Thursday, September 8, 2016

Don't Sit like a Frog; Sit like a King

Day 1

After nearly nine hours on the trail, we finally arrive in Les-eng. One is tired and can’t wait to just lie down and recover some sleep lost to driving from Bulacan to Baguio. The other just wants to wash up maybe for lack of anything else to do. I, on the other hand, am just anxious that the only store in the village won’t open tonight.

Paul was the first to wash up using the stored water in the daycare center and Jepoi was busy unpacking. Meanwhile, I was asking Manong Elio for directions to our destination the following morning while securing pans and pots for the night’s meal. When Paul finished, I tried to connect the waterline to the daycare center from Manong Elio’s. As it turned out, the waterline had just been cut off from the main source. Talk about a stroke of fate’s folly! We went down to another house in the village and got only a trickle of the last drops left from the water source. We looked farther and I remembered there was a waterline from a different source just below the kagawad’s house. When we got to the spot, I noticed that the faucet had already been replaced by a hose leading to a pigsty. I knocked at the nearest house and exhausted what little Kankana-ey and Ilokano I had. I kept repeating the keywords danum (water), wada (there is), and agdigos (bathe). All I got in return was the word ‘Tagalog’ in a murmur of unintelligible words rendered in a tone of confusion and surrender. The last time I repeated ‘agdigos’, the old woman pressed a switch and the pigsty was lit up. We thanked her and we bade her goodbye. There was no use denying the current state of affairs – we have to wash up among the pigs. When Jepoi settled, I left him and prepared dinner. Paul was already sleeping.

Day 2

Curious kids joined us in the morning. Jepoi kept them at bay while I was preparing breakfast. He was showing them magic tricks. Paul was immersing himself in the grandeur of Les-eng. There was no need to rush. Even though the continuation of the route was going to be new to all of us, I knew, based on the endurance of my companions on Day 1, that we could manage the downhill trek to La Union. We left at ten. We had lunch in Sugpon, Ilocos Sur. Then at a little past two, we had our exhilarating Amburayan River crossing. The current was very strong. It was as if all the mountains of western Benguet had poured all their tears down to Ilocos Sur through the mighty Amburayan. I fastened myself onto the bamboo raft as manong skillfully negotiated with the raging water. After what seemed like a demo, Paul, who didn’t know how to swim, was the second to get onto the raft. I was nervous for him especially because manong had already told us that the color of the water was threatening a flashflood. But he survived the scariest 3 minutes of his life. When Jepoi got to the other side, we were all consumed in recounting the thrill we had just had.

the scariest three minutes of his life

It was an uphill trek again. Finally at 8pm, we got to the highway in Balaoan, La Union after more than an hour of precarious muddy motorcycle ride. Paul was convinced his driver deserved more than 300 pesos. He was prudent enough to ask me first. My driver was also dropping a hint that it should be 400 pesos. But I was quick to reestablish the agreed-upon price—the same amount that my friend paid one of our drivers the weekend before under the same circumstances—rainy, muddy and late. We caught the bus back to Baguio where Paul had left his van. It had been a great weekend!

The lessons we picked up

It was my eleventh birthday as Lagataw. In August, 2005 I had my first communion with nature in Mt Romelo in Siniloan, Laguna. Every year I celebrate my anniversary by spending some time away from home regardless of whether I have a companion or not. And just like any travel I do, I always pick up bits and pieces of lessons along the way.

The value of giving depends on what is given

And while Jepoi showed some learning in how he found something to give the kids other than candy and coins which introduce an innocent child to the concepts of greed and begging, Paul and I can pick up some important lessons from the search for water during the first night and our dealing with the habal-habal drivers during the second.

A tip for tips

As travelers, it breaks our hearts to see the ordeal the locals go through doing what they do on an ordinary day—things we normally can’t and aren’t willing to do ourselves. This necessitates us to give a tip. But we’re forgetting that our willingness and ability are not the standards which set the price. This practice of paying more than the value someone deems right for the work he does is the birth of the ‘standard price for tourists’. And eventually this results in other travelers asking ‘Why is the cost higher than that of the locals?’ We actually sometimes contribute to the creation of something we complain about. Goodwill is good but tipping is another story.

