lessons from the classroom of life: 2k16's training climb 2 in mt. mingan

i woke up yesterday morning to find that the band aid on my shin had fallen off, and there was blood on my sheets. at around lunch time on sunday, someone pointed out that my knee-high socks had a patch of bright red. it turned out i was bit by a limatik through a hole punctured by the low-lying branch of a tree. even as i write, the bleeding continues. the limatik bite isn't the only thing that will remind me of my experience on the mountain. there are many others: a few scrapes and scratches, a bruise on my right knee, the pain on my overextended left shoulder. but these are temporary tokens that will eventually heal or fade. long after they are gone, i will remember mount mingan for its brutal honesty, its raw appeal, its savagely beautiful terrain.

at around lunch time on the first day of the climb, i began to apologize to my trainees. we lost our position just behind the lead pack as a pair of cramps started tugging my hamstrings. i watched helplessly as runners from different groups were sent ahead to secure campsites, which on this mountain turned out to be real estate more precious than binondo's. my group was first to depart the jump-off, and up until station 2, my group kept a good pace all throughout the trek that started outside the barangay hall. we walked through unpaved village trails, followed the path of the davil-davilan river upstream, and crawled up a gully until we came upon a ridge where our labors tripled in difficulty.

the river's whispering waters were shallow, but that didn't make the trek necessarily easy. many of its smooth boulders were slippery, and it snaked upwards like an unsteady heartbeat, defying all rules of geometry. getting to the markers was akin to solving puzzles. after the river, we arrived at our guide's farm, and he was kind enough to bring down some coconuts from the few trees he had. it was still early, and we were ahead of the itinerary by more than an hour.

immediately afterwards, we sped towards the waterfalls that fell from about fifteen feet above into a small, cold pool. i would have wanted to stay there longer, but it got crowded rather quickly, and we had to chase the lead pack. there was a curious absence of wind on the trail, but it wasn't unbearably hot. there were also very few flat spaces to rest, and the landmarks had bland, unmemorable names. the views of dingalan, aurora were completely occluded by trees that towered high above, and as we dragged our boots up the trail, we were accompanied by shrill tweets of hovering raptors. we kept it steady for over an hour, but it was after station 2 that i finally decided to let go. we were hungry, and i kept saying that it was not a race. even if it were, i am not the fastest climber i know, so there was no sense in me competing with people who were focused on a singular goal, regardless that in so doing, they violate the principles which the club holds sacred. the club has an admirable honor code. unfortunately, not everyone is as honorable.

at this point, i told our guide to help us with clearing space for our tents, and we forged on even as i started to suffer the start of a pair of muscle cramps. i had already chewed on a few salt sticks, probably above the recommended dosage, rubbed a really hot liniment on my thighs, and replaced the water i lost from excessive sweating. but there was nothing i could do to prevent their arrival. these sneaky muscle cramps reduced me into a frequently cursing climber, and i grimaced with every painful step. i folded a few times on the trail, until after station 4, when i decided to fight. i do not know why i cramp. it could possibly be because i am weak and lack training; but even when i was much stronger, it happened often. it could be because i sweat profusely, and consequently lose electrolytes. whatever it is, i often find it a miracle when i don't suffer during a climb with a particularly steep ascent.

without much warning, we came upon the campsite. the narrow trail suddenly opens to a small flat patch of earth that had been cleared. it was also station 5 to the locals. apart from the lead pack, there were around 15 people there. but they represented about a hundred others who were still far behind, some of whom were reduced to stragglers and orphans, getting adopted along the way. with the exception of my GL and 2 trainees in his care, my group was intact, as i am a firm believer in trekking as a group. you learn much from walking for hours with people, even when many minutes pass with no words being exchanged. in the middle of the campsite was a fairly large space that could accommodate many tents, but it had already been reserved. the edges of the campsite were likewise already earmarked for phantom tents, and it was only with much arguing and pleading that we secured space for 3 of our 5 tents.

i see the importance in saving space for people in your group. i have myself done it, because i care about them, and i want nothing for them but a good night's sleep. but the situation called for another approach: it required us to maximize every square foot of space, to make use of every possible spot so that everyone can have ample room to keep away from the elements, stay dry, and be able to store some strength because tomorrow is another difficult day. i find it to be a serious indignity that people who are not in the campsite are assured of a space to set up their tents, and yet people who are already physically present are reduced to beggars negotiating for inches. my forehead wrinkled as i elbowed my way to secure a spot for my nemo hornet 2P, but there really was just no way we could set up my MSR hoop 2, so my GL and i decided to give up our tent so our trainees could sleep well. we volunteered to make do with the uneven ground that served as our kitchen and prayed hard that we would be spared even just the slightest rain as our parawing wasn't big enough to keep it away. i worried not just about our group, but for others as well. apparently, others who weren't fast enough, or at least didn't employ this selfish strategy had a similar problem.

people thought i was fuming mad that evening. in fact, i wasn't. i just like to point out when others are being unreasonable and in callous. while some people offered alternatives, others were the absolute opposite: that spot's taken, you can't pitch there. i don't think these are values that should be cultivated in the club. i unfurrowed my brow by tending to dinner. we had a hot spicy soup, a perfectly-steamed rice, and a creamy kare-kare for dinner. when we all had our fill, we gathered around the camp light and exchanged stories. it's my usual spiel: i asked people what they did for a living, how they ended up here in AMCI, and the hackneyed query about one's top 3. i'm really more interested in people, in the stories they are willing to tell, in sharing valuable skills, in celebrating commonalities and appreciating differences. i'm also always up for a good laugh. at exactly 10PM, i tucked them in, and cleared the tarp of pots, pans, and mess kits so that jerry and i could lay out our mattresses. the big root of a tree was protruding between us. i must have been so tired that evening that despite the unsavory conditions, i fell asleep immediately, only to be awakened by people passing by our kitchen on their way to answer a call of nature. it was a few minutes to 4, but i started to arrange our working space.

we made quick work of breakfast. even before the sun had risen, i was stirring a large pot of arroz caldo which had turned into a really thick chicken risotto, while the rice for lunch simmered in a separate pot. trainees were returning the campsite to how it looked when we got there, and quickly stuffed tents, pots, stoves, tarps, and clothes into bags. they delightfully gobbled breakfast even as i apologized that it wasn't soupy enough, and were already geared to trek even as other people were just crawling out of their tents. we were the second group to depart the campsite during the foggy, windy morning, but since we insisted on trekking as a unit, many others finished ahead of us, raking the trail in the process. the trail going home first climbs to the summit of mt. cinco, where we crawled through a lush, tropical forest. we reached an altitude higher than 1,000 meters above sea level, and at some point, we spotted pitcher plants hanging on a branch overhead. the mountain teemed with plant life. there were leaves of different shapes, and branches swaying in the cold wind. but there were also animals: giant blue earthworms, birds, salamanders, leeches, insects. at one point i thought i heard a dog barking. it turned out to be the guttural mating call of a large bird.

the trail presented a slew of challenges right from the start, rising and falling and falling and falling. after reviewing the trail on my suunto movescount, i realized that most of the trail was spent on ridges. the descent was particularly difficult as the trail had turned muddy from the previous day's rain, and the wet fog that covered the forest for most of the morning. with grunts and growls, we descended the mountain, fell many times on our backsides, fell forward, crawled under leaning logs, leaped over fallen trees, held on to roots and branches, and laughed at our miseries. the trek was long, but not unnecessarily. it was difficult, but not unreasonably. there are a thousand exciting things i could think of that won't require me to get dirty, bruised, beaten. but i would not have traded my weekend for the singular experience of being in this seldom-climbed mountain. although there were moments that appeared as if we were mindlessly and numbingly walking through the forest, it was actually a time for much reflection and thought. nothing fills my head with ideas more than a long walk.

long after lunch, our guide stopped us to point at a shaft of cloud that seemed to touch on a scoop in the mountain. that's where we camped, he said, and his hand followed the shape of the peak to show where we went afterwards, and how we ended up where we were: still about an hour from the shallow river. it seemed like a great distance, and an even greater feat. it is an achievement that we are all able to return to the plains without incident. in the next few days, social media will be filled with much breast-beating. i roll my eyes everytime i hear people crowing about their conquests, about their triumph over adversity, about their personal glories in high altitudes. i find this medieval attitude disconcerting, as if they have learned nothing during their time as trainees in the club, and have decided to not learn anything just because they have become members. if anything, mountaineering teaches humility and patience. it does not breed arrogance nor encourage petulance. it inspires curiosity and a sense of wonder: things that are in short supply these days.

