A Hike for Two

My hike at Mt Talamitam on March 11, 2018 could be said as one of my best hikes ever. Given its proximity to my hometown, travel came with relative comfort. Walking on its trail felt less strenuous compared to many mountains in this rugged archipelago. It was also as if my prayer for an amiable weather got answered. Furthermore, I spent the day not with a group but with just one amazing person.

About nine months, enough for an infant to be delivered, passed since I last climbed Mt Talamitam. A friend named Amena Mae invited me with her companions “Chinee,” “Ge-ge,” and JP. That hike served as a comeback following ample time away from the mountains. Honestly, it went well but not too much. In November 2017, I went to Mt Nagpatong in Rizal Province, invited again by a fellow trekking enthusiast. Then another span of time passed without hiking, opting to stay at home instead to watch movies online or sleep my troubles away.

In March 2018, I met Kristine “Kris” Camama. We both hailed from Cavite, living in cities adjacent to one another. The two of us shared common values and interests, hiking among them. I asked her if she wanted to hike Mt Talamitam. Kris agreed.

Darkness still cloaked the land at nearly 4 AM. Kristine and I first glanced at each other inside a 7-Eleven® convenient store along a highway. While she was clad in a red cotton jacket, I wore a bright orange long-sleeved quick-dry suit. It was the closest I could come up with blaze overalls for visibility. Kris and I brought ample beverages, snacks, and our lunch crammed in medium-sized backpacks. As soon as we met up, a bus passed minutes later that took us to the jump-off point. Sitting side by side, Kris and I chatted about random things. Both time and the bus flew like a swallow darting in mid-air. Homes and restaurants slid past the window. It was not my first hike without a guide but it would be with a sole companion. With optimism, I hoped every moment would be worth it.

At around 5:30 AM, the bus dropped us at Kilometer 68. The exactly same houses from last year’s climb still stood there. Back then, our group arrived at 12 AM, when nocturnal darkness and slumber kept people within homes or tents. We waited four hours in relative solitude to begin hiking. Today, fellow trekkers were already lining up to register. Kris wrote her name along mine. Then I signed. The two of us agreed to start walking when enough of the bluish light of dawn illuminated our way. We sat on a shed constructed of bamboo, tarpaulin posters hanging beside us. Kris shared a bit of sunblock lotion. She asked why I did not use it much. I replied with an inherent (or socially constructed) nature of males to be more rugged and grimy than our female counterparts. I maintained good hygiene but not too much.

As time passed, Kris recognized a fellow named Paul. It was her fourth time today at Mt Talamitam after all. I also recalled him. The three of us wished glad tidings to one another as Kris and I departed for the summit.

The tranquility of a typical Sunday morning marked our stroll. Kristine and I went past a noisy group of hikers numbering about ten people. My companion shared how she left her pair of shoes in a motor tricycle. I recounted to her how the sole of my shoe broke off on the trail during my first Mt Purgatory traverse. Those footwear could have been repaired but I forgot them in the jeepney.

Suddenly, two dogs from behind us came running and barking. No one ran. Kris and I both knew that taking flight would arouse their instinct to chase. The canines stopped and kept on barking. We stood our ground. Then a man driving a motorcycle with a sidecar came out of nowhere. Rather than stay on foot and be left at the mercy of those aggressive dogs, I asked the guy if Kris and I could hitch a ride. At least he could accompany us too. The man agreed. The three-wheeled vehicle sped off on a bumpy downhill road but the dogs ran beside us. Our driver said that he owned those canines and was on the way to the river. Regret seeped into my blood until it circulated my entire body. Kris and I held on tight as the sidecar behaved like an amusement park ride. Now the dogs were less scary for her. A few minutes passed. The still anonymous but helpful fellow dropped us at the river crossing. At least no one got bitten by his pets.

The familiar bamboo bridge emerged into view. Kris and I would be hiking without a guide and the trails forked to both left and right. We stepped on rocks to cross a creek, resting for five minutes beside the meek body of water. Kris recalled that she was advised to keep on going right. At this point we did.

Nothing but wild greenery surrounded the trail. My hiking partner and I strolled casually yet the feeling of being lost crept into my mind. Only our voices pierced the silence. Even the signs of other hikers disappeared. It was stark desolation. The dirt path went uphill until it led us to two rustic huts. We could ask for directions but no one was present, let alone awake. Then a white dog barked at us furiously. Kris and I turned back only to find a barking brown dog blocking our way. My heartbeat raced. Adrenaline rushed. A sense of fear got replaced by a readiness to slam my backpack and kick these animals, hence a fight or flight situation. Kris kept reminding me not to look at their eyes, as if they never existed at all. We trod amid the alarming noise until the defensive canines were gone. Silence filled the trail again. I had been coping with a phobia of dogs since I got chased by one at age eight. It was worse before. The sight of virtually every canine terrified me. Then I lost fear with mild-tempered dogs, such as those wandering the streets and not lunging at passers-by. Still, the phobia was rooted from the incurable rabies virus. I did not mind getting bitten by these four-legged results of humans breeding wolves artificially had they not carried the disease. Yet today, I conquered a significant part of my phobia.

Back at the bamboo bridge, the large group that Kris and I bypassed earlier just crossed it and followed the trail we should have taken. My partner and I tagged along. We chatted with a guide named Greg, who stayed at the group’s rear as the ‘sweeper.’ This time, I recognized the way. Trees grew abundantly around the ascending path that stole our breath due to fatigue. My heartbeat, and Kristine’s as well, were already racing since encountering dogs twice.

A black cow showed up just meters from the trail, multiple tree trunks serving as obstacles between us and the beast. It was not a carabao. It was literally a bovine with fur having the color of charcoal. I recalled strongly my second Mt Purgatory traverse when my companion named “Len” referred a carabao to as a ‘black cow.’ Back here at Mt Talamitam, I took a snapshot and would send it to “Len” later, assuring this animal was not as mythological as a dragon or a griffon.

Calm mixed with happiness when Mt Talamitam’s famous open areas greeted us. We left the trees for seemingly hectares of grass constantly trimmed by grazing cattle. With livestock came innumerable pieces of manure on the ground, obviously. Kris and I both agreed that they were not that bad. ‘Cow pie’ lacked a powerful stench and it came solely from grass. It was not that bad.

