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.

 

A Legendary Trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From left: The Blogger, Brian, Xander, Len

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Len feeling the struggle while holding the rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twelve Hours in Baguio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 AM

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

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

7 AM

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

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

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

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8 AM

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

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

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

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

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

9 AM

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

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

10 AM

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

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Just keep that fire going…

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

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

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

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

11 AM

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

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

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

12 PM

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

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

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

1 PM

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

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

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

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

2 PM

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

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

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

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

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

3 PM

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

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

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

4 PM

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

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

5 PM

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

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

6 PM

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

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

Return to Mt Marami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Braving the Unexplored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13245480_997584853651927_4117695503784364392_n
From left: Ram, Leng, Demi, Brian, and The Blogger eating bread during a break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Way of Hiking Mt Ulap

At least ten vans were parked inside what resembled the roofed basketball court of my village back home. The influx of visitors came without surprise. It was October 30, 2016 and the second day of a long weekend. Many Filipino families flocked to the resting places of their loved ones every November 1 in a solemn event called undas. It was also known as All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day sounded more appropriate but was observed on the following day. Undas resembled the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which was featured in the animated film ‘The Book of Life’ and shown briefly in the latest James Bond movie ‘Spectre.’ However, some people would rather go on outdoor trips at mountains or beaches. For us it was both.

Our hiking party consisted of 31 people in two vans. Our vehicle inspired awe with its chrome paint and flashy stickers. The driver, who introduced himself as Lord, parked it beside the van with our fellows upon arriving at Itogon, Benguet.

I remembered a former office colleague posting her excursion at Mt Ulap on social media. That mountain was not only relatively close to Manila but also easy to climb too. Mt Ulap could be traversed in less than half a day. It had a trail difficulty of 3/9 yet an elevation of 1,846 meters above sea level. This made it popular for both first-time trekkers and holiday-goers seeking an escape from city life. Usually, the hike would begin here at Baranggay (which is a Filipino term for a village) Ampucao and end at Baranggay Santa Fe. Yet we decided to do it the other way round. A large number of hikers had arrived before us. They could traverse Mt Ulap through the commonly used route while our party avoided ‘trekker traffic’ along the way. After all, we looked forward to an afternoon at a beach in La Union province, which was two to three hours drive from Itogon. I was told that taking the alternate route would enable us to finish sooner the first part of our weekend getaway.

Yes To Adventures, a group that offered affordable outdoor trips, organized the hike. In fact, its members were present at the time I joined the Talahib group in our traverse through Mt Purgatory. A fellow named Jerald Garayan lent me a pair of sandals after my hiking shoes got too damaged to wear.

Mercy Caba was the lead organizer of the Mt Ulap excursion. She rode in the first van. The second van fell under the supervision of Hency Joyce Gamara. Accompanying her was John Vincent “JohnVi” Chua. (Our fellows also called him by his surname.) Aldous Moncada was also present. Cecille “Cess” Olivarez was working in Singapore but she came home to participate in this trek. I met the four of them at my second climb at Mt Marami. One of my companions in the second van was Clarisse Anne Ancheta. Her knee got sprained when we did the Mt Purgatory traverse with Talahib. Just two weeks ago, Rhea Juranes and I went to Mt Maculot along with Alvin Villanueva. Now we were hiking again. I also met Zy Orquesta and Honey Bangalisan for the first time. It felt like a grand reunion.

I wore a blue t-shirt made of lightweight synthetic material that dried easily. It suited weather conditions where one would sweat profusely while running. It was past 4 AM at the highlands of Benguet province and it was still dark. The chilly air forced most of the hikers to wear jackets and other thick clothes. Cess told me I had the skin of a carabao – a Filipino idiom for resistance to cold. I could have told her I had the fur of a bear or a wolf. Still, the Baranggay hall of Ampucao sheltered us from the elements. The grassy campsite at Mt Tabayoc had lower temperatures coupled with raging winds.

20161030_052729Our trekking party assembled for a briefing by four nature guides named Jonard, Liza, Miriam, and Van-Van. They confirmed that the hike would indeed start at Santa Fe. First, we would climb Mt Ulap itself. Then we would pass by Gungal Rock. Finally, we would go through Ambanao Paoay before ending our trek. It felt like immersing into the children’s animated series ‘Dora the Explorer.’

At 5:40 AM, we were all riding separately in two vans. Liza sat beside me. I took the opportunity to ask the guide about Mt Ulap, the local indigenous groups, and the tourists. Our vehicle followed the twists and turns of the typical winding roads of Benguet province. Still, Rhea managed to fall asleep. Aya, on the other hand, got awestruck by the sunrise to our left. The clouds took a mushroom shape. The orange glow of dawn created a nuclear bomb explosion. This cloud formation would not show up every day.

About 15 minutes later, our group dropped off at a bend in the concrete road. The morning air felt much less chilly and sunlight was bright enough to see our way. After assembling, we began the estimated five-hour trek with supplications.

The cemented path led us through a small community. Single-story houses of plain construction stood apart to our left and right. The place seemed sleepy. It was a Sunday morning after all. Yet a few residents were already awake, greeting us as we passed by. A dog at a distant house kept barking at us.