the training climb 2 is the way it is because it is meant to force participants – particularly the trainees – to question their motives for choosing to go out in the wild. those without the right motivations are often filled with regret and resentment. but those whose hearts are in the right place will run away filled with joy and an urgent need to talk about their experiences. climbing a mountain has always been a source of important life lessons for me, more so on one that has the makings of a classic. i would like to think that i am a better person because of it. i begin to appreciate things that i often take for granted when i am on flat, solid ground. i connect to people more by disconnecting from my devices. i become focused on how my body sings and hums during the trek, despite being presented with so many distractions, even sometimes life-threatening situations. i am reminded that all great things are never so easily achieved. may mt. mingan's lessons become relevant to our lives long after the pains are gone, long after all our wounds have healed, long after all the scars have faded.

mob psychology, revenge, and social media

i am appalled at the people sharing photos of a person now subject of a police manhunt on suspicions of fatally shooting a biker. only yesterday, these same people participated in the public lynching of a man they did not know: they called him all kinds of evil names and threatened him with humiliation, torture, and execution. i am disgusted at their false calls for justice, when they are quick to inflict injustice on a person whose participation in a crime was established by a mistake. they rush into judgment when they have no personal knowledge of the person's guilt, and make no attempts to masquerade their thirst for online blood and social media revenge. they bang on their keyboards and click on buttons, eager to assist the authorities in finding this person of interest, forgetting that for an entire day, they whipped and crucified the wrong man. has anyone apologized for the hatred we imposed on this innocent man, for the trauma and pain caused by our misguided activism?

some years back, a friend of mine became the subject of an online smear campaign. i read an account of a person whom he allegedly begrudged, and the story was shared by people on my friends list: people who were quick to make conclusions about him as though they knew him, as though they were familiar with the facts. i wasn't quick to judge him. but i was even in less of a rush to defend him. i had his number on my phone and called him to ask what no one seemed to be interested in: the truth.

this is the reason why i have never taken part in bandwagons that shame people online: because we know nothing, or at least, we do not know everything. even when people i know share personal experiences that are damning against someone else, i am not quick to click "share". it is not that i do not believe them. it is that i do not have the complete story. it is that complaints are always tainted by bias to favor the complainant: to paint themselves as victims, to depict the defenders as oppressors.

i do not doubt that some good has come out of online shame campaigns, and i am also certain that many armchair sleuths have provided investigators with vital information. but i am also sure that while our purpose is to teach bad people a lesson, we also contribute to the suffering of individuals. and not just those who are wrongly accused, but the accused themselves. why can't they be allowed to suffer punishment in private? we all have our reasons for riding these streams of anger. perhaps we want to help make society better for ourselves and for our children. perhaps we believe that some people deserve to be disembowelled in public. and that is precisely why in modern civilizations, those decisions are better left to impartial third persons. the next time you think you're doing a public service by sharing stories that tend to cast ignominy on anyone, remember always that defamation destroys lives.

and yours could so easily be next.

the unremarkable dance of mt. naguiling: AMCI 2k16's training climb 1

given AMCI's size, finding a suitable mountain for a training climb is always a challenging task. the sport has recently exploded, with everyone from your kid brother's dropout friend to your withdrawn  boss to your sister taking up the sport, gearing up on weekends, plotting out hikes to nearby destinations, leaving more footprints on already beaten paths. it is difficult not just to find a mountain with a campsite large enough to accommodate the number of returning mountaineers and eager trainees, but also to avoid crowds that already stretch the carrying capacities of some hiking spots. but the upside is that in this search for "new", "undiscovered" mountains, AMCI almost always blazes the trail.

this year was no different, and our search for this new, undiscovered mountain took us to the bowels of lobo. although lobo is already very popular, its breadth and range is impressive, if you consider that it is nestled on the southern edge of batangas, close to the sea facing mindoro. there are many peaks throughout this range, and perhaps, just as many trails. i have been to lobo twice already: to banoi and to nagpatong, and both climbs could not have been more different despite being on the same mountain. with these considerations in mind, we went to naguiling, which is batangueño for dancing. i'm not sure if it was an apt name for it, but then again, my experience was incomplete.

the bus ride to lobo was short and winding, and i did not manage to sleep a wink. after unloading outside the town church, we all scattered in search of toilets and breakfast. there was another long jeepney ride up ahead. at some point, the jeepney climbed an altitude higher than some campsites in lobo. after a while, we were deposited on a non-descript part of the road surrounded by rice paddies. despite the early hour, the sky was somber, and brooding clouds gathered overhead. our group was the last to start, more than an hour after the lead pack left. we started the trek by plowing through horse trails, and climbing a village path that passed through houses, plantations, and pasture lands for sad cattle.

due to my lack of sleep, i was exhausted even before the climb began. as i dragged my feet through six inches of mud, all i could think of was finding a spot to lie down. and despite the promise of rain that morning, the entire trek was unbearably humid, but none of the stores along the way had stocked on enough cold soda to quench our thirst. the trail rose gently through farmlands and charcoal pits, past cornfields and towering coconuts. we wanted to trek as a group on the strength of an assurance that the campsite was large enough for all of us. the weight of a lechon de leche was distributed among our guys, and we crawled towards the campsite without urgency. the pace was unbelievable slothy even by my slow standards.

eventually, we left the coprahan, walked past even more unmemorable trails, dipped our feet into a murky stream, and found the campsite: a sloping plot of land sparsely populated by slender coconut trees. on its upper reaches was a corn plantation, and on its flattest part was a rundown shack. colorful tents dotted every habitable inch of space, and our group was left to scrape on the leftovers. with some determination, we managed to find spots for our tents. and since none of the trainees had sufficient knowledge on the basics of tents and tent pitching, our campsite-finding problems became an extension of the classroom lecture. if i must break it down, it really should just be: the poles of follow the seams of the tent body, and the seams of the rainfly follow the poles. pegs should point towards the tent and not away. the footprint should be tucked under the body, and everything should be taut.

i was still conflicted about climbing to the summit. i wanted to, but did not have the strength to do it. i had exhausted my reserves despite the short trek to the campsite. and by my calculations, it would be dark by the time i returned. who would cook the rice? who would tend to the soup? as we sent our trainees off to their summit assault, i finally managed to sneak in a half hour of sleep under our kitchen tarp. but the campsite was buzzing with the noise of members who passed on the additional exercise. it was that and nothing else: an optional workout, particularly for my group since by the time they had gained elevation, the windows through the forest have been closed, and all they could see was this impenetrable fog. i'm pretty sure there were little details in the forest that a curious and inquisitive mind like mine would have appreciated, but there was little time to appreciate anything since everyone was in a hurry to get back to the campsite before dark.

by the time our trainees had trickled back into the campsite, it was already after sunset, and rain had started to pour. from the dry confines of yoshi's tent, i barked that they could help themselves to the soup. they were all apparently famished since not a strand of miswa was left. i finally left my tent to tend to the kitchen. we lit the stove for the rice, poured boiling oil onto our lechon de leche, arranged our pots into a row, and found seats under the tarp, away from the pouring rain. before long, we were passing on this tiny cup filled with scotch whisky, trading stories about how we found ourselves here, in this 33-year old club, the people who've caught our attention, those we admire. it's a script i've been hearing these last 11 years, and i have yet to tire from the recycled stories. i still chuckle at the  same jokes and still find wonder in the most mundane things.

the rest of the evening went by like a montage. there are gaps in my memory, but i remember highlights. the campsite was wet and slippery from the rain, and drunken laughter sprouted under colorful sheets of nylon even as other people feigned sleep or forced themselves to dream despite the noise. i found my tent with someone's help and woke up moments before a whistle was blown. and just like that, we went through this familiar ritual of collecting everything we scattered on this plot of earth,  stuffing homes and clothes into backpacks, disassembling kitchens and folding poles, and distributing trash bags  to ensure that we leave nothing but footprints on the ground.

