Sierra madre biking trail
The sun was barely on the horizon when we started biking. It was a quarter to six in the morning and the skies still had a steel-gray look to them. As we pushed off, there came a sudden realization that I had legs. Days, weeks, and months of being cooped up in a room writing papers and reading books for law school had taken their toll. I had legs! And they were shivering in fear under the shadow of the sleepy mountain.
There is a downward slope shortly after the start. It is a good way to warm up the legs and feel the cool air, although I know that all good downhill slopes are going to be uphill slopes on the way back and every bit of pleasure those slopes give, they will take back in piercing pain tenfold. But when I take that first glide downhill, I am always reminded why I love biking — if only to feel the cool wind brush against my face and the occasional sight of the peaks of mountains as they protrude upwards from a cloudy sea. The cool air surprised me the most that time since it was May and the summer heat never had any mercy for bikers. I remembered that it rained the night before and wondered if that was the reason.
Soon enough we came to the first of many uphill slopes that stretched here and there for over 20 kilometers. My odometer fell out of my bike and was hanging over the side by its cable. I had not taken much care to fix it back on its spot, that goes for the rest of the bike too. The sacrifices we make to study law. But then I thought it was quite a blessing, since I did not even dare to imagine what 20 kilometers of uphill biking would be. Here at the beginning I was already in my lowest gear and my legs were screaming. This first slope was a straight one — I eyeballed 500 meters of steady asphalted road ascending eastwards. The sun was still hiding behind the mountains but I could see its faint, piercing glow every time I would glance upward to check how much more road was there waiting to grind me to dust. I realized it was better to keep my head down and count one…two..three…four…one…two…three…four while I watch my front tire miraculously circle around the road and feel my legs push inch by inch those little gears at the back of my bike. One…two…three…four and the next thing I know I am on top of the slope and looking at a steady glide to the next slope. This would go on for the rest of the biking route.
There were times when my legs gave way and I would stop by the nearest rock under a tree to catch my breath. The last time I went up this trail had been nearly three years ago and my body reminded me of that. As I sat down under the shade, the sound of crickets, as if it were the steady purr of the mountainside, enveloped me. The mountain always takes what I could give it, and sometimes it gives me more than what I could take. It has the same slopes, same angles, same curves, same bends — and the only thing that changed was me. The gentle hum of the forest was only interrupted by that unmistakable ridiculous roar of motorcycles as they zipped past me. Rrrrroooooooooommmmmm! they sounded as they went like a horde in single file. Rrrrrooooooooooommmmmm!
As the hours go: seven turned to eight and eight turned to nine. Desperation neared when the shadows started to recede. Biking under the noonday sun would have been suicide, and I was already spent. But as anti-climactic endings go, I hitched a ride on my friend’s car on the way back. And by hitched a ride I meant that he had to drive a bit to pick me up on the trail. Yes, the mountain won this time, but I will be back.
Last Sunday I went on a hike up a mountain with some friends. Mt. Ayaas was roughly an hour away from Quezon City in the Sunday traffic. An hour’s drive showed the highway diverging onto a two-laned path lined with trees, which slightly zigzagged its way to the end. It was paved and smooth at first but later carried pockets of broken asphalt and eroded ground. The sight of trees by the side of the road later faded into heaps of garbage – almost two or three stories high – full of old tins of cooking oil and plastic bags and decomposing food. Dogs went here and there while some children played alongside the road, rolling a deflated tire with a bamboo stick. They had smiles on their face.
When we arrived at Brgy. Mascap – a place of which I know is just somewhere in Rizal – we signed a waiver that basically waived any responsibility the guides had for our safety. Given that it had rained quite hard earlier in the morning, we thought it best not to think about it too much. From then on, we climbed – first along paved inclines and then into the muddy earth with stones and trees and vines and sharp things brushing against our arms and legs and faces. The forest air enveloped us with the smell of wet earth and plant life. It was the breath of the jungle right after its shower. Bugs crawled and flew across us while others clung to our skin. Many times we walked along a narrow path. It had room for only one man, and at times only one foot so we had to walk with one foot over the other as if on a tightrope. In those times we had the mountain wall on one side while the other only had the view of a perilous slope to the bottom.
