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.

 

 

 

 

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Return to Mt Daraitan

There had been no bliss like going back to the first mountain I climbed while getting ready to move forward with life. It all began at Mt Daraitan nearly two years ago after an unexpected invite from a group of acquaintances at work. Then one mountain followed another like episodes of a television series that captured one’s interest. Now it was time to return to my so-called ‘mother mountain’ – a term used among trekkers in the Philippines for the first peak climbed.

While waiting for my companions in a hike at Mt Daguldol in Batangas province, I met Ren Emradura. She organized treks at mountains mostly, having acquainted with drivers and nature guides since she started in January of 2017. One day in June, Ren and I talked about climbing Mt Daraitan. She posted the event on social media. The day hike would take place on two consecutive Sundays for two batches of climbers.

Mt Daraitan can be climbed within three to four hours, even less than that with quick pacing. It has a trail difficulty of 4/9 and rises to a height of 739 meters above sea level. This may sound easy but the mountain has been famous for its steep rocky trails. It is situated within the boundaries of the town of Tanay, in Rizal province. Mt Daraitan lies close to the National Capital Region, making it a weekend getaway for residents of Metro Manila. At the foothills flows the Tinipak River where visitors can dip and plunge into the cool water with a moderate current. One can also admire rock formations sculpted naturally by the elements.

Ren and I arrived first at our hiking party’s meeting location in Quezon City. It was the exact place where we first met. One by one, our companions arrived. Jem Lorenzo came first. Miguel Gutierrez, Jerome “Kamote” Bitudio, Vicka Dorado, Dexter “Dhex” Pacaanas, Marlon Fordan, and Clifford “Cliff” Tagsip then followed respectively. ‘Kamote‘ meant sweet potato in the local mother tongue. It sounded cool for me. I knew a veteran hiker who went by the nickname of ‘talahib,’ or cogon grass. Rosemarie Endaya brought her siblings Len Len and Marlon. She was addressed as either Rose or Marie. Kelly “Trudis” Abaño and France Jaucian then arrived. Dhex, France, Trudis, Rose, and Vicka worked in the same petroleum company. Later on, only two were missing. Ren contacted them again. Then our group walked to their location and notified our transport’s driver to meet us all there. Neil Bolandrina and Enzo Ponon waved their arms as they saw us.

20170702_010951We went inside the Toyota HiAce van and chose seats of our own. Ren and I sat in the front beside our driver. He introduced himself as Rodgie. In fact, Ren already sought his services as a driver for a few times now. Later on, I realized why. Rodgie did not own the van but he could use it freely. The vehicle came with a sing-along system or karaoke, complete with a microphone with cord and a small television that displayed the lyrics. Our van also had WiFi, providing Internet access for our gadgets. It was the first time I had a transport for trekking that had these perks. As an organizer of hikes, Ren deserved my compliment. Rodgie turned the karaoke on. It had a scoring system. Whoever gets 100 points would be treated with a bowl of noodle soup, according to our driver. Reluctance from shyness overcame us at first. Then Rose sang first. On her another try, she got the 100 points. Of course there was no noodle soup. In the Philippines, one would not always take someone’s words literally. Joking had been entrenched deeply into local social behavior. Yet our group had less cheer than expected despite the karaoke. We also needed to doze off. I could not do it. Just days ago, I drank black coffee to do laundry after a tiring office shift. Caffeine helped me accomplish the task along with a bit of writing for this blog. After that, I was desperate for sleep. Drowsiness eluded me. It could simply be described as having a bad dream while awake. This time, I was going back to Mt Daraitan in good company. Perhaps the nocturnal work schedule kept me awake for most of the road trip.

At nearly 3 AM, our van crossed a bridge. We had arrived at the base of Mt Daraitan. I recalled this location, scanning for a shack by the river. Then we would get out, float across the body of water on a raft, then ride to the village by a motorized three-wheeled transport locally referred to as a tricycle. Our transport simply crossed a bridge and kept on going. Then it hit me. The bridge had been newly constructed, easing access by road to Mt Daraitan.

