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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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 Comeback and More at Talamitam

“Kilometer 83. Those who are descending at Kilometer 83,” the bus conductor said. I was already awake, lying on my back on the bus seat designed for two persons side by side. No one was beside me anymore. Earlier, I took the opportunity and made a bed of my own. When we arrived at our destination, I roused my companion behind me by tapping his knee. Then we sprang back to life, grabbed our backpacks, and got out of the bus. Darkness engulfed us except for the electric lamps on tall posts and silent homes. I could sense some excitement within me. Four months passed since my most recent trek.

With an elevation of 630 meters above sea level, Mt Talamitam is recommended for people hiking for the first time or for those seeking a more relaxed weekend adventure. It has a trail difficulty of just 3/9. The mountain is situated within the boundaries of the town of Nasugbu, in the province of Batangas. This makes Talamitam popular as a getaway that is relatively near the capital city of Manila. Nearby it stands Mt Apayang, having a similar altitude and trail difficulty too. These two mountains can be hiked in only half a day.

My excursion at Mt Talamitam can be described as something new for me in a way. When I went trekking, it involved a crowd of around ten or even more than twenty people. All I did was go to the group’s rendezvous location, sit in the air-conditioned van, and let the driver take us to our destination. This time, we traveled as a team of only five people. It was supposed to be six. Amena Mae Macabago invited me to what she called a ‘do-it-yourself’ hike. She already hiked Mt Talamitam back in March. Two of her classmates from college, Gel Anne Marie “Ge-ge” Atienza and Criselda “Chinee” Carmona, already agreed to participate. They graduated from the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Hailing from the University of the Philippines (UP), I also wondered how my interaction with the three will end up. So far, my relations with UST alumni has been mostly amiable. Also joining was John Paul “JP” Nepumuceno, who hailed from Mapua University (also Mapua Institute of Technology). This was his very first hike too. Instead of having organized transportation, the five of us would travel to Nasugbu by ourselves. That was what we did. We left the terminal of DLTBCo bus company in Buendia, Pasay city in the Metro Manila area past 10 PM. The trip costed Php 139 per individual, given the distance between Pasay and Nasugbu. The bus would also pass through my home province of Cavite.

Supposed to arrive at 2:30 AM, the bus dropped our group on the jump-off point at 12:30 AM. Amena told us that the climb would only begin at 4 AM. She contacted our guide through mobile phone but there was no reply. We still had about four hours of time to kill. Amid the darkness, a fluorescent lamp illuminated a patio that seemed a dining area. We placed our bags on one table and sat around the other. The five of us snacked on fries we bought from a fast food chain, along with cheese puffs. We shared bits of pieces of our lives. Emotions in our conversation rose and fell like the seashore tide.

I joined this hike to escape the pollution and squalor of Metro Manila but my workplace followed me here. Nearly two months ago, I started my employment in the business process outsourcing industry. Amena reminded me of my colleague and seatmate in the training phase, who went by the name of Maejille. They had the same voice; however, they did not look alike much except for physique. Another colleague of mine named Jaquelyn also had an identical voice and some facial features with Ge-ge. Regarding JP, my colleague who resembled him the most was Jose. No wonder I made the comparison because I sat close to those three during training.

Hours passed with little notice. The surroundings consisting of humble houses and shops beside the highway remained lifeless except for the occasional crowing of roosters and barking of dogs. It was not that silent at all. Buses and trucks raged through the concrete surface with a boom. JP commented that despite our voices getting louder, residents had been used to the constant noise that they could keep on dozing off.

DSCN0257Past 3 AM, the lights on a nearby house went on. We had a look. The place came with restrooms where hikers can not only relieve themselves but also take a shower. A man greeted us. (Later in the day I learned that his name is Paul.) According to him, he already noticed us earlier but thought we were guides. Amena asked about the guide she contacted. The fellow’s wife got involved in a road accident, explaining why he was unavailable. Another guide was summoned. Then the five of us finally settled in a shack on their place. We registered for the hike, writing our names on a particular big blue notebook just as I did in previous treks. Amena, JP, and I sipped hot instant coffee on ceramic mugs. Ge-ge did not drink this beverage due to hyperacidity. A large brown dog lay down the ground peacefully near a tortoiseshell cat that was also relaxing. The two pets did not mind each other. This broke the stereotypical hatred between cats and dogs.

