Braving the Unexplored

Traveling alone sometimes meant going into the unknown. On May 22, 2016 and the previous evening, I had to spend the night in unfamiliar territory, join a trek with unknown people, and survive weather conditions I never experienced before.

While using Facebook®, I stumbled upon an event inviting people to climb Mt Marami. Located in my home province of Cavite, traveling would be much less of a problem. However, I had not ventured into the municipality of Maragondon before. I also was not sure how to get there. My plan involved asking for directions and relying on wit.

Mt Marami stands at 405 meters above sea level, which is relatively low. Some parts of Cavite, particularly near the coast, are forested and mountainous yet the peaks are not as high as those further north of the capital city of Manila. A sunny and clear sky means hot and humid weather. Mt Marami has a trail difficulty of 3/9. It suits not only beginners in hiking but also seasoned trekkers preparing for a tough climb with a difficulty of 6/9 and above. Majestic rock formations serve as its main attraction. Also standing nearby is a landmark called Silyang Bato, which is Tagalog for ‘stone chair.’

I packed essential trekking stuff in my large brown backpack and began the journey past 4 PM in a jeepney. The sun dipped gradually below the horizon as the surroundings turned dimmer. Night fell when I arrived at the town of Indang. The journey lasted more than two hours. A security guard told me I should have headed to Trece Martires city as getting to Maragondon from there was easier. Nevertheless, I remained optimistic and looked forward to an adventure. I rode in a motor tricycle briefly to a gas station. A public transport automobile known in the Philippines as a multicab waited for passengers bound for the town of Naic. It was the last trip for the day. Fortunately, I got in on time, squeezed among male passengers who had their farming tools. Then I was traveling at night on a lonely road surrounded mostly by rice paddies and pasture. The farmer folk in that vehicle kept on talking and laughing yet they seemed suspicious. Anything could happen. Later, I dropped off at a junction where a tricycle would take me to Maragondon. A young adult female passenger from that multicab accompanied me in a noisy ride. Then she got out and headed for home. I asked the driver if we could go straight to Barangay (village of) Talipusngo for an extra fee. He agreed. We stopped by at a gas station first. Minutes passed lazily as the tricycle sped past residential houses, groves of trees, and grassy patches of ground. Then I did not realize we already passed by the barangay hall where I could spend the night. It became clear after asking for directions. We turned back, followed the road, and found the building. I bid the helpful driver farewell and paid him as agreed. It was around 9 PM.

The well-lit cemented village hall looked empty. Stillness surrounded me under a clear evening sky. Then a man in his sixties came out of the door smiling. I introduced myself as a hiker and asked for overnight accommodation. He agreed. The fellow was also a kagawad, or a councilor in the barangay. The building’s interior offered the comforts of a middle-class Filipino home. I watched television with the kagawad as the two of us talked about Mt Marami, my previous travels, and pieces of our respective lives. At 10 PM, I decided to sleep or at least catch some of it. The couch became my bed. Still, it was more comfortable than the inside of a tent or on top of a large rock. The kagawad slept in another room on a bed made of bamboo. Tiredness from wandering earlier made me doze off sooner.

Since last night, I maintained communication with the event’s organizer who went by the name of Darenn Rodriguez. The meet-up would take place in Quezon City but I declined to go there, saying I was already residing in Cavite. I could head to Maragondon first and join them on their way to Mt Marami. With my mobile phone, I sent text messages notifying Darenn where I could meet them.

Waking up at 2 AM, the kagawad and I were accompanied by a nature guide. Each of us enjoyed a hot cup of instant coffee. Then I used their amazingly clean restroom with white tiles, a porcelain toilet, and plenty of water. After that, I sat on a bench just outside the building and waited patiently.

The glow from automobile headlamps indicated that the hiking party would be passing by the barangay hall. Darenn texted me they just passed by a rural area. I replied that they were getting closer to our rendezvous point. Later on, I saw the headlamps. I waved my arm. The two vans slowed down and stopped. The tinted side window of the first van slid down. A man asked me if I was Marvin. I nodded. Then he introduced himself as Darenn. I thanked the kagawad for his warm hospitality before accompanying Darenn on the van’s front seat.

