Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Weekend with Asao Shimura

his first time to guide someone in the rain

After a two-hour ride from La Trinidad I finally arrive in Sitio Poking. It is a little hamlet of around a hundred houses that seem to be racing upwards on the slopes of a ridge that overlooks the sprawling undulating terrain of rice paddies liberally sprinkled with bamboo groves and clusters of subtropical trees. In one of these houses lives the family of Asao Shimura, a paper artist from Japan who decided to trade the convenience and exuberance of Tokyo with the humdrum and isolation of Kapangan.

The rain has not let up and Shimura-san, under the generous canopy of his blue umbrella, is already down the steps leading to his house. Stashed around his waist is a machete, the length of its scabbard handsomely agreeing with his lanky figure. His yellow shirt doesn’t attempt to hide his droopy shoulders but his loose denim pants working their way into his puddled boots somehow add an air of sturdiness to his precarious almost flimsy stance. He is in his full battle gear for our trek today!

‘Are you sure you want to sleep at Perico’s house?’ I have already read from one of Shimura-san’s miniature books about Perico’s cabin (that he loves to call CafĂ© Perico). ‘Actually any place where I could hang my hammock.’ And with a mocking smile he asks ‘In the rain?’ We head to the small local store across the road to get a bottle of gin and half a kilo of sugar. Concealed behind the assortment of saltines, candy, school supplies and a placard that reminds debtors to ‘settle their account,’ I can make out a middle-aged woman in a lively exchange of greetings with Shimura-san, with some giggles in between. She makes a call and tells us that Perico is nowhere to be found. I volunteer to carry the groceries as Shimura-san keeps fumbling with his phone, not to update his Facebook but to keep track of the time. This trait of measuring the day in terms of minutes still betrays his being Japanese in spite of the more than 20 years he has spent blending in with the Ibalois. Once in a while, his glance will move from the screen of his phone to my gear. With a tinge of condescension his eyes peer through the gap between his thick glasses and his forehead, vividly flashing an image of Dumbledore in the back country of Barangay Labueg. ‘You should wear bota!’ he quips ‘I wear these shoes when I run trails’ I reassure him. After one last look at his phone we head down the trailhead to Perico’s house.

The foliage shading the rolling trail affords a pleasant trek on an ordinary day. But in the rain, the trail could get really tricky….well, at least for me. As for Shimura-san, he charges ahead with no sense of precaution whatsoever on the slippery trail occasionally pockmarked by the hoof steps of cattle. And all the trekking tips and lessons on applied mechanics, traction and contact surface are summarized into a pair of bota!

I trudge behind him, making sure that my shoes steer clear of the little stream that has formed in the downpour, one hand negotiating with a tote bag slung onto the handle of my umbrella and the other keeping my camera safe from the rain. Eventually I surrender to the gully. There is an interesting sense of safety and adventure behind the filth of shoes drenched in mud.

‘Libo-o! Libo-o!’ He stops to take pictures of clouds dominating the horizon, as it were, fluffs of a downy pillow that has burst, and captured in slow motion, splendidly providing a hazy backdrop for the green meadows and rice fields. I am starting to get an idea of the untranslatable Japanese words ‘natsukashii’ and ‘wabi-sabi’.

We stop at a shack as the rain gets heavier. In Benguet, it is common to find houses empty in the morning as the farming locals are in their office-the fields, making their village seem like a ghost town whose stillness is disturbed only by the whistling of the mountain breeze and the occasional appearance of wide-eyed kids whose solemn gazes will follow your movement in an almost perfectly mechanical fashion. In their office they have a kampo where they can rest and have their lunch. Late in the afternoon they leave their workplace and the kampo gets empty. Shimura-san undoes the thread tied around a nail. He is a friend of the owner. Inside the shack we find a soiled spoon and plate among the clutter of sacks and farming equipment. Snugly thrust between the furnace and a makeshift window is a makeshift bed enough to sleep someone in a curled larva position or with legs dangling off the edge. 

