Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a fine sunny morning to do some hiking…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Comeback and More at Talamitam

“Kilometer 83. Those who are descending at Kilometer 83,” the bus conductor said. I was already awake, lying on my back on the bus seat designed for two persons side by side. No one was beside me anymore. Earlier, I took the opportunity and made a bed of my own. When we arrived at our destination, I roused my companion behind me by tapping his knee. Then we sprang back to life, grabbed our backpacks, and got out of the bus. Darkness engulfed us except for the electric lamps on tall posts and silent homes. I could sense some excitement within me. Four months passed since my most recent trek.

With an elevation of 630 meters above sea level, Mt Talamitam is recommended for people hiking for the first time or for those seeking a more relaxed weekend adventure. It has a trail difficulty of just 3/9. The mountain is situated within the boundaries of the town of Nasugbu, in the province of Batangas. This makes Talamitam popular as a getaway that is relatively near the capital city of Manila. Nearby it stands Mt Apayang, having a similar altitude and trail difficulty too. These two mountains can be hiked in only half a day.

My excursion at Mt Talamitam can be described as something new for me in a way. When I went trekking, it involved a crowd of around ten or even more than twenty people. All I did was go to the group’s rendezvous location, sit in the air-conditioned van, and let the driver take us to our destination. This time, we traveled as a team of only five people. It was supposed to be six. Amena Mae Macabago invited me to what she called a ‘do-it-yourself’ hike. She already hiked Mt Talamitam back in March. Two of her classmates from college, Gel Anne Marie “Ge-ge” Atienza and Criselda “Chinee” Carmona, already agreed to participate. They graduated from the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Hailing from the University of the Philippines (UP), I also wondered how my interaction with the three will end up. So far, my relations with UST alumni has been mostly amiable. Also joining was John Paul “JP” Nepumuceno, who hailed from Mapua University (also Mapua Institute of Technology). This was his very first hike too. Instead of having organized transportation, the five of us would travel to Nasugbu by ourselves. That was what we did. We left the terminal of DLTBCo bus company in Buendia, Pasay city in the Metro Manila area past 10 PM. The trip costed Php 139 per individual, given the distance between Pasay and Nasugbu. The bus would also pass through my home province of Cavite.

Supposed to arrive at 2:30 AM, the bus dropped our group on the jump-off point at 12:30 AM. Amena told us that the climb would only begin at 4 AM. She contacted our guide through mobile phone but there was no reply. We still had about four hours of time to kill. Amid the darkness, a fluorescent lamp illuminated a patio that seemed a dining area. We placed our bags on one table and sat around the other. The five of us snacked on fries we bought from a fast food chain, along with cheese puffs. We shared bits of pieces of our lives. Emotions in our conversation rose and fell like the seashore tide.

I joined this hike to escape the pollution and squalor of Metro Manila but my workplace followed me here. Nearly two months ago, I started my employment in the business process outsourcing industry. Amena reminded me of my colleague and seatmate in the training phase, who went by the name of Maejille. They had the same voice; however, they did not look alike much except for physique. Another colleague of mine named Jaquelyn also had an identical voice and some facial features with Ge-ge. Regarding JP, my colleague who resembled him the most was Jose. No wonder I made the comparison because I sat close to those three during training.

Hours passed with little notice. The surroundings consisting of humble houses and shops beside the highway remained lifeless except for the occasional crowing of roosters and barking of dogs. It was not that silent at all. Buses and trucks raged through the concrete surface with a boom. JP commented that despite our voices getting louder, residents had been used to the constant noise that they could keep on dozing off.

DSCN0257Past 3 AM, the lights on a nearby house went on. We had a look. The place came with restrooms where hikers can not only relieve themselves but also take a shower. A man greeted us. (Later in the day I learned that his name is Paul.) According to him, he already noticed us earlier but thought we were guides. Amena asked about the guide she contacted. The fellow’s wife got involved in a road accident, explaining why he was unavailable. Another guide was summoned. Then the five of us finally settled in a shack on their place. We registered for the hike, writing our names on a particular big blue notebook just as I did in previous treks. Amena, JP, and I sipped hot instant coffee on ceramic mugs. Ge-ge did not drink this beverage due to hyperacidity. A large brown dog lay down the ground peacefully near a tortoiseshell cat that was also relaxing. The two pets did not mind each other. This broke the stereotypical hatred between cats and dogs.

Roused from sleep, another man named Greg came to meet us. Later on, our guide arrived, introducing himself as Francis. Sitting on benches, the five of us lingered in that shack before our hike commenced at 4:05 AM.

Flashlights lit our way. More houses lined the cemented road we followed. Despite the artificial lighting on residences, darkness still cloaked much of the surroundings. We chatted about what to expect at Mt Talamitam, adding stories from our previous excursions. Soon, awakened dogs barked at us. At least they only barked. Then we reached a well-constructed building that looked like a resort. Beneath it flowed a river, which we crossed via a bridge of concrete and steel.

Once the cement we stepped on turned into soil with bits of leaf litter, the hike truly began. We came upon another bridge. This time, it was made of bamboo poles. I hoped these poles were tough enough to support our weight so we would not plunge down the river. There was nothing to see below but the color black. Yet the sound of water flowing in a current became part of this spot’s ambience. While we were making our way across the bridge, the bamboo railings shook suddenly. I stopped and stood motionless. I let Francis, Ge-ge, and Chinee get to the other side first. Calm overcame all nervousness. All it needed was steady but careful footing. While I was in the middle, Amena told me to wait for her and JP. Everyone got past the makeshift bridge without a problem.

The five of us imagined hiking on a relatively even trail, surrounded by an expanse of short grass instead of the tall cogon variety. Expectation did not match reality. Trees surrounded us but gave ample room. It was more of an open woodland than a jungle. The trail went uphill. Every step seemed to take our breath away. It had been four months since I last went hiking. However, going to the office five days a week involved long walks and the stairs of an pedestrian overpass. Every day of work was like a trek in itself. Aside from the sloped terrain, the humidity also made us less at ease. Sweat oozed from our skin even though the sun had not risen yet. The five of us chatted about our previous hikes. My ears picked up a mention of Mt Manalmon in Rizal. In my mind I could hear the song “If I Had a Heart” by Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray) as I remembered what happened on the early morning of June 10, 2016.

DSCN0266I felt slight but sudden pain on my nape. Then I wiped that part of the back of my neck. My hand smelled funny. Some kind of insect bit me. At that moment, Chinee panted in a quick rhythm and stopped walking. To describe it in one sentence, she was ill enough to necessitate medical attention. Amena came to her aid. We checked if we brought ointment. Chinee sipped some water. Francis, our guide, volunteered to carry her backpack until she would get better. Then I also lost my handkerchief along that trail. Sweat moistened my face, hair, and even my glasses. The lower front part of my gray T-shirt turned into a towel.

At 5 AM, the trees disappeared and our hiking party arrived at a grassy hill. We took a five-minute break under the faint light of a crescent moon. Gray clouds formed on the black sky. At a distance lay a town with specks of white light from lamp posts and within houses. This densely populated settlement was surrounded by fields, hills, and forested areas. Francis plucked a leaf from a guava tree, rubbed it with his fingers, and told Chinee to inhale its scent. Our weary companion appeared to improve in condition as she sat and chatted. Voices broke the silence of the outdoors.

Minutes passed speedily as the black sky turned into blue with a wash of orange and red towards the east. Amena intended for us to reach what she called a ‘fake summit’ in time for sunrise. Still, that spot here in Mt Talamitam was not yet in sight. Our pace slowed down but it did not matter. Chinee needed momentary rests and her health was our priority. She had no desire to head back to the jump off point and end this hike for good. She wanted to keep going. After all, Chinee breathed lightly now and walked with a smile.

Amena, Chinee, and Ge-ge talked about not only their respective careers but also romantic relationships amid a wide open landscape that resembled the summit of Mt Ulap. JP and I kept silent mostly. Then I decided to have a one-on-one chat with Francis.DSCN0275 At that time, I was torn apart within myself. Francis listened as I vented out my frustration mixed with a bit of confusion. He gave some advice in reply. It should have been that day in the weekend when I would breathe in fresh air, trod on grass instead of concrete, and feel nothing but bliss. Yet I could not help being vulnerable to personal problems that seem to have no solution at all.

Eventually, our trekking party came upon rocks piled carefully on top of one another. Several of those small pillars remained standing no matter how distorted they looked. Forgetting to admire who set them up, I took out my camera as the scenery had a surreal lighting from fog and the sun rising slowly. Chinee and Ge-ge used their phones for snapshots. We also asked Francis to take group photos. The time was 5:45 AM. Later on, a fellow rode on a horse and another on a carabao, or tamed water buffalo, reminiscent of the cowboys of the Wild West. I took their pictures in awe. Amena was in search of the ‘fake summit,’ also asking Francis about its exact location. Nearby what could be called an artwork of rocks stood a makeshift shelter constructed with bamboo, tree branches, split logs, and roofing in the form of a durable translucent plastic sheet. We sat down for some rest. My frustration faded away as sunshine brought a sense of optimism. Chinee was feeling well again too. Dizziness and panting came and went like a brief drizzle on a sunny day. Hopefully, it would not rain today despite an overcast gray sky. Maybe it was just fog that would subside. The cool air brought relief as I was not complaining about sweat and humidity anymore.

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From left: The Blogger, JP, Amena, Ge-ge, and Chinee

A few brightly colored tents stood out of the monotonous landscape of green and brown. They lay about fifty meters from the spot marked by piled rocks. Our hike ensured. Upon arriving at the campsite, greetings were exchanged. The other group spent the night on this nearly treeless tract of land. There was minimal conversation. The five of us got too distracted by the sunrise, fog, and notable people in our respective lives – whether they were present here or not. Amena then confirmed that this spot was the ‘fake summit’ she was talking about.

It was already past 6 AM. Francis assured us that we were close to the summit. Amena agreed. Between us and our destination lay an ascending trail cut through tall grass. It still looked easy compared to my previous treks characterized by mud, thorny branches, and soil that crumbled with just one step. This would be a walk in the park. In the middle of it, I saw nothing except tall grass, more of that grass up ahead, and my hiking buddies. Then another one of those makeshift bamboo shacks appeared. There was no hurry to reach the summit. According to Amena, the entire hike would be done in under half a day. Francis caught a cicada. He made it hum but handled it carefully. Amazingly, the winged insect never flew away. It accompanied him like a pet. Chinee and Ge-ge wished humorously that people would stay in our respective lives just as that cicada did. All of us had been making double-messaged remarks hinting to romantic relationships since the hike started. Then Francis notified us of an approaching man on horseback. The tandem of human and beast appeared majestically among the tall grass. Yet there was a stare of sorrow and sympathy in the horse’s eyes.We could notice the equine sweating profusely as it carried its rider. With the sun rising steadily, I took out my cap from my backpack and wore it just as Chinee and Ge-ge already did. Amena had a sort of bandanna instead. JP was fine without headgear. The five of us, along with Francis, continued our way through the tall grass until we arrived at the summit at 6:45 AM.

Francis chatted with a fellow preparing some stuff in a smaller shack. This man sold halo-halo, an iconic Filipino dessert of shredded ice, canned milk, and an assortment of sweet beans and agar jelly. Surprisingly, it was too early in the day to indulge in this frozen treat usually eaten during sweltering afternoons.

Amena mentioned a large rock she climbed on to while posing pictures at the summit. I was staring at it unmistakably. It also served as a vantage point. Confidence in being surefooted made me hurry and stand atop that rock. I could hear my companions telling me to be careful. Then I requested Francis to take photos. Too much excitement caused me to forget that light gray fog shrouded the view.  We wanted more than this. The five of us desired to see more of the landscape out to the horizon. We waited. Aside from halo-halo, the  vendor at the shack also sold hard-boiled eggs for Php 10 each.  I bought one. My breakfast only consisted of a handful of fries and corn puffs, along with one mug of coffee. The egg came with a pinch of salt too, like the smaller hard-boiled quail eggs peddled to bus passengers. My concern now was how to dispose bits of shells. I also shared a local brand of chocolate having high cocoa content and wrapped in foil. Being straightforward and honest, I told my companions that I was feeling left out in conversation. They advised me to just speak and join in. Just do not be shy, they added. That was what I did.

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As we wait for the fog to disappear…
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…we bought halo-halo and hard-boiled eggs from this guy

I have been told that patience was not only a virtue but also an asset. Seconds turned into minutes as we stayed on the summit. Amena insisted that we could stay here even until 9 AM. Then it would be a relatively short walk to Mt Apayang. More hikers came to the summit in batches. One of these groups was all-male. What used to be moderate conversation and the occasional laughter turned into noisy chatter. It was not a bad thing. The summit went from dreary to lively.

Leaving the company of my hiking buddies for a while, I could not resist meeting strangers and getting to know them. Three of them – two man and a woman – got my attention. In fact, they passed by earlier and I mistook the woman for an acquaintance back in high school.  The trio introduced themselves as Timmy Ferrer, Don Deo Alegre, and CJ Narvaez. Having a masculine-sounding nickname, it could be that Timmy’s actual name was Fatima. I took a snapshot of them. As CJ sat near the ledge and sought time for himself, I chatted with Deo and Timmy. The former had climbed several mountains while this was the first time for the latter.

“Why did you want to climb mountains too?” I told Timmy. “What made you do it?”