Most of my fellow hikers were sleeping. Darenn remained awake, guiding our driver under the cover of darkness. Then I realized our start-off point was not in Maragondon but the adjacent municipality of Magallanes. After two decades of living in Cavite, I did not know this place existed until I participated in this trek. We passed by a bridge undergoing improvements in infrastructure. Rural scenery surrounded us until we reached a church. Lights from a nearby 7-Eleven® convenience store, which was open round-the-clock, served a welcoming sight for travelers when the sun had not risen yet. We asked the security guard there how to get to Barangay Ramirez. Then we followed the concrete road past the church.

We could not locate Barangay Ramirez. The Global Positioning System (GPS) and map-related apps of my companions’ mobile devices gave directions but they were simply inaccurate. What was supposed to be the village was nothing but two or three houses by the road. It was far from a tight-knit community. After the drivers of the two vans had some difficulty in reversing the vehicles and turning back, we retraced our way. Fluorescent lights illuminated a clinic and we sought help from its staff. According to them, the entrance to Barangay Ramirez could be found near another health center that our group passed by earlier. We found the said building later on, along with a road to our left that we took.

The cement beneath our van’s rubber tires turned into dirt. Groups of houses lay before us. Darenn’s contact person texted us that we arrived indeed at Barangay Ramirez. Then we saw him. He led us to the barangay hall where our hiking party would register first.

I emerged from the vehicle with a burst of energy and a grin. Fellow participants came out feeling either eager or sleepy. In total, we numbered between 20 and 30 or perhaps even more. After writing our names in the records of those who climbed Mt Marami from here, the entire group formed into a circle. Thus began a rather lengthy process of introducing ourselves one by one. Names were not enough. It was the moment I met Mark Tolin and Remedios ‘Rem’ Cabillas. I had a better look at my companions. Most of them were aged in the twenties. The event group went under the name of Hayok Hiking Society.

At 5 AM, the trek towards the summit of Mt Marami commenced. Headlamps and flashlights lit our way. The sunrise would brighten our surroundings one hour later. Our trekking group had a easygoing start on a cemented path with one-story residential houses along it. Then we left the sanctuary offered by a human settlement. A dirt trail led us to a wooded area. It rained there yesterday afternoon and mud stuck to my shoes.

I decided to accompany a group of four friends named Arlaine ‘Leng’ Biag, Demi Dimatera, John Brian Estares, and Ramona ‘Ram’ Hernandez. Leng and Ram both graduated from the University of the Philippines, which was my alma mater except I studied in another campus. Brian and Demi hailed from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. The two universities were known for political activism. I chatted with the four of them. We shared details about our careers and interests. Later on, I became less of a stranger.

The guides told our party to stick together as one and avoid scattering. There had been frequent reports of visitors getting lost on the trail at Mt Marami. At one point along a brook, I was in the middle of a long line of hikers when the person ahead of me quickened the pace and disappeared from plain sight. The path ahead forked to the left and to the right. I was unsure where to go. Those with me suggested to wait for the guide at our rear, who appeared sooner and showed us the way.

The bluish light of dawn enabled us to see more of the surroundings. It prompted us to turn off our light-emitting gadgets. Yet it was shady due to the trees.13260168_997582843652128_2240852069908758070_n We kept on walking. The excursion felt more like a hike through farmland than through woodland. The sun peeked over a mountain. Our trekking party stopped for a rest among coconut and banana trees. We drank water, took snapshots, and chatted merrily. Time passed subtly as the sunlight grew more intense.

Later on, the Hayok hikers entered the forest once again. Some trees had a narrow trunk while some had it thick. Vegetation grew abundantly by the trail. The ground was not level but not steep too. Every step came with mud building up on the soles of our shoes and sandals. With the absence of water to wash it off, we rubbed our footwear on rocks and leaves from time to time. Still, I felt grateful because the trail did not have a slope of 60 degrees. I was not panting. Yet I perspired continuously. The increased humidity became more of a concern than the accumulating weariness in my legs. I was not tired yet. Having the company of Brian, Demi, Leng, and Ram lifted my spirits too. The challenges of a nature walk would foster camaraderie between complete strangers as they share the experience and help each other till the journey’s end.

