when paradise burns: a reunion with kibungan

the oppressive heat of late april left a burning crown of thorns on my head, that i had to stop each time i stepped into shade, regretting that i had forgotten to bring a hat. i may have felt dizzy at one point, that when i found a leaning rock, i decided to sneak in a few minutes of sleep. besides, i hadn't had any since we left manila the previous evening. the bus ride had almost gone awry when we weren't guaranteed tickets with victory, that we had to take a chance, and elbow other passengers, for seats in a dagupan bus. but 12 hours later, here we were in the slopes of a place familiar to me. "you like kibungan?" the woman at the store asked when i said it was already my seventh time to visit. "i love kibungan!" i replied.

this is a place i hold close to my heart, for no reason other than its enchanting beauty. more than sixty kilometers north of baguio city, kibungan is on the western edge of benguet, sharing the border with the southern end of ilocos sur, where eventually the mountains dwindle into plains. it is a huge mass of land characterized by rough roads and steep trails: 16,000 inhabitants scattered over 7 barangays that together form a municipality nearly twice the size of quezon city. there are several mountains here, although their names are inconsequential, because they all look like ridges forming part of a range. and yet, at some point in the trek, i could not place myself relative to the rest of the world. it was as if i was lost, swallowed by the overlapping chunks of rock with its wispy stands of pine.

with the scorching heat hovering over me, i decided to give up my duties as trail master, and assigned lead pack duties to others whose brains weren't stewing in a vat of boiling water. as long as i reached the campsite in daylight, i thought, there was no cause for hurry. i dragged a few others with me as we crawled up the unending assault to the campsite. when i first climbed this trail, i described it as insane, and that we were crazy and a half. and yet, here i was, doing it for a third time. eventually, we reached the campsite with ample light, and in between lights out, i passed out twice on the socials area, likely from a mix of gin and exhaustion.

the following day, on our trek to tacadang, there was an unusually large number of locals on the trail. our guide said they were on their way to the poblacion to collect dole outs as part of the government's conditional cash transfer scheme. it looked like a regular day for most of them. it didn't seem so different from walking to your neighbor's house to borrow some sugar. there we were stewing under the bright kibungan sun, wrapped in technical fabrics that were supposed to keep us cool in that burning summer heat. and yet, the locals weren't so extraordinarily dressed, but appeared to be doing better than any of us. no one was even carrying a bottle of water, although curiously, one girl was holding a branch over her head -- some form of organic umbrella i suppose. in the end, what took us the better part of the last two days would likely take them a fraction of the time.

continuing with the trek, we found a fork in the road which turned out to be crucial since two members of the team, distracted perhaps by some brewing feelings, took the wrong trail, and were lost for over two hours on very difficult terrain. i had the guides search for them, which meant i had to find a trail that would get us to tacadang, deciding to follow seldom-used routes while avoiding the fences that blocked ways into backyards, and kept pigs and other farm animals within confined spaces. it was at tacadang where we sat down to wait for everyone to arrive. we hadn't had lunch yet -- our meals and equipment were dispersed, some of them with those who lost their way and the guides who came to rescue. it was already past 3PM when we began the trek to the campsite, and it is always the case that i imagine the trail to be shorter than it actually is. nonetheless, we got there with enough time to glimpse a fantastic sunset: something rarely seen in kibungan.

having arrived first at the lamagan campsite, i was able to reserve a spot in the small box on the second floor of the shed that stands there. normally, the guides sleep here, but they're now equipped, so they pitched some distance away from us, knowing perhaps that we sleep really late and tend to be noisy when we're happy. the following morning we walked to the viewdeck, although the angle of the sun, and the haze in the sky, made it look out of focus. i pointed to the trail we would be taking for the morning, and predicted we would all reach the road by 2PM. from the campsite, we descended along the wall that drops from lamagan, then went up again after we crossed the stream. the pair who got lost the previous day was in luck again: they missed another crucial turn, and ended up invading the community. from there, reaching mang gorio's hut was a chore, particularly on the knees, but the view and the breeze compensated for the burdensome and scorching trek.

i rested my feet at the hut, refilled my water, tried to eat my emergency food, and prepared myself for the hour-and-a-half-long trek up to the poblacion. if my past experiences here would be any gauge, then this should be the toughest part of the trek. it's seldom that you have to climb in order to get home. and although i was frequently dropping myself on the ground, taking deep breaths, and willing myself to continue, knowing that my destination gets closer with each step i take, regardless of the size of my stride. and although i've just described this part of the trek as the most difficult, this was possibly the only time i did not feel spent. in previous treks, i had to sweep slower trekkers. but i only had myself to carry this time, and i arrived at the alley that spilled out onto the road in the time that i expected, just as the rain started to pour.

martin, our guide, decided to wait out the rain, but i wanted so badly to have lunch, so sharon and i braved the downpour. we walked the remaining half kilometer to the municipal hall, often with our heads bowed because of the rain. i greeted everyone i met along the road: children and adults cowering under the eaves of houses, afraid it seemed of getting drenched. there i was, my bag soggy with rainwater, and my wet turquoise shirt sticking to the odd shape that is my body, enjoying my walk in the rain: i was the strangest, weirdest thing that the locals at kibungan have ever seen. later, martin would say that they hardly ever ventured out in the rain. it was just not something anyone would do. i wolfed down my lunch and had to wait 3 more hours for the entire team to arrive. at sunset, we left for baguio where kuya mar and i stayed one more night.

i did not manage to see kibungan at all last year. i am glad to have seen her again, at a time when my mountaineering was off to a slow start: i've only had two previous climbs since 2012 began, but i hope to correct that, starting with this much needed visit to one of my favorite destinations. i consider myself one of kibungan's adopted sons. in the club, only 2 or 3 other persons have been here more times than i. many of the local guides know me be my first name. in fact, kolbel who coordinates the mountaineering activities there, is a frequent reader of this blog. i'd like to keep coming back to kibungan and savor its savage beauty while still much of it remains. there are many more trails i have not seen, many more places waiting personal discovery. lately i started doubting my ability to keep doing the things i love to do. but this reunion with an old, but still feverish, love affair, has shown that my legs are good for many more trysts with the mountains.