Travel beyond tourism

I’ve always enjoyed traveling like a salmon. I love to go against the mainstream. But this recent travel slapped me with the realization that it’s been eleven years and I still travel like any other tourist after all.

When there’s a glitch in the envisioned trip, a typical tourist tends to blame everything on the system of the place he has come to. When we were becoming frustrated looking for water in Les-eng, my impatience led me to a string of vain poetry ‘This is the paradox here Jepoi! For a place where springs and streams abound, it is almost impossible to find water.’ It led me to the selfish thought of how the villagers were too indolent not to be doing anything about the problem. ‘No wonder there is no progress in this place!’ I quipped. Our own selfish affinity for comfort and convenience makes us forget that it was not a problem as far as the villagers were concerned. We forget that none of them would feel the need to wash up at nine in the evening at any time of the year. And in the first place, none of them might feel the need to be awake at that time of night. We forget that we are the problem that has arrived in the village; that we are the intruders that stirred the dogs and the babies into a confused chorus of distress and panic. Our romanticized notion of traveling makes us assume that it is right and proper for the old woman to rouse herself up to open her door and attend to the weary filthy travelers because that’s what the oft-repeated dogma of hospitality has inculcated in us. Our vanity and self-importance have made us believe that we are the guests that need to be accommodated and that the villagers were not responsible enough to learn Tagalog. For us we are not a disturbance; we are a spectacle to behold. And this shame dawned on me as I woke up the following morning to once again see how an ordinarily uneventful day would transpire in Les-eng. It was difficult to forgive myself.

Don't keep the kids at bay! Come to terms with the fact that curiosity is natural to kids.
But that’s just the way it is. We focus too much on things that are easily seen. We are fanatics of the LNT principles and the BMC. But we forget to look into the very element that constitutes our persona—our perspective! And while our perspective is not readily observable, it dictates the way we behave in the place we’ve come to. It determines to what degree we’d demand for beer in a place where the nearest store is 4 kilometers and 3 hills away. And it decides whether we’ll take a plain question like ‘What brings you here?’ as an ordinary inquiry or an accusation.

Sadly, the Department of Tourism appears to be taking the perspective of the tourists. They accredit guides who are fluent in English and Tagalog and keep the more able and adept locals from guiding visitors. They prefer homestays with raised toilets. And they allot funds to replace wild trails with the more civilized footpaths and banisters because tourists can’t walk on a slippery terrain. They need to be conveyed safely and comfortably to their desired selfie spot.

And so with the influx of visitors who try to impose their culture on their hosts, some indigenous practices are slowly disappearing. Precious cultural entities like the day-un have been labeled as pagan. The locals have become frogs and the intruders, kings.

So are you traveling to really be in a different place? Or are you traveling to look for your origin in your destination?  As for me, in Benguet, I choose to be in Benguet.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happiness is real when it is ORGANIC

Some people profess ‘I climb because I love the mountains’ or ‘I climb because I wanna achieve peace of mind’. But it appears these are all empty clauses that they have gathered from the many hours they have spent loitering on Facebook pages and groups.

I find it amusing how some new climbers leave the city with the pretext of seeking solace in the heart of Mother Nature when in truth, they can’t live a single second without their city life. They head for the mountains with thoughts still stuck on their city friends—their IG and FB audience. So, a quarter of their backpack is occupied by a camera, a smart phone, a portable speaker, a charger, a monopod, a power bank (things that their parents can’t even name) and a whole lot of props for their ATM posts—a make-up kit, a bottle of wine or probably a Spiderman costume.

These are things that make their climb fun. These are fertilizers for their happiness.