29066286_1590281637715576_5245642570209427456_oKris and I sat beside one another on a hillside. On our front lay a sight made more majestic by the surreal lighting of the slowly rising sun. Beyond this spot was woodland, then more grazing land. Houses and villages dotted the green landscape. On the horizon stood Mt Batulao. I took a picture of the scenery as Kris looked how it was done. At this moment, I taught her the ‘rule of thirds’ in photography and the visual arts. Kris took her mobile phone out for a snapshot and applied this rule. My shoulder and cheek touched hers and vice versa. We sat down together on the grass for minutes, as if we had our own world away from our fellow hikers. It was an indescribable feeling.

A makeshift food stand served as our next resting point. A man and a woman, likely a married couple but I did not bother to ask, oversaw the place. They sold hard-boiled eggs, boiled plantains (called saba bananas in the Philippines), meat skewered in wooden sticks as kebab to be grilled, and mabolo fruits. Also known as velvet apples, these would not appear frequently in wet markets in my hometown. Curiosity got the better of me. A small white dog appeared to share my inquisitiveness. Unlike its fellows that Kris and I came upon earlier, this one did not bark at people threateningly. It stayed quiet as if one could call it his or her own pet. Then two men, riding on carabaos and accompanied by a pack of equally friendly dogs, arrived at the scene. It happened when Kris and I were leaving towards the summit. This group of animals and men eventually caught up with us. A thin little brown dog jumped at me playfully. I felt a complete absence of fear and confidence that this creature would not do any harm. I jokingly complained that dogs were chasing me but asked why women would not.

29101576_1590282107715529_6728909160810807296_oKris held my left arm. We walked side by side on this windswept patch of land. During my previous Mt Talamitam hike, my face seeped with sweat past 7 AM. Now it felt like trudging through a blizzard without the snow. At least Kris and I sort of got our wish for a clear but relatively cool weather fulfilled. It seemed a paradise on Earth. The sun shone with a light that did not glare and a warmth that did not sear. The constant wind kept us from perspiring. Yet Kris shivered, her body less tolerant of cold compared to mine. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her upper body. Meanwhile, I embraced the icy wind, hoping it would prevent me from contracting another bout of allergy. Yet there was a summer afternoon’s warmth in Kristine’s companionship. Additionally, this place seemed more of an otherworldly paradise with its lack of wild-looking trees. Short grasses stretched around us for kilometers. It was that place and moment I would prefer to stay eternal. I hoped time would freeze for the two of us. However, this meant breaking the law of physics. The best I could do was treasure every second as Kris and I approached the summit.

Another vendor stand served as a resting place. This one peddled coconut juice. Kris and I sat down on a bench, made up of pieces of bamboo toughened by age and the elements, to relax. Then we took a selfie. Kristine and I had been taking pictures of us together since sitting in the bus. Later on, we would have a selfie after the hike and compare it with one before walking, when we looked fresh. At the same time, trekkers nearby had begun dismantling their tents as their overnight stay came to a close. As these fellows packed their belongings, Kris and I went our way.

Just in front of a grove of trees lay a lush field where three carabaos stood lazily. A few hikers followed the curved unpaved path that led up the mountain. I discussed with Kris where should we head as the trail split in two. We went down a low slope near a larger makeshift structure with sturdy poles, a roof, and benches. Everything was normal until one of the carabaos blocked our path. Rather than risk getting gored by an unpredictable beast, Kris and I veered off the trail and found our way round. Purple flowers grew on the grasses we disturbed and trod. I injected humor by pretending as a host of a nature documentary, uttering sentences in fluent English. We were chased by African wild dogs and now buffaloes surrounded us in the heart of the savanna. Kristine could not help but laugh. It felt natural rather than another scheme to impress her. One of my traits involved putting witty humor when the opportunity came. As I presented my mock documentary I thought of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin. I even remembered the Nickelodeon cartoon series The Wild Thornberrys, which I watched often as a kid. I would be Nigel and Kris would be Marianne. My hiking partner even suggested recording this moment on video. We made it past one carabao but a bull with its apparently bigger horns stood nearby. Kristine and I just walked calmly past it.

The topic shifted from nature documentaries to wilderness survival shows. Kris and I both watched Man Versus Wild, starring Bear Grylls and aired on Discovery Channel. We recalled scenes such as making shelter out of branches, eating snakes, and of course drinking piss.

An enormous hill, with the summit of Mt Talamitam atop, loomed before us. Our uphill ordeal began. The ascent drained ample amounts of energy and oxygen from our bodies. I felt a strain in my legs and saw it more apparently in Kristine. Her latest climb dated back to October of the previous year. Our faces and arms brushed against tall grass. It was exactly like my first Mt Talamitam hike except for a few differences. While I bathed in sweat before, this time the dim sky and the wind gave me the feeling of standing in front of an electric fan turned on with maximum power. Instead of a short-sleeved gray T-shirt, I wore a long-sleeved orange outfit that protected my arms from grass blades. Kris and I took five-minutes breaks rather than a fifteen-minute rest. Furthermore, there were no horses and their riders today. My companion and I caught up with that large group of fellow trekkers. They stopped from time to time for chatting, laughing, and taking photos. Greg still accompanied them. Kristine and I pushed onward until a small vending stand marked the summit itself.

29062941_1590282021048871_6900380893970432000_oPeople of various ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds nearly filled an uneven space about as large as a basketball court. They already occupied the best spots for viewing the surroundings. It did not matter. Kris and I had been here before. Photos of the breath-taking landscape could be forgone. We put our backpacks on the ground, sat next to each other fondly, and shared personal stories. Bit by bit, more of our lives and character were revealed to one another. Our heartfelt conversation lasted at least twenty minutes. Then we decided to take a few snapshots of our own. Kris and I waited for our turn as three girls, most likely still studying in college, sought out perfect angles and facial expressions. Then Kristine and I did it relatively quickly.

