Bakasyunan Revealed

Working in a corporate environment might provide travel opportunities in the form of company outings or team-building events. My office department had one at the Bakasyunan resort and conference center on June 10, 2017. It was a day I wanted to forget but I could not.

My shift ended at 5 AM. I shared this time frame with two of my batchmates, namely Maejille ‘Maej’ Papango and Cheryle ‘Che’ Sagayoc. We preferred the term ‘wavemates’ as our company referred to each batch of new employees per department as a wave. I was with Wave 25. We numbered 19 individuals from varying ages, genders, educational backgrounds, and hobbies. Then we got reassigned within two separate buildings and then into different teams. The three of us rode together in one van along with fellow employees who had the same shift as us.

The van endured morning traffic despite it being a Saturday. Our group stopped by at a fast food drive-thru and had breakfast on the go, munching and sipping while sitting on couches. Aside from the three of us, the companions I could remember were Harvey Alarcon and Jemimah Bautista. We left the nation’s capital for the nearby province of Rizal up north. Our vehicle crossed Antipolo city, then the municipality of Teresa. Residing in the latter was my newly-made friend and fellow hiking enthusiast named Ren Emradura. She also organized mountain climbing events. As I stared out the van’s window, I thought that she would be still sleeping given the gray cloudy sky. Then it drizzled. We entered the town of Tanay where Bakasyunan was located. The van followed a twisting road that I recalled taking on the way to Mt Daraitan back in 2015. I shared it to Harvey, who had his share of outdoor adventures too. After briefly stopping by at a gas station, about ten minutes of driving elapsed before we finally arrived at our destination.


Bakasyunan

Tanay, Rizal province, Philippines

Uniform Mike Romeo

0724 hrs, June 10th 2017


Chain-link fencing stood proudly beside the highway, intimidating any would-be trespasser. Beyond it, inside the compound, lay grass and trees like a meadow in a forest. We walked into the gate of Bakasyunan. A long line of fellow getaway-seekers greeted us. I did not expect this huge number of people. As a life principle, we should not get swayed by our expectations. They seemed employees too. The other groups outnumbered us three to one. A party consisted wholly of men. Conversation filled the air already heavy with raindrops. We kept on strolling on the wet cemented lane.

Bakasyunan offered lodging in a building that looked more of a country lodge. One could buy souvenirs, T-shirts, slippers, and essential things at the small shop by the entrance. Further indoors, a bar served both liquor and fruit shakes. Tables and chair lay scattered in this dining area that lacked panes and glass windows, only wooden fences.

A huge heart sculpture caught our attention. I felt allergic to this shape that symbolized love and romance. The actual human heart, with its muscle, arteries, and veins, did not even look like that. Besides, I was going through a tough time. Nearby sat another large sculpture in the form of a golf ball. An over-sized pool table at ground level, complete with numbered balls and a surface painted green as ‘felt,’ had me puzzled as to how to play with it. An assortment of flowers along with pebbles laid aesthetically made visitors feel truly welcome. These decorations made a perfect background for snapshots too. Just several meters at the front of the hotel was the word ‘BAKASYUNAN’ as human-sized sculpted letters.

DSCN0418Guests could swim, bathe, and admire the surrounding landscape at the same time in a pool at the end of a grassy patch. Forested mountains fell into mere hills, which beyond lay a lake that seemed to stretch out indefinitely. To the left stood three massive wind turbines, referred to incorrectly by the populace as windmills. These structures generated power, not ground grain into flour. A narrow path of gray stone led to the attraction. The weather appeared uninviting for a dip. We had dreary clouds and mist instead of clear sunshine. It was just too cold for swimming, my companions thought. Still, I brought swimwear.

The cemented path led us down, deeper into Bakasyunan. To our left, a structure that looked like a roofed basketball court sheltered tables and chairs from the elements. This kind of place could serve an excellent venue for a wedding or debut. Eventually, our group reached a convention facility called the Tinipak Hall. Beside the door hung a plaque with a photo of Tinipak River, where this hall got its name. It flowed and ran beneath Mt Daraitan. No wonder the picture looked familiar. I had a few fellows in Wave 25 who also liked hiking. Then I went in.

Clothed tables and white plastic chairs lined the hall’s left and right. This venue seemed big enough to accommodate more than 100 people. I sat with Che and Maej. Near the entrance, a catering service crew prepared our meals served on a separate long table. Food stubs were distributed among guests. Water and iced tea ran freely among us, kept in a drum-like container with a hand-pressed faucet at the base. We were also given snacks. As the three of us were among the earliest batch to leave the office, we still awaited our companions. All in all, our fellows in Wave 25 joining this event included Nicole Arenas, Loraime ‘Yem’ Balancio, Erika Cruz, John Jay dela Cueva, Jaquelyn ‘Jaq’ Gapon, Claudine ‘Claudia’ Garcia, Arlene Manlangit, Jose Rumbines, and Aaron Valencia. Our batch started out more than we were now. A few did not continue employment due to their various reasons.

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Che (left) and Maej (right) smiling because there are brownies. Yeah, brownies
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The blogger helping himself with a sandwich. Yummy!

More people began pouring in. Aside from our team in Taguig city, we also met up with our counterparts in the Quezon city department. I saw new and unfamiliar faces. I yearned to have a chat with these colleagues. Yet all I could do at the moment was smile at them. An invisible barrier more formidable than the Berlin Wall always existed between strangers. A team in charge of fun-oriented events checked the microphones, visual projectors, and speakers from time to time. It was now past 8 AM. The program had not begun yet. More fellow employees arrived in batches. Tinipak Hall began to look like an alumni homecoming party.

