halcon, redux: part IV of the kaladkarin chronicles

how do you deal with a mountain infinitely bigger than your imagination? one begins, i suppose, by realizing that the herculean task depends little on one’s confidence, strength and experience. you think of things larger than yourself, realizing slowly that your faith is of a magnitude to humble even that of halcon.

on wednesday evening, the 27th of april, a contingent of 21 young, restless souls, each one floating on a pair of strong legs and made erect by a sturdy back, gathered outside 7-11 in buendia to embark on a 4 (or probably more)-day affair with the mecca of philippine mountaineering. it was a boring evening, with the wind noticeably still and the mood a little sombre. save for the few packs of rice accidentally left by eugene and company in their taxi, there were hardly any portents of things to come. in fact, everything seemed to be suspiciously smooth. the bus ride was short, and we made it to batangas pier with enough time to make the 1.30am RORO trip to calapan. onboard the dingy ferry, each one of us attempted but failed to find space to sneak in even a few hours of sleep. we cordoned off the stage in front of the passengers, but most of us ended up watching “hellboy”, which, peculiarly, had really bad english subtitles. why put engrish subtitles on a movie done in english? i hoped to find the answer in sialdang.

we were in calapan just before 3am, and our jeepney, driven by mang ariel, was already there waiting. i toploaded, of course, and after we deposited our IDs and our IT at the baco police station, we were off to mayabig. it was barely day break, and not a creature was stirring in the sleepy barangay. i had half expected mayabig to look a little like lantuyan, but it was a lot different. after we had registered with the barangay captain, we stood at the causeway built over the small, mayabig river where i led the prayer. i generally asked for strength, courage, guidance, and good weather for the rest of the trek.

we began the hike inauspiciously, and it is usually during these very first few hours that you begin to think it was folly for you to have climbed with too much gear, or with not enough preparation. but how does anyone prepare for a challenge the breadth and size of mt halcon? over the past year, i’ve joined at least 14 treks which scaled at least 18 mountaineering destinations. this was certainly no small feat, but they are collectively dwarfed by the immensity of the one i hoped to include in my humble, but growing list of been there’s. it was a beautiful morning, and very early on, we were rewarded with outstanding views of the outlying towns, looking eerie and mysterious, awash in a thin sheet of mist. the group was unusually quiet, and save for the flatulent disturbances courtesy of milo very early on, it was obvious that each one was serious about saving energy.

just after the first mangyan village, where we triumphed on being many hours ahead of schedule, we came upon a snag. no one seemed to remember which trail would lead us to the second mangyan village and then eventually to the lunch area. i hadn’t been to mayabig, so i was totally useless in this regard. we must’ve have waited for at least 20 minutes there, which was good. i was still a little dizzy and felt really expended since i’d been awake since wednesday morning, but here i was, still trying to figure out how i can possibly get through 8 more hours of walking with a pack that’s upwards of 20 kilograms.

then, we were told to load. they weren’t really sure if this was the right way, but it just seemed logical since the other trail went down. before long, we were stopping at the second mangyan village. we would’ve lingered a little longer, but a mangyan came to us, insisting that they had passed an ordinance requiring every 5 mountaineers to get at least 2 guides, so arnel urged everyone to move on. it was just after this stop when the spaces and distances between the packs increased. i was walking with roland, jay, and christian, the only other guest fortunate enough to have been invited to the hike. since i’ve been halfway to halcon, i provided my hiking companions with some insights and stories on specific spots along the trail. i would pepper the hike with comments like, oh the lunch area is just about an hour away, or, the last time i was here, the water was really high. which was true, of course. if my previous halcon was marked by wet weather and streams gushing from the mountainside, halcon this time was a lush, peaceful forest, with occasional bursts of birdsong and gentle cascades. while previously it wasn’t possible to cross the streams without getting your feet wet, the water levels this time were so amazingly low, my feet were completely dry.

we reached the lunch area ahead of the IT, and it looked so much like a familiar yet unfamiliar place. yes, i’ve had lunch here before under a rain poncho. but it was so remarkably dry and sunny, one would think it was a totally different mountain. i stuck to the itinerary and rested for a full hour. i knew that aplaya was nearby, and i had a more or less competent memory of the terrain. but i found my memory unreliable when i paused upon a place i had absolutely no recollection of. there i stood upon a huge clearing -- where a lot of earth had slid into a deep ravine, as though a giant and angry hand had scraped an entire section of the mountain. it disoriented me a little, and i had to reconsider all that stuff about having above-average spatial intelligence.

