C a f e
B a t a v i a
A building as old as time, and a history as rich as royalty, Cafe Batavia.
C a f e
B a t a v i a
A building as old as time, and a history as rich as royalty, Cafe Batavia.
G o l d e n
H o u r
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Golden tabletops and lush fountains of red wine await those who reach the peak of this glass giant whose summit towers tall over downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Those who do will feast like royalty on a throne overlooking Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) while graced with a magnificent setting sun. This commanding view belongs to Air 360 Skybar and grants a full 360-degree panorama of the surrounding Ho Chi Minh City–a truly remarkable sight.
My energy reserves had, in all respects, met their bottom. I laid motionless on top of the snow with my heavy breathing as the only indication that I was still alive—I was okay but needed time before I could start moving again. My breathing remained cumbersome and short for many moments (up to this point, it only took a few seconds, 15 at the most, before my breathing normalized, allowing me to start trekking again). This time was different; I spent what felt like a lifetime on the ground, gasping for air. For the sake of my toes, I knew that I needed to get up and keep moving, but my lungs were tight, and my muscles had been heavily strained.
I groped the snow around me, there was a lot of it, before coming to my grips. My toes felt life inside of them from the blast of effort I had put forth getting up the ridge, but as the seconds passed, so did their returning life. But I couldn’t get up, not just yet; I needed more time to recover. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to stand for long as I was exhausted beyond repair.
I spent the next few moments breathing short, quick breaths into the snow until the ice crystals began to melt around my face. I didn’t bother moving, not until my breath and energy returned. As they did, I took my opportunity and depleted both of them, once more, getting back on my feet. My pack was heavy, heavier than I had ever felt it before. Just getting it around my shoulders was more work than the small act of getting back onto my feet. Upon standing, my head spun, and black spots clouded my vision. I leaned onto my trekking poles to prevent myself from falling back into the snow. Another few moments passed before my vision cleared up and the sensation of collapsing retreated.
For the first time, I looked around unbothered by time or people. The landscape was beautiful and rich with life. Snow coated the ground around me, painting a bold layer between sky and ground while spiraling rock chasms reached far below into the valley. All around me, sheer rock walls rose to the heavens, towering confidently over me; I was over 5,000 meters in the air, but they rose over six. In the grand scheme of the landscape, I was a but a mere ant, leaving tiny footprints as I tracked over the snow.
As my eyes followed the various marks and lines that formed the landscape and waited for my strength to return, I made out a small stone hut that erected almost in line with the snow banks which had crept up and nearly swallowed it whole. The only reason I was able to make it out from the rest of the white, rocky, landscape, was because the snow had recently fallen from a part of its roof. Its tin roof, painted blue, glimmered under the sun and contrasted brightly against the snow. It was the psychological halfway mark—but just shy of the actual halfway point. The small glimpse restored my hope and gave me the motivation that I needed to continue forward. I knew that only one thing mattered, putting the heat back into my toes and reversing any damage that had already taken its hold.
I unstrapped my pack, letting it fall where it would, as I entered a small hole in the rocks that was the door. It was dark and cramped inside—a table took up a large portion of the open floor—but it shielded against the wind and retained the warmth from a small crackling fire that roared in the corner. The light flickered against the smooth, defined stones that rose up the walls; it reached as far as it could before failing and falling just shy of the opening in the rocks, there it met the light of the sun and the coolness of the snow.
“What’ll you be having?” the caretaker mumbled as he appeared from out of the shadows. The warm light revealed many wrinkles that hung folded into one another from his face. He was old, worn by time and many seasons, but there he stood, hunched in front of me, wise and sure. I was surprised to see somebody caring for the teahouse and found myself startled. “A…, a black tea, please,” I stammered back.
I dropped to the bench as I removed my shoes and socks (they were soaking wet and had already crystallized, making them stiff like rubber bands: old, worn, and ready to crumble). The caretaker watched over me with a wandering eye as I placed the hot, tin cup between my feet and toes. Immediate pleasure came over me. I could see and feel my toes curl around the cup and watched as blood rushed through my veins. The veins pulsed from under my skin.