Roused from sleep, another man named Greg came to meet us. Later on, our guide arrived, introducing himself as Francis. Sitting on benches, the five of us lingered in that shack before our hike commenced at 4:05 AM.

Flashlights lit our way. More houses lined the cemented road we followed. Despite the artificial lighting on residences, darkness still cloaked much of the surroundings. We chatted about what to expect at Mt Talamitam, adding stories from our previous excursions. Soon, awakened dogs barked at us. At least they only barked. Then we reached a well-constructed building that looked like a resort. Beneath it flowed a river, which we crossed via a bridge of concrete and steel.

Once the cement we stepped on turned into soil with bits of leaf litter, the hike truly began. We came upon another bridge. This time, it was made of bamboo poles. I hoped these poles were tough enough to support our weight so we would not plunge down the river. There was nothing to see below but the color black. Yet the sound of water flowing in a current became part of this spot’s ambience. While we were making our way across the bridge, the bamboo railings shook suddenly. I stopped and stood motionless. I let Francis, Ge-ge, and Chinee get to the other side first. Calm overcame all nervousness. All it needed was steady but careful footing. While I was in the middle, Amena told me to wait for her and JP. Everyone got past the makeshift bridge without a problem.

The five of us imagined hiking on a relatively even trail, surrounded by an expanse of short grass instead of the tall cogon variety. Expectation did not match reality. Trees surrounded us but gave ample room. It was more of an open woodland than a jungle. The trail went uphill. Every step seemed to take our breath away. It had been four months since I last went hiking. However, going to the office five days a week involved long walks and the stairs of an pedestrian overpass. Every day of work was like a trek in itself. Aside from the sloped terrain, the humidity also made us less at ease. Sweat oozed from our skin even though the sun had not risen yet. The five of us chatted about our previous hikes. My ears picked up a mention of Mt Manalmon in Rizal. In my mind I could hear the song “If I Had a Heart” by Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray) as I remembered what happened on the early morning of June 10, 2016.

DSCN0266I felt slight but sudden pain on my nape. Then I wiped that part of the back of my neck. My hand smelled funny. Some kind of insect bit me. At that moment, Chinee panted in a quick rhythm and stopped walking. To describe it in one sentence, she was ill enough to necessitate medical attention. Amena came to her aid. We checked if we brought ointment. Chinee sipped some water. Francis, our guide, volunteered to carry her backpack until she would get better. Then I also lost my handkerchief along that trail. Sweat moistened my face, hair, and even my glasses. The lower front part of my gray T-shirt turned into a towel.

At 5 AM, the trees disappeared and our hiking party arrived at a grassy hill. We took a five-minute break under the faint light of a crescent moon. Gray clouds formed on the black sky. At a distance lay a town with specks of white light from lamp posts and within houses. This densely populated settlement was surrounded by fields, hills, and forested areas. Francis plucked a leaf from a guava tree, rubbed it with his fingers, and told Chinee to inhale its scent. Our weary companion appeared to improve in condition as she sat and chatted. Voices broke the silence of the outdoors.

Minutes passed speedily as the black sky turned into blue with a wash of orange and red towards the east. Amena intended for us to reach what she called a ‘fake summit’ in time for sunrise. Still, that spot here in Mt Talamitam was not yet in sight. Our pace slowed down but it did not matter. Chinee needed momentary rests and her health was our priority. She had no desire to head back to the jump off point and end this hike for good. She wanted to keep going. After all, Chinee breathed lightly now and walked with a smile.

Amena, Chinee, and Ge-ge talked about not only their respective careers but also romantic relationships amid a wide open landscape that resembled the summit of Mt Ulap. JP and I kept silent mostly. Then I decided to have a one-on-one chat with Francis.DSCN0275 At that time, I was torn apart within myself. Francis listened as I vented out my frustration mixed with a bit of confusion. He gave some advice in reply. It should have been that day in the weekend when I would breathe in fresh air, trod on grass instead of concrete, and feel nothing but bliss. Yet I could not help being vulnerable to personal problems that seem to have no solution at all.