finally, it was time to push on. there was another clearing up ahead. by this time, ernest had caught up with us, and he was among the earliest (along with jo) to complain about whatever possessed him to join the climb. i was complaining myself, albeit silently. i had half the mind to leave behind much of the stuff that i took with me, bury them under a mound somewhere. despite my auguring doubts, i was among those who reassured jay and christian that we weren’t far from our destination, and i promised them one fantastic view: halcon’s face lined by columns and columns of waterfalls. before long, we came upon the same place where i first gasped at the sight of mt halcon. but this time, there were no waterfalls to gasp at. only the faint outline of the still great mountain we have yet to scale cowering underneath threatening, low-lying clouds. walking down to aplaya, arlene and myself were suddenly arrested by the sound of thunder, its echo crackling, cracking and clapping over aplaya longer than is necessary, raising doubts whether the good weather will accompany us all the way to sialdang.

then i paused at the spot where we first camped the last time i was there. i would’ve wanted to camp somewhere here, but since we were well ahead of the IT, we pushed for the campsite by the river. i pointed out the way down to dulangan to jay and christian, and waited for dennis to follow. he was just behind me, but he’d earlier complained of a cramp, which slowed him down a little. so i wondered whether i could be of any assistance. when he arrived, he asked for a few minutes to smoke. i said, take your time. a passing cloud sprinkled a few raindrops on us, and then we proceeded to the 30 or so minutes which stood between us and the campsite.

one might be tempted to think that reaching the campsite is a goal in itself, but one also realizes very early that it is not. on an adventure such as this, one never rests until one has gone back home. at the campsite, i washed up, and prepared to take care of the kitchen. that early, i was eager to have my chicken pork adobo served. it would’ve taken 2 kilos off my back, but there were other things to feast on. for that evening, we had deep-fried chicken, bing’s pasta putanesca, and a graham layered cake. christian and myself were particularly busy in the kitchen. i messed up a soup, but it was finished with only a few grunts. then, it was time for gin to make its rounds. it was fortunately not a cold evening, so i only had a little, only enough to send me sleeping without realizing that i didn’t have many of the things i usually sleep with. i woke up around 3am to find that i didn’t have my earthpad with me. but i must’ve slept comfortably. my initial problem was how i could possibly go out when i was sandwiched between bing and arlene. i could choose to disturb either, but since i’ve known bing longer, i opened his side of the TNF talus 23, hoping only that i won’t be much of a bother. i gathered the empty bottles outside, fetched water from dulangan, then started a fire. little by little, the people started waking, and i offered coffee. i was already frying hotdog and hash browns for breakfast by the time we were all up.

in around 2 hours, the chaos that littered the dulangan campsite was whisked inside our backpacks and we were prepared to resume our hike. our first concern of course was crossing dulangan further upstream. no one wanted to get their boots wet. but we had ropes ready in case the current was strong. we descended a wall about 15 feet high, holding on to exposed roots of trees, and then came upon a most tranquil part of dulangan. the lead pack was still finding ways to get to the other bank without their feet getting drenched. we chose to go bouldering. once we were at the other side, we rested only for a brief moment, and pushed for the next destination. after a while, i felt the need to expurgate some unnecessary baggage. when i finished, i had no companions to hike with. this was both good news and bad news. under no pressure from anyone, i felt free to take photographs at will, to take extended rests at irregular intervals whenever i wanted, and i had more opportunity to be less talkative, and to take time to listen to the voices of the leaves, the whistles of the birds, the sound of water, and to look at the shape of moss-covered branches. sometimes, in our hurry to reach our destinations, we forget why we shy away from the city, from the oppressive sights and sounds of civilization, and opt instead to find spaces distant and inaccessible, enjoyed only by the few with the will and the audacity to overcome a slew of challenges. so i took my sweet time, enjoying the view at balugbog-baboy, marveling at mag-asawang ilog, wondering whether those rickety bridges were built by mountaineers or mangyans, and if the latter, asking why, and where else in halcon they’ve built their villages.

