climb

bucolia: swept away (third installment of the kaladkarin chronicles, part III)

on maundy thursday morning, i woke up with a start. i had slept in my jacket, and with the aid of the sun, i found myself in a particularly wet and sticky situation. i was wrapped in a blanket of sweat, and was feeling very uncomfortable. add to that the fact that i had a bad hangover. i went out of the tent looking for water and some paracetamol. there were people tending to the kitchen, and i realized that it was a rather bad idea to have left all my gear out in the open like that. sabang beach was crawling with all sorts of people, some trying to escape the summer heat, some just loitering kids, and a few young people wandering about. not that these bicolanos were to be distrusted, but then, one is never always too sure.

the morning passed like a blur. i ate, rather sufficiently, i might add, managed to take a bath even in that most unbearable excuse for a toilet in the three brothers resort, and packed my things. at around 10am, more beer arrived and while we waited for those who had gone out to market, we continued the session that was disrupted by the need for sleep the previous night. it must’ve been the longest time we stayed at our rented resort, and anyone of us could’ve guessed what the 3 brothers weren’t into. they certainly weren’t high on hygiene and good taste.

after everything had been prepared, we started for our long boat trip to gota beach. i managed to find a spot just over the motor to be able to get some sleep, and as i silently found dreams, i alternated between being grateful for the unique opportunity that had been given me (to travel with a great bunch of equally adventuresome individuals), and the peculiarly distressing state of affairs brought about by my lack of foresight, and a lack of acumen for anything mathematical. i had worn the same orange nike dri-fit shirt the last four days, having brought very few clothes, and was down to my last 200 pesos. which is not to say that i was a walking candidate for the gym socks award. the shirt had been washed with soap and water at least twice, and smelled rather nice, in fact. but what really hatched pupae in my stomach was the fact that i had no money left. or at least, only had enough to get home. i was morose for a few moments every now and then. i felt miserable, being fiscally troubled, and all. certainly, more than 1 of my new friends would’ve come to my rescue to lend me what i needed, but it was just a feeling i didn’t quite appreciate, particularly because it was something i brought upon myself.

when i finally awoke, i found malvin and bing soaking in the sun. i took pity in at least one of them, and offered to exchange places. it had just been after high noon, and i was eager to see if there were any special sights to see. there were lots. the boat ride was long, and if you think about what the sun could possibly do to your skin, even a little painful. so bing and i stayed at the banca’s aft, waiting to be stupefied by the breathtaking rock formations sprinkled around the waters of the caramoan peninsula. every now and then, the clear blue horizon, disturbed only by slithers and wisps of clouds, would be dotted by islands of sheer rock topped with pointed columns. it seemed as though giants had heaved these massive rocks from the shore: too small to be inhabited, but large enough to host a few plants. they were very nice to photograph, and i feel sorry that my incompetence in geology cannot assist in identifying if these are limestone, granite, or slate. these craggy monoliths were just testaments to opposing forces: the terrible sea, and the stubborn earth. at low tide, these islands must look like mushrooms, since near its base, where the sea laps gently, much has been broken and taken down to the sea floor.

the hours wore on, and more islands were checked. as bing and i discussed the archipelagic doctrine, the UN, and the security council, we came upon a profound realization that this trip has significantly reduced our quest to see the entire archipelago: only around 6,000 left. throughout this time, bing, being the handyman that he is, was preoccupied with fashioning a barbecue grill from a roll of wire. when i moved to the fore, i found dennis sitting at the banca’s nose, and he’d been there a while, basking and bathing in all those harmful rays, getting only a little darker. seeing him there, he came to symbolize what for me this trip was all about: we plunge headlong into the unknown, place ourselves at the edge of reason, in the fringes of sanity, seeking adventure and attempting to understand life, desiring answers, but in the process only find more questions. we tempt fate with our wild delusions of invincibility, and revel in realizing the limits of our humanity, and exceeding them each time. we were young and indeed, foolhardy. well, maybe only dennis qualified to being young, while everyone else was just lacking in wisdom.