13241132_997583316985414_3062084693487843341_nGrass and bushes grew along a dirt path wide enough for two people – or animals – to walk side by side. A white horse carried a woman wearing a turquoise shirt. Two baskets made of woven plant material hung from the sides of the saddle. A rope was attached to the beast of burden’s halter, held by a man walking behind it. He guided the horse and kept it calm at the same time. The equine also had its mane trimmed. We greeted the man and woman, presumably a couple, with a good morning. Then they continued their way, moving well ahead of us.

As the hour hand of my wristwatch crept towards the number seven, the surrounding air felt hotter. My scalp turned sweaty. My hair became moist. This was made worse by wearing a baseball cap with a woodland camouflage pattern utilized by hunters, not soldiers. I took the headgear off and fanned myself with its brim for a moment.

Our hiking party came upon a shack just off a section of the dirt road bordered by a fence made of branches and barbed wire. Darenn asked his fellow Hayok climbers whether they wanted to take a break at this spot. It was time for some rest. Ram shared bread too. The five of us had light breakfast. Our respite lasted for about ten minutes before pressing on.

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From left: Ram, Leng, Demi, Brian, and The Blogger eating bread during a break.

Streams and brooks flowed calmly and silently around us. Rocks lay on the banks like gray-colored turtles sleeping within their seemingly impenetrable shells. The chirping of birds could be heard sometimes. Mt Marami was alive but I did not sense it through movement. The surroundings remained still.

13239964_997585160318563_6992603233232677095_nMy trekking companions at the front slowed down and I wondered why. They were crossing a brook that ran on a shady spot. I got closer. It looked more of a large puddle but the guide said it would flow with energy when it rains. The water was clear enough to cast a reflection. Pebbles and smooth rocks surrounded it. To my left, they were accumulated for us to get across.

The jungle was not dense. Later in our hike, it gave way to cultivated vegetation such as coconut trees. Only one of the four sides of a makeshift hut had a wall. The structure was constructed with bamboo and its roofing consisted of heavy water-repellent cloth. We decided to take another short break there. Brian, Demi, Leng, Ram and I managed to sit side by side on a bench built under a tree. Benches were limited so some of our companions sat on large rocks. Trees provided enough shade for all of us.

Getting back on the trail, the surroundings became untamed again. Hardwood trees rose from the bushes and undergrowth like guardians of the forest. Branches were tangled over our heads. Clusters of bamboo deterred visitors from venturing deep into the wilderness. The brown dirt path stood against a seemingly infinite mass of green. It was rougher than before. For some of my fellow trekkers, every step increased the accumulating fatigue in their lower extremities. The sun rose higher. Trees reduced the searing sunshine into dappled light but it did not help with the humidity. Brian and Demi stopped for a drink. Then I felt a bit thirsty too. Earlier, Brian and I refilled our bottles with water that dripped profusely from a pipe several meters off the trail. The guide said it was drinkable. Human habitation did not exist around the place so his statement made sense.

Eventually, we caught sight of Mt Marami itself. I was staring at a verdant ridge beyond an expanse of tropical forest. Parts of the mountain had exposed limestone rock. The summit seemed close, bringing a sigh of relief.

Sweat oozed from my entire face as the sun’s heat intensified. I wiped it off with a handkerchief. My legs did not ache yet despite nearly three hours of walking. The Hayok trekkers needed five-minute breaks. At this point, it became evident who among us had better stamina. Despite the arduous walk, the landscape mesmerized us as we got higher up Mt Marami. A combination of happiness and inner peace overtook me. For someone living among residential houses and business establishments, the sight of nothing but trees stretching towards the horizon gave a new perspective of the bigger world. As we marched towards the summit, I also took the opportunity to let out my frustrations with unrequited love. Brian could relate. It was a trend known in the Philippines as a hugot. I uttered insightful sentences that had a subliminal meaning related to romance. Additionally, I just got unemployed after my workplace department went through dissolution by the end of April. Kenneth Fontarum and Kristine ‘Kaye’ Carpio, who introduced me to mountain climbing, were in another department and I would only see them during excursions like this.