Rodgie parked the automobile on a vacant lot. My fellow hikers and I went out with stiff legs and insufficient consciousness. The air felt unusually warm instead of cold for this hour. Ren signed us up and took care of fees. I ended up walking with Vicka to a small food and snack establishment near the barangay (village) hall. As the two of us sat down waiting for rice porridge while talking to Cliff, France, and Marie, I had a flashback. After descending from Mt Daraitan’s summit in November 2015, I snacked and chatted with my companions named Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, and Marc here at this exact spot. A couple named Carla and Neil led the excursion. Now it was just a distant memory that faded with my dissolved job position and the lack of communication. I shared that moment to the lady who served us porridge. She said they did serve hamburgers before but no more at the present. Some things had changed indeed. Still, nostalgia crept into me. Ren joined in. We had instant coffee too. Soon, our trekking party gathered at the cemented road as my fellows rented headlamps. Then we strolled to a roofed basketball court for a briefing before our hike. Two groups of fellow hikers had already assembled19239679_1629918810365077_1471915032_n on one end of the venue. Our party huddled with our guides named Alex, Jhun, and Golis. Then I recognized Alex. He was my guide during my first climb here. Aged in the forties or fifties, Alex also accompanied Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, Marc and I at the campsite by the river nearly two years ago. He looked at me and also remembered me. The briefing last no more than five minutes. Then group photos were taken before the actual trek began.

We took the cemented road lined by houses. It all felt familiar, only this time it was still dark and residents were sleeping. Dogs did bark at us though. Then the ground turned uneven and rock-strewn. I stayed at the rear with Cliff and Ren, chatting with them too. Cliff had already climbed Mt Apo, the highest mountain in the Philippines. Alex led our hiking group. Golis and Jhun served as sweepers, a term for those last in line to make sure that no one would be left behind. I brought a hand-held flashlight instead of a headlamp. It presented a bit of a challenge. Only one of my hands was truly free. We had not reached the steep ascending part yet.

Small lighting devices turned hikers into bioluminescent insects from a distance. The scene before me seemed that of an elven forest. Our respective group stopped as the party ahead of us took time in making way through the ascending rocky trail. The path had a slope of 60 degrees, perhaps even higher as I recalled. Our march grinded to a halt. Nevertheless, I welcomed some rest. Sweat oozed profusely on my forehead. My throat yearned for a sip of energy drink, which I brought in a 1.5-liter bottle. Aside from that, I also had another 1.5-liter bottle of purified drinking water bought at the grocery store. That would make a total of three liters. On the other hand, Ren decided to have only one third of my beverage volume. She challenged herself with drinking as less water as possible. Additionally, Ren asked Jhun to carry her relatively light backpack as she had not fully recovered from dental surgery days ago. It felt liberating to the back, according to her.

It was my turn to overcome the slopes. No wonder the itinerary and locals alike advised us to wear gloves. I gripped on bare rock with one hand and with a flashlight in the other. I did not regret it. It was something new. It felt challenging. Mt Daraitan was the first mountain I climbed officially. Back then, I nearly panted to death at this point. This section not only took my breath away but also caused cramps on my legs. Those muscles ached from even a bit of movement. When we reached the rest station atop this slope, my lower extremities collapsed. I sat down. I told Kenneth and Kaye that I would be going back to the village. Then the two gave me jellies. They said the water and sugar content of jelly would re-energize my body. I also sipped some water. Minutes passed. The aching subsided. I got up and decided to keep on pushing towards the summit. This time, going up that nearly-vertical slope was easier than its counterpart at Mt Amuyao during my excursion there. Only the darkness and limited grip upset me. I did not breathe as deeply as before. The pace improved tenfold. Yet I could not see Ren anywhere. Other female members of our hiking group advanced uphill behind me. Then I bumped into more people. I thought they were our companions. They proved otherwise. Unfamiliar faces greeted me back.  In a way, I floundered through the lack of lighting. A rustic shelter made of bamboo offered respite as a lady sold coconut juice. After some rest, it was back on the trail again.