Eventually, our trekking party came upon rocks piled carefully on top of one another. Several of those small pillars remained standing no matter how distorted they looked. Forgetting to admire who set them up, I took out my camera as the scenery had a surreal lighting from fog and the sun rising slowly. Chinee and Ge-ge used their phones for snapshots. We also asked Francis to take group photos. The time was 5:45 AM. Later on, a fellow rode on a horse and another on a carabao, or tamed water buffalo, reminiscent of the cowboys of the Wild West. I took their pictures in awe. Amena was in search of the ‘fake summit,’ also asking Francis about its exact location. Nearby what could be called an artwork of rocks stood a makeshift shelter constructed with bamboo, tree branches, split logs, and roofing in the form of a durable translucent plastic sheet. We sat down for some rest. My frustration faded away as sunshine brought a sense of optimism. Chinee was feeling well again too. Dizziness and panting came and went like a brief drizzle on a sunny day. Hopefully, it would not rain today despite an overcast gray sky. Maybe it was just fog that would subside. The cool air brought relief as I was not complaining about sweat and humidity anymore.

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From left: The Blogger, JP, Amena, Ge-ge, and Chinee

A few brightly colored tents stood out of the monotonous landscape of green and brown. They lay about fifty meters from the spot marked by piled rocks. Our hike ensured. Upon arriving at the campsite, greetings were exchanged. The other group spent the night on this nearly treeless tract of land. There was minimal conversation. The five of us got too distracted by the sunrise, fog, and notable people in our respective lives – whether they were present here or not. Amena then confirmed that this spot was the ‘fake summit’ she was talking about.

It was already past 6 AM. Francis assured us that we were close to the summit. Amena agreed. Between us and our destination lay an ascending trail cut through tall grass. It still looked easy compared to my previous treks characterized by mud, thorny branches, and soil that crumbled with just one step. This would be a walk in the park. In the middle of it, I saw nothing except tall grass, more of that grass up ahead, and my hiking buddies. Then another one of those makeshift bamboo shacks appeared. There was no hurry to reach the summit. According to Amena, the entire hike would be done in under half a day. Francis caught a cicada. He made it hum but handled it carefully. Amazingly, the winged insect never flew away. It accompanied him like a pet. Chinee and Ge-ge wished humorously that people would stay in our respective lives just as that cicada did. All of us had been making double-messaged remarks hinting to romantic relationships since the hike started. Then Francis notified us of an approaching man on horseback. The tandem of human and beast appeared majestically among the tall grass. Yet there was a stare of sorrow and sympathy in the horse’s eyes.We could notice the equine sweating profusely as it carried its rider. With the sun rising steadily, I took out my cap from my backpack and wore it just as Chinee and Ge-ge already did. Amena had a sort of bandanna instead. JP was fine without headgear. The five of us, along with Francis, continued our way through the tall grass until we arrived at the summit at 6:45 AM.

Francis chatted with a fellow preparing some stuff in a smaller shack. This man sold halo-halo, an iconic Filipino dessert of shredded ice, canned milk, and an assortment of sweet beans and agar jelly. Surprisingly, it was too early in the day to indulge in this frozen treat usually eaten during sweltering afternoons.

Amena mentioned a large rock she climbed on to while posing pictures at the summit. I was staring at it unmistakably. It also served as a vantage point. Confidence in being surefooted made me hurry and stand atop that rock. I could hear my companions telling me to be careful. Then I requested Francis to take photos. Too much excitement caused me to forget that light gray fog shrouded the view.  We wanted more than this. The five of us desired to see more of the landscape out to the horizon. We waited. Aside from halo-halo, the  vendor at the shack also sold hard-boiled eggs for Php 10 each.  I bought one. My breakfast only consisted of a handful of fries and corn puffs, along with one mug of coffee. The egg came with a pinch of salt too, like the smaller hard-boiled quail eggs peddled to bus passengers. My concern now was how to dispose bits of shells. I also shared a local brand of chocolate having high cocoa content and wrapped in foil. Being straightforward and honest, I told my companions that I was feeling left out in conversation. They advised me to just speak and join in. Just do not be shy, they added. That was what I did.