The caretaker stood by silently before lifting my shoes from the ground. He examined them for a while and finally came out with it: “These no good,” he remarked, as he held up the shoe to my sight.
“I know,” I responded in a long annoying tone like I hadn’t come to the realization myself. But the caretaker was kind and took nicely to my tone. He disappeared for a second before returning with two plastic bags. I looked at him curiously, thinking of what the bags were for.“These will keep the heat in and the water out,” he said as he extended his hands forward. I smiled and instantly regretted the arrogant and annoyed remark that I had made moments earlier. The two, tattered plastic bags came at a great cost, but at that point, money was of no value to me, and I handed over every wet, crumpled bill that lined the bottom of my pocket.
THE FINAL ASCENT
I remained within the warmth of the teahouse for only a few minutes; I needed to reach the Pass before powerful currents sent harsh winds up and over the Pass from the Mustang Region, giving me only another hour or so.
When I could feel life come back into my toes, I set off. The Bear and the Italian weren’t far ahead of me. In fact, I had met them at the teahouse and had bid them good luck only moments earlier. They were the only footprints on the trail as we were the first to be forging the path over the freshly laid snow.
I found my pack where it had fallen and shouldered it for another time, surely not to be my last before the summit’s end. The caretaker nodded his head, and that was the last I ever saw of him. When I stepped out from the open rock frame that was the door, my eyes squinted, nearly shut entirely. The white snow was blinding, and by this point, the sun had risen over the peaks and invited warmth into the entire valley; it was perhaps one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. My feet were feeling better, a lot better, but my altitude sickness symptoms were growing worse.
A few other trekkers had braved the conquest and weren’t far below the teahouse. Among them were an American and an Australian whom I had seen many times throughout our long journey on the Annapurna Circuit. They were full of vigor and cheer and filled with youth; not me, though. I felt as old as time and reminisced about when I could’ve easily handled whatever difficulties came my way. Those days had left me long ago; it would’ve seemed.
I nodded to them and started my journey up. One step in front of the other, I pushed on. I entered a giant ice valley filled with snow and great dividing rock walls that were covered in ice and glistening under the sun. My body could only handle a few steps at a time before I had to rest on a rock, or the snow when there wasn’t one. Eventually, the Australian and the American caught up to me. They were still in high spirits, but only moving a little bit quicker than me: the elements were chipping at them too. We remained in league with one another for a few hundred, relatively flat, meters before taking a rest together. I was getting worse, and the more acute symptoms were setting in: nausea and blurred vision.
The Australian dropped his pack by the abandoned shelter (a rock structure with no door or windows made solely for severe weather conditions such as the big 2014 accident that killed 21 trekkers) and sat atop it. He broke out a pack of cookies and passed them around. I was hungry; I hadn’t eaten at all that morning (another symptom of altitude sickness, loss of appetite). When he handed me the cookie, I remembered that I hadn’t eaten and that I was, in fact, hungry. But I was reluctant to bring the cookie to my mouth; something felt off.
THE BARREN WHITENESS THAT LAY BEFORE
I kept the cookie in my hand and told the guys that I was going to start moving again. They nodded me on and wished me luck. I took a few paces before remembering the cookie in my hand. I raised the cookie to my mouth, and as soon as it reached my tongue, things went wrong, very wrong. My stomach cringed and tightened; I felt a pull in my throat as if I were going to vomit, and my vision caved in before me. I immediately fell to my knees, and the cookie fell to my side. I remained on my knees for a good while before hearing their voices. I heard them but didn’t process them. I just stared out to the white vastness that laid before me.
“What have I done?” I whispered as I clenched my fists tightly; I continued staring out to the drifts of snow, wavering on my knees.
The American came to my side: “Hey, man, are you okay?” he asked. Once again, I heard his voice but didn’t fully process it; my thoughts and fears had fully consumed me. I slowly turned my head toward him and finally spoke: “Yeah, man, I think I’m going to rest here for a while.” He looked at me and slowly shook his head before saying: “Okay, but there is a sherpa not far behind. I can wait with you, and we can call for a helicopter. You look terrible, bro.”