without my realizing it, someone actually managed to cook even while the banca cruised across less than peaceful waters. at about 3pm, we finally found a place to spend the night: matukad island, whose fine, white beach faces east. it was just a slice of paradise, and save a sign in bicol which i think instructs visitors not to leave trash, there was no manmade structure on the huge chunk of jagged limestone. the beach itself was only over a hundred meters in length, and at low tide, was only about 15 meters at its tallest. spread across this fine creation were at least 8 tents of different colors. the moment we unloaded our gear, which included 2 ice chests, melay asserted her authority as TL and appointed myself and xenon to the kitchen. bing was also there, and while i didn’t mind my job of slicing onions, garlic, and what else was at the kitchen, i could not help but feel a little envious of those who managed to enjoy the beach while it was at its sunniest. everyone was busy: some were reading books, some were running after sleep, others took pictures, others posed for pictures, and a few were feeling their bodies in the water.

before dark, we managed to put something appropriate for the tropical breeze of the island: pan-fried fish with butter and garlic sauce and fish sinigang. the food was gobbled rather quickly, and immediately afterwards, those assigned for dinner took over the kitchen. as the sun disappeared in a cabal of suspicious-looking clouds, i busied myself with making sand sculptures. sand as fine as the one in matukad island was perfect for activities of this kind, and it took little effort on my part to breathe life into the powdered shell and coral and turned it into a woman and even a butanding. when nighttime finally engulfed the island, and the not-so-distant drops of rocks appeared like hints of far-away places in the dreamy glow of a moon nearing its fullness, the drinks, courtesy of kuya mar, started making their rounds. there were at least three kinds, a cognac, gilbey’s gin, and emperador. at dinner time, xenon, who recently returned from japan, also took about a bottle of peach plum wine, or something, and this accompanied the meal. i reckon i must’ve been really stoned by this time since i have little recollection of the details of the evening, until, for one reason or another, we moved to the northern end of the island, where a solid wall of limestone stands, and with us we took our alcohol, our music, and our boisterous selves.

the sea has retreated, exposing caverns scooped out of the walls, and though it drizzled a little, we drank, made merry, and toasted to life and youth and... well, whatever else our drunken stupor allowed us. i may not have completely realized it, or understood its consequences, but i distinctly remember someone calling out to go skinny dipping. it may have been malvin, but the alcohol in my brain must’ve flushed out any of the sense i had left. regardless of who made the invitation though, i gladly obliged, plunged into waist-deep water, and took off my trunks. there were 5 of us in the water, with the women hugging themselves, and the men duckwalking so as not to unduly expose themselves, or to offend anyone. in the glint of moonshine, our naked bodies glowed, and there were only faint clues of the curves and shapes that floated and moved, not unlike shameless but gentle sea creatures in that corner of paradise. it was easily the most liberating thing that i had ever done.

then we moved to the island’s southern side, and before i knew what was going on, i had fallen asleep on the sand. i was told to report to my tent, which i did, and i woke up only the following day. it was a balmy morning, and judging from the debris of sea grass resting on the sand, the sea had reached dangerous heights, only a few feet from the edges of our tents. we could’ve been washed away. breakfast was already being prepared, and it was also at this time that i realized my stupidity: i left my iPod out in the open, and someone had kindly placed it in a crevice in the rock wall at the kitchen. we hadn’t begun eating when we were instructed to prepare to explore the sights on the mainland. i left my things as they might reflect my brain: scattered, and hopped onto the banca with the BMC shirt of AMCI’s B2K2 which iton had given me, in view of the fact that i had very few clothes.

getting to gota beach from matukad island was a little rough, but once there, we still has a bit of walking to do. the bridge had been washed out, so nothing other than motorbikes could pass through the shallow stream. on the way, i saw jay riding on a scooter. i told him we’ll be back, although in all honesty, i hadn’t the faintest what we were supposed to do there. xenon was also in the dark, apparently under the misimpression that we’d do some island-hopping, and decked in nothing but a pair of sunglasses, shorts, and booties.

