Souvenir shops, food establishments, and residential houses lined the road by a parking area in Sagada, Mountain Province. The high altitude kept us cool even at 1 PM, otherwise I would sweat profusely and say a word or two about the scorching heat. A pile of bamboo hiking sticks rested on a concrete surface. Each of us grabbed one to use later. Our female guide arrived, introducing herself as Diyewpiyew. (I based the spelling on pronunciation as during that time I did not consider asking her about it.) She spent her entire life in this scenic place and was aged in her fifties if not sixties. Our group of high school classmates gathered into a circle and listened to her briefing on how long the hike should take and what to see along the way.
Jeralyn Rose “Jera” de Ocampo organized the four-day excursion at the municipality of Sagada, a popular destination for both local and foreign tourists. She was accompanied by her boyfriend Adrian Enriquez. They met each other years after our batch graduated from high school. My former classmates who participated in this getaway on the last weekend of February 2016 were Candice Gaspi, Abigail “Abie” Gonzales, Michael Magcalas, Luke Reginio, Jenel Sabucohan, and Frances “Ces” Urbano.
Our group crossed the road. Then we descended into a cemented set of stairs. Recalling my previous treks on rough mountain trails, I breathed in the cool air, smiled, and talked to my companions enthusiastically. Before us lay a winding trail still made of concrete. It offered a smoother surface and did not get muddy from rain. Slopes, green from lush vegetation, stood on our left. To our right we could see an expanse of hills, groves of trees, rice paddies, and farming communities. Clouds cast slow-moving shadows that dimmed entire hillsides.
Abie’s legs started aching. She had not been hiking for some time but complained about the strain in a humorous way. Abie insisted that we should press forward. Candice, Ces, and Jenel yelled our class’s chants for stage performance competitions back in high school. Luke and Michael had a trivial chat with Diyewpiyew.
The path went downward but at certain points it ascended a bit. Tall grass swayed in the breeze as gray rocks popped out of the ground. The occasional pine trees grew way above them. A village then appeared far below us. I imagined the distant power cables as ziplines that could bring us there. Diyewpiyew said we would reach it after 15 to 30 minutes. As our group from another province down south approached the small community, the houses looked closer as time passed by.
Several women were selling sweet bread, rice cakes, and deep fried bananas on sticks that they lay on a table when we entered the village. They chatted in Tagalog and English as well as their mother tongue. The path through two-story houses was narrow that it only accommodated pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles. We smiled at residents and even greeted them. Children gathered to play on this laid-back afternoon. I could see a domestic dog on every street corner. Mostly docile canines, they seemed to thrive in the rural communities of the Cordilleras. We passed by a convenience store, a public restroom, and more homes. Then we came upon a wheelbarrow suspended on a cable as our feet stomped on whitish powder. Diyewpiyew confirmed that this area had small-scale mining.
After leaving the village, the cemented path gave way to a dirt trail. Yet our group had a breath-taking view of rice terraces to our left and a forested hill to our right. Taking a walk on this location in Mountain Province under the light blue skies of a sunny yet cool afternoon flushed all of my worries away. I cherished every second of being surrounded by this landscape. We stopped for a while to take photos. Ces made the most of her trusty Go-Pro camera. Then our party ventured into rice paddies.
Raised compacted dirt served as our trail that could only support one person. We walked in single file. Fellow hikers from another traveling party amassed behind us as my companions and I moved carefully. Beside the trail lay grayish mud that appeared as wet concrete. Rice seedlings sprouted from it. Reddish algae also flourished in the still water. One of the paddies looked more like a swamp due to excess algal growth. Surely, everyone disliked slipping and falling into the mud. I pressed forward with my arms held out sideways as if I was a tightrope walker with the hiking staff in one hand. The way also became uneven, resembling the ‘assault’ part of mountain climbing.
The seemingly tranquil ambience was broken by a commotion. Luke lost his footing and stepped into the mud, which went to just below one of his knees. He pulled out his leg and revealed a bare foot. His slipper was left in the murky mixture of water and soft soil. Diyewpiyew submerged her hand and felt for it. The mud seemed alive and hid Luke’s slipper for it to virtually disappear. But the guide did not give up. After a few minutes, she felt the piece of footwear and grabbed it into the air. We cheered as if a treasure hoard was found. Despite the slight mishap, Luke retained a gleaming smile.
Past the rice paddies, we caught sight of a makeshift stall that was isolated in the middle of this dramatic stretch of land. Wooden poles supported tarpaulin that was set up as a roof. Two women sold bottled beverages, bread, rice cakes, deep-fried rolls, and hard-boiled eggs to hikers who felt a need to eat and drink. We stopped to rest for a while as Jera and Adrian bought snacks.
The next leg of our hike involved walking on white boulders to cross a stream. Grasses faded into a huge gully that featured innumerable gray rocks. Gently flowing water ran its course in the middle like a blood vessel of the earth itself. Then I realized why this place was ideal for agriculture manifested in rice terraces. Diyewpiyew said we only had to follow the stream to get to Bomod-ok Falls. The hiking sticks helped us stay upright while making our way on top of boulders.
At the end of the crossing lay a trail that led into a gorge. There I met a couple from France and greeted them with what I remembered from my French language classes back in college. The path was cemented again. We had verdant leaves and solid rock as a wall along the way. Our group kept on strolling until the trail branched out to a hanging bridge on our right. Water pipes had been placed across the gorge, suspended in mid-air and then attached to a slope. They reminded me of power lines over an urban landscape but this time they seemed to be the opposite.
More stalls sold food, drinks, slippers, and even shorts to visitors at the point we approached Bomod-ok Falls. Then we saw it at a distance. Appearing as a tied-up curtain, water descended from the rock face strewn with overhanging vegetation. The curtain of droplets landed on channels on stone that ended into a turquoise pool. Jumbled voices from dozens of tourists echoed with the sound of raging water. Our fellow visitors navigated the rocky base of the waterfall, posed for photos, sat near the pool, and took a dip. I could see eagerness in the faces of my friends.
A line of people sat while relaxing or chatting as our group headed towards the inviting pool of pristine water. Upon getting there, we had to tread carefully on the slippery surfaces of boulders before we could immerse. I left my mobile phone with Diyewpiyew. It should see more years ahead rather than stop working under the water or crack open on a rock. The warmhearted guide looked after our gadgets along with footwear, bags, and jackets. Then we went in.
The cold water reminded me of that unforgettable bath in the river at Mt Manalmon. This time, I only felt happiness as high school classmates reunited for an adventure of our lives. Abbie and Luke submerged themselves completely. Michael immersed into the water too. We shivered while Frances and Jenel hesitated to join in. Candice acted as a river nymph. There were laughs, shrieks, and cheers. Our legs even felt the raw power of water rushing through gaps among the rocks in front of the pool. Then we all sat atop a boulder like a group of sea lions basking in the sun. With Ces’s Go-Pro, we posed for a groupie.
Our group of friends spent 20 more minutes at the base of the waterfalls. Then we retrieved our stuff from Diyewpiyew and she accompanied us on the way back. I had better appreciation of the guides who did everything to keep trekkers happy and safe. The hike from the parking area to Bomod-ok Falls took two hours. Without flashlights or headlamps, we did not want to be out on the trail when darkness fell. As the sun began to set at nearly 4 PM, I wondered how exciting the following day’s activities would be.