous treks where forests covered the entire mountain. Trails forked to both left and right, arousing concern for getting lost. The guide seemed to disappear. At this point of the hike, Kristine and I talked about action-packed movies. We recalled those where a sole protagonist or a small group got chased by hundreds of enemies. Kristine and I, along with fellow trekkers, found ourselves strolling on a cemented path slowly worn down by cracks and algae. It led us to a familiar river. We had reached the village. Kris and I stuck to the gray river bank, skipped on some rocks on a  crossing just a few meters wide, and ascended on to the road.

A concrete bridge lined with metal railings marked the boundary between the comfort of human habitation and the uncertainty of the outdoors. Kris and I crossed it while accompanied by a big group of hikers. We let them pass as the two of us had some respite and drank beverages.

When our walk resumed, I just realized this time with Kristine at Mt Talamitam was coming to an end. It was a bliss too magnanimous to describe. Like all things good it would find its limit at some time and in one way. Amid the houses and the people, our surroundings grew quiet. Kris and I absorbed every second of our companionship. We kept it deeply in our memories and hearts.

The highway appeared and along with it came Francis. He served as my guide during that previous trek here. I contacted him days ago. Earlier today, he called me through mobile phone more than once, repeatedly asking where was I and how I fared. We caught up on stories after I finished taking a bath and Kris took her turn. While resting before a shower, Kristine and I had a selfie which surprisingly showed how fresh we looked despite walking for hours. At 1:30 PM, the two of us rode a bus for beef marrow soup or bulalo at Tagaytay city.

Kristine and I before (left) and after (right) the hike

I considered my second hike at Mt Talamitam to be one of my most memorable treks ever. Not a bit of bitterness and regret bothered me. I did not contract an allergic reaction this time. This was the first time I met Kristine in person and would be looking forward for more travels with her in the future.

Bakasyunan Revealed

Working in a corporate environment might provide travel opportunities in the form of company outings or team-building events. My office department had one at the Bakasyunan resort and conference center on June 10, 2017. It was a day I wanted to forget but I could not.

My shift ended at 5 AM. I shared this time frame with two of my batchmates, namely Maejille ‘Maej’ Papango and Cheryle ‘Che’ Sagayoc. We preferred the term ‘wavemates’ as our company referred to each batch of new employees per department as a wave. I was with Wave 25. We numbered 19 individuals from varying ages, genders, educational backgrounds, and hobbies. Then we got reassigned within two separate buildings and then into different teams. The three of us rode together in one van along with fellow employees who had the same shift as us.

The van endured morning traffic despite it being a Saturday. Our group stopped by at a fast food drive-thru and had breakfast on the go, munching and sipping while sitting on couches. Aside from the three of us, the companions I could remember were Harvey Alarcon and Jemimah Bautista. We left the nation’s capital for the nearby province of Rizal up north. Our vehicle crossed Antipolo city, then the municipality of Teresa. Residing in the latter was my newly-made friend and fellow hiking enthusiast named Ren Emradura. She also organized mountain climbing events. As I stared out the van’s window, I thought that she would be still sleeping given the gray cloudy sky. Then it drizzled. We entered the town of Tanay where Bakasyunan was located. The van followed a twisting road that I recalled taking on the way to Mt Daraitan back in 2015. I shared it to Harvey, who had his share of outdoor adventures too. After briefly stopping by at a gas station, about ten minutes of driving elapsed before we finally arrived at our destination.


Tanay, Rizal province, Philippines

Uniform Mike Romeo

0724 hrs, June 10th 2017

Chain-link fencing stood proudly beside the highway, intimidating any would-be trespasser. Beyond it, inside the compound, lay grass and trees like a meadow in a forest. We walked into the gate of Bakasyunan. A long line of fellow getaway-seekers greeted us. I did not expect this huge number of people. As a life principle, we should not get swayed by our expectations. They seemed employees too. The other groups outnumbered us three to one. A party consisted wholly of men. Conversation filled the air already heavy with raindrops. We kept on strolling on the wet cemented lane.

Bakasyunan offered lodging in a building that looked more of a country lodge. One could buy souvenirs, T-shirts, slippers, and essential things at the small shop by the entrance. Further indoors, a bar served both liquor and fruit shakes. Tables and chair lay scattered in this dining area that lacked panes and glass windows, only wooden fences.

A huge heart sculpture caught our attention. I felt allergic to this shape that symbolized love and romance. The actual human heart, with its muscle, arteries, and veins, did not even look like that. Besides, I was going through a tough time. Nearby sat another large sculpture in the form of a golf ball. An over-sized pool table at ground level, complete with numbered balls and a surface painted green as ‘felt,’ had me puzzled as to how to play with it. An assortment of flowers along with pebbles laid aesthetically made visitors feel truly welcome. These decorations made a perfect background for snapshots too. Just several meters at the front of the hotel was the word ‘BAKASYUNAN’ as human-sized sculpted letters.

DSCN0418Guests could swim, bathe, and admire the surrounding landscape at the same time in a pool at the end of a grassy patch. Forested mountains fell into mere hills, which beyond lay a lake that seemed to stretch out indefinitely. To the left stood three massive wind turbines, referred to incorrectly by the populace as windmills. These structures generated power, not ground grain into flour. A narrow path of gray stone led to the attraction. The weather appeared uninviting for a dip. We had dreary clouds and mist instead of clear sunshine. It was just too cold for swimming, my companions thought. Still, I brought swimwear.

The cemented path led us down, deeper into Bakasyunan. To our left, a structure that looked like a roofed basketball court sheltered tables and chairs from the elements. This kind of place could serve an excellent venue for a wedding or debut. Eventually, our group reached a convention facility called the Tinipak Hall. Beside the door hung a plaque with a photo of Tinipak River, where this hall got its name. It flowed and ran beneath Mt Daraitan. No wonder the picture looked familiar. I had a few fellows in Wave 25 who also liked hiking. Then I went in.

Clothed tables and white plastic chairs lined the hall’s left and right. This venue seemed big enough to accommodate more than 100 people. I sat with Che and Maej. Near the entrance, a catering service crew prepared our meals served on a separate long table. Food stubs were distributed among guests. Water and iced tea ran freely among us, kept in a drum-like container with a hand-pressed faucet at the base. We were also given snacks. As the three of us were among the earliest batch to leave the office, we still awaited our companions. All in all, our fellows in Wave 25 joining this event included Nicole Arenas, Loraime ‘Yem’ Balancio, Erika Cruz, John Jay dela Cueva, Jaquelyn ‘Jaq’ Gapon, Claudine ‘Claudia’ Garcia, Arlene Manlangit, Jose Rumbines, and Aaron Valencia. Our batch started out more than we were now. A few did not continue employment due to their various reasons.

Che (left) and Maej (right) smiling because there are brownies. Yeah, brownies
The blogger helping himself with a sandwich. Yummy!

