|taken on our way to Lusod|
A journey in Benguet is always worth a story. I’ve travelled the place far and wide but it’s a different feeling when you’re travelling alone with a local family. And the Ballagans are one of those families who know the trails of Mt Pulag National Park like the back of their hands.
It started after the TNF100 race in Camp John Hay with me and Josiah planning to do a day hike using the Akiki-Tawangan route. He said yes but Santiago, his father, insisted in joining us. Santiago suggested that we take the Ambangeg-Tawangan route if the objective was a trailrunning training.
|at Camp 1|
So last Friday (May 11th) after work, I headed for the old slaughter house terminal. I was lucky to catch the last trip to Kabayan. The van left at exactly 6pm and after two and a half hours I got off at Ambangeg Junction. That’s the way I call DENR now. Josiah was already waiting for me and his father had gone ahead to his brother’s house in Palansa. It was a bumpy 20-minute habal-habal ride from Ambangeg Junction to Palansa. When we arrived, Santiago had already prepared sautéed broccoli with sayote shoots. In the short talk I had with Santiago and his brother over dinner, I found out that I was immersing myself in a family of runners. In his youth, their eldest brother was once a record holder for long distance runs in the Cordilleras. The two of them also competed in the CARAA. After the talk, we decided to take a rest. The night was not very quiet as I still had a cough and Josiah had runny nose.
|0400hrs @ Palansa|
At 4 am we woke up and after a drink of coffee, we left. Butchoy, Josiah’s cousin tagged along. He wanted to visit his lolong in Lebeng. It was a cold early morning. The air was thin and the road was still covered with puddle and mud. Soon, we reached the Ranger Station and in one of the houses there, we had breakfast. The Kalanguya tribe members treat themselves as one big family. So whenever Santiago comes across a Kalanguya brother, he could take shelter and raid the kitchen. He has friends all around Mt Pulag. Even the park ranger is his friend. I was not charged any fees and it felt good feeling like one of them—Igorot. It was my seventh time in Mt Pulag and my sixth was just two weekends before that trek. I needed no orientation and I was in the company of someone who grew up exploring the trails of Mt Pulag.
|the trail to the left leads to Mt Pulag summit; the trail to the right leads to Lusod|
When we reached the Ambangeg-Lusod junction, we headed down to Lusod instead of going for the summit. There comes a time in a climber’s life, when the summit becomes an optional part of the journey. He searches for something more meaningful than testing his limits and seeing the world from the top. And that journey through the unnamed and unknown corners of the Mt Pulag National Park was more than what I would trade for six summitings in Mt Pulag.
|the first time I saw a wild boar close at hand|
It was a descent from 2705 masl to 1327 masl. On our way to Lusod, I saw a 12-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy with a captured wild boar. On this side of Mt Pulag, its denizens know the land very well. Everyone knows how to find food. And nature nurtures them with everything clean and tame. Water is fresh and not chlorinated, animals are easy to catch and plants are organic. At 10:30, after 27km from Palansa, we reached Lusod. With a tinge of nostalgia, Santiago pointed at the elementary school he attended in Lusod. And in the home of one of his grade school friends we had sayote shoots and potatoes for lunch.
|a native house in Lusod|
Lusod is one of those places that I just want to linger in for more than a day. But we left anyway at 12:30 with full stomachs. Then we climbed 700m up to Sitio Lebeng where Santiago’s father lives. It was on this uphill trek where Santiago started to tire. He was constantly telling me of the shortcuts he used to take on his way home to Lebeng from his elementary school in Lusod. We never found those shortcuts. They’ve been covered by vegetation.
|three generations of the Ballagans|
At 2:20 we reached Lebeng. Josiah, who arrived an hour earlier, was smiling sitting next to his grandpa. Sitio Lebeng, just like any other sitio in Benguet, is a peaceful little community where everything is in harmony. There were only four houses there and all belong to the Ballagan clan. The people there are closely connected to the Earth. They walk, sit and roll on the same ground they get their food from--the same ground their farm animals graze.
|they are closely connected to the Earth|
|feeding the farm animals|
We had pinikpikan and boiled beans for dinner. They had slaughtered a chicken because they had a guest. I’m getting better at eating the local foods of Benguet. The first one I fell in love with was sayote shoots, then I finally learned to eat kiniing (smoked meat). The last I learned to love was pinikpikan. When I first ate pinikpikan, I had a lot of leftovers. I couldn’t eat the slimy parts. But now, I got my plate squeaky clean. Dinner is more fun when shared by a lot of people.
|Dinner's more fun when shared with everyone|
|pinikpikan and beans|
The solar-powered light bulb was not so bright but we could use a little help from the bottle full of fireflies. After dinner, Santiago went on to drink tapey (rice wine) with his friend while me and Josiah went to sleep during that cold rainy night!
|drinking tapey while cooking dinner|
We woke up at three and I had to download something from my full stomach. I perched on a row of slabs over an open pit and did my thing. By the time I was done, Josiah had already heated up the leftover pinikpikan and prepared lemongrass tea. Josiah roused his father and we had our quick breakfast while everyone else was still sound asleep. We left at 4 am. It was a smooth jog on the rolling hills around Lebeng. Half-way to Tawangan, Santiago took a habal-habal. He would ride this all the way to his home in Ballay. Me and Josiah, meanwhile, wanted to complete a 50km journey so we kept jogging.
|the sunrise beyond Ifugao|
At 6am we reached Tawangan. Josiah pointed at the high school where he spent his freshman and sophomore years. Everyone was awake at that early time of day. As we walked through the intricate trails of Tawangan, he gave me a little lesson on the geography of the village. I don’t know if he really wanted to tell me or he was just reminiscing aloud when he kept telling where who and who lived. Josiah said he would run up and down the hills between his home in Ballay and his school in Tawangan back in the day.
At 7am we were doing an uphill trek and the sun was already starting to wear me down and I was already dragging my feet. I entertained the thought of riding a habal-habal in case one passed by but Josiah kept encouraging me to hang on. So I walked on and before I knew it, I was already at the waiting shed at the foot of Mt Al-al. I was energized and started running again because I knew we were near Ballay.
|into Lake Ambulalacao|
On our way, we paid a short visit to Lake Ambulalacao which was once dubbed as the cleanest inland body of water in the country. We maintained our pace and we reached Lake Tabeo. The place had changed a lot! All houses are made of concrete now and the road to Ballay is already 80% paved. Finally, at 9:10 we reached the bus station in Ballay. Santiago was waiting for us there. The last bus trip to Baguio was already waiting for passengers. It was going to leave at 10:00 so I chose the van which left earlier.
On my way back home to Baguio, I was filled with a different sense of happiness. I had just finished a 48.1km trek. It fell short of our 50km goal but it was already enough to make me want to give up. But apart from the knowledge that I have just finished the longest journey in my life, I knew I was taking with me a lovely story waiting to be told. It’s not a story about pushing limits and getting to the summit. This is a story about a journey that opened my eyes to see more what's below than what's up there. It is a story about living. It is a story of a journey through the life of an Igorot.
|till the next trail run|