20161030_060850Eventually, we came upon a hanging bridge. Metal cables and chain-link fencing supported Marston mats that we stepped on. These sheets of steel were actually used as a surface on airfields of the US Air Force during World War Two. When the conflict ended in 1945, the Marston mats found a new life as construction material. They had been prevalent in rural areas across the Philippines. As I prepared to cross the bridge, I noticed that the cables and wires were red with rust. I was behind Rhea and ahead of Anne. Then I walked. The bridge shook under the weight of several hikers. A dark offspring of fear and stress crept up me. I could imagine the bridge collapsing. Yet I kept on walking. Eventually, everyone made it through the structure.

20161030_060911Below the bridge lay cluttered rocks of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Water flowed through them as a stream that could be described as halfway between gentle and fierce. That spot under the bridge gave an impression of a zen garden. There were three bridges in total on the trail.

We continued the trek and arrived at a place with makeshift benches and roofed wooden structures. A woman sold us ‘ice candy’ kept in a foam box commonly used by peddlers of cold desserts and bottled drinks across the country. A blended mix of fruit and milk would be poured into tube-shaped plastic and then frozen in a refrigerator to produce this treat. It was also affordable too. Some of our companions bought ice candy. We had a break before pressing on. Just as we left the place, Aldous had an ugly encounter with a black rooster.

Following the trail, our hiking party soon came to an establishment that sold souvenirs. There were T-shirts, key chains, refrigerator magnets, and trinkets. Those refrigerator magnets came with painted wooden sculptures that would fit in the palm of one’s hand. Pine cones were also preserved and attached with a black circular magnet. The more expensive refrigerator magnets had landscape photos of Mt Ulap and areas in its vicinity. We had time not only to buy but also to sit down and rest.

Past the souvenir shop was a winding uphill path. My fellows in van number two and I looked on as those from van number one made the ascent. Minutes passed as they trudged towards the summit in a single file line. It was like looking at a huge multicolored snake that slithered slowly.

Then our turn to move up the slope came. My feet and legs withstood the challenge of the zig-zag trail. The way ahead had firm ground with some rocks instead of slippery mud. The sun rose higher up the sky. The air became slightly warmer. Nevertheless, the high altitude kept the surrounding temperatures comfortable. The fresh mountain air was a welcoming relief for my exposure to vehicle exhaust and urban congestion yesterday. Our group seemed relatively silent as we kept on hiking. There were minimal chatting and laughing. Among us, Hency and Aya talked the most. The two brought some cheer too. Alvin led the way. We also took pictures of a scenery that soothed our spirits.

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That Sunday morning had the ideal weather for hiking with the sun shining brightly  
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The Blogger enjoying the hike. He also took his eyeglasses off to look better for the photo.

More of the landscape got revealed as we went higher up Mt Ulap. Pine trees grew all the way to the horizon. They also provided us some shade despite having needles instead of broad leaves. Cones littered the floor, resembling a curled-up pangolin. The hills and mountains looked stunning under a sunny sky. The weather was simply perfect, unlike my recent excursion at Mt Maculot. I could stay here all day and immerse in the tranquility. Yet we had to move on as life would warrant from everyone, especially those troubled by their respective pasts.

Eventually I reached a slope that I could say had an angle of 30 degrees. Several pine trees stood around the dirt path, casting shadows. I ran uphill and charged. Then I was greeted by manure lying on the ground. It could have been deposited by a cow or a horse. More of those scat lay on our way. At least they did not smell strongly. The fecal matter appeared more like dried mud rather than a disgusting semi-solid object that could not be distinguished.

Up ahead was a hill dotted with more evergreen trees. The scenic ridge to our left stole our attention. Honey, Rhea, and Zy posed for snapshots with it as their background. Anne joined them too in another photo. Walking further, we came upon a nearly barren tree with grayish bark. A visitor to Mt Ulap could sit comfortably between the two prongs that rose from the trunk. Hency gave it a try and was not disappointed. Nearby stood a wooden sign that pointed the way to the summit. The letters, decoration, and the arrow were made from green, red, and white plastic caps of bottled fizzy drinks. Colors corresponded to the beverage brands. We followed the sign and the winding trail up the hill.

When I looked behind, I could see a lake. The turquoise body of water was not what it seemed. It turned out to be a tailing dam owned by Philex Mining Corporation. We already saw it shimmering earlier. As we got higher up Mt Ulap, a number of buildings came into view. It might be the mining facility or a residential community next to it.

Later on, the ground sloped downward. We were supposed to be ascending. Then the pine trees disappeared. Short grass grew abundantly, carpeting our surroundings with a fine layer of vegetation. It was similar to the grass on a golf course. My companions and I could not help but express awe at the treeless hills on our front. They reminded me of The Shire in The Lord of The Rings trilogy – only without the peculiar dwellings of the hobbits. I also realized why people flocked to Mt Ulap for an experience of the great outdoors.

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We just arrived at what I think was the best part of Mt Ulap

20161030_083344The trail of brown dirt stood out against the green grass. It led us up and down a hill. Then we saw tents pitched on a field. Groups of people camped there overnight, seeming more of holidaymakers than hikers. The place was alive with music and chatter. Our trekking party greeted with cheerful voices.