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As we wait for the fog to disappear…
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…we bought halo-halo and hard-boiled eggs from this guy

I have been told that patience was not only a virtue but also an asset. Seconds turned into minutes as we stayed on the summit. Amena insisted that we could stay here even until 9 AM. Then it would be a relatively short walk to Mt Apayang. More hikers came to the summit in batches. One of these groups was all-male. What used to be moderate conversation and the occasional laughter turned into noisy chatter. It was not a bad thing. The summit went from dreary to lively.

Leaving the company of my hiking buddies for a while, I could not resist meeting strangers and getting to know them. Three of them – two man and a woman – got my attention. In fact, they passed by earlier and I mistook the woman for an acquaintance back in high school.  The trio introduced themselves as Timmy Ferrer, Don Deo Alegre, and CJ Narvaez. Having a masculine-sounding nickname, it could be that Timmy’s actual name was Fatima. I took a snapshot of them. As CJ sat near the ledge and sought time for himself, I chatted with Deo and Timmy. The former had climbed several mountains while this was the first time for the latter.

“Why did you want to climb mountains too?” I told Timmy. “What made you do it?”

Timmy got caught by surprise. She could not answer immediately. Then something came to her mind. “For the experience,” Timmy said. “I just want to know how it feels.”

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From left: CJ, Timmy, and Deo

People have said reward comes to those who are patient. For all of us at the summit, it did. The fog opened up and then retreated into thin air. Much of the landscape below us was revealed. Grassy fields and patches of woodland stretched as far as the eye can see. Four months felt like years since I was exhilarated by the raw verdant beauty of nature. At first, I had thoughts of hiking to meet more people, expand my circle of acquaintances, and perhaps develop into more than that. Then I also loved trekking just to immerse in the great outdoors. It transformed me from an urban automaton into an independent spirit of the wilderness. I saw Chinee posing for a picture. Then I asked Amena to take photos of me with nearby Mt Apayang on the background. The five of us posed together. While Francis still had that cicada with him, I spotted upon a walking stick insect on CJ’s shirt. Then I told him calmly about it. After plucking the walking stick off his garment, I released this marvel of evolution among the tall grass. Then the five of us bade the summit farewell at 7:50 AM. Just as our party followed a descending trail, I said goodbye to CJ, Deo, and Timmy.

If there was one thing constant during this excursion, it would be Francis complimenting Ge-ge’s physical attractiveness. Honestly, I agreed with him. Yet the standards of beauty would vary from one person to another. Inner beauty would be more important too.

DSCN0336This time, the tall grass grew much closer to the trail. Our hike turned from leisurely to rather upsetting. We could not avoid pushing those leaf blades away with our arms. Contact with tall grass felt more of a nudge at first. As we progressed, my forearms felt a sting. Their skin turned reddish and I could see what could be described as lashes from a very thin whip. I poured rubbing alcohol on my hands and then wiped it on my arms. There should have been pain but somehow I did not feel it. Perhaps I got so used to pain that my senses have been numbed. As we kept on going, I held my backpack like a shield against more grass that sliced like a narrow sword, such as a rapier. I looked at my arms again and there was rashes and swelling. I prayed that I would not contract an allergic reaction today.

Adding to the discomforts experienced by our hiking party was the intense heat of a newly risen sun. Despite lots of fog earlier, today would be sunny with a relatively clear sky. Perspiration drained water from our bodies bit by bit, sapping our energy too in the process. Amena had already warned us even before the trek about the lack of tree cover.

One of Francis’s acquaintances, perhaps even his friend, was peddling popsicle ice cream on the trail. We let him advance. Then he disappeared as if through teleportation. Ge-ge noted how this fellow moved rapidly through the tall grass and uneven dirt surface.

