Cleaning Up Pico de Loro, Mt. Palay-Palay in Cavite

We all love the adventure that comes with scaling the highest peaks, the relief we experience when we reach a summit, and the majestic sceneries from the top. With so many beautiful mountains to climb, you will never know when to stop. Mountaineering can be an addictive sport, especially for someone who has a fondness for nature and discovering the unknown. Unfortunately, it has turned into a fad and we have started to take our mountains for granted.

In the few mountains that I have climbed (and places I have visited), I have come to realize that human beings can be more careless and selfish than they usually intend to be. You see this when you climb the most accessible mountains; candy wrappers strewn along trails and soiled toilet papers left behind at campsites. People seem to think that there can be no harm done in leaving a single piece of trash in the mountain. Multiply that trash into a thousand and what you get is a dumping site in the wilderness. More and more people are joining the mountaineering community with the false notion that it is simply a sport, pure fun and free of any responsibility. This is where our problem begins.

I am a member of an outdoor group called Isang Backpack Ka Lang (1BP or 1BAG). The name is a parody of the Filipino idiom "isang bala ka lang"; in English, it means "a bullet and you're dead" or "it will only take one bullet to kill you." The group name then translates to "it will only take one backpack to scale a mountain or complete a trip" and we are pretty much talking to the mountain or itinerary here, so ride along and personify inanimate objects with me. Of course, it must be said with the same vehemence as the original Filipino idiom!

Take five!

Mt. Palay-Palay in Cavite is the 1st mountain the 1BP's founders conquered together. Last month, on May 15 and 16, the group celebrated its 1st anniversary and it was only apt to climb the same mountain again for the sake of remembrance. Mt. Palay-Palay is very popular to newbie hikers because of its proximity to Metro Manila and its trails are very easy to navigate. It is a beautiful mountain from afar, even more so when you reach its summit, which has a spectacular 360-degree view of the nearby mountains and the South China Sea. Its 2 peaks resemble a parrot's beak, hence the name Pico de Loro. The campground, however, is a different story; while it also offers a commanding view of a lush landscape, garbage of all sorts pollute it. Its popularity explains but fails to justify its state of defilement.

People say that there is strength in numbers, indeed there is. But in the mountaineering community, I am forced to believe that this supposed advantage has turned into a disadvantage. Instead of being advocates for the environment, many people who call themselves mountaineers are forgoing their social responsibilities. So when it was announced that our next itinerary was not going to be for a simple anniversary climb but also a clean-up drive, I was ecstatic. Alone, you can only do so much; but when you gather enough people, a significant impact can be made.

What I would not give to wake up to this everyday? The view from my tent

The campground and the mountains beyond as seen from the summit

We left Metro Manila at around 8am and arrived in Cavite less than 3 hours later. The climb itself was not difficult; 95% of the trail is covered by trees, so it was not as exhausting despite the summer heat. Climbing on a weekend usually means climbing with a hundred other people, especially in a mountain like Mt. Palay-Palay which is located very near the metro. Because we wanted to find a good camping spot, it did not take long for us to reach the summit. We pitched our tents close to the ridge giving us a perfect view of the peaks. Out came the cook sets and we started preparing for dinner. Every social is special, but I am going to say that on this particular climb, it was more interesting and heartfelt than the rest. Despite swearing that I was not going to drink because I was still suffering from a skin allergy, I got pretty tipsy and spent most of the night snoring outside my tent.

We scaled the summit and the monolith on the 2nd day. Mt. Palay-Palay offers the best view I have seen by far. It is no surprise people return to enjoy the panorama. However, it was very concerning to see what other visitors have done to the monolith. The beautiful pillar is covered with vandalism, why people do this I will never understand no matter how hard I try. It is heartbreaking and infuriating! Why would you even dare to ruin something so beautiful? Scrawling your name on a rock does not immortalize you, it just tells the world how much of a douchebag you are.

The imposing monolith amidst a serene landscape

Tiny people, our own planet can seem as boundless as the universe

The clean up drive was done during the descent. With garbage bags on hand, we picked up every trash we could find. It was also fun to ponder on the variety of rubbish we collected; there were torn wrappers, fast food boxes, freshly emptied cans of sardines, bottles of red bull, etc. Mountaineers have interesting diets.

1BP members with garbage collected from the mountain

Our effort did not leave the mountain garbage-free, but it was heartwarming to see that another group followed our example and started collecting trash as well. We received encouragements from passersby. Seeing my teammates do their best to accomplish the task was uplifting. The experience was priceless and inspiring for all of us. It was to nice to unintentionally remind people that we owe something to our mountains.

This is just me posing with my good ol' friend Mother Nature

Today's lesson: Love the Earth!

Legazpi - 1st Colonial Grill and Misibis Bay

(This entry is the third and final part of this series, follow these links to read the first and second parts: Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave & Pili Nut Hills in Camalig, Albay and Ligñon Hill, Daraga Church, Cagsawa Ruins & Mayon Volcano .)

Aside from habitually incorporating coconut milk or gata in as many dishes as possible, did you know that we also love to eat crushed chili pepper or siling labuyo for breakfast? Just kidding, but we do have a penchant for spicy food. Being a Bicolano myself, I have tried every popular traditional delicacy, including Bicol express and laing/pinangat. This time, I wanted to try something different yet still familiar. I have read several articles praising a restaurant called 1st Colonial Grill in Legazpi, where they serve chili flavored ice cream.

My sister and I ordered tinapa rice and pork sisig to share. I was surprised when the rice came out and it was served in a kawali-- it was good enough for 4 persons! And when I saw that it was topped with slices of green mangoes, salted eggs, tomatoes and tinapa flakes, I think I levitated. All my favorite flavors in one pan! The taste? I can't say it was magical but it was good enough to make me want to go back.

