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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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.

 

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 Hike that Lasted Only Ten Minutes

The idea of a ten-minute hike would sound strange, even absurd. Yet it happened literally in one of my trips.

Listen to my story and find out how it came that way.

Weeks before the event, I had been notified of an outdoor excursion with a particular set of friends. I met them on my second climb at Mt Marami nearly one year ago. On Facebook® we went by the group chat name of Team 28. Aside from hiking, these fellows also loved running, cycling, swimming, and plain sightseeing. We would stay overnight on a beach or at a campsite at a mountain according to them. I felt uncomfortable. I just came back from a long absence from trekking. My focus was on day hikes. I was simply not yet in the mood for bringing my tent and portable cooking set. Yet most members of the Facebook® group would come for the anniversary event. Deep inside me, I could not refuse. It would be a reunion. They proved friendly, supportive, and sincere in the months since I got acquainted with them. Such kind of people would not always come easy in life.

Through social media we agreed to climb Mt Gulugod Baboy in the province of Batangas. The name translates as ‘spine of pig’ in the Tagalog language, which is the locals’ mother tongue. Situated two to three hours of driving south from Manila in light to moderate traffic, Mt Gulugod Baboy stands within the municipality of Mabini, Batangas. Last April, the town became the epicenter of a series of magnitude 5 earthquakes. The peak has an altitude of 525 meters above sea level. A trail difficulty of 2/9 makes Mt Gulugod Baboy a recommended place to begin enthusiasm into mountain climbing or just enjoy the weekend with friends.

In the night of June 17, 2017, I arrived haughtily at Team 28’s meeting place in Alabang, Muntinlupa City – the National Capital Region’s gateway to the provinces of Laguna and Batangas. There were too few buses. I stood nearly an hour just to get a ride. Yet it did not matter now. At first, I looked for them in a convenience store. They were not there. Then Christian “Xtian” Villanueva appeared and told me to join them. With him was Cecille “Cess” Olivarez, who introduced me to their group in the first place, and Sherwin “She” Lomibao. They had two companions – Rey Ar Roderos and Ry Aguilar. Later on, Abigail “Abby” Asuncion showed out of nowhere and joined us. Our transport would arrive late. The van and its driver got caught in traffic. We stood and sat on the sidewalk as pedestrians passed by, our bags grouped together like a cache of supplies for an expedition. While catching up with stories, our fellow Leslie “Les” Litong came. Time passed merrily. Our van came past 8 PM and we did not notice it.

Heading south to the town of Santa Rosa, Laguna, we would pick up more companions. This other group composed of John Vincent “JanBi” Chua, Jepoy “Jep” Dichoso, Marie “Chacha” Fetalino, Hency Joyce Gamara, and Aldous “Doy” Moncada. It was a brief pickup. Our van sped off, leaving behind the distant glimmering lights of the Enchanted Kingdom theme park. I tried to doze off but without success.

Our vehicle flew like a swift on the highways of Batangas province. We passed by both completely dark pastureland and lit 24-hour food establishments. People would be sleeping soundly in their beds. We at Team 28 stayed awake on the van’s seats.

A statue of Apolinario Mabini, one of the heroes of the Philippine War of Independence against Spanish colonization, marked the town that bore his last name. We seemed lost. The 24-hour convenience store seemed elusive. Our driver even brought us to a pier unwillingly. He turned back. All we wanted was tube ice. Eventually, our trekking party found our way to a 7-Eleven® after making turns on the concrete lanes. About ten minutes passed before our road trip resumed.

Later on, a sign informed us that we already arrived at the vicinity of Mt Gulugod Baboy. I could hear the van’s tires struggling with the uphill drive. We leaned back to our seats. Cess was aroused from sleep. Jepoy remained silent. Xtian kept on talking. Somehow, he seemed to initiate humor more than Sherwin as far as I remembered. Riding shotgun, Hency and Janbi looked for the registration center for our climb. This idiom actually originated from the American West during the latter half of the 19th century AD. It was a time when a stagecoach driver’s companion had to brandish the said firearm to fend off both outlaws and hostile tribal folk. Despite the Philippines going through a war on drugs at the present, crime was far from a threat for us at Team 28. In fact, the smell of cow manure bothered us more. Then we braced for possibly seeing supernatural beings, even for just a split-second, in the dark of the night.