Miguel accompanied me. Enzo and Neil were also nearby. Ahead of us, Cliff walked as if he did not feel fatigue at all. Moving through a rocky trail sapped less energy and morale than through a muddy one. Despite the rough ascent, branches and tree trunks were always there to be gripped as to not slip.

The black of our surroundings turned to a color tone of mixed gray and blue past 5 AM. It came to a point that I could not make up my mind whether to still use the flashlight or not. Tree roots and slippery rocks still lay on our way. Time passed as our hiking group advanced steadily like someone late for school or work. Eventually, darkness flew away and got supplanted by a surreal bluish light. Clouds amassed at the horizon.

My camera began to malfunction at a platform where we spent ample time for photos. Every snapshot was blurry. It had that look when one opens his or her eyes after coming out of the surface of a river or the sea. My blog needed presentable pictures. I turned off the flash. I restarted the camera. The photos were still blurry. They had to be deleted. Carelessness caused me to get rid of all snapshots I took since the beginning of this hike. They were all gone in seconds. I expressed my frustration rather loudly. I told Ren about my mistake, hoping to alleviate the regret. She would share our group photo at the basketball court. During our conversation, I remarked that deleting memories should have been as easy as losing those photos with one press of a button. Then they could not be retrieved anymore, lost for good. Ren replied that not all memories should be discarded. Beautiful ones should be kept. Later on, my camera worked normally again. They were like human eyes, adjusting to the period between nighttime darkness and daylight. That explained why the photos turned blurry at that point.

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Back row from left:  Miguel, Neil, Marlon, The Blogger, Vicka, Ren, Enzo, Trudis. Front row from left: Len-Len, Rosemarie, Jem, France, Dhex, Jerome, Marlon  

Jem walked relatively slower due to leg cramps. Nevertheless, she kept on going. I forgot to mention the ointment again. I asked her if she was okay. Jem honestly answered that she was not. I agreed happily with her point. Saying that I was fine would be easy but in reality I was feeling otherwise. No one would know, better yet care. Jhun accompanied Jem, advising her to take slow yet steady steps.

Alex and I recalled a chat about plants growing in the area along with the medicinal properties of some of them as I stared at a ravine to my right. The terrain plunged starkly. I could imagine myself falling and rolling downhill. Trees clumped beyond the edge. Mt Daraitan could be described as a forest growing on a ground of mostly rock. He knew this place very well, spending much of his life on the trail, river, rock formations, and towering trees. His forefathers also called this mountain their home.

Not everyone in the group had been avid in hiking but we collectively moved in a relatively quick pace. I learned that this was Enzo’s, Neil’s, and Vicka’s first taste of mountain climbing. The four of us would have the same ‘mother mountain.’ They walked continuously. Vicka also played badminton so I would not be surprised. Some first-timers could have complained of aching legs, sitting down for at least fifteen minutes and giving up on the trek. Mt Daraitan had notorious steep trails that might intimidate beginners. The uneven terrain of mostly rock did not matter for the trio. We all kept on going.

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A caterpillar was crawling on my pants when suddenly it took a dump. I removed it unharmed.  

I spent some time with Rose, Len Len, Marlon, Miguel, and Ren. Trudis and France were also there. We chatted, slurped jellies, and posed for pictures. Everyone agreed that Trudis was the most talkative and humorous among us in our Facebook® group chat. Yet I noticed frankly that she spoke less as we approached the summit.

Soon, our own bunch of hikers arrived at Station Two. There were three. Our guides confirmed it. I thought Mt Daraitan had eight stations in total. Either my memory got blurry or I included spots with benches in the count. Fellow climbers from other groups also sought rest and refreshment at Station Two. A vendor sold carbonated beverages, instant noodles, snacks in foil packs, and even hard-boiled eggs in his small makeshift stand. Visitors to Mt Daraitan sat on benches made of hardwood or bamboo. Some sat on the ground itself. It would only be ten minutes of walking to the summit.