Our groups arrived at the summit of Mt Apayang at 8:20 AM. A few enormous rocks, which also served as a platform, marked the spot. Here it felt cooler compared to the uphill trail thanks to a breeze. Exposed to the wind the summit may be, it also bore the brunt of sunshine especially on a clear day like this. Francis led us to another one of those makeshift shelters. At that moment, we would rather sit under the shade than take snapshots regardless of the vast and scenic expanse of land surrounding us.

The popsicle peddler guy joined us as we escaped the undiscriminating heat of the sun. We sat on bamboo benches, rested our backpacks, and wiped the sweat off our faces. Chinee dozed off. I would likely have difficulty falling asleep in her sitting position, except if I drained the last bit of energy I had and my body was in shutdown. We let her be. Amena and JP sat together chatting about the latter’s unusually affordable price of wet wipes he bought at a convenience store. Ge-ge decided to buy a coconut milk-flavored popsicle. JP and Amena followed. I could remember the former choosing one covered in rice flakes locally known as pinipig. Having Php 10 to spare, I bought one too. The frozen treat remained intact as I ate it like a lollipop before biting pieces of it. My taste buds indulged in the coconut milk flavor.

DSCN0343A moment later, I left the company of my hiking buddies to get photos from Mt Apayang’s summit. Popsicle Man was there, along with another fellow. This place offered a better vantage point than the summit of Mt Talamitam. Popsicle Man pointed his arm towards the adjacent province of Cavite. There I saw Mt Pico de Loro on the horizon. Even more amazingly, he mentioned Mt Marami too, which I climbed already twice. Then Popsicle Man told me to face right. Situated where the earth met the sky was Mt Makiling. Further to the right stood Mt Maculot and Mt Batulao. I had not been yet to the latter, which appeared as a craggy and untamed peak for me. Yet hikers and holidaymakers flocked to this mountain for its beauty. Mt Gulugod Baboy, named because it supposedly looked like a pig’s spine, could also be seen here. Other than mountains, the coastlines of Batangas and Cavite provinces were visible too as blue contrasted with green. Popsicle Man said he could spot the province of Bataan too across the entrance of Manila Bay. Soon, Amena showed up and took pictures of her own. The rest of the group joined in. Everyone smiled, laughed, and joked. We left this summit before 9 AM.

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You could see Mt Marami at the center and far to the left is Mt Pico de Loro
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At the horizon towards the left lies Mt Makiling and at the far right is Mt Maculot

Our trekking party followed the same trail that led us up Mt Apayang. That meant getting a bit lacerated by the tall grass again. The rash on my arms did not subside. I simply told my companions that I have more sensitive skin than the average person. On a more positive note, we were going downhill. It simply felt like flying. In no time, our group reached the spot where the trail forked towards the summit of Mt Talamitam and another down to the jump-off point. Francis stressed that we would take the latter. He also had a chat through his mobile phone from time to time. Our guide would attend a baptismal ceremony later in the day.

This was one of my hike where my feet had a mind of their own. Perhaps I wanted to complete this hike sooner, have a shower, and ride a bus towards home. Another explanation I could offer about my quick pace was the relative ease of the trail.

Beyond the stretch of tall grass lay a wooded part of the trail. It reminded me of Mt Makiling, this time without the moss and the tiny leeches. I told Amena about this. Hardwood trees provided the dappled shade we needed. Vegetation grew apart more than close to each other. My nose picked up the scent of dried leaf litter decaying for days. At one point however, the ground on our right plunged immediately into a ravine. I moved carefully. To my comfort, this one-day hike required less acrobatic movement.

Eventually, we emerged from tree cover to make our way through a mass of tall grass again. Then the grasses parted. I was literally silent but my mind screamed in awe. Before me lay a scenery that could have its picture taken and printed on the paper label wrapped on a can of corned beef. A pastureland stretched for hectares.