The event program commenced. It began with a video slideshow and a song as eulogy for an employee who passed away recently. He got hospitalized and was recovering. Then it came. The whole room’s mood turned solemn. Tears flowed on cheeks. Eyes turned reddish. No one said a word. Mournful music reverberated against the walls painted white. Then it was over. The hosts reminded us to feel happy for him regardless as he made the most of living. Our deceased colleague would have wanted us to enjoy this day. He was among the event’s organizers.

Chito Martillano, the team leader (or supervisor) to whom I got assigned to, hosted a game involving various departments. The employees from Quezon City, or QC, rose up eagerly. Soon, they filled our far end of the hall. Our respective teams hesitated to join. Wanting more than sitting idly, I volunteered. I volunteered as a tribute. It felt like The Hunger Games trilogy. Chito, who we also refer to fondly as TLC, called names. My companions from Wave 25 now included Aaron, Che, and Jaq. I could not remember the mechanics much except that it resembled the classic paper, sticks, and stones on a large scale, explaining the huge number of participants. We won a few rounds.

More games followed. I decided not to join anymore. Outside, rain fell from a sorrowful gray sky. The heavens absorbed our personal struggles and problems, then poured them back at us as chilly drops of water. Ground turned into mud. Bakasyunan featured horseback riding, ATVs, and various activities which we could not enjoy now due to the weather. An office photo contest also ate up our time. Bakasyunan’s grounds served an excellent backdrop for nature-themed snapshots, which was the criterion.

Rain remained weak as a drizzle. I strolled around a patch of grass near Tinipak Hall. I thought I saw a watchtower or lookout tower. It was actually a high vertical wall to climb, like those in obstacle courses. No one took the challenge. After all, it was too slippery due to the never-ending light rain. I grabbed my mobile phone out of my pocket. Then I called Ren. The two of us chatted. She shared more of her tales from climbing mountains. I described Bakasyunan to her. After our call, I slipped on wet grass. Pain stung my leg. My day seemed even more grim. It sure sucked after slipping and hurting myself out of mistake and carelessness.

My colleagues wandered around, looking for a perfect spot for a photo shoot. John Jay dressed up, or more like dressed down, like Kocoum from the 1995 animated film Pocahontas. Bear paws ‘painted’ on the shirtless chest gave his character away. John Jay looked exotic in the midst of people wearing casual and swimming attire. Yet he wore his costume with utmost confidence. It was for a photo shoot after all. Meanwhile, I had a stroll with Phil Abella, a fellow under TLC’s squad. We walked past houses rented by guests staying overnight. These buildings seemed as more compact versions of the homes of affluent families living in the subdivisions, or exclusive villages, in and around the capital region. Far below a set of cemented stairs lay an enormous pool. Visitors, turned miniature by distance, frolicked in the turquoise chlorinated water. A bit later, we stumbled upon Erika, Jaquelyn, John Jay, and Jose in their photo shoot. They were like weary adventurers lost in the wilderness. Jose complained about the sticky mud and itchy tall grass. These added to his already growing concerns. The four had gone into densely vegetated spots within Bakasyunan. (Days later, I suggested to Jose that he make John Jay’s photo inspired by the video game Far Cry Primal. It was set in 10,000 B.C.E. when prehistoric hunter-gatherers and mammoths roamed Europe. It worked.) Phil and I then resumed our stroll until we parted ways.

Noontime came. Our lunch had been served late. A long line of people filled the hall. We waited for food like folks staying in an evacuation center or refugee camp. It seemed famine struck the land. Our menu consisted of fried chicken in spicy sauce, sautéed noodles known locally as pancit, and fruit salad. At least that was what I remembered. Minutes passed anxiously as I fell in line near Che, Maej, Phil, and another colleague named Eliza Borce. At least ten minutes elapsed before a meal got served on my white ceramic plate. Then I sat down for lunch with my mates from Wave 25.

A terrace at the back of Tinipak Hall presented an admirable view of verdant mountain DSCN0465ridges and a distant silvery lake. Views of a pristine landscape made the visit at Bakasyunan ever more worthwhile. At this spot, my mates from Wave 25 and I reunited with Ivette Villegas, our training mentor from QC. She looked rather plump in a positive sense. That meant she was faring well back in QC. She took daily trips to our Taguig office during our batch’s training.

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From left: Erika, John Jay, Jose, Jaquelyn, Arlene, Loraime, Claudia

DSCN0472Later in the early afternoon, I also had a short stroll with Claudia and Jaq, already dressed in swim wear. We talked about resorts in Batangas province as the three of us roamed those houses again near the bigger pool. This time, more people flocked for a dip. Aaron went for a swim eagerly. He was nowhere to be found. The sky remained gray and overcast. No one wanted to jump into the pool. The weather proved discouraging indeed. Then we joined Erika, John Jay, and Jose. They too did not feel like swimming. Our group posted for photos and kept on roaming while sharing our individual setbacks. We revealed more of ourselves. Everyone had his or her own downside. At least we all got the company of one another at that moment. There was no work. It was an afternoon only for leisure. We all spent some time sitting around a table at Bakasyunan’s bar and also spent our money on chocolate or fruit shakes.

At about 3 PM, we found ourselves at a two-story cemented building near the upper pool with a view of those wind turbines. Guests done with swimming took showers, walking to and fro with soaked hair and fresh clothes. Upstairs, a spacious open-air floor contained two long tables, benches, and a sing-along machine. Claudia, Erika, Jaquelyn, John Jay, Jose, and I sang when it was our respective turn. I could remember vividly a fellow from another team and building who went by the nickname of MC. He sang Thinking of You by Katy Perry. The lyrics and rhythm really seeped into that moment’s mood. Every time I would hear that song, I could feel a chill in my spine. I could imagine broken hearts, missed memories, unfulfilled hopes, and unrequited love. Yet that day was meant for enjoyment. It was coming to an end as daylight faded.