Those ten minutes felt like only two. Mountain trails seemed shorter and easier when one hiked them already before. No wonder the guides who spent much time at their respective peaks would say at one point that it only takes ten minutes to reach the summit whereas it would be longer for climbers.

Nearly a year ago, the sun shone on my left on a silvery sky when I reached Mt Daraitan’s summit. Now it did on my right. The sky also had a tranquil hue of blue with much less glare. It was 7 AM. This time, my hiking party was not the only one admiring the view. A few groups of hikers reached our destination ahead of us. Chatter and laughter filled the air. I sat down with Ren, along with Enzo, Neil, and Vicka. Those three received my casual compliment for climbing Mt Daraitan as our first mountain. Then I went to take snapshots.

With the steadily rising sun turned the air hotter, I took out my shemagh (pronounced sh-MOW) from my backpack. This iconic scarf from the Middle East was also called a keffiyeh. It offered some protection from burning sunshine here in this tropical forested archipelago as it would in the sandy deserts of its land of origin. I had been wearing caps and boonie hats on my treks. It was time for change. Besides, I also brought this garment during my first climb here at Mt Daraitan. It served more as a bag for my 1.5 liter water bottle. I also liked the shemagh for its versatility.

A metal flagpole seemed out of a place in our surroundings with gnarled tree branches and coral-like rocks. Miguel and I took pictures of one another as a team. More of our fellow under Ren’s organized group flocked in. Then something hit me. It was not the summit I remembered. A monstrous rock formation stood at the farthest edge, acting as a platform for ten people posing for photos. I recalled Kenneth and Kaye asking me to take snapshots of them back then. It was not the end of the dirt trail. Rock and undergrowth choked the path. At one spot, it looked impassable. It only looked impassable. Emerging from a grove of small stunted trees, a memory came back.

Cliff sat down with our guides Alex and Golis. If I heard it correctly, he reached the summit in about 45 minutes. My companion wanted to witness the so-called ‘sea of clouds’ from the summit itself. Cliff showed me a photo in his mobile phone. Clouds behaved a like soup stirred in the indigo-colored light of dawn. He accomplished his goal. The two of us talked about various things. I also recalled Alex singing a Bee Gees song at this spot during my previous climb. A group of fellow climbers, composed mostly of DSCN0636women, exercised patience as they waited to pose one by one. The guides acted as photographers for everyone. Around 40 trekkers lingered at the summit at that time. Each one consumed at least three minutes in getting photographed. I spent the time chatting with my fellows. Then our turn came. We tiptoed on two bamboo poles, crawled up a smaller rock that jutted out of a ravine’s edge, and let wit do its work as images were captured. Once done with solo pictures, we proceeded with a group photo atop that huge misshapen rock formation. It was far from standing at a stage during an event. The risk of falling off from slipping or misplaced footing made finding each one’s spot a real challenge. Still, we pulled it off. Some among us were not contented yet, posing for more snapshots. I had a brief chat with Dhex about the sensation of joy and relief from mountain climbing. Behind us lay a large crowd of fellow visitors, waiting their own turn. They consisted of a mix in gender, age, physical build, and clothing style. At 8 AM, our group started our way down Mt Daraitan.

Descending took less effort and time. All we did was jump while gripping on bare rock or tree trunks. It felt more like being pulled downward as if the barangay (village) was calling us. In no time, our party found ourselves back at Station Two and its comforts.

We decided to have lunch there before making the final push downhill. I sat down with a group that included Neil, Rose, Ren, and Trudis around a bamboo table shaded by leaves just above our heads. Far atop them was the forest canopy. Both Ren and I brought canned tuna paella, a rice dish with flakes of the said fish, green peas, and tomato sauce. Boiled rice kept edible by preservatives did not taste as appetizing as its warm freshly-cooked counterpart. Yet all we needed to do was pull off the metal lid and have an instant meal. Rose and Trudis brought their own packed lunch of rice and a meat dish. Buttered crackers, sandwiches, and more jellies were shared. Ren stayed mostly quiet. On the other hand, I got rather talkative at this point. We chatted about food, jobs, and mountain climbing. Our lunch lasted about 20 minutes. After that, we disposed our trash and gathered for making our way back.