Outside, there is a spout but the water flowing out of it has turned brownish due to the rain. The chickens are agitated. Somehow, they have come to associate the arrival of humans with food, or maybe with getting slaughtered and served as pinikpikan to guests. Overall it is a cozy little shack that has basic provisions for survival and a modest amount of sunlight to give you a pleasant wakeup call through the window. ‘I guess this will do for tonight.’ With a tone that hints a mixture of the relief that he can leave for home soon and the honest concern that I may not survive the night without someone’s assistance, he asks ‘Are you sure?’ He is not convinced by my affirmative answer. As the sky gets clearer he invites me to go to one of the houses about 200 meters away from the kampo to know Perico’s whereabouts. They too are clueless but after a couple of minutes of self-introduction we see Perico headed our way. He has been drinking.

We go down a few hundred meters further and we arrive at Perico’s house. It is a typical tin cabin secluded from all the rest amidst different trees including avocado, guyabano, coffee, and some bamboo. The reason for the pouch around his waist is revealed when he appeases the rowdy welcome of his chickens.

Cafe Perico

As soon as we get inside, Perico is already at the furnace preparing coffee. In Benguet, people are differentiated by three major dialects—Kankanaey, Ibaloi, and Kalanguya. The highlanders grow potatoes, carrots, broccoli and other highland vegetables while the warmer lowlands produce rice. But if there was one thing that all households in Benguet have in common, that would have to be coffee. Unlike pinikpikan which is only served on special occasions or when guests visit, Benguet arabica and robusta can almost always be found in the kitchen. As soon as Shimura-san finishes his cup, he bids us goodbye, feeling both relieved that I will be taken care of tonight and worried that the dark might catch him on the way.

The charm of the rustic life in benguet

The trickles coming down the tin roof as if they were fairies dancing to the the late afternoon chorus of cicadas and the nimble chirping of chicks, and the soot on the surface of half of the inside of the cabin that accentuates the haze of dusk give you this unblemished charm of the rustic life in Benguet.

Perico is delighted to have a Tagalog as a guest. He catches one of his chickens. ‘Kumakain ka ba ng pinikpikan?’ That’s normally their invitation to a meal—a question, as opposed to the prompt cupful when offering coffee. And ‘Pasensya ka na, ganito lang kami maglutong mga Igorot’ is a common part of the social graces before meals.

Perico preparing pinikpikan

After the sumptuous dinner, Perico tidies up the cot for me and he lays down layers of blankets and sacks on the floor. It is no use refusing Igorot hospitality; they are persistent in pleasing their guests. We share the gin over some local lore, jokes and Duterte politics. But the gin doesn’t taste good tonight so I leave it to Perico to finish. His repetitive sequence of the same questions and chuckles lulls me to sleep. Tomorrow we go to Kamboloan!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tracing Iraynon-Bukidnon Trails (TIBT) Race Report

Rewind 2008, Kevin Jauod was just an avid reader of my blog lagataw.com. I met him when he joined me in a trek on Mt Arayat. Then during the Salomon X-trail 2011, I introduced him to my friend Koi Grey who organized him and his friends into Team Mountain Stride!

March, 2017, two months before the event day, the race director Kevin Jauod summoned all his courage to launch the first mountain race in Antique—Tracing Iraynon-Bukidnon Trails (TIBT). It was too late, in my opinion. I was thinking ‘lalangawin lang ang event mo Tito Kev!’ It was obviously a tremendous resolve for the race director.

I had my share of tough decisions to make. I was pondering whether to quit my job and relocate to Visayas again or stay and see my projects in Benguet prosper. Monday (May 22nd) I booked my ticket to Caticlan and an exit ticket to Cebu. I had finally decided to leave Benguet which had become my second hometown.

May 26th Koi and Kevin picked me up at the terminal in San Jose, Antique. It was a reunion of sorts. Y’see our unorthodox ways of living make it difficult for us to be in one place at the same time. And now we were all going to be part of the first ever mountain race in the whole province of Antique, home to three of the toughest mountains in the country—Kevin had requested that I take charge of the race briefing. In the evening when we got to the race venue, I was surprised by the preparation that the local community had done. The stage was elaborately designed; the local dancers were doing their final rehearsals; the program included a list of names of notable government officials and organizations. What I had previously considered as another ordinary low-profile race was going to be a big event in the province of Antique. I was utterly impressed by the effort and involvement of the local officials particularly the Punong Barangay of Barrio Maria in Laua-an, Mr Dongdong Alonsagay. He treated TIBT as his own. He put a lot of heart into it. And this dedication was evidently contagious among his constituents.