Timmy got caught by surprise. She could not answer immediately. Then something came to her mind. “For the experience,” Timmy said. “I just want to know how it feels.”

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From left: CJ, Timmy, and Deo

People have said reward comes to those who are patient. For all of us at the summit, it did. The fog opened up and then retreated into thin air. Much of the landscape below us was revealed. Grassy fields and patches of woodland stretched as far as the eye can see. Four months felt like years since I was exhilarated by the raw verdant beauty of nature. At first, I had thoughts of hiking to meet more people, expand my circle of acquaintances, and perhaps develop into more than that. Then I also loved trekking just to immerse in the great outdoors. It transformed me from an urban automaton into an independent spirit of the wilderness. I saw Chinee posing for a picture. Then I asked Amena to take photos of me with nearby Mt Apayang on the background. The five of us posed together. While Francis still had that cicada with him, I spotted upon a walking stick insect on CJ’s shirt. Then I told him calmly about it. After plucking the walking stick off his garment, I released this marvel of evolution among the tall grass. Then the five of us bade the summit farewell at 7:50 AM. Just as our party followed a descending trail, I said goodbye to CJ, Deo, and Timmy.

If there was one thing constant during this excursion, it would be Francis complimenting Ge-ge’s physical attractiveness. Honestly, I agreed with him. Yet the standards of beauty would vary from one person to another. Inner beauty would be more important too.

DSCN0336This time, the tall grass grew much closer to the trail. Our hike turned from leisurely to rather upsetting. We could not avoid pushing those leaf blades away with our arms. Contact with tall grass felt more of a nudge at first. As we progressed, my forearms felt a sting. Their skin turned reddish and I could see what could be described as lashes from a very thin whip. I poured rubbing alcohol on my hands and then wiped it on my arms. There should have been pain but somehow I did not feel it. Perhaps I got so used to pain that my senses have been numbed. As we kept on going, I held my backpack like a shield against more grass that sliced like a narrow sword, such as a rapier. I looked at my arms again and there was rashes and swelling. I prayed that I would not contract an allergic reaction today.

Adding to the discomforts experienced by our hiking party was the intense heat of a newly risen sun. Despite lots of fog earlier, today would be sunny with a relatively clear sky. Perspiration drained water from our bodies bit by bit, sapping our energy too in the process. Amena had already warned us even before the trek about the lack of tree cover.

One of Francis’s acquaintances, perhaps even his friend, was peddling popsicle ice cream on the trail. We let him advance. Then he disappeared as if through teleportation. Ge-ge noted how this fellow moved rapidly through the tall grass and uneven dirt surface.

Our groups arrived at the summit of Mt Apayang at 8:20 AM. A few enormous rocks, which also served as a platform, marked the spot. Here it felt cooler compared to the uphill trail thanks to a breeze. Exposed to the wind the summit may be, it also bore the brunt of sunshine especially on a clear day like this. Francis led us to another one of those makeshift shelters. At that moment, we would rather sit under the shade than take snapshots regardless of the vast and scenic expanse of land surrounding us.

The popsicle peddler guy joined us as we escaped the undiscriminating heat of the sun. We sat on bamboo benches, rested our backpacks, and wiped the sweat off our faces. Chinee dozed off. I would likely have difficulty falling asleep in her sitting position, except if I drained the last bit of energy I had and my body was in shutdown. We let her be. Amena and JP sat together chatting about the latter’s unusually affordable price of wet wipes he bought at a convenience store. Ge-ge decided to buy a coconut milk-flavored popsicle. JP and Amena followed. I could remember the former choosing one covered in rice flakes locally known as pinipig. Having Php 10 to spare, I bought one too. The frozen treat remained intact as I ate it like a lollipop before biting pieces of it. My taste buds indulged in the coconut milk flavor.

DSCN0343A moment later, I left the company of my hiking buddies to get photos from Mt Apayang’s summit. Popsicle Man was there, along with another fellow. This place offered a better vantage point than the summit of Mt Talamitam. Popsicle Man pointed his arm towards the adjacent province of Cavite. There I saw Mt Pico de Loro on the horizon. Even more amazingly, he mentioned Mt Marami too, which I climbed already twice. Then Popsicle Man told me to face right. Situated where the earth met the sky was Mt Makiling. Further to the right stood Mt Maculot and Mt Batulao. I had not been yet to the latter, which appeared as a craggy and untamed peak for me. Yet hikers and holidaymakers flocked to this mountain for its beauty. Mt Gulugod Baboy, named because it supposedly looked like a pig’s spine, could also be seen here. Other than mountains, the coastlines of Batangas and Cavite provinces were visible too as blue contrasted with green. Popsicle Man said he could spot the province of Bataan too across the entrance of Manila Bay. Soon, Amena showed up and took pictures of her own. The rest of the group joined in. Everyone smiled, laughed, and joked. We left this summit before 9 AM.

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You could see Mt Marami at the center and far to the left is Mt Pico de Loro
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At the horizon towards the left lies Mt Makiling and at the far right is Mt Maculot

Our trekking party followed the same trail that led us up Mt Apayang. That meant getting a bit lacerated by the tall grass again. The rash on my arms did not subside. I simply told my companions that I have more sensitive skin than the average person. On a more positive note, we were going downhill. It simply felt like flying. In no time, our group reached the spot where the trail forked towards the summit of Mt Talamitam and another down to the jump-off point. Francis stressed that we would take the latter. He also had a chat through his mobile phone from time to time. Our guide would attend a baptismal ceremony later in the day.

This was one of my hike where my feet had a mind of their own. Perhaps I wanted to complete this hike sooner, have a shower, and ride a bus towards home. Another explanation I could offer about my quick pace was the relative ease of the trail.

Beyond the stretch of tall grass lay a wooded part of the trail. It reminded me of Mt Makiling, this time without the moss and the tiny leeches. I told Amena about this. Hardwood trees provided the dappled shade we needed. Vegetation grew apart more than close to each other. My nose picked up the scent of dried leaf litter decaying for days. At one point however, the ground on our right plunged immediately into a ravine. I moved carefully. To my comfort, this one-day hike required less acrobatic movement.

Eventually, we emerged from tree cover to make our way through a mass of tall grass again. Then the grasses parted. I was literally silent but my mind screamed in awe. Before me lay a scenery that could have its picture taken and printed on the paper label wrapped on a can of corned beef. A pastureland stretched for hectares.

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This scenery before me is one reason why this hike at Mt Talamitam is worth it

The wide open spaces of grazed grass appealed to my eyes. It had something to do with hardwired collective consciousness. When prehistoric humans mostly hunted and gathered for food while trying to survive in the wilderness, large predators such as big cats could be spotted easily in a terrain like this. This could explain why a walk in the woods, even through tall grass, would trigger discomfort and a sensation of fear. In turn, people learned to be more alert of their surroundings to detect such predators even if hidden among foliage. This would be another explanation why one could also see eyes and a mouth when looking at the hood of an automobile or an electrical socket. Being able to spot a face sooner meant higher chances of survival.

It was late morning and noon might come without a notice. Despite the complete lack of shade, the heat felt mild instead of sweltering. After all, the time was not around 12 or 1 PM. Chinee and I accompanied Francis. The other three lagged slightly as JP had a problem with the open zipper of his backpack and one of his items falling off. We waited. After regrouping, the six of us were off.

A cow stood near our path. I kept distance. No matter how tame it looked, the bovine still weighed hundreds of kilograms and could easily injure me severely with a charge or a kick.DSCN0350 Good thing it only stared at me and did not care. Later on, it was a bull instead of a cow. The horns might be short but still formidable. I walked calmly and did not look the beast in the eye. Again, the domesticated animal simply stood while swatting its tail. It was not about fear of cattle. I would be more than willing to put my hand on one if I raised and herded them.

Our group kept on strolling in the middle of pastureland. Our topics of conversation included humidity, barometric pressure, television series, and subject matter leaning towards the personal. I also had a chat with Francis about learning to speak English better and my recent job in the call center industry.

At 10:18 AM, we stopped by at a shack to buy and drink coconut juice in plastic cups. The refreshing beverage came with coconut meat too. It remained cold thanks to ice that froze in transparent plastic bags the size of two fists next to each other. Of course, that piece of ice was plunged and now floating in a large container that looked like a gas lamp. After drinking our fill, we added the number of stacked empty yet dripping cups. It was one way the vendor could tally her sales for the day. The coconut juice relieved my thirst but I still had those rashes on my forearms. I thought they were subsiding. Ge-ge disagreed with me.

The trek resumed through another patch of woodland. Our descent involved zigzagging paths, tree roots, and loose soil. At times I leaped instead of walked. My T-shirt smelled strongly of sweat. Perspiration also moistened my hair and made my face sticky to the touch. My 1.5 liter bottle of distilled water was nearly empty. Still, my legs did not ache although I could fell dull pain in my toes as I kept myself upright on our downhill course.

DSCN0351A river appeared to our left. I approached it for a closer look. The still greenish water reflected whatever close to its surface. It mostly had rock for a bank, like a tiny and freshwater cousin of the white chalk cliffs on the coast of Dover, England. Francis and I followed the river. Then I saw the bridge we crossed before the break of dawn. Further down the river, people of various ages took a dip and bathed. Many among them wore casual clothing instead of swimwear, with males only having to just take their top off. Our hiking party gathered at a shack that sold snacks, refreshments, and even liquor. It was 10:45 AM. We had two options. First, we would continue heading down, take the easy path, but pay Php 10 per head as an entrance fee. The second option involved tracing our footsteps back to cross the river for free. However, our return to the jump-off point would take longer. We chose the second option.

In fact, we did not have to wade across the river. Going back for about a hundred meters, Francis guided us down a series of steps and through a point in the river that could be crossed by simply stepping on rocks. My socks did not even get wet.

Finally, our party got back to the village at the jump-off point even before 12 PM. At least a cemented road lay before us except for a bit that was damaged and unpaved. At first, we kept considerable distance from one another. Then Chinee, Ge-ge, and I grouped and left Amena and JP to have time with one another. I had a chat with Ge-ge about planned hikes in the future. We all kept on walking until the houses where we hung out after arrival turned into edible item shops and dining establishments. After a short rest that came with a pitcher of cool refreshing water thanks to Paul, we took a bath and had lunch. Then we were homeward bound by noon.

The excursion at Mt Talamitam helped me get back to one of my fond interests. However, I had to admit that social interaction with my companions was not good enough. It was on my part. Somehow I must remind myself to leave my worries and frustration behind when I go hiking again.

 

Five Traits that Make a Filipino

Nationalities across the world can be distinguished by their peculiar characteristics and Filipinos are no exception. Try traveling in the Philippines and you will notice these five traits among the locals.

1. Smiling a Lot

Known as the ‘City of Smiles,’ Bacolod city in the island of Negros hosts the Masskara festival every October. Revelers, concealing their faces with plumed masks that come with a smile, parade and dance on the streets in an occasion reminiscent of Mardi Gras. Yet Filipinos tend to display this positive gesture not only during this event but also every day, and across the archipelago too. As a foreign tourist, you can see it among airport staff, hotel recipients, salespeople, and even peddlers on the street when they greet you. Try smiling at a Filipino and he or she will smile back. This trait can be traced to the country’s warm air temperatures. After all, climate influences the behavior and mood of people.

2. Conversations Filled with Jokes and Laughter

If you always take things too seriously, you will have a setback when chatting with Filipinos. They insert jokes in conversations to make them lively and interesting. As a result, this comes with a series of laughing. You will experience it during a get-together, dinner, or outdoor activity. Even solemn discussions can involve chuckling due to a random humorous remark. Filipinos are resilient despite the typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and the occasional volcanic eruptions because they can keep on laughing even in the face of disaster. Sometimes, a person utters a joke that may sound offensive but he or she actually does not mean it. Understand why it is funny, never mind the deeper meaning (because there might not be any), and have a laugh.

3. Not Being Straightforward

Usually, a Filipino will rather keep quiet and have you confused than speak frankly and cause a verbal argument. The people of the Philippines stick to their gentle nature by trying to avoid conflict as much as possible. When feeling upset with a person, they tend not to disclose it to him or her. Rather, Filipinos often reply with indirect answers and vague statements when asked if they have a problem with you. Sometimes, they may say “no” plainly but their facial expressions mean the opposite. A Filipino will also refrain from being straightforward to avoid hurting your feelings. Yet you might wish that person will tell you right away that he or she does not like your presence, a chat you are initiating, or perhaps a favor you are offering.

4. A Bit of Leftover Food after Dining at a Gathering or Party

pm-teamWhen in the Philippines, attend a party or a simple dinner with acquaintances and you might see a bit of excess food on platters in the end. It does not mean Filipinos are wasteful. They are considerate of fellows when dining together, making sure everyone can taste each food item in a banquet, for instance. As being punctual is not common in the Philippines, those who come late can still have something to eat.

5. Use of the Words “Po” and “Opo”

Respect correlates with age, according to the Filipino mindset. It also involves a way to express it specifically. When traveling in the Philippines, you may notice that younger folks talk to you in English but say “po” and “opo” from time to time. They simply recognize your seniority. Amazingly, these two words cannot be translated directly into another language. “Po” and “opo” can be heard the most in Tagalog-speaking provinces such as Bulacan and Laguna. People do use them in places in the Philippines where another language is prominent but only sparingly.