I walked with Ren and Alex as we led the party. Our guide then took us to another trail. On my first climb with a trekking group called the Akyaters,  we simply retraced our steps. Alex said this alternate route would be closed following a rainy spell or if the ground was too muddy and slippery. I would find out later why.

DSCN0639The way ahead simply sloped downhill, twisting and turning as I gripped whatever I could to avoid slipping. We had a relatively quick pace. I went ahead with Ren and Alex. I could remember Vicka and Jerome behind us, respectively. The rest were out of sight but their voices echoed through this patch of forest. Then the firm ground transformed into an even harder rock surface. The soles of our footwear could not dig into it. We slipped a bit upon a misstep. Exercising caution, our descent slowed down. There was also a part where each of us squeezed into a rock formation that resembled a cave. To describe it more accurately, it appeared as a cave the size of a telephone booth or portable toilet. Someone DSCN0640with a lighter body build would go through this passage easier than someone heavier. My backpack snagged. I had to literally slither like a snake to avoid tearing the bag’s brown fabric. It had been already subjected to the wear and tear from the elements and time. That ‘cave’ halted our hike down Mt Daraitan. There was another one of this obstacle about 20 or 30 minutes later. According to Alex, walking from the summit to the base through this route would take about two hours given our pace. I recalled his tale before where a hiking party spent twelve hours on this mountain with participants taking constant breaks and even sobbing. Not everyone would feel at home in the outdoors, hence the word. Alex also mentioned a climber who slipped on this section of the trail, seriously injuring both knees. That unfortunate fellow had to be carried. More intimidating rock lay before us. Yet the rock faces were also sculpted naturally like statues of sleeping guardians of Mt Daraitan.

One hour after walking from Station Two, we arrived at a rest station with coconut juice and bamboo benches. I sat down panting and somehow dehydrated. With the tree canopy in its abundance providing shade, my shemagh acted less of a protection for my head. In fact, it became more of a towel to wipe off sweat from my face. The forest shielded us from direct exposure to the sun but humidity still made the air warm, if not hot. It was a sunny day after all. My vision blurred not only from perspiration but from the impending exhaustion too. I longed for the cool pine forests of the Cordilleras. My supply of water and energy drink ran low already. After a short respite, we kept on moving. Another thirty minutes passed as we jumped, climbed, and made careful steps on the same treacherous uneven rocky terrain. A time came that I had to slide down on my rear and legs. Getting my hands dirty did not matter. Then we reached another rest station where two make kids sold ice candy. This treat essentially composed of fruit juice and milk mixed and then frozen in small and clear tubular plastic bags. The finished product resembled an elongated ice cream. At this point I came in last. Yet I wanted to finish this trek sooner so when the first batch left, I joined them.

DSCN0652Ren trudged her way just ahead of me. Later on, I noticed that the ground turned even muddier. One of my feet sank a bit into the ground. I also slipped more often after stepping on rock, fortunately not in a way I would stumble. It came to a point that I did not want to place my foot on a hard moist surface anymore. This only meant we were approaching Tinipak River. Three men and their guide had to slow down behind me. I let them pass. Soon, our ordeal came to an end on an even-surfaced dirt path in the midst of tall grass, bright green and lush. It felt like having a splinter removed from my foot or ointment applied on a sore leg. It had the sensation of indulging in a hearty buffet. The long arduous walk was about to end. The final stretch involved a zigzagging trail that led down to a few houses. My chat with three female hikers along the way lasted mere seconds as I bypassed them.

