Getting Puzzled at Puzzle Mansion

The biggest collection of jigsaw puzzles globally, as formally recognized by Guinness World Records, is currently found in the Philippines. In fact, it lies next door to my hometown in the province of Cavite. A building called Puzzle Mansion, located within Tagaytay city, houses this collection of hobby items owned by Georgina Gil-Lacuna.

Xander Lopez, a fellow blogger, and I paid the Puzzle Mansion a visit on March 25, 2018. First, we arrived at Olivarez Plaza, then took a jeepney towards the town of Mendez. Xander checked constantly his mobile phone GPS app for the closest drop-off point on the highway. A visitor to Puzzle Mansion could choose between two travel routes via public transport. Xander and I came to a road sign where a nearby motor tricycle would take us directly to our destination for Php 60, for up to five passengers. The other route involved a jeepney veering off the main highway, following a road until a massive water tower appeared. The tricycles there would charge Php 40 inclusively for the ride. Driving your very own car to Puzzle Mansion would undoubtedly be the most convenient way.

Disregarding the tricycle, Xander and I took a stroll instead. We passed by verdant lawns of grass and plots strewn with pineapples. A few lodging houses lined the main road. Metal signs led us to Puzzle Mansion, with Xander’s app making sure we would not get lost. My companion and I entered a village. Several residents walked on cemented streets between cozy one-story homes. A group of men had a discussion while two boys rode on bicycles further up. Past the village, tall grass grew unkempt on vacant lots. We turned right on a luxurious-looking house. The path went straight to Puzzle Mansion’s entrance. Our entire stroll took at least 20 minutes. Fortunately, Tagaytay’s altitude kept the surrounding air refreshingly cool and breezy. We were not exhausted.

A steep downhill concrete path lay past the gate. Further below, goats grazed on a relatively spacious plot of land, keeping the grass trimmed. Puzzle Mansion consisted not just the building with the collection itself. The entire place also featured a swimming pool, rooms for stay, and restrooms of course. A statue of Puzzle Mansion’s logo, which were two dark blue jigsaw pieces stuck together, sat atop words bearing the place’s name.

A ticket for entry into Puzzle Mansion costed Php 100 per head. After buying them at a separate booth, we went in. A multitude of paintings greeted us. Yet upon a closer look, crisscrossing lines like on netting or a chain-link fence made up these works of art. These ‘paintings’ were actually jigsaw puzzles. I saw illustrations of animals, people, monuments, and landscapes. At one corner of the huge room, I distinguished famous paintings such as Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci,  and Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Among them hung a notable portrait by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon Bonaparte riding a rearing horse. The biggest puzzles could be found near the door. That of the Renato de Santa Columba by Rogier van der Weyden took 1,095 hours, or about 45 days, to be completed.

Other than two-dimensional, flat pictures, the Puzzle Mansion also had three-dimensional small objects. They varied in the form of dinosaurs, famous landmarks, aircraft, and even everyday items such as soda cans. They reminded me of robot and car toys in my childhood that came in pieces and then assembled with the help of a manual. I just learned that Xander also liked puzzles at the present. Additionally, layouts of major cities such as New York, Paris, and Sydney aroused my curiosity.

Xander and I stayed in the Puzzle Mansion not more than an hour. It might have likely lasted just thirty minutes. We did nothing but look and admire at assembled puzzle pieces. A fellow visitor recorded audio and video documenting the place, possibly for a school project or a blog. She kept on asking the guide, making sure her information was accurate. That Sunday morning saw about 10 visitors.

In my opinion, the Php 100 entrance fee was too pricey. I would suggest lowering it to Php 60 given the current setup. If it would stay at Php 100, I would recommend an interactive activity like building your own puzzles. Free meals and trinket souvenirs could serve as an alternative. Furthermore, some of the puzzle pictures depicted nudity so visitor age and discrepancy could be considered as well.

Despite a room for improvement, Puzzle Mansion remains the biggest collection of its kind and will stay that way by adding even more puzzles. Filipinos have a knack for breaking world records. An achievement by an individual, such as Georgina Gil-Lacuna, carries the prestige of the entire country as well.





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.

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.

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.

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.

A view of the coastline of Batangas and Cavite from the summit.
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.