More people began pouring in. Aside from our team in Taguig city, we also met up with our counterparts in the Quezon city department. I saw new and unfamiliar faces. I yearned to have a chat with these colleagues. Yet all I could do at the moment was smile at them. An invisible barrier more formidable than the Berlin Wall always existed between strangers. A team in charge of fun-oriented events checked the microphones, visual projectors, and speakers from time to time. It was now past 8 AM. The program had not begun yet. More fellow employees arrived in batches. Tinipak Hall began to look like an alumni homecoming party.

The event program commenced. It began with a video slideshow and a song as eulogy for an employee who passed away recently. He got hospitalized and was recovering. Then it came. The whole room’s mood turned solemn. Tears flowed on cheeks. Eyes turned reddish. No one said a word. Mournful music reverberated against the walls painted white. Then it was over. The hosts reminded us to feel happy for him regardless as he made the most of living. Our deceased colleague would have wanted us to enjoy this day. He was among the event’s organizers.

Chito Martillano, the team leader (or supervisor) to whom I got assigned to, hosted a game involving various departments. The employees from Quezon City, or QC, rose up eagerly. Soon, they filled our far end of the hall. Our respective teams hesitated to join. Wanting more than sitting idly, I volunteered. I volunteered as a tribute. It felt like The Hunger Games trilogy. Chito, who we also refer to fondly as TLC, called names. My companions from Wave 25 now included Aaron, Che, and Jaq. I could not remember the mechanics much except that it resembled the classic paper, sticks, and stones on a large scale, explaining the huge number of participants. We won a few rounds.

More games followed. I decided not to join anymore. Outside, rain fell from a sorrowful gray sky. The heavens absorbed our personal struggles and problems, then poured them back at us as chilly drops of water. Ground turned into mud. Bakasyunan featured horseback riding, ATVs, and various activities which we could not enjoy now due to the weather. An office photo contest also ate up our time. Bakasyunan’s grounds served an excellent backdrop for nature-themed snapshots, which was the criterion.

Rain remained weak as a drizzle. I strolled around a patch of grass near Tinipak Hall. I thought I saw a watchtower or lookout tower. It was actually a high vertical wall to climb, like those in obstacle courses. No one took the challenge. After all, it was too slippery due to the never-ending light rain. I grabbed my mobile phone out of my pocket. Then I called Ren. The two of us chatted. She shared more of her tales from climbing mountains. I described Bakasyunan to her. After our call, I slipped on wet grass. Pain stung my leg. My day seemed even more grim. It sure sucked after slipping and hurting myself out of mistake and carelessness.

My colleagues wandered around, looking for a perfect spot for a photo shoot. John Jay dressed up, or more like dressed down, like Kocoum from the 1995 animated film Pocahontas. Bear paws ‘painted’ on the shirtless chest gave his character away. John Jay looked exotic in the midst of people wearing casual and swimming attire. Yet he wore his costume with utmost confidence. It was for a photo shoot after all. Meanwhile, I had a stroll with Phil Abella, a fellow under TLC’s squad. We walked past houses rented by guests staying overnight. These buildings seemed as more compact versions of the homes of affluent families living in the subdivisions, or exclusive villages, in and around the capital region. Far below a set of cemented stairs lay an enormous pool. Visitors, turned miniature by distance, frolicked in the turquoise chlorinated water. A bit later, we stumbled upon Erika, Jaquelyn, John Jay, and Jose in their photo shoot. They were like weary adventurers lost in the wilderness. Jose complained about the sticky mud and itchy tall grass. These added to his already growing concerns. The four had gone into densely vegetated spots within Bakasyunan. (Days later, I suggested to Jose that he make John Jay’s photo inspired by the video game Far Cry Primal. It was set in 10,000 B.C.E. when prehistoric hunter-gatherers and mammoths roamed Europe. It worked.) Phil and I then resumed our stroll until we parted ways.

Noontime came. Our lunch had been served late. A long line of people filled the hall. We waited for food like folks staying in an evacuation center or refugee camp. It seemed famine struck the land. Our menu consisted of fried chicken in spicy sauce, sautéed noodles known locally as pancit, and fruit salad. At least that was what I remembered. Minutes passed anxiously as I fell in line near Che, Maej, Phil, and another colleague named Eliza Borce. At least ten minutes elapsed before a meal got served on my white ceramic plate. Then I sat down for lunch with my mates from Wave 25.

A terrace at the back of Tinipak Hall presented an admirable view of verdant mountain DSCN0465ridges and a distant silvery lake. Views of a pristine landscape made the visit at Bakasyunan ever more worthwhile. At this spot, my mates from Wave 25 and I reunited with Ivette Villegas, our training mentor from QC. She looked rather plump in a positive sense. That meant she was faring well back in QC. She took daily trips to our Taguig office during our batch’s training.

From left: Erika, John Jay, Jose, Jaquelyn, Arlene, Loraime, Claudia

DSCN0472Later in the early afternoon, I also had a short stroll with Claudia and Jaq, already dressed in swim wear. We talked about resorts in Batangas province as the three of us roamed those houses again near the bigger pool. This time, more people flocked for a dip. Aaron went for a swim eagerly. He was nowhere to be found. The sky remained gray and overcast. No one wanted to jump into the pool. The weather proved discouraging indeed. Then we joined Erika, John Jay, and Jose. They too did not feel like swimming. Our group posted for photos and kept on roaming while sharing our individual setbacks. We revealed more of ourselves. Everyone had his or her own downside. At least we all got the company of one another at that moment. There was no work. It was an afternoon only for leisure. We all spent some time sitting around a table at Bakasyunan’s bar and also spent our money on chocolate or fruit shakes.

At about 3 PM, we found ourselves at a two-story cemented building near the upper pool with a view of those wind turbines. Guests done with swimming took showers, walking to and fro with soaked hair and fresh clothes. Upstairs, a spacious open-air floor contained two long tables, benches, and a sing-along machine. Claudia, Erika, Jaquelyn, John Jay, Jose, and I sang when it was our respective turn. I could remember vividly a fellow from another team and building who went by the nickname of MC. He sang Thinking of You by Katy Perry. The lyrics and rhythm really seeped into that moment’s mood. Every time I would hear that song, I could feel a chill in my spine. I could imagine broken hearts, missed memories, unfulfilled hopes, and unrequited love. Yet that day was meant for enjoyment. It was coming to an end as daylight faded.

Che, Maej, and Nicole showed up. Nicole brought her DSLR camera. All of us had snapshots with the nearby pool and the distant landscape as the background. We had laughs and teasing. Not everyone could have amiable colleagues in an equally amiable working environment. I felt thankful for where I was right there.

Our entire department gathered in Tinipak Hall for the last time before this day drew to a close. The organizers thanked everyone who attended. We all wished a better future for our organization. A group photo, or more like a crowd photo, with almost everyone was taken at the terrace with the metal railings. Then many among us changed their swimming attire for a new set of clothes. People walked out of the hall in groups.

The cemented path sloped uphill this time. At least it consisted of a series of even surfaces resembling a fish ladder, such as that for migrating salmon. Following it felt easier than a muddy mountain trail. Yet we were already exhausted from an entire day of walking, other activities aside. Members of our Wave 25 batch did not get proper sleep since our shift ended at 5 AM earlier today. It seemed a harrowing climb. Then we reached the parking lot with the vans. My companions at Wave 25 and I decided to ride together rather than mingle with other teams. However, it may stir up a logistical problem and leave some folks without a ride. It was do or nothing. We took seats.