we went back the same way we came, and despite renewed strength, i realized i didn't miss details about the trail: it was drab and mostly dreary the entire way, with uninspiring views of distant hills and villages. i was so unimpressed with what i was seeing that i took no more than 25 pictures during the entire climb. the vistas during the jeepney ride were more engaging. by the time we reached the last half kilometer of the trail, a queue had formed on the muddy stretch just before and after the stream crossing. i patiently waited for my turn, until we sprang out onto the concrete road. the first thing i did was to rinse my shoes on the roadside irrigation system, and jumped into the first jeepney that could accommodate me.

it was a smooth (if not slow) and uneventful ride to the resort, but i was jolted by devastating news upon my arrival there. somehow, we managed to fit lunch, the requisite presentations, and a post-climb meeting into an afternoon. we returned to our buses, and most of us fainted into our seats on the ride back home. the first training climb of the BMC is designed to initiate a batch into the sport of mountaineering. while i found this mountain to be unremarkable, i have to congratulate its organizers for their pioneering spirit, for insisting on new locations to keep old souls interested, and for making sure that although we bring over a hundred pairs of boots and shoes up a trail, we leave it as though only a tenth of that number passed that way.

hiking in the age of instagram (or why we should avoid popular hiking spots)

a couple of months ago, i heaved a heavy sigh as i spoke about my day hike to mt. pico de loro in cavite. i would normally shun going to a mountain that was too famous for its own good, but a friend of mine wanted to climb it, not so much because he wanted to pursue the sport for which i have so much passion, but because he was interested in doing something new and different. i suppose social media puts immense pressure on all of us to live exciting lives. so i agreed, and hoped that there wouldn't be too many people. we went on a weekday that was also a holiday, and i tried to convince myself that people would be doing something else than go on a hike. i was rather unfortunately wrong.

we arrived at the jump-off close to noon, and for a brief moment i thought we may have been on the wrong road since the drive felt longer than it should have. the trail to the mountain has been "redesigned". it no longer passes through basecamp 1 (where a resident collects a toll) and skirts the possibly dried up waterfall. i was last up the parrot's beak in 2009, and it took this long to return because i prefer my hikes to be lonely: just me, my companions, the trail, and the sounds that nature provides. the new trail now starts just right of the DENR, which was overflowing with cars and tricycles, follows the general direction of a stream that had long since evaporated, and squirms its way through the forest's badly-beaten trail. few people came up with us, but the number of people who were on their way down was astounding. i say this with no exaggeration: there were hundreds of oddly-clad and inappropriately-shod hikers that day, some smiling and beaming with pride, others with faces that betrayed their regret at having agreed to leave the familiar comforts of home, or traded this to a relaxing stroll inside an airconditioned mall. at some point i met people i knew: it is both a testament to the volume of people on the mountain, and the kind of company i keep.

because the trail was different from how i remember it (and i have only been to pico de loro two times before), i could not tell whether we were near or still far. at one point we came upon a structure whose purpose was unclear to me. it was meant to be a lookout, for sure, but the view from that spot was nothing special. with the exception of the view of the parrot's beak, pico de loro is just another accessible mountain.

after a brief while, my friend and i reached the usual campsite just below the summit. overnight camping is now disallowed on pico de loro, and yet there were at least 5 sellers there who had built makeshift stalls on the mountain, their run-down tents pitched within the bamboo grove that continues to thin, their hammocks stretched to the limit, and the area browned by too many footfalls. the path to the summit in fact looks as if it had been grazed by a bulldozer: no trace of plantlife, just barren, crumbling soil. when we reached the summit, we had to wait patiently for it to empty. below us, a crowd had gathered at the base of the monolith, waiting for their turn to climb. we took many pictures on the summit, my friend and i, but by the time we made our way down, those who were queued to climb the rock column were still waiting for their turn. young teens from either cavite and batangas were in attendance, offering to hold the hands of hikers for a fee of 50 pesos, or to guide them to a traverse. at the DENR itself, plastic water bottles are collected, and a week's pile is enough to fill a large truck. a local woman collects a fee for the use of toilets, which is patently illegal, since both the facility and the water are provided by the DENR.

i rue the recent popularity of hiking because the burden for securing the sustainability of this hobby has shifted. it used to be that hikers themselves had the responsibility to care for the trails and the mountain. recently however, government has taken a part, seeing it as a potential source of income, milking hikers, but having no interest in returning cheese, leaving trails to crumble under the weight of bad practices. popularity and accessibility make for an ugly mix. a mountain attracts more and more hikers. trails widen and branch out to accommodate them, while the barangay sees them as a potential source of income. locals cash in on this and bring trade to the trails, offering drinks, snacks, and trail knowledge: unplanned and unguided responses to a perceived need. this form of tourism is dangerous because the hikers it attracts are those who do not care for keeping the trails clean. they are not the type who return to the same trails because they are lured by the wild. instead, they've prepared a list of mountains to see based on what's popular and which ones draw the most people. they are more interested in ticking off places in travel bucket lists, in crowing about been there's, in posting new profile photos on social media accounts so their friends and followers can sing praises about their adventurous lives.

the well-maintained trails of a popular hiking spot in taipei, taiwan

i know that for most people, these views are unnecessarily harsh and old-fashioned. i am unfortunately part of that small cabal that picked up the sport before it exploded into the trend that it is now, and i could not help but hark back to the days when solitude and quiet were not elusive luxuries, but the default for anyone who dared to go outside. someone even told me that i should be excited that more people are flocking to the outdoors and pursuing adventure in great numbers. but hiking turning mainstream is not the problem. on the part of the hikers, it's not what they're wearing that i fret about; it's the absence of concern for the trail that's at issue. and on the part of government instrumentalities and local communities regulating hiking spots, it's the lack of ownership and responsibility for areas within their jurisdiction.

the blue mountain trails outside of sydney are very popular

i've seen people crowd trails in countries where hiking is an involved, inclusive social activity, much like going to the beach or watching a public concert. although i still prefer lonely, secluded places, i didn't complain about losing myself in the throng, because i noticed that an evolved hiking culture was in place: the mountain parks were well maintained, and basic facilities were available, allowing hikers to discipline themselves and keep their surroundings clean and beautiful, so that the mountain trails can be enjoyed by everyone, including generations of hikers yet unborn. the problem with most of the new hikers i've met here is that they shirk responsibility, always passing the burden of caring for the trail to someone else: either the next hiker or the government or the people who make a profit out of the activity. what they don't realize is that keeping the playground clean is a shared and collective duty.

mt. pamitinan in wawa, montalban, is experiencing a spike in tourist arrivals, all thanks to these jagged rock formations

i long to see the day when our primitive appreciation of nature and the outdoors becomes more mature. i'm not about to require all hikers to undergo some form of training (although that would be ideal), or to know all the leave no trace principles by heart. i just expect of them very basic trail courtesy, that by deciding to go outdoors, they tacitly accept an important role, to realize that they are guests to the mountains, and they should act like welcome visitors: treat the place like their own, care for it, and behave so that their presence in these wild, wide open places does not impinge on someone else's  enjoyment, nor imperil the very same places we temporarily inhabit.

there and bangkok again

i was in bangkok for 5 whole days some weeks back, and i only had two things on my agenda: attend a training for work, which was my main purpose of going, and have a 3-piece suit made at khao san. in between, i had dinner with friends, grabbed snacks and spices from the supermarket, went to platinum to look for a very specific type of hipster pants, browsed the shops at pantip, and also took thailand's state railway to see sunflower orchards in ban thakli: a district that is already part of nakhon sawan, the gateway to northern thailand. the last one happened on the basis of an invitation from my friend pitsa, who works for the secretary of his majesty the king, and who is a licensed tour guide. i was thinking of doing some shopping on sunday, but when pitsa mentioned he planned to see sunflowers 190 kilometers north of thailand, i said why not? we met at the hualampong station early on a sunday, and pitsa's only reminder for me was to not sit on the chairs reserved for monks that were placed in front of the information booth where i was supposed to meet him.

i made a mistaken pronouncement on facebook: that it would be my first time to take the thai state railway. as a matter of fact, i already took the tourist train in kanchanaburi the last time i was in thailand, also courtesy of pitsa. i did a rough estimate of the time it would take to reach ban takhli. i thought: if the train traveled at an average speed of 70 kilometers per hour, we would be there in roughly 3 hours, including a few station stops along the way. i didn't account for the number of stops to ban takhli. it turned out that pitsa got us tickets to the state railway's 3rd class trains, which meant the coach wasn't airconditioned and it stopped to pick up and unload passengers at every single train station along the 190-kilometer track. twice we also had to give way to the faster, non-stop trains. but i was fully awake the entire time as pitsa regaled me with interesting tidbits about every single place we passed.