Che, Maej, and Nicole showed up. Nicole brought her DSLR camera. All of us had snapshots with the nearby pool and the distant landscape as the background. We had laughs and teasing. Not everyone could have amiable colleagues in an equally amiable working environment. I felt thankful for where I was right there.

Our entire department gathered in Tinipak Hall for the last time before this day drew to a close. The organizers thanked everyone who attended. We all wished a better future for our organization. A group photo, or more like a crowd photo, with almost everyone was taken at the terrace with the metal railings. Then many among us changed their swimming attire for a new set of clothes. People walked out of the hall in groups.

The cemented path sloped uphill this time. At least it consisted of a series of even surfaces resembling a fish ladder, such as that for migrating salmon. Following it felt easier than a muddy mountain trail. Yet we were already exhausted from an entire day of walking, other activities aside. Members of our Wave 25 batch did not get proper sleep since our shift ended at 5 AM earlier today. It seemed a harrowing climb. Then we reached the parking lot with the vans. My companions at Wave 25 and I decided to ride together rather than mingle with other teams. However, it may stir up a logistical problem and leave some folks without a ride. It was do or nothing. We took seats.

Sleep eluded me as our van thundered on the highway as if doing a blitzkrieg. My mind got preoccupied with decision making and timing. I weighed actions. I contemplated on other issues. A few worries bothered me. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues had begun to doze off. I paid Ren a call. She told me about spending the afternoon in a cafe in her town. Drizzle cast innumerable rain drops on the windows of our automobile. Soon, my phone conversation with Ren ended. The roadside grew wild with tall grass and vertical rock surfaces. Light turned into darkness gradually. Gray became black. It was about 7 PM when we arrived at the National Capital Region (NCR). Lamp posts shone orange light on the concrete highways and fly overs. One by one, our companions living in northern NCR got out of the van. Maej was already home. We dropped her at Antipolo, where she was living. Many among us ended up at Market Market in Taguig city. For the last leg of my journey, I rode the bus with John Jay and Nicole.

To sum it up, my Bakasyunan adventure would have been more enjoyable if not for the rain. Yet no human can control the weather. This place offers a mix of fun activities but at a cost of at least Php 100. The venue itself cannot be considered affordable for the regular visitor. No wonder it mostly hosts company event. Nevertheless, Bakasyunan has the facilities, surrounding views, and ambience that make your day pleasurable.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

More of Rock-Climbing than Hiking

One week after that arduous trek at Mt Amuyao, I planned to simply spend the Saturday and Sunday at my home, taking naps and eating freshly-cooked meals. Then Mary Rose ‘May’ Trinidad invited me suddenly to a group that would hike at Mt Pamitinan. It would be a so-called ‘minor climb.’ A major climb would have ascending trails that literally would take your breath away due to fatigue. It usually would take place overnight. On the other hand, a minor climb would begin in the morning and end in the afternoon. Participants would be back in their homes by late night. Interestingly, we were told to bring gloves as the terrain would be rocky, according to the event organizer.

Located in Rizal province, I thought Mt Pamitinan was in relatively close proximity with Mt Daraitan, which I climbed nearly a year ago. I was wrong. Mt Daraitan was located in Tanay, Rizal. We would be heading to the municipality of Rodriguez, Rizal. Our young male guide named Lydjune Susana confirmed that Tanay was quite far from there. Mt Pamitinan’s summit had an elevation of 426 meters above sea level. I felt relieved. This trek would be a break from climbing mountains that stood past 1,000 meters above sea level.

In fact, I was supposed to climb Mt Pamitinan back in July. Cecille ‘Ces’ Olivarez organized an excursion that also involved climbing nearby Mt Binacayan. It was called a ‘twin dayhike.’ However, a typhoon brought a nasty combination of heavy rain and wind over that weekend. A guide there contacted Ces and advised her to cancel the outing. In turn, Cess then moved the venue to Mt Marami, which I climbed two months ago. I could not believe I revisited the place but that time it was with another set of companions.

At September 25, 2016, May and I met up with Mark Dineros at San Mateo, Rizal past 5 AM. Rina Ramos, a friend of Mark, then came. Michael Ordiales and Rubie Moncera, a couple who went in the same university and had the same course as May and Mark, arrived by tricycle. We were just six. In comparison, most of my excursions involved at least ten people. Then we rode separately in two of these noisy motor-powered light vehicles. I joined May inside the covered sidecar while Mark sat behind the tricycle driver, gripping a sort of a metal handle to avoid falling off.

The urban landscape of Rodriguez, Rizal resembled that of my hometown. Then the row of commercial establishments made of concrete gave way to houses mostly built of wood and bamboo. I could see the surroundings turning green, gray, and brown in the cool light under a cloudy sky.

We bailed out of the tricycles in front of the registration center. A turquoise-painted wall with black railings stretched towards an arch down the two-lane cemented path. Roadside vendors sold fizzy drinks, potato chips, breads, and even colorful gloves. Fellow hikers, mostly in the same age group as the six of us, chatted while walking around in groups. Only a few vehicles passed by. Residents and tourists alike enjoyed a stroll on a fine Sunday morning. We entered the gate, greeted two women sitting behind a table, signed in, and paid the registration fee. After that, we met Lydjune. Having a slight build, our guide wore a black and violet outfit for the outdoors. He looked well-prepared. Mark had known Lydjune as he already climbed Mt Pamitinan before. Now it was time for the rest of us to do so.