The sizzling pork sisig was not as crispy as I had expected but the siling labuyo was a nice addition to the recipe. It was not very spicy-- well, not until I started chewing on the chopped chili. It was very, very hot.

tinapa rice spicy sisig
Tinapa Rice and Spicy Pork Sisig

For dessert, we ordered sili ice cream along with 3 other flavors: malunggay, pili nut and tinutong. The malunggay is my least favorite because it tastes very much like...malunggay. I like malunggay, especially with gata, but not in my dessert. The pili ice cream was a better surprise; the flavor is very similar to almonds. Tinutong translates to burnt in English; the ice cream is made of burnt rice and it is unusually delicious for something burnt.

Allow me to compare the sili ice cream's flavor to Gelatissimo's chocolate chili gelato. Some people find Gelatissimo's spicy ice cream good, even poetic-- chocolate is an aphrodisiac, chili is hot and seductive, gelato is an Italian ice cream, so you can't go wrong, right? My experience: sweet on the tongue, spicy in the throat, and painful in the stomach. The sili ice cream, however, is more delicate. It has just the right spicy kick. The fact that its base is vanilla probably adds to the subtlety. The spicy flavor doesn't linger long, so your taste buds get to recover faster, encouraging you to eat another spoonful of this piquant frozen treat.

bicol ice cream
Left to right: malunggay, pili nut, tinutong, sili

Chris, whom I met the day before had offered to tour me around. I took a van from the Legazpi Satellite Terminal and met up with him in Bacacay at around 1.30pm. I had only initially planned to visit the black sand beach but he also suggested a trip to Misibis Bay; it is located in the island of Cagraray and a popular private getaway for the upper class. I was a little worried about the time as I had to catch the last trips to Sorsogon and Gubat but my new friend assured me that I would be able to make it back on time. It was a pleasant motorcycle ride until we got a flat tire, we were already at the bridge that connects Cagraray to the main island, only 30 minutes away! Chris had to go back to Bacacay to get the tire fixed via another rented motorcycle. I waited by the bridge for more than an hour. We did get the motorcycle running again but not until 4pm.

misibis bay, cagraray
The Cagraray Eco Park sits atop a hill

misibs bay, cagraray
Cluster of islands

We did not go into a private resort but were still able to enjoy the impressive natural scenery, which the island offers for free. But since it was already getting dark, I did not get to take that many photos.

misibs bay, cagraray
A stunning silhouette of the Mayon Volcano at sundown

misibis bay, cagraray
A beautiful sight to end the day

It was already past 6pm when we got back to Bacacay. I was a little disappointed that I did not get to see the beach in daylight. We still went to a public resort but the stars and moon were barely lit. It was almost pitch black save for some of the cottage lights along the shore. I arrived in Albay at around 8pm and did not get to leave for Sorsogon until the next day.

This trip is one of the best travels I've had in a while. It has taught me important lessons and reminded me of some of life's realities. Had I not met Chris, I would not have been able to visit Misibis Bay during that weekend. We also had some very interesting conversations while on the motorcycle. It's funny how things can dawn on you in the most unlikely situations. But hopping on a stranger's motorcycle is one of the most dangerous things I have done and this is something I would never suggest to anyone. YOLO and carpe diem do not justify the stupid things we decide to do, and they will certainly not be able to help you once you get into trouble for that decision. Should you still take the risk, you must remember to be responsible. The first time I met Chris, I immediately studied him and made use of my instinct. I constantly communicated with my sister and sent her every important information, I also created the circumstance to introduce them before I went to Bacacay. I was lucky but not everyone could have the same luck.

Today's lesson: Meeting new people is fun but it still requires caution!

Legazpi - Ligñon Hill, Daraga Church, Cagsawa Ruins & Mayon Volcano

Click here to read the first part of my Legazpi trip.

The Pili Nut Hills are located in Caguiba, Camalig, while my next is destination is in the heart of Legazpi City. It was already 3.30pm when I decided to descend from the grotto's summit. More than an hour later, I found myself at the foot of one of the city's most famous landmarks. Ligñon Hill has been developed into a great destination offering several activities (biking, rappelling, paintball, zip line, et cetera). I had only wanted to visit the Japanese tunnel but it was already almost 5pm when I arrived and the attraction was already closed.

The ascent took about 15 minutes. The summit was swarming with people, but there was that perfect amount of happy in the air.

ligñon hill
Legazpi City from 156-m above

ligñon hill, mayon volcano
The Mayon from Ligñon Hill at sunset

But what really caught my attention was the Mayon Volcano. I enjoyed a breathtaking view of the sunset while Mayon stood proudly beside it. I couldn't help but be amazed at how beautiful everything was. I have lived in Bicol half of my life and have seen the Mayon countless times, but it was the first time that I had actually looked at it.

You can find several food kiosks and souvenir shops on the summit. A group that I encountered during my hike up was having their afternoon snack and invited me to join them. They were quite surprise to find out I was alone because, after all, you don't get to chance upon solo lady travelers that often. It was a fun conversation, and I was able to get some helpful information for my itinerary the next day.

I started to make my way down when a motorcycle pulled over beside me. The motorist introduced himself as Chris and said he had overheard my conversation with the group at the summit, and if it wasn't too weird, he could help me get to Bacacay Beach. I told him I wasn't going to Bacacay until the next day and was on my way to Embarcadero to meet up with my sister for dinner. He offered me a ride. Two seconds later, I found myself sitting on the back of his motorcycle-- well, this was after I sent his plate number to my sister. (Please don't tell my mother.)