Sleep eluded me as our van thundered on the highway as if doing a blitzkrieg. My mind got preoccupied with decision making and timing. I weighed actions. I contemplated on other issues. A few worries bothered me. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues had begun to doze off. I paid Ren a call. She told me about spending the afternoon in a cafe in her town. Drizzle cast innumerable rain drops on the windows of our automobile. Soon, my phone conversation with Ren ended. The roadside grew wild with tall grass and vertical rock surfaces. Light turned into darkness gradually. Gray became black. It was about 7 PM when we arrived at the National Capital Region (NCR). Lamp posts shone orange light on the concrete highways and fly overs. One by one, our companions living in northern NCR got out of the van. Maej was already home. We dropped her at Antipolo, where she was living. Many among us ended up at Market Market in Taguig city. For the last leg of my journey, I rode the bus with John Jay and Nicole.

To sum it up, my Bakasyunan adventure would have been more enjoyable if not for the rain. Yet no human can control the weather. This place offers a mix of fun activities but at a cost of at least Php 100. The venue itself cannot be considered affordable for the regular visitor. No wonder it mostly hosts company event. Nevertheless, Bakasyunan has the facilities, surrounding views, and ambience that make your day pleasurable.


Three Non-Filipinos Who Lent their Names to Places in Manila

20170403_101037If you are traveling in the capital of the Philippines and now the world’s most densely-populated city, you may come across landmarks such as Taft Avenue and pay no heed to whom it is named after. Three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule brought Hispanicized surnames, words, and an alphabet that became part of the native tongue over time. Then those few centuries ended abruptly with an American occupation and government. Anglo-Saxon names and words have appeared all over the country but they have not integrated in the same way as their Spanish counterparts. Most American surnames still sound more alien than foreign to Filipino ears. Nevertheless, non-Hispanic figures in history have immortalized their legacy through some spots in the capital city of Manila named after them.

Ferdinand Blumentritt

For many, Ferdinand Blumetritt seems an obscure historical character. He did not rule a country, led in battle, or invent a piece of technology. Yet the Blumentritt Station of Manila’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) was named after him.

Jose Rizal, deemed as the national hero of the Philippines, had been a good friend with Ferdinand Blumentritt. The latter hailed from Prague in what is today’s Czech Republic, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Blumentritt studied about the Philippines extensively as a scholar while living in the town of Leitmeritz. When Rizal was traveling in Europe, he learned about an expert in his homeland who could also speak his mother tongue, Tagalog. The two met in 1887 and soon exchanged not only letters but also academic material after parting ways. Then the rest became history. Rizal wrote subversive literary works, got arrested, then met his fate through firing squad in 1896. This served as one of the factors of the Philippine War of Independence, which was followed by a military defeat in the Philippine-American War. Regardless, Blumentritt still supported the country’s bid for sovereignty and spent the rest of his life a scholar. He passed away in 1913, just one year before World War One that ended with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yet Blumentritt’s memory still lives on in the form of a light rail station in the country he adored much.

Henry Ware Lawton

Some buses going to Manila display placards written with ‘Lawton.’ The name stuck that most Filipinos have been unaware that what used to be Lawton Plaza is now officially called Liwasang Bonifacio. This place marks the location of the Manila Central Post Office and the gateway to Quiapo district, famous for its places of worship and stalls with affordable merchandise. In fact, Lawton is the last name of an American general during the time the Philippines lost its newly-won independence from Spain.

Henry Ware Lawton’s military career began during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the United States stopped being ‘united’ with the secession of the Confederate States. He rose in rank progressively from private to captain. With the civil war over, his country turned towards westward expansion. This result in conflict with various Native American tribes, among them the Apache. Discontent with living in so-called reservations, a small group of these people of the arid Southwest fought back under the leadership of Geronimo in 1885. He succeeded with raiding while evading capture. Lawton was among the US military forces tasked with tracking down Geronimo. Following pursuit through high mountains and canyons under scorching heat, Lawton’s party eventually forced Geronimo to surrender. The captain got promoted as years passed.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Lawton assumed command as a brigadier-general. He led US troops into Cuba. Lawton won at the Battle of El Caney, paving the way for the United States to win the war in just three months. Simultaneously, American troops also landed in the Philippines and achieved victory with the help of Filipino rebels. The Filipinos yearned for a country of their own but the Americans had other plans. Spain sold the archipelago in the Treaty of Paris. The Philippine-American War, where Lawton also saw action, broke out. During the Battle of San Mateo in rainy weather, he was issuing orders to soldiers before getting fatally shot. In a twist of irony, the Filipino sharpshooters were under the command of Licerio Geronimo, who shared the name with the Apache leader Lawton apprehended. With the nature of this conflict, no wonder Lawton Plaza got renamed for the almost first President of the Philippines.

William Howard Taft

Anyone visiting the city of Manila itself may find himself or herself at Taft Avenue. This place can be described as the capital city’s jugular vein. Government buildings, medical facilities, and universities line this notable road. It does not seem to slumber. Countless pedestrians make Taft Avenue even more alive. This place also shares the name of the currently southernmost station of the capital’s Metro Rail Transit (MRT) system. Arriving at the Taft Avenue Station is like going to the gateway into Metro Manila. “Taft” has sounded too familiar to Filipinos that most do not even know the person who lent the name.

William Howard Taft served as the 27th President of the United States of America. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1857, he took up law and practiced it throughout the rest of his life. His career progressed from being a humble lawyer to a state judge, then getting appointed as US Solicitor General in 1890. During the presidential term of William McKinley, Taft was assigned as Governor-General of the Philippines in 1901. War had been raging on but the American military already gained the upper hand against the Filipino revolutionaries. It was time to rebuild the Philippines. To begin with, Taft did not mistreat and abuse Filipinos with laws containing racial segregation. He saw them as more socially equal. Taft even encouraged the local populace to participate more with running the government. The Governor-General also enacted reforms in infrastructure, education, and agriculture. It was a two-year legacy that soon became largely forgotten. Yet Taft’s name lived on. He got elected in 1909 as President, serving his term until 1913. Later in 1921, Taft was Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court until he passed away nine years later. He also gained prominence as the heaviest US President in terms of weight so far.

Mt Purgatory Traverse: Before and After

According to the Ancient Greek historian Heraclitus, change is the only constant in life. The saying goes for trails too. More than a year has passed since I took the Mt Purgatory traverse and I have noticed differences in the sights and landmarks. This time, I have followed a longer path near the end of the trek. Last year, on August 20-21, 2016 to be exact, I accompanied a mountain climbing group that went by the name of Talahib in hiking the Mt Purgatory traverse. I would have another set of companions this time.