the bad news, of course, is if something untoward had happened to me, no one would be at hand to be of any immediate assistance. and i must confess that there were quite a few missteps that had the potential of sending me tumbling down unknown depths. halcon, from the very first day, is rife with danger and mystery. it is particularly notorious for having humbled many hardened mountaineers. a few have found themselves cut, bruised, and injured in these parts. and it has claimed the lives of at least 2 people. so i had to remind myself that i had to be very careful. despite the near-accidents, the only thing i injured was my ego. of course i hoped that the sweeper group would catch up with me soon, and at around 11am, i felt a little hungry and paused beside what i assumed was a water source since there was a small trickle, when tito boy called out to me: “quiboquibo!” finally, they’d caught up with me. i had just munched on a hash brown and was halfway through a bar of almond snickers. but jo said that the thundering sound of water was the big falls. it was our designated lunch area, so i picked up my bag, and i was immediately gone.

by the time i reached the big falls, most had already gone ahead. the lead pack arrived more than an hour before i did, and i must’ve asked: what’s wrong with those people? why are they so fast? it was my way of justifying my lethargic pace. the day 2 lunch area is the crossing on the water source which is artlessly called the big falls. initially i thought it was an exaggeration, since the waterfall was not that big. it was probably just around 20 feet high. but much to my surprise, there was another waterfall further upstream, and one less observant might have missed it totally. i would’ve wanted to get a better view of the actual big falls, but we were pressed for time. so after my hour at lunch, and after i filled all my bottles with 5.5 liters worth of water (we were supposed to load 6, but i didn’t have enough containers!), i pushed on. i was hoping to be less slothy this time, but jo, who i thought was only just behind me, decided to linger a while longer.

i failed to recall the events of the next hour, since i only all of a sudden found myself in durungawan. i stayed there for about 15 minutes, waiting for the sky to clear, so i could view, for the last time, his majesty, mt halcon. i was only given a brief glimpse, which i guess is sufficient. halcon is known for throwing wild weather tempers, and a typhoon could be in residence there even while the rest of the country is experiencing a heatwave. and it could also be the total opposite. then i continued. by this time, i was getting really slothful. i was uncertain whether i was tired or uninspired. i felt little pain in my legs or my shoulders. my pack was heavy, that was a fact, and i knew this since after the first hour of my trek on day 1. but i was already drawing strength from an unknown source, mostly from my mind. then i found dan sitting not far away from durungawan, inside the mossy forest. he’d been designated to announce to the sweeper group if there was water in the last water source. the answer was in the negative. by the time i had arrived, he’d already been sitting there over an hour, and it was his misfortune to wait for another hour for bing’s group to get there.

staying there for an hour, you realize that a tree is a great ally, and that a forest is an army at your service. it was still early in the afternoon, but we could sense that the cold was creeping into our bones. we were eager to get started.

when the sweeper group arrived, jo unloaded one of her water bottles to me, and half a kilo of rice to dan. she looked positively and admittedly wasted. but she was on a personal mission, something i found out only when we were already at sialdang. the hour that dan and i spent waiting was a chance for us to get to know each other. and since i’d spent the last 3 hours’ trek alone, it was good to have someone push you and inspire you to take one more step. but i subjected dan to my unusual strategy. since after dulangan river, the trek has been most terribly uphill, and i did small spurts: i trekked with brisk, confident strides over short distances. i’d peg my goal, and once i find myself there, i’d pause for a moment without putting down my bag, only enough to catch my breath.

between dan and myself, no one had been beyond dulangan, but the trail is defined, signs were aplenty, and we had to guess little. then we came upon a huge, smooth yellow-colored rock, probably granite, and there decided to pause for a few minutes, partly to rest, but chiefly to admire the view. we weren’t at the summit yet, but the view was already quite outstanding. clouds were plump and heavy with blue rain. it was already half past 5pm, so the sunset was nearing. i was apologizing to dan, telling him, oh dan, we won’t make the IT, when suddenly, at the stroke of 6pm, we found ourselves in sablayan, a small clearing on the way to the mini-forest and the ladder, so called because on its western side, on a clear day, it was possible to see the faint lights of the town of sablayan in occidental mindoro. i would’ve wanted to rush to the summit so as to catch the last glimpse of sunset, but apparently, bing had asked dan to wait for us there. so we stayed put and worked the right lobes of our brains, trying to figure out one of the cloud formations. at first it was a bird. then, it became a dinosaur, a pterodactyl, i specified. then, when the last dregs of sunlight painted the sky in fiery hues, the unmoving wispy cloud appeared to be a dragon. about 45 minutes later, when bing’s group arrived, he asked if we had seen the phoenix.