13245272_997586526985093_2709208971420470624_nTwo women sold bottled water and fizzy drinks cooled in foam boxes wrapped with light brown plastic tape. One of them rode the horse that passed by us on the dirt path earlier. In fact, such a four-legged creature stood nearby. It was dun, which in equine terms having a whitish tan coat, while the one we encountered previously was all white. The horse simply did not react to our presence. On the other hand, we flocked around the vendors and bought refreshing beverages. Every peso counted. My fellows also sat in the shade of the tree that sheltered the two women from the weather. Neglect likely torn down a nearby shack into ruin. It had no roof and only a portion of the walls remained. Minutes passed and some of our companions were hesitant to leave this spot. Yet we pushed towards the summit.

Bushes and hardwood trees kept their distance from the trail as only grass grew beside it at a meadow. It was far from an alpine meadow with a full bloom of flowers in spring. Nevertheless, I felt more at ease at this open patch of land compared to an area choked by foliage. We also had a better glimpse of Mt Marami and other mountains surrounding it. Then my companions stopped for a while. The gray rock formation at a distance contrasted against its green surroundings and a light blue sky. It appeared as a fortress in the middle of nowhere. One rock formation looked strikingly similar to a castle tower. My newfound friends and I got mesmerized and we took photos of the landmark. It was at this point that I got to know Mark Tolin more. The two of us had a brief but worthwhile chat not only about job experiences but also about video games. I also met Roenne ‘Wen’ de Guzman.

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Mark (far left) and Darenn (center) at the meadow on our way to the summit.

The tropical heat did not subside as we made our way towards the summit. Eventually, the Hayok hikers stopped to take a break at a bamboo grove. Our guide sat on a rock away from us. Brian and Ram chatted with him. Demi cooled herself with a collapsible hand fan. Leng checked her camera.13241376_997587430318336_8599653633424649949_n I just sat and had a minimal conversation. Five minutes into our rest, no one wanted to get up and continue the trek. It felt like not only our skin would melt but also our leg bones would shatter if we hiked right away. An extended break was agreed. Later on, we mustered one another. The summit was waiting for us.

I lost sight of the trail as we walked through a wooded area close to the summit. Leaf litter concealed the path. Fallen logs and moss-covered rocks lay around us. My eyes followed a route until they saw a dead end. I took the other option.

We emerged out of the trees. Bushes acted as a living fence that bordered the way ahead, making the footpath narrower. Yet beyond our left was a ravine. Its slope plummeted down into the forest canopy far below us. Insects buzzed in the air. My nape and arms felt the heat of the blazing sun due to a near absence of shade. However, the breeze kept me relatively cool as a whole. Our hiking party passed by a designated campsite. We were getting closer to the summit with every step. The sensation of nearness might have deceived us previously but this time we were certain.

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Carved by the elements, the rock formations of Mt Marami are a sight to behold.

The immediate surroundings remained exposed to the elements until we arrived at a rocky landmark that loomed before us. Our group just had to follow a steep trail and we would reach the actual summit. My fellows under the Hayok Hiking Society took the curving path and slipped a bit from the soil that turned loose. I could imagine this path on a rainy day. It would be much more slippery from the mud and there was little to hold on to. Still, we overcame this challenge without anyone getting hurt. Our guide assisted us too.

I moved uphill with eagerness and a smile until I reached the highest point of the landmark at around 9 AM. Brian, Demi, Leng, Ram, and I stood on top of a platform of solid rock. It was the actual summit of Mt Marami. We could see the coast, which was situated in the border of the provinces of Cavite and Batangas. Far to our right stood Mt Pico de Loro. It was characterized by a rock formation at its summit that resembled a parrot’s beak, hence the name. ‘Loro‘ meant ‘parrot’ in Tagalog, derived from Spanish. Beyond the horizon to our left lay towns within Batangas. Between the sea and Mt Marami was a valley surrounded by hills, if not smaller mountains. It appeared yellow green due to agricultural land. Meanwhile, forests around this valley had a darker shade of color. Sailing clouds above us cast creeping shadows on the landscape.