Embarcadero at night

On my second day, I finally convinced my sister to tag along to my morning destinations. Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church (Daraga Church) was built on a hill that is located very near the city. There would not be a more accessible place to enjoy a picturesque view of the Mayon. Blown away would be an understatement, from this church, I was overwhelmed/astonished/flabbergasted (take your pick) by the sight of the world's most perfect cone volcano.

daraga church
Daraga Church on a Sunday

ligñon hill, mayon volcano
The Mayon from Daraga Church at 8am

The Baroque style church itself is also a wonder to behold. Volcanic rocks form its structure. Unfortunately, it has started to deteriorate. It has been washed with lime in an effort to preserve its facade, which explains its current color. The inside has also been heavily renovated. This more than 200-year-old piece of history is a National Cultural Treasure.

The Cagsawa Ruins is less than 30 minutes away from Daraga Church via a jeepney. From the highway, you may either take a tricycle or walk to the site. It was a hot day, so we opted to ride. The belfry is a remnant of a Franciscan church that was engulfed by the lahar during Mayon's most violent eruption in 1814.

cagsawa ruins, mayon volcano
Postcard-perfect, Bicol's most iconic attraction

ligñon hill, mayon volcano
The Mayon from the Cagsawa Ruins at 9am

When I was in high school, I saw this play about Daragang Magayon (Beautiful Lady) and her suitors Panganoron (Clouds) and Pagtuga (Eruption). Legend says that the Mayon rose from the grave of Daragang Magayon and her true love. But you don't need to know its story to appreciate its beauty. One look is enough to tell you why it's called Daragang Magayon.

Today's lesson: Discover your own.
Yana Banana

Legazpi - Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave & Pili Nut Hills in Camalig, Albay

(Here is a seemingly unrelated introduction!) Do you remember how it felt when it dawned on you that living can turn into a mere series of ineffectual efforts to make something happen? That holding on to something pleasant can become an ugly struggle? After deciding that I did not want to go through another disappointment, I did not think twice about drafting that resignation letter. Well, as liberating as it was, it came with a sprinkle of shame here and a pinch of guilt there-- but sometimes, what you do not want matters as much as what you want. Well, enough with the drama, what I'm trying to say is everyone deserves a break from this exhausting cycle of triumphs and misfortunes. (With the misfortunes becoming more dreadfully real as you add more years to your age!) I decided to take another breather by going home to Bicol, but this time I took a little detour by spending a week in Legazpi.

I grew up in Bicol, a region located at the south of Luzon. It is a coastal region in a tropical country, blessed with some of the most beautiful natural attractions. It is home to many pristine beaches. Our house is 10 minutes away from the beach; if you played with snow balls, me and my siblings know how to make the best sand balls (the perfectly round compact ones, which hurt the most when thrown!)-- I guess this is why I don't really go gaga over beaches, and this is also why instead of visiting the famous Calaguas beach, I decided to do something else.

At first, I was torn between Samar and Legazpi, but I eventually decided on touring the latter just because it was embarrassing that I hardly knew the region I spent half of my life in. Also, because my sister has an apartment in Albay, the itinerary would cost less.

I arrived in Legazpi 15 minutes before 4am. My sister was also arriving from her practicum in Manila then, so I waited for more than an hour at the Legazpi Satellite Terminal; the place was barely lit and almost deserted except for another lady and a security guard. I lied down on a bench and studied the stars outside; the air was a little chilly, and it made me feel more foreign than usual. I finally received a message from my sister with directions to her apartment.

After a 3-hour nap, my sister and I went to a nearby carinderia to have breakfast, this made me feel a little nostalgic-- I had not eaten at a carinderia in a long time, where you can stuff yourself with the most savory viands for less than a dollar.

I was spending 2 days and 1 night in Legazpi. Save for the Bikolano culture, I was clueless. I understand Legazpi's dialect but do not feel comfortable speaking it. In point of fact, I am not your best Bikol-speaking Bicolano-- embarrassing but true, wait till you hear my friends make fun of me when I start fumbling for a local word's definition. I like to put it this way: my English is just fine, but I struggle with Shakesperean English-- my friends converse in Bikol in a very arcane manner sometimes. Also, our dialect is not pure Bikol, it is peppered with Bisaya; it is sometimes called Bisakol. Anyway, I told the driver in my most eloquent Bikol to drop me off at Camalig. First stop: Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave.

I took a tricycle from the town proper, which was quite costly for a solo traveler. We went into a village called Cotmon. The entrance fee to the cave was also horrendously expensive. The minimum was Php300.00 (~US$7.00) but since I was already there, I continued with the tour.

hoyop-hoyopan cave
Inside Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave

Hoyop is a local term which means blow. Inside the cave, the air is cool, and it was a welcome respite from the harsh summer heat; whenever the wind blows, a wonderful breeze travels through the cave. According to the guide, it was a guerrilla camp during the Japanese occupation and was also used as a hideaway during the Martial Law period. The usual stalagmites and stalactites filled the cave, beautiful crystals formed curious shapes on the surrounding walls, fruit and insect bats hung from the crevices in the ceilings, clumps of corals can be seen and even fossils of ammonites and humans.

hoyop-hoyopan cave crystals hoyop-hoyopan cave crystals
Crystals in all shapes and sizes, left to right: Angel's Wing and Wishing Hand

The tour took less than 20 minutes and I can't say I was ecstatic about it. With light bulbs hanging from its ceilings, Hoyop-Hoyopyan Cave is too touristy for my taste. A narrow concrete pathway winds through the first half of the tour, so it is quite safe even for children. The guide was also very knowledgeable about its history, it is a good educational experience. Overall, this cave is perfect for families and individuals who are looking for a less traditional destination, but I do not recommend it to outdoor enthusiasts and/or adventure-seekers.

hoyop-hoyopan cave
Posing like the tourist that I am

My second destination was unplanned. I already gave up on visiting the Pili Nut Hills several days prior. I was disappointed to find very little information about it when I scoured the internet. It is located too far from the city on Google Maps. Only 2 articles have been written about it, and they were not very helpful except for some wonderful pictures that made me vow to see them in person someday. The locals have no idea what I was talking about-- yes, they have lots of Pili trees but no Pili hills! Luckily, the guide at Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave has heard about it.