we rested in sablayan a while longer. it was already terribly cold, so i took out my new orange columbia thunderscout omni tech jacket. if i stood perfectly still for a few moments, i’d probably be mistaken for an EWD. but since i didn’t want my new acquisition to sustain injuries from the backpack, i wore my trekking shirt over it. yeah, just brilliant! from sablayan, three steady lights shone in the distance. they were the lamps of bossing, bojo and caloy, who had enough heroism in their veins to ward off the cold and wait for the last man to make it past the knife’s edge and onto the campsite. even while dan and i reckoned with the mossy forest in the thick of night, bossing’s voice, as he spoofed that most irritating phrase i always hear when i am commuting, was quite reassuring. yes, i am almost there. just a little bit more. and then there they were. perhaps it was only too dark i failed to notice how utterly dangerous the condition of the ladder was, but i made it up, gave bojo a hug, and walked to the summit campsite, passing by the marker dedicated to neptali lazaro. when dan and i reached the campsite, i was surprised to find it blanketed by silence. it had only been a little before 8pm, and everyone had snuck into their tents, as though there was a storm.

since our tent was still with bing, i just decided to get dressed out in the open. (arnel offered his tent, of course, but you know, i was overcome by shyness. yes, it does happen every now and again.) i asked what i could do in the kitchen, but nearly everything had already been prepared. i found out the lead pack reached the summit at 4.30pm. yes, these guys are high on something. farting can also be some form of propulsion, i suppose. in one corner of our kitchen area, jay was seriously shivering, wrapped as he was in an emergency blanket. christian was in a similar state, feeling cold, rubbing his palms every so often. he had worn everything he had, and was locked in a tight embrace. i had learned my lesson on my first trek to pulag in 2003, and i was more or less prepared for near-freezing temperatures, although sialdang, at that precise moment, was only pleasantly cold.

then, bing, tito boy and jo arrived, and we were finally complete. for dinner, we had jay’s bulgogi: korean beef with a smattering of sesame seeds. very yummy. apt to celebrate the accomplishment. anyone imbued with the slightest arrogance might so openly declare that he or she had finally conquered halcon. but i view mountaineering in a wholly different light, in that one never conquers a mountain, but rather, one only conquers one’s self, one’s limitations, one’s inhibitions. i reached the summit in less than dramatic circumstances. the outlying views and the majestic sunset had already been obfuscated by darkness, and my only reward was the black night sky, freckled with the most stars i have seen in a long while. standing at the highest point of halcon, at 2,587masl, one might be lured to think that you are above everything, and it does feel a little like that. the galaxies above feel a little like they’ve been fixed on the inside of a dome. i felt like an infinitesimally insignificant insect trapped underneath an upturned bowl. we still had some gin to last till the following evening, so there i was again, in the fine company of my new friends, sharing one of the most profoundly difficult experiences i have ever had so far. i developed, secretly, a newfound respect for halcon, for myself, and for everyone in the group.

the following morning, i woke to find bing shivering beside me. so cold he must’ve felt that his teeth were also chattering. i was sufficiently warm, in stark contrast. he had already lent his spare jacket to jay. i took pity in him, and i would’ve risen had it not been barely 3am. i usually stick to the IT, and decided to sleep a little more. and at the precise hour, i was up, brushing my teeth. i could tell it wasn’t as cold since i could still gargle. there was no morning frost and very little wind chill. i had a tight-fitting polyester shirt, a jacket i bought for P100 at an ukay-ukay, and my orange thunderscout. by my lonesome self, i managed to prepare coffee, rice, and later with the assistance of dan who was also up early, bacon and tuna omelet. outside the tent shared by jo and arnel were two sticks of incense, which must’ve burned halfway the previous night. it was a promise jo made to her father, and a friend’s father.

the sunrise wasn’t quite as spectacular as i had hoped. there was a cloud the size of a battleship obscuring the sun. all around, thin layers of cloud, like white, virginal smoke, passed over the ridges of halcon with haste, hugging the outlying peaks closely. the distant town of calapan, which was also awake so very early in the morning, looked like a bunch of shimmering jewels in the distance. one by one though, we were up, and it wasn’t long for the whole campsite to be bathed in morning light, at its most pristine. it is amazing to witness how colors react when they are touched by light this pure.

i crossed over to the other side, curious to see what the knife’s edge looked like in daylight. the western side was quite steep, and now i understood why they say it is the border dividing occidental and oriental mindoro. had there been any light when we crossed the knife’s edge, i would’ve been a little scared.