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A view of the coastline of Batangas and Cavite from the summit.
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A view of Mt Pico de Loro from the summit.

At least fifty meters from the summit lay Silyang Bato. It did look like a stone chair. Only a few people could climb to the top at one time due to limited space. My four trekking buddies went there first. I stayed to take their photos. Going to Silyang Bato from Mt Marami’s summit took them several minutes. Yet filament-like leaves and a huge rock blocked my view of the four fellow hikers. At that moment I was reluctant to pose for snapshots up there not because of a fear of heights. I just felt too lazy.

My adventurous side prevailed. I asked Mark to take my photos with my mobile phone. Then I descended from the summit and asked the guide about making my way to Silyang Bato. We followed a dirt trail on the shadow of a rugged gray rock face. Between me and my objective lay a gap. Simply walking over it was not enough. I peered into the empty space and saw a surface of bare rock plunging sheer into a deep gorge. Missing a step and falling would mean certain demise. I had to live. My aunt just passed away days ago. A second fatality in such a short notice would be disastrous for my relatives. I thought of nothing but leaping over the gap. I did it. Seconds later, I went down another rock face as if I scaled a wall in reverse. It was steep but low. Then I met up with Brian, Demi, Leng, and Ram.

Aside from group photos, each of us had a moment to pose uniquely. I stood and sat atop Silyang Bato. Then I lay prone with my chest and stomach pressed on the ground. I was like a sniper, only lacking my scoped rifle. In fact, I was more of a spotter. My olive green top and brown pants also blended nearly with the terrain. When I got back, Mark complimented my photos.

More of the Hayok hikers wanted pictures on top of Silyang Bato, extending our time at the summit. We sat under the full power of the sun as every minute ushered the late morning. My hiking buddies squeezed ourselves under the shade of two umbrellas. Ram shared baby potatoes cooked with cheese. At this point I already had a glimpse into the lives of my newfound friends. They were all running for physical fitness. Leng shared details about her half-marathon. Brian said he was training for this activity once a week. Then I realized that most people who climb mountains also engage in running. I first met the four of them just four hours ago but they demonstrated the sanctity of camaraderie in a group of trekkers. My way of establishing rapport with other people also involved being interested with their hobbies and listening genuinely.

Of course, our hiking party would not stay at the summit forever. We would descend from Mt Marami by taking the same way that led us up. This was not a traverse after all.

Going down that steep trail with loose soil proved to be more difficult for me than going up. The perpetual challenge in descending a mountain was the buildup of strain in the knees. This time, I could not even hold my footing. The ground crumbled with every step. I resorted to sliding on my rear for a few meters, similar to what someone would do on a typical feature of a water park. The upper back of my pants had a noticeable brown stain as a result. At least it did not look like I defecated.

Leng and Ram ran ahead, joining our fellow trekkers who left sooner. Brian, Demi, and I were contented with walking. Our two companions actually used this opportunity to train for a trail run. Most running events took place on cemented roads but this variation was done on dirt paths at a mountain or forest. The three of us made our away again through the section of the trail where bushes grew so dense that we could not avoid touching them. Despite noontime just two hours away, the weather gave more of a gentle warmth than scorching heat. Brian and I chatted. Demi listened and sometimes replied when she either joined or got pulled into the conversation.

The three of us came upon a wooden gate lined by barbed wire fencing. Assuming it as a way into private property, we did not enter and turned right instead. We were in a rural area after all. Anything could happen. Then the forest engulfed us. Brian, Demi, and I struggled with moving through the undergrowth and a downhill slope. We followed gaps between trees instead of an actual trail. A crunching sound could be heard as I stepped on a pile of fallen and dry leaves. Doubts raced across my mind. I had an urge to stop and reconsider our route. The barbed wire fence then blocked our path. There was no other way back to Barangay Ramirez. The shadows cast by leaves overhead and the silence of tree trunks intensified the feeling of getting lost. We had no choice but to return to that gate and go in. It became apparent that Brian, Demi, and I made the right move when we found the dirt path.