After posing for a group photo under the decorative arch, we took off the cemented road sometime between 6:30 AM and 7 AM. Lydjune led us into a dirt path surrounded by residential houses. We also walked past an elementary school. It was a Sunday and we heard music from decades ago being played on the radio. Then we came upon a suspension bridge made of wood and heavy rope, along with some metal and concrete.

The bridge hung above a gently-flowing river. It reminded me of two near a major university in my hometown. These structures had fallen into disrepair. I used to cross them a decade ago but now no one would. This bridge at the foot of Mt Pamitinan, however, was used by locals on a daily basis. We came across children who simply did not mind us, talking about kid-related stuff. Our steps shook the wood panels under our feet a bit. I had a bit of chat with Michael about previous excursions. Halfway in our crossing, we were dazzled by the view. The water looked something between bluish gray and olive green, reflecting the sky with its uncertain weather. To our left, a smooth-surfaced boulder rose from the river that flowed with power but without the foam. The current grew weaker past the bridge. A multitude of brown and white rocks lined up the shore to our right. We took photos before continuing our way to the other side.

One-story houses with tin roofs, some having bamboo fences, greeted us after making our way through the bridge. Then we followed some cemented stairs on sloping ground. I remembered my trek at Mt Amuyao last week, at the part when we just left the community of Barlig. We trailed behind another group that consisted of young adults in their early twenties, perhaps still studying in college. Someone among the locals played the radio. Faint music and voices became part of the ambience. Chickens pecked at the ground while dogs lay down just outside their owners’ homes. Then we were walking not on cement anymore but on soil. We reached the arch, much smaller and simpler than the one near the registration center as it was just made of wood. It also indicated the entrance to Mt Pamitinan. Nearby, there was a roofed structure with benches.

It rained on the previous day. The soles of my shoes and a little above them were covered in mud that looked more tan than brown. My companions panted yet they laughed at the same time. I inhaled deeply and exhaled loudly. My legs felt some strain from the ascent. This was my body getting accustomed to a long walk ahead. I began to realize that the hike at Mt Pamitinan was not as easy as I thought.

Rocks, tree roots, and mud lay on the upward sloping path. We referred to this challenging stretch of the trail and others of its kind as an ‘assault.’ I did not expect Mt Pamitinan to have it. It was supposed to be my respite. May and Rina were hiking on a mountain for the first time and it was supposed to be an easy introduction to this activity. We stepped carefully on the footprints left by the hiking party ahead of us. It was as if they already paved the way for our group. Countless trees closed in on us. I was not trekking through a mossy forest anymore. The plant life here bore a striking resemblance to those found at Mt Daraitan. Minutes passed as we kept on walking uphill, even using our hands at a particular section of the trail from the village to the first station. There was no muddy soil, only light gray rock. My hands gripped the solid surfaces firmly. It almost felt like rock-climbing.

As I trudged up the trail, the leaves on treetops cleared gradually to reveal a massive wall of limestone that loomed at our front. Then I saw a wooden structure. We just reached the first station. I ran towards it with enthusiasm. Rubie was already there, sitting on what looked like a bed built from bamboo strips. There were bamboo rafters too but without roofing. I rested my backpack on the ground. It was not as heavy as the large one from last week but contained a full 1.5-liter bottle of water. Then I sat on a log. We stopped by for some rest. Lydjune sat with bent knees on top of a boulder. May and Rina said they were on the verge of giving up. Rina would rather stay at the first station and wait for our return. Mark and I told them their bodies were still adapting to the rigors of mountain climbing. Some trail foods were distributed among us and we also drank water to replenish our strength.

The respite lasted ten minutes before we resumed out trek. We followed a path below that limestone precipice. Trickling water and pouring rain both sculpted the rock face like someone talented would chisel away bits of marble to create a work of art. There were eye-catching features too difficult to describe. I remarked cheerfully about the even surface of the trail. Yet to our left the ground sloped drastically into a ravine. Foliage concealed the base from my eyes. Shade from the trees kept us relatively cool despite the humid environment.

I did not expect a leisurely walk all the way. Eventually, the trail went steep and was strewn with rocks again. At least there was not much strain from my legs doing their best to maintain balance. May and Rina looked tired but kept on going. They were beginning to cope with the challenges brought by this activity that enthralled a growing number of people both young and senior.

We reached the second station at around 7:30 AM. Lydjune described it amusingly as a ‘convenience store’ and a ‘fast food chain.’ He was sort of right. A few shacks sold both bottled beverages and juice in plastic cups to thirsty hikers. There were snack items in foil containers, sandwiches, and more gloves too. Vendors on the trail here offered a bigger variety of food and drinks compared to their counterparts in other places I trekked before.

Our group sat on a bench made of bamboo. We chatted with one another about topics that made us smile and laugh. Michael shared details of his own getaway at Sagada. I remembered visiting that place too with classmates from high school. A white-furred dog rested on its belly beside a shack and caught my attention. It seemed albino but I was not sure. The canine was also too lazy to interact with visiting trekkers. As the sun rose higher, the surroundings were bathed in a soothing light. I felt eager to reach the summit. Yet as we stood up to continue our hike, Lydjune told us to wear now the gloves we brought. With backpacks strapped to our shoulders again, we got ready to face what Mt Pamitinan would lay on its trail.

Lydjune led us through the shacks, bamboo benches, and a few fellow hikers. Then he turned right sharply. It was like someone dumped a truckload of rocks on our path. Lydjune advised us strongly to put our mobile phones inside our backpacks. The handheld devices could fall into gaps between those rocks and plunge down a high ravine. It would take a miracle to recover their remnants, let alone find them still working. We followed Lydjune’s advice but I insisted on keeping my mobile phone in my pocket. I wedged a handkerchief inside to keep the gadget in place.