A fellow named Elmer “Yobs” Jurilla organized our trip, scheduled on September 23-24, 2017. The participants were Christian “Chan” Ararao, Mark Caldez, Jhay Coriag, Aileen “Ai” Epiz, Lawrence “Angel” Fetalvero, Casandra “Cas” Gubatan, Elena “Len” Ibana, Cherrie Meigh Laborte, Vivian Nuyles, Tina Relos, and James Ulip. and I. My previous excursion became possible after Christian “Xtian” Villanueva, who was with Talahib, invited me personally when I met him and Len. Xtian joined but Len did not. Thirteen months would pass before she finally got the chance to be part of this piece of adventure in northern Luzon.

Cubao in Quezon City, Metro Manila served as our location to gather before traveling. Instead of the Jollibee fast food branch literally flooded by hikers with their identifying attire and bags, our group met up at a McDonald’s constructed with modernist architecture. One by one the members arrived between 9 and 11 PM. Then we hopped in a Toyota Hi-Lux van, sat as comfortably as we could, and rode all the way to Benguet province with stopovers along the way. Sleep eluded me again. It was caused more by working in a nighttime shift than by the discomfort of nodding off while sitting. My body clock had changed too. I wished deeply for enough energy to make it through tomorrow.


Mist on distant mountains greeted us after waking up on the following morning feeling dizzy. The road ahead twisted and turned. It was like being tossed on a ship’s deck on a stormy sea. At about 7 AM, our trekking party had breakfast at a restaurant and stopover where I also ate last year with the Talahib group. It was exactly the same place. Len and I even chatted with our hiking companions at Mt Makiling last January. It felt like a brief reunion. Our acquaintances would be heading to Mt Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon island. I had not climbed it yet. I wished to be there sooner. After 30 minutes, we were on our way to the jump-off point.

Moderate rain welcomed us at the roadside sign where we would begin the two-day hike. We began wearing our waterproof ponchos. Mine was colored orange. Somehow I could not find that more rigid blue raincoat I wore the last time I was here. Still, that raincoat limited my movement and felt uncomfortably hotter compared to my poncho. Yet my forearms and lower legs were exposed. I did not care. For now, rain fell more like a drizzle.

If my hiking adventures would be turned into a video game, it would be ‘Mountaineers Creed’

A group of people huddled together in a hut, taking shelter from the elements. I approached them. Sabel, my guide from last year, was there. She recognized me immediately. However, she would accompany another party. A woman in her forties would be our guide, introducing herself as Kulingay. Yobs worked on our registration. Memories of the surroundings became more vivid. The Mt Purgatory jump-off sign and trail map stood the test of time. They endured the soaking rain and chilling cold. Pine trees made this place seemingly foreign. Then I noticed something different. The dirt road that marked the first steps of this adventure was now cemented. Talking to Kulingay, I commented about it. It was for real, not just my imagination. Then I began taking pictures. We had a group photo and a short briefing.

Standing from left: Yobs, Jhay, Tina, Lawrence, Ai, Len, Vivian, James. Sitting from left: Mark, Cherrie, Chan, Cas, The Blogger
Jump-off point: before and after 

DSCN0759The last time I started out the Mt Purgatory traverse, I was among those in the front leading the way. Now i settled at the rear. I accompanied Kulingay and a young fellow nicknamed Jigs. He was aged between 12 and 16. Chan, Len, and Vivian shared my pace. This time, I also panted less and was not as weary as before. Sooner, the cemented path came to an end. We stepped on soil made firm by the cold and littered with fallen pine cones. Our hiking party marched uphill steadily. Breaks lasted only two minutes and were done sparingly. It seemed that we walked from the jump-off point to Mt Mangakew without stopping. It ceased from raining. We took off our ponchos. Then out of nowhere we heard the sound of an impending downpour. None came. It was just a furious wind that seemed a jet engine to my ears. Len persisted with her pun-filled fish jokes as kept on strolling. I arrived again at that familiar waiting shed. To my surprise, the trekkers guided by Sabel, instead of my companions, sat there. Then another acquaintance showed up. It was Emilia, my guide at that unforgettable climb at Mt Tabayoc. This had been the third time I saw her personally. Now Emilia did not wear a hat and had longer hair. Mark, Yobs, and the others pushed it all the way. Then I scanned my right for a black pipe where refreshingly potable water flowed out. I could not find it. Things have changed indeed. Even my immediate companions could feel my disappointment. After a minute or so, that pipe of water appeared. Our water containers were still full — or at least nearly full. The four of us drank with our hands, then washed our faces and hair. I would gladly trade bottled water bought at supermarkets for this.

Sabel (left) and Emilia (right). Both had been my guides here at the mountains of Benguet.


Wooden Mt Mangagew sign: before (top) and after (bottom)

Reddish mud marked the road that passed through Mt Mangagew. Again, I joked about it sounding like the Tagalog word for snatching or making off with something — or someone. We took group photos at that rustic fence near the elementary school. I recalled Neil dela Cruz and Yhs Cariño, my trekking mates from last year, sharing snacks with me at this exact spot. The couple were Len’s close friends. Yhs recently gave birth to a boy they named JG. Then we hit that muddy road that looked like trailing from a copper mine. The color was simply unnatural. I could say the soil was more Australian than Filipino. Chunky mud stuck fast to our shoes and sandals. There was nothing we could complain about. The best our party could do was keep to the sides of the road with a firmer surface. Chan, Len, Vivian, and I lifted our spirits with cheerful conversation. Eventually, we reached that Mt Mangakew sign. Our hiking group stopped at a shed above a slope just off the road to the right. Cas and Tina played with puppies. We rested our bags on a bench and a table. Following a brief group conversation, the trek resumed.

Metal Mt Mangagew sign: before and after

Plain-looking small residential homes lined the dirt road. Children stood as they watched us like foreign tourists visiting their place. Dogs and chickens brought more life to the surroundings.  I searched for that store with a bench arranged into an incomplete three-sided square across the road. This was where we had ample rest and snacks last time. I could not find it. It might have closed down. As we kept on walking, that distant eroded rock face of a mountainside to our left did not cease to amaze me. Our group took pictures.DSCN0790 With certainty, that human-caused landmark would remain for decades. Later on, I finally saw again that store standing on the left of the road. Upon arriving, Mark and Yobs offered me a cup of coffee. I declined and instead bought Mountain Dew® caffeinated soft drink in a plastic bottle. While last year we relaxed on the benches across the road, this time my companions and I spent time under the roof of a cross between a patio and a hallway. Then a crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus) flew in and landed near the store. It had no fear of humans. I asked the guides if it was the same injured bird I encountered last year. The kindly lady who ran the store said it was a different bird. Our hiking party eventually decided to have lunch there. The lady store-owner sold us cooked white rice in clear plastic bags. Most among us dined on canned sardines or tuna with it. Mine was tuna flakes preserved in the same way as corned beef. At this time too, I got a DSCN0791bit grumpy. I could sense bad vibes. I did not want things to happen again where I was at a disadvantage, feeling more of dead weight. The mood turned gloomier when rain began to fall exactly when everyone was done with lunch and we were setting out. The drizzle intensified. We wore our colorful ponchos again, with relatively many among us buying the light yellow one from hardware stores.

