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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Return to Mt Daraitan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos also courtesy of Ren Emradura)