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This scenery before me is one reason why this hike at Mt Talamitam is worth it

The wide open spaces of grazed grass appealed to my eyes. It had something to do with hardwired collective consciousness. When prehistoric humans mostly hunted and gathered for food while trying to survive in the wilderness, large predators such as big cats could be spotted easily in a terrain like this. This could explain why a walk in the woods, even through tall grass, would trigger discomfort and a sensation of fear. In turn, people learned to be more alert of their surroundings to detect such predators even if hidden among foliage. This would be another explanation why one could also see eyes and a mouth when looking at the hood of an automobile or an electrical socket. Being able to spot a face sooner meant higher chances of survival.

It was late morning and noon might come without a notice. Despite the complete lack of shade, the heat felt mild instead of sweltering. After all, the time was not around 12 or 1 PM. Chinee and I accompanied Francis. The other three lagged slightly as JP had a problem with the open zipper of his backpack and one of his items falling off. We waited. After regrouping, the six of us were off.

A cow stood near our path. I kept distance. No matter how tame it looked, the bovine still weighed hundreds of kilograms and could easily injure me severely with a charge or a kick.DSCN0350 Good thing it only stared at me and did not care. Later on, it was a bull instead of a cow. The horns might be short but still formidable. I walked calmly and did not look the beast in the eye. Again, the domesticated animal simply stood while swatting its tail. It was not about fear of cattle. I would be more than willing to put my hand on one if I raised and herded them.

Our group kept on strolling in the middle of pastureland. Our topics of conversation included humidity, barometric pressure, television series, and subject matter leaning towards the personal. I also had a chat with Francis about learning to speak English better and my recent job in the call center industry.

At 10:18 AM, we stopped by at a shack to buy and drink coconut juice in plastic cups. The refreshing beverage came with coconut meat too. It remained cold thanks to ice that froze in transparent plastic bags the size of two fists next to each other. Of course, that piece of ice was plunged and now floating in a large container that looked like a gas lamp. After drinking our fill, we added the number of stacked empty yet dripping cups. It was one way the vendor could tally her sales for the day. The coconut juice relieved my thirst but I still had those rashes on my forearms. I thought they were subsiding. Ge-ge disagreed with me.

The trek resumed through another patch of woodland. Our descent involved zigzagging paths, tree roots, and loose soil. At times I leaped instead of walked. My T-shirt smelled strongly of sweat. Perspiration also moistened my hair and made my face sticky to the touch. My 1.5 liter bottle of distilled water was nearly empty. Still, my legs did not ache although I could fell dull pain in my toes as I kept myself upright on our downhill course.

DSCN0351A river appeared to our left. I approached it for a closer look. The still greenish water reflected whatever close to its surface. It mostly had rock for a bank, like a tiny and freshwater cousin of the white chalk cliffs on the coast of Dover, England. Francis and I followed the river. Then I saw the bridge we crossed before the break of dawn. Further down the river, people of various ages took a dip and bathed. Many among them wore casual clothing instead of swimwear, with males only having to just take their top off. Our hiking party gathered at a shack that sold snacks, refreshments, and even liquor. It was 10:45 AM. We had two options. First, we would continue heading down, take the easy path, but pay Php 10 per head as an entrance fee. The second option involved tracing our footsteps back to cross the river for free. However, our return to the jump-off point would take longer. We chose the second option.

In fact, we did not have to wade across the river. Going back for about a hundred meters, Francis guided us down a series of steps and through a point in the river that could be crossed by simply stepping on rocks. My socks did not even get wet.

Finally, our party got back to the village at the jump-off point even before 12 PM. At least a cemented road lay before us except for a bit that was damaged and unpaved. At first, we kept considerable distance from one another. Then Chinee, Ge-ge, and I grouped and left Amena and JP to have time with one another. I had a chat with Ge-ge about planned hikes in the future. We all kept on walking until the houses where we hung out after arrival turned into edible item shops and dining establishments. After a short rest that came with a pitcher of cool refreshing water thanks to Paul, we took a bath and had lunch. Then we were homeward bound by noon.

The excursion at Mt Talamitam helped me get back to one of my fond interests. However, I had to admit that social interaction with my companions was not good enough. It was on my part. Somehow I must remind myself to leave my worries and frustration behind when I go hiking again.