I charged through that bumpy section of the trail just past the second station. The rubbery soles of my trekking shoes stuck to rock surfaces. I gripped whatever I reached as tightly as I could. May was in my front, following Lydjune. A slender build and relatively long legs gave her an advantage in movement despite her first time in climbing mountains. I stared down the unorganized arrangement of rocks. There were narrow gaps between them. A mobile phone would easily fit into one. I peered through a gap and only saw the color green from vegetation way below.

Our brief ordeal came to an end when a dirt path greeted us. However, a ravine lay on our right. Bamboo and broad-leaved bushes grew all around us, adding green to our gray surroundings. The trail then led us to more rocks that we needed to conquer with both hands and feet.

We moved sluggishly up the rough slope. Every step required extra leg strength combined with care. At least my trekking shoes had a good grip on bare rock. Perspiration accumulated on my black T-shirt of synthetic material, bought as a souvenir from Mt Manalmon. My forehead, cheeks, and neck became moist with sweat. A particular rock formation delayed our movement as we struggled in climbing over it. I shifted my glance towards the surroundings and the sky. I smiled and shouted in awe. There was a sea of clouds but it was nearly 8 AM. Dark green mountains rose towards a light blue sky. The nearest peak on my left was completely covered with plant life and its summit appeared smooth instead of rugged.

Focusing on the trail again, I caught sight of what looked like a cave entrance under a massive boulder. Then I realized why Lydjune had us stopping by at this spot. We could pose for photos on top of a platform made of jagged brown rock. We did. Looking far to my left beyond the nearest mountain, the river winded towards a multitude of houses and buildings.20160925_075941 It was amazing how close Mt Pamitinan was to an cityscape. During my treks at the Cordilleras, I looked at every direction and the closest to something urban I saw was a village or the road with hairpin turns. To get to the platform, we must hold sharp rock edges while maintaining balance. One by one, we posed  with utmost care on top of an uneven surface while our eyes were fixed on Mark’s camera. It was slung around Lydjune’s neck. Our guide kindly took the photos. The session lasted ten minutes before we moved on.

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This photo reminds me of the painting ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich. This time, it’s the Relentless Wanderer

There was a dirt path that ended shortly, as expected, into another rock-climbing challenge. It looked like a sandwich with two huge solid rock buns and a number of much smaller rocks squeezed between them. Then that sandwich was rested on its side. We must find a way through the middle of the ‘buns’ and to the top. At this point our group bumped into a few other trekkers, probably in their thirties or forties. Rubie and May took the challenge first. Lydjune stood on our left, ready to lend a hand so nobody would slip and fall. The two women paused before making a well-calculated step. They made it. Then it was my turn. My eyes indicated where I would place my hands and feet – with success. However, I came to a point that I did not know what to do next. Lydjune came to my aid. He told me to place my foot on a particular rock wedged between those two boulders. Mark, Michael, and Rina also found their own ways to overcome this part of the trail.

The immediate surroundings turned shady. Bamboo grew and flourished all around us. A panda would love to stay here, except for the uncomfortable humidity. Our path kept on going uphill but it had considerable dirt to make walking easier. Then we took a five-minute break in the midst of a bamboo grove. We sat down, drank some water, and chatted before resuming the hike.

May and Rubie stood before a rugged vertical rock face. Lydjune said we would scale it. There was a more navigable trail to the right. However, we would not take it or we would block hikers descending from the summit. (Later on, I realized why Lydjune made sense.) This part of the Mt Pamitinan trek featured an actual rock climbing experience. Standing at least five meters high, the rock formation reminded me of the first time I tried indoor climbing at HistoryCon back in August. On a lanyard around my neck was the orange whistle given to me during that big event. This time, there were no harnesses and safety helmets. Everything depended on the strength of both muscle and resolve. Rubie made the climb first, followed by May. Then it was my turn. I noticed cracks, most likely carved on rock by nature guides, where I could insert my fingers and the tips of my shoes. Then I paused halfway into the climb as Lydjune took two photos. Everyone in our group had snapshots in this way. With a steady breathing rhythm and a firm grip, I scaled the rock face. It was not as difficult as it seemed.

We went past more bamboo stalks and leafy bushes. Then we heard yelling that grew louder as our group followed Lydjune. It was not the summit yet. However, we emerged on to a vantage point with other trekkers on a rock formation, posing for photos. They sat or stood on top of what looked like a molar tooth damaged by cavities. Minutes passed and we had some rest while waiting for our turn.

I had a closer look of our view from this spot. Some buildings lay between the gray-colored river and a vast expanse of tropical forest. Surprisingly, power lines stood among the trees and made the landscape somewhat less pristine. The mountainside had become bare. A distant hill had it worse. It was brown as if every plant was uprooted. Beyond it, more buildings stretched endlessly towards the dark blue horizon. The proximity to Metro Manila and surrounding towns made Mt Pamitinan popular among office workers who simply wanted a weekend getaway. Then Lydjune asked us who wanted to go first. Rubie volunteered. One by one, we walked and crawled carefully towards that mostly light brown rock formation. Then we posed as best as we could. A more risky pose could be done on a crevice at the side. No one had any mishap this day.

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We may be smiling in this picture but our legs are actually shaking a bit 

Our hiking party would arrive shortly at the summit, according to Lydjune. He led us through another shady spot that resembled a garden. A group of hikers sat on a circle and enjoyed their meals. More visitors at Mt Pamitinan relaxed nearby. A bright yet cloudy sky greeted us, accompanied by a view of nothing but mountains and valleys. This was not the summit. I looked to my left and saw people making the most of their time atop a monstrous rock formation. That was the summit.