From Cotmon, we went to another village called Caguiba via a very rocky dirt road, the drive took about 30 minutes. We also asked several locals for directions but they could only point us to a grotto, which was the landmark given to us by the guide. A hike from the road to the grotto, which sits atop a hill, took about 15 minutes. A bucket of sweat later, I found myself standing beside a giant cross on a hill overlooking a beautiful landscape. Except for the tricycle driver and his son, I had it all to myself.

pili nut hills
Bicol's best-kept secret: Pili Nut Hills

camalig, albay
Opposite the Pili Nut Hills

There is no fee but you may donate any amount to the caretaker. I believe there are other spots that could offer a better view. A call to the local tourism office would also be helpful, except I have no idea how to reach them. I just read somewhere that they are willing to assist tourists in visiting the hills.

I spent more than half an hour looking at the hills, the horizon, and peering at what I could make out beyond it. And I thought to myself, this is beautiful.

Today's lesson: Keep looking.

This entry is the first of three parts. I went to too many places in Legazpi. :)
Yana Banana

Climbing Mt. Damas in Tarlac

I am not even sure if I should still be up and writing this. My shoulders are sore, I am lightheaded, my eyes are refusing to stay open, and my legs are hurting anywhere you touch them.

...were the only sentences I was able to type before I fell asleep on Monday night. I was exhausted. Now, I have a cold, which is making it so hard to focus-- I am blowing my nose like an elephant every 2 seconds. I might also be getting a fever. If my mom would get to read this, I bet she would think, what the hell happened to her? Well, Mt. Damas happened.

As I have already mentioned in my previous post, I only get Sundays off from work and have taken the habit of doing something out of the ordinary on this special day. Last week, I took both Sunday and Saturday off-- all for the glory of Mt. Damas.

Two months ago, I was bored and lusting for adventure. I needed something unusual to happen, so when my friend asked if I wanted to go mountaineering, I did not hesitate. Aside from that spontaneous dayhike with my family in Taal Volcano 4 years ago, I had never actually climbed a mountain before. This budding obsession for trekking started in August; even before we started for Mt. Tarak's summit, I already knew I found something interesting enough to shake me from my then frustrating state of weariness. Mt. Tarak was the first mountain I officially climbed, but I will talk about it next week. Today, while my body is still sore, I will tell you a bit about the mountain that almost killed my spirit.

At around 6:30AM, our bus left from Cubao to Tarlac. Roughly 4 hours later, we found ourselves in Chowking in Brgy. Camiling for a nice rowdy lunch-- when about a dozen people all carrying heavy bags on their backs enter a restaurant, you would be wrong not to expect at least one interesting thing to happen. (What that is, I will leave to your imagination.)

I was not ready for this climb. I failed to read a single thing about Mt. Damas and only scanned our itinerary. All I knew was that it was going to be a major climb. Despite it being only half of Mt. Tarak's altitude, the climb was going to take as long-- this told me much about how difficult the trail would be.

From Camiling proper, tricycles took us to Brgy. Papaac, a ride which lasted for about 15 minutes via a golden road of rice grains being dried under the sun. The air was itchy and the dust from the rice grains made it hard to breathe-- but the scenery was beautiful. The silhouette of the mountains against the bright blue sky reminded me what we were journeying for.

Mt. Damas is approximately 665 MASL. The concrete ended and a stretch of dirt road began. I believe this is one of the most liberating things in any climb: when you set foot on an unpaved trail, and you know exactly why you're standing there, and where you're heading; you go on despite the knowledge that anything could happen along the way because the peak is waiting, and it is the reason you have turned your back on your familiar world for the next few hours of your lifetime.

Due to a quite silly reason, we decided not to hire a guide. The guide continued to badger us, telling us that the trail would be difficult and dangerous. But because we are young and fearless (and silly!), we ignored his warnings. He did try to lead us up to the Aeta settlement (which was the regular route) but we ran into two locals who told us about a detour that would take less than 2 hours to the peak! The guide told us (almost mocked us) that we were making the wrong decision because the alternate route had not been used for months. But he was starting to get a little annoying and he did look less trustworthy than the locals, so we decided to deviate.

I think the first 5 minutes into the trail should've been ominous enough. A thick stretch of tall thorny grasses welcomed us. I did not pay much attention to the time but we got lost for a good amount. When you're in the wilderness, the green trees are your walls, the brown soil is your floor, and the blue sky is your ceiling. Wherever you turn, every corner looks almost exactly alike. And if you're someone with a very poor sense of direction like myself, it would be easier to admit that you're in the middle of nowhere. But there are also things (which unsurprisingly require no effort to miss) that tell you which direction to go: the lonely tree to the left of the peak is the marker of Damas.

By the time we realized that we should've just followed the river, it was already starting to get dark. We couldn't find the pathway into the next mountain. Some left to look for a good place to camp, and the lot of us took our bags off our backs and sat by the riverbank. The pebbles felt hard under my feet and the river surged loudly down its path, but Ghregg fell asleep on a boulder with her face a feet from the water. We were all tired and dirty.

The Ubod Falls from the middle of nowhere afar

Everyone agreed to camp beside the Ubod Falls, which is by far the grandest waterfall I've seen in the wild. The Ubod Falls is approximately 100 feet tall with a small and shallow catch basin. Beside it was a patch of less rocky earth that was flat enough to set camp on.

