Bakasyunan Revealed

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

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

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


Bakasyunan

Tanay, Rizal province, Philippines

Uniform Mike Romeo

0724 hrs, June 10th 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Ferdinand Blumentritt

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

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

Henry Ware Lawton

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

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

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

William Howard Taft

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

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

Mt Purgatory Traverse: Before and After

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metal Mt Mangagew sign: before and after

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

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

The tough uphill road to the farm: before and after

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

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

The slope just past the farm: before and after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt Pack summit photo. Credit of Aileen Epiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt Kom-kompol group picture: before and after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shed at journey’s end: before and after 

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

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

 

On Tents and Camping

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

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

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

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

 

Stars Covered by Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Return to Mt Daraitan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos also courtesy of Ren Emradura)

 

The Relentless Wanderer Marks its First Year

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

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

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