I acknowledged him but told him that that was not necessary. “You guys go on ahead, I’ll catch up soon. I’ll be okay.” The words that slipped from my tongue were cunning and misleading. I wasn’t fine; I was in the worst shape that I had ever experienced. My body was failing me, and not even I could muster the strength to stop it.
“If my time were truly before me, it wouldn’t be in a helicopter,” I voiced in my head. I remained on my knees, thought long and hard, and waited for my breath and vision to come back. Before I regained my stature, I made a bargain with myself. I was in a position with limited options but already knew my choice. I could have either gone back down to Thorung High Camp in the hope that I could still recover from the height of altitude sickness that I had reached or conquered the Pass that sat only a hundred vertical meters from me and be done with it. If the Long Sleep had come for me, I was going to finish what I had set out to do, summit Annapurna’s Thorung La Pass, before it took me.
I felt a meager might crawl back into my bones. I didn’t bother or have the energy for that matter, to strap my pack, so I pressed on without doing so. My feet lifted one by one and landed only a few centimeters in front of the last. I didn’t think; I just kept moving forward and up. Whiteness consumed me, and I felt like I was floating, but could still feel the tightness in my lungs, the pounding in my head, the pull in the back of my throat, and the loss of feeling in my toes. The Australian and the American weren’t far ahead, and it appeared as though I was gaining on them, but I didn’t acknowledge them, I just kept moving, at all costs. Not even the shortness of breath stopped me; every step churned forward like metal gears hard at work.
I passed them. I did not look back, though. Instead, I heard the words: “Right on, bro. Go!” It was the voice of the American, which I could recognize from anywhere. My fist raised to the sky and fell alongside my next step. I continued. Every stretch of ground that I covered looked the same as the last and every mound of rock and snow led to another. But I kept digging my feet, one by one, after another, into the snow.
I had made much ground since I had last fallen to my knees. Up over the last ridge, I could see The Bear and the Italian standing proud and strong. Behind them, were colorful Tibetan Prayer Flags, blowing in the wind against the pale blue sky. They were standing at the summit of the Pass. More energy crept into my veins as I picked up my pace and hastened toward them. The Australian and the American were only a few paces behind, but I could hear them yell in excitement. The horizon shifted lower and lower as I gained ground until I had met the pile of rocks marking the summit. A teahouse also marked the summit, and there was a caretaker, well, taking care. I reached them and was astounded by how; I couldn’t remember any of the last bit of distance I had come. I just knew that I was standing at the highest point that I had ever stood and was graced with the opportunity to drop over 1,700 meters. My chances of living doubled at that moment. I knew if I fell far and fast enough, my symptoms would lessen and dissipate immediately—if it wasn’t too late, that was.
At the summit, I grabbed a hot black tea and pondered in our victory. I shared a few words of accomplishment with The Bear and the Italian, but I didn’t stay for long; my symptoms lingered on and hovered dreadfully over me. After my tea was halfway finished, I left it in the comforts of the teahouse and started my long descent to Muktinath. The Italian and The Bear led the way, but I soon passed them as my walking turned into a jog and, eventually, an all out sprint down the snowy banks of Thorung La.
I felt life jolt back into me, and my legs as they shook off the weariness that had taken them. It was me, strong and lively. I was back, and my soul burned with a fiery life. When the trail got too steep to run, I ran; I ran and jumped onto the thin sheet of hard snow and glided down the rock walls. I slid for hundreds of meters at a time, hitting lumpy rocks along the way. But I was living in the very sense of living. I leaned heavily on my skills as I traversed the icy path on my knees and shoulder. I let out howls and pushed the limits of what I knew my body was capable of. I took back what was taken from me and showed it off every meter. I drove my poles into the ice and steered my way south toward my first village. By the time I looked back, I couldn’t see anybody. I was so far ahead that it would take hours for them to eventually find me sitting, showered, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, enjoying a hot coffee, at the Bob Marley Inn.