River trekking

After setting camp, we started to get ready for dinner. And would you ever guess what we had? Pork stew with tamarind soup-- yes, of all things that can be prepared in the wilderness, we made Pork Sinigang. This group never fails to amaze me, I tell you. A wide mat was laid open and a lamp was lit in the middle of the camp: dinner was ready. Everyone brought something to share, and someone made sure that these nice bottles of gin and brandy were not forgotten. To make a long story short, we had a wonderful dinner under a moonlit sky with droplets from the waterfall peppering our faces. And with warmth from the alcohol and from everyone's laughter, the night air was made less cold.

I woke up at around 4 in the morning and was surprised to realize that I had no hangover despite drinking more than I could the previous night. I was inside the tent but could feel and see the moon illuminating everything outside. With my back still on the cold floor, I unzipped the tent's door to check who were awake and chatting, and how I wish then that everything would remain how they were: the sky was the perfect shade of dark blue with the most vivid map of the constellations. The waterfall continued to cry out with an almost deafening voice but nothing had ever made me feel calmer. I laid still for awhile to stare at the heavens. The rawness of it all was beautiful.

Camping beside Ubod Falls

We finished breaking camp at almost 8am. The plan was came noon and we still haven't found the trail to the summit, we would have to admit defeat and just try our luck the next time. Luckily, Ave found the trail with markers that could only mean we were going the right way. We trekked via the river; several minutes into the mountain and I (probably, all of us) realized that it was not going to be easy. It was steep and, as if the grasses were angry, they flicked at us and cut us. I took off my jacket but only ended up wearing it again when my arms started to sting. Again, we were tired and dirty but, this time, we were on the right track. The sun was so high up and it was starting to get really hot. I stopped several times to catch my breath. When I saw we were almost at the peak, there was nothing in the world I could've wanted more than to just stand on top of Damas.

The view from the top

The summit is a small patch of earth but wide enough for 14 tired mountaineers. We had wanted to be there early enough for the sea of clouds, which could only be witnessed early in the morning, but it was already time for lunch. I barely had energy to enjoy the landscape but one look at it was enough to convince me that it was worth the climb. To conclude our ascent, we had the most sumptuous boodle fight, which consisted of corned beef, adobong puti, and some leftover sinigang.

The view from the top

Just when I thought life has started to get boring again. :)

Today's lesson: STOP, BREATHE and REST, if that will help you get to the top.

(Started writing this about a month ago. Low-res photos taken with my smart phone.)
Paper Cranes

On Running My First 21k

Today was an early day. Not being able to fall asleep until midnight last night, I had to drag myself out of bed at 3.15am for my first 21k (13-mile) run.

A few weeks ago, I met a group of amusing adventure-seekers, when I went on an official climb (a major one at that with details I will talk about in my next post). During the climb, I found out that they were planning to run their first 21k in a month, so I decided to join them. I had been wanting to run a half-marathon since last year, I guess I just never found enough motivation to train for one or the right people to run it with, I subconsciously pushed the plan down my priority list.

It was mid-August and I only had a month to get ready. I had not been able to run much. Other than my short morning runs in the province during the early half of the year, I only joined two official 5k several months ago. I was not ready. I was anxious. I did not think I would be able to do it. And with my work schedule, I didn't get to train (if you can call it training) until less than 2 weeks ago.

I hate stopping when I run, it ruins my momentum, so I was not planning to stop in this 21k run. If I wanted to survive this race, I knew I had to work on my endurance. But considering that I no longer had enough time, I had to come up with a program that was both simple and realistic:

Day 1 - 30 minutes
Day 2 - 30 minutes
Day 3 - 30 minutes
Day 4 - 45 minutes
Day 5 - 45 minutes
Day 6 - 45 minutes
Day 7 - 45 minutes
Day 8 - 1 hour
Day 9 - 1 hour
Day 10 - Rest
Day 11 - Race Day

For 9 nights, I would change from my stilettos to my running shoes and run in the park nearest my workplace. It would be between 8pm and 10pm. On one night, I didn't get to leave the office until almost 11pm, without the moonlight, it would've been pitch black. But I didn't want to disappoint myself, so I stuck to my training plan.

I started with only 30 minutes because I haven't had enough mileage this year and didn't want to shock my legs and knees. Initially, I planned 3 days of each, but I had an extremely tiring workday on Day 7 so I just did 45 minutes.

During the race, my pace was generally slow and steady, but I did fast 5-minute runs after every 30 minutes. It took me 2 hours and 57 minutes (based on gun start, official results will be released on Wednesday) but I never stopped.

I never really thought I would survive unscathed. Haha. XD I didn't care how long it would take me, I only wanted to make sure I would not stop. And I did it! I endured almost 3 hours of running without stopping. And this just adds to my amazement-- how incredibly reliable and resilient the human body is! I had never ran for more than 2 hours straight prior to this race, but today I ran for almost 3 hours, and I was not even as tired as I had expected.

With Ave aka Coach Rio Jr. :p
(will upload more pictures when I get copies from a friend)

It was raining the whole time, which also probably helped. It would've been more difficult had it been hot and humid. I will forever be indebted to Blondie and their musical talent. xD The Tide is High and Die Young, Stay Pretty will always be my top power songs (I know, unexpected, but the beat helps me get back to my rhythm).

I am doing a 10k on the 30th, planning at least 2 more 10k and a 16k starting next month and before I do another 21k by late November or early December. And, this time, I have to make sure I train properly.

The past month had been unbelievable. And I think I am ready to take a break for a few days. With only Sunday being my day off from work, it had felt like I had been running behind on so many things in life, so I have tried to push myself to the limits and, I am happy to say that I had succeeded in pushing my limits even farther. I have so much to tell and document on this blog, and it's frustrating that I have not been able to write-- but I will try to make some time for it. After all, it is not about not having enough time, it is about making time.