May 27th (Day 0) 0400 hours, I reconnoitered the whole 21-km route covering the towns of Laua-an and Bugasong together with the very dedicated course setter Jonathan Sulit and another volunteer. Jonathan remained at Aid Station 2 to conduct a final meeting with the marshals and local volunteers. I returned to the start line 2 hours before the race briefing—all panicky and pissed. Taking the perspective of a novice, I decided that the course was too tough. I strongly recommended the omission of the vertical ascent section but Koi opposed it pointing out the traffic that would result from an out-and-back route. Tito Val, who had been in Antique for two months to support Tito Kevin in his first big project, quickly took the role of an umpire saying ‘Madali lang yan Tito Adonis! Tatabasin namin mamaya yang mga talahib na yan at tatadtarin namin ng trail markings yung sinasabi mong nakakaligaw na part!’ The pabebe perspective had made me forget that I was with the Titos, who are made of heart, passion and grit. My mind and body cooled down after a quick shower. We had decided to keep the original course.  It was time for my very first race briefing.    
May 28th (Race Day) 0400 hours. It was my 36th sleepless hour (probably 48th for Kevin and his girlfriend Kara). The 21km runners left the start line at 0430hrs, the 11km runners at 0500hrs. While Kara and Kevin felt a bit relieved when all the runners had left the start line, this day proved to be very stressful for me and Tito Ed who were left at the registration table. I could see the very tired Kap Dodong carelessly sprawling on the couch in the barangay hall. Hans, the very energetic master of ceremonies during the pre-race activities went off to document the event on the field. Tito Val and Tito Jonathan were on the aid stations with most of the volunteer marshals from the Organization of Simsiman Mountaineers most of whom came from Iloilo. Tito Reyn and Tito Koi were running the 21km distance. Tito Ed and I had no choice but to take charge of the finish line activities. Tito Ed took care of the timing system which Tito Reyn (of Grit Multisport) prepared while I was on the radio with the MDRRMC of Laua-an monitoring the runners for the two distances.  Tito Ed and I both handle people in our respective professions so we were not very open to each other’s opinion and suggestions. It was not very easy for the two of us to collaborate in an emergency assignment. But we found a way to pull it off in the name of the achievement and success another tito.

As one runner crossed the finish line after another, I was overwhelmed by the positive remarks I would get from them. I was expecting they’d comment about the heat and the toughness of the course but all I got were ‘nami’ and ‘namit’. It turned, out none of the fifty-six runners were pabebe. Except for three racers who decided to opt out of the race due to physical discomfort, all of them crossed the finish line within the set cut-off time.  And much to our satisfaction, no one strayed off course. The podium finishers were shockers. A 54- year-old local farmer crossed the finish line in his boxer shorts just 4 minutes behind the champion of the 11km category (who was the champion of the Salomon X-trail 32km race in 2016). The champion of the 21-km category crossed the finish line ahead of the 3rd finisher for the 11km category! He was also the champion of the Salomon Xtrail 24km distance. Koi settled for 3rd in the 21km distance. Among the six female podium finishers, four were first timers on the trail. Two of them (from the Boracay dragonboat rowing team) were just persuaded to register on site. I cannot not mention one notable runner who refused to receive the finisher’s medal. He maintained that he was able to finish a tough vertical race this year but the 11km course of the TIBT proved tougher for him. He resolved to come back for the second edition and rightfully earn the medal. When the last runner crossed the finish line Kevin, Kara and I gave each other a tight hug, signaling that it was the end of all the stress!
Looking back, TIBT was an overwhelming success in spite of it being a perfect candidate for a disaster. Kevin isn’t your ideal race director. He hates the microphone and he sucks at organizing. However, apart from his efforts to knock on doors of the many benevolent sponsors on very short notice,  Kevin exceled at surrounding himself with the most dynamic and proactive of people. Whatever incompetence he has at organization is buffered by Kara’s OCD. While there was so much lack of preparation, Kap Dongdong and Hans came to the rescue.  And thanks to the exemplary efforts of the MDRRMC (Laua-an) and the different mountaineering groups that comprise the Organization of Simsiman Mountaineers, and the unwavering support of the Titos, the runners were kept safe and all went home with a painfully sweet experience and a strong resolve to come back for another TIBT!