We were not the first ones who climbed the mountain and we will not be the last. The footprints of those who went before were already etched on the earth. The grooves of their feet dug deep – deep enough for a good foothold. I looked out for these prints like hints from ghosts on how to negotiate the mountain. A thought came to me of how the media tends to glorify the new and the different. “Stop living in the past,” they tell us. But in this mountain climb – the past is really all the difference between the summit and the abyss.
We eventually made it to the top at around noon. I made a dreadful mistake of packing only one asado siopao for lunch but it still felt like it was the best meal in the world after that climb. After some pictures and a rosary, we climbed down and made our way back to the barangay hall. On the way back, we stopped by a small water fall where some of us took a dip into the shallow but cool lagoon. After our brief respite we decided to take a tricycle back to the barangay hall since we were all spent by that time.
With aching legs but full of cheer we drove back to Manila. We passed through the mountains of garbage, the lines of trees, and to Commonwealth Avenue just as the sun was setting. And as darkness crawled over the skies, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
1. Bring loose fitting dry-fit clothes.
This applies specifically for those trips with lots of trekking or touring since most of them will be spent under the midday sun for a long time. Long haul flights also tend to make me feel bloated at the end of it all, not to mention the jetlag ruining my body clock for a few days. Dry-fit clothes also can be easily washed and dried and are very light – perfect for travel. In my trip last June which was for three weeks in UAE and Europe, I came back without using some clothes because they were uncomfortable and so were only dead weight in the luggage. As always, charge it to experience.
2. Bring a towel with you at all times.
I know. I never knew that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would actually be right. A towel can also mean a scarf or just a large patch of cloth that can serve as a shield from the sun, to wipe the sweat of your face, and some warmth from those chilly, brisk mornings. Note that other tourists or locals may find it odd to find a towel-clad figure walking along with them in the tour. Caucasians apparently desire to be tanned (hence I couldn’t find any of those from Europe or the North America who used, for lack of a better term, sun-shielding devices), and those in the tropics would rather get shade. The locals, however, may crack some jokes at the odd appearance. While in Capri on the furnicular, one of the locals below caught me in sunglasses and a scarf on my head and shouted, “Makhmout!” It was probably an reference to the Arab headdresses. Coincidentally, I actually got to try them one of them on and they were great at keeping your head cool from the sun. As a tourist, I was never going to see them anyway so I didn’t mind.
3. Beware of using a Eurail pass in France and compare local train rates before buying a Eurail pass.
Unlike Trenitalia, SNCF does not have an option for online ticket reservations using the Eurail pass. The best thing to do is to drop by the nearest SNCF boutique and reserve the tickets there. Luckily, my family spent some days in Italy before going to Paris so we could reserve the TGV tickets in Italy. It is also better to compare how much a full ticket would cost before buying a Eurail pass since it is not always cheaper. A full ticket for a local high-speed trains may even be cheaper than scratching off one day from a Eurail pass. Mind also the 12-25 discount and others when purchasing tickets.
4. If there’s a skip the line, ALWAYS TAKE IT.
This applies to going during the tourist season. In Paris I decided to check out Saint Chappelle but my attempt was thwarted by a line too long and too many people skipping it which only made the wait longer. Life is short and vacation life is shorter so there is not point in waiting in line when you could be busy doing other things. The line at Versailles was also unbelievable. Try to compare:
5. Do not buy GPS stamps. They are not the real national stamps.
On my visit to Rome I saw a sign next to a Tabacchi that said they had “Traceable GPS stamps.” I had earlier sent postcards from Athens and Santorini and they cost me only 80c, but these GPS stamps cost 2.20 euros. I had earlier thought that these were the national stamps but no these are NOT the Poste Italiani stamps. Apparently, GPS is a private company that just sends postcards. I had to find that out the hard way after I researched online. At the post office, the actual stamps cost me a total of 2.30 euros because of one 80c stamp and another one which was 1.50 euro priority. I didn’t inquire about why there was the 1.50 euro stamp though. Here’s how they look like:
Konichiwa. The words escaped from the cashier as she placed a number on my tray and pointed to the next customer. Finding a table afterwards was not hard judging by the sheer lack of people actually in the store. The number on the tray meant a tonkatsu to follow but the pre-made four-piece California maki was promptly placed on the tray before I left the cashier. Fresh Japanese cooking at its finest. It was no wonder that the place was nearly empty.