he pointed out the ongoing construction of the high-speed trains, the site of the new central railway station that would merge all of thailand's existing rail lines, the areas of central thailand which were submerged in flood waters for 2 months in 2011, the place where the first catholic mass in thailand took place, the train stop to ayuthaya, one of thailand's monkey temples, among many other bits and pieces only someone steeped in history and culture would know. pitsa has a passion for thailand that is matched only by his impressive knowledge. not once did i complain that the trip was too long because i was fully entertained the entire time. we even purchased 5-baht coconut ice cream and the best basil pork dish anywhere on the state railway (so famous you had to call to reserve a plate).

we finally reached after nearly 5 hours, and after wolfing down a late lunch, we hired a tuktuk to take us to the sunflowers. it didn't take us long, since ban takhli is practically covered in fields of sunflowers, quite literally as far as the eyes could see, disappearing in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun. the tuk-tuk driver told us they looked better in the morning, when the yellow crowns faced the sky. we arrived already when the flowers were bowed. pitsa informed me that they were planted for a very specific reason: to be harvested for bird seed. the crops could change, and are influenced by the season. sunflowers apparently don't need as much water as other plants.

we spent a grand total of 35 minutes in the district and we caught the sunset on our ride back to bangkok. kept my window open the entire time, soaking in the sights. apparently, my face also absorbed everything, and i was covered in a mask of soot by the time we reached the main station in bangkok.

even before the nighttime fell, i had only one request from pitsa: to eat at thipsamai again, whose rendition of thailand's centerpiece noodle dish won an award as the world's best fast food a few year's ago. it still had the long queue outside, but the bangkok favorite had renovated its interiors, and expanded inwards. the new wing looked very modern, although the kitchens are still located on the sidewalk where two cooks separately prepare the pad thai and coat the noodles in a ball of egg. another thai friend asked me if i found it expensive, and after a moment's reflection, i agreed, but confessed i've never had it that good anywhere else, so much so that the last time i ate pad thai was when i was in thipsamai 3 years ago.

we then passed by bangkok's festival of lights across of the city hall, which had as many people as it had lights it seemed. after that, pitsa bought me dessert at this popular café that served sinful slices of bread. outside, on the street, even more gastronomic adventures were on display, like sautéed bugs and other bizarre foods. in khao san, it was normal for tourists to be offered skewered scorpions and tarantulas, which apparently make for very nice souvenir photos. enterprising vendors even charge 10 baht for a photo, but i managed to chance upon a local fair beside the national stadium where they had pails and pans of these exotic dishes. i wasn't too curious about tasting insects, since i've had my share of culinary dares in the past.

for 4 nights i would find myself in khao san road, not so much to shop for clothes, or to get my hair braided, or to have a foot massage, but to make sure that my new 3-piece suit from new boston tailors would fit perfectly. i already spoke previously why i chose this tailor, even though i can get it cheaper elsewhere in bangkok. it's because shawn, who took my measurements, and who still wore unimaginably tight-fitting pants and sharply-pointed shoes, was an absolute professional, took pains in getting my dimensions right, and listened to my questions, giving very precise answers without being pushy and overeager. i forgot how much it cost me the last time, but by some miracle, i had a photo of the receipt from 2013, and he didn't change the price, although they had to use more cloth this time. i don't know whether my mentioning them here will give them new business, but i've received many good compliments about my suit, so if you're interested in bespoke i highly recommend new boston tailor in khao san.

outside of new boston, the scenes on khao san are typical: pad thais being prepared on the street, cheap shirts and pants peddled on the sidewalks, white people with their backpacks getting lost. apart from getting a suit, i don't know what else would convince me to stay long at khao san. tourism, even the type that attracts budget-conscious backpackers, has somehow skewed prices, even cooking methods. so i'm lucky to have locals for friends because they managed to give me a taste of really good thai food, even if it meant i ended up sniffling, wiping away tears, and reaching for a glass of water every few minutes.

to be perfectly honest, there are other places where shirts are cheaper, or food is better, or the foot massage is more authentic, and i suppose having been to bangkok 6 times, i was less interested in being a tourist, more inclined to see it as a local.


discovering the small footsteps of sleeping giants: islas de gigantes

upon my arrival on the island of gigantes norte, i immediately noticed the odd quality of the beach while i stood at the edge of a passenger boat, gazing upon its shore, where the sun's blinding reflection danced and glistened. there is no pier anywhere on the island, so the boat had to be moored about a hundred meters away from the beach whose clear waters were already too shallow. we transferred to a square platform placed over empty water gallons that had been tied together. it was held steady, then towed by men back and forth, until everyone, including supplies and fresh water, were already on dry land. walking up from the shore, i heard shells cracking under my feet. unlike most beaches made up of sand or crushed corals, gigantes norte's eastern shore is covered by scallops shells. i was only briefly amused, as my guide was quick to tell me that the town of carles is the scallops capital of panay island, if not of the entire philippines. every week, about 6 tons of the sometimes expensive seafood standard is harvested and processed just in the little barangay. the scallops shells are spread so densely over the beach, it is hard to see what's underneath. the shells provide visitors with a crunchy carpet, and they rise into mounds further away. under a shed in the corner, men and women were hunched over a pile of freshly-caught scallops, pounding on the closed shells with tools, and scooping out the delicious flesh that my guide would later serve me for lunch as part of my package.

i had not come to gigantes with any definite plan. the decision to go there was inspired by envy, to say the very least. i was only enticed by a photo of an island surrounded by sparkling blue waters, a palm-covered strip of white sand, and a forested limestone hill. i knew little else about gigantes but what i had seen on that photo, and i refused to burden myself with expectations, which is always the unwanted child of too much research. i did not want to spoil the surprise; rather, i had hoped to be engulfed in wonder when i arrived and leave with longing at the end of my trip.

the gigantes are a group of 11 islands, islets, and sandbars on the northeastern tip of iloilo, floating in the small visayan sea. they are part of the town of carles, accessible through a 2-hour bus ride from iloilo to estancia, then a breezy 2-hour boat ride to either of the two main islands: gigantes sur and gigantes norte. i was whisked to the passenger boat the moment i arrived at the estancia pier where i was made to pay a fee for a terminal i did not use. it resembled a bus stop. the pier was extremely busy that day, and boats were announcing their impending departures by bleating the most annoying horns. i jumped on the first boat, and i hadn't found a spot to sit on yet when it started reeling its anchor.

my first order of business on gigantes norte was finding accommodations. i couldn't find a room prior to leaving for the island, but i came anyway. i hurriedly stuffed a tent into my pack, hoping that in case i could not find bedspace, at least someone would allow me a small plot of land to pitch a tent. it turns out that one of the resorts only had this type of lodging, although later on, i discovered that i brought the wrong rainfly (it could have been worse: if i brought the wrong poles, i would not be sleeping inside a tent at all), and slept two nights under a mesh canopy. after lunch, the guide whom i met on the boat took me to a smaller island across gigantes norte's eastern shore where the gigantes hideaway resort offered off-the-grid island living. in order to get there, we walked a distance of over 2 kilometers on shallow waters. starfish and seagrass tickled my toes, and i only had to lift my backpack a few inches when we waded through the deepest part of the crossing. i imagine this must have been how ancient inhabitants reached the islands of the archipelago, by braving the fickle tide that revealed land bridges.

there is no steady source of electricity on the small island, although a generator was put to work immediately at breakfast, and turned off only when it was time to sleep. the resort provided me everything i needed: food, my personal guide, my own small boat, a boatman who i never heard speak, and a spot on the beach and under the stars. all these were part of a package whose cost had been kept secret from me until it was time to pay. i made a mental estimate of how all these services added up, and the actual bill came to within 200 pesos of what i imagined in my head. it was certainly not a bad deal, since at one point, i made a special request regarding my meal which they ungrudgingly provided. besides, my guide was not a bad photographer at all, if not a little predictable.

there are few things to do on the island after dark, although while we toured gigantes norte, my guide asked if i was interested in going to a disco. but during the daytime, there are lots to see and do, although the attractions and the activities resemble each other. in my case, first in my itinerary was a visit to bantigue sand bar, which was just behind the small island that served as my dormitory. bantigue is really just a strip of sand whose fat head had a few trees, a few huts, and a number of stone formations. i was by my lonesome when i got there, and it would have been an ideal place to stay for an entire afternoon, but my guide was adamant about leaving as soon as i got my shot. apparently, the sand bar disappears late in the morning, and by the time we were returning to my boat, the sea was reclaiming the land.