the sights beyond gota beach was reminiscent of those movies on war-torn vietnam. there were gloomy fields and grain plantations fenced by imposing hills. the weather was a little threatening, and there were beasts of burden all about. i kept thinking that it couldn’t get any more rural than this. after a while, our jeepney arrived, and as was my habit, i sat where the view was best: on the roof. as we zipped past more vestiges of bucolic bicol, i had this strange feeling that we were at the edge of the philippines, as one might imagine if the earth were flat. the caramoan peninsula had a somewhat last-frontier feel to it. or it could just have been the weather.

on the roof, i was joined by francis, who finally spilled the beans -- all the sleazy details -- on a matter for which i was previously consulted. on the way to the grotto, we stopped to get sacks of palay husks, which were used when the terrain became nearly impassable. finally, we stopped at the foot of what seemed to be an endless stairway. once we were down from the jeepney, xenon wrapped himself in a shawl, and i dared bing: race you to the top. it was, of course, very unwise, since it was not likely that i would manage to overtake bing, nor was it possible to race all the way to the top, unless by some miracle of nature, i didn’t need to breathe. i would later discover, based on francis’s count, that there were 529 steps to the grotto: a large concrete statue of mary whose arms were outstretched, facing the wide open sea. from this elevation, the outlying islands seemed like stains in a breathtaking emerald sheet. the statue’s back has suffered a little damage, and apparently, efforts were underway to have it repaired, which explains the bags of sand that were at the foot of the stairway. initially, i thought some irresponsible individuals had left them there, but their purpose was to be brought up by anyone willing. had we been advised, at least 20 bags could’ve traveled to the grotto’s site.

after marveling at the view, we went back down to our jeep, visited the chapel where there was no priest and the sermon was being played over a gramophone, and finally planned to visit the caves. i returned to my place on the roof, and from there, the weather turned from threatening, to an actual threat. i hadn’t felt that much windchill since amuyao. the rain itself felt like falling pebbles, and the wind was a swooshing force. i could not keep myself warm because on the roof, i was completely exposed, and the terrain demanded that i held on for dear life. when finally we realized that it may not be wise to visit the caves in that weather and without our lights, we also came upon a difficult realization: that it would be foolish not to evacuate from the island. looking out into the sea, i was tempted to ask what we had done that nature seemed to lash out at us with not a little anger. i volunteered to join the team that would pack our stuff. joseph and kuya mar had been left behind on the island, and we began thinking about their safety. i borrowed marga’s lifejacket, and on the way, malvin shook my hand and said: “it was nice to have met you.”

it was a joke, of course, but there was more danger there than we probably thought. one of the boatmen warned about the possibility we would capsize, and as 15 foot waves tossed us up and down, the joints and riggers of the banca creaked and complained. there was a steady beating in my heart, even as we cheered for larger waves. in the distance, seafoam would explode at least 20 feet high when the waves crashed without mercy onto the sheer, solid faces of the islands. it was a gripping sight, and an experience that turned our expedition into a real adventure.

finally we reached the island, and in less than 20 minutes, everything within view was packed -- not neatly, i might add -- into backpacks and trashbags. i took care of the kitchen area and my own stuff, and in all that self-imposed panic, i caught a finaly glimpse of our island: bombarded by sea and wind, it still was a most ideal place to spend two nights. we loaded our packs onto the banca, and headed back to shore. the trip was neither long nor short. it was less than 20 minutes, but it was long because of the danger, and short as well because of the thrill. getting to the far end of the beach was like landing on another country. here, the sand was dark, like soiled brown, and the beach was a little dirty. the rain continued to pour, and some of us decided to swim in the surprisingly warm water, including kuya mar, who was all dressed in a jacket and a cap.

after a while, our jeepney arrived, and we were whisked away to caramoan centro, where we found lodging in rex inn. we occupied the whole of the third floor, where we did our best to stay dry and clean, in spite of what had just come upon us. surprisingly, the situation had not infused anyone with even a tinge of worry, and we were very busy with preparing dinner, taking stock of our things, and trying to find places to sleep. i won a space in the big bed from a lottery, but i gave it up to people who must’ve been really exhausted. and this included our growing boy, who the moment he arrived, was dead to the world. again, it was bing, xenon, and myself taking care of dinner. and quite a feast it was. once the food had been ransacked, out came the drinks. i think it was emperador, and again, malvin and i proved that our guts were made of steel. we have been drinking since saturday at isarog. francis, mardel, bing, xenon, arnel, and kuya mar were likewise there.