A Legendary Trek

Mt Makiling has been known as a place where leeches thrived. Yet there are challenges worse than these blood-sucking worms for someone venturing into this mountain.

Located in Laguna province, which is immediately south of the Philippines’s capital Metro Manila, Mt Makiling also borders the adjacent province of Batangas. Its official summit that goes by the name of Peak 2 lies at an altitude of 1,090 meters above sea level. The mountain’s jagged appearance explains the multiple numbers for the peaks. When seen wholly from a distance, Mt Makiling appears as a reclining woman as if sleeping. One can make out the long hair, face, bosom, and bent legs. Legend has it that a supernatural being known in the country as a diwata guards the place and her name is Maria Makiling. She has been the subject of folklore and superstition, told in various versions. What can trekkers assure is Mt Makiling’s trail difficulty at 5/9.

While chatting with Elena ‘Len’ Ibana on social media, she invited me to an event where hikers would traverse Mt Makiling from Santo Tomas, Batangas to Los Baños, Laguna. Len and I met in a fishing trip within Valenzuela city proper. The excursion involved my newfound friends at the time. Then a thought hit me. I spent my college years at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). My alma mater lay at the foothills of Mt Makiling yet I did not climb up to its peak. The farthest I went was the Mud Springs as part of a team building activity of a college organization I had been part of. The attraction with boiling mud and steam could be reached in just two hours of walking at most. Now I was given an opportunity not only to get to the top of Mt Makiling but also to do more than that. At first I only expressed interest. Then I finally decided to join the trek. Furthermore, I managed to invite John Brian Estares and Xander Lopez, two of my friends. With firm hope, everyone would get along well. Then we also coordinated with the outdoor adventure group named Team Hero.

It was nearly 3 AM on January 8, 2017. Xander and I both hailed from Cavite province so we traveled together to Team Hero’s rendezvous location. Fellow hikers filled the fast food establishment near the Farmers Market in Quezon City. I felt a sense of camaraderie in the air. Our companions began to arrive. Complete strangers became acquainted with one another. Brian was already there. Our meeting turned into a sort of reunion. Len followed. She and I caught up with each other. I had not seen her in person in five months. Later on, the four of us bonded in a way that I could say “so far, so good.” We left for Batangas past 4 AM in two vans.

Sleep eluded me. It was not the chatting or the shaking from the vehicle’s movement that kept me awake. I closed my eyes and leaned back on my seat. Nothing worked. Still, I managed to catch a nap but doubted if it would keep me energized for what my fellow trekkers considered a major climb.

The two vans passed through an opened chain-link gate under an arch that seemed a giant water pipe. They stopped and we as passengers got out. My cheeks and bare arms felt the chill in the air. Yet it was not as cold as my morning in Baguio nearly a week ago. The sky looked more gray than blue, literally blanketed by stratus clouds. Flowers grew abundantly just outside the roofed basketball court. They were a welcoming sight. Later on, the vegetation would be wild and perhaps even intimidating. Brian, Len, Xander, and I asked fellow trekkers to take our group photo. We also tried stretching, thanks to Brian, to condition our muscles. A fellow named Errald, who had been working at a firm that designs yachts and performing well as a fitness runner, chatted with us.

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From left: The Blogger, Brian, Xander, Len

Our bag tags were distributed, courtesy of Team Hero. Organizers asked members for their nicknames. Mine was Marvin Ironheart, a reference to Björn Ironside. According to Old Norse sagas, Björn was one of the sons of the legendary leader Ragnar Lothbrok. After his father was executed by an Anglo-Saxon king, he and his brothers assembled a huge army and they all sailed across the North Sea for revenge. Björn also achieved fame for raids in the Mediterranean, especially at a settlement in Italy he thought was Rome. Now he had been one of the major characters in the television series Vikings. In the show, Björn got the nickname Ironside as he was reputedly gifted with invulnerability from bladed weapons. The same could be said to my heart, metaphorically. It could withstand (hopefully) unrequited affection and unworthy women, which cause emotional wounds as if my torso was struck by a sword or an axe.

Soon, one of the organizers named Mark Kenneth Hatuina briefed us about the hike. Then we all headed back into the vans. I thought we would begin walking from this location. It was not the start-off point here in Santo Tomas. The guides for our trek rode with us. One of them was Lando. A man probably in his fifties and wearing a basketball jersey, he sat beside me. Another guide named Jomar clung at where the door was, which was slid back. He did not mind. There was no more space inside. Lando and I chatted briefly about visitors to Mt Makiling and the trail.

Eventually, our transport reached the end of a gravel road. The way ahead sloped upward. It was cemented. The organizers told everyone to bail out. Thus, our traverse of Mt Makiling started. I could not help but quote Lao Tzu. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Len chuckled. Xander nodded. Excitement could be seen plainly in Brian’s face. As with many hikes, the first steps came with a feeling that the excursion would be easy.

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I wonder if we will still be smiling when this hike is over

The concrete beneath our feet disappeared, giving way into firm grayish ground. We arrived shortly at a field. To our left lay huge pipes that seemed a monstrous yellow serpent. At our front, a gigantic green lady on a massive scale was in deep slumber. Forests covered the entirety of Mt Makiling. We would hike deep into that mountain and emerge at the opposite side. My lips gave a smile from eagerness but then pouted from anxiety. I wondered if we could reach Los Baños before nightfall.

Cultivated flora still surrounded the trail. Banana trees grew in groves. Tiny plants, perhaps saplings, stood out from cupfuls of soil held by black plastic bags. They were arranged in a bed.

dscn0176Brian, Len, Xander, and I kept on walking. Our surroundings grew increasingly shady. Sunlight was more dappled than direct. Vines appeared out of nowhere. Traces of human habitation disappeared. The four of us just entered this piece of wilderness in the middle of heavily-populated Southern Luzon. Len wished she had a hiking staff. Branches littered our way but none so far could be turned into one. They all forked out like a deer’s antlers. Brian and I tried to break off a straight piece but it did not detach completely. Len found one lying on the ground by chance eventually. Now she had her improvised trekking pole. Following the trail at this point became less of a stroll. We ascended gradually. Then there was a part where we stepped on rocks clumped together. The surface seemed to give way upon putting my weight on it. I imagined it collapsing. Then I would plunge into a deep and dark ravine. Otherwise, I would roll down the slope, perhaps hit a tree trunk, and injure myself seriously. I moved as quickly as I could while crouching. One of the organizers named Ferdie told me to be careful. Good thing we all made it through without mishap. Brian and Len were getting along well. Xander talked to Errald. My companions could socialize easily in most circumstances. At the same time, Xander also recorded videos and took photos for his own blog.

Orange or yellow placards could be seen up on tree trunks or boughs. They marked the stations that indicated progress in hiking. So far, we had passed by four stations out of a total of sixty. The first half involved the ascent to the summit while the latter half was for our descent. I summoned every bit of patience and optimism I had. Just going from one station to another took at least ten minutes of walking uphill. Fatigue then announced its presence as I caught breaths and yearned to rest. The sun rose higher too. Sweating made me somewhat thirsty.

We arrived at what could be described as a campsite. The smell of burning wood entered my nostrils as I came closer to the embers instead of flames. Smoke dissipated as it rose towards the forest canopy. Makeshift tents were constructed from tarpaulin, bamboo, and plywood. A bamboo pole served as a bench. Len sat on it. Brian, Xander, and I chose to stand or crouch as that piece of bamboo would fail in supporting the weight of the four of us. We had some rest. Refreshing potable water from the springs of Mt Makiling gushed from a flexible black pipe. Then it plunged into a bed of dark rocks, casting droplets endlessly. It was like a drinking fountain in the middle of nowhere. Some of our companions filled plastic bottles and other water containers of small to medium size. Minutes passed before we resumed the trek. Len found a bamboo stick, picked it up, and used it as a sturdier trekking staff.

dscn0184A stream greeted us shortly. Running along its course were two synthetic black pipes that could be mistaken as pythons at a distance. One of them probably brought water to the campsite we stopped by earlier. A pool collected water, which overflowed down to a series of miniature cascades carved by nature. Just going to the bank involved a steep descent with little to hold on to. This stream forked beneath the pool, resulting in a patch of rocky and grassy ground that seemed a stopover in our crossing. My three friends were already on the other side. I went across. My footing on wet stones was firm. I made it halfway. All I needed were a few steps. Water seeped into my shoes. My socks got wet too. I did not mind it and kept on going.

Two of our companions named Grace and Olive shared our pace. Apparently, Olive wore a veil called a hijab. It was the garment called the niqab that concealed the entire head except for a pair of eyes. The hijab exposed the cheeks and chin. Keeping a woman’s hair, neck, and chest hidden served as its purpose. Olive practiced the Islamic faith. She was a convert too as people born from parents who were both Muslim tended to have Arabic-sounding names.

The hike felt more like climbing up a set of stairs. I began to ran out of breath. My legs did not hurt much yet but walking continuously made them sore. I clasped tree trunks and rocks to avoid slipping. It facilitated my movement too. Judging from previous treks, I would breathe effortlessly and endure tiredness a few hours later. My body was simply conditioning itself.

Densely clustered leaves cleared away. We were bathed in sunlight. A breeze gave some relief from the humidity. A boulder peered from the bushes. Just behind it was a ravine. This spot provided a scenic view of the surrounding landscape. Beyond the verdant forests of Mt Makiling’s foothills, hectares of farmland stretched towards the silvery horizon. Villages stood out from the dark and light shades of green. At least human settlement and its amenities were still within sight. Yet to our left lay a rugged mountain slope and its wild jungles. Our hiking party was not even halfway to the summit yet. My friends and I stopped for a while to take snapshots.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I got separated from the rest of Team Hero. This should not be a problem as long as we followed a trail of bare dirt and saw markers along the way. Still, trekkers at Mt Makiling must inhibit recklessness and replace it with utmost care. There had been multiple reports of people getting lost here. After all, the mountain was enchanted according to folklore. Yet a mix of eagerness and oblivion overcame Brian and Len as they kept on going ahead. Both hailed from the Bicol region, explaining why they bonded easily. I would feel the same way for someone from the Ilonggo ethnic group of western Visayas. This background came from my mother although I was not fluent with the Hiligaynon language. This sort of affinity gave Filipinos a degree of diversity but inhibited us from a deeper feeling of unity as one country. Meanwhile, Xander lagged a bit. I could match the two’s pace but he would be left alone. Good thing I brought the orange whistle that I received as a gift during the History Channel convention back in August. The four of us still could see one another.

Just as we caught up with four of our companions, the thing that we wanted to avoid much did too. Len was yelling inarticulately but we knew it meant trouble. Those guys ahead proved themselves right about what started appearing at this point. A leech crawled on Len’s leggings. It was not big and fat like Hirudo medicinalis – the medicinal leech; rather, it belonged to the genus Haemadipsa. It appeared tubular instead of flattened and much thinner too. I already had an encounter with one back in college during that team building activity. Yet it was only now that I saw it up close. A single rub of the index finger on the thumb and the leech got flung away. I could pick it off with my fingers but then I would become the invertebrate’s next victim. One of our fellows shared a bit of insect repellent lotion, which I rubbed on my arms exposed by a short-sleeved shirt. I doubted this would work against leeches. He and another guy took protection to the next level by wearing half face masks, sunglasses, and arm sleeves. In comparison, I simply tucked my pants into my black socks. They had their share of leech encounters too. Then those four moved quickly until they disappeared from sight.

The trail went up and down roughly. Soon, we came upon a gap among exposed tree roots and moss-covered boulders. We could only descend by holding on to a tough blue rope. I hated this kind of moment during treks. Progress relied on gripping the rope firmly as my feet pressed firmly against any surface they could touch. Fortunately for us, this one was relatively uncomplicated and already over after several seconds.

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Len feeling the struggle while holding the rope

Earlier, the organizers said we would have lunch at Station 15. Brian, Len, Xander, and I arrived at the spot. A forest clearing lay before us. Vines embraced the tree trunks. Fallen leaves accumulated on the ground, creating a brown carpet. They awaited a slow decay to be part of the soil under another layer of leaf litter. Like the leaves, people had been coming to this place, stopping briefly before going away. The fellows we caught up with previously now confirmed that we would eat our lunch here. We all had some rest yet remained standing.

dscn0217Leeches appeared on my companions’ clothing again from out of nowhere. One even made its way on Brian’s two-liter bottle of electrolyte-rich beverage. Someone from the other group placed a leech just below the fingernail on his thumb. Then he demonstrated how it sucked blood. Leeches produced their anesthetic naturally, making the process painless. Their tiny size meant that only a millimeter or so of blood will be lost. These worm-like creatures were more of a nuisance than a threat.

More of our fellows in Team Hero came as the four of us took photos, chatted, and laughed. They began to bring out food too. I had tuna in a small easy-to-open can but without boiled rice – the staple of Filipino food. In other words, I had protein without carbohydrates. Rice could be bought as takeout from small eateries called a karinderya in the Philippines. There was none around the start-off point. If there was, it likely had not opened yet. Brian, Len, and Xander managed to buy burgers at a 24-hour fast food establishment. The four of us ate together in silence as if overwhelmed by anger. This situation when dining together was known locally as galit-galit. Our fellows had a heavier and more sumptuous packed lunch with boiled white rice. Meanwhile, the forest canopy had a paler shade of green due to mist. There was a drizzle. Later on, a party of our companions began leaving to continue the trek. The four of us decided unanimously to join them. We stayed about 45 minutes at Station 15 and left at past 11 PM. Xander played his wireless and portable Bluetooth® speaker, then attached it to Brian’s backpack. Music of various genres accompanied us in the hike.