we then moved to cabugao gamay, the island which inspired my decision to come to gigantes. the boatman dropped anchor along the southern coast where a row of larger bancas were already moored. under the spotty shade of palm trees, refugee tents provided by the UNHCR and other aid agencies following the last devastating typhoon have been repurposed into tourist accommodations, while a queue of holidaymakers were crawling up the stack of boulders where so many pictures have been taken. everyone there spoke hiligaynon, and i joked that all of iloilo and bacolod was weighing down on gigantes. it took me a while to get my turn, and although my photo was excellent by whatever angle, i realized how incredibly routine the exercise was. everyone was doing it. i felt very unoriginal. it seemed to be the thing to do when in gigantes, the proof of one's visit there. upon my return to the mainland, the 5 young nurses i met on the island added me on facebook and they all had identical profile photos. i went to gigantes to do something unique, to go to a place few people i know have been to. instead, i had this nasty feeling i was merely part of the herd.

and my next stop only reinforced this idea that the gigantes had already been discovered by a crowd, and i was the last person to learn about it. my guide told me sparingly that our next visit would be to the tangke salt water lagoon, which was really part of the sea, but surrounded by limestone cliffs and rocks. there was no pier going to this spot, and getting to the pool was only possible by anchoring the boats close enough to each other that they resembled floating planks or an unconnected bridge. the boats gathered at the small entrance of the lagoon, which proved to be least ideal for the ones that were pushed too close to the rocks, since their outriggers were used as platforms and they couldn't easily depart. the water was very clear here, even before you get into the lagoon, and it would have been a very pretty place had it not been for the noise of the boatmen arguing with each other. more than once i jumped into the water to retrieve a floating plastic bottle.

if it had been emptied of people, i could not imagine a more serene and peaceful place in gigantes. a monkey was expertly maneuvering its way through the cracks on the cliff, whose jagged walls rose high towards the sun. while i floated on the lagoon, i was asked more than twice by strangers who were curious about my solo trip if i was a blogger. perhaps people imagine that those who travel alone do so for work, and not for pleasure. they must have imagined me to be very lonely. but i travel because it nourishes me, and i am neither inconvenienced nor restricted by the lack of company.

the tangke saltwater lagoon is actually not an island. it is nestled in a corner of gigantes sur. in order to leave the pool, one has to climb up the rocks and crawl through the unconnected chaos of boats. but i figured a more creative way: by climbing up the wall and jumping 30 feet into the water. first i threw my slippers down, then swam to my boat. that was a courageous thing to do, because i am not exactly the most agile of swimmers, and i nearly drowned later on as i was snorkeling at antonia beach, a small finger of sand jutting out of the karst formations that defines much of the coast of gigantes sur. the resort that operates the beach has the most amenities i've seen anywhere in this small aggrupation of islands, since they have a jetski, some small boats, and a snorkeling area, although none of these impressed me. i was more interested in sampling a bucket of the dirtiest clams and shellfish i've ever seen.

last on my itinerary was a tour of gigantes norte, whose population density is concentrated along the coasts. motorbikes offer the only available transportation on the island, and the roads are narrow and unpaved. i was introduced to a second guide who brought me through the bakwit cave, which earned its name when residents sought refuge there during a storm. until this day, the locals still treat it as an evacuation site, although its accessibility is also its doom: the walls inside are severely vandalized. at first the guide predicted it would take me an hour to get through the other side, but i inisited that i complete the traverse rather than turn back, which he seemed to suggest, and it took me less than 30 minutes despite the obstacles. they also showed me one of the coffins they retrieved from bakwit cave, which supposedly contained the bones of a giant. i was then taken to the old spanish lighthouse, which is right astride a higher, more modern structure that informs and directs sailors navigating the visayan sea. the old building that used to house caretakers of the lighthouse is crumbling, and looked haunted, although i can imagine it converted into a bed and breakfast. it is out-of-the-way in an already remote island, and it would possibly lure the right kind of people seeking solitude and quiet. the kids close to the lighthouse are polite, and already inclined to entrepreneurship, offering adornments fashioned from scallops shells and glue.

before sunset, i was brought to gigantes norte's western shore to watch the sunset. a bypass road climbs the hill separating the coasts and my guide pointed to the rocky peak towering over bakwit cave. he told me that some people have climbed it already, as if to give me an idea. the sunset was not as i had hoped, although the scenes along the coast piqued my curiosity. several boats were moored here, including those that fished and ferried passengers. a number of resorts were also located there, and it appeared to be filled with activity. the beach was clear of any shells: just dark sand that sank under the weight of footsteps.

as an uninspired sun sank in the horizon, i waited to be taken back to my island, where dinner was already waiting. i shared a few drinks with the young nurses who marveled at my lamps, my broken ilonggo, and the fact that i knew the lyrics of new songs. when i woke up the following day, a boat was already waiting to take me back to the port of estancia. i shared it with tourists who insisted i join them in group photos although i'd never seen them prior to that day. a few hours later, i was approaching iloilo city as i thought about seafood served at breakthrough.

there is little else to do in the gigantes islands save for the things i've described here, which does not mean one might die of boredom while marooned there. in fact, i find the monotony of activities to be rather charming, and those responsible for promoting the islands as a tourist destination should avoid styling them in the mold of places that have squandered their potential to be slices of natural paradise. the islands of giants would be dwarfed by more accessible but overbuilt tourist spots, but i think it should not compete with the traditional amenities and infrastructure that already exist in so many other places, and instead keep itself savage, basic, and out of the way and allow its visitors to connect with the earth, the sea, and the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves.


hubris and social media

a lot of my friends have pointed out my conspicuous absence from social media these last few months, and i think i owe anyone (myself, included) who has ever missed my presence a sufficient, albeit delayed explanation. when my father died at the beginning of october last year, i decided to go on a social media fast. it was only supposed to last the period of my dad's short wake, and i had planned to go live again immediately after we received his ashes from the crematory. but during the week that i was "gone", some brewing thoughts and ideas turned into realizations that made me feel different about how relationships and interactions have been altered by the collective noise of our online voices. to be clear, i was unable to achieve my plans to stay away completely from all the social media platforms i've signed up with. instead of fasting, i went simply on a diet, since i still used (and continue to use) facebook to communicate with people as i already do not have viber or skype or whatsapp, or any of those applications that allow endless, mind-numbing chatter. in the beginning i was just replying to people sending their condolences, but also later on, i used facebook to make plans about future distractions. i suppose when you're grieving a loss, the world conspires to take your mind off of it, and i could not be more thankful for friends who contributed to this conspiracy.

but i decided to prolong my social media sabbatical past the day i carried my dad into my brother's car because when i shut my online curtains, i began to see farther than the stained windows that surrounded me; by refusing to speak even when i knew there were ears eager to listen, i spoke with even better clarity; by watching quietly the curated worlds of those around me unfold in real time, my own life unravelled with even greater truth. social media allows us to create and ultimately believe in the realities we imagine for ourselves, regardless of their incompleteness, insincerity, or even at times, their dishonesty. we select our posts to design the kind of life we want others to perceive, and in a virtual world where reticence is treated with criminal suspicion instead of being understood as an attempt at mystery, we willingly let go of our privacy for the sake of a world we assume is asking for details about our unfolding autobiographies.

by surrendering to the temptations of unnecessary revelations, social media exposes the unspoken poverty of our existence, where we become beggars for attention, craving approval, praise, agreement, sympathy. we clutter our pages with posts that depict us as blessed, twice blessed, busy, bored, loved, heartbroken, cherished, valued, missed. we want to tell the world – the universe, even – that we eat well, we travel, we have friends, we have family, we are passionate about our hobbies, we toil like no one else, we receive gifts, we give gifts, we do good, we work out, we train for competition, we laugh at ourselves, we're funny, we tick many boxes on an unending list, and equate the value and importance of these events by the number of reactions they receive. it is unimportant how we personally feel about any of these, since what's more relevant is the image we project of ourselves, because ultimately, things only actually happen if we inform others that they've taken place, and we display our wrinkled egos to be inflated by likes, hearts, and admiring comments.