The dirt road turned into gravel as I once again trudged a notable uphill section of road. Last year, I panted hard here and had to pause for ten seconds after exhausting myself. It was still as difficult as before. Yet somehow it felt less tiring partly due to the coolness brought by rain. Noontime heat made me wearier a year ago. I stayed in the rear again with the same companions as hours ago. Vivian’s pace slowed and I wondered if one of her legs or both were aching. We discussed about romantic relationships, along with outer space and light from stars.

The tough uphill road to the farm: before and after

An agricultural field lay at the end of this upward track. It did not mean relief. The muddy surface compelled us to look carefully at the ground first before stepping. I touched the soil with the sole of my shoe. Within seconds, I planned a path to follow. Rain combined with low montane temperatures gave mud not only the consistency but also the look of peanut butter. Suddenly, my entire left foot sank in. My sock got wet. The shoe appeared terribly dirty. I could hear my companions express surprise and pity. However, I simply laughed it out. This was nothing compared to both of my lower legs sinking halfway at the shore of Lake Letepngepos, also around these parts of Benguet.

DSCN0799Our ordeal finally turned into respite upon reaching a two-story house under construction. It consisted of hollow cement blocks, metal rods, and pieces of wood of all sizes. Sawdust littered the floor. Yobs brought out a bottle of gin mixed with lime juice. I whiffed the liquor and personally found it smelling similar to wood. Jay shared peanuts in small foil packs. We snacked and chatted as the drizzle outside did not relent. Tina then laid two nails on the floor and asked us a riddle how it could become a name of a vegetable. A few minutes passed. Cas took the nails and gave it to Tina while saying, “sa iyo ‘te,” which sounded like chayote. The phrase meant ‘for you, ate (a distinctly Filipino word addressed to women out of respect, especially if older). After ten minutes of taking shelter in that DSCN0800soon-to-be house, our trek resumed. A dirt path, now turned into mud by the rain, led us across a field of leafy vegetables. A man carrying an ax with a long shaft was talking to his fellow riding on a motorcycle, which was not moving but with the engine still running. This time, we did not stay in that farm house where kittens scurried at us upon the sight of our lunch.

The slope just past the farm: before and after

Again, I was on the part of the trail where the surroundings grew wild after strolling uphill from a piece of farmland. Light rain came with a mist that made the surroundings grim. This wet weather in the midst of pine trees made Yobs recall the vampire movie Twilight, featuring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. The rest of the fellows with me agreed. I grinned as I remembered that movie and something related to it, back in college. I asked Len and Vivian which they preferred — Edward the vampire or Jacob the werewolf. At this point, I got tired of taking my poncho off and then putting it on again. I let the rain drench my hair and shirt. A drizzle caused illness more than getting soaked thoroughly. I could take a bath at Mt Bakian when spending the night there. The terrain plunged sharply to our left. Then a waiting shed would appear. Minutes passed and I still could not see it. There was only the ravine. It made me wary of my steps.

Grass lay on both sides of the narrow trail and I knew I was getting closer. Soon, I saw a bunch of hikers sought shelter in that waiting shed. Nobody seemed to pay heed when I arrived. Jhay then welcomed me casually. I was shivering. Getting hypothermia in a tropical country might sound impossible but it was a reality out here in the misty mountains of Benguet province. My body tolerated the cold but I would not take chances. I rested my large backpack, took off my soaked shirt, and wore my gray woolen jacket. After that, I waterproofed myself with that orange poncho. Len went ahead while I was changing my outfit. Chan and Vivian, along with Kulingay, waited for me.

We were on the winding unpaved road at the mountainside where I witnessed the aftermath of a landslide last year. Interestingly, my male companion at this part of the Mt Purgatory traverse both went by the name of Christian. Conversation might be minimal among the five of us but nevertheless it kept us going. The rain, mud, and fatigue sapped what cheer we had bit by bit. Later on, we regrouped with Cherrie, Jhay, and Len with a steep and impenetrable forest behind them. A literal wall of rock and vegetation stood on our left while another ravine lay to our right. The sky grew clearer, revealing how deep the ravines were. It ceased from raining, not even a drizzle. Everyone in our trekking party gathered at the roadside jump off point for climbing Mt Pack. The clouds parted and the mist disappeared. A breath-taking scenery of highland and pine forest revealed itself. We took snapshots. Our party got divided into two smaller groups labeled the ‘lead’ and the ‘sweeper.’ The term ‘lead’ has spoken for itself. I joined the ‘sweeper’ for a slower pace and to appreciate the place’s natural beauty more. Honestly, I had better interpersonal connection with members of the ‘sweeper’ team.

Past a trail section with tall grass, I expected a wooden shed at the big sign that welcomed hikers into Mt Pack’s mossy forest. It was gone. My mind could not grasp how this structure vanished. Kulingay told me that a typhoon, or tropical storm, wrecked that shed beyond repair. I remembered taking shelter there with Sabel and my companions from Talahib.

The shack at the base of Mt Pack: before and after

DSCN0827The mossy forest engulfed me again. This time, I had another set of fellows to share this experience. Above us, tree branches and leaves filtered sunlight much that the surroundings were as dim as during sunset. It was dark green everywhere. Moss grew in plenty on the trunks and branches, sustained by a perpetually moist environment. Puddles formed on the worn out trail. I could spot shoe prints as if on the trail of a runaway fugitive. The trail went uphill as we climbed Mt Pack. Cherrie and Jhay were just ahead. I stuck around with Len like a hiking buddy. Behind us, Kulingay accompanied Chan and Vivian. As I spent time with Len, I could not help compare Mt Pack with Mt Makiling. It was eight months ago when we traversed the latter. At least this place did not come with small leeches. Then my camera exhausted its battery. I decided to charge it later tonight to have snapshots by tomorrow all the way to the journey’s end. From this point till the rest of the day, photos would come from my mobile phone. Eventually, we reached the summit of Mt Pack at least thirty minutes from that big sign. There was a similar metal sign there. Trees blocked the view of a rugged montane landscape around us — just as they did at Mt Makiling. It was a déja vu indeed. As the ‘sweeper’ team arrived, the ‘lead’ team finished their idle time. We all posed for a group picture. Then we marched towards our next objective: Mt Purgatory itself.

Mt Pack summit photo. Credit of Aileen Epiz

A hand-carved wooden sign on a tree trunk warned us about the trail being slippery. I slowed my pace. I could feel my entire weight bearing down on my knees and lower legs. Then my right foot slipped. I could have stumbled had I not grabbed a branch and stayed upright. My fellows told me to be more careful.

20170923_151026Eventually, the trail through the mossy forest became less steep. Yet it ascended and descended from time to time. We could not tell whether we were climbing a mountain or going down from one. It was the same moss-covered tree, fern, and muddy path. Beyond the tree cover lay nothing but a gray sky. Even an eerie silence characterized this part of our two-day trek. I could hear only the countless drops of water hitting the leaves and the stormy wind that blew like an angry phantom. Nothing changed in our surroundings. There had been stories of hikers who spent too much time inside the mossy forest, as if they had difficulty getting out. They had not emerged yet by nightfall. I heard that this woodland was enchanted. I would agree in terms of appearance. Gnarled branches and moss made this place seemingly elvish. While the flora mesmerized me, the mud and puddles made me a bit grumpy. My foot, if not feet, would sink in. Mud caked my shoes. Cut branches laid on the trail provided a hard surface to step on but sometimes they were slippery.