The adjacent Mt Apayang lay patiently in wait for us. Another trail passed through a spot with grass cut down by machetes as if harvested. The place accommodated a few tents to pitch. Then the path twisted and turned as it ran downhill. Kristine and I did not have to endure mud this time but the loose sandy soil challenged our balance. We took careful steps. Then the ground grew even. We knew it would then be uphill all the way. Bushes and tall grass cloaked steep surfaces where one would roll down painfully or worse after slipping off the trail. I advanced past Kris at this point so I stayed behind her instead for us to match our pacing. We did not talk much. Personal connection could still be formed through silence. I told Kris that the distance from Mt Talamitam’s summit to that of Mt Apayang could be covered in fifteen minutes. I proved to be mistaken. When it appeared that we reached our destination, another hill strewn with rocks and wild foliage showed up. The ordeal lasted about thirty minutes.

A group of hikers lingered at the summit of Mt Apayang. They were about to leave. I wondered if the shack here still stood. It did, to my relief. Kris and I would have our lunch here instead of down there at the jump-off point, vulnerable to the lack of space from crowds along with cats and dogs begging for scraps. Our itinerary went smoothly so far. Fermin, the same popsicle ice cream peddler I met last year, was also present. This moment turned into a reunion. He then showed Kris which mountains could be seen at the horizon. She might have climbed Mt Talamitam four times already but this was her first experience of Mt Apayang. Again, Kristine and I laid down our backpacks and had another time-stopping chat, sharing more aspects of our personality. We took selfies of us beside one another, looking adorable as if people thought of us as a couple. I felt comfortable with her as if she was a loved one from another life. Kris noted that our faces looked alike. I agreed. She joked that we could be long-lost siblings. Then we laughed heartily. The two of us had more snapshots on a rock near the edge at one corner of the summit. Another group consisting of three men and a woman greeted us.

The time for lunch came. Kris brought two pieces of the so-called ‘Uncle John’s’ fried chicken she bought from a convenience store, along with two balls of moist rice. I packed rice in a tough plastic container. My meal came in the form of canned tuna caldereta, consisting of tomato sauce, peas, and tiny potato cubes. Kristine and I shared food as if it was a picnic. Instead of sitting on a picnic cloth on the grass, we sat on a bench constructed of cut bamboo pieces. The roofing seemed flimsy but it already withstood typhoons. That group of four climbers also sought shelter and dined with Kris and I. Amiable and somewhat humorous conversation improved the mood for lunch. We ate until we finished meals completely. Pieces of trash would be disposed later.

Kristine and I became the only people staying at Mt Apayang after our acquaintances left. They would head for a dip in the river near the village on the jump-off point. A guide advised them not to take a seemingly mysterious trail, which was closed to the public for reasons we did not know. Kris took a nap, lying her back on the bench. She asked me to wake her up after ten minutes. My hiking partner shivered, her shawl functioning as a blanket too. The sky grew gray as clouds gathered suddenly. The lighting went dim. The air temperature dropped down, making me restless. Ten minutes were up. Concerned with getting caught under the rain as the only two people at Mt Apayang, Kristine and I hurried down the mountain.

Descending at Mt Apayang took only about half the time as making our way up. As with many climbs I had been, something more than gravity dragged us down with ease. Perhaps it was the desire to rest continuously and take a shower. It might be our side trip in Tagaytay city. Here, it was simply to escape a downpour. Kris and I were exposed to harsh elements and lacked rain gear. Yet the weather disagreed. Past 10 AM, the nearly midday sun scorched us with intensified rays, scattered while unseen. My skin and clothes felt hot. I panted. Meanwhile, Kris walked quickly ahead of me. Our recent meal gave her a driving energy. She teased me jokingly to chase her. I found her a woman to share plenty of laughs with. Our conversation also grew gradually from minimal to ample. It gave life to an otherwise silent mountain devoid of any human being. I felt humbled once realizing that Kris and I were virtually alone, surrounded at all sides by raw nature. Soon, we reached the lowest point between Mt Apayang and Mt Talamitam.

Another trail led to an alternative way to our jump-off. We agreed to trace our way from where we came. It would lead us back at Mt Talamitam’s summit. It might not be the easier way but it was surer. Additionally, Kristine and I would come upon fellow hikers to be far from isolation and subsequent peril. (Later on, a guide advised us to head back and follow that ‘shortcut’ but we insisted otherwise.)

Kris and I kept strolling. Then we returned to that inclined part of this trail with little to hold on to. I crouched to distribute body weight more evenly and avoid slipping. Kristine thought deeply of the verb for leaning forward. It was crouched, she recalled. Her eyes lit up like those of Archimedes when he uttered “eureka.” After that, our ascent felt effortless as if a mere minute passed before we approached the summit. Two Caucasian-looking women were hiking towards Mt Apayang. I initiated a casual conversation. They parted from us as soon as we met them. Kris and I muttered that they spoke in a ‘British’ accent. ‘English’ would be the more accurate term. Still, I could not distinguish whether it was Northern, Southern, or from the Midlands.

We found ourselves back at Mt Talamitam’s summit with no time to stay. Kris and I simply did not want to. We walked onward. Descent now went slower for us as the likelihood of slipping increased. Careful footing was the key to staying uninjured.

29063114_1590298127713927_5074423948062490624_nSoon, the wide expanse of the eye-pleasing pastureland lay before us. Kristine and I took additional pictures with it on the background. Suddenly, droplets of water fell from the sky. The two of us faced impending rain. Yet miraculously it did not progress into a downpour, not even a drizzle. As tall grass gave way to its way shorter counterpart, the sun unleashed its full force again. We were glad for bringing a cap. That of Kristine was plain green with a short brim. Mine bore a woodland pattern similar to those worn by hunters in North America.

29063316_1590298287713911_4359380939172741120_nThe excursion became leisurely once more as a relaxing stroll. Kris wrapped her arm around one of mine. We talked about a wide range of topics — romantic relationships, work, and even television shows. The two of us exchanged greetings with fellow hikers still ascending to the summit. Despite the absence of trees, the wind kept the surrounding temperature mild and tolerable. Yet walking all morning was taking its toll. Kris and I rested at the coconut juice stand, helping ourselves with a cup of that drink maintained cold by ice. After bidding farewell to the kind vendors, Kristine and I continued on our way. At one instance, we ran past other hikers while holding hands and laughing. She was enjoyable to be with and I hoped she felt the same with me.