At first, it seemed a relaxing stroll. Then walking became increasingly difficult when the trail sloped as we went uphill. Then a log blocked our path. The tree trunk fell in a way that it was suspended in mid-air. We overcame this obstacle by climbing over or crouching under the log.

dscn0224Our movement grew sluggish. It came to a stop. Then I realized why. A female hiker gripped a blue nylon rope as she planned a way of climbing atop a rock face. I could not help but mutter complaint. Brian, Len, Xander, and I inched closer to another challenging part of the Mt Makiling traverse. The fellow ahead of me had his turn. He placed his left foot on a piece of wood stuck firmly into rock. It did not work. Either the wood was slippery or his foot was too large. That guy clad in black stepped on the rock surface instead. He exerted much energy as to not slip. In less than a minute, he got past the rock face but still held the rope. I exhaled. Our fellow advanced further until I could tug the rope safely. If I did it sooner and proceeded to climb, the rope could snap. It would be an ugly and painful consequence for us. I was a bit baffled. My foot slipped as it touched bare rock despite the bumps and grooves of my trekking shoes’ soles. There was no spot to step on. Then I thought of that piece of wood supporting my leg. I grasped the rope even tighter. My left foot rested on what was once a tree trunk, cut and processed before exposed to the elements in this uninhabited place to slowly deteriorate. It actually worked. After that, it felt like I could just jump over the rock face. Then I made my way through a slope littered with dried grass and leaves. My hands clung to the rope as if my life depended on it. Brian was next. He began tugging the rope. Lando, our guide, asked him to refrain from climbing until the fellow at my front reached the end of the ordeal. One by one, the four of us made it without much hassle.

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For Lando, the Mt Makiling traverse is just another usual routine 

Fellow trekkers at my front gathered together. It was not surprising. To my dismay, there was another rope and this time the rock face was higher and nearly vertical. I noticed immediately that a bit of rope was tied into a loop as if a noose. It actually seemed more of a stirrup in horseback riding. My foot would fit in it.

A few minutes passed before I faced the ordeal. Len requested that I carry her bamboo walking staff so she could grip the rope with ease. Meanwhile, I would simply rest and look after that stick after accomplishing the challenge. Lando sat atop the rock face. He instructed me what to do step by step. At first, I handed the improvised trekking staff to him so my hands would be free. Lando could not reach it. He told me to toss it to him. I did. He did not catch it. The bamboo stick slipped down but my reflexes sprang into action to catch it. Otherwise, it could have plunged down and perhaps impaled Len in a worst case scenario. Still, she could avoid it. I moved closer towards Lando. Panic crept into me as I lost footing. I put all of my energy in holding on to the rope. There was nothing to do but keep on trying until I got it right. I moved two or three steps upward before extending my arm as far as I can to pass the hiking staff to Lando. He could grab it this time. Climbing that rock face also went smoothly after freeing my hands. In one move I bounded towards my left and grabbed a branch. Then I crawled before standing beside Lando with a loud exhale and a wide smile.

Participants of the Team Hero hike gathered at the edge of a ravine. Far below us lay a dense jungle of broad-leaved trees. It was simply a piece of unspoiled nature. Four equally verdant peaks secluded the forest from human enroachment. Nothing could be seen under the tree canopy. It seemed a perfect sanctuary for deer, wild pigs, monkeys and perhaps enchanted beings of folklore. The gray cloudy sky gave the forest a dark character, intensified by mist over the peaks. The blowing of the wind became an unwelcoming ambience to my ears. Yet the landscape suited as a background for our snapshots. We posed with care to avoid slipping. Falling off the edge and into the trees below would mean certain demise. It would be difficult to recover the remains too.

I thought our ordeal with ropes and rock surfaces was over. I was wrong. The four of us stared in disbelief after a harrowing uphill climb. The brown rock surface did not appear intimidating. Yet upon a closer look it was rather slippery due to the drizzle. Xander went first. I took photos of him climbing over the rock face. He made it without intense effort. As I found out personally during my turn, I could also grip branches and thin tree trunks along the way. Xander in turn took snapshots of me as I ‘struggled’ to reach the top. Brian was next, followed by Len. We had pictures of our ascent. Brian posed with a salute as if he did not break a sweat.

dscn0231Our group of four hikers managed to fit in a patch of ground just above our latest obstacle. We had a view in the opposite direction of the dense forest and peaks we saw earlier. The landscape was absolutely different. Woodland retreated to the foothills of Mt Makiling as it was replaced by an environment defined by the product and skill of human hands. What used to be totally green now had patches of brown, blue, and red. I could not determine those big white structures at our right, just off the center. One looked like a colossal domino tile without any black dot and a black line too. It aroused my curiosity as I wondered about its purpose. A road, or more like a highway, stood out as a slanting line at our left. Amazingly, white smoke billowed from what I guessed was a geothermal power station. Laguna de Bay lay on the horizon. It was a huge lake, not a bay as the name supposedly suggested. In fact, it was identified with the municipality of Bay in Laguna province. According to legend, the town had been connected with Maria Makiling as its name sounded like babae (pronounced baBA-E), the Tagalog word for woman. Furthermore, Laguna de Bay could be simply translated from Spanish as ‘lake of Bay.’ This whole landscape lay under a dreary gray blanket of cloud.

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Look, flowers! I will appreciate it if some botanist identifies them 

dscn0235My fingers got smeared by mud slightly as we struggled up a sloping section of the trail. Branches and roots became nature’s handle bars. Psychological stress from the slope, gloomy weather, and remoteness of our location added to the weariness. Then we arrived at a spot overgrown with cogon grass. The place bore a resemblance to the summit of Mt Purgatory in Benguet province, although at a smaller scale. Len also recalled its similarity to what she had been to at Mt Pulag. I had not climbed it yet. Yet the two mountains were relatively near to one another. We followed Lando and kept on moving. As grass gave way to trees, leaves blocked the sky and shadows engulfed our surroundings.

I had not encountered a leech attached to my clothing yet until this part of the traverse. Perhaps the insect repellent lotion did work. There were two of them on my pants. I struck them with the back of my hand. They fell off, probably hurt but still alive. Killing them would be unnecessary. Brian, Len, Xander, and I then inspected one another for leeches on our bags and clothing. We found a few. Brian plucked a leaf and with it scraped one off a fabric surface. Len even had her flowing long hair, dyed brown with a tinge of orange, checked but fortunately there was none.

We felt frustrated eventually. Leeches were the least of our problems. The trail should lead us to the summit but we were going downhill instead of uphill. Confusion shook the recesses of my mind. It did not make sense. The four of us made our way through the woods on our own, relying on a path dirt transformed into mud by the moist air. I scanned for footprints too. Our companions simply disappeared. An end to the hike eluded us. It seemed we were walking among creepy vine-covered trees for eternity. The jungle swallowed us and I summoned all hope it would spit us out soon. Large tree roots extended at chest height, appearing as a limbo bar. Of course, we would not do the limbo dance that originated from the Caribbean. I crouched, went under, and moved as if a mole in its underground tunnel. The roots snagged my backpack a bit. Some tree trunks were also bristling literally with thorns as tiny as the graphite tip of a pencil. Additionally, our group also could not see those station placards anymore. This scene went on for minutes that turned into hours.

Len also complained about soreness in the legs that hindered her pace. I could describe it as a déjà vu moment for me. It happened before at my Mt Ulap traverse. Yet we did not have balm this time. The hiking stick helped Len greatly.

Later on, the four of us ascended continuously. For certain, we were getting near the summit. Two of our fellows in Team Hero, Amena and Nico, accompanied us at this point.

A muddy patch of ground lay ahead. Our shoes could sink slightly in the deluge, making them even dirtier. I tiptoed on the trail’s edge. Then I sighed with regret. We just realized there was another narrower path, concealed by undergrowth and the gnarled roots of a tree. Just shortly ahead, light shone brightly from a gap among the arboreal foliage. Several men from another trekking party stood as a line. We greeted them. They in turn greeted us back. Someone among them told us that we had reached the summit. It was past 2 PM.

According to Len, the summit of Peak 2 did not have scenic views. She was right. Walls of vegetation surrounded a small open area. I could not see anything beyond them. Cloudy weather cast a cold grayish haze, adding to the disappointment. Simply speaking, the best views from Mt Makiling could be found not at the summit but along the way. A yellow placard indicated that the summit had been designated as Station 30. Someone thought about Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, who went by the nickname of Du30. Then we posed for a picture, doing Duterte’s signature clenched fist. Behind us was a shredded piece of tarpaulin with a logo of the University of the Philippines torn apart. This broke my heart. Brian, Len, Xander, and I went busy with snapshots. Most of Team Hero regrouped at the summit. I took a group photo. We lingered for about 15 minutes before descending. Then those fellows who fell in line had their own moment at the summit.

Our companions went ahead. The four of us, along with Amena and Nico, were the last to go. We all had a brief chat while keeping to the sides of another patch of muddy ground. Yet the two quickened their pace, eventually disappearing from our sight. At least Ferdie stayed with us.

dscn0245We could not even believe how speedy our descent was, despite seemingly left behind. I only needed to jump down while grasping a branch, tree trunk, or rock. The trail was not that steep too. It even allowed us to stroll with leisure sometimes. Still, towering trees closed in on us. Footprints formed in the mud, cast by our fellows who went ahead. At times, we had to choose between having our shoes’ soles caked with a layer of mud or slipping after putting a foot on moistened rock. Otherwise, the trail was strewn with dead leaves, decaying wood, moss, and even mushrooms. Our group tried to diminish our sighs, grunts, and complaints by injecting humor into our conversation. Brian was the most talkative among us in a positive way. The downhill hike had an uncanny similarity to what I experienced at my Mt Purgatory traverse. As remnants of sunlight that pierced the forest canopy faded, we hoped to reach the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry campus before nightfall.

Upon arriving at Station 18, the four of us took a break. It had this number for trekkers with their jump-off point at Los Baños instead of Santo Tomas. Two female hikers who traveled separately from us sat on a log. Xander shared crackers while for Len it was a variety of nuts. Brian ate the last of the three burgers he purchased before daybreak. I drank more of the same electrolyte-rich beverage that Brian also brought along. Xander asked me how I reflected on my self during this trek. I replied to him that friendships mattered much and I looked forward to the next chapter of my life. Yet I grimaced for the things I would have to lose in exchange. Then I thanked the three for this memorable adventure. We just realized that Ferdie was gone. The four of us would end this journey on our own.

At around 4 PM, the light turned more yellow than gray as the weather had enough of its bad mood. We were having a walk in the woods during a mellow afternoon. Trees lost their frightening appearance in exchange to a friendly one. Undergrowth crept back from the trail. Birds warbled and sang. Xander’s wireless speaker emitted a tune that made me imagine the four of us wandering in an elven forest. All that was missing were graceful yet reclusive anthromorphic beings with pointed ears. As it was a fantasy setting, the four of us would be adventurers too. Len would be the healer. Xander would be an archer with his bow and sharp eyesight. Brian would utilize his fitness as a knight. I would rather be a berserker unleashing fury that was sparked by difficulties in life. For me now, going on hikes was better than playing video games.

I shared to my three friends how wild pigs could be dangerous. When cornered, they may charge and injure people seriously with lower canine teeth that grew into tusks. At least we did not encounter a wild pig or even a snake. Leeches were the closest to wildlife we could come upon. They still stuck to our bodies despite our group approaching the end of the hike. We kept on removing them in response.

Fears of getting lost did creep into our minds. The trail went on infinitely no matter how it lost the slopes and mud for a flat dirt path. The next curve revealed nothing but trees and more of them. There were tales of campers at Mt Makiling who, after packing up, keep finding themselves back at the starting point regardless where and how far they walked. It seemed they could not escape the mountain. Legend had it that Maria Makiling caused them to be disoriented and lost until they cleaned up garbage at their campsite. Only when it was accomplished that these campers made it out of the wilderness. I did not recall the four of us littering during the trek. We should not worry.

The four of us chatted about a variety of topics. Len described her home province of Camarines Norte. Brian talked about swimming and especially running. Xander shared a bit of his life but he seemed mostly quiet. This time, I became rather talkative. Our conversation also involved societal issues, indie films, religion, and the intricacies of romantic relationships.

At Station 13, a brook ran its course. Water flowed parallel to the path we would follow. This meant we were heading to a lower elevation. I assured my friends about this, speaking with the tone of wilderness survival experts who appear in television. We were going the right way. Earlier, we passed by a number of banana trees. Seeing crops instead of wild flora indicated human presence. Then I heard the faint roar of a motor tricycle’s engine. The sound echoed through the forest around us. Len said she did not hear it. I strongly believed it was a motor tricycle but we saw only thick trunks and foliage. Later on past the brook, someone covered the top of a pole with an empty cement sack. I smiled. It was clear enough as further proof.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I spotted a red object in the distance. We approached it noisily due to joy and relief. It felt like returning to civilization after wandering aimlessly in the wild outdoors. People stood on a gray surface. I could make out vendors on a concrete road. Upon a closer look, those ‘vendors’ turned out to be a group of men and their motorcycles.