The overall satisfaction of the guests and participants was enough to compensate for the sacrifices, the exhaustion and the financial loss that the local officials and the rest of the organizers and volunteers had made.

The success of the TIBT can serve as an inspiration to everyone that despite all the odds, you can still succeed if you just put your heart, passion and grit to whatever you want to achieve!

We all deserved to celebrate the success of the event on the remote and very beautiful Seco Island.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Life's a Decision

exactly 2 years ago
Exactly two years ago, I started my ultimate journey. I had just finished working at a construction site in La Trinidad and I had just secured a letter of introduction from the office of the governor. And here's what I had to write on my journal*.

I leave La Trinidad for Tublay today. I feel apprehensive and hesitant. Perhaps because LT has become my comfort zone. I feel secure, comfortable, and certain here. But perhaps I'm just feeling the way everybody else would. Only, I'm more open to changes. I don't resist change as much as ordinary people do. This is nothing new to me. I've felt this when I decided to quit my job in 2011 to try farming in my hometown (but my boss called me up again after a few weeks and gave me an irresistible offer so...). It was repeated when I quit the same job in 2014 to try the BPO industry; and once again when I left that industry after 3 months to embark on this journey. 
My pack and everything in it when I embarked on this journey

I guess what makes it easy for me to make big decisions is my belief that whatever life path we take, we will all just survive somehow. It's human nature--survival instinct. The reluctance to change is just a phase. So even though I feel apprehensive about what's waiting for me in a place I only know by name, even though I think it so irrational to leave a place that has become my comfort zone, I'm leaving anyway!
It's been ten days since I came to Benguet. Working at the construction site and Bagsakan and spending three nights on Mt Timbak surely taught me a lot of priceless lessons. Kuya Salvador's** work has inspired me and convinced me that a man just has to wait and take his time and eventually realize what potentials nature has provided him with. We just have to focus on the opportunities it presents and stop fixating on its limits.
At the construction site, I learned how to appreciate and admire the work and capabilities of construction workers. Our modern jobs do make this world a different place. Yes that's the term--different--not necessarily better. The notion of a better place is just a product of impatience and lack of appreciation of what's at present. We forget the the present is a present (a gift) and our ego has taught us to aspire after something bigger and we motivate ourselves with the words innovation and progress to which we have arbitrarily ascribed positive connotations, when in fact everything is relative.

working at the construction site, I had to carry rocks up this narrow sloping alley
Construction workers build houses. I think a shelter is a better output than figuring our how the 'like' button can increase visitor engagement. 
At one instance, I also saw some preachers with their little boys and girls going from house to house trying to share the word of God in an effort to save as many souls as they can. But I think carrying rocks every day and working with the earth trying to save lives by providing as many men as they could with shelter is no less noble.
Man has made this world so complicated that what's essential has already gotten relegated.
It was a good feeling to have been able to appreciate some work by actually taking part in it. And it was  a splendid feeling when ninety days and 350 kilometers after that day full of anxety and apprehension, I had been able to accomplish by far my greatest and most successful mission as Lagataw.

*This little yellow book was going to be the blueprint of my first book. But up to this day, I have not started writing it.
**Kuya Salvador is the owner of one the highest homes in the country. It is located in a very hostile environment--no running water (they rely on rainwater), very rocky ground. In spite of all these impediments, the locals have found a way to turn that hostile land into a productive vegetable garden. Just last year, his humble home which swayed in the strong monsoon has already become a mansion of sorts.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Kapangan-Kibungan-Bakun Traverse (KKB) 2

On the dewy fields are the chickens, trying to catch the unlucky early worms. Down the fields is the mist mimicking an ocean foam brewing from the chasm that splits the Tacadang plateau and concealing the four waterfalls lining the walls of the ravine. Above the mist are the rice terraces partially silhouetted against the rising sun beyond the mountains.

This was how Day 2 of our 65-km traverse from Kapangan to Bakun started. And it was heartbreaking for Noi to have to leave this place too soon. He was the only Tacadang virgin among the six of us. Yet we had to move on. Mt Kabunian in Bakun was still a long way to go. The plan was to catch the sunset at the summit.