And this leaves me wondering ‘Why do some people need to outsource happiness?’ Why can’t some people be happy without a bottle of Red Horse that they even have to order their local guide in Mt Tenglawan to go down and buy another case of beer when they run out of booze at 2 am at the camp site? Why can’t some people relax when they can’t smoke a cigarette? And others have to have marijuana to attain good vibrations. Why do some people need a loud laugh to warrant that the joke was hilarious? Why do some people need a joke to be happy? Why can’t some people stop looking for electrical outlets every time they reach a house or a store in the mountains? Why can’t some people stop looking for signal every time they hit a take-five spot? Why do some people leave in order to stay connected with the people and things they’ve left?

It is true telecommunications have made us all stay connected…whenever, wherever. But we’ve failed to notice that as we try to reconnect with the people and places that we have left, we lose our connection with the place we have come to and the people we are actually with.              

Why can’t we just be indigenously happy?

Stop looking for happiness elsewhere. You can find it within you and around you.
Let’s learn to hear the music of the rustling leaves, the whispering breeze and the chirping birds.
Let’s get intoxicated by the cool sweet taste of natural spring water.
Let’s marvel at the panorama of the landscape right in front of us and post it in our memory.
Let’s enjoy the quaint little conversations with the locals whose stories remain frozen in time.
Let’s learn to enjoy a story without pictures for attention.
Let’s savor the peace and quiet of being alone.

I guess I’d have to disagree with another empty clause adopted by many outdoor enthusiasts. How could happiness be real only when it is shared? Does that mean you can’t be happy alone?
I think happiness is real when you don’t need anything that is not present. It is real when it is derived from you alone and the place you’re in. Only when you’ve achieved indigenous and organic happiness can you truly share that happiness. The people around you will feel that you, in fact, are happy. And this happiness becomes contagious.  Happiness should be real first before it can be shared.

And happiness only becomes real when it is organic.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Waking up in this room during my four-month assignment in Batangas always heralded a good day.

One question I find hard to answer these days is ‘Where are you?’ Y’see, I change locations almost every week.  When I’m in Benguet, I could be in La Trinidad, Kapangan, Kibungan or Buguias. When I get tired of the mountains, I take a little respite at my brother’s apartment in Laguna, or my sister’s in Cebu or back home in Leyte. My previous job as roving supervisor still sometimes makes me feel like I'm in Angeles, Baguio or Batangas. Some of my friends have learned to put the word ‘now’ at the end of the question. And it makes me feel amused at how ‘unnormal’ I have become.

There have been many mornings when I’d wake up to the sight of a familiar cabinet or the sun rays piercing through the curtains of the window. And the sight signals a certain routine for the day. I’d look for the stairs and expect Tatay Sabido to be preparing breakfast only to realize there is no flight of stairs. Then I’d guess again, maybe I’m in Daddy Marzan’s house in La Trinidad. Then I’d hear a dog sniffing through the gap below the door. Only then would I realize I am in Laguna. It takes a few minutes for me to gain full consciousness of my location after waking up.

It makes me sad a bit when the realization sinks in—the realization that today, I won't be slacklining in Canyon Woods, or that I won’t be spending time with Frenzel—the perky little boy who would jump over me in bed asking for my smartphone for games or for my laptop for movies while Daddy Marzan prepares breakfast.

But I think this is a preview of the belief I adhere to—Pantheism—in which I am everywhere at any time. I have defied the limits of time and space.  I have contained and retained in my consciousness the presence and the ‘presentness’ of the people I love and the places I’ve been to. I always feel like I’d be with them any time I want to. And this turns my nostalgia into a happy deep thought. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

LAGATAW Epiphany Treks

Trekking changed my life a lot. I have already mentioned in my earlier post how I found God in the mountains. And recently, I made a strong finish in the Kibungan Mountain Marathon.

But apart from the physical and spiritual strength that I gained from my ninety-day trek around Benguet, I’ve had the most remarkable growth and realizations in life.

My friends always wonder how I have been able to get by being unemployed for almost a year now. But traveling alone and traveling beyond tourism, I have learned the craft of gaining the trust and friendship of the locals. I change locations almost every week but it is never a problem for me to find free food and lodgings in any town in Benguet. In exchange, I give whatever service I can render. I was on my 65th day, in Buguias, when I had this liberating realization that I was already living the life that the leftists have been wanting to achieve—a life free from politics and commerce. Only, I achieved it without taking up arms against the government.