Shadows littered the ground as trees popped up everywhere. This walk in the woods should take up less time compared to those of my previous treks where forests covered the entire mountain. Trails forked to both left and right, arousing concern for getting lost. The guide seemed to disappear. At this point of the hike, Kristine and I talked about action-packed movies. We recalled those where a sole protagonist or a small group got chased by hundreds of enemies. Kristine and I, along with fellow trekkers, found ourselves strolling on a cemented path slowly worn down by cracks and algae. It led us to a familiar river. We had reached the village. Kris and I stuck to the gray river bank, skipped on some rocks on a  crossing just a few meters wide, and ascended on to the road.

A concrete bridge lined with metal railings marked the boundary between the comfort of human habitation and the uncertainty of the outdoors. Kris and I crossed it while accompanied by a big group of hikers. We let them pass as the two of us had some respite and drank beverages.

When our walk resumed, I just realized this time with Kristine at Mt Talamitam was coming to an end. It was a bliss too magnanimous to describe. Like all things good it would find its limit at some time and in one way. Amid the houses and the people, our surroundings grew quiet. Kris and I absorbed every second of our companionship. We kept it deeply in our memories and hearts.

The highway appeared and along with it came Francis. He served as my guide during that previous trek here. I contacted him days ago. Earlier today, he called me through mobile phone more than once, repeatedly asking where was I and how I fared. We caught up on stories after I finished taking a bath and Kris took her turn. While resting before a shower, Kristine and I had a selfie which surprisingly showed how fresh we looked despite walking for hours. At 1:30 PM, the two of us rode a bus for beef marrow soup or bulalo at Tagaytay city.

Kristine and I before (left) and after (right) the hike

I considered my second hike at Mt Talamitam to be one of my most memorable treks ever. Not a bit of bitterness and regret bothered me. I did not contract an allergic reaction this time. This was the first time I met Kristine in person and would be looking forward for more travels with her in the future.

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On Tents and Camping

My first experience of camping overnight, in its definition as much as possible, was during the first year of high school. I did not have my own tent. My classmate had one. Instead of an untamed hillside or a jungle clearing, we made camp at the open ground in front of another campus of my school. The scent of sun-scorched grass filled my nostrils at times before and after noon. This smell mixed with that of synthetic material that comprised the tent, which also absorbed the heat of the tropical sun. Such weather condition would turn water in a plastic bottle from cool to lukewarm in fifteen minutes. My bag and clothes seemed ironed. This grassy area within the school grounds made me think of the Mongolian steppes, only hotter. In fact, the extracurricular activity appeared more as a fairground than as a campsite. Yet it went under the term ‘camping.’ At night, the grounds became alive with chatter, singing, strumming of guitars, and music from portable devices. It was back in 2004, during the heyday of the iPod. The air grew colder as midnight approached. Lack of trees caused the extremes in temperature obviously. It was the first time I would sleep in an actual tent, made of some waterproof cloth and propped up by bendable sticks. I could not doze off. There was no sleeping bag. The noise from fellow campers continued past midnight. The sound of snoring also echoed inside my ears. The transition from the bunk bed in my home to the interior of a tent could be described as abrupt. This went on for another night. Our camping lasted three days. When it ended and we went home, I felt like returning to the comforts of electricity, running water, and a soft bed after getting lost in the wilderness.

For the next three years I kept on attending this annual activity. Actually, my school held it twice. One was for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The other had an environmental science theme. I got assigned into teams, gave my best during competitive games, laughed with my fellows, and endured whatever was provided for us to eat. Still, I did not have my own tent. I had to ask my classmates or even students from another year for accommodation. Poor social skills characterized most of my high school years. Childhood came to an imminent end. Adolescence meant accepting the realities of adulthood bit by bit while dealing with hormones simultaneously. Fortunately, I got out of this phase a better person.

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It would be years later, after graduating from the university and getting employed in an office setting, that I would go camping again. I had taken three jobs already. Then in this seemingly paradise, I met a couple from another department randomly who happened to be outdoor enthusiasts. My interest in hiking began. It turned into overnight camping – this time the real deal. In fact, my first official mountain climb involved bringing a tent. In November 2015, our group stayed at Mt Daraitan for one night. We did not pitch tents near the summit. We settled down on gray sand at the banks of Tinipak River. It took us more than an hour of strolling beside a glimmering river, then descending a makeshift wooden ladder and jumping atop boulders, to reach this site. Despite being larger than usual, my backpack still lacked room for the cloth case for my tent and accessories. So I tied the handles to my bag or I would carry it all the way. I needed an even bigger backpack like my fellows had. Such was the challenge in doing something the first time. When our tents were finally set up, daylight faded fast. This time, there were no concrete buildings and open grassy spaces. Countless jungle trees surrounded us, sprouting out of hills with vertical rock faces that seemed to crumble. The river spanned wide enough for jumping on to it from a tower of limestone. Hearing only the sound of the current along with bird calls seemed lonely except that our chatter outdid the ambience. While my other companions swam and waded, some began preparing dinner. Our trekking party had more than just canned food. Our supper included chicken stew, hot dogs, and a vegan dish of mushrooms, tofu, and oyster sauce. The darkness of night might appear frightening out here but our tranquil surroundings offered more relief. I would prefer it to the vibrant chaos of the capital city after the sun had set. Only social interaction, reminiscent to that of prehistoric folks around a fire, delayed me from sleeping. This time, my tent also came with a sleeping bag.

More hikes followed, some of them came with camping. Over time, not only my gear improved but also I grew accustomed to spending a night outdoors, far from the comforts of a foam bed and a fluorescent lamp. It was not one hundred percent fun. Yet camping had its own incomparable joys such as the camaraderie of fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Camping would also build relationships. It would strengthen bonds from getting to know one another better and accepting people.

 

Stars Covered by Clouds

I thought that weekend camping trip would be cancelled due to monsoon rains driven by atmospheric low pressure and a tropical depression. By Friday, the skies cleared up. Saturday came with a rather hot noon with the sun shining brightly. Yet by 3 AM on the following day, a downpour made us scurry into tents at our camp at the summit.