finally, it was time to embark on the more difficult part of the trek: hitting the old mangyan trail to paitan. this trail is so seldom used, it’s possible that it’s been swallowed by the profuse forests of halcon. the past 2 days have been just amazing. the weather was most cooperative, and save only for a difference in pace, the entire team had been intact. the dismissible snag just after the first mangyan village was not worth mentioning, but “hitting the trail” might spell the difference between 4 or 5 days. for the next 2 hours, we followed the steep ridges leading east. there was no trail here, and the goal was merely to get to where the man ahead is. then, one enters the mossy forest, and finally, a small clearing called kaplaan. the summit was still within view from here. after taking a short breather, we resumed our trek down past the grasslands. from the top, the trail is still very visible. although this part isn’t very steep, it was punctuated by a series of funny slips. despite the 5mm lugs on my boots, the leaning blades of grass provided no grip. at one point, dan and i slipped at the same time. my butt had never suffered more punishment than this. then we came upon a sudden decline. getting down had to be done very slowly, and knowing my tendency to slip, i allowed those ahead some room, just in case. it only afforded for more comedy, since it was an instance when you wish you had a video camera. as expected, i slipped, and slid down with enough speed to knock dan off balance, until both of us were careening down the slope. there was a small stump of a tree, and dan warned me about it, albeit belatedly, and it hit the inside of my left thigh. i must’ve slipped a total distance of more than 20 feet, and if it weren’t for the good grip of both roland and (an already impatient) ernest, we would have continued our quick descent all the way down.

after a while, we came upon the 1st snag of our 3rd day. arlene and dennis were both armed with bolos, and it was their job to clear a path in trying to find the right trail. the rest of us were doomed to wait for good news from either. there was some discussion about where the right trail was, and it must be a testament to how different halcon must be depending on the weather, that two people who’ve been previously on the same trail should be both possessed by some confusion. the snags continued even as we found ourselves having lunch at the mossy gully. it must’ve have been a waterway on less drier days, and you’re given an idea how long the stones and rocks have been there, still and unmoving, gathering layers and layers of thick moss. despite the delays, no one seemed to be too much of in a hurry. the next task, really, was to try to find a source of water. despite the 6 liter waterload the previous day, most of us were down to our last 2. i consumed more than 2l from the last water source alone, and if we continued any farther, some of us would be really really thirsty.

finally, in attempting to hit the right trail, arlene came upon a small, stagnant, but clear pool of water. arlene already has a loud, booming voice, but he would’ve have shamed a loudspeaker to announce that he’d found a watersource. “balon ba?” christian asked, and i chuckled. as a rule, one only gets water from a source that’s running, but in the mountains, one can’t be too choosy. so we fetched water from the small pool, and since it was already past 3pm, arnel decided that we had to find an emergency campsite. with our boots, we flattened out a few plants and pitched our tents on a slightly sloping piece of ground. so very early, we were already able to prepare dinner. finally, i unloaded my CPA, which my mom had pre-cooked. i was a little surprised to discover that everyone seemed to be unfamiliar with pininyahang adobo, but it provided some comfort to everyone, despite the fact that we were way off the projected IT. i said that despite my mom’s objections to my mountaineering, she’s prepared really good food for many of my trips.

the view at sunset from e-camp was not unlike seeing a classic battle of light and darkness. since we were facing halcon’s eastern side, the sun was setting behind us, and it threw a long shadow of the mountain onto the towns in the distance. half was still awash in daylight, while the other had already been covered by dusk. it seemed as though i was looking at the earth from the moon.

after dinner, i prepared the fruit salad, and we came upon a great realization: that although we were prepared for a 5th day (at the summit we found out that may 2nd had been declared a holiday), the absence of strange brews was enough incentive for us to push for paitan the following day, if possible. so i was asked to be up early, if possible 3am, and i said it was not a problem. i was, in fact, up a few minutes before 3am. it was difficult to sleep, since we were always sliding down to the bottom of the tent. at one point, i found my shoulders at the level of bing’s waist.

