“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.
Past 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.
I 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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
This 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.
A 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.
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.
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. 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.
A 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.