the gnawing insecurity that demands us to act as though we were watched celebrities with an adoring public empties us into shells, seemingly whole, but with nothing inside. the substance of our beings bleed into feeds and timelines, and nothing is left for us to privately enjoy.  we are consumed by this conceit that our existence and the things we do are always worth sharing, that someone else is eager to know everything that's going on in our lives, or that the lives of other people are significantly altered and affected by what we proclaim online. but do people really care? i've often heard the dismissive attitude of social media users to criticism about inappropriate posts by pointing out the absolute control we hold over our own virtual domains. but the notion of unfettered freedom insofar as our online personas are concerned is irresponsible and arrogant. indeed, we should be allowed our thoughts and actions in the privacy of our spaces, but social media has removed our fences and surrounds us only in glass walls. we should treat our social media presence the same way we treat our lives: many things are best kept personal, private, away from the prying eyes of a curious public.

i have too often been guilty of this conceit, this insecurity, this petty immaturity that tells me i cannot enjoy a moment without requiring everyone to enjoy it vicariously. i have at times harbored assumptions that i owe the world an ongoing description of my life. by going on this voluntary hiatus, i hope i have atoned for many of my social media sins. during the last few months, by satisfying only myself instead of an audience, i have never been more fulfilled. in no way did i feel  diminished by my refusal or failure to announce any of the events that took place in my life. by choosing to focus on the things i was doing rather than planning on how i'd later portray them online, i had more time to taste the good food i ate, appreciate the moments shared with family and friends, live the experience as it took place, be comfortable and confident in what i'm wearing, and cherish the things i've worked immensely hard to achieve, with none of the pressure to gain the approval and applause of people whose opinions are less relevant to me than my own.

immaculate trekkers on virgin trails: AMCI BMC 2015 training climb 2 on the mariveles mountains

i always approach AMCI's second training climbs with loads of trepidation and heaps of dread, particularly when it's to take place on the slopes of the mariveles mountains, and sky biscocho is the trail master. mariveles is a factory of anecdotes, some of them exaggerated near-death accounts, others descriptions of inflated difficulties. but the stories are harrowing in the same way that they are poignant, memorable precisely because of what they reveal in a person, and they are passed on from batch to batch, carried into lore and legend, not because of their tendency to sow fear and terror, but for their ability to inspire. for whoever is able to survive 24-hour treks, or extending an overnight climb to 3 days with just scraps of food, is more worthy of our admiration rather than our pity.

why i am filled with concern during a TC2, however, is a bit strange. i have never had to endure any of those horror stories. in fact, i could say that my experiences have been rather dry, routine, boring even. i've always reached the campsite early enough to get enough sleep. no shivering under tarps while being lashed by strong winds. no scraping the bottom of cooksets to eat morsels of leftovers. no entertaining thoughts of quitting mountaineering. no shareworthy anecdotes where i can later conclude, i've been through the worst. nothing like that. boring.

so when i suggested to my group that we wear white to this year's TC2 as a challenge to keep ourselves clean and immaculate despite the expected build-up of difficulties along sky's rosary trail, i wasn't thinking clearly. i was probably just filled with hubris, having literally coasted through everything that he's thrown at me, wondering if this would be the time that sky would finally break me, and douse the arrogance that's long been burning deep within. everyone else was surprisingly game, and we all showed up at assembly to the utter surprise of everyone else.

upon our arrival at alas-asin, we started the trek to nanay cording even before the sun had risen. the asphalt road leading to the trail had changed. many homes have been built, and it is now possible to drive even regular vehicles all the way to nanay cording. in the half-light of dawn, we gathered under the ominous shade of nanay cording's wall of shame: a collection of tarpaulin banners left behind by ragtag outdoor groups eager to show off their "achievements", leaving behind rotting proof of their "conquest", declaring to all other visitors that they were there. i first noticed this wall in 2010, and it has more than doubled in size since then. if there is one thing i am proud of my affiliation is this: we've been asked many times to leave our own banner, but always politely declined.

our group didn't have the luck of the draw. we were sixth to be dispatched. i was worried about running out of space at the campsite, since the magellan ridge is notoriously small, with few precious spots ideal to pitch a tent. although i've always recommended to people to enjoy the trail and not treat the climb as a race, i was conscious about maximizing enjoyment while budgeting our stops. there is a sweet spot somewhere there, where you get to experience the outdoors and see what's around you, but be mindful as well that there is a goal, a destination to be reached. so with me in the lead and my GL bringing up the rear, we steadily set off for the day along the AMCI trail which runs parallel to the traditional trail until it reaches ventana. this is a seldom-used trail, although it isn't spared from the occasional uncaring passers-by, most probably locals.

we hadn't reached the gate yet when we achieved the first of our many goals. the group before us decided to pause under the shade, and we continued, until we overtook stragglers even as we entered the lush trail to paniquian river. in my last trek here, ropes had to be attached to several spaces, as days of rain had turned the trail muddy and mushy. but there must have been a dry spell prior to our arrival that nothing along the trail delayed us. by the time we heard the thunderous waterfalls of the paniquian river, we were surprised that none of us had suffered any embarrassing slips. we were all still very immaculate.

and then i came upon the paniquian river. we emerged from the spotty shade of the forest and beheld a beautiful sight: pouring gracefully from the heart of the mariveles, the river made its way through boulders that disappeared below and up ahead. it wasn't the menacing monster of 2005, or the gurgling serpent of 2010. we were spared going up the perilous cox's wall that was a defining feature of 2009. instead, it was a gentle stream that offered cold pools and soft cascades. my trainees were behind me most of the time as we maneuvered ourselves around rocks, fallen trunks of trees, and thin bush. we figured out the most efficient way to get to SLLAJ despite seeing different sets of trail signs all throughout. while waiting for people to go forward, or waiting for my group to chase me, i would look around in wonder at the trail. the ridges leading from the bataan peak and tarak peak rise like impenetrable walls on both sides, lush with trees of all kinds. on very rare occasions when you don't have to worry about the river turning into the dragon of lost things, you actually begin to realize how truly beautiful paniquian is, and how fortunate we are to be there, and how much more fortunate others are to have known it so intimately. i myself have been this way 5 times. although i didn't always appreciate it, that trek certainly allowed me to realize that under different conditions, paniquian can be nurturing, whispering comforting words to hungry trekkers.

we decided to pause at the foot of the papica-jerez boulder, a hundred meters away from the SLLAJ waterfalls. we were around 3 hours ahead of schedule, even too early for lunch. we decided to stay a while at the basin of the waterfalls, and i was shocked to find that a recent landslide had taken a chunk off the wall on the upper right side of SLLAJ, reducing the size of the pool, and obliterating the familiar sundial that was there during my last 3 visits. nevertheless it was an opportunity for my group to enjoy the freezing waters of the small basin. the recent rockslide was a source of some concern for me, but since the weather could not have been more perfect, i cast my worries aside and enjoyed that rare moment when we are allowed to commune with paniquian, rather than to fear her.

after a while, we resumed the climb, and for many parts until we reached the magellan ridge campsite, it was literally a climb. or a crawl, if you want to be precise about it. the papica-jerez boulder is one of the trickier parts, it give me endless wonder how they figured this out. after that, we go past the carmai stream, and then the loreejen stream, which is a water source and tributary to paniquian. we see the source of the waterfalls just below. the start of the magellan trail is just above this last water source, and on very bad days, this would have been a place to cry for help. but since the soil was dry, we only needed our feet, our hands, and some helpful branches and roots to get ourselves up the trail. no one complained that the trail had been battered by too many feet that have gone ahead.

in under an hour since we left loreejen, yoshi asked how many tents we had. i would never have guessed it ourselves, but the campsite was already on top of us. though it isn't much of a campsite really. we scavenge what little space is available to us, flattening the earth, clearing spaces for the footprints of our tents. our group was the first to arrive at the campsite complete, and yet we were reduced to beggars for campsites, since other groups sent advance parties to make reservations and claim precious real estate. but we had an amazing crew who banded together to make do of the situation. pretty soon, all 6 of our tents stood, and our kitchen became the gateway between the groups on the upper ridge, and those who made camp below. at past 2PM we were done with setting up camp and decided to review ropemanship skills. some decided to steal naps, and at 4PM, we boiled water for the soup. only after we began lighting stoves to cook dinner did the last of the sweepers arrive, complaining that it was too early for them to reach the campsite.