As we approached the border between Bakun and Kibungan more and more breath-taking views tried to stall us. At this point, only Ronald and I had previously seen the scenery. Fortunately the other three--Jepoi, Aljun and Erwin--had already been indoctrinated into my for-your-eyes-only travel principle. They couldn't agree more that it was futile to try to capture the grandeur of the scenery on a jpeg image. Some of them would sometimes just stop and and shed a teardrop gazing at the awesomeness of the panorama. I always tell my companions to quit trying to freeze the moment on a photograph. You lose the connection to the place and the intimacy of the experience. What a waste! We often forget that we go to places for ourselves--for our own experience and growth.

But many have hopped on the bandwagon, pointlessly extending the experience to others by hoarding pictures to share on Facebook. It is not bad to take pictures as long as you make sure that you have truly experienced the authenticity of the moment. And so Day 2 started with a glorious sunrise in Kibungan and ended with the same sun setting beyond the very rare sea of clouds in Bakun.

Sea of clouds as seen from the summit of Mt Kabunian
It was a trek dotted with so many Instagrammable moments that on our second day, Day 1 felt like a week past. We wouldn't quickly remember what we had for lunch or dinner during the previous day or where we had them. And these moments, including the Sitio Paraiso + Sitio Impyerno combination on Day 1 made the trek enjoyable even though it was undeniably tough.

The team dubbed this spot as 'Sitio Impyerno' due to the scorching heat of the noon sun.
There were only six of us. The five guests were among the fifteen carefully chosen Lagataw trekkers who received the exclusive invitation. Ronald, a triathlete, had previously joined the tougher first edition of KKB (Mt Tenglawan exit). Aljun had joined the Tacadang Circuit and the Tacadang Traverse; Jepoi had two Tacadang traverses under his belt plus a Mt Tenglawan Extreme; Noi, just Tenglawan Extreme and Erwin, Tacadang Traverse. And these trekkers are not among the noisy ones on social media.  Erwin would hardly strike you as the trekker type. It was a small team. The KKB is mainly about the genuine goal to share a very beautiful experience. It is never about the figures. It is quality over quantity.

The A Team, clockwise from top left: Ronald, Lagataw, Jepoi, Noi, Erwin, Aljun

The success of this bold attempt to condense this long expedition into two days and two nights was due mostly to the well-crafted itinerary.  I realized that making an itinerary is actually a skill. You don't just Google an itinerary and copy-paste it to your event page. There should always be ample knowledge of the destination and the capacity of your companions. Without putting into consideration the aptness of your team to your itinerary, and without taking care of the logistical preparations beforehand, your expedition is bound to fail. I am very proud to have been able to put together a strong triathlete like Ronald and a pot-bellied Erwin in the same condensed itinerary, maximizing daytime experience and providing a good night's rest.

The high risk factor of the route is the reason why the team had been carefully selected
Another big factor was the discipline of the team members. The expected chemistry of the carefully selected team made any pre-climb meeting unnecessary. We all did not do as much training as we did during our previous treks together. All of us already knew how to handle a Lagataw trek so we were all psychologically conditioned. I am most proud of Aljun and Erwin for having been able to quit smoking about two months before the trek. Aljun had been smoking for ten years! And this is one of the many things that motivate me to keep organizing Lagataw treks--the knowledge that I am able to create a positive change in the participants.

Almost done!
The expedition was a big success I had to thank the participants individually on my Facebook wall. And we didn't even celebrate. I think that's what we unconsciously develop in Lagataw treks. The celebration is the moment itself--the trek itself and not after it--just like my 90-day solo thru-hike in Benguet in 2015, no hype, no publicity, not even a bottle of beer, no nothing afterwards.  Through this at-the-moment celebrations a better self and a unique fellowship are forged, which somehow explains why previous Lagataw trekkers can't be stopped from joining another Lagataw trek.

It was a simple closing gesture for that long journey -- no jubilation, no hype, just the overwhelming gratefulness and praises to the Almighty for granting us a wonderful experience. 

For those who want to be part of this epic journey in October, watch out for the qualifying treks on my Facebook page.

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