Living with the locals, as in doing what they do and eating what they have on their tables, has given me another perspective on life. I was amazed by what my two hands are capable of doing and creating. And in the simplicity of their living, I found how it is possible to live a good life—not necessarily happy but definitely free of the unnecessary worries and follies of the urban society.

I have already shared some of my routes to a chosen few. And one of my invitees told me a very inspiring story of how the trek changed his outlook on life. When he saw the long arduous process that rice has to undergo from the paddies to the locals’ plates and when he found out that the kids have to traverse many peaks for at least two hours just to get to school, he realized that he was still fortunate after all. Y’see his son, in addition to his recurrent seizures, has trouble retaining new memories and newly learned skills. But his experience during the trek made him realize that he has a lot of other things to be thankful for. It’s not that he thinks the locals have bigger problems than he and his wife do. It’s just that, the locals have shown him how it is possible to refute the reality of problems or hardships. Problems in the city such as tedious manual work, power outage, and walking far and long are the way of life in the little hamlets we passed by. And the locals manage to live this life with a smile and an extra plateful of rice for the weary traveler.

So before I start farming in Leyte in mid-2016, I would like a few qualified individuals to have a taste of this epiphany. I have designed itineraries for three trekking routes (in Benguet) that are less physically demanding than the Lagataw Invitational Treks but are just as beautiful and eye-opening. They are a good way to start your new year right.

1. Sitio Paraiso Trek    
    (2 days 1 night; January 23-24)
        Physical demand: Comparable to Pico de Loro / Batulao / Maculot
        Aesthetic factor: 4 stars (If Mt Pulag without the crowd is 5 stars)
        Epiphany factor: 6 stars

2. Camp Utopia + Sitio Paraiso Trek
     (2 days 1 night; January 30-31)
        Physical demand: Comparable to Arayat traverse (2x) / Ambangeg-Akiki (Pulag) traverse
        Aesthetic factor: 5 stars
        Epiphany factor: 5 stars

3. Tacadang Trek
    (3 days 2 nights; February 6-8)
        Physical demand: Comparable to Tawangan-Akiki (Pulag) traverse / Batad – Barlig (Amuyao)  traverse
        Aesthetic factor: 8 stars
        Epiphany factor: 6 stars

General specifications for the trek are patterned after some of the general principles of ecotourism:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in the host community


NO Smartphones / Internet during the trek (we leave your comms at the municipal hall)
NO music (focus on the music of nature)
NO tents (we stay at local houses, where you get much of your epiphany)
NO Liquor (we drink local tapey or basi if you want to and if there’s some available)
You may bring a camera but I highly discourage this. It is better to focus on your experience with the place and the locals than to busy yourself looking for some vistas to capture on your camera. This way you can go home with a beautiful story that can paint a beautiful picture for the listener.
And when you do take pictures, make it as clandestine as possible when locals are around. We are not going there to remind the locals about what they don’t have. We are going there to find out what we’ve been missing in our busy lives.
A maximum of SEVEN (7) guests can be accommodated in each of the treks
Online screening with respect to your physical capability and your attitude will be done
More details will be posted on my Facebook page.

You don't need to be a 'mountaineer' to be a part of any of these treks. In fact, I prefer non-mountaineers. You just have to have positive attitude and a burning passion for new experiences. 

If you’re looking for beautiful pictures of the destinations in this post, you are not ready for an epiphany. Go find a Mt Pulag trek on Facebook!

Monday, November 16, 2015

KIBUNGAN MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2015: The Chronicles of a Warrior

THE race of the year for me
The 2015 Kibungan Mountain Marathon has been my only trail race this year and it was totally worth the wait! I am not an avid racer: I pick the races I join. You won’t see me in road races and in trail races which are primarily flats with a twist of sunbathing or sand swimming. So I was heartbroken when I missed the KOTM this year due to geographic constraints. Thankfully The Kibungan Mountain Marathon was put off to a perfect time!
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