i volunteered to prepare the meal plan, not so much because i wanted to spoil our trainees, but because i wanted to centralize the kitchen duties, and make sure everything was measured, that everything was complete. that i did it all by myself didn't mean however, that we decided to be simple. on the contrary, we had delicious uncomplicated meals that satisfied without being a burden. the rest of the night went by smoothly, with most of us staying under our kitchen parawing, exchanging stories and shots of alcohol. none of the trainees brought bottles, so we quickly ran out of things to drink, and by 10:30PM, many of us crawled into our tents. i visited friends at another spot, ordered their trainees to sleep, and returned to my own tent before i lost control of all my functions. i left my door open since it was too hot.

at 4AM i woke up just a minute before the TL blew his whistle. breakfast was a breeze since everyone chipped in. we were so efficient that even before 7AM, we were all ready to go up the japanese garden, and then down to papaya river through tarak ridge. we just needed to wait for our turn. leading the charge, i never realized how the trail going up tarak ridge so inspires deep breaths. mon and i were both breathing rapidly and deeply that either of us could have inhaled each other. by the time the forest opened, the sun revealed the narrow spine we were following to get to the leafless tree that signals the end of the steep ascent. there were patches of beautiful forest along the japanese garden, though none of what made it japanese. i now wonder whether it got its name for the bonsai-like plants gnarling at the sky, or the stacks of rocks meticulously arranged to resemble a staircase.

sooner than we thought we were already at tarak peak, eager to get down. there were already dayhikers there, begging us for some water. we would meet more of them on the way down to the ridge, where many others had camped overnight. the view of manila bay was blinding, and the sun was so scorchingly hot that we could not stay longer than we wanted to. also, many spots have been cleared to make way for more campers. on the way down to the start of the blairwitch trail, i decided to take it slow, since the path winding down from the ridge is merciless on the knees. it has been many years since i passed this way, and few things seem to have changed. the composition of the climbers has certainly evolved, as it has in many other mountains. those of us who take the sport seriously seem to be a dwindling kind, as many others prefer a less rigid, less disciplined approach to enjoying the outdoors.

it wasn't long until we arrived at the start of the blairwitch trail, which is just an excuse to lengthen the trek, since it runs astride the traditional trail. but i was thankful that we took it, since in these less-used trails of tarak you'll find the unspeakable beauty of mariveles: boulders grappled by the roots of trees, dry beds of streams that fill up with the slightest rain, trails that disappear under layers of fallen leaves, and whispering waterways, whose cascades are as inviting as they are nourishing. the lead pack intentionally made us stay at the SCAJ waterfalls because they did a hairpin turn to the papaya river bed, which to me seemed alien since the last time i was there, it was a frothing, raging river. instead of river-fording, the trek tuned into bouldering. i quietly followed trail signs even as the boulders of the river increased in size and doubled in danger. some of them were very slippery, but i could not be more thankful that i was given the chance to appreciate the world around me: the babbling water underneath the soil, the chorus of birdsong, the unending wail of cicadas. these are all nature's gift.

at the headwaters of the papaya river we stopped for lunch, which turned out to be our last stop for the day. sky said that the papaya river campsite was about an hour away. i was very surprised to have found it about 10 minutes after we resumed the trek. it was so short, that it crossed my mind that we may have been on the wrong path. i could not believe that we are already on the traditional trail back to nanay cording. i was in front the entire time, looking back to see if everyone was still within slapping distance, or if they had fallen back, complaining about my hurried pace. but no one could be more relaxed than i. we took brief pauses only to enjoy the wind, and occasionally, the view. when we reached the gate, we basically raced to nanay cording, dreaming of the taste of coke leaving a long, satisfying trail inside our mouths. i told everyone about my first time in tarak, even though not everyone was eager to listen. i told them about how things have changed, how things have remained the same. how nanay cording used to light up whenever she saw me, how she now no longer knows my name.

in no time at all, we put down our bags under nanay cording's wall of shame, where i laughed inwardly about the unseriousness of the names of some of the groups, wondering about the kind of legacy they want to leave behind. or perhaps they are aware that they would soon be forgotten, so they find it acceptable to harvest notoriety, or at least temporary fame, by leaving behind evidence of their visits. as i imbibed my second bottle of coke, i reflected on sky's trail. for the first time in the years that i've followed him, i never once uttered anything profane. i am not catholic, but that sky's trail resembles a rosary when seen from above is no accident: it makes you pray, it makes you religious. whether you ask to survive or you ask that sky be punished is of little consequence. this year, it seems the prayers poured before the actual climb, and we were blessed with the kind of weather only the best mountaineers deserve. this climb will be talked about, not in the same manner as previous TC2s have been. it may easily be forgotten for being too easy, too forgiving. some might even say that sky has lost his touch, that he's not as strong as he used to be. all those may be true, but i'm thankful still that this experience has reminded me that angels may be hiding beneath the monsoon masks of monsters, that a layer of rain separates paradise from hell.

Being above "Above the Clouds", or why this is not a movie 'mountaineers' will like

Above the clouds on Mount Pulag

Pepe Diokno’s “Above the Clouds” has it all wrong. In a pivotal scene where Andres (Ruru Madrid) scrambles to find a small boulder where his late parents had a photo during one of many outdoor jaunts the two had with their future son’s grandfather (Pepe Smith) many years ago, he is suddenly overcome by powerful emotions of grief and nostalgia. The boulder is one of many jagged outcroppings in a field dirtied by ignorance and apathy. The boulders themselves aren’t spared: each one is covered by names of people who’ve been there, a trait apparently carried on from habits developed by pre-historic hunter-gatherers. The particular boulder that tugged at Andy’s heartstrings is itself emblazoned with the memory of his parents’ young love. Later on, with the help of his grandfather, they push the boulder erect to reveal not just the name of Andy’s father, but that this piece of rock was meant to bear witness to everlasting feelings.

Above the clouds on Mount Halcon

The scene is wrong on so many levels, as it seems to glorify vandalism as a means of reminding the future that things took place in the past. The sweeping camera work on this field enveloped in fog reveals what is wrong with nature tourism in the country: that those who seek savage beauty and pristine surroundings have neither the common sense nor the foresight to want to keep things beautiful and pristine. People will be watching this movie and think: I must leave my mark somewhere, so that future generations, perhaps my children, or my children’s children, can return to that place and say: I was there.

Above the clouds on the Kibungan Mountain Range

To be fair, the movie is not a treatise on adventure tourism or the local outdoor industry. It dissects the relationship between two people who are related by blood, but who are strangers to each other. Whether we see this relationship transcend years of being apart is the important question. So it ignores what hikers, adventurers, and, alright, “mountaineers” who piled the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the annual (truncated) Cinemalaya expected. We were hoping to see our outdoor passions translated and painted in the broad strokes of the cinematic artform. But we witnessed none of that. There were many places familiar to us: the Lumiang Cave in Sagada, pine forests in Benguet, the Wawa Dam in Rizal, and the sea of clouds of the Mount Pulag grasslands. Andy and his grandfather go on this hike in an effort to rekindle memories or perhaps create a relationship. The movie wasn’t meant to be a clarion call for people to take up hiking as a hobby. It was not meant to symbolize the local mountaineering community’s collective feelings about why they go outside. Quite frankly, despite generous sweeps of beautiful views and enchanting forests, the movie does little to encourage it. In fact, the mountaineering community may be offended by it: the grandfather litters the same trails he’s taken “a thousand times”, and seems to symbolize all that we don’t want to see when we are outdoors.

Among the pines on the Akiki Trail

The boulder is important to Andy as he retraces the trails taken by his father, and later, by his parents. The vandalism is glamorized as he turns the boulder into a shrine, picks up all the trash around it, and arranges it in such a way that others who may come upon it would remember that they were there. Vandalism has long been abandoned as an acceptable act of recording history. Andy should have been happy with the photo. His parents should have been content having Pepe Smith’s character remember the scene through that photograph. The movie romanticizes vandalism, which is unacceptable behavior particularly where the outdoors are concerned.