Eventually, we arrived at the spot where two female vendors sold drinks under a tree. Leng and Ram were already sitting and having a chat. The Hayok trekkers decided to have lunch there. Our fellows came in batches until we were assembled. With no space to join Brian, Demi, Leng, and Ram, I accompanied Darenn, Mark, and Wen this time. We sat on the makeshift benches and on a piece of tarpaulin turned into a picnic blanket. Canned tuna, home-cooked meat dishes, and boiled white rice were shared. I should be famished after walking for hours but tiredness reduced my appetite too. Lunchtime also came with laughter as we joked and even teased one another playfully. It was during our rest after lunch that I met Leslie Bayoneta and Lei Ylynor Cabangca informally.

Our descent from Mt Marami resumed before 1 PM. The surroundings were already familiar after passing by them before, assuring us that we would arrive at Barangay Ramirez later and then head back to our respective homes. Once again, I spent the time with Brian and Demi. Leng and Ram were committed to their preparation for a trail run. I had a bit of frustration and released it verbally during the hike without offending anybody.

We found ourselves back at the makeshift hut. The guide said we could quench our thirst with juice straight out of a coconut for twenty Philippine pesos. As I only had plain water and failed to bring an electrolyte-rich bottled beverage, I joined in. Each of us waited for his or her turn to be handed a young coconut in the form of a wooden and hollow green ball. A man punched a hole with his bolo knife, revealing the clear and energy-rich juice. Once done with drinking, we asked him to crack the coconut open for us to eat the tender white flesh. Meanwhile, most of our companions were accountants and they even had a discussion about their field of career.

The ground was not muddy now thanks to the sunny weather. Yet the sky turned dim. Brian, Demi, and I were walking on the spacious dirt path. I commented that we should let go of our worries this afternoon. Being in the midst of a tranquil green landscape made me feel lighthearted. It offered the absence of vehicle engine noise, car horns, the buzz of passers-by, and the electronic beat of contemporary popular music. I could hear the voices of my fellows and nothing else. Going on nature hikes gave me some respite from the tough life I had.

Later on, we followed a trail through what looked like pastureland. The surroundings looked more of a grassy field than a jungle. Then we got surprised by a bellowing sound. A few steps further, we caught sight of a cow partly concealed by tall grass. My companions and I also fought the aching of our legs. Every part of my body below the thigh had reached its limit. I struggled to keep on moving.

Stretching beyond what my eyes could see, the dirt road seemed endless. It should be the last stretch of our trek, leading us to the houses and residents of Barangay Ramirez. Time was creeping instead of flying. The end was still not in sight. I could only walk for several meters and then have a momentary break. Usually, it was hotter in early afternoon compared to noontime. Searing heat combined with humidity to tire my body even further. I sweated so much that I wanted to take a bath right away. My 1.5-liter plastic bottle of water was already empty. This forced me to ask Brian to give me half a cup of a popular Japanese sports drink he brought in a peculiar two-liter bottle. He agreed kindly. It helped a bit but my body was pushed to the limit. Clearing my thoughts, my only goal now was to survive. I might collapse and lose consciousness. In fact, one of our female companions nearly fainted.

We pressed on. Then the single-story houses appeared. One of them also functioned as a sari-sari store. The Tagalog word meant ‘a wide variety.’ Such an establishment would sell items ranging from snack items to soap bars, even children’s toys. We were very thirsty. With a straw, I sipped an entire small bottle of a fizzy soft drink in one sitting. Then I bought a similar-sized bottle of Mountain Dew®. We quenched our thirst and gave our tired legs enough rest. At this moment, I also had a chat wih Lei. According to her, she would not go to mountains for a while after this trek.

Moving on a cemented road at Barangay Ramirez felt more of a casual stroll. Brian, Demi, and I looked for Leng and Ram. We found them later on after they had a shower. Our batch of hikers arrived last. Some of my companions would bathe at their next destination – a stopover at a river and waterfall. I did not know how it went. Citing fee issues because I did not ride the van from the meet up point in Metro Manila, I declined to join them there. Yet I requested Darenn to just drop me off the main road. He agreed. I bade them farewell before riding a tricycle to begin my long journey back to my hometown.

I survived one day of venturing well beyond my comfort zone. Should my future travels resemble this, I would be more prepared.

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