I arrived at Muktinath well before noon and was the only fresh trekker around. I checked into the Inn, having heard of it from various people as a meeting point for celebration. I picked a room that sat on the top terrace and looked out to the Annapurna Range. I relished in a hot shower and scrubbed the skin clean of dirt and dead skin. It was the first shower I had had since I started trekking the Annapurna Range—it was glorifying. After a hot shower and a clean pair of clothes, I poured a fresh cup of organic Himalayan coffee. The mug was huge and filled the entire palm of my hand…and some. The coffee tasted so fresh as it bit down on my taste buds. The sun shone brightly above, and not a single cloud filled the sky. I had just come from the icy depths of Thorung La and was now sitting in a barren, desert land that was invulnerable to the threat of snow and ice.
One by one, other trekkers showed up—hours after I had gotten comfortable. They looked at my clean clothes and the fresh cup of coffee and smiled. The afternoon went on like this for some time. Trekkers poured in by the pair. More people than I expected forged ahead and took on the Pass that day. But far less than the number who had first set out to do so. A small fraction of who set out to tame Thorung La made it to Muktinath that day (some having been medivaced off of the mountain), and that evening we celebrated. We celebrated with bottles of vodka, liters of coffee, searing hot plates of food, and music; Bob himself would’ve been pleased.
Small fires roared amidst the merry voices as cool temperatures settled in outside the doors. People laughed, genuine laughs that only somebody who had overcome great adversity could laugh. Lifelong friendships emerged as we had all shared a great deal of difficulties with one another.
I spent time with trekkers I hadn’t seen for many days and, of course, the Australian and the American. They were amazed at the person I actually was—not the person I had become, the person they had seen faltering in the icy tundra of Thorung La. It was like age had been wiped from my face and energy of new youth had radiated from my skin. I, too, could feel and see it. I was me again and wore a smile the entire evening. The Australian’s smile, on the other hand, went along with that night’s dinner; too much vodka, you see. No real harm, though, just memories of hanging off of the balcony pouring out his guts (his smile came back that morning at the sight of breakfast).
Among the many people crowding the Inn, we were all tied into one another through mutual friends; It was like a family reunion. Two other trekkers worth mentioning were two American friends, Jesse and Chris. I had faced great misery and great triumph with them the days before the Pass but hadn’t seen them since the village of Manang. Somewhere along the desperate search for a place to sleep, we lost each other. But I found them sitting, laughing, with broad smiles painted long across their faces, by a warmly lit fire. When our stares crossed, it was like reuniting with a long lost friend who I had thought to be long gone. We spent most of the evening together sharing the missing stories of our time apart until the evening faded and we all retired to our quarters for a well-earned night’s sleep.
The Russian Bear, as we called him, lost in thought, staring out to the Annapurnas from Thorung High Camp—High Camp sits at 4,949 meters above sea level, and is planted at the foothill of Thorung La Pass. Thorung La Pass lies at an altitude of 5,416 meters and is the summit of the Annapurna Circuit Trek, dividing the Mustang district from Manang district.
“Three times in my life, I have felt as if death were imminent; today was one of them: March 20, 2017.”
THORUNG HIGH CAMP: Altitude – 4,949 meters
March 19, 2017, to March 20, 2017
I fought sleep for as long as I could before falling into its hold at 20:00. Symptoms of altitude sickness ran rampant on my body, but I was confident that by the following morning, they would have subsided and gone.
I jolted awake and into an upright, sitting position; it was only 1:00 am. I looked out to my window as the vine-like frost crept around it. I could feel a cold, eerie draft seeping in from the crack beneath my door. The breath poured from my mouth and froze as soon as it left. I was sweating profusely and could feel the dampness all around my sleeping bag. It wasn’t long before the heat escaping from my bag filled the room. Pound, pound, pound: deep drumming echoes took their turn one after another, sending the sound of pulsing blood around my skull. I could hear the blood squeezing through my veins. It was as if somebody had driven an ax into the back of my head and bolted clamps around my temples.
I sat slouching in my bed with my hands lying atop the covers. My eyes circled the ceiling. My thoughts were not random, rather centered upon the notion of sudden death. I was experiencing altitude sickness, and I was in a dangerous position. I hadn’t acclimatized in the least and broke the major rule that all trekkers should abide by, that is the 500-meter rule. Starting at 3,000 meters, you should sleep every 300 to 500 meters gained before continuing your ascent. It does not necessarily matter how high you climb that day so long as you descend to an altitude within that 300 to 500-meter gained range. I had gained 1,000 meters on back to back days with no rest days in between.