About a hundred meters from the campsite lay the summit of Mt Ulap. It appeared as a massive steep hill that loomed before us. Anne went ahead. Honey, Rhea, and I walked briskly until the three of us reached the top. Alvin and Zy followed. Making our way to the summit was not difficult but not easy too. We arrived at 8:45 AM.

The summit itself offered a 360-degree view of Mt Ulap’s vicinity. I could still see the Philex tailing dam and buildings. A dark green forest of pines lay to our right. At the edge of it was a small clearing with several brightly-colored tents set up by another group of trekkers. To our left, however, was a ridge that compelled us to have it as a background for our photos. The lower half consisted mostly of barren gray rock while the upper half was green with vegetation. It should have been the other way round. White clouds formed at the top of the ridge itself. The highlands stretched all the way to the horizon at all sides.

More of our hiking companions started arriving at the summit. Aldous, Chua, and Hency made the most of their time by taking snapshots. Mercy chatted with virtually everyone. She then posed for photos too. I left my hiking buddies for a while to have a meaningful conversation with our four guides. Aside from talking about Mt Ulap, I also shared some of my thoughts, uncertainties, and plans for the future amid the scenic views and cold winds. It felt soothing. Before leaving the summit at 9:30 AM, the combined hiking parties from the two vans posed for an epic group picture. A rainbow appeared out of nowhere in front of the tantalizing ridge. The sky had turned gray since earlier and brought a drizzle.

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No photo editing was involved. The rainbow just showed up and we posed for a group picture.

After climbing Mt. Ulap, we headed towards Gungal Rock. Just past the summit lay a thicket of bushes. Lush pine trees stood beyond it. We hiked once more with bodies recharged by sufficient rest and an awe-inspiring landscape. Then a huge white fallen log blocked our path. Some of us, including me, took quick snapshots of it and the surroundings as fellow hikers made their way over this obstacle. I pressed my hand on the log and jumped over it effortlessly like someone doing parkour.

Rhea’s pace of walking grew slower. She told me about pain in her right knee. It was Anne who had this experience during the Mt Purgatory traverse. Now it was Rhea. Our fellow trekkers complained about leg strain but her case was more serious.

20161030_093641The route towards Gungal Rock remained scenic. The trail passed through dense vegetation that gave way to open ground. Coniferous trees covered a hill to our right while another was bare with only grass, turned slightly brown by exposure to the sun, growing on it. Soil erosion created what could be described as a giant footprint of a kaiju, the term for a colossal monster conceptualized by the Japanese film industry. A rustic fence made of wooden posts and barbed wire stretched from our right. It crossed the way ahead. Our group climbed over an improvised ramp to get to the other side of the fence. We were told to be careful of sharp and rusty metal surfaces.

Soon, we caught sight of our next destination. A large number of fellow visitors lingered at Gungal Rock itself. We could see them in their brightly colored outfits. Following Hency’s suggestion, we agreed with her in just going past the landmark. We would continue our way, looking forward to the beach in La Union, rather than join the long line of people. Waist-high gray boulders surrounded the path. Our hiking party opted to pose on top of them while standing, sitting, or posing as creatively as we could. It was already sufficient. The battery of Rhea’s mobile phone ran low. I agreed to take pictures of her and send them later. We looked at Hency and JohnVi with cheerful laughter as they posed romantically as a couple. Anne balanced herself atop a rock with only one foot. Our group spent at least ten minutes taking photos before pressing on.

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From left: Anne, Honey, Rhea, and Zy near Gungal Rock

The sky grew dim as masses of clouds drove away its shade of blue. At least I wore a cap for the drizzle. I did not bring a raincoat this time. Getting soaked under the weather did not matter. After all, I could take a bath later at the beach.

I walked behind Rhea, who was limping slightly as her right knee ached. The pain did not subside. She was mostly silent at this point. Still, I accompanied her as a way of giving moral support too. She was my hiking buddy after all.

Pebbles littered the dirt path, making it a bit slippery. The trail could be seen on bare hills far ahead of us.20161030_101445 At certain spots, slipping would mean tumbling down a grassy slope and sustaining injury. We walked at a moderate pace. At least our excursion was more leisurely than challenging. The Mt Ulap traverse seemed ideal for first-time mountain trekkers, such as Honey. Yet she demonstrated the stamina and agility of a seasoned hiker. Honey would likely participate in more outdoor adventures like this in the future. Our party also bumped into other groups of visitors from time to time. Greeting them with a good morning and telling them to enjoy and be safe was customary. It encouraged goodwill and lifted weary spirits too.

We kept on walking but the landscape changed a little. However, there was an eye-catching tree completely devoid of leaves. The trunk and branches were white as if the20161030_101927 bark was peeled off. It stood proudly under a gloomy overcast sky. Eventually, our trekking party complained because we were supposed to be descending yet we kept on going uphill. Another hill lay ahead as we took a break. Hency and Chua planned another outdoor adventure at San Pablo, Laguna province on the following weekend. They even invited us. Aldous chatted with two of our fellows. Asking their names did not come to my mind. I just wanted for our group to reach the end of our trek. Then we would ride our van to have a relaxing afternoon at a beach resort that offered surfing lessons. My companions shared this thought too, especially Rhea. She needed to stop walking, massage her knee, and stretch her right leg while resting.

20161030_105741Clouds amassed tightly above us as we made our way through a hillside. Reduced lighting made the surroundings grim. Then Alvin could not bear the aching in his legs. Aldous brought out his first aid kit that came with a liniment spray. My companions with strained lower extremities felt relief from the sensation of warmth brought by the bottled liquid. We continued walking. Then we arrived at Ambanao Paoay. The dirt trail disappeared among the ferns and bushes atop this hill. Our hiking party seemed lost. Then Rhea moved across the low-growing vegetation and spotted our fellows ahead of us.

The trail was less rugged than before. It had more soil than rock. The way ahead also went downhill continuously. Evergreen trees surrounded us to the left and especially to the right. Black trunks stood against the green of grass and pine needle. I was looking at what appeared to be a barcode while buying at a supermarket or retail store.

The liniment spray did not relieve Rhea’s knee pain completely. Yet the aching did not weaken her resolve. She walked slowly but with determination. At the forested area on our way down, I asked our guide Liza to lend her trekking staff to Rhea. She handed me a large, thin, and straight branch, which in turn I passed to my hiking buddy. Rhea turned the stick into her limb, putting less pressure on her right leg. The two of us lagged behind but we caught up eventually with our friends during a break.

Aldous, Hency, and JohnVi accompanied Rhea and I on a descending path that became steeper. Alvin, Anne, Honey, and Zy moved ahead but maintained visual contact. Aldous and Hency chatted, keeping the mood lively. The tall conifers grew less dense. The sun shone brightly again on a Sunday perfect for a getaway. It was past 10 AM. Then we saw a concrete road and houses far behind a canopy of pine needles. We were getting close to the end of our trek.

20161030_112631Human settlement lay to our right but the trail turned left. Our group felt slightly frustrated. We followed a relatively even dirt path. Looking to our left, our view was blocked by a white mist. It seemed that a cloud formed just off the ravine. ‘Ulap‘ meant cloud and my fellows said this was how the mountain got its name. Then we came upon another sign with the words ‘Mt Ulap’ decorated as indigenous embroidery in the Cordilleras. Below it hung a smaller placard of Ampucao to Santa Fe Ridge, which depicted three men hiking on mountainous terrain with a blue sky and a yellow sunrise as their background.

Eventually, the surface we stepped on transformed from dirt to cement. Hency and Chua ran with excitement. I smiled at Rhea as she could be already feeling the end of her ordeal. Then our hiking party found ourselves on a two-lane road. Just across it lay a shack that sold refreshments. We waited for our van, which arrived shortly.

I had always wanted to climb Mt Ulap since I saw pictures of it on social media. Previously, this seemed a remote possibility. I could not believe I just accomplished it. I also learned first-hand why outdoor enthusiasts found this place charming. It was not only the scenic landscape but also the company of people who mean much to me that made the trek worthwhile.

A Foggy Day at Mt Maculot

Here is another rule when hiking up a mountain: Do not always expect great views at the summit. The organizers of my Mt Maculot trek set the date on October 15, 2016. Days before the climb, Typhoon Sarika, named Karen in the Philippines, approached the country. It had not made landfall yet but brought rainy weather as well. I was even unsure whether our planned hike would proceed. On October 14, it did not rain and the wind did not pick up speed. We would do the day-hike.

Situated in the municipality of Cuenca, Batangas, Mt Maculot has been a magnet for people who want to climb mountains south of Manila. It stands at 930 meters above sea level. Trail difficulty is 4/9 at most.

After the Valenzuela fishing trip and the Mt Purgatory traverse, I would be on a trip again with Christian “Xtian” Villanueva. He organized the trip along with Jhazz de Guzman and CJ. Two vans had been rented for the hike. We numbered a total of 30 participants. I already met Alvin, Xtian’s younger brother, and Rhea Juranes through common friends in social media. Some of our companions would be trekking at a mountain for the first time.

It took us more than three hours to reach Cuenca from our rendezvous location in Taguig city. We navigated roads along residential areas before taking to a highway. Then we followed the South Luzon Expressway. I fell asleep during the road trip. When I woke up, we were already in Cuenca, Batangas.

Some of my companions bought breakfast and supplies as well at a major convenience store franchise in the municipality. Then our journey to the base of Mt Maculot resumed. The surroundings grew greener. The houses became fewer. Later on, a large tarpaulin sign greeted mountaineers with a welcome. Our hiking party stopped by a building to pay the entrance fee.

20161015_064631Eventually, we arrived at a compound with its chain-link fence covered by many tarpaulin signs. The drivers parked our vans at an adjacent parking lot with a grassy surface. The first thing I did was to relieve myself. I would rather do it with a proper toilet than out there at the mountain. Emptying my bladder costed five Philippine pesos. There were multiple comfort rooms lined one after another. They had cemented walls, tiled floors, porcelain toilets, water-filled buckets that came with a plastic dipper, and nails hammered as ‘pegs’ for hanging towels and clothes. At least taking a bath after the trek would not be a problem anymore. In fact, it would be convenient as several hikers could do it at one time.