We could not find the registration center. The van continued its ascent on a twisting cemented road lined by silent groves of trees and equally quiet houses. Then it became apparent that we unintentionally drove to the summit. It was possible at Mt Gulugod Baboy, unlike at most mountains in the Philippines. Now our group would register at the top, or at least near it.

My fellow passengers and I mistook a man for a ghost. In reality, I seemed more of a specter than that person due to my nocturnal working shift. The road trip ended past 11 PM at the parking area near the summit. We bailed out. The air felt hotter than I expected. I should have left my jacket. It only added to my backpack’s weight. The mostly yellow lights of urban settlement lay towards the horizon. They outshone the stars overhead. I went to Mt Gulugod Baboy to escape from city life, which was now reminded to me by that distant artificial lighting. Our group stopped by a shack that also served as both a registration center and store. We settled transport and entrance fees, checked our belongings, and rested a bit. Then we began walking with headlamps and flashlight to look for a campsite.

The ten-minute hike began as most of my long walks in the outdoors would. We walked single file. Those in the rear carried our food stuffs, potable water in plastic containers, tents, and the rest of our camping essentials. Still, our group packed lightly compared to a few overnight treks I did. We only wanted to get together, chat, and enjoy food and drink in the cool air under the stars. Yet it was surprisingly warmer than expected. Our feet followed the dirt trail. Then my sole of my right shoe sank a bit into the ground. My companions began to complain about the mud. Abby told Chacha to step on the grass instead. Getting one’s foot wear muddy would be normal in outdoor excursions on a rainy day on a forest trail. There was not even a drizzle. Open terrain surrounded us too.

In the very dim light of midnight, I could see a hill ahead of us. To my right lay a steep yet grassy ravine. Beams of light shone on all directions. It was as if a rescue party was searching for a missing hiker. In this circumstance, we looked for a suitable spot to pitch tents and lay down food for a small feast. We marched towards the summit. Someone shone a light on where it should be. The summit appeared near but for my legs it felt like kilometers away. Walking in near-total darkness did not make it easier.

Eventually, our party decided not to push towards the summit itself. We all wanted to settle down and get on with it. We searched rather frantically. There was a nice grassy spot wide enough for all of our tents. Then we got discouraged. I would like to use the euphemism ‘cow pie’ for excrement that was littered all over the place. The round pieces of scat seemed as biological land mines that brought nuisance and smelly soles. We kept on walking. Another group of mostly male campers chatted and listened to music from their electronic devices. Our group greeted them, passed by, and sort of envied their camping spot.

We all agreed to spend the night on a grassy spot below a hill after minutes of wandering. Corn husks were piled nearby. Cow pies showed up but not densely, allowing us to pitch our tents relatively  close to one another. I helped Aldous, Hency, and  Janbi set up theirs. Cess, Jepoy, and Leslie had their own. Rey ar, Ry, and Xtian’s tent looked rather too small, allowing two people instead of three regardless of physique. Abby, Chacha, and Sherwin offered me hospitality in theirs after a polite request. According to She, six individuals could fit within it.

Xtian took out a large piece of synthetic material called a ‘trapal’ in the local vernacular. Its waterproof quality made it useful and  versatile for wet weather conditions. He placed it on the dewy grass. Then we laid out bit by bit the food we brought. My companions packed a variety of home-cooked dishes in durable plastic box containers. Our companions from Santa Rosa, Laguna brought grilled slices of chicken and pork packed separately. Boiled white rice came in plenty. Of course, we had potable water too and plastic disposable cups as containers.

DSCN0490Our nighttime picnic got intruded by a few dogs. They simply stood a few meters from us. Yet a canine would sometimes approach silently like a predator stalking its prey before pouncing. Then one would appear right behind my back. They surrounded us, cloaked by nocturnal darkness until either one of my fellows or I shone a flashlight on them. It felt like having dinner in the middle of the African savanna or the mixed woodland and grassland wilderness of North America. The dogs’ occasional barking pierced the festive ambience and might have instilled a bit of fear in our hearts. Thankfully, the dogs did not behave aggressively. They simply waited in all patience to be handed scraps of food. Yet later on, they also carried away a plastic bag or two of our leftovers. We wished that our trekking party would not be blamed on the following morning for a mess consisting of wrappers and chicken bones.