by the time christian went out of the tent he shared with jay, i had already accomplished half of the job. the hour i spent alone, preparing breakfast, boiling water, was not something i disliked. i didn’t mind it at all. since the 2nd day, i’d been thanking arnel for permitting me tag along, for taking me to halcon, but he, in his humility, would insist that i brought myself there. so since i would be early anyway, i reckoned i must at least put myself to good use in the kitchen. i was so profusely grateful for having been part of the adventure, i ran the risk of being overly patronizing, or at least, a kiss-ass pleading to be invited to the next mountain trek. then my reward for being up early revealed itself in the distance. the sunrise from the e-camp was quite a sight. the sky was a dark, brooding blue, with the rising sun opening like a fiery, orange, chinky eye. after everyone had breakfast, bing and i went about the gruesome task of camp keeping. bing is a sucker for neatness, and he takes his sweet time making sure the pots, pans and whatnots are clean, and the immediate surroundings are as they were when we found them. and he’d rather pack 1 kilo of rice than pack half a kilo of trash.

while the rest of us were packing still, arlene, dennis and arnel already started. their mission was to hit the trail, and just before we left, dennis emerged to announce that they’d found it. they’d been very clinical in their analysis of the hacks on the trees, figuring out if the person who made it was going up, or going down. we entered a mossy forest, and after a while heard the sound of a small waterfall. the trail turned a sudden left, and below it was a sudden drop. we had to walk on exposed, bent roots of trees, and for the most part, the trail was akin to this. it would disappear, and reappear. it would resemble a dead stream, then a seldom-used and abandoned trail, alternating in its size. anyone with a more generous girth or a more prodigious bag might find some places too constricting. there were gnarled trees all around, enveloped by thick mossy garments. very early into our fourth day, we already looked forward to the possibility of doing a night trek, and the remote possibility that the sweeper group might have to do a bivouac. but we find ways to amuse ourselves even in a situation that presents very very limited choices.

at about this time, during an extended rest period, i either impressed or irritated jay and christian with my fantastic and theatrical knowledge of the dialogues in “crouching tiger, hidden dragon.” of course, bossing was always at hand to provide us with the sound of his pink honker, his prolonged sighs (”haaaaay...”), his by then infamous song, inspired by my least favorite radio station (”kelangan pa bang i-memorize yan, ang buhay-AMCI talagang ganyan”), and his erotetic question, and its prefatory hogwash (”kookoorookookoo. ano ang tawag sa AMCIng umaakyat? eh di, sira!”). when you descend more than 1000masl in about 6 hours, you tend to do such crazy things, and bossing’s presence, which provided us unlimited hours of good cheer, was great to have around. that was a good group to be with. although bossing’s strides were bigger than ours, gifted as he was with much longer legs, our pace was great, and the company was superb. roland, whose salomon trailrunners had all but croaked, didn’t seem to mind that i trailed behind him with an uncomfortably close distance. now this is one guy who is biologically incapable of frowning. in stark contrast, jay has this dead-serious look about him, i was beginning to think he was going to stab me. his business partner and friend, christian, who i earlier described as a diminutive lex luthor with a goatee, was a guy who trekked without a shirt. i don’t really blame him though. the weather was great since it didn’t rain, but i was nearing spontaneous combustion. it really did feel like i was going to burst in flames, notwithstanding the fact that my shirt (which was now on a record 4 days) was drenched in sweat. each time we passed by a stream, i had this temptation to plunge and soak myself for a while. but we were pressed for time, reaching the mangyan village by around 2pm. we reckoned we still had 4 or 5 hours more of walking ahead of us.

we rested a while at the mangyan village, and i provided a brief, comedic distraction for everyone when i attempted to clamber on top of one of the posts planted on the ground. it obviously was a yet unfinished house. there were about 6 or 7 houses there in a small flat clearing wedged between the steep ridges of halcon’s southeastern side. paitan, or at least, plains marked by rivers and rice plantations, shimmered in the distance. it seemed near, and yet we knew that it was still far. when we proceeded, there was a brief pause when arlene debated with himself about which path would lead us to bignay river. he consulted people in manila. the previous day, similar consultations were made, and it’s fortunate that SMART’s network extends to even such remote, inaccessible places. in one corner, ernest appeared to be really serious, sleepy, and impatient. the situation hasn’t turned desperate or impossible just as yet, but you can tell which ones you shouldn’t mess with.

i can’t truly say that i myself wasn’t nearing failure. i had been tired and spent since day 1, and the conditions weren’t nearly ideal to prepare for challenges of escalating difficulty. but at a time like this, i am reminded of a line from a poem by eric gamalinda: “to kill a man”, he said, “one must subdue him by parts.” in a way, i divide halcon into its parts, seeing as it is nowhere possible to cross it in a single bound. and my goal, each time, is only to reach one destination at a time. without my noticing it, i am almost done, 3/4 of halcon’s parts already behind me.