When that group of trekkers began descending from the seemingly tower of solid rock, I summoned my companions so we could climb. Then I was told there were two other hiking parties next in line to them. The summit could only accommodate one group at a time. We had no other choice but to wait. Michael and Rubie shared corn nuts, or cornick, with a spicy flavor. Mark and Rina, both hailing from San Mateo, took snapshots of an awe-inspiring landscape. I sat beside May, talking to her about the joys of hiking up a mountain. Perhaps she, and Rina too, might do this kind of activity again. Then May chatted with Rina while I had alternating conversations with Mark and Michael. My companions also recalled their college days at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Perhaps 30 minutes passed before we had our turn. We could have climbed atop the summit immediately and got down the mountain sooner if not for a relatively high number of visitors that day.

The summit itself could only be accessed with a very tough blue rope. It had knots for our hands to hold on to. I reminded Michael about a similar rope found inside the Sumaging Cave in Sagada. He had been to that tourist destination too. This time, I went up first. Grabbing the rope as tightly as I could, I imagined that rock formation as a bumpy wall in indoor climbing. I placed my feet into cracks or on protruding surfaces, making sure I would not slip. Lydjune advised me on how to grip and step. I reached the top with ease, joining a party of outdoor adventure-seekers even younger than us. My companions and I would all climb up before they descend. We assembled at one side as our fellow hikers held the rope and made their way down.

It was sometime between 9 AM and 10 AM. Under a sunny and clear sky, we would be sweaty and sapped of energy from the blistering heat. However, clouds filled the sky and kept the sun at bay. I felt glad about the coincidence of making this trek under this weather.

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This is what we do at the summit when not posing for a photo

We had a 360-degree view of our surroundings. A dark green mountain had been flecked with gray from exposed rock surfaces. A winding river ran its course, the water turned murky by sediments washed by yesterday’s rain. White smoke from undetermined human activity rose noticeably. Lydjune pointed us the direction to the Sierra Madre mountain range, some of the towns in Rizal province, and even the adjacent Quezon province. One would be humbled if he or she visualized how tiny and vulnerable a human being was amidst the mountainous landscape.

Atop the summit, we posed for photos while sitting or standing on rock surfaces dotted by innumerable miniature craters. As he was surefooted, Lydjune leapt effortlessly among the rocks like a goat. Our guide took pictures with the skill of a professional. His talent must have developed from constant interaction with hikers.

Our trekking party lingered at the summit until it was nearly 10 AM. Going down the rock formation seemed more challenging than going up. After Rubie and May, I had my turn. My body assumed the same position as before but this time I would descend. I could not see where I should place my feet one by one. I summoned all of my strength in holding that blue rope. Letting my hands slip was not an option. Lydjune assisted me patiently. It took me three minutes before my shoes touched soil again.

The sky turned dim. We had to reach the base before getting caught by rain while still on the trail. Slippery rocks and muddy ground would not only slow us down but also present the risk of sustaining cuts, bruises, and other injuries.

Gravity helped us cover ground faster. We held on to relatively thin tree trunks that acted as poles while taking nimble yet careful steps. It was as if we bounded down Mt Pamitinan. A moment later, we came across Lydjune’s father. He also guided visitors up and down the mountain. We kept on moving. I did not see that vertical rock face we scaled earlier. Then I realized we took the other trail reserved for descending trekkers. Judging from my experience in going down the summit, descending through that rock face would delay us and would be extremely difficult. There was no rope after all.

When we came to a point where there was a ravine to our left, I struggled in making my way atop a rugged boulder. Then I looked down and saw my companions walking on a dirt trail. I only brought unnecessary hardship upon myself but just laughed at my mistake. Consequently, I lagged behind. I was tired both physically and emotionally for some reason.

Just past the ‘platform,’ we bumped into a group of East Asian tourists. My companions greeted them with “anyong,” which is “hello” in Korean. The other party replied that they were Chinese. When it was my turn to approach them, I said “ni hao.

We reached the refreshment shacks of the second station with amazing speed. I sat on a bamboo bench beside Mark. May, Rina, and Rubie had rest too at another bench. Michael placed his backpack on the ground to my right. We were all tired, a bit parched, and sweaty. A fellow trekker named Joseph had a chat with us, sharing his own outdoor adventures too. He asked us why we did not hike up nearby Mt Binacayan too. I said it was not part of the itinerary. About ten minutes passed before we went our way.

Our pace became slower while heading towards the first station. There were no more tree trunks or branches to hold on to. I relied on balancing my center of gravity. We walked carefully to avoid slipping. Rocks lay on our muddy path. I saw the limestone formation again and I knew the first station was close. We took another short break. The last time May and Rina were here, they seemed discouraged. Now they listed the Mt Pamitinan trek among their achievements. We all looked forward to eating lunch.

Even the final stretch of our hike did not give us much relief. It had the same mud, rock, and slippery surfaces and the lack of something to grip. Then my ears picked up a song played on FM radio. It cheered us up. Eventually, we made it back to the houses, chickens, and cemented steps before crossing the bridge once again. The Mt Pamitinan hike concluded with a brief visit to Wawa Dam, followed with a relaxing afternoon at Mark’s house.

Climbing Mt Pamitinan did not go mostly according to my expectations. It was also unique compared to my recent outdoor excursions. We went on a minor climb. We were only six in a hiking group. We had to wear gloves or the jagged surfaces would leave cuts on our hands. Yet I was not frustrated. I went home more than happy.

Trial by Slope and Mud

Sitting in the bus, I distracted myself by watching a Marvel superhero movie being showed on the television monitor above the driver. Billboards along the flyover flaunted their respective advertisements as they caught my attention. I was on the way to my first major climb with a handful of trek buddies. Yet the challenges that the mountain present did not come to my mind.