Located just north of Metro Manila, Mt Balagbag offers a weekend getaway that can be reached from Quezon City in more than one hour, even faster if not for the traffic. It rises 770 meters above sea level. Mt Daraitan (which I climbed before this one) has just the same altitude but the trail there slopes steeply in zigzag fashion, the rock surfaces and jungle bringing further challenge. Mt Balagbag has a friendlier terrain to navigate. Its trail difficulty rests at 3/9. Hiking here has been considered a minor climb.

A girl wearing eyeglasses and clad in a yellow shirt waited beside me at the entrance to the Jollibee® fastfood branch at Farmer’s Market, Quezon City. It was situated conveniently just beside the renowned Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). She looked familiar. I stood there waiting for Elena “Len” Ibana. She invited me to an overnight camping at Mt Balagbag. It also just happened that it was exactly one year since I met her at a fishing trip in Valenzuela City. She arrived just three minutes before 2 PM. I failed to notice Lawrence “Angel” Fetalvero, one of our companions in the trek. Later on, Cassandra “Cas” Gubatan and Juno Nario came. Meeting Cas made me recall how I met Ren Emradura, who organized my most recent trip to Mt Daraitan and invited me there. Cas and Ren shared a hairstyle and wore black when I first got to know them at almost the same spot inside that Jollibee® outlet. I had finished lunch. Cas, Juno, and Len dined as we compared our backpacks. I brought the one I used for overnight treks. It accompanied me at Mt Amuyao and the Purgatory traverse. Len tried to lift jeeringly with one hand. She could not. Juno commented that it was for a five-day hike. Cas bought Lawrence a new backpack. It was past 3 PM when we left for Mt Balagbag.

Some of my trips to a climb’s jump-off point, such as this one, involved riding a bus or jeepney rather than renting a van for a more convenient travel. The five of us then climbed on board a bus at Cubao, Quezon City with the destination called Tungko. At first, we had no seats. We stood up as chatting kept us relieved. One by one, our fellow passengers got off until we all had a seat. I shut my eyes and napped. Upon waking up, the bus had reached SM Fairview, a relatively large shopping mall. I stayed awake. Moderate to heavy traffic consumed time as our bus moved towards our destination. Distance was huge too. My mobile phone showed that it was 5 PM. Later on, vehicles of all sorts piled up in a line amid a scenery of rolling plains and wind turbines at the horizon. Passengers complained about the traffic, remarking about a car crash. Len asked us to just walk all the way. I could not answer. I had never been to this place before. The bus inched, halted, and inched again until we got out of the traffic jam. Our group dropped by near another SM shopping mall.

A short walk brought us to a local Jollibee® branch to rendezvous with two more companions. Aileen “Jessy” Epiz and CJ dela Rosa waited for us outside. We all sat down, had some rest, and filled our conversations with laughter. CJ remained to join his respective fellows. The rest of us rode a jeepney at a rustic place called Licao-Licao Terminal. It sounded like the Tagalog word ‘ligaw,’ which meant either ‘being lost’ or ‘courtship’ depending which syllable had the stress.

The sky had an orange glow as our public transport vehicle followed the lonely cemented rode under a sunset. We wished that we had arrived earlier, getting up the summit to witness this daily spectacle of nature. Time was not in our hands. Angel had the cheer, and audacity, to speak to our fellow passengers jokingly. He seemed fitting as a speaker or host to bring life to a formal event. Girls who were likely college students surrounded him to the left and right. Eventually, the surroundings went dim. Our driver turned the incandescent lights on. The black of night engulfed us as we got off the jeepney at a village. We bought cooked white rice in plastic bags, emptied our bladders, and began the hike. Another group of trekkers walked with us.

Just minutes ago, the full moon shone gloriously as a small white circle on the inky black heavens. Then clouds cloaked it ominously. Our voices echoed with tension as we remarked about it. I was rather unprepared to get caught under a downpour. Len shone her powerful flashlight on the way ahead as cement turned into dirt and mud. Mine did not give out light as brightly. I tripped into a puddle. Angel and I then followed her footsteps, literally. The three of us recounted tales from previous treks. Lawrence and Len described the trail at Mt Tapulao in Zambales province. Len could not forget how the rocks absorbed heat and then radiated it back to the already searing air. She could have felt like grilled in a barbecue. Walking in the darkness, this scene resembled uncannily the Mt Makiling traverse where Len and I, including our friends Brian and Xander, got caught by nighttime on a road like this. Back at Mt Balagbag, chatter from not only us but also the other hiking party broke the silence, replied with the distant barking of domestic dogs. A kitten’s eyes shone suddenly, distracting me. It then disappeared into the grass. Len thought I was hallucinating. I chuckled and did not mind. The air was hot. Humidity caused me to sweat much. In my mind I pointed out the cloud cover. Aileen, Cas, and Juno went ahead and disappeared from sight. Then the road turned into cement as the white wall of an elementary school lay to our left. The three of us caught up with our companions at the village hall nearby.

A moment after we registered for our overnight stay, my friend Dhon Develos arrived riding on a tricycle or what could be called a motor-powered pedicab. CJ came with him along with a bunch of our fellows. The group consisted of men except for one woman who went by the name of Jenelyn Francisco. Aileen and Cas remarked that she shared the name with an actress from the GMA-7 television network. Our trekking group was called Star Magic, after the sort of guild of actors and actresses in the rival ABS-CBN TV network. Aileen was Jessy Mendiola, Cas was Maja Salvador, Juno was John Lloyd Cruz, Lawrence was Angel Locsin, and Len was Anne Curtis. Later on, I found out that Dhon was Aljur Albrenica. I still had to come up of who would I be as an ABS-CBN actor. My friend Ren told me I resembled Rico Yan, who was already deceased. Once everyone had signed up and paid the entrance fee, the nocturnal hike commenced.

Shortly afterward, a pack of dogs stood on our way. Angel, Anne, and I were at the front of our now bigger party. The three of us approached the canines. One of the dogs barked as they all stared at us. It felt like we were encroaching their territory. As we walked by, another dog growled menacingly. One walked toward us as if to lunge and attack. Fear crept up my spine. It was the rabies virus, not the bite itself, that worried me. I always told people that dogs were like venomous snakes. Fortunately, no one got bitten at that time. The hounds knew better to keep distance. Still, that moment had the sensation of encountering a pack of wolves in the middle of the night. It made me recall the movie The Grey starring Liam Neeson. Angel lightened the mood by stating the dogs were his kin and he would shape shift later.