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With trekking sticks and high spirits, we posed for a group picture before making our first steps 

The outdoor adventure began at 7:05 AM after a briefing by the guides and a short group prayer. We walked under a gloomy sky and the shade of seemingly ghostly trees. The wind made the leaves rustle. Our hiking party followed a stretch of concrete road lightheartedly. Most among us had hiking sticks made from branches with their outer layer completely removed in an artistic fashion. Each one costed ten Philippine pesos. Then the cemented path gave way to a bumpy dirt road. I looked down and saw miniature20161015_071534 gullies and ridges. My walking staff created a hole as it pierced the soil. I pressed on alongside Alvin, Rhea, and their friend named Aya Canilao. Aya and Rhea began to complain about the trail jokingly. Meanwhile, Xtian served as our ‘sweeper’ at the rear. He made sure no one would be left behind.

I asked a guide how Mt Maculot got its name. He said the mountain used to be called Mt Makulog, which is Tagalog for ‘thunderous.’ The spelling changed over the years. (Later in the trek, another guide also mentioned that the Feast of Saint Joseph came with peals of thunder, according to local elders.)

Foliage surrounded us from the left and the right. Then the surroundings grew brighter at a spot devoid of trees along the trail. Behind a foreground of coconut trees lay a lake. Its tranquil water appeared gray under a sky that signaled the advent of rain. We walked further and came upon an eye-catching rock formation on our right. It was decorated naturally with vines and moss. A sign lying on the ground gave more information.

Minutes passed as the trail sloped increasingly. A bed of flat and smooth rock gave us a bit of respite. Some even posted for photos on top of it. Then the dirt trail led us higher up Mt Maculot. It reminded me of my Mt Amuyao hike due to the tiresome uphill hike and branches lying on our path as makeshift steps.

Eventually, we arrived at the first of the twelve resting stations before reaching that famous part of the mountain called the ‘Rockies.’ This one had a stall constructed from bamboo poles and a large piece of heavy synthetic material colored blue and orange. A lady clad in a black outfit sold coconut juice with shredded coconut meat for ten Philippine pesos per cup. Some of our companions gulped the refreshing beverage before we all resumed the trek.

The path to the summit became steeper. It had truly become what we called an ‘assault,’ or an uphill part of the trail that would exhaust one’s energy. We began to inhale and exhale deeply with panting. Alvin and Aya had moved to the vanguard of our trekking party. Rhea was my hiking buddy that day. We shared the struggle of our fellows who coped with Mt Maculot’s challenge by making humorous statements. A good laugh staved off weariness and kept our spirits relatively high.

20161015_074300A dog with blotched brown and black fur, named Tiger, accompanied our group. It smelled as if it was not bathed for several months. Yet it did not have the slightest tendency to bark or growl at people. The canine simply walked with us with bare paws instead of trekking shoes and sandals. I became rather amiable with Tiger despite my preference to cats.

The third station came with a shack that sold boiled plantains (known locally as saging na saba), pork dumplings dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and calamondin squeeze, bread, and an assortment of beverages. According to a woman there aged in her fifties, the other vendors did not set up business due to the approaching typhoon and the subsequent lack of visitors. We also took some rest, shared trail food, and drank the water we brought.

Our legs felt the strain from the ascent. On the other hand, I had more trouble with the excessive sweating of my forehead. My eyeglasses got blurry not only from droplets of perspiration but also from the humidity. The trail was not as difficult as a few from my previous excursions. It was not raining yet.20161015_080347 Most of the rocks that lay on the trail were not slippery. Soil did not collapse from the weight of our footsteps. Our voices interrupted the forest’s silence, broken occasionally by the melodic song of birds and hum of critters. At a rough and rock-strewn part of the trail, a millipede crawled slowly and we could have touched it. It was like a hundred times bigger than the specimens that appeared in my family home’s bathroom. Rhea said she would rather lose her footing than handle the many-legged creature unwittingly. My hiking companions kept on making references about setbacks in romance, known as a hugot. Our hike turned into a cycle of arduous walking and momentary resting.

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Eventually, the shadowy trees turned into lush grass. The dirt path ahead zigzagged. We held on to a durable black rope, which remained tough despite exposure to sun and rain. The trail did not have rocks and tree roots. We could follow it with ease. Of course, the rope was necessary as dirt would turn into slippery mud during a downpour. There was virtually nothing to grip except this rope. We amused ourselves by chatting and laughing before reaching another rest station.

The next two stations were only several minutes apart from each other. They also looked similarly as structures made of bamboo and a bit of other materials. If it was not foggy that day, both would offer a breath-taking view of verdant mountains and an azure lake. Yet the mist concealed most of our surroundings. The air grew cooler. At least it was not as humid now than before.