Agila Base simply featured a rural version of a convenience store and a sort of a transportation hub with motorbikes. It also served as the starting point in the final leg of our journey. A couple approaching their senior years maintained a shack. They sold instant noodles in plastic cups, crackers with chocolate or butter filling, and several brands of soft drink. Bunches of ripe pale yellow bananas lay on what looked like a makeshift hybrid of a store counter and table. I bought one for potassium intake. It tasted delightfully sweeter than the bananas sold at my hometown. After remarking about it, the woman told me that bananas here were ripened on the tree before harvested. Their counterparts sold in wet markets went through the other way around. Len even bought a whole bunch of 15 bananas for Php 45. As the woman assured, a piece was sold for three pesos. In comparison, buying just one banana at an urban karinderya could cost Php 10. Our fellows sat on a bench close by, eating whichever food item they each preferred. Stomachs were filled as energy was replenished. Then they decided to ride all the way to the College of Forestry on those motorcycles functioning as taxis, known locally as a habal-habal. Brian, Len, Xander, and I discussed whether to do the same. We all agreed to just walk instead.

It was nearly 5:30 PM when we left Agila Base and began the stroll with enthusiasm. After all, we followed a relatively wide dirt road instead of a trail choked by trees and undergrowth. The four of us cheered after seeing that one of two lanes had been cemented. We walked on top of it. Then our happiness turned into dismay as the section of a concrete road ended. It did not go all the way. We related it to the breakup in romantic relationships, then laughed. At least the surface was not muddy.

Daylight faded as the sky turned blue, then becoming indigo. The leaves and branches appeared black. Birds and critters went noisy as they tend to be at dusk. It was apparent that nighttime would catch up with us. I suggested to my friends that we move briskly.

dscn0253Here in the Philippines, the sun would set thirty minutes to one hour earlier in January than in June. We were at the mercy of nocturnal darkness. Good thing we brought flashlights and headlamps as the traverse was supposed to start at 4 AM, more than an hour from the break of dawn. My headlamp gave a weak light. The battery was nearly exhausted of stored energy. We all relied on Len’s flashlight, which was fully charged too. It illuminated everything within a radius of several meters until distance made the white light fade into obscurity.

Fortunately, the road was cemented once again. After minutes of walking, it still was and it would likely be until we descend to my alma mater. The authorities did put efforts into infrastructure. Back on my college days, this part was not layered with concrete yet. Then the four of us passed by the shack that sold coconut juice to my college organization mates and I during that team building hike in 2013. It was still there, only closed for the night. Brian, Len, and Xander asked me how many minutes it would take before we reached the end. I made rough estimates. Years had passed since then and experiences in the corporate world had made my memory even blurrier.

The night came with possible threats too. UPLB had seen its share of crimes, a few involving the loss of life. I contacted one of the Team Hero organizers. There was no reply. I hoped that they would notice our absence, notify the university’s police personnel, and have a multicab vehicle drive up this road. The driver would bump into us and then give Brian, Len, Xander, and I a lift so we could reunite with our companions. It did not happen. Two fellows also ran down the concrete road in near-total darkness as part of their training. Brian chatted with them enthusiastically before the pair left us.

I told the three we would arrive at the meet-up location after ten minutes. This span of time passed and yet we were still walking briskly on an unlit road. I forgot totally this place despite being here before. Our legs ached and we all yearned for a bath to get rid of the sweat and mud. We wanted to ride in the van, stop over for dinner, and head home. It was past 6:30 PM when we saw red-tinged light from distant lamp posts. We were probably too tired to yell cheerfully.

At a facility in UPLB’s College of Forestry, hikers could take a shower and relieve themselves for a fee. Brian, Len, Xander, and I fell in line with our fellows from Team Hero. A leech was creeping on Len’s stuff. It was ‘taken care of’ easily. This was our last encounter with those bloodsucking worms. We washed up, rinsed our footwear too, kept our dirty clothing in plastic bags, and wore a new set of garments. Fulfilling his duty as an organizer, Mark shouted at us to hurry up.

Our entire hiking party filled the two vans so we could begin the homeward trip. Then we made our way through the streets, buildings, and grass-covered spaces of UPLB. This was where I studied and graduated but tiredness kept me from appreciating my return here. The van I rode on sped past the grounds of the College of Economics and Management, which was shrouded by darkness and devoid of students. As we left the university’s main gate, I remembered strolling along Lopez Avenue back then. Shops and establishments that lined it had come and gone but the illuminated signs endured. Later, we had dinner at a food chain famous for grilled chicken and unlimited rice.

People who intend to hike at Mt Makiling would need a mix of courage and caution. They should be concerned with slippery surfaces, rock-climbing with ropes, ravines, and the likelihood of getting lost more than leeches. Yet Brian, Len, Xander, and I made it through the trek along with the rest of Team Hero. The four of us nicknamed ourselves as the Fantastic Four from Marvel Comics. We also proclaimed among ourselves that our journey – especially at the part where we hurried down the mostly cemented road just after nightfall – was worthy of legend.

Twelve Hours in Baguio

It was January 2017 and I yearned to spend one day – even just a few hours – of quality time with friends and fellow travel enthusiasts in a Facebook® group chat. We planned to spend two days and a night on a beach in an island about 30 to 45 minutes from port via a sea vessel. Just as with some plans, it did not go accordingly. The volatile weather came with winds that in turn spawned fierce waves, causing motorboat operators to observe caution and stay put. We needed another plan.

Hency Joyce Gamara had much enthusiasm in pushing for a leisurely trip to happen. On January 1, she came upon an organized event involving a one-day tour of Baguio city. I had visited this place a few times before. Getting there would involve a six-hour drive from Manila. Baguio featured a relatively cool climate due to its altitude. Air temperatures could be compared to those of Tagaytay city in Cavite Province and Marawi city in Lanao del Sur (I could confirm as I had been in these places too). Strawberries, lettuce, and brocolli grew abundantly as a result. Baguio also took pride of its ethnic heritage, contributed by the indigenous peoples of Benguet province. According to Hency, the tour would cost Php 999 including transport and our lunch. However, we had to shoulder the cost of optional entrance fees, snacks, and shopping. Hency, her boyfriend John Vincent “Janbi” Chua, and I joined in. We invited more of our friends. Yet in the end it was the three of us who could come.

At least ten minutes passed before the bus I rode in made it through the seemingly snail-paced traffic at a busy intersection in Imus city. Then it was a speedy trip on Aguinaldo Highway and into Metro Manila under the cover of darkness.

I arrived in Pasay city at past 10 AM. Taking the light rail did not seem practical. This mode of transportation would take me all the way to the meet-up location at Guadalupe in Makati city. However, I came there during closing hours. A second bus ride would be preferable. Stretching my right arm out and waving it, I hailed a passing bus but to no avail. It was already packed with passengers. I kept on walking. Then I found myself at a terminal of the DLTBCo bus company. None of its public transport vehicles were on sight. An eerie darkness drained away  every bit of cheer within the facility. Messages calling for reform in the establishment were handwritten on cardboard and cloth. The employees – drivers in particular – went on strike. It took several minutes and a friendly ‘barker’ of public transport patrons before I got in a bus bound for Guadalupe.

Hency, Janbi, and I would rendezvous at a fastfood establishment. I looked for a vacant table, along with a chair to sit on. Sturdy glass windows and fluorescent lighting made the place a refuge from the uncertainties brought by nighttime. Then I waited. The two arrived at around 11 PM. We still had two hours before a white Toyota HiAce van would pick us up. Hency used her mobile phone for us to make a call to Aldous Moncada, one of our friends. Like the couple, I also met him at my second trek at Mt Marami. The three of us also talked about travel and a bit of politics. It was past 1 AM when the van finally arrived.

Only four people sat inside the van, which could carry a maximum of 18 passengers. We went in. Christine Bacus, the event organizer, sat on the front with her daughter, next to our driver who went by the name of Jhonpaul “JP” Silvestre. Then we headed north to pick up more of our fellows. When they got in, I joined Hency and Janbi at the row just behind the driver. Our group numbered 17 in total.

Light from the lamp posts flooded the road. More lights, this time from the headlamps of vehicles, moved with the flow of traffic. Our van’s interior contrasted starkly with the surroundings. I hoped to doze off sooner. Sleeping while sitting inside an automobile en route to a travel destination always proved to be a challenge for me. I took my eyeglasses off, rested my nape on top of the backrest, and closed my eyes. Eventually, I drifted off from wakefulness.

Two stopovers interrupted my sleep. At 4:30 AM, participants in the tour had breakfast. Hency, Janbi, and I ate chicken adobo and eggplant kilawin I brought along. Those food items were supposed to be for our beach getaway. I had prepared them anyway. Adobo consisted of meat cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, peppercorns, and bay leaves. As for kilawin, an eggplant was roasted before sliced into strips, then soaked in vinegar along with chopped tomatoes and onions. It had a sour yet smoky taste. Then we resumed our trip towards the so-called ‘City of Pines.’

6 AM

Fog blurred the windshield of our van. Some people, clad in hooded jackets, jogged along the roads of Baguio. JP kept on driving. We went straight to the municipality of La Trinidad, just north of the city. Later on, the van stopped on one lane, not on some parking area.

To our right lay an entire barangay, or village, of colorful houses. It felt like staring at a rainbow. However, the hues were diffused instead of organized in rows from red to violet. We just arrived at the first stop of our itinerary – Barangay Balili. Just as I got out of the van, the frigid air of our surroundings managed to penetrate my jacket. I welcomed it. My body had an affinity for cold and disdain for heat. Some of our fellows shivered a bit. Walking gave some warmth. The place offered little activity though. We took photos, stood on a bridge made of cable and Marston mats, and nothing more. Below us, boulders and smaller rocks slowed the flow of the stream, which seemed more like pools of water. Hency was planning a trip to Sagada, which I visited before. One of the attractions there to visit would be Bomod-ok Falls. She remarked about going there and taking a dip in chilly water in the morning. A few women of middle and late adulthood age, residents of this place, crossed the bridge individually, bumping into us. We blocked their path. I asked one to join us in a group photo. Our stay lasted about fifteen minutes before heading to the next destination.

7 AM

dscn0017Still in La Trinidad, the famous Strawberry Farm also had lettuce being cultivated. The crops appeared more withered than lush at this time. Janbi pointed out the possible steep demand during Christmas and New Year. My mouth emitted what looked like whitish smoke as surrounding temperatures remained chilly. Yet the sun shone brighter. It would be warmer soon. Hency, Janbi, and I walked on planks that served as pathways for visitors. Beyond the fences made of netting and wooden frames, strawberries and lettuce grew side by side. A group of visitors other than us ventured further. My two friends and I did not go on as we were already here before.

dscn0025Citing a desire to always try new things, Hency craved for strawberry ice cream despite the cold morning. Yet the vendor was nowhere to be found. Only a two-wheeled metal cart that contained the frozen dessert remained. Ice cream in cones by small-scale makers were peddled this way throughout the Philippines. Janbi and I decided to buy taho, which was soybean pudding sweetened with brown sugar syrup. In Baguio and surrounding areas, tourists might want to try the strawberry variety of taho. I enjoyed it in a plastic cup, sipping with a tiny straw. The pudding and syrup tasted sweet and slightly sour. It had a few bits of actual strawberries too.

The three of us checked shops near the parking area. Delicacies such as jams, peanut brittle, biscuits in plastic jars, and fresh strawberries were sold. We also saw locally-made purses, ski caps, trinkets, chopping boards, and even phallic ashtrays (I am not kidding). More shops lined the other side of the road, offering a wider choice of items. This area resembled the dry goods section of a typical Filipino marketplace.

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8 AM

dscn0033Murals reminiscent of a kindergarten classroom greeted us upon arriving at Tam-Awan Village. It was situated within the Baguio city proper. The entrance had a bamboo facade. Just above the door, a sign indicated that this attraction would present us a garden in the sky.

The Php 999 tour per head was convenient for someone with a one thousand-peso bill. Even more amazing was how this pricing saved money. If I did this tour by myself, that amount would only cover the round trip between Manila and Baguio. After that, would shoulder the taxi fares so I could visit multiple landmarks. Yet it did not include the entrance fee for Tam-Awan Village. I hesitated to enter. Taking a better look would enrich the content of my blog post though. In the end, I handed a fifty-peso bill to the female receptionist.

My friends and I agreed on a day tour of Baguio as a more relaxing alternative to climbing a mountain. However, the ascending stone steps reminded us of the uphill slopes that drained our energy and caused strain in our legs. Still, we were in a rural village more than the wilderness. The huts of indigenous architectural design had thatched roofs and wooden walls. One of them housed paintings with the Cordilleras as their motif. Another served as a cafe that also had examples of the local fine arts on display. Near it stood a hut on stilts. A sign cautioned us to be careful as we might disturb its occupant. Someone opened the door. Inside, three statues with crossed arms sat side by side. Baguio may had become predominantly Christian but its people still clung to the symbols of folk beliefs as part of an identity. Yet the occupant referred to in the sign was not the statues. Some fellow – possibly a caretaker – wrapped a blanket around himself and slept soundly despite our presence.

Paths crisscrossed the entirety of Tam-Awan Village. Hency took videos of koi fish that lingered mysteriously at one side of the pond. Then we kept on strolling. A hut had been covered in durable translucent plastic, suggesting it was undergoing maintenance. A bit further up, a spot with wooden benches, a mostly bamboo table, and a conspicuous arts festival sign provided a shady vantage point under a sunny sky. The path turned from stone into dirt. A montane forest lay before us. The chirping of birds and even the faint barking of dogs gave life. We followed the trail to see a dreamcatcher of Native American handicraft. It was supersized but the circular object’s design was not what we expected.