20170923_153317Len and I endured the trail within the mossy forest for more than an hour. This time, Cherrie and Jhay were behind us. Then we caught up with Ai, Cas, and Lawrence. While hiking, I paused for a moment to take a snapshot. My four companions kept on walking until I was left alone. I would simply catch up with them. Solitude did not seem frightening. In fact, it made me one with nature. There was nothing to worry as long as I followed a muddy trail. My empty stomach served as a more urgent concern. I could feel my legs weakening. Two packs of chocolate-flavored biscuits with chocolate wafer sandwiched in between became my snack on the go. Soon, I came upon those four having a respite. Len asked why I was gone. I replied that I took time for a snack. She also looked for Cherrie and Jay. I told her they were just behind us. The five of us kept on walking until we emerged from the mossy forest and into the summit of Mt Purgatory.

Again, there used to be a dirt-floored shack up here but it was gone. All that I saw was a roofed shed with benches but now without walls. Kulingay said that shack was torn down too by the typhoon. It was past 4 PM. The sky remained cloudy but it came with a warm sunset. This in turn gave mellow lighting for our photos of a distant valley and ridges. Not only we took snapshots but also ate jellies, biscuits, and chocolate. We shared Mt Purgatory’s summit with another group of hikers from earlier in the day. Last time I was here, the rain kept us sheltered and huddled in what used to be a hut. Now I felt grateful for a break in the weather. Yet daylight faded fast and I knew we had to keep on moving.

Just as during my previous Mt Purgatory traverse, our group followed a path down the grassy summit. Then what seemed a mouth of a cave swallowed us, only it was in fact a shadowy grove of trees. We found ourselves back within the mossy forest. Then Lawrence stopped walking and grumbled with pain. He had been coping with an injured knee for a few weeks now. The aching got severe again. Yet Lawrence smiled and told us cheerfully to keep on going. He limped but moved steadily. Our group stopped for one-minute breaks. I had a quicker pace this time compared with last year. As it was nearly the last week of September, the sun set earlier. At 5:30 PM, the surroundings turned gradually from gray to blue by every passing minute. I wanted to get out of the mossy forest sooner. The trail seemed infinite. Then we emerged on the dirt road traveled by foot and motorcycle. The darkness outpaced us. It was too dim and we started to trip on rocks. We stepped on wet mud too. The guide and I brought out our flashlights. Our ordeal on that road lasted 30 minutes before arriving at the relative comfort of Mt Bakian.

I stayed in a different house than before. Upon coming to Mt Bakian, we climbed a ladder and put our backpacks by the entrance of a spacious room. Then I took my dirty shoes off for a pair of flip-flops. We were told that our hiking group would not spend the night in that room but in another below. I sighed. That room looked cozy with its wooden walls and a floor covered with tarpaulin.

Hurriedly, I took out a fresh T-shirt and a large towel to take a bath. Previously, this place only had one makeshift outdoor toilet and a similar structure for a shower. Now there were three for bathing and renovated too. Problem is, my fellow hikers and I had to bear patience with one hose and a limited water supply. We still waited in turns. So I stood there shirtless during a night on the highlands of Benguet province. Amazingly, I did not shiver. Perhaps it was due to walking all day. Then I entered a bathroom that just got vacated and settled with a sponge bath with a washcloth. I forgot to bring an extra pair of pants and shorts. I could not see clearly, relying on limited illumination from my flashlight. At least I could retire for the night feeling relatively fresh.

We all laid down bedding on a room that appeared as a cellar or an underground bunker. In reality, it was just situated on ground level. I would doze off snugly in my sleeping bag, which I also brought last time here at Mt Bakian. Cherrie gave us a relieving massage for our aching body parts. In my case, it was the shoulder blades due to the strain from carrying a backpack. Then we gathered around for dinner. Members of our trekking group ate heartily after an entire day of travel by foot. The simple menu consisted of boiled white rice and chicken adobo, which was cooked with soy sauce, vinegar, and peppercorns. The owner of this house cautioned us to lock the door so pet dogs wont intrude our room and eat whatever food we had. The canines had been docile from living with different visitors on a weekly basis. Suddenly, I felt too tired and sleepy. Memories of what happened next were fuzzy. All I could remember was lying down in my sleeping bag and getting unconscious ahead of my companions.


It was around 2 AM. I woke up. The back pain disappeared miraculously. Everyone lay down in sleep as comfortable as they could, as expected after a day-long hike. I stayed awake, staring at the ceiling and my asleep fellows with a blurry vision due to nearsightedness. I closed my eyes. I could not sleep again. Working at night as a customer service representative changed my biological clock completely. One should forget about vampires in Twilight. I could say I was the real deal. Minutes passed and turned into an hour. I wondered if I would have enough energy later in the day to finish the hike. Then past 4 AM, drowsiness paid another visit.

When I woke up at around 6 AM, the dawn lit some parts of the ceiling. My companions rose from their sleeping mats and began folding blankets. A few had already brushed their teeth. I went outside. Mt Bakian had the same weather conditions from my previous visit here. After just waking up, blood had not rushed throughout my body yet so I shivered from a breeze. I found myself standing on a foreign place or perhaps an alien world, far from the high-rise buildings and humid jungles I grew accustomed to. Pine trees grew all the way towards the distant mountains. Then I took my recently purchased metal cup and a bit of cash to buy instant coffee.

Fellow hikers from yesterday gathered on the store, sitting on benches facing each other. Laughing accompanied their conversation. We greeted each other a good morning. I complimented a man’s blaze orange coveralls. A jacket and pants merged as one fitting warm outfit, it was typically worn for hunting. His peers thought of him as a rescue worker. Coffee costed Php 15 and I was three pesos short. Jay lent me the amount. I repaid him later. I used the sachet for stirring. Frankly, the water was more lukewarm than hot. Plenty of time had passed since it was boiled. Mt Bakian’s frigid air temperature and altitude also counted as a factor. Mark’s instant cup noodles did not cook properly. Our hiking group also spent the morning strolling around and taking pictures.

The Blogger sipping hot coffee, he was still sleepy that he wore his hat sideways

An elderly male guide remembered me and my group from last year. I looked for the place where I spent the night last year. Again, things have changed indeed. The patio where we had dinner and breakfast disappeared. Only a small piece of ground in front of a house remained. Yet the hut where the men and a rooster slept still stood. Metal covered the walls now, gleaming in the morning sunlight. As the guide and I continued chatting, I noticed he had difficulty speaking. Such was the dilemma of living in a country with multiple mother tongues. So I switched into English. I asked him about foreign tourists. He remembered Germans and Norwegians. This landscape did resemble that of Norway with its coniferous forests and wintry cold.