It became apparent that Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno were gone. Either they went far ahead of us or got left behind by using the restroom when we began walking. I suggested we rest a bit for them to catch up in case of the second possibility. Then we came upon a lit house that also sold snacks, beverages, and other stuff we could thank the Divine Providence for. Len asked a boy if he saw three people who passed by earlier. The boy said yes. However, Len expressed concern for the dirt road forked into two at this point. I assured her that common sense would lead them to the ascending path.

The uphill stretch of road sapped our strength. I could not think of anything but darkness, sweat, and fatigue. Our companions brought an incredibly bright lamp that gave us a patch of sunshine where everything was near-black. As our hike progressed, I chatted with them. I got to know Aldrin, Clarence, and Jasper. Jenelyn walked with us. Jasper held what looked like a sack of rice with other edible provisions for the night. I asked Aldrin if we had been together on a hike before at Mt Daguldol. He said no. Aldrin had a namesake during that climb back in June.

Mist shrouded our surroundings past a gate and a hut. We could not see beyond ten meters. Wisps of whitish smoke swirled in the air when shone by our lamp. The air grew cold. I was not sweating anymore. Lawrence and Len recalled a movie with that same frightening fog. I mentioned The Mist. Then it came to our minds. Silent Hill. The film adaptation of the the video game went on-screen back in 2006, followed by a sequel six years later. It was the mist upon entering the town called Silent Hill. Then the fog gobbled Lawrence up as he moved ahead of us. Len decided to stay in the rear. I chatted with Jasper. We advanced through the chilly mist like a party of trekkers climbing up a mountain in the Himalayas during a blizzard. We could also have been members of an expedition trudging the remote icy wasteland of the Arctic. Then a yellow excavator vehicle appeared out of nowhere, lying still by the road. It seemed a gigantic long-necked monster summoned by this fog, its sharp teeth giving a menacing look. This time, Silent Hill turned into Transformers. Yet the place only echoed with our voices. If we were not there it would have been incredibly quiet. Perhaps Silent Hill was fitting after all.

Our group caught up with Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno at an outpost. In fact, Len called Aileen earlier through mobile phone. The latter said she and her companions have already reached the summit. They did not and waited for us. It was too dark and I was quite tired to notice details of this building. I sat down with a parched throat, relieving it with sips of water and two tiny cups of jelly. We spent about ten minutes taking a break, chatting and laughing, before our ascent all the way to the summit.

We retraced the unpaved road a little bit then followed an alternative route at where it forked. Stones and pebbles littered the surface. The low air temperature also kept the ground firmly solid. Nevertheless, I stepped into something wet. It was more than just a puddle. Frigid water ran its course as a very small brook, trickling more than flowing. My shoe and sock got wet but not soaked. I did not mind. Amid the darkness our handheld lighting devices revealed that the area lacked trees completely. We hiked through a prairie – or more like a savanna. Dhon and I shared stories and caught up with one another. A full year had passed since we were together in an excursion. He missed the overnight getaway at Mt Gulugod Baboy with our mutual friends as he was at another relatively distant location at that time. Dhon carried a bag of provisions on his shoulder. My large backpack felt a bit lighter but it still strained my back. My fellows seemed as silhouettes, faces obscured by shadow rather than the darkness itself. I could not recognize who I was walking with. Thirty minutes passed since we left the outpost. Then I heard yelling while leading the way of our party. We had arrived at the summit. Two of our companions named Christian “Chan” Ararao and Jhay greeted us.

Going a little further, our hiking party walked back and forth on a grassy patch of land to determine whether it would be suitable as our campsite. A pile of rubbish lay near to a circle of ash and soot, which indicated the remnants of a campfire. Then we all agreed to pitch our tents at this spot. We helped one another. Bendable metal sticks propped up synthetic material that served as miniature temporary houses, gathered together as a festive village.

Once our camp was set up, we began preparing our dinner. Our menu included sliced salted duck eggs with chopped tomatoes and onion, sliced green mangoes, a bottle of shrimp paste, grilled chicken, and chicken adobo cooked by Cas. We cut black plastic trash bags in a way to become an improvised picnic cloth. Meanwhile, Clarence brought out a portable outdoor stove with a can of butane as source of fuel. Later on, he sautéed hot dogs with diced onions and chili, along with ketchup. My companions also brought out both hard and soft liquor. We laid the food on our improvised plastic ‘picnic cloth’ with boiled white rice in the middle. Then we dug in. Our group did not gobble food like a pack of wolves or hyenas. We ate with our hands but in an orderly and noble fashion. For me, it was one of the best meals I had while outdoors.

Later on, our hiking party played a game as we sat down in a circle. Someone would give a category of what to enumerate. For example, that person would say brand of clothing or color, then we would cite anything legitimate under that category without repeating what was already mentioned. It became a matter of general knowledge and a good ear. The game was mind-stimulating and fun at the same time. I knew my friend Dhon. He liked such intellectual stuff.

While in the middle of our game, bright and hazy lights shone without warning. Microscopic water droplets suspended in fog refracted the light, casting what appeared to be an aurora borealis. Aileen and Lawrence specifically remarked about it. Our imagination played with robots in Transformers again, along with other aliens (The Autobots and Decepticons were not of this world after all). The open ground at Mt Balagbag’s summit seemed ideal for an alien abduction. It turned out the distracting lights came from the headlamps of an off-road truck. The extra large wheels made it appear even more massive and imposing. The groan of engines came with the spine-chilling bark of a dog. From how the sound echoed we knew it was large and had pedigree. (On the following morning we saw with our own eyes it was a German Shepherd). I compared it to the dire wolves from the television series Game of Thrones, which was airing in its newest season. Then our fellow campers settled down and lit a campfire that turned into a bonfire like one for signalling rescuers. The whitish glare now had an orange glow. The smell of burning wood entered our nostrils. Regardless, our time for leisure went on. We teased one another playfully. Chatter and laughter kept the summit alive no matter how far we were from a bustling town.