when the emperador was consumed, and they turned to open a bottle of cuatro cantos, i automatically stood up, rolled out my earthpad, and plopped down without even saying good night. i slept soundly that morning, awakened only a couple of hours later when i found tin-tin and joseph busy preparing breakfast. i stood up and offered to help. i went out to buy P80 worth of pan de sal at a nearby bakery. it was a wet and windy morning, and caramoan centro appeared like a sleepy town filled with really peaceful people. breakfast consisted of just about anything else was left to cook. malvin had a difficult time getting up, shackled as he was by a hangover. melay even brought him breakfast, to thank him for sacrificing his health in exchange for lechon once we got to kaye’s place in calabangga near naga. apparently, he and arnel were cornered by kuya mar to join him for a few more shots, and in return, the very generous kuya mar would buy us lechon. and in fact he did.

we took a jeepney to guijalo port, where our banca had been waiting, cruised through more pacific waters, and dropped by one of the first islands near sabang. after we left, arnel displayed his negotiating skills, which were worth emulating, and we got us a jeepney to calabangga. we unloaded our things, and xenon fell into the water in the process. we whizzed to kaye’s house, and although she wasn’t there yet, we made ourselves feel right at home. her family owns a well-appointed ancestral home in this sleepy, rural town. their backyard was an endless field of green. they had a pool, a huge parking space, and birds of all kinds. a videoke machine was delivered, and then we started to continue our party, as though our expedition hadn’t been visited by one too many mishaps, including roland’s missing stuff sack.

for dinner, kaye’s amazing mom and aunt joined forces for an amazing treat: a celebration of the success of our trip. it was black saturday, and i don’t know if it was appropriate to celebrate. but we did. other than the lechon, we had loads of very meaty crab, lenggua estofada, buko pandan, and some distinctly bicolano treats that i avoided fearing they might be too spicy. after dinner, we went out to continue the feast. we sang, drank, and played cards. our guide, gerry, and his friend, arrived, and the climb team took pains to ignore them. well, gerry primarily, but the other guy was dragged into the cold war. the party continued till the morning, and it may not have been surprising if we disturbed a few sleeping souls. before we slept, we lounged around at the pool. at the spacious sala, i found space beside melay. i forgot to bring my earthpad, but i managed to sleep, nonetheless, with just my sarong.

the following morning, we had breakfast at a neighbor’s house. the owner’s daughter was one of the angels for the holy week salubong, and it was custom for them to treat the entire barangay to a really heavy meal. we banished all traces of shame and helped ourselves to the food, despite the fact that everyone was a stranger. that afternoon, we decided to tour naga and its environs. the previous night, bing and francis (who is an awful singer, and an equally awful drunkard), managed to solicit the help of gerry in possibly recovering roland’s things. and so after lunch at naga, we met 2 girls who brought with them the blue stuff sack containing roland’s phone and his memory cards. gerry certainly proved himself useful, other than pointing out we were slow, and he acquitted himself of his shortcomings rather well.

finally, it was time to go home. after an early dinner, we left for the station, where our coaster waited. the entire aisle had been made impassable by our huge bags, and the 9 hour bus ride proved short as i woke only to find ourselves already in magallanes. when we reached cubao, the coaster made a turn and there, was flagged by elements of the MMDA busting colorum buses. and so here ended my bicol XP. in the pure exhaustion of the trip, i failed to find anything profound about that morning. perhaps there was none. i was home before 4am, and still managed to show up at work.
From Francis
(Anonymous)
I was not! :)

the previous night, bing and francis (who is an awful singer, and an
equally awful drunkard),
Re: From Francis
ok, i admit, you were only a really awful singer. but you have to admit, you would not have been singing if you weren't drunk. so you must've been really really awfully drunk that night to not even notice how bad you sang. haha. peace francis!
Re: From Francis
(Anonymous)
Haaaaayyy... I should've known better than to argue with a lawyer hahaha!!!
--Francis