DSCN0655Members of our trekking party arrived gradually as we regrouped in a hut with wooden benches stuck on its three sides. We sat down wiping sweat off our faces and relaxing our battered legs. Ren asked who would continue to the Tinipak Cave later. I had an overwhelming thought of declining. I was there before. Additionally, the way to this natural feature had an even more slippery rocky ground compared to the last bit of the descending trail before. Most among us got involved in the second phase of our tour. Ren organized another trip here last week and saw the cave too already. Jem and Vicka stayed behind too, drifting off to sleep because of too much fatigue. Ren reclined too on the bench in the most comfortable manner she could. I decided to remain too, watching over our backpacks and stuff. No one dared to approach our belongings. Later on, I could not help join them in the realm of unconsciousness while sitting down and my shemagh covering my face. Arriving hikers and a curious dog that sniffed my leg woke me from time to time. A hen moved about briskly, always trailed by its nearly-grown chicks. More visitors came to this spot by a cemented lane. They kept going or stopped by for snacks and chatter.

Time passed idly on a Sunday noon. Our companions were supposed to be back by now. They probably fell in line with the crowds just to enter the cave. Only ten minutes had been allotted for each batch to explore the subterranean wonder that boasted a small waterfall ending on a bubbly pool. It could be compared to a Jacuzzi® bath tub, only frigid in contrast to the cave’s steamy air that smelled of ammonia. Ten minutes would be sufficient already. The refreshing pool could be reached from the vertically dropping entrance in just three minutes.

It was past 12 PM when our fellows returned from a tour of the cave. Cliff showed some photos. Dhex and I talked about the place and his experience there. Bananas were shared. Some of our companions dined on rice, a sort of eggplant omelet called tortang talong, and a meat dish I could not recognize at a nearby shack. The establishment also sold assorted snacks and fizzy beverages. Then there was nothing to do but head to Tinipak River according to our itinerary.

At first, I imagined another lengthy trek to the spot by the river bank where I pitched tents with Carla, Kaye, Kenneth, Nil, and the rest during my previous excursion. That would mean returning to the village, walk for about another hour, simply dip in the river, and spend another hour trudging back to civilization. This time, our group took another way. We followed the cemented path to the left. Then the surface beneath our feet transformed into dry compact dirt. Tall grass surrounded us. Verdant mountains stood to our left and far ahead. I could never wish to be in another place. The tranquility made me forget my stress and personal struggles. We remained mostly silent while strolling. Meanwhile, critters crawled and buzzed around. Despite the time being 1 PM, the sun’s heat already waned and the presence of a large body of water kept the air cool.

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Tinipak River came into view. According to Jhun, we were at a river crossing. We could wade in and look for the perfect spot to dip into the river. I could see reluctance on my companions’ faces. In the end, we settled at this exact spot. Placing our backpacks on the sandy ground next to a group of huge smooth-surfaced boulders, we called one another to enjoy the water.

I left my eyeglasses on a rock bulging from the sandy riverbank, its metal frame slowly warmed by the early afternoon sun. I wanted desperately to take a bath at this instant. My shirt smelled strongly of sweat. My hair felt sticky to the touch. My skin was hot. Immersing into the water took all that discomfort away. I stumbled a bit on rocks underwater as I wandered farther from the bank. The current grew stronger as it became deeper. Dhex and Kamote told me that we could suddenly submerge and get swept by the river just beyond where they stood. A boulder to our right served as our point of reference. Nearby was a rock that looked like a table without legs. I sat down. Then I sank my face into the water, holding my breath. My cheeks could feel the flow filled with an energy more controlled than chaotic. France, Neil, Rose, Trudis, and Vicka joined me later on for a dip.

Sitting in the shallow part of the river with three-fourths of my body submerged felt familiar. Then I had a flashback. It took place at another river below Mt Manalmon in January 2016. I was doing the same but on a cloudy dawn. A freezing cold penetrated my body. It made me severely ill that I could have died and then resurrected fortunately. Personal sorrows haunted me at that time. Yet even during this excursion at Mt Daraitan, I was not free from stressful thoughts. The week before this Sunday came with disappointment, frustration, and anxieties that even affected my work. One of the causes could be described as something reincarnated. I had trouble sleeping. Sadness turned into rage. I did not bring those negative feelings here at Mt Daraitan. The sun shone brightly. In turn it warmed the greenish water and made the river’s surface glimmer with light. I joined the hike to get away from worries, even for just a day.