Suddenly, an overweight orange tabby cat crept its way into our campsite. It was familiar to our fellows. People named the feline Garfield. It began eating our leftover food without our consent. Eventually, CJ had to lift up Garfield away from our camp. He sustained a few light scratches in the process.

It was 3 AM when our socialization event ended. Members of our trekking group entered the tents like farm workers retiring for the night. Then a drizzle came. Light rain escalated into a downpour. At this time, I took shelter in a tent with Chan, Juno, and Len. When the rain subsided, I went back to my own tent. The interior got only a bit wet. I unfurled my sleeping bag and slept on a dry but cold surface. Dozing off lasted only less than two hours, aroused once by the voices of passing campers from a group different from one with the off-road truck.

 

Gray haze shrouded the distant surroundings in the morning. Time passed and yet the mist would not let up. It lingered all over us with a chill that made my fellows wear jackets or shawls. I kept to my shirt made of material that dried easily. My body not only tolerated the low air temperature but also loved it too. Yet my torso shivered and my teeth chattered slightly. I just woke up. Had it been a sunny dawn, a scenic landscape with sailing clouds and dancing fog would greet us. It was not one of those days.

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From left: CJ, Dhon, Jasper, Jhay, Cas, Aileen, Chan, Calrence, Juno, Lawrence, Len

Mud stuck to our shoes and slippers despite the grass cover. This same mud tainted our tents. Everything literally was moist from condensation.

We walked around, trying to feel warmer in earnest. Some of us, including me, took group photos. Clarence heated water in a steel pot with a handle. The portable stove roared like a fire-breathing dragon at first before emitting only tiny flames. Then we could not boil the water anymore. The can of butane was fully expended. Two loaves of bread and uncooked luncheon meat in a can sustained us. We stood around the fire and food as a group, shivering with mud on our footwear and tents. We looked like refugees. The armed conflict at Marawi city in Mindanao, which began in late May, had been ongoing still. Some of the actual refugees from there were faring worse than our trekking party. Instant coffee powder got poured into the pot of heated water. It might not have boiled but hot enough to warm our bellies. Cas poured coffee into cups as we fell in line. I brought a steel and plastic tumbler distributed within my office for the employees. Two scoops of the invigorating drink with a dipper were enough. Now I really felt like a refugee. Past 7 AM, tents got dismantled and folded up. Litter were picked up and useful stuff were packed up. Only backpacks and a trash bag remained. The fog did not subside. It even brought drizzle that threatened us with heavy rain and soaked clothes. Len wore her yellow plastic poncho. I did not bring one. Most among us did not mind getting wet. Fortunately, water from the sky remained as widely scattered droplets as we commenced the hike down Mt Balagbag. Our hiking party would be heading to a waterfall. I wondered if bathing in a frigid current under a bleak sky would “kill” and “resurrect” me again like at Mt Manalmon.

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What’s this insect on my arm? Not a cockroach for sure.

Another path led us downhill. Dhon suggested we follow this route instead of going back the same way we took last night. It sloped drastically just off the summit. I avoided stepping on the slippery mud, keeping on the grass at the path’s sides. Slipping could not be avoided. I sprinted down while leaping like a hare. Dhon and I led the way. Our companions’ distressed voices faded as we walked farther.

The trail branched into two. The left path would lead us to the cross, Dhon said. It did. Before us stood two immense wooden crosses. This place could have been visited by the faithful of Christianity during the Holy Week. A bleak landscape of gray and green, comprised of the mist and grass, surrounded the crosses. I had the sensation of paying respects to the fallen of hostilities in this seemingly war memorial. The sun refused to shine. The cold prevented me from sweating. Then we regrouped to pose for photos. Aldrin, Dhon, Jen, and I decided to go ahead of them.

DSCN0701The four of us passed by a group of campers with a lone dog walking back and forth near them, like a jackal waiting for a flock of rowdy vultures to finish off a carcass. We greeted the trekkers and they did too in reply. Jenelyn wore slippers, which lacked the grip on our muddy and slippery trail. Dhon and I followed this path through grass, moss, and some rock outcrops with fog limiting our visibility. It felt like hiking in the Scottish Highlands. All that lacked was the familiar sound of bagpipes, carried by the breeze. Then Aldrin and Jen disappeared from view. The two shouted at us to press on as they would catch up. Wooden signs fashioned as the letter X stood silently like crosses where criminals were hung. That moment in our descent lacked cheer but not depressing at all. Dhon and I seemed lost in the wilderness. Then we all regrouped at a grassy spot with a boulder. A short walk from here brought us to the dirt road once again.

About thirty meters off the road to our right, an outdoor latrine offered relief to full bladders. From a distance it looked messy as if not cleaned for a year. Only approaching it would reveal if it smelled worse, or not as bad as we thought. I walked with Aileen, Cas, Chan, Dhon, Juno, Lawrence, and Len. Still to our right, a horse stared at us while standing idly. It appeared taller than most that I had seen before. The equine was at home in this patch of grassland in our archipelago of forested mountains. I imagined myself riding one like a nomadic horseman. A bit later, a rock formation reminded me of the Stonehenge in England. Our group of merry trekkers climbed atop and posed for photos. After that, ten minutes passed as we kept on walking and then reached the outpost.

Another hiking party gathered around the wooden table. I recognized them. Yesterday, I approached them at the fast food establishment in Quezon City thinking they were my companions when Len had not arrived yet. I was wrong. By sheer coincidence they also happened to be bound for Mt Balagbag today. So, I had a brief chat with two or three among them, introduced myself as a blogger, and took a snapshot. They seemed to be a group of friends rather than an official hiking group.

DSCN0716At the point where the path forked, the rock face by the road crumbled likely due to the extremes of chilly rain and scorching sunshine. It resembled the scene of a recent landslide. During my Purgatory traverse our group passed by one with more soil and less rock, fortunately. The sky cleared a bit. It was not raining anymore. Yet the gray haze still concealed most of the landscape like the fog of war in a real time strategy video game. The air remained cold. We climbed atop a rock formation, posing for photos to share through social media later. Flying insects swarmed around us, biting exposed skin and leaving reddish rashes. Instead of mosquitoes, they turned out to be lightly-built beetles. We stood casually, then posed as ninjas.