Hency then brought out tiny tubular plastic packets filled with semi-liquid chocolate. There were marshmallows too. She also had those brown Graham crackers often piled into layers with a mix of canned condensed milk and all-purpose cream in between. This in turn would be refrigerated until the sweet dairy mix softens the crackers into a home-made cake. DSCN0492Tonight, we would have hard Graham crackers instead. Hency taught us a sort of dessert recipe for camping outdoors. Janbi’s crude and portable stove cast a flame. We stuck those marshmallows at the end of wooden kebab sticks and toasted the squishy treat. Yet there was more. We snapped those Graham crackers into smaller pieces, making a crunching sound. Then I spread that semi-liquid chocolate like Nutella® on a piece of sliced bread. The marshmallow was sandwiched in between.  The combination of soft and hard texture characterized this ingenious treat.

DSCN0496Time passed by. The soup-like sky cleared for a while before concealing the stars again. I could feel droplets of water falling on my hair. Xtian, Rey Ar, and Ry hung another large ‘trapal’ over our picnic setup with ropes fastened to the four corners then tied to branches and tents. Rain would not dampen the mood of our merriment. We then huddled together closely.

We at Team 28 shared stories and inquired about our companions’ upcoming trips. We also teased one another and even those not present. Xtian took care of the liquor mix. He passed it among us. I declined politely, settling on cheese-flavored popcorn and boiled peanuts instead. The snacking, sipping, and chatting went on until we retired into our tents one by one at around 3 AM. I lay down at one side just next to a wall of waterproof fabric, shut my eyes, and drifted into the unconscious.

 

The weather in the morning could only be described as surreal. Cloud cover cast soft lighting but did not accumulate much to foreshadow a rainy day. The sky had pastel hues of violet, blue, pink, and white. It felt like waking up only to find myself still in a dream. Sunrise revealed how breath-taking the surrounding landscape was. Beyond the rolling hills was the sea sharing the same color with the hazy sky. Tall grass surrounded us everywhere, broken by groves of hardwood or coconut trees along with open meadows. Groups of tents seemed as individual villages in a world that was Mt Gulugod Baboy.

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DSCN0501A single file of hikers ascended on a trail to my left. Then I saw someone familiar. I jogged to meet up with him. By both predetermination and chance, it was Brian Estares. We met each other last year during a hike at Mt Marami in Cavite province. In fact, he invited me to an excursion at Mt Gulugod Baboy with another group. I told him that Team 28 and I would be at the same place and the same time by coincidence. Brian held a branch he used as a hiking stick. We had a brief chat. He said they would also swim at the beach after running on this trail. My friend wanted to be a triathlete. After that, Brian was off with his fellows.

Past 7 AM, we had a light breakfast of whatever snack we could grab. Xtian boiled some water and mixed it with instant coffee powder in light blue sachets. With a dipper made of heat-resistant plastic, Hency shared it among us in our respective containers as if in a soup kitchen. I sipped that coffee from a tumbler distributed freely in my office, complete with the company logo. My stomach grew warmer. That heat radiated all over my body

The air turned hotter as our surroundings became brighter. It was time to pack up. We at Team 28 set up a tripod and took group photos. Their companionship had the same temperature as the caffeinated beverage I drank earlier. I felt a sense of belonging. They expressed genuine concern during hard times. We helped one another. My friends at Team 28 would find a way to socialize through an outdoor activity. They joked and laughed. It seemed my troubles disappeared and replaced by pure bliss. Yet this moment would end soon.

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Cess: “I’ll help you later, right now I’ve got an important text.”            

Once the tents, ‘trapal’, and the rest of everything had been packed, our group began the ten-minute return hike to our van. The starkly brown trail snaked its way through the damp green grass. Aldous carried stuff like a porter. With a light heart I walked and appreciated the scenery. Then we passed by the ravine again. Tall grass concealed the edge. It seemed harmless to the eyes until one would trip and fall down a 60-degree slope. Minutes passed by without anyone noticing. Our chatter was minimal. Then our party arrived at the shack where a few vehicles, including our van, were parked.

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From left: Cess, Abby, She, Chacha, Aldous, Janbi, Hency, The Blogger, Jepoy, Ry, Rey Ar, Xtian, Les

A discussion ensued. We would either walk all the way down Mt Gulugod Baboy and make this an authentic trek or simply ride the van for our descent. A guide told us that if we went on foot our group would show up farther than our intended destination that was Philpan Beach Resort. In the end, we hopped into our transport, sat down, and later navigated the winding downhill road.

That was how the ten-minute hike happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a fine sunny morning to do some hiking…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Comeback and More at Talamitam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From left: CJ, Timmy, and Deo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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