Later at another station during a break, Tiger was panting heavily. We had to give it something to drink. I took out my 1.5 liter bottle of water bought at a grocery. A part of me believed that kindness to animals would have its divine rewards, especially forgiveness of sins. Now we needed a sort of container. I could not just pour it on the ground only to have the friendly canine lick some mud. My eyes scanned the immediate surroundings. There were fresh leaves, fallen leaves, and a piece of tarpaulin. Then one of our hiking companions brought out a small transparent plastic bag. He shaped it into a bowl as I filled it partly with water. Tiger approached eagerly and lapped its share of refreshing drink. We were all smiling and our voices echoed with gladness.

Our hiking party kept on walking uphill until we arrived at the so-called ‘7-Eleven.’ At a glance it did look like a convenience store. Four bamboo tables had been set up all over the place, sheltered from the elements under thick roofing supported by an intricate arrangement of rafters and sturdy bamboo posts. The few vendors sold a wide variety of edible items. There were canned sardines, hard-boiled eggs, easy-to-cook pancit canton noodles in packs, nuts in foil packs, instant coffee in sachets, and bottled beverages. The organizers decided we would have lunch there after visiting the ‘Rockies’ first.20161015_090931

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To our left, the dirt path led us into a meadow with tall grass. Vegetation had been slashed and trampled beside the trail, making this spot more spacious. The foggy background had us posing for photos. It felt like venturing into uncertainty. The scenery relieved my eyes yet cast doubt in my mind simultaneously.

We followed the trail and came upon a plaque on the grassy ground. There was a large rock near the edge of a ravine. Beyond lay an elevated landmark, green with foliage but had some gray too from bare rock faces. It was the ‘Rockies.’ I associated this term to the Rocky Mountains of North America. Aya and Rhea asked me to take snapshots of them as they stood on top of the nearby rock.

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Rhea (left) and Aya (right) having their photo taken at a moment when there was less mist 

The way ahead descended into a grove of trees. Our surroundings turned shady. Heavy rope on posts had been laid beside the trail again. I gripped the knotty material tightly as if my life depended on it. My hands worked harder than my feet. Rhea and I managed to have a humorous conversation in the process. This part of the trail also felt like rappelling. Once I turned to my back, held on to the rope, and bounded down the sloped path. The only challenge was how to prevent the hiking staff from slipping from my grasp.

20161015_092040Eventually, I arrived at to the starting point of the ascend up the Rockies. One of the guides said we could leave those artisan trekking sticks as we would not need it for the climb. We did so. Up ahead were fellow hikers mustering both physical and emotional strength to reach the top. We all seemed a line of ants on a rocky anthill. Those before us made their way through boulders. It would be my turn very soon. Short and hardy plants also grew around us, making the most of limited nutrients the soil offered. Our party advanced rather slowly. I stood beside my hiking buddy, staring at a whitish sky and nothing else. The foggy weather ruined my hopes of experiencing Mt Maculot like my former office colleague next to my desk back then. Despite our gloomy environment, we remained cheerful by chatting and taking group photos.

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The struggle is real, again… this time up the ‘Rockies’ of Mt Maculot

As my fingers exerted pressure and stuck to bare rock, I recalled my fairly recent excursion at Mt Pamitinan. Getting past this stretch of trail towards the Rockies required much less effort compared to that outdoor adventure in Rizal province. A guide wearing a neon green outfit directed us where to place our feet at a point where one could not walk but only climb. We made gradual progress in our way to the top. Another hiking party had begun to descend from the Rockies. It was our group’s turn now.

20161015_093610A few trees and some bushes grew sparsely atop this scenic part of Mt Maculot. We arrived at the Rockies at 9:45 AM. My companions were still enthusiastic with taking snapshots despite the complete lack of view. Beyond the edge lay only a dreary and grayish mist. It reminded me of the time I climbed Mt Tabayoc only to find the same foggy scene. At least there were no frigid gusty winds this time. A bird much larger than a sparrow, perhaps the size of a quail, flew and darted just above our heads. It would be amazingly calm here if not for the non-stop chatter of hikers, including me. We had ample time to stay at the Rockies, even wait for the skies to clear.

I heard joyous shouting. The mist faded to reveal a blurry view of an enormous body of water, contrasted by what looked like a ridge or an island. Cameras and mobile phones were in action. Several seconds passed and the fog engulfed what could be seen of the surrounding landscape. I complained about it. Our voices came with a tone of disappointment.

Eventually, the air became clear enough to show what I thought was the sea off the coast of Batangas province. A guide named Ariel told me it was actually Taal Lake. The land beyond the gray stretch of water appeared blue instead of green. While most among our hiking party gathered at a vantage point indicated by the guides, I went to the other edge of the Rockies along with Alvin, Aya, Rhea, and a fellow named Justine dela Cruz. A narrow trail led us through bushes that grew low due to constant exposure to wind, cold, and rain. Then they gave way to lush grass strewn with brown rocks. I could see a large island and two smaller ones to its right. We began posing for pictures with those islands on the backdrop. I also asked our companion named Grace to take a few pictures that included me. However, the wind picked up speed and concealed our view with the stubborn mist from time to time. We could not do anything but accept the circumstances. It was not for us to control the weather.