And, oh, I got my ears pierced last month. And what is even more surprising is I have worn these earrings for more than 3 weeks. Embarrassingly, I had this abnormal fear of piercings and earrings. Reason why I never attempted to get piercings until I was 18 years old (and only to take them off after 3 days while bawling like a 3-year old, who scraped her knee).

I know, disgusting hair, this was after a run

This year, I am 24 and I think I might be over the fear. :)

Today's lesson: Push yourself beyond your limits. You'll be surprised at what you can do.


I knew there was something wrong with the RU3 21k LED timer-- it was 30 minutes late. XD The official results are out!

Ranked 643rd out of 2414 runners. But what I'm really happy about is that I finished within my target time, which was 2 hours and 30 minutes. :) Looking forward to my 2nd 21k! :D


A Summer in Colorado

It was May 2011, I was finishing the first part of my training in the United States and was itching to get away. My sister had been inviting me to visit her, and my niece's 1st birthday was also approaching. It would be the perfect escape after 5 stressful months, and the perfect prelude to a whole new level of exasperation. I decided it was time; before the month ended, I had a flight booked to Colorado.

Denver is less than 3 hours from Indianapolis, it was not going to be a very long flight but it was going to be my first time flying solo. The idea of traveling by myself in a foreign country was enough to excite me like a 3-year-old having her first taste of strawberry ice cream. At 5.30am (EST) on June 10th, I hopped on a plane bound for Denver while chewing on a fistful of sour gummi worms.

Spencer, my sister's husband, picked me up at Denver International Airport. Some 30 minutes after arriving, I cradled happiness in my arms when I met my first ever niece for the first time. Yana's face was round as an orange, her nose cute as a pumpkin, and her big bewildered eyes told me just what I needed to know-- that this trip was exactly what needed to happen in my life.

I don't think I ever really took anything seriously out of traveling until that one moment in Colorado, when I found myself standing in front of a huge hill in Rocky Mountain National Park. My eyes followed a raptor gliding in the sky and three elks grazing at the foot of that hill. It was a sight so simple and serene, and it could have been nothing else but a hill, yet it was then when I felt one of the strongest emotional tugs in my life.

This and more, I thought to myself

I don't remember how long the drive was, but I do remember feeling sick from it. Piece of advice, do not mess with altitude-- it is not a good idea to drive to 12,000 feet above sea level after a recent 3-hour flight. But then, if it is for something this beautiful, perhaps you might reconsider.

It was summer yet almost everything was white, and the ice refused to melt despite the sun's warm rays. Huge walls of ice towered high above us, it was an overwhelming sight from atop the world. I could've spent the whole afternoon watching the mountains' peaks trying to reach out to the clouds above them.

Since Colorado is a land-locked state and I was told that we were going to a beach, I didn't expect it to be that great. But lo and behold, Aurora Reservoir is one of the most picturesque beach parks and places I've ever been to.

It is one of those places that makes it easy to revisit good memories; a place where everyone can naturally become levelheaded, relaxed, and contented.

Aurora Reservoir is a man-made facility with over 800 acres of water surface. Children covered in sunscreen waded in the water, and red and blue coolers were scattered everywhere; while Indiana was wet, it was truly summer in Colorado.

For something more exciting than simply lying down to get a tan, Water World in Denver is another great respite from the summer heat. I don't exactly remember how many we took, but the park offers a bunch of thrilling rides. There are also Family Rides, where even toddlers are allowed. When we took the Voyage to the Center of the Earth, Yana ended up peeing in her little swimsuit. With my screaming and laughing in that dark tunnel, I'm sure I scared her more than the phony roaring dinosaurs did.

Today's lesson: Go see places.

Chugging Down the Tracks: PNR Bicol Express

I decided to go home via the railways for a family event on the 28th. I had never taken the train outside the metropolis before so I was very excited about this trip. The Philippine National Railways' (PNR) final stop in Bicol is Naga City, which is about 4 hours from my hometown. I could have saved myself the time and energy had I traveled by bus or plane, but my audacious self got the better of me.

PNR has two kinds of train services to and fro Bicol, these are the Mayon Limited and Bicol Express. The Mayon Limited offers De Luxe with an Executive Lounge and Ordinary (non-air conditioned) accommodations. But for a 10-hour trip, people who value comfort in traveling may opt for Bicol Express' reclining seats or sleeper coaches.

Reservations are supposed to be made 2 weeks before departure, and you should pay and claim tickets 2 days prior to the reserved date. But, naturally, they can't afford to turn away paying customers during the lean season. I called on the 15th to make a reservation for a family sleeper coach (P665.00 or ~US$15.58) on the 26th. A few days after I made that phone call, I found out that I could go home earlier than I thought. So I made a visit to the Tutuban station on the 20th to pay and have my reservation moved to the 23rd. As long as there are seats and bunks available, they will most likely accommodate you. But don't risk it if you can make your travel plans early, early is always better. Just when I thought they did not have enough passengers, the train was almost full when we made a stop in Lucena.

I filled my backpack with a week's worth of clothes and left Taguig at around 3pm. I took a jeepney via the C5 road to MRT's Guadalupe station, then transferred to LRT-1 in Taft. From LRT-1's U.N. Avenue Station, I took a jeepney to Divisoria. I got off in front of the Binondo Church and took a pedicab to PNR in Tutuban. Now, I could have boarded PNR in Pasay, but I forgot to ask whether I was allowed to do that and I just thought it would be more interesting en route Divisoria.

Self-proclaimed lover boy on the loose

It is never safe to take out your camera in Tondo and Binondo (especially if you are female and alone), but the street scenes can be very tempting. So while the pedicab skidded through the metro's traffic, I held onto my camera and took some snapshots.