My bus tickets were beside a saucer of soy sauce and it was almost a miracle that not one drop of that salty black liquid landed on them. The details on the tickets were still readable, the handwriting being the bigger obstacle than a saucer of soy sauce. Manila-Legazpi ETD: 630pm. Cubao. Thirteen hours and five hundred or so kilometers lay ahead of me that night, most of it along the Pan-Philippine highway. It was difficult to fully comprehend the enormity of the whole trip as well as the fact that there was indeed a road called the Pan-Philippine highway. The AH26 was the long strip of asphalt and concrete which led the way down south of Luzon, along the coast, to the Bicol region. After 150 kilometers or so, the highway traced the coastline with the Pacific on the east. It would have been a sight to see but most of the sights would pass me by as I slept away the hours in my seat.
Gulping down the last of the tonkatsu, my watch already read 5:50 pm. It was only when I left the restaurant that I realized how much I missed the air conditioning. Hot, humid, and noisy – the streets of Cubao never toned things down. Car horns and the tshh tshh of buses as they parked at the terminal and opened their doors. People walking the streets and paying no heed to traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Incoming traffic is the only red light that works it seems. The terminal was not crowded. Although perhaps I use “crowded” quite loosely. Less than ten buses are parked at the loading bays and there was still space to walk comfortably around the terminal. At times, especially during holidays when people are at a rush to head back to the provinces, the terminal would be crowded in the full, unadulterated third-world-bus-terminal sense of the word. People would be piling boxes upon boxes and bags upon bags. Without any strict carry on limit, everyone had free reign to bring whatever they please. The utter lack of rigidity could be a blessing or a curse depending on how one looks at it, but it was precisely what I wanted. It was cheap and as long as I came before departure time, I would be fine. Ironically, coming late would incur the ire of your fellow passengers more than the bus company itself. I wonder sometimes why this was a bit toned down when it came to air travel. Are air passengers more patient or are they just so used to waiting that maybe a few more minutes won’t even matter?
The bus could readily be described a long, gray box on black wheels. The white letters “Mercedes-Benz” were etched on the window which elicited a reaction first of excitement then of suspicion. Jeepneys never balked at the chance to place the hottest labels onto their ride: Jaguar, BMW, Rollz Royze, Lamborgeeni. Imitation could indeed be the national pastime. My fears were allayed, however, as soon as the bus strolled out of the bay. It swayed from side to side and hardly made a sound as it sped away into the streets lined with ambulant vendors and sodium-yellow lights. Air suspension would be like mana from heaven in long bus rides and I suspected that this bus had it. It was probably why I had a relatively smooth sleep and how nearly twelve hours passed away almost seamlessly. The night passed by in a series of short naps with the clock showing different faces every time I would wake. 10pm. 1:25am. 3:34am. 4:40am. 6:15am. Then the sun came up and I was some place else: off the bus at a gas station with a heavy backpack, a satchel, and no clue of where I was other than knowing the name of the town I was in: Ligao. How apt.
One thousand pesos for twenty four hours, sir. The inn keep’s voice uttered the number again in my head while I thought about the costs and benefits of such a steep price. There was an inn across the road from where the bus dropped me off. The inn was named Sambitan and it was an inn that was recommended to me by a local in the next town. The inn, however, neither boasted an email address nor a mobile phone number on Google which raised some fair concerns for any one travelling alone. Was it safe? Was I willing to take the risk and go without a reservation nor any knowledge of the going rate? Would I make it out alive? Fair concerns indeed to say the least. Decisions, decisions. Whether it was the adventurous side of me or the utterly reckless side that told me to go ahead and take the risk, I really could not tell. I walked over to the inn and stood in the middle of the driveway looking for the reception. After a few minutes a woman nursing a baby yelled at my direction and flung her arm back. I did not know a thing about Bicolano but that was an invitation if I ever saw one. I then collected the facts. Yes, there was a vacancy. Yes, you can stay. How much? One thousand for 24 hours. I believe we’ve run into a problem. My feet were walking to the highway even before I realized that it just was not a good deal.