We went down a set of stone steps. If I moved clumsily, I would have slipped. This instance brought back memories of the last leg of my descent from Mt Amuyao. The three of us inspected the souvenir shop briefly before heading back to the van. Our companions were simply waiting for us so the tour could resume.

9 AM

The steps up to the Lourdes Grotto intimidated us at a first glance. Their white surface stood out against a green background, making them appear even steeper. I gave a sigh. Everyone in this tour declined to climb those steps. Good thing we could bypass this seemingly obstacle and simply drive up a road towards the top. Parking our van came with a fee. The grotto was not in sight. At least it could be reached by strolling leisurely on an even path rather than overcoming a 60-degree slope despite the steps. Hency, Janbi, and I exited the van. We saw a row of shops, a taho vendor, peddlers of snacks such as peanuts and cashew nuts, and indigenous costumes that we could wear and then have our photos taken. The three of us noticed that our fellows stayed behind. We went back. No one was interested in visiting the Lourdes grotto.

Diplomat Hotel, on top of Dominican Hill, was our next stop. It was originally built by the Dominican Order of clergy as their vacation house. Completion took place in 1915. The place now looked like one of the ruins on Corregidor Island but more intact. As with Corregidor, this place was devastated by Japanese aerial bombing during World War Two. Refugees who took shelter inside the building were among the casualties. This could explain reports of paranormal incidents in Diplomat Hotel. During the 1970s, the place was renovated into an actual hotel. Then it was closed more than a decade later. Now it had been functioning as a tourist attraction.

10 AM

A row of flags, including those of France, Japan, and Portugal, stood at the entrance of Diplomat Hotel. I caught sight of a historical marker of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines between an arched window and a fancier arched door. There was a pew inside. After taking some snapshots, Hency, Janbi, and I entered the building. It was just a single bench instead of multiple pews as found in a church. The interior had the feel – if not the look – of a place of worship. The heat from burning wood radiated to my bare palms as I crouched in front of a fireplace. It was not scorching but not that comfortable either.

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Just keep that fire going…

Both doorways to the left and right led to an ornamental garden, each one having a fountain identical to each other. I sat on the circular stone base. My pants’ upper back got slightly wet. Then I grinned at three fellow visitors. At least it would dry soon. Droplets of water struck my face as I stood close to the fountain. Hency, Janbi, and I took more photos.

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Janbi and Hency standing next to a fountain. What is just needed now is a more romantic pose. 

Diplomat Hotel had a second floor. I went inside empty and unpainted rooms. Yet there was some graffiti on the walls. Ironically, signs telling people to preserve this historical site had been put up. A hall became empty for a moment until young people chatted with smiles on their faces while walking through. What were once bathrooms had cracked and missing tiles. Moss also grew on the cemented surface. Most of this place seemed to be a building in a war zone or a post-apocalyptic setting.

The terrace gave us a spectacular view of Baguio, especially under a cloudless azure sky. Groves of pine trees dotted a landscape of buildings. This city did not have those towering skyscrapers of Metro Manila. However, Baguio’s laidback atmosphere was being replaced by one with the hustle and bustle. Hency and Janbi asked me to take a picture of them together. Corrosion exposed the metal framework of the large cross, which still stood, from the original Dominican vacation house.

11 AM

Christine confirmed that we would have that free lunch at Good Taste restaurant. I had been there before. Back in August, a trekking group that went by the name of Talahib undertook the Mt Purgatory traverse. We ended our two-day adventure with supper at that place.

People still flocked to the six-story dining establishment. Our tour group fell in line along with other customers. JP drove the van into the basement parking area. He would catch up with us. We took the stairs to the second floor. Waiters and waitresses moved back and forth like bees flying from one flower to another. The ambience was marked by a slight murmur from chatter and steel utensils. Fellow diners began to fill up entirely this floor. The eighteen of us could fit in one of Good Taste’s elongated tables, with two more chairs to spare. Chicken with barbecue sauce was served for lunch. This meal came in plenty and with boiled white rice too. We had our fill. I could say Good Taste features a balance between quality and quantity when it comes to dining. Its individual meal for around Php 100 could be shared by two people. A group meal would do more.

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Just look at the camera and smile, everyone, then we can finally begin eating.

12 PM

I felt drowsy following our lunch. Janbi took a nap. I could use one too as we all sat inside the moving van. According to Christine, we would visit The Mansion next. She also talked about night markets in Baguio and her experiences in organizing tours. When we arrived at the tour’s next stop, the noontime heat was too much to bear even in Baguio. I took my jacket off.

dscn0107The Mansion could be described as a huge house fitting for a duke, if not a king or a queen. In fact, it served as the current Philippine president’s official summer residence. The wrought iron gate, supported by two stone columns reminiscent of  Greco-Roman architecture, stood as high as five people put on top of one another. There were three of those historical markers similar to that in Diplomat Hotel. Visitors entered through a smaller gate on the right. A man in military uniform welcomed us coldly.

Whole families and groups of friends crowded the cemented lane as they took photos of themselves with The Mansion on the background. The building itself lay distantly, separated from visitors by what looked like a slightly sloping field of trimmed grass. Christmas decorations such as the Nativity scene had not been removed yet. Roughly-made statues of supposed reindeer ‘roamed’ the open ground, where several artificial spruce trees were set up. Images of Santa Claus’s reindeer resembled the red deer in Europe more than what is called a caribou in North America. They should appear as Sven from the Disney animated movie Frozen. I did not see anyone venturing into The Mansion. We were all content with taking snapshots from a distance.

1 PM

More locals and tourists filled the roads as the day progressed, resulting in traffic. Our van inched its way towards Mines View Park. Somehow, the vehicle’s air conditioning did not work. JP turned it off and told us to open the windows instead. The fresh air was more soothing and it smelled of pine a bit.

Later on, we got stuck in a traffic jam. Christine said we could drop off in the middle of the road. Hency, Janbi, and I got out of the van and walked past a line of shops. Vendors asked us eagerly to buy their delicacies or wares. People of all ages and walks of life crowded the streets. Automobiles on one lane ceased from moving. The three of us approached the entrance to the park.

dscn0111Mines View Park was not just filled with visitors. It was congested. People flowed in and out of two gates. They were simpler compared to the one in The Mansion, made mostly of yellowish wood that seemingly had a varnish coating. I could hear children complaining to their parents and more vendors announcing their products. A huge welcome sign had a faded image of the Cordillera mountain range as its background. Hency, Janbi and I decided to check out a building alive with noise and movement. The first floor had shops while the second floor consisted of a museum. After climbing up there through a ladder, I saw a wide range of trinkets, wooden sculptures, indigenous clothing, weapons, and even Catholic objects of veneration. A museum caretaker kept on telling visitors not to touch the items, although these were also sold. Heading back to the welcome sign, the three of us followed a cemented pathway. Then we stopped by at a stall. Janbi asked a woman who sold ornamental plants if she had a pine tree sapling in a flower pot. He followed it up with questions about taking care of it.

dscn0119For a small fee, I could wear the traditional Igorot costume and have my photo taken. It bore a similarity to the outfits worn by the Incas of South America. After all, both cultures were shaped by life in mountainous terrain. The term ‘Igorot’ could be interpreted negatively sometimes. Just the sound of it might evoke images of a backward tribal people in the minds of lowland-dwelling Filipinos. Some had chosen the term ‘Ifugao’ instead. However, the Ifugao were only one of the several Cordillera peoples such as the Apayao, Bontoc, Ibaloi, and Kalinga. ‘Igorot’ was better to represent the ethnic groups collectively.

2 PM

After leaving Mines View Park, Hency, Janbi, and I faced the fact that our van disappeared, along with our fellows. We contacted them through mobile phone. There was no immediate reply.

The three of us spent the time looking at the things sold in another row of roadside shops. Hency and Janbi fancied trapper hats, which would keep their heads warm in their planned excursion at Mt Pulag – the highest mountain in Luzon. Gloves would be a good addition too. Hency bought a pair of slippers. Janbi and I took interest in knives with handles and cases made of wood. Even a kalis had a wooden scabbard. This wavy-bladed sword was associated with the island of Mindanao, far to the south – not a weapon used traditionally by the Igorot. Curiously, the kalis had been sold here in Baguio. Janbi and I also saw a bow, a simple wooden crossbow, and their projectiles with blunt tips for play. Among the other items sold in those shops were sweaters, tiny sculptures attached to keychains, and walis tambo – a broom with bristles made of grass – that Mom would love to have at home.

I still had no reply through text message from our companions. The three of us headed towards their likely location. Our next stop would be a place called Good Shepherd. Originally a convent, the nuns there also made delicacies such as jams that became famous well outside of Baguio. The last Good Shepherd product I bought was a jar of mango jam.

A sign warned us to be careful of low-quality turmeric tea as we arrived at the arched gateway into the Good Shepherd compound. The sun’s heat subsided and a cool breeze just blew in, adding comfort to our stroll. I felt even more relief after the three of us saw the van in the designated parking area.

The store at Good Shepherd had the ambience of a grocery store, or more like a drug store. People, most of them tourists, fell in line to buy the sweet edible items of their choice. There were multiple lanes, including a separate one to prioritize elderly customers. The scent of what I thought would be ube jam hung in the air. It was purple yam processed into a fine purée. The jam would likely be spread on a slice of bread. Fellow customers chatted not only with cashiers but also with their fellows. The bit of noise resounded in my ears. When our turn to make a transaction came, Hency purchased two jars of ube jam and one jar of strawberry jam.

3 PM

A sign on a metal grid said “Shepherd’s Gallery.” It lay at the end of what looked like a roofed basketball court without the hoops and a painted floor surface. People sat on benches. Visitors stood at the terrace, busy with their cameras in mobile phones. Hency, Janbi, and I joined them. The view here had less buildings and more mountains compared to that back at Diplomat Hotel’s terrace. The afternoon light faded gradually. This day would be over soon. I sighed amid the smiles in the faces of my two friends. I might not see them in person again for a long time. We took photos and had laughs. Every minute with them counted. Then we went back to the van.

Our group dropped off at one of the most crowded places in Baguio. Burnham Park would be bustling in this sunny afternoon on a holiday. Classes and many office-based jobs would resume tomorrow. People were making the most of the last day of respite following Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Coincidence or destiny aside, Hency and Janbi had received a good favor unexpectedly. They mentioned earlier a place around Burnham Park that sold burgers appealing to their taste buds. However, they forgot the exact location. Shortly after the three of us left the van, we came upon the burger stand miraculously. It stood outside Angelita’s Restaurant and Canteen. The stall looked more plain than flashy. Stacks of buns in a plastic bag lay on a rack. A middle-aged man with a mustache, who went by the name of Jessie, prepared to fry beef patties on a flat metal grill. At Php 30, a cheese burger was affordable. Hency and Janbi chose the one with egg and cheese that costed Php 55. Delight was evident in their faces as the couple savored every bite. Sometimes, making an effort to go back to a good thing had its worth.

4 PM

dscn0146The three of us made our way through the leisure seekers of Burnham Park. First, we came upon a children’s playground. Kids laughed and ran while enjoying the swings and slides, completely unaware of the taxes, bills, and workplace responsibilities that plagued adulthood. Then we walked along a designated bicycle lane. Those on mountain bikes sped past their counterparts on pedicabs. I could rent one for a fee of Php 55 and ride it for 30 minutes. Getting across the torrent of flesh, metal, and rubber proved to be challenging. At the end of the lane, young men practiced their adeptness with the skateboard. They performed what was called a ‘slide’ with little success.

Our stroll led us to several thrift shops, called an ukay-ukay in the Philippines, near Burnham Park. These establishments sold used or surplus clothing for a relatively affordable price. Hency sought them to find more items to wear for her Mt Pulag climb with Janbi. Later on, she found a jacket. Aside from the usual shirts and pants, we also saw shoes, backpacks, and caps. I bought a jacket for just Php 100. It would cost an average of P400 at a thrift shop back home.

5 PM

The shopping spree went on until it was time to regroup with our companions for the last leg of the tour. Hency, Janbi, and I passed by the artificial lake at Burnham Park. Boat rides gave additional enjoyment for visitors. Some of the watercraft bore the appearance of a white swan. Others looked like miniature Viking longships, complete with a seahorse’s head for a prow yet painted in a pastel color. The water shimmered in the distance. However, it actually appeared murky upon a closer look.

We chanced upon an ice cream vendor like the one back at Strawberry Farm. Each of the three of us had the strawberry and cheese-flavored frozen treat in cones. Our afternoon seemed complete as the surroundings went dim, signaling the approach of night.

6 PM

dscn0156Lion’s Head at Kennon Road served as our final stop before heading home. There was nothing much to do except take photos of the gigantic statue. The left paw with its unsheathed claws was raised. The mane seemed more of a barren hill. I simply took a snapshot. High above us, a star could be seen below a waxing moon. A line of shops had been set up next to the Lion’s Head statue. A few vendors closed their stalls already. The rest relied on their light bulbs that illuminated food items and garments. It grew dark suddenly. Some of our companions preferred to just stay inside the van. Then those who got off were summoned so we all could begin the long journey to Manila.