Filipino and Chinese children playing in the streets

From Taguig all the way to Binondo, it only cost me P50.00 (~US$1.17). There might be a more efficient and cheaper option than the pedicab from Binondo Church, but I am not very familiar with the area. The first Manong I talked to charged P80.00 (~US$1.87), then I found another Manong just 20 feet away who only asked for P50.00, I haggled a bit more and we finally agreed on P40.00 (93¢). I could have hammered out an even lower price but we all have to live and let live.

I arrived in PNR a few minutes past 5pm, my train was not scheduled to leave until 6.30pm. I went to the canteen for some ensaimada and juice to tame my growling tummy. After snacking, I went to the information desk to ask whether taking pictures was allowed. I wanted to make sure since, a couple of months ago, when my friends and I took the old train to Buendia, big cameras (DSLRs) were not allowed to be used in the premises. When we asked why, they only said the photographers were selling the pictures-- why that is a bad thing, I don't understand. So when we started boarding at 6pm, I used my phone to take a picture of the train which, by the way, is also prohibited. You may not take a picture of the train at all. You can, however, take pictures inside it.

My bunk was in the first car. Luckily, I was given a lower bunk. When I got to the cabin, two of the staff were lounging in it. They smiled sheepishly and one of them left. Kuya, the one who stayed, started a conversation with me, which was fine because I wanted to learn more about the train's amenities anyway. Each car contains separate cabins, I did not exactly count but it could be between 8 and 10, and each cabin has 2 upper and 2 lower bunks. The bunks are fashioned with curtains that can be drawn out to give yourself some privacy, and a personal lamp that is very suitable for reading. It is very spacious and the beds have good cushioning. The only thing I didn't like about my little space was the upholstery. I do not like velvet in public spaces; it did not look very clean, even the curtains looked a little grimy. If you are a germaphobe, this may not be a good traveling option, but we all have to accept the consequences of riding a public vehicle. So that night, I had to take out two of of my clean shirts to spread over the bed. Had I known that clean blankets and pillows were not provided, I would have at least brought a sarong, lesson learned.

A cabin takes about two-thirds of the train's width. The remaining third is the hallway. The walls have large opaque windows protected by steel screens, which make it impossible to enjoy the scenery. But in most cases, they keep a passenger's skull in one piece. Informal settlers have plagued the railways for a long time. They like to throw things at passing trains-- rocks, urine, even feces, probably anything they can get their hands on. :/ I do not remember how many times I got startled by a loud thud that night. So if you do not like crap on your cheek, you might want to reconsider taking the non-air conditioned service.

Since only curtains separate passengers, I was a little concerned about the security. But I was assured that no cases of stealing had ever been reported and two resident policemen rove at night. I spent half of the night talking to Kuya and the other half trying to get comfortable. I tried reading but the lights kept flickering, I later learned that they were having problems with the generator set, which meant the A/C was also malfunctioning though I barely felt the fluctuation. The temperature seemed just right but I did hear my neighbor cursing the cold from behind his curtains. I might not be the right person to ask because I happen to like cold. So, just in case, you might want to bring a coat or a jacket.

Each car has a wash area and a restroom. Surprisingly, they have hot water! But trust me when I say it is almost impossible to wash your face in a moving train. The restroom looked old but clean enough and, as expected, they did not have any toilet paper. Just a friendly advice, if you decide to take a trip around the Philippines, always make sure you have toilet paper at hand. It's hard enough to find a clean public restroom here, much more a public restroom with toilet paper.

The open window in the control room

Since I had voiced out my sentiment to Kuya regarding the opaque windows, he promised to take me to the end of the car the next morning so I could enjoy a view of the countryside. Unfortunately, it was not what I expected, you know like in European movies where trains have viewing decks and you can watch the trees and mountains run past you? Well, he took me to the cramped control room instead, where the glass window can be pulled down. But he also allowed me to stand beside an open door so I could take some pictures.

Announcements are made in the control room

Rice fields in Bicol

We arrived in Naga City a few minutes past 6am. Trains share tracks, and they usually stop to give way to another. So depending on how often your train stops, the trip will take 10-12 hours. From Naga, I still had a long way to go. I took a tricycle to the bus terminal. The tricycle driver tried to hustle me by asking for P20.00 but I only gave him P10.00 (~23¢). The (air conditioned) bus fare from Naga to Legazpi is P110.00 (~US$2.58). And from Legazpi, I took a van to Sorsogon for P85.00 (~US$1.99), then transferred to a jeepney bound for Gubat for P15.00 (~35¢). When I arrived, Ashley stared at me for about 3 seconds before running towards me barking like crazy.

Bicol Express parked in Naga

Click here for schedules and fares. Visit the PNR website for more information.

Today's lesson: This one is more practical, bring a sarong when traveling.

Camiguin Island

I thought maybe I should take a break from reviewing (don't even ask) and write about our last two days in Mindanao. Before you read the rest of the entry, I suggest you go through the first two of this series: Cagayan de Oro & Bukidnon and Iligan City.

The day after our brief affair with Tinago Falls, we woke up at almost 6am to get ready for our trip to Camiguin Island. The island is off the coast of Northern Mindanao. It is made up of 5 municipalities and also happens to be the country's 2nd smallest island after Batanes. We had planned an overnight stay but had not made any reservations for board, lodging, and transportation. From Cagayan de Oro, we took an airconditioned bus to the municipality of Balingoan, which took 2 hours. Balingoan is the main port for ferries going to Camiguin, and it also takes about 2 hours to reach the island.