Our group’s destination was Mt Daraitan in Rizal province, which is a relatively short drive from Manila compared to the higher peaks of the Cordilleras further north. With an elevation of around 739 meters, it does not have pine trees, moss-covered growth, and noontime fog but I was told that a jungle surrounds the trail. Trail difficulty is 4/9. Being new in the world of mountain climbing, I had no idea what the scale meant.

My companions upon arriving at Quezon City were friends from my office’s graphics department – Kenneth Fontarum, Kristine ‘Kaye’ Carpio, Stephanie ‘Steph’ Rili, and Gelo Adviento (who also brought Gail, his girlfriend). A married couple – Nil and Carla Medrano – also accompanied us. A generation ahead of me, they facilitated the climb and appeared to be experienced hikers at a first glance. Then we met with more of our fellow trekkers from various backgrounds.

It was the lack in gear that intimidated me more than the actual hardships within the climb. Kenneth and Kaye have been doing major climbs well before I met them two months ago. In fact, it was they who introduced me to this wearisome but fulfilling hobby. With large backpacks enveloped by rain cover, collapsible drinking containers with tubes resembling those for intravenous fluid, and sunscreen they joined the trek as if they were just going to the office on a Monday morning. I, on the other hand, had to attach my camping gear and travel mug on the exterior of my brown backpack, which is large but lacked protection from rain. I also forgot to bring a poncho.

 

The trip from Quezon City to the baranggay, or community, beneath Mt Daraitan took at least three hours. We passed by a number of towns and had lunch before renting a rugged and fairly large jeepney for the final stretch of the journey. A wooden raft took us across a river with banks of light gray smooth rocks. We arrived at the baranggay by a motor tricycle, a common mode of transportation in the rural areas of the Philippines. Our hiking party assembled in the community hall for registration and briefing. Past 1 PM, we were on our way.

What I thought to be a climb on the mountain itself turned into an expectation that did not match reality. The humble houses that lined the dirt road, a river sparkling under the afternoon sun, surrounding hills of dark green, grazing goats, and the occasional horse manure only led us to the campsite about an hour or two from the baranggay. After a stopover at an establishment, the trail got more difficult. We held on tightly to a wooden ladder and climbed over white boulders that seemed like rock monsters sleeping on the riverbank as the waters rushed energetically.

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From left: Kaye, Kenneth, Mark, Gail, Gelo, Marvin (The Blogger)

Tents were pitched on a sandy spot beside a river, with access to a spring for drinking water and boulders high enough for jumping into the water without harm. Rain forest trees grew on a rocky slope that appeared as a massive wall beside our campsite. We got divided into small groups of close companions. One of my fellows in the group is Mark Salamat, a reputed artist who excels in oil painting. Kaye and Kenneth cooked some chicken tinola as the sun descended and night crept in. Rei Gallardo, our fellow hiker, also shared his vegetarian masterpiece of tofu, water spinach (kangkong), and mushrooms.

Long-time members of this group called themselves the Akyaters. As part of Akyaters tradition, participants of a trek huddle around a fire to introduce themselves and share experiences regarding mountain climbing. What they remembered vividly about me is how I expressed feelings about being unrequited in love as gloomy as the sky overhead with its drizzle. Words faded into the cool air as we got to know one another. Planning to head out to the summit in batches at daybreak, the climbers including me began to doze off one by one inside our tents that smelled of synthetic material.

I overslept. My consciousness returned at 5 AM while I was supposed to be awake at 4 AM. Breakfast for me were pieces of loaf bread and instant coffee thanks to Kenneth and Kaye boiling some water with their portable cooking set that included a can of butane. I decided to get one for future climbs when I saved enough cash.

Half of our hiking party of nearly 30 people packed up their tents and stuff in preparation for the climb. Then they were gone in a moment’s notice. Kenneth, Kaye, Gelo, Gail, Mark and I were left at the campsite with Nil, Carla, and their companions such as Jan.

The six of us proceeded to a cave past 7 AM, accompanied with our nature guide named Efren. He told us about a cave system where one can reach the exit after three days of navigating, as well as local folklore from indigenous tradition. Again, we trudged carefully and jumped from time to time over the huge white boulders that led to the cave. Raging river currents echoed in the air. Then there was a short trail on a slope partly made of solid rock. I had some trouble with slippery surfaces as my shoes failed to take hold.

Later, the mouth of the cave stole my confidence as our group arrived there. It plunged straight down. We would descend into it with a makeshift ladder and rope instead of simply walking into a cave as usually imagined. I went in like a slow loris, a kind of primate. One wrong move and I could sustain a bone fracture or worse. Everyone made it inside without injury, only complaints and shrill yells. Flashlights and headlamps illuminated the way. Faint shrieks meant there were bats inside but Efren assured us they were only few. The air smelled of ammonia and parts of the cave floor felt like sandy soil under our feet. There was even a passage where we squeezed our way in just as a mouse would do into a crack on concrete. Minutes passed and the sound of rushing water echoed through the smooth and solid walls. Efren held our arms as he helped us leap across a gap in a rock formation on top of a subterranean brook.

I pointed my waterproof flashlight towards the noise and saw a small waterfall deep inside this cave. Gasps of exhilaration could be heard. That Sunday had humid weather but the cramped spaces and warm air in the midst of darkness made me perspire more. Without hesitation, I took a bath in a Jacuzzi® of cold pristine water continuously stirred by the waterfall. We enjoyed this spectacle of nature for five minutes before returning to the cave’s entrance. I found it easier to climb out than to get in.