DSCN0849Meanwhile, Yobs prepared our breakfast. Aside from fried eggs and sausages, he also sautéed string beans with garlic, onion, and oyster sauce. He then cooked it with bits of chicken adobo from last night. Yobs stirred the contents of a big pan on top of a cut portion of a metal drum that served as a makeshift stove. Smoke blew through an improvised chimney pipe and out of the home. There was fried rice too. At nearly 8 AM, we ate this sumptuous meal together. This place seemed a summer vacation house. With a lack of gas for cooking and electricity, we could have also been living in medieval times. Following our breakfast, we packed our bags and prepared for the second half of our journey.

The ‘lead’ team went ahead to Mt Tangbaw. We at the ‘sweeper’ team trailed behind. I was back at the most scenic part of the Mt Purgatory traverse, especially on a clear Sunday morning. This area reminded me of Middle Earth and a map of a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) last time. The same amazement could be heard from my companions’ voices. Cherrie and Jhay were behind me. I found myself leading this party, seemingly a guide. I had been here before. The dirt road twisted by a ravine to our left. The sea of clouds above a distant valley was now gone. Eventually, we arrived at the jump off point to Mt Komkompol.

A narrow trail veered off the road. The ‘lead’ team took a different path from us if we would proceed to Mt Komkompol. We stopped for decision-making. After a discussion, we decided to go ahead to the mountain.

I knew that the path would branch out later so all of us had to stick together. That place remained the same. The stony ground plunged to our right, down a field of crops. Then came the cogon grass. This time, they grew thickly so much that they choked the trail. I had to brush the grass blades off with my bare arms. I worried about getting rashes again, even more about an allergic reaction. Then something crashed through the tall grass like a pouncing predatory animal. It was just a friendly dog that lived in the village. My companions had been calling it Eileen, similarly named with our friend who just had her birthday. It was a sort of playful tease. That female dog had been accompanying us since we left Mt Bakian. One by one, the ‘sweeper’ team regrouped at that spot. Then we proceeded left, all the way to the summit. The open terrain, mesmerizing for its scenery but gradually punishing for its heat, gave way into a mossy forest.

DSCN0857With no rain at this moment, the trail welcomed us amiably except for a few spots where water and mud did not dry. I remembered sharing that time with Len. She asked me to take a photo from a certain angle I did not not succeed the first try. She had to demonstrate. We all kept on walking. The path climbed and did not seem to end. Twenty minutes turned to thirty. At least the enchanted-looking forest shaded us from the sun. Hiking here felt cooler too compared to doing this activity in a lowland jungle. The ‘sweeper’ team stopped for snacks. We also played a game to stave off not only boredom but also tiredness. A category would be given. Then we would mention things or names under this category. In this case, our party must name mountains found within the Philippines – only within this country. I could have made off with this if it was in an international scale. The game went on until we could have jotted down all answers and made a list of all the mountains in this archipelago. There was no punishment though for someone who could not answer. He or she could pass his or her turn. It was all for fun.

The twists and turns of the forested trail came to an end. I shouted that we had reached the summit after seeing a clear sky beyond a hall lined with trees. I told them Mt Komkompol had the best views of all the peaks in the Mt Purgatory traverse. It sure did.

Mt Kom-kompol main sign: before and after
It really feels great to be back at this place again, and with fine weather too 

Unexpectedly, the ‘lead’ team caught up with us shortly after we arrived at the summit. Yobs said there was a better vantage point following a short stroll. This was the part of the Mt Purgatory Traverse I had not experienced before. So our entire group squeezed ourselves through a patch of mossy forest. A huge root or a fallen trunk stood at chest to waist height and blocked the path. We had to crouch and move under it as if we were navigating a cave tunnel. At least Eileen the dog did not have a problem with going around. The trail saw human traffic but this canine could walk into tight spots and undergrowth. About three minutes passed until woodland transformed into a mountain meadow, only covered with tall grass.

Another Mt Komkompol sign stood near a ledge. This area offered a wider space for groups of hikers. Yet it had the almost similar views with that of the earlier spot, only revealing more of the landscape. We could see Mt Pulag rising above all the other peaks. It had a barren top. Here at Mt Komkompol, our mobile phones and cameras went into action. We posed with different individuals among our hiking party. I had a picture with Chan and Yobs. Then I asked to take another with Cherrie. Selfies came with groupies. Our photos showed creativity too. After spending too much time here and losing interest, we headed back to the spot with the other metal sign.

Our trekking group had lunch. The ‘lead’ team lay on some mat, shaded by trees around the Mt Komkompol sign. Another spot had a bit of tree cover with less shade. I sat down on the grass with Chan, Cherrie, Jhay, Len, and Vivian. While Len tried to finish the rice and string beans she brought in a plastic bag, I grew content with a loaf of bread. Cherrie shared a peanut treat usually sold at the Chinatown in Manila. Chan enjoyed some time as a photographer. Yobs offered shots of gin. Ai, Cas, and James took a nap. It felt like paradise, resting in a garden without worry and sadness. Minutes passed as lazily as the clouds overhead. Soon, a grayish mist appeared in the distance out of nowhere. A reader of this blog would find this scene at the About the Blogger page, the link found at the bar on the home page.

Mt Kom-kompol group picture: before and after

DSCN0888It was around 12:30 PM that we eventually got up and followed the path all the way to our journey’s end. Just by the fence on the ravine edge, the trail plunged into the mossy forest. Lawrence imagined that we were in the setting of the Philippine television series Encantadia. Ironically, a network rivaling our supposedly preferred channel aired the fantasy show. One might see it as a rip-off of Game of Thrones except that it was originally broadcast back in 2005. The 2016 series was a remake. As a piece of trivia, the actor who played Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in season one of Game of Thrones appeared in Encantadia too. Speaking of television shows, the ‘sweeper’ team continued our game for fun with movies having Filipino languages titles. When we ran out of entries, our hiking party switched to Hollywood movies. The game just kept on going. I got so amused that the forest around us went fuzzy. My mind wandered through all the films I watched, along with those I had not but knew. My feet and legs did not ache from distraction. Maybe the trail was relatively easy too. We navigated this dense woodland shouting movie titles infinitely. There were just too many of them. For one, I could name all James Bond movies from Dr No to Spectre. Nearly two hours passed without us noticing. Later on, we crossed a creek running in a gully. A bridge consisting of two sturdy bamboo poles and some rope enabled us to get through. There was no railing. I moved carefully. Past that point, cool potable water flowed out of another pipe. I refilled my bottle a bit.

Frustration came unexpectedly like rain on a sunny morning or finding a Php 50 bill on a sidewalk. I found myself back on a stony unpaved road. Last year, I followed it after the brief visit at Mt Tangbaw. A long journey still awaited us. Now it felt more of a quest in a medieval fantasy realm or perhaps a death march.

DSCN0895The ‘sweeper’ team reunited with our fellows from the ‘lead’ team. We all sat down and rested around a waiting shed. Yobs caught a quick nap. Chan, Jhay, and Mark raced one another atop Mt Tinengan. Kulingay told us to look out for rocks getting kicked by their feet and rolling down the slope. There were a few. The dog that accompanied us all day chased those rocks in plain sight. None struck us. Meanwhile, I kept on asking Kulingay if we would hike down that slippery cemented footpath that twisted like a miniature hairpin road. The guide replied no. We would follow a road wide enough for a car.

Our trek commenced. Kulingay said we would reach the end after two hours. It was nearly 4 PM. The sun crept slowly down the sky like a wary insect. The lighting grew soft but also more shadowy. I walked with Cherrie, Len, and Yobs amid pine trees. Our feet, or toes in particular, ached from the downhill slope on a stony surface. I could describe it as torture. No matter how beautiful our surroundings appeared, I grumbled about this ordeal. The four of us took breaks, waiting for Chan, Jhay, Lawrence, and Vivian. I admired Lawrence for his endurance and patience despite his knee aching since yesterday afternoon. He already ingested pain relief tablets and they worked. As I followed this road with significant people in my life, I wished to stay in this surreal moment. Our highland adventure was coming to an end.

A house marked the end of the descending path that battered our feet. A less stony winding trail welcomed us. It snaked beside a river. Len went ahead but then stopped. A “black cow,” as she called it, startled her. “Water buffalo” or “carabao” would be more fitting words. We chuckled and laughed among ourselves.  Yet the beast blocked our path. It had the size of a hippopotamus and it possessed horns. I hesitated to continue walking. Despite being domesticated, nobody could assure how it would react to seeing strangers. Fortunately, the carabao let us pass, retreating to higher ground. A rope bound its neck to some tree trunk. At least its owner did not worry about the animal running free, which we thought at first what happened. Sooner, the unpaved path revealed a backpack mysteriously lying on the ground. Len and I wondered if a hiker left it. Then we learned it belonged to an amiable local man sitting nearby. A few well-built rural houses lay near the footpath, seemingly isolated like a cabin in the woods. Our way forked into two at instances. Being ahead, Len and I shouted at Kulingay asking for directions.

Once again, frustration seeped into me upon the sight of that dreaded cemented footpath. I hated going through it one more time. Then there was relief. This part of our Mt Purgatory traverse lasted only five to ten minutes. Last time I was here, I struggled down that winding footpath for an hour, alone and wearied by an unusually fierce early afternoon heat. There was still a long way to go and it was already near 5 PM. Down a small concrete bridge with metal railings lay a shallow pool that collected crystal-clear water. I washed my arms and face. Then the ‘sweeper’ team crossed a much bigger suspension bridge made wholly of steel but looked flimsy. It shook with each step. Only one could get through at a time, otherwise the bridge would collapse.

DSCN0905Drivers of two-wheeled motorcycles offered a ride for Php 200 each when we reached the wide road. The price could still be negotiated. Lawrence thought about it. Regardless of his aching leg, he still declined. Vivian said no too. Pain afflicted her knee despite having hiked just two weeks ago. So we began the last leg of our journey, finally. It seemed a race with the setting sun. We must reach our destination before nightfall. We played that game again we grew fond of. This time, fruits and plants served as the category. Then we found ourselves too distant from end to end to hear one another. Our group simply lost interest with it. We were already physically tired too. An irrigation canal the size of a sewer system under a sidewalk flowed by peacefully. Cherrie and Lawrence marveled at how clear the water was here. Back in the cities where we hailed, the canals stank and were colored black, if not choked with garbage. Members of our party also admired the relatively open terrain of Benguet’s coniferous mountainsides. Dense tropical rain forest mostly cloaked the uplands down south. Len’s face turned red literally not from blushing with shyness but from the heat and fatigue. We learned that Jhay’s birthday was approaching. A few puddles formed on the unpaved road. Then the dirt gave way to cement all the way. It felt like the Mt Makiling traverse again.

I decided to have a chat with Vivian and know her more. Despite her injury, she ran down the lane holding her trekking pole like a spear. Then she felt intense aching again. Vivian limped. I told her. Chan ran ahead past everyone. Everyone seemed to be jogging. Lawrence trailed behind, appearing as if a zombie chasing us. He did see it that way jokingly.

Houses began to surround the roads as sunlight faded with every passing minute. Our rest stop and bath drew closer. It felt relieving. Then our group discussed attraction between men and women, courtship, and relationships. It turned into a heated debate with yelling. Males and females blamed one another for break-ups and wasted feelings. Vivian said men only sought women for physical beauty and sex appeal. I replied that women had done the same too and some had been shallow-minded , especially this generation. We were entitled to our opinions. Our arguments went on. Then Vivian’s trekking pole turned into a spear indeed as she pointed it at Chan and I playfully. At this point our debate had to cool down. Both parties “negotiated for agreements.”

DSCN0913Eventually, I spotted a cemented stairway going down from high ground on the left and a residential home on the right. That was the spot where I descended alone and ended my first Mt Purgatory traverse. I recalled asking directions to children on that house across the road then taking a photo of them. Kulingay agreed. I would like to take that route again in a few years. Not sooner.

After five minutes of walking, we reached a two-story house. On its front lay a wooden hut and a space for parking. I remembered this place as where I returned the sandals lent to me by a member of the travel group Yes to Adventures. According to Len, that kind fellow was Rey Ar Roderos, who I shared time with at Mt Gulugod Baboy and Philpan Beach Resort back in June. There was no van this time. The “lead” team greeted us upon arrival. We told them about our unexpected debate back on the road. Then we finally took a bath, waiting in turns. This place offered modest shower facilities, only downsides were the lack of lighting and even pegs to hang clothing from.

Shed at journey’s end: before and after 

Darkness soon cloaked our surroundings, turning the sky frighteningly black. Our van got parked at the municipal hall of Bokod, Benguet, about two hours from here on foot. Of course, nobody wanted to walk further — especially at night. Yobs solved our dilemma by renting the open-backed truck owned by this residence. This large vehicle transported edible goods in pallets, most likely bottled beverages. Now it hauled hiking backpacks. Jhay held our forearms as he helped us climb on board. Then we settled on what limited space to sit on. Cherrie knelt on the truck bed itself beside me. It felt like riding a six-wheeled army transport truck with your squad. When everything was set, we started our adventure-filled drive to the municipal hall. Road turns shook us into nearly falling over the vehicle’s side. Leafy branches slapped our heads. A motorcycle and its shadowy rider trailed our truck until it overtook us. Jhay joked that it was the Ghost Rider. I thought we heard someone urinating beside the road only to find a busted water pipe being repaired by two men. Then another leaking pipe sprayed water on my hair. Then an L300 van parked in front of a barangay (village) outpost blocked our path. Our driver blasted his horn. Sooner, that smaller van was re-positioned and we continued our way. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the government building by vehicle. It was a nearly empty town square with breathing creatures there consisting only of a few men and a dog. Our hiking party registered, left Bokod for Baguio, and in that famous city dined at the equally famous Good Taste Restaurant. I had nostalgia.

If there was a lesson I got from my second Mt Purgatory traverse, it was that mountains could not avoid change no matter how invulnerable they seemed. A typhoon demolished a few structures. Yet change also meant progress, such as additional shower rooms at Mt Bakian. The surroundings of Mt Purgatory always felt like home for me. I loved its cold, scenic views, and people. I could return to this place anytime.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.