When we got off the barge, we saw a banner that read "Tourist Information Center" but, to our disappointment, nobody was there. Then, a group of locals started huddling around us, offering two possible options to tour the island. It was going to be either via a multi-cab (in a nutshell, it is a hybrid of a van and a jeepney) or a pair of motorcycles. After much haggling, we finally decided on the multi-cab, which went for Php1,500.00 (~US$35.00) for 8hrs, a hundred pesos more expensive than the motorcycles but a lot more safe and convenient.

It was already almost noon when left the port, so we asked our guide, Mang Gerry, to make a stop at an inexpensive place to eat. Somewhere in Guinsilaban or Mahinog, we got off to have lunch at a carinderia. We had a whole barbecued chicken, two different fish viands, and a vegetable dish, all for P250.00 (~US$6.00).

Our first stop was Katibawasan Falls. After Tinago and Maria Cristina in Iligan, Katibawasan was not much of a stunner. Then, considering that we are from Bicol and have grown up with regular visits to different spring resorts, Ardent Hot Spring did not make the grandest impression. Though finding out that the several pools have varying temperatures was quite interesting, it also had a more appealing landscape than the spring resorts in our province. The third attraction was the Stations of the Cross, which is more than an hour hike up Mt. Vulcan on a paved staircase so, obviously, we skipped it.

The two most intriguing sites we visited that day were the Sunken Cemetery and Guiob Church Ruins. The Sunken Cemetery became part of the Bohol Sea when Mt. Vulcan erupted in the 1870's, a large cross was erected as a marker of the burial ground that was swallowed by the water. It is a place for the deceased, and this obvious fact adds to the enchantment of this uncanny attraction.

The Guiob Church Ruins is an ancient site from the 16th century. Similar to the Sunken Cemetery, the church was also destroyed by Mt. Vulcan. But due to the sturdiness of the coral stones that make up its walls, the ruins continue to fascinate tourists up to this day. And it was in the grassy yard of the old church that we decided to reminisce our childhood and play luksong-tinik.

On our way out, we ran into two fellow travelers whom we rafted with in CDO. Coincidentally, we also saw them in both waterfalls in Iligan the previous day. We ended up staying at the same inexpensive inn as they were that night thanks to their suggestion; Pabua's in Mambajao was P400.00 cheaper than the first accommodation we looked into, it came for P900.00 (~US$21.00), that's as cheap as it can get for a room big enough for 4 people . We made a final stop at Sto. Niño Cold Spring in Catarman. It is a vast pool of fresh, clear, and ice cold spring water that gets as deep as 8ft. Perfect to take a dip in after touring around the island for several hot hours.

We decided to have dinner at Luna Ristorante, a fancy Italian restaurant a few blocks from Pabua's. It was clearly out of the budget but we wanted to have a good time. We ordered a garden salad with tuna, a spicy pizza, and penne al fume. The food was surprisingly good for a place so far away from the main island. The servers were as friendly as a Filipino can get, but they were just a little too slow. In fact, too slow that I didn't get my glass of water until I almost finished my meal. My frozen mango margarita was not served with smoothly blended ice, but Dianne's piña colada came out just right.

The next morning, we woke up before dawn as we had scheduled a boat to take us to White Island at 5am. The morning air was still and somewhat chilly, but the sky was clear and it was looking like a perfect day to visit the beach. The shore was only behind the houses across Pabua's. I took several photos of the rising sun before we went into the boat.

A few minutes after we left the shore, it started to drizzle and the next thing we knew, giant drops of rain were pouring from the sky! I realized I was not carrying a waterproof case for my dSLR camera and phone. The wind had become colder and stronger. The boat's engine suddenly died and, for a few minutes, we were stranded in what looked like the the middle of nowhere. We could see the faintest white sand which told us we were getting close to our destination, but I was terrified. My gadgets could go berserk and our boat could capsize. Sure, we were wearing life vests but what of the unknown water and unending rain?! The engine growled back to life, the boatman told us not to be scared but I'm pretty sure what he really wanted to say then was shut the hell up! Haha. xD While Begs and Jocelle were as calm as sloths in a tree, Dianne and I were already panicking and were wanting to turn back. By the time we reached the island, or what could be seen of it, the sky had turned darker. The horizon was a heavy gray confirming that the rain was not going to stop anytime soon. We turned back without even leaving the boat. As we made our way back through what felt like a storm, all I could honestly think of was the feeling of dry land under my feet.

Thinking about it now, I feel stupid and weak. What was I so worried about? Drowning? Getting bitten by a shark? My friends and I never seeing each other again? Never seeing my dog and nieces again? My camera? All these silly things looping in my head, but I failed to come up with one favorable thought. That is, to turn that growing fear into excitement. So do remind me that the next time I find myself in a stormy sea, I have to at least try to shut up and enjoy the ride! XD

After showering and changing, we went back to Luna for some breakfast. Jocelle had a tomato and mozzarella omelet, while the rest of us had corned beef, eggs, and rice.

The rain started to heavily pour again. It was only 9am and we were not expecting Mang Gerry to pick us up until 9.30am, so we decided to wait. We were the only people in the restaurant except for an Italian man whom we assumed to be the owner. And as if proving itself, the weather is still the most classic conversation starter. We forgot to ask his name but found out that he has been living in the Philippines before we were even born. As per Jocelle's request, he translated and spoke some Italian for us. The downpour did not stop so we found ourselves running back to Pabua's. We did not get to leave the island until noon. And as our bus drove past the dense Mindanao forests, I found myself agreeing: "Le Filippine sono bello un paese," the Italian said. The Philippines is a beautiful country.

(And if that Italian sentence is not right, please feel free to correct me. Haha. XD I am simply relying on memory and Google translate. XDDD)

P.S. Yes, as you have already probably predicted, we were late for our flight back to Manila. Luckily, the plane was an hour delayed.

Today's lesson: Just enjoy the freaking ride.