So. Where to go now…
Half an hour and forty pesos later I was bobbing my head on a jeepney half-asleep and mildly starving. Mildly. The jeep was en route to Legazpi which I later found out would be an hour or so away. This adventure is picking up speed. Nearing the one hour mark, I looked around for a Gaisano mall. It would have to be around here somewhere. The hope of somehow finding a mall I’ve never seen filled my being then, driving my eyes as I ducked under the rickety plastic shutters of the jeep, squinting against the morning sun. It was only when that familiar briny breeze drifted into the jeep that I knew I failed miserably. The air that wafted inside the jeep smelled of salt and sea which only meant that I could be in one place, and a place that never failed to pop up when I studied the map – Embarcadero.
Relativity can be at times a funny little thing. I’ve lived in Cebu for 18 years and mountains were in short supply. There were pointed hills, maybe, but a full-fledged mountain? Maybe not. The closest guess I could make on what a mountain looked like then was just to blow up a pointy hill and imagine how that would look like. It seemed simple enough, but it just was not it. Cebu was an island of two bridges, bounded by bodies of water all over and even crossing the bridge can bring in the smell of brine, salt, and sea from the shimmering waters of the Mactan channel. The waters at Embarcadero were a welcome sight, but it was only when I glanced northwards that I finally saw a real mountain. Silent and massive – the volcano loomed northwards with its perfect cone and perpetual halo of clouds. Having only seen the volcano in postcards and film, I thought that was all there was to it. Isn’t that tourism these days? Go to one place. Take a photo. Share it on SNS. Move on to another place. That day, that volcano lifted itself out of every postcard I saw and met me in person. It was visceral. Raw. Real. The sheer size of it took me and held me for a moment. I admit that I may merely be romanticizing a mound of dirt for all it’s worth, but that mound of dirt was just unreal.
The sun went up and went down. I managed to take some photos of the volcano during sunset. Then the oranges turned to reds and purples in the sky and the sun was out.
It was morning again. Birds were calling outside in the docks. It was near 8 and it was already piercing bright outside. The sun bared its face on the waters as they scintillated underneath its glare. Gentle breezes brushed over the surface which sent mild waves crashing on the concrete walls of the dock. There is just something about the sea the lures you out of your routine. Just the sight of it lends a tone of finality to any trip. On the map, east of the port of Legazpi would be the Pacific. It was strange but after nearly 14 hours travel by land, the sight of the waters of the Pacific brought some form of closure to it all. It was the point where the land ends and the waters began. A sight of endless possibilities – of hopes and dreams, or of pleasures and terrors. The deeps: even if we have mapped them out with satellites or laser beams, something in the soul seems to forget all that and which clings to its mystery, that ever elusive part of the sea that is always within reach but never really grasped. No wonder the sea lured so many adventurers out with promises of glory or fame.
Whether it was glory or fame, all I ended up with were calories. And maybe a few pili nuts. The 930am bus was late that morning. Taking the day bus was a dumb mistake, now that I think about it. Twelve hours of daylight all spent inside a metal compartment was definitely time not spent wisely. I burned a whole day travelling while I spaced out into the distance watching the lines on the ground race downwards while the landmarks by the roads came up intermittently. 515km. 400km. 365km. Little by little. A little before 10pm, the bus doors tshhh’d open and I stepped down into asphalt and got a whiff of that familiar metro air accented with piss and car exhaust. Hello, Metro Manila. It was time to go back to routine. There and back again.
Post script: All photos on film were lost due to a VOLCANIC blunder on my part. This is either Bicol being clingy and making me come back just to take photos or simply a meaningless, dumb blunder on my part, nothing more. GOOD GRIEF!