Between 9 and 10 AM, the remaining trekkers at the campsite packed up our gear and left the riverbank for the baranggay hall. We retraced our path yesterday through a rather challenging trail until we arrived at that establishment that offered snacks, soup, carbonated drinks, and a place to relieve oneself or take a bath. A mid-adult woman who hailed from northern Germany sat on a bench with her pet dog. I greeted her (and later bid farewell) in German. Then I had lunch with my close companions.

Strolling towards the baranggay while carrying our own backpacks, Gelo and Mark hesitated to join the trek to the summit. I felt the same due to a parched throat and a particular discomfort under the hot and humid weather. Our group assembled at the community hall, resting for one hour while determining who would finally join the climb. In the end, I shrugged my doubts and decided to give it a try.

The climbing party consisted of nine members, including the guide. I was accompanied by Kenneth, Kaye, another fellow from the graphics department named Benjamin ‘Benjie’ Concepcion, Jan and his friend named Lin, and a seemingly couple I did not know by name. I improvised my shemagh scarf as a small pack for carrying a liter of drinking water, raisins, and other light stuff. We set foot just before 1 PM towards a cemented road different from the one that led to our campsite. Concrete gave way into dirt strewn with some rocks. The houses disappeared as we got surrounded by a lush field and a grove of trees. Our group walked steadfastly while the trail got narrower until we reached the climb’s first station. A few trekking poles made of rattan were lined under a wooden sign informing about the mountain’s elevation.

My fellow trekkers used the term ‘assault’ for the stretch of trail that takes significant physical effort to overcome. The climb ahead of me was an assault without doubt. Initial steps did not sap my energy until I struggled with the 60-degree slopes and relatively rough path. My leg muscles began to ache slightly. Furthermore, a voice inside my head commanded me to turn back.

Upon reaching the second station, I told Kenneth and Kaye about the problem with my lower extremities. They advised me to stretch my legs, drink some water, and get some energy by snacking on fruit-flavored jelly in tiny plastic cups. I felt relieved and the view of our surroundings from this spot inspired me to keep on going.

Time did not make sense as our climbing party trudged towards the summit. Eventually, I regained strength and my body adapted to the rigors brought by uneven rock-strewn trails, patches of mud, and branches that need to be grasped. Kaye and Kenneth led the way, I was behind the couple, and Benjie followed me. Having a chat with our guide not only distracted me from fatigue but also gave me trivial facts about Mt Daraitan and its flora and fauna. The jungle closed in around us as the path did not cease from being steep. At least the physical strain took the place of emotional issues and flashbacks that plagued me back at the campsite.

As I passed by climbing stations, the summit seemed closer even though it was out of sight. There was an easy trail at two-thirds of the way to the top but my enthusiasm vanished after realizing it was a rather short walk and followed by more sloping ground. Exposed tree roots even stretched out on our path and I received a scratch from a protruding branch. From time to time I would stop along with Kenneth, Kaye, and our guide to wait for our companions to catch up.

Around 2:45 PM, our group arrived at a campsite near the summit where young adults munched on their snacks and played music from their handheld devices. Tents stood out against the green, gray, and brown that surrounded us. We continued our way.

The afternoon sun gave a faint warmth rather than scorching heat as we reached the summit just past 3 PM.  Near the cluster of trees was a grayish and jagged rock formation at the edge of a cliff. Putting our trekking sticks down, the climbing party brought out DSLR cameras and mobile phones and took snapshots of what we could see from up there. I was at the the right time with the right lighting. Everything seemed surreal as if I was immersed into a made-up world of fantasy. The baranggay appeared as a dot surrounded by greenery while a river looked like a massive serpent beneath us. More mountains loomed on the distant horizon. Our guide told us that some are inaccessible to hikers.

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The weary climb at Mt Daraitan was totally worth it!

We spent 30 minutes atop Mt Daraitan, taking photos and appreciating the grandeur that the province’s natural wonder showed us. Kaye and Kenneth did a photo shoot with their DSLR camera. We posed on the top of that rock formation in turns. The guide also sang while imitating the voice of various musicians such as the Bee Gees. Then we had to descend and reunite with our companions back at the baranggay hall.

As with climbing up, Kenneth, Kaye, Benjie, and I went on ahead while our fellows formed a second group. The four of us had to hurry because we rented a jeepney while they had their own means of transport. However, Benjie and I could not keep up with the pace of that veteran duo. Then I even got separated from him. Alone and surrounded by countless hardwood trees, anxiety crept into my mind as I glanced at shadows and my ears picked up unfamiliar noises. I could imagine myself being charged by a wild animal or falling off a very steep slope. Yet I was only giving in to my untamed thoughts. In reality, I only had to follow the trail and reach the community before night fell.

I caught up with Benjie and we had a continuous chat while making our way back. Going down the mountain felt more painful to my legs than climbing up. I kept as low to the ground as possible to balance my weight. This ended up with sitting on a mud on the trail, putting a brown stain on my olive green pants. Both Benjie and I wore boonie hats but differed in their pattern. The surroundings grew dimmer as 4 PM turned into 5 PM and we took five-minute breaks at the stations. Eventually, we arrived at the first station and left the trekking sticks there the way they were found. Benjie and I followed the trail until it broke into two paths. We took a choice and later realized that it did not lead back to the baranggay. Correcting our mistake this time with the help of footprints on the mud, we walked through the cemented road lined with house while feeling like survivors who just got out of the wilderness. I preferred the idea of veterans who recently conquered an entire mountain. Then I was reminded of how vulnerable people are to the tests and trials of nature.

Eating a peanut-butter bun sandwich while having a lively conversation with friends served as my celebration of climbing Mt Daraitan’s summit. Next time, I would climb with better gear and hopefully in better spirits.