Those twelve hours with Hency and Janbi were some of the happiest in my life. I had my share of worries but these were no match for the beauty and joy that Baguio offered, especially with the companionship of friends. As we sat as comfortably as we could during the homeward trip, Hency compiled the videos she took and edited them creatively. Janbi shared more of his photos on social media. Looking at the road ahead lit by our van’s headlamps, I wondered where and when would I be next with these two.

Return to Mt Marami

Someone unfamiliar posted an event on my hiking buddies’ social media page, which went by the name of Akyaters Adventure Club. I clicked the Interested button. Never did I know that it would change my life significantly.

There was an event inviting me and my fellows in the social media group to climb Mt Pamitinan and Mt Binacayan on one day. It included a tour of the Wawa Dam as well. A certain Cess Olivarez served as the organizer. I found it appealing. It was a dayhike, which I preferred to overnight camping when in the mood for just leisure. Traveling from Metro Manila to Rizal province lasted about an hour, even less. On the other hand, a trip to the Cordilleras took six hours at least. I would spend less cash too.

My friends in the Akyaters Adventure Club did not seem to respond. Later on, it became apparent that I would not join them but another group of trekkers instead.

Cess scheduled the excursion on July 10, 2016. A few days before the said date, Typhoon Nepartak (named Butchoy in the Philippines) struck Taiwan. Yet the tropical storm intensified the monsoon, bringing heavy rain to my country. The participants in the hike communicated through group chat. Some had already declined to go, considering the dangers from the downpour, strong wind, and slippery ground where rescue would not come easily. Even Mom expressed her concern too. Yet on July 9, the weather turned calm and a bit sunny. There was a high chance of rain on the following day though. Courage overcame my doubts and I decided to press on.

Having lived for one year at barangay Alabang in the city of Muntinlupa, I spent the night there with friends amid a drizzle. Cess and I kept in touch through text message. Eventually, she notified me that the event would be relocated at Mt Marami in my home province of Cavite. I told her bluntly that I already went there before. It might seem unexciting but I still joined the hike. At least my companions would be different this time.

At 3 AM on the following day, I made my way through an unkempt alley, a major road with speeding trucks, and the moist metal surface of a footbridge. A 7-Eleven® convenience store was our rendezvous location. The shift from outdoor darkness to fluorescent indoor lighting felt like a glare to my eyes. I came upon three or four unmistakable hikers, judging from their backpacks and athletic attire. A chat ensued and they too were joining the trek. Cess had not arrived yet.

More of our companions arrived one by one. They already knew one another. According to Cess, the meet-up was held at Alabang in Muntinlupa as most of the participants hailed from south of Metro Manila. A couple among us was living in Laguna province. The two introduced themselves as Hency Joyce Gamara and John Vincent “JohnVi” Chua. Their companion was Aldous Moncada. Two other fellows went by the name of Sherwin “She” Mark Lomibao and Brian Gimutao. Coincidentally, my hiking buddy at the last time I climbed Mt Marami was also named Brian. I also met Jepoy Dichoso. Later on, a thin young woman with a nape-length haircut and dental braces greeted us. I finally met the event organizer.

A van served as our transport. Our hiking party numbered eleven in total so just one would do. Some excursions required two of this automobile, even more. We left Alabang past 4 AM and headed to my home province of Cavite. At a major junction notoriously plagued by vehicle congestion, our group stopped to fetch three of our fellows named Dhon Develos, Leslie Litong, and Rose Marfil. After that, our van metaphorically flew on the emptiness of the road. Then we came to Aguinaldo Highway. Illuminated roadside buildings and powerful lamp posts brought life. Minutes passed and the van entered my hometown. My companions began to doze off but sleep eluded me. Later on, we witnessed a road mishap at the municipality of General Trias. Our destination was still far based on distance but only at least an hour away due to the absence of traffic. Eventually, my eyes closed and I drifted into the unconscious while sitting inside a speeding automobile.

When I opened my eyes again, the faint light of dawn allowed us to see a dim picture of our surroundings. The commercial establishments that lined the road were gone. Grassy fields, groves of trees, and distant mountains replaced them. Some of my companions remained sleeping even though they slouched their backs on their seats. Journeys like this would keep me awake until I could not do it anymore by running out of energy.

As expected, the global positioning system and mobile apps did not indicate the accurate position of Barangay Ramirez. Joining this excursion had a purpose for me. I was at the right place and the right time with the right people. Once we saw the health center, I told the driver to take the right turn and follow the cemented road until we reach the village. During my previous trip there, the Hayok Hiking Society seemingly floundered in darkness. Yet now the early morning daylight made the short trip smoother. Then we had our van parked near the barangay hall.

Members of our trekking party registered our names at the logbook just as I did last time. I scanned the record of visitors in May. My name was there, showing it to my fellows. Then we made preparations and waited. Cess and Jepoy did some stretching. The former participated in running events like many hikers while the latter was an avid cyclist. I also had a chat with Dhon, Leslie, and Rose. Combining the names of those two women reminded me of Rose Leslie, the Scottish red-haired actress who played Ygritte in the television series Game of Thrones.

I decided to give an account of this trek through a series of videos that would be compiled and edited later. It was something new for a change. My previous excursions had been told visually through photo albums on my social media page. Then I grew fond of video editing lately. From an academic project back in college, it turned into a hobby where I could step into the shoes of a movie director.

My hiking companions cooperated with video making. I approached a group of men sitting outside the barangay hall and interviewed them about the condition of the trail. According to them, it was muddy from incessant rain brought by the typhoon. I asked our guide as well.

Our nature walk kicked off between 6 AM and 7 AM. Headlamps and flashlights were not needed this time. Cheerful words, jokes, and smiles marked the beginning of our trek. Eventually, we left the cemented road lined with houses and ventured into the untamed outdoors dominated by vegetation. We bumped into a domesticated water buffalo, or carabao, guided by its owner with a rope. Its ears kept on twitching. Despite a seemingly ferocious appearance, the farm animal only stared at us and continued it way.

Mud stuck to my shoes again and it was worse compared to my previous Mt Marami excursion. It felt like wearing an extra pair of boots, making my steps heavier. Getting dirty did not matter much. Hency, for instance, wore sandals but the lack of covering exposed her feet to blisters and even a cut from sharp edges.

The sound of chatter and laughter resounded in the stillness of our surroundings. We talked not only about our previous travels but also about our careers too. I stayed close to Cess and Jepoy. At instances I had a conversation with Dhon, Leslie, Rose, and Sherwin. My hiking companions were already a peer group who knew one another from previous excursions. They also loved to travel and explore various places within the country.

Something was different. As time passed by, the trail we followed did not resemble what I saw on my last climb there. Then our guide said we took the new trail. Visitors were off-limits from the old one as footsteps loosen the soil over time, turning its surface even muddier when it rains. This problem affected hiking spots across the Philippines in one way or another, with Mt Pulag as a famous example.

The new trail at the base of Mt Marami led us to a river. The crossing had a width of at least 20 paces. We must wade in to get across. According to the guide, the water would reach just our thighs at the deepest point of the crossing. I felt more concern for my socks getting wet than getting swept by the current or slipping. Either audacity or laziness prevented me from taking my foot garments off. I was more worried about my mobile phone getting soaked. Our hiking party stood at the bank for several minutes. We seemed a herd of wildebeest fearful of crocodiles in the river as seen on nature documentary shows. These predatory aquatic reptiles were not present at Mt Marami. However, a venomous snake might be swimming on the water surface. I saw one back in college at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, located at the foothills of Mt Makiling.

thumb_img_5137_1024We went in. The muddy soil under my feet gave way to pebbles and smooth rocks. Every step turned the puddle dirtier until the mud on my soles was washed off completely. The water reached my ankles. Then my shoes were submerged. The riverbed could not be compared to the tiled bottom of a swimming pool. Rocks varied in size. They were slippery too. One wrong move and my upper body could plunge into the cold and murky water. I would bid my mobile phone farewell for sure. I kept it in my pocket, holding it tightly as water rose above my knees and flowed steadily past my legs. My other foot groped the stony riverbed. I moved slowly but surely. Chatting with my companions also helped ease the nervousness. We all shared the struggle. Our group even stopped halfway to pose for a photo. Hency and JohnVi also remarked about the uneven surface we treaded. The other side of the river was getting closer. Then the three of us noticed a swarm of mosquitoes simply resting on the water surface. Even our presence did not disturb them. The river’s current subsided. I entered a pool formed by the random arrangement of rocks. Now the water was only at the level of my lower legs. I almost lost my balance. At that moment I flailed my arms out like a duck about to take off. Walking through this spot proved to be challenge until I stepped on to dry ground again. My first steps on the bank squeezed water out of my shoes.

The jungle, with its moist leaves and shadowy undergrowth, greeted us once again. It was not raining but our surroundings appeared wet after a downpour. The wind stirred masses of gray clouds up in the sky, which may prompt us to wear waterproof ponchos. Despite the weather, humidity blurred my eyeglasses and made me wipe the sweat off my face with a handkerchief repeatedly.

What looked like a wall of whitish gray rock stood before our path. The trail wriggled its way up it. The obstacle was not that steep but it was sloped. Then a brown horse and its rider arrived at the scene. The equine carried two baskets strapped to its left and right, like its white counterpart I saw last time. It might even be the horse that rested at the spot where cold beverages were sold. Our hiking party made way for both rider and mount. We could hear the clip-clop of hooves striking the rock-strewn ground.

thumb_img_5146_1024Less trees surrounded us at a place I recognized. It could be described as a meadow surrounded by banana and coconut trees. It was very familiar. When I joined the Hayok hikers here last May, the sun just rose from the horizon as we took a break in the faint bluish light. This time, my trekking companions and I arrived past 6 AM compared to around 5 AM on my previous excursion. The meadow erupted with cheer due to the morning sunshine. My skin felt warm. Yet the sky remained overcast.

Recording videos of our trek remained successful so far. Most of the recordings did not last more than a minute. I wanted to make a short film where the hikers would simply go on with walking, ignoring me and my mobile phone capturing a video. Yet it did not go exactly according to plan. My fellows smiled, waved their hands, and posed during a recording. The project became more of a family video. Sherwin even endorsed the company where he was working. Still, I let them be. The finished compilation was supposed to show the experience of trekking at Mt Marami in its raw reality. What my companions did while videos were recorded gave it a more human touch.

The forested section of the trail provided shade from the increasingly searing heat of the sun. It was around 8 AM. Black branches rose from the trunks and spread out like the roots did underground. They held the clumps of bright green leaves that shimmered in the sunlight. Hency exclaimed upon seeing a tree that looked perfect in the background of a snapshot. We posed beside it one by one with our guide taking the photos.

thumb_img_5172_1024We followed the dirt trail until we came upon a stream that ran across our path. I did not remember it before. Then it became clear to me. My previous Mt Marami hike took place near the end of the dry season. The rainy season began in June. There was also a downpour yesterday. This spot used to be the brook with a ‘bridge’ of pebbles. Now it swelled of foamy rushing water. Tips of rocks that stood out of this miniature rapids indicated where we would cross. The stream actually was less intimidating than it looks. Water only rose to our ankles. However, I had to maintain my balance while walking slowly on submerged rocks. Spreading my arms outward helped. After getting to the other side, I recorded a video of this stream while waiting for a few companions.

Eventually, our trekking party arrived at the makeshift shack by a river. This was where four hiking buddies and I had some rest and chat on a bench under a tree. It felt like having a flashback. Someone set up a ladder to access a low-lying branch of a huge tree close to the riverbank. Instead of a battered hut, I saw a table along with seats made of wood panels and cut logs, placed under reused waterproof material supported by bamboo poles. Yet there was a hut-like structure nearby. Hency climbed atop the ladder, sat on the branch, and asked our buddies to take pictures of her. Sherwin followed suit.

The guide offered coconuts and their juice at once. Last time, I had it in the afternoon on the return hike. A well-built man residing in this area used his bolo knife to punch a hole into each coconut. After we drank all of the juice, he cracked the hollow sphere open for us to snack on the tender plant-based flesh. Aldous posed for a photo with an empty yet intact coconut in a humorous way. We laughed casually. Sherwin joined him in  providing comedy.

Another man was fishing at the river with hook and line. The greenish water did not rage but flowed calmly. It shimmered and also cast upside-down images of nearby trees. The fellow and Dhon had a chat about freshwater fish that can be caught there.

Our break lasted about fifteen minutes before continuing towards the summit. The weather turned fair as the sun kept on ascending. Heat and humidity made me perspire. I wanted to immerse in cold and pristine water. Then we heard a rushing sound typical of a torrent. An even wider stream ran its course between us and our destination. I felt a bit of frustration, wondering how many more fast-flowing streams must we cross. Yet it was thrilling at the same time. Somehow a hike would be more enjoyable with less comfort and more adventure. I quickened my pace. Then I dipped my feet into the water with a current that might cause me to stumble. It did not. An uneven surface prompted me to carefully consider every step. I did not mind getting wet. I just had to avoid slipping and a resulting concussion. Crossing this stream took a longer time than the other one before our hiking party had coconut juice and a break.

