at the mandatory stop on the bridgeway of the ambuklao dam en route to the ranger station in babadak, i stood outside our jeepney when two tilapia vendors approached us and said: "pwede makipag-kamay?" i promptly extended my hand and smiled. "ay hindi po," giggled one of the girls. "kay rustom." rustom, who sat inside the jeepney, obliged and shook the hands of the girls who blushed immediately afterwards. this would be the theme of the entire climb. complete strangers would come to us asking for photographs to be taken with rustom, but i would always tell them: oh don't be shy, i'm used to having my picture taken by strangers.
at first i had qualms about leading the team. i was unsure, to say the least, whether rustom would not be a burden. if there is anything i dislike more in a climb, it is the the sound of people complaining. yes, he is physically fit, which is probably half of what's required of anyone wanting to climb a mountain. but the other half -- a keen and sincere interest in embracing nature, and all the life-changing discomforts that are attached to it -- i couldn't say he had. i hadn't met him, and my last impression of him was one i had when i switched the TV on at the mallberry hotel in cagayan de oro city, and cinema one happened to be showing "happy hearts". jason said he wanted to do it. so i agreed to be part of the team.
from the moment we picked him up at camp john hay, i was already expecting to see hints of diva. but although he asked to sit in front, beside the driver, he endured the lugubrious task of traveling the road between baguio to babadak ranger station. he even sat through the video of "soft paths" at the visitor's center without blinking. and when our jeepney was stalled for more than 10 minutes while struggling up the rough road to babadak, he also contributed his muscles to push it out of the situation.
before we started the trek, he made it clear he wanted to get a porter. still, that's not unforgivable, although, given the macho nature of my group and my friends, it wasn't something i would consider (secretly though, it is sometimes something i would desire). it was his first time, and it was actually wise of him to have decided to have his bag carried, although he did ask me when my next climb is and whether there would also be a porter. besides, the other team of 14 climbers had 1 porter each, and their bags were huge. while speaking to him at the trail, he shared his thoughts about the experience: he was actually enjoying it. yes, it rained, and the cold crept into our bones, but he walked his way confidently in his yellow poncho despite the occasional slips when the trail became untame.
at the campsite, there was no rain. jason and i halved most of the kitchen duties, while the rest tried to dry their things. rustom took videos and stills of the fantastic views, including the orange sunset and the salmon clouds. when night fell, and despite the cold, he sat down with us and drank his rhum coke -- which is what he got used to, he says, studying in SLU in the late 80s. by this time, aided perhaps by alcohol, i had the gall to call him "rus", and even deigned to ask him showbiz questions. i think i didn't necessarily shock him about my knowledge of his affairs -- beginning with his cosmetic line, to his famous lines in "zsazsa zaturnnah". he is celebrity after all. but although it would have made good topic of conversation, we stayed away from the most obvious of things: carmina.
the following morning, at half past 3am, i wondered whether anyone was still eager to see the sunrise. i had seen it 5 times before, and was still up to it, despite the headache brought about by the mix of vodka and gin. i was surprised to see rustom already up, waiting for the coffee to be made. he confessed that he had difficulty sleeping because of the cold (and i assume, due as well to the less-than-ideal sensation of lying on the ground), and was tempted not to rise when he heard that neal wanted to sleep some more.
but he trooped to the summit nevertheless, and he was just behind me almost the entire way. when the first hint of light made our headlamps useless, we caught a first glimpse of the perfectly still sea of clouds, and he offered: okay na dito! true, the view from the summit would be not much different, but i think it's symbolical of many things: to be actually on the summit, looking down on everything, and watching how the sun creeps out of this fluffy white blanket.
i have to say that it was not the most impressive sunrise i have so far seen. but rhyan, rustom, jonathan, and glenn -- who had seen the sunrise the way it's seen from the summit of mount pulag -- were all impressed and smitten nevertheless. they devoured the scene with their cameras. mission accomplished. we all walked back to the campsite, even as we watched how the fog creeped slowly into the ridges between the minor peaks, turning them into tiny green islands.
we trekked back to babadak, which we reached in less than 2 hours despite a long rest at the only shed between the grassland campsite and the ranger station, again under the rain. rustom said he enjoyed the experience, and spoke about wanting to go to sagada before the rainy season begins. he patiently waited for lunch, and gamely shook the hands of kids. "mr. padilla," said the park ranger, "pwede sila magpakuha ng litrato?" locals came out and posed beside rustom. a young man whipped out a small box from his pocket -- it was a film point and shoot. it whirred after each photo was taken, a sound i now miss hearing.
in baguio, we went straight to camp john hay and took showers at rustom's cabin. too tired perhaps from the experience, he decided to skip dinner, and slept. us, on the other hand, were still full of energy. we had dinner, took a late-evening bus trip, and showed up for work the following day. neal mentioned that i was "perfect as a mountaineer". rustom also said "anlalakas nyo!" when i told him my backpack was about 20kilos, and that usually, i even carry more. and my response was: "hindi. sanay lang talaga kami."
i will not conceal the fact that i like gawking at celebrities, particularly of the showbiz type. there could be a career here somewhere: mountain guide to the stars! now there's a thought. haha.