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Everyone’s smiling at this picture, and then Lawrence about to punch Chan (not really)

Time spent at and around the outpost lasted at least twenty minutes before our downhill hike resumed. Eventually, we found our way back at the excavator again. The nocturnal darkness and fog were gone. Even the distant mist began retreating to the unknown place where it came from. Houses, trees, grazing land, and hills showed up. The surroundings turned much friendlier than they were last night. Cyclists also headed up Mt Balagbag, exchanging greeting and best wishes with us. I chatted with Aileen, Cas, and CJ. Dhon and Len went far ahead.

Soon, we walked past a gate. At this point I strolled alongside Jhay and we got to know one another. We talked about hiking, occupation, and hobbies. Meek homes lined the roads. Hens clucked, roosters strutted, and dogs lay motionless. The sun shone brighter. It was 9 AM. This sort of rural community at Mt Balagbag simmered in the tranquility of a typical Sunday morning. A local man played on his portable stereo the songs from decades ago. Mud and puddles still lay on the unpaved road despite the heat of daytime. My forehead grew hot and turned moist with sweat. I needed an electric fan.

Later on, we came upon another large party of seemingly college or perhaps high school students, and a few adults, carrying saplings for a tree-planting activity. Someone wore a T-shirt that bore the words DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES. The continuous stream of visitors could provide a mountain’s local community with extra income. However, the downside would be its natural environment deteriorating slowly. Tree-planting activities assured sustainability and preservation of this country’s priceless treasures. If anyone would ask my companions during hikes, the most pressing issue came in the form of waste disposal. Sometimes foil wrappers, plastic bottles, and trash bags littered the trail. No one would sweep them away. They made the place unappealing to hikers. No one knows exactly how long would a piece of trash linger on forested trails. Perhaps it would not decompose after all.

Our hiking party regrouped at the barangay hall. Then we marched anew towards the water falls. That span of time strolling by the elementary school and more homes could be described as mediocre but for one exception. A purely black rooster charged at Dhon suddenly. Dhon yelled in surprise but not in a way that he was panicking. The rooster, more shocked by our companion, fled away on its two scaly legs. We all laughed. Eventually, we arrived at a house that served as the entry point towards what people called the Otso-Otso Falls. According to a senior-aged resident there, the body of water assumed the shape of the number eight, which was ocho in Spanish and transliterated in Filipino languages as otso. I could not imagine how what he said looked like.

A descending narrow trail led us down to Otso-Otso Falls. We walked in single file. I felt uncomfortably hot. Less than one-fourth of my beverage supply per bottle remained. Noontime came closer by every minute. Surrounding vegetation exhaled seemingly as if animate, turning the air warmer. At one point the trail had a slope between 45 and 60 degrees. Then it turned left where trees clustered densely. The path grew muddy. We walked slower to avoid slipping as we were also going down. Then the sound of rushing water reached my ears. Air temperature changed from hot to cool in an instant. Our group skipped onto rocks rising from what appeared as a creek to cross to the other side. Then we put our stuff down and began bathing at Otso-Otso Falls.

Essentially, Otso-Otso Falls consisted of a waterfall and two pools that lent the place its name. From its source, small to medium sized rocks slowed the current for a smoother flow. A large elongated rock just beside the higher pool could serve as a bench for bathers to sit on. Water then rushed at the side as it should behave when pushed into a narrow gap. This pool was one and a half meters deep (four to five feet in the English or Imperial system). We stayed at this spot as another group of holiday goers swam and bathed at the bigger lower pool. Up here, water accumulated as if in a basin or tub before plunging down a sheer vertical rock face. The actual falls stood about ten meters. Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence jumped in. The water was five meters deep, enough to catch a person unharmed. Beyond the waterfalls’ base lay the larger pool. After wading, one would feel on his or her soles the bumps of the bed’s scattered rocks . I preferred the smooth tiles of the swimming pool. Here at Otso-Otso Falls, at least the pristine water was naturally cold and smelled of mixed soil, rock, and leaf instead of chlorine. Our party stayed at least 30 minutes at this natural wonder. We plunged, swam, waded, talked, and laughed. Then it was time to head back up.

Len trailed behind me in our single file line. I told her that going down was more difficult than going up due to one’s weight bearing down on his or her legs, along with the increased chances of slipping. Len argued it was the other way round. Yet she proved right. The uphill walk made me pant and complain of the heat. At first, Len lagged behind. Then I looked back and she was just right behind me with a smile despite the ordeal. It was a stress-free day after all. Still, the entire walk from the falls to that house by the main road took about ten minutes, even less.

I sat down with Aileen, Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence. We waited for one of those motor tricycles to pass by so we could hail it like a taxi. Not one arrived. Then the five of us decided to walk all the way. We had been through here last night. Now I could see my surroundings clearly as crystal. At first, we followed the lonely dirt road on a seemingly untamed place with its trees, rock faces, bushes, and vines. Aileen and Cas chatted about the Disney movies Frozen and Moana. We also talked about show business along with recent experiences.

Dhon and I then found ourselves way ahead, leaving the three behind. We had a conversation until arriving at the jump-off point where CJ, Juno, and Len waited for us. We bathed with soap and shampoo, donned fresh clothes, and sat down before our entire hiking party regrouped and rode a jeepney back to Tungko. The noontime heat penetrated the vehicle’s interior. It seemed we bathed twice for nothing. Rashes appeared on my forearms. It could be one of those allergic reactions again. My companions noticed it. Len knew about my sensitive skin by backing my tale. In one of my previous treks, a fellow advised me to gulp down soft drinks. Sugar would alleviate the allergy. The jeepney brought us away from Mt Balagbag. Then one of the passengers also brought her sacks of merchandise, filling the entire interior. Such was life in a nearly rural area with limited means of mass public transportation. Later on, we arrived near a highway intersection and enjoyed a lunch of grilled chicken with unlimited servings of boiled white rice.

The excursion at Mt Balagbag did more than just enabled me to see Dhon and Len again in person. I had more acquaintances with whom I also felt a sense of belonging. Hopefully, I would hike with them again sometime in the future. I also chose to be the actor Derek Ramsey as my sort of code name in the group.