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The Blogger admiring the view despite being limited. He is also looking forward to the future

We stayed on top of the Rockies for at least 30 minutes. In the end, we only had a glimpse instead of a scenic view of Taal Lake due to the fog. Our trekking party then descended through the same rocky and steep way. We jumped down a point that we climbed before with bare hands (except for Aya who brought gloves) and footwear. I looked for our hiking sticks but they were simply out of sight. I wondered if they were brought to the ‘7-Eleven’ resting station. We held on to that black rope along the trail again. Rhea and I had a funny conversation and we were joined by a guide who introduced himself as JR. We complimented his sense of humor.

Back at ‘7-Eleven,’ my walking staff was simply gone. Yet my other companions held theirs while sitting around a table. Rhea told me to let it go. She lost hers too. I did not blame anyone. Some things would go missing for a good reason. Perhaps that stick might hinder me later.

20161015_111342Our party of around 30 people assembled for lunch. We ate separately as two groups. I brought out deep-fried slices of eggplant. Rhea sliced a few tomatoes. I cut two of those purple-dyed salted eggs in half and scooped out the solidified white and yolk. Egg and tomatoes were mixed into a Filipino dish seen commonly. Our fellows shared adobo, which was meat cooked in soy sauce and vinegar, canned food, and more rice. Cocoa-based chocolates in foil wrappers were shared, along with chocolate-covered marshmallows. I had a full belly. It was one of the best lunch breaks in my treks so far.

Noon approached but there was no sweltering heat due to an overcast sky. We had our backpacks again. Our hiking party followed a trail20161015_112059 opposite to the way towards the Rockies. Tall grass grew around the path but it did not choke us. This area was relatively open. Yet I was sure it would not be like this all the way to the summit. A forested mountaintop stood proudly to our right. It was the summit of Mt Maculot.

20161015_113043Alvin and Rhea were my hiking buddies during the ascent. Soon the grass transformed into leafy bushes and ferns. Hardwood trees stretched towards a gray sky. The surroundings grew dimmer. There was undergrowth everywhere. We entered a literal jungle. Plants seemed to be breathing as if they were sentient. My eyeglasses got cloudy from the humidity. The dirt trail felt soft under my shoes. It still looked more of a path within a public park or a botanical garden.

The way ahead became steeper and our legs bore the brunt of the hike. Rhea panted as she mentioned her sore feet. She chose to wear sandals instead of shoes in anticipation of rainy weather. It was more difficult to deal with wet shoes. Rhea also stopped moving from time to time to recuperate. She had not done nature walks for weeks. Yet she looked forward to climb Mt Daraitan in Rizal province. Alvin and I had been there before. We discouraged Rhea jokingly because the trail up that mountain would be several times worse than this. The three of us pressed on. Rhea loved outdoor adventures. I believed her body would be more accustomed to the rigors of trekking if she hiked more often.

Minutes passed endlessly and the summit was still out of sight. Our guides said it would be reached from ‘7-Eleven’ within 45 minutes to one hour. Of course, those guys moved much faster and more agile than the average hiker.

To make matters worse, parts of the trail consisted of slippery mud. I was grateful there were branches, tree trunks, and even exposed roots to hold on to. The humid air turned misty. We were hiking south of Manila but at that time the surroundings resembled a mossy forest in the Cordillera mountain range up north. Air temperature seemed to drop too. However, my forehead and scalp were sweating profusely. The warmth of the forest mixed with the cold of the fog, turning the soil moist.

At 12:15 PM, the three of us finally arrived at the summit after an arduous walk. Trees did not grow closely together, giving way into a clearing. Bluish gray fog hid the landscape below and around us like it did atop the Rockies. It was even worse here. I could say there was nearly zero visibility. A chilly wind slapped my face. Some of our female companions had their hair blown into disorder. The cold felt soothing though. Chatter filled the air.

Our companions posed for photos beside a decorative sign that indicated the summit of Mt Maculot. Two wooden posts held it upright. Previous visitors wrote graffiti with ball-point pen and hand. At least those unwanted marks did not ruin the sign. We posed by batches and I waited for my turn. Rhea asked me to take several snapshots of her and I did. She returned the favor later. All of us there took more photos, chatted, sat down, and had fun. The rest of our companion came gradually in small groups. Our hiking party assembled at the summit for an epic group picture featuring our logo on a piece of tarpaulin. Tiger the dog joined us as well.

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It was too foggy at the summit. Yet we still reached it without mishap and with smiling faces. 

There was a trail other than the one we took to reach the summit. We followed it on our way down. Our descent began at around 1 PM. At first, this path seemed amiable. The ground was dry instead of muddy. We all looked forward to get out of this mountain sooner and have a bath. Our group’s pace was quicker than before. Then we entered the jungle again and difficulties began to show up.

I failed to notice a better trail to my left. It felt like walking into a dead end. I was forced to crouch down, move slowly down a slope of moist soil, and take hold of roots of a plant I did not know. Thorns like countless miniature needles covered a tree trunk that I nearly touched. Alvin did so. He complained about pain on his palms. Then he asked for water to wash the dirt off his hands and examine the extent of injury. Alvin plucked those thorns off one by one. The two of us nearly slipped at that spot too. A fellow hiker named Reechee Torlao passed by nimbly. She seemed at home in this forested and uneven terrain.