As my companions and I bathed while chatting merrily, another group of trekkers waded in. A guide from the village led them in crossing the river. Water rose to their waists but could not go even higher. The task did not seem as difficult and risky as I first thought. Everyone got through, having only soaked pants or shorts. On the other hand, the river ran deep about fifty meters to our left. Men jumped from immense boulders into the innocent-looking water, causing a splash. I was content with getting that sweaty feeling swept by a light current. Bits of algae and even tiny biting insects that resembled worms bothered us. No one wanted to leave. Yet we emerged from Tinipak River past 2 PM, carried our stuff, and made our way back home.

A trail led us along the same river. Grass and bushes grew in plenty around us, much greener than the body of water that ran its course. A few verdant peaks stood around us like skyscrapers or towers. It felt more like hiking outdoors in Vietnam than in the Philippines, based on popular imagery of the neighboring country’s landscape. Soon, two goats chewed on leaves in silence. Horse manure lay on the sandy stretch of this trail characterized by boulders as big as the van we rode to arrive here. I remembered this place. I had photos of it in my first Travel Stories entry here in this blog.  It was situated past the village after beginning the trek at the barangay hall during my first visit at Mt Daraitan. If we would go the other way and keep on walking, we would eventually come upon a rustic restaurant, some makeshift ladders, and the riverbank where the Akyaters and I made camp. Our stroll eventually ended at a plain-looking building of cement and wood where noisy motor-powered pedicabs fell in line nearby. It did not exist before, affirming how things had changed much around Mt Daraitan.

Our group split into four or five people per vehicle. In the Philippines, these iconic three-wheeled means of public transport would be referred to as a ‘tricycle.’  I hopped at the seat behind the driver. The engine growled. The tricycle sped like a boat tossed back and forth on a choppy sea. I was wearing my flip-flops. Then one of my shoes I was holding slipped out of my grasp. I yelled about it. Then I chased my piece of footwear, fetched it, and sprinted back to my seat. The bumpy ride went on. Our convoy passed by the same cemetery I saw on my first climb. It had more resting places than before. Houses then showed up. Children walked on the street and played.

DSCN0662The tricycles dropped us at a newly-built guest facility within the village, just a short stroll from the barangay hall. Gray and dull, the walls had not been painted yet. However, the building featured at least twenty shower rooms for hikers yearning to wash the dirt, mud, and sweat off them. Again, it was not here before when I last visited the mountain. The barangay hall also had a restroom where visitors could also take a bath with a pail and bucket. I remembered waiting tediously in a queue back then. Now the locals had solved this problem with long lines of people. I bathed already in the river but a shower with soap would be better. One by one, we changed our outfits for fresh clothes. I had a last chat with Alex. He insisted that I return to Mt Daraitan from time to time. I told him I would see what I could do. Then we all rode on the van before 4 PM for a two-hour trip to Manila.

Along the way, I passed by an attraction in Tanay, Rizal province called Bakasyunan. In the Tagalog language the name would translate as a place for a vacation. I was there with my office colleagues on June 10 for a company outing. Bakasyunan featured an activity hall, swimming pools, houses for overnight stays, and activites that ranged from basketball to all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rides. Coincidentally, the hall where we stayed and dined was named the Tinipak Hall, after the river we visited earlier. Sitting again with Ren beside the driver, I recounted to her that day I sort of wished to forget.

My first climb at Mt Daraitan would be one of the most memorable among the hikes of this kind that I had. The second might not have that same value but it was also worth it. Who knows when I would be returning to the mountain where this blog also began.

(Photos also courtesy of Ren Emradura)

 

The Hike that Lasted Only Ten Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was how the ten-minute hike happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a fine sunny morning to do some hiking…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legendary Trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From left: The Blogger, Brian, Xander, Len

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Len feeling the struggle while holding the rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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