then there we were at bignay river, one of the tributaries of dulangan river. the water was low, and one could’ve easily crossed by skipping from one rock to another. but it seemed more fun, if not folly, to cross the bridge of faith. anyone with half the mind to make it through the day would not have crossed it, but many of us did, and i even did it twice. only later did we find out that a local advised bing’s group to take the safer route: under it. at bignay, i rinsed my shirt in the water. i was beginning to smell like something i was not familiar with, something despicable and unpleasant. yeah, i stank. i stank so bad i wouldn’t want to sit beside myself.

after bignay, we readied our headlamps, and along the way, came into contact with some mangyans who were returning to the village. the men mostly didn’t wear shirts, while some still had loincloths. there was a young woman who had what appeared to be a piece of bark around her chest, tied together by a string, or perhaps a root. it wasn’t prudent to stare, so i only caught a brief glimpse. one of them said that they’d been collecting coffee beans (”nagpupulot kami ng kape”). once i asked if paitan was still far off, and one replied with a less than toothy grin. jay asked why their mouths were red, and i could’ve just said, they were chewing betel nut, but i bombarded him with a surplus of information he probably didn’t need. then, along the way, i said, it’s time. i had a call of nature to heed, but couldn’t find the space. there were hardly any open areas where i could possibly dig, so i just settled for some roots adjacent the trail. my companions were only a few feet ahead of me, and since i was trying to be polite, i took my orange motherbag and held it in front me. that was really uncomfortable, and it took me time to get it out since i felt like i had an audience waiting for me to finish, despite the fact that they were facing the other way. i’m pretty sure they caught a sniff of the ecological damage i made, but i guess this is one of the benefits of finding new friends. had i taken a minute longer, dennis would’ve caught up with us. thank heavens.

pushing forward, we came upon another tributary. i barely noticed the even more dangerous-looking bridge which was precariously hanging above us. it was most definitely made for smaller mangyans with their lighter loads. we pushed on, pausing only to fill our bottles. we were unsure if the water was safe to drink, but the choices seemed limited: either you risk getting an upset stomach or you risk getting dehydrated. camelbak has an answer: hydrate or die, and the choice became clear. then, darkness was beginning to descend upon us when we saw the first signs of civilzation. along the trail, cables suddenly appeared, and not far away, huge pipes. we’re almost there, i thought, and the metal pipes led to concrete-covered culverts. i was trying to figure out what the pipes were for, and my initial suspicion was that it could’ve been a water district. the answer became clear a little later when we found a facility which was humming with activity. “dulangan river mini-hydro power plant” a sign read. “paitan, naujan.” i could hardly believe my lucky stars. just a little after 6pm, 2 hours ahead of expectation, we were finally there. i picked up my pace, and when i found the lead pack resting in front of a store, i was greeted with good cheer, handshakes, and warm, congratulatory hugs.

i dumped my bag near the sidewalk, plopped down, and marveled at my great accomplishment. it has been a most enervating 4 days, and one of the first things you think about is getting a glass of soda down into your system. we washed at the dulangan river nearby, without soap or shampoo, just water to possibly rinse away the grime and soot that had made its way from mayabig till paitan. 3 and a half hours after our arrival, bing, dan, jo, tito boy, and a mangyan who took pity on a very tired-looking jo, were finally there, and our mission was ultimately complete. we loaded our things onto the jeep, and headed off to calapan. as fate would have it, we were not allowed a quick, graceful exit out of naujan, since we had still a few snags: dan’s bag falling off the roof, us waiting for the chief of a military station to authorize the release of our mang ariel's driver’s license (at this point, i dedicated a rendition of “totoy bibo” to anthony arnel gabilan), the jeep itself getting lost several times, and i, getting really stressed and worked up about any more bags falling off while i toploaded. eventually, we made the 1.30am RORO back to batangas city. it was obviously overloaded, but we didn’t mind. bing took out a groundsheet, and even as the ship’s engine hummed and shuddered, there were four of us who fell blissfully asleep under the wide open sky, to wake only 2 hours later at the port of batangas city. on the busride back home, ernest, who was a lot less impatient and irritable now, asked me to sit beside him, and as everyone else fell asleep, i had occasion to think more about the past four days. there was still a question left unanswered: “ano, uulit ka pa?” well, no. at least, not this year.