Past the body of rushing water, the soles of my shoes got muddy again. They just got unintentionally rinsed earlier. The feeling of making progress with a dilemma and then abruptly going back to square one sank into me. I trod the reddish soft soil devoid of plant growth. The trail went straight ahead, flanked by ghostly trees and their silence. A man in his forties was going down the mountain. A few lifeless fish hung and swayed slightly from his hand. One of them looked like an eel. A conversation ensued. According to him, the fish would be cooked in coconut milk for lunch.

The hike became more of a walk down a city street than a grueling trek through jungle. We moved faster too as the trail went a bit downhill. Our stroll turned into a brief jog. Life had its ups and downs, especially in an outdoor adventure. Moments later, leafy bushes choked our path. It was like wading into a green lake that absorbed carbon dioxide and released oxygen. We all stayed close to one another. The guide could have hacked those bushes away with his sickle. It would be unnecessary and damaging too.

Arriving at the open and scenic part of Mt Marami where we could see surrounding ridges, my legs had more difficulty enduring the strain from a long hike. The humidity made me feel more tired. Jepoy complained about fatigue too. Aldous was walking several meters behind me and asked if there was a ‘forever’ up ahead. He meant a romantic partner to spent time with for eternity in a poetic sense, hence the adverb. I yelled none but added that I was not sure. Cess replied loudly to Aldous that finding it here was improbable. “No forever” was a popular phrase among Filipinos at that time, especially those undergoing setbacks in romance.

There was no vendor of cold drinks in sight when we came to that familiar tree with crude benches underneath it. The members of our hiking party seemed exhausted. While either sitting or standing, we also discussed whether to have lunch at this spot. It was only past 10 AM but filling our stomachs would give us much needed energy to reach the summit later. The matter was settled without objection. Two banana leaves were laid on the ground. Then we placed boiled rice in the middle, which was followed by canned tuna, meat dishes, and a few hotdogs. We sat around this feast for hikers, kilometers away from the nearest home-cooked food establishment called a karinderya in the Philippines. This manner of having a meal while bonding as a group was customary. They ate with disposable spoon and fork, even one’s hand covered by a small plastic bag for hygiene purposes. Meanwhile, our guide sat on a chopped bit of log and sent text messages with his mobile phone. We asked him to join us for lunch. The fellow simply replied that he already had his meal. Lunchtime ended with the banana leaves almost clear of food before they were disposed. We chatted and had a short break before moving on with the trek.

Baseball caps protected our heads from the direct onslaught of noontime heat. A few of my companions even wore sunglasses and concealed their faces with scarves. Jepoy put on the mask he used for cycling. It had a stark lower half of a skull on black. I told him that mask would look better with red-tinted sunglasses and a headphone after recalling Simon “Ghost” Riley from the Call of Duty video game series. I noticed that JohnVi wore gloves too.

Just as we got to the grassy meadow with a closer view of the rock formations and summit, the winds stirred sinister gray clouds from nowhere. We all stared at the sky, powerless against the abrupt change in weather. The lighting turned dimmer. The surrounding temperature dropped. My skin felt it. Rain was imminent. Members of our hiking party brought ponchos as a precaution with Typhoon Nepartak still bringing rainfall to our country. We kept on walking while expressing concern over a likely downpour. Those clouds eventually filled the sky, even concealing the summit in a haze. I had a vivid flashback of my climb at Mt Tabayoc and the complete absence of scenic views on that event. Winds shook the leaves incessantly. It looked like more of a storm than just rain. We would wear those ponchos for sure.

Later on, raindrops fell from the dreary sky. We took those ponchos out of our bags hurriedly and put them on. Mine was neon orange. It was a sort of a gift from my aunt who was living in the United States. That of Aldous shared the same color of mine but thicker. Hency and JohnVi wore the exactly same ponchos. The silvery surface of their rain gear transformed the couple into astronauts, perhaps even extraterrestrial visitors. Dhon improvised a black garbage bag as a poncho. He asked for a pair of scissors to cut slits for his arms. Leslie did not mind getting drenched in the rain. Sherwin took his shirt off.

The tree canopy overhead reduced the rain into drizzle. Then we emerged into an open patch of ground. Our guide stopped walking. He showed us a grassy spot to our left that served as a campsite. It was relatively close to the summit. The mist did not disappear. Even if our trekking party reached the top, the weather would deny us a view of Mt Pico de Loro and the coastline. We decided to stay at the campsite for some time until the sky begins to clear. Taking quirky group photos while being careful not to step on cow dung became our amusement.

After about ten minutes, we made the final push towards the summit. My previous worry about the steep dirt path there turning muddy was now a reality. Fortunately, there was another way up. Cess and Jepoy went ahead, scaling a rock face. It was half – perhaps just one-third – the height of a typical artificially-constructed indoor climbing wall. There were no bumps though. Regardless, our fingers pressed firmly against the solid surface. It was not slippery despite the rain. Getting through this obstacle took about a minute.

Aldous, Hency, JohnVi, and I posed for solo photos on top of a protruding rock formation. We moved carefully, crouching more than standing. Falling off this spot would mean a sheer and fatal drop. The gray mist served as a dismal background. Once done, the four of us finally ascended to the summit.

Clouds obscured our view of the surrounding landscape, as expected. I was worried that the view would stay like this and our group would go down the mountain disappointed. We could see only a bleak emptiness. It stopped raining for a while ago. Yet moisture hung in the air. The wind kept blowing. Its sound reverberated inside my ears with the noise of a space rocket upon lift off. The skin of my face grew numb. Earlier, the relatively thick fabric of my red plaid shirt made me sweatier but now it kept me from shivering. I looked like a lumberjack too. Eventually, our hiking party assembled at the summit. We waited patiently for the mist to disappear. We were determined. For the meantime, I interviewed Dhon as part of my video-making project. Some of our companions stood up, yelling in single syllables due to heightened emotions after reaching the summit of Mt Marami. We all nudged one another jokingly to shout out feelings deep within ourselves.

The Silyang Bato rock formation was still visible from the summit. My fellow trekkers went there in batches, accompanied by the guide. I decided not to join them, saying I already did it before. A part of me hated to go over that sheer gap on the ground again. Instead, I volunteered to take their photos.

One hour passed. The mist began to break apart. Chunks of it drifted away, swept by the same winds that shook Rose’s hair. Then we had glimpses of a dark green landscape far beneath us and beyond the mountain. Our patience paid off. We cheered. The joy of getting rewarded for waiting simply could not be described. Our cameras and mobile phones sprung into action. I could see the coast and Mt Pico de Loro, blurred by wispy clouds that floated at the same altitude as where we were. The overcast sky brought a gloomier mood this day in contrast to my previous climb here. I stood up and looked towards the sea. The wind blew with all its might. It could have robbed me of my breath and knocked me off my feet. Yet it also seemed to uproot certain unpleasant memories and thoughts from the realm of my mind. I welcomed the numbing cold. My shirt and pants behaved like a flag flying on a gusty day. Then I felt better. Of course, I did not slip at the least. My feet stayed firm on rock, just as my inner self should. No matter how ugly my experiences were, I must be resilient.

We chatted, made jokes, shared stories, and took snapshots. I remembered having a conversation with Cess, Jepoy, and JohnVi on separate moments. Other trekkers also began to arrive at the summit. We spotted them on the trail with their respective guides. As they had their turn to appreciate the summit, our hiking party started the long walk home sometime between 2 PM and 3 PM.

The descent came with a drizzle. Wearing my poncho felt uncomfortably hot that I decided to take it off, fold it into a mess, and put it in my bag. Then it was like taking a shower with the valve turned on just slightly. My plaid shirt was completely wet.

No matter how quick our pace was due to moving downhill, it seemed we could not get closer to Barangay Ramirez. Our party avoided slippery rocks on a wooded area, passed by the tree where we had our lunch earlier, and crossed two streams that only existed during the rainy season. We were keen to end this trek, have a bath, and go home. We were very tired. To make matters worse, Hency sustained a nasty blister on her foot. It caused pain in every step. She kept on going with JohnVi at her side. Later on, we stopped briefly at the spot by a river that came with a table, seats, and a ladder. There was a horse. Its handler agreed to have Hency ride the equine. In turn, she would pay him as a token of gratitude more than as a fee. Hency’s situation could be considered as an emergency. Aside from the fatigue and minor injuries, the mud also added to our troubles. Extra weight on our footwear meant more difficulty with walking. Time passed by. The surroundings got darker. There was a remote possibility of nightfall catching up with us while still on the trail.

Our guide mentioned a bridge that we could cross instead of wading into the river again. However, choosing this route would take us a longer time to return to the village. We pressed on. Eventually, I heard the unmistakable sound of flowing water. Our trekking party found ourselves at the river once again. A few companions shared my bewilderment and complaint. In the end, we had no choice but to cross the river. At least we could go home sooner. My legs felt even more strained after dipping them into the murky water. I hoped that I would not stumble. Seconds passed slowly as I struggled to reach the opposite bank. I regretted wearing shoes. I should have preferred sandals if I knew about the river crossing before the excursion. The water reached my thighs before subsiding gradually. I sighed loudly when it was over.

The dirt road would lead us straight to the houses and village hall of Barangay Ramirez. Getting my lower extremities wet made me exhausted to the point that I could not walk non-stop for more than one minute. Later, that limit went down to 30 seconds. It was 5 PM. We thought of outpacing the dusk. We did not. I felt even more discouraged after lagging behind the whole group. If it was a race, I would finish last. Only Aldous and JohnVi were walking several meters away in front of me. The rest were simply gone. I asked the two to wait up for me. They agreed warmly. JohnVi even lent me a hiking staff to ease the immense strain in my legs. It helped. Then Hency also accompanied us, sitting cheerfully on top of that horse. We also chatted with the handler. It was a long and painful walk back to the barangay hall, except for Hency.

We caught up with our companions at the barangay hall. The voice of a priest leading a congregation in a nearby chapel resounded all over the place as I washed the mud and dirt off my shoes. Then I had a conversation with Leslie and Rose as I waited for my turn to take a bath. Once all of us donned a fresh set of clothes after washing up, the homeward journey began.

Driving in nighttime darkness was more challenging compared to doing it during daytime. The van went off course, ending up at the municipality of Tanza. We turned back. Then we finally arrived at the main junction of Trece Martires city. Our plan to dine on grilled chicken with unlimited servings of rice could not be accomplished. The establishment ran out of our desired order. We headed to another branch. It was filled with fellow customers. About fifteen minutes passed before we had a vacant table. Our dinner took place past 8 PM. After that, we finally made our way to our respective homes with the hunger for both food and adventure satisfied.

At first, I felt reluctant to return to a mountain I visited only two months ago. Yet I did not regret my decision. In fact, my companions in the second trek at Mt Marami became my friends and I had more travels with them later on. This event in turn paved the way for me to meet their other acquaintances. It was truly a life-changing event.

[Below is the final output of my amateur videos documenting the Mt Marami trek]

 

On the Purpose of Mountain Climbing

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“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air, and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

David McCullough, Jr., American teacher during a high school graduation in 2012

Since I have taken interest in nature walks and mountain climbing, posts and events regarding this outdoor activity have become prevalent on my Facebook® page. I share photos of my adventures too. My friends sometimes ask me where I trekked previously or where the next getaway will be. Of course, I have encountered this question a number of times – “why do you climb mountains?” Why would I spend time, and also money, to travel to a seemingly uninhabited place and get myself tired at the end of the day?

Different people do something for different reasons. Take trekking as an example.

Hiking has grown into a popular activity in the country of my birth. Especially for those who have not tried it before, they do it simply for the experience. Doing new things and then succeeding in them brings a powerful sense of fulfillment. Walking for hours on an uphill trail with only momentary breaks does sap energy and cause aching of the legs. But when the summit is reached to find a breath-taking landscape, that energy gauge meter fills up in an instant. The trek is worth it. Still, it depends whether fog does not obscure the view. No matter what happens, first-time hikers get an idea why some people visit the mountains once or even twice a month. Then they decide whether to not go on an excursion soon due to weariness or to do it again and feel enlivened.

At more than one occasion in the past, I replied to a friend that I climbed a mountain to find myself. This reason can be heard often in one form or another. We can be unsure of ourselves. We may have trouble with discerning our personality and setting our goals. The hustle and bustle of urban living, the stress from work, and the influences of our peers cloud our thoughts further. What we might need is to spend even just one day at the mountain with its tranquil ambience, removing those distractions from our mind. Having the company of other people, especially those we do not know personally, can reveal more of ourselves through social interaction. Principles and experiences are shared too, shaping us further as a whole.

Some individuals also join outdoor excursions to make new friends. Nature hikes can be organized involving a group of friends or even complete strangers. We get to know fellow trekkers during the assembly before a hike. Then we chat with them while enduring the challenges of the terrain and the limits of the human body. We feel their pain. There is also empathy in joy after reaching the summit and descending from the mountain safely. Even long after the event, we maintain communication with our newfound friends thanks to the convenience from mobile devices and social media.

Even romantic partners can be sought by climbing mountains. Two people may find hiking as a common interest and develop affinity toward each other during a climb. In other cases, a person in search for a potential life partner may randomly bump into and meet a fellow trekker who sees the good in him or her. With optimism, perhaps they may nurture feelings for one another and end up as a couple.

There are certain people who participate in treks to enrich his or her passion in the arts. Scenery from the base to the summit and back inspire awe that stimulate the senses. It can help us paint a landscape, take the perfect snapshot, compose a poem, or even write a song.

Whatever our reason is for hiking up a mountain, we do it to improve our lives and transform into a better person in the process.