20161015_125230Our march down Mt Maculot came to a halt. Our hiking party ended up as a long line of people who chatted and played music from mobile phones as we waited tediously. Alvin, Rhea, and I were closer to the rear and we could not see what was going on. Leaves and branches closed in on us everywhere.

Eventually, I saw what delayed our downhill trek. The way ahead was too steep that walking through it was simply impossible. We had to grip an even thicker and tougher rope than the one near the Rockies. It seemed close to an actual rappelling experience. Only one person could do it at a time. Then my turn came. I turned to my back, held the rope very tight, and moved carefully to avoid slipping. Amazingly, I felt more excited than nervous. With enough distance between me and Alvin, I called on him to begin making his way down. He said I should go a little further as he might slide down and we would bump into each other violently. I heeded his advice and everything went well. A guide also helped me by telling what to hold and where to place my foot. I gripped branches and a bamboo too. As I progressed through this challenging part of the traverse, the ground grew less steep. Pressure mounted in my legs as I did everything to secure my footing. When I reached the end of this ordeal, those hiking companions ahead of me were already gone.

I sighed with relief when following the trail required less physical effort. Trees grew densely all around us. Only little of the sky could be seen. The melodious song of an unseen bird could be heard. I found myself at the forefront of our smaller trekking party. Going ahead of my companions, I turned into a pathfinder. I could have been donning a safari outfit, hacking a way through dense foliage with the help of a bolo knife. Plants did not grow that thick though. Left alone momentarily, my thoughts wandered into uncertainties with interpersonal relationships and the future.

Time went by. There was no end in sight. We caught up with our fellows because they stopped as a long line again.

It was more daunting than the section we rappelled down before. This one also involved rappelling. However, we would descend one by one through a nearly vertical rock formation rather than a sloping dirt path. It also took us more time to overcome. Alvin went in before Rhea and I followed her. Justine was behind me. Standing on a ledge, I held on to a log that not only acted as something for trekkers to grip but also secured the rope for rappelling. One of the guides asked me to support that log. There was a slight possibility it might get dislodged. Then it would come crashing down on guides and hikers. My companions and I would also be stuck on the trail if there was no way to go around the rock formation.

I watched Rhea as she rappelled down with the assistance of guides. The rope could not handle the weight of two people descending at the same time. I waited a little longer. Then a guide finally told me it was my turn. I gripped the heavy rope, rotated, and faced a smooth rock surface. Carefully, I wedged my right and left foot successively into slits or cracks as the guide instructed. My hands slid until they touched a knot on the rope. Again I moved my legs, secured my footing, and grabbed another knot. Eventually, my feet left the vertical surface and landed on rock with a slope of 45 degrees. I could find my way down without further assistance. Another guide said I could stop following their tips and improvise with movement. I nodded my head. The challenge ended when I jumped and my feet landed on soil, rather than continue walking on rock and risk slipping. Then I thanked the guide before looking for Alvin and Rhea.

20161015_133837I stumbled upon Rhea following a short walk from the rock formation. Alvin was nearby. We waited for Aya. She came a few minutes later. The four of us continued the trek downhill. Tall trees made the place spookier in the fading light. It was past 2 PM and the sky remained gray. Sweat dripped on my face. The humid air blurred my eyeglasses again. Then we found an abandoned hiking staff. Alvin, Rhea, and I did not want it but Aya did. Now she had two trekking sticks for each hand. Aya wore gloves too. She pressed on happily. Rocks, roots, and more dirt lay on the trail. There was no end to it and we began complaining. Our destination was a grotto and it was still out of sight. The four of us kept on walking but only more trees greeted us. They seemed sinister in the dim surroundings.

Woodland gave way into a grassy clearing. We could see fencing and what looked like a wooden resting station with benches and a roof. Joy and eagerness resonated from our voices.

The trail led us up a hill. It was almost treeless. Cogon grass covered the landmark completely and danced with the breeze. I had a sensation of heading towards an otherworldly place. The difficulties in descending from Mt Maculot were virtually gone. This place could serve as an epitome of calm and relaxation, despite the rainy weather.

Atop the hill lay the grotto. It featured statues of Our Lady of Lourdes housed inside a decorative structure made of rock. Two huge Latin crosses stood on the left and right and they were painted white. The religious icons commemorated the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France in 1858. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church 75 years later. Regardless of beliefs, the place also brought spiritual calm as it offered a view of a town surrounded by mountains and forests. Closeness to nature could do wonders to not only the physical body but also the inner self as well.

We followed a cemented path and passed by a few designated stations in the form of simple concrete sculptures. Then it became dirt again. I could not help but frown. My legs yearned for a break. My body looked forward to a bath with cool water. Still, this day hike did not cause total exhaustion. It ended with a ten-minute tricycle ride back to our starting point.

The traverse through Mt Maculot and a visit to its Rockies came with disappointment as fog obscured our view. Nevertheless, the trekking experience and the companionship of hiking buddies were more than memorable. I looked forward to more outdoor adventures and better things to come.