The Wall of Shame on the Tarak Ridge Trail

Just last weekend, I went to the Mariveles Mountains. The last time I was there was in 2011, and I was surprised to find that Nanay Cording’s “Wall of Shame” has expanded in size. The wall is a collection of tarpaulin banners left behind by outdoor groups with odd names that sometimes belie their true intentions. It is an ugly sight, and it makes me sad, because it has now become a conspicuous landmark of the Tarak Ridge hike, appearing on social media almost as often as the Papaya River. But a quick survey of the banners left there to rot results in this conclusion: none of the more respectable outdoor clubs I know has left any trace of their visit to Mariveles: not AMCI, not the UP Mountaineers, not the Loyola Mountaineers, not Sierra. Because we know that we need not leave behind our names on rocks, on trees, on walls of dishonor, to inform others that we have been there. Our photographs, our footprints, our memories are sufficient. And yes, I just paraphrased that cliché.

the (mis)adventures of alman: wuliaojian dayhike

it would have been easier to just go up the four beasts and soak in the view of glittering taipei at sunset, but the descriptions of the trail didn't appeal to me: paved, well-lit, accessible. i wanted something raw, savage, difficult. so i read with interest two accounts by foreigners working in taiwan on what they described as their favorite hiking destination, and although it was unclear how exactly i would possibly find the jump-off, i cast my faith on my traveller's instincts and my nose for adventure to bring me to the trailhead outside sanxia, which itself is already an hour from taipei.

early in the morning i left meander hostel to take the train to yongning station on the southwestern edge of taipei. from there, i hopped on a bus which i thought would bring me to the jump off. it didn't. instead, it meandered through narrow streets choked by traffic gridlocks, until i had no other choice but to get off. i had bits and pieces of information, and a general idea where it was, but my mandarin was not enough to get me there. alas, technology stepped in, and very soon, i was there on a steep and narrow road, trying to figure out where the trail would start. i knew somehow that i was on the right path when i met trekkers on their way down. it was already close to 11am.

someone pointed to me a sign, and apart from the numbers and lines printed on it, i didn't really know what it meant. but i did spot a trail behind it, and i followed it as it entered a grove of whispering bamboo. i was alone on the trail, but i heard voices from far away. i decided on this trail despite the logistical challenges because it was supposed to be very rewarding, with several rope sections along the trail. although the blogs i read had pictures of the trail, none of them prepared me for what lay ahead.

the first rope section appeared early on, and i arrived at a junction where some hikers were resting. no one could speak english enough to tell me where i was, but someone was kind enough to explain to me what the map meant. apparently, i began my trek at station 3 instead of station 1 along the highway where most people start the slow ascent. i was at station 4, and it was still a long way to station 8, the peak. i had a choice of crossing to station 11, but based on the old man's hand movements, it seemed like such a trek would require too much time, as well probably as too much effort. there were dotted lines that suggested exit points, and alternate paths that would take me back to where i began the trek.

i soldiered on and found the trail very interesting. the forest was thick, and the boulders that randomly jutted out of the foliage were immense. the local government has made the path more accessible by fixing ropes and carving footholds into rock faces. it was a delightful change to the trails i'm used to, although i did read a comment somewhere that said wuliaojian hadn't yet been made too safe by the authorities. i'm just thankful that i didn't have acrophobia or vertigo, since many times the boulders narrowed into spines, with sheer falls on either side. at one point i stood on a round rock and looked into the distance where i saw hikers tottering along a path carved on the edge of a knife. it was a dizzying sight.

at station 5 i decided to put my pack down and chew on the piece of bread i took off a shelf in family mart. it didn't taste good, but i needed the calories. later, i found myself at a crowded station where everyone was speaking in mandarin, and i was looking away, not realizing that they were apparently offering me lunch. after taking a gulp of water, i decided that i was not fit enough to continue. i quickly remembered the dotted line leading away from station 6, back down to station 3. i would exit there, i told myself. i was too weak to continue, had little to eat for both breakfast and lunch, and had nothing to prove anyway.

i pushed on and reached what seemed like the enormous back of a mythological lizard, long and narrow. i could fall to my death on either side of this wedge of rock, or i could turn back, crying in defeat. a handrail was fixed on top of the ridge, and two ropes disappeared into an unseen trail below. this was the only way to go down. the wall was smooth, and i wondered whether the soles of my shoes had enough traction to stay on the wall, rather than assist me on the way down. the first few steps down were tentative, and i had to gulp in as much air as i could to muster the courage required to get down. the thick rope had plastic plugs to prevent accidental slips. as i rappelled down to the flat trail, i told myself this had to be recorded. but how? i argued with myself: litrato o buhay, litrato o buhay? and very quickly i took out my camera and snapped my hand holding on to the rope, even as i dangled about 40 feet down, and 30 feet from the ground.

from there, i felt suddenly weak, and as i waited for my turn to get down another obstacle, i gave up. station 6 was a minute away. i sat down there and looked around me, listening to people but not understanding them, noticing that all of them were visibly older than me, and ill-equipped. they wore cotton shirts, rain boots, running flats, office pants, strange hats, school bags. and yet they managed to get there, with no hint that they were giving up. i looked down at the exit route, and up at the trail to station 7, and after a few moments, like a zombie following the stench of life, i went up the trail, not minding that rainclouds started to brew overhead.

i don't know how you could possibly explain the geology of wuliaojian. it is both very rocky, but also covered in primary growth trees. most of the difficult stations have been made safer by ropes, although there are also parts where alternate routes are offered for those who wish to make things more difficult. at one point i reached a clearing at the end of a wall of rock, and i could see the mythological lizard's back, with rows of people waiting for their turn to get down that rope, or debating perhaps whether to continue or turn back. i heard voices up ahead, and continued to find station 7, where this grand old tree stood, and below it a table where 3 men were preparing soup. someone took a small plastic cooler from his bag then offered me a slice of watermelon. i didn't hesitate. i ate it wholeheartedly and hoped he'd offer me another one. when i noticed he had stuffed his cooler back into his bag, i went on. there are 2 routes to station 8, the peak. one is steep, while the other is gradual. no one told me which i should take, so i just walked up the path, was confused briefly by the junction leading to station 9 and 11, and then suddenly found myself on top of the wujiaolian hiking trail.

it was a fantastic feeling, blighted only by the view of dark clouds. there were mountains around me, and a city scorched by fog in the distance. i wondered if it was taipei, but someone who arrived a few minutes after me said it was sanxia, which i thought would be closer by. i soaked in the view on the small plot that was the summit, and then followed other hikers into the steep trail which many preferred to take on the way up. there were ropes along the trail, but i refused to hold on to any of them, preferring roots and slender trunks instead. in no time at all i was back at station 7, and i pointed to the trail that went down. the others there gave me a thumbs up sign, so i went on, not bothering to pause, as the forest grew and shrank behind me, as shallow brooks emerged, trickling over rocks before being sucked into hoses. as swaying bamboo sprouted, and houses appeared.

just like that, i was back on the narrow asphalt road. i was hoping someone would offer me a lift down to the road, which turned out to be quite a distance from the first house. suddenly, just a hundred meters from the highway, the zippers to the heavens were pulled open, and the sky fell in giant drops. i ran to a nearby temple and wondered how it would be possible for me to get home. the highway was filled with cars, but none of them seemed to be public transportation. i spent about half an hour at the temple, and finally decided to walk to the bus station, nearly getting mauled by dogs when i asked for directions. i found the bus station not far from the temple, and was shocked to find out that buses are dispatched 3 hours apart. so i could spend the entire afternoon waiting there.

suddenly, one of the hikers who accompanied me from the peak to station 7 approached me and appeared to be waiting for something. he signalled me to stay put, so i did, and after a while, he flagged a passing truck and asked the drivers if i could hitch a ride to sanxia. it was still raining very hard, but i took the generous offer anyway, repeating xie xie as much as i could, and smiling at people riding motorcycles as they passed by. traffic was extremely bad, and i was soaked. the men inside the truck passed me a vest, but i was already dripping, so it didn't matter. they deposited me at the bus depot where i took a cab to the nearest MRT station. i didn't even bother to change. no one prevented me from boarding the train just because i left wet footprints behind me. it was amazing i didn't get chills being so wet for so long.

wuliaojian was a rewarding journey where i encountered everything i did not expect from a trek: kind strangers who know that small gestures, like pointing the way, offering a piece of fruit, or worrying about one's wellbeing, will be long remembered, more than the view, or the near-harrowing feeling of standing on a ledge not even a foot across. with my scraps of mandarin and their morsels of english, we proved that the language of the world is spoken not through words coming out of one's mouth, but through the goodness of one's heart.