Every twenty minutes that passed, I awoke to a throbbing beat that filled the back of my head. I wondered if I should grab my pack and head down 500 meters, but the thought of movement made me sick. My head weighed its size in lead, and the temperatures had reached -25° Celsius. The wind battered relentlessly at my door, bringing the temperatures even lower, as hot chills ran down my body. But my room was hot; I was emitting enough heat to where the frost, covering my window, had turned to moisture.
March 20, 2017: 4 A.M.
By the hour of 04:00, I had slept maybe a total of an hour and was in no condition to take on the Pass. Fortunately for me, Mother Nature had me covered. Sometime during the dead of night, heavy winds tossed massive drifts of snow to and from, some sitting close to a meter high over important sections of the trail, leaving not even footprints to guide.
Groups of weary travelers, dozens at a time, were sent back down the mountain via the High Camp path—a nearly 500-meter sheer drop to Thorung Phedi camp. The camp was filled with anxious energy. The Pass had already been closed for over a week a few days earlier and the thought of it happening now filled the air with whispers and groans. Some rejoiced in the temporary closing of the Pass; I was among them. Few remained hopeful that the pass would open, and those who did, remained rooted at Thorung High Camp; but there was one who sat restlessly, one who made many trips over the borders beyond the camp to survey the situation. The Bear knew these lands well as he had already traversed them three years earlier.
When the final hour of our decision was at hand, Nikolay, The Bear, came trudging back into camp after disappearing entirely for some time. Snow flooded the corridor as the door swung open, and a tall, dark figure came to light. His pack swayed at his side, as he gripped the handle tightly with each step. He struck his pack on top of the table and with a cold, hard expression endeavored the words: “We go in five-minute.”
His stern Russian accent followed by his disconcerting appearance toward remaining at camp or, worse, turning back, gave us all the notion that we were going to follow him up and over the pass in the minutes to follow.
That cold, windy morning, the Russian, the Italian, and the American set off into the barren whiteness that laid beyond the splintered doors. Our footprints would lead the way for the many brave travelers who eventually set aside their fears and joined us in the perils of the adventure.
Regardless of The Bear’s motivation in reaching the Pass, I knew that I needed to stay behind. I was in no shape to continue forward and knew that if I did, the possibility of death would be soon to follow. I had neared the critical stages of altitude sickness, but they were starting to subside; it took over a liter of hot tea, but I could feel my severe headache temper down to a mild one. I remained cautious of my vitals and did my best to keep the conversations to a minimum; every time I talked with another spirited trekker, I could feel my headache grow as it pounded the back of my head.
Luckily for me, the Pass was closed, at the moment, taking the decision out of my hands: I would be left to stay one more night at Thorung High Camp or head down to Thorung Phedi Camp—the latter being my smartest decision if I wanted a chance at pulling through.
(Decreasing elevation to combat altitude sickness is one of the surest ways to cure yourself and to prevent any more serious symptoms from arising: symptoms like nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, or, worse, a coma. For this very reason, it is urged against sleeping or napping when you feel the more acute symptoms take hold. Many of its victims who do, fall into a deep sleep (we call it a coma) never to wake).
I poured another spoonful of sugar into my last cup of tea—sugar helping with the symptoms—and did my best to regulate my breathing. My comrades, who only felt slight symptoms of altitude sickness (it is estimated that over 80% of trekkers who summit the Pass will experience symptoms of altitude sickness, some mild and others very serious) were enthused with confidence and feeling quite well. I put on a smile but knew I was in more trouble than I led on, but was relieved at news of the Pass still being closed.
There was a stir in the backside of the camp. The last few local Mountaineers had come back from the Thorung La trail, shaking snow from their boots and jackets as they appeared from behind the massive snow banks. I placed my tea canteen back on the counter from where I had gotten it and asked the caretaker what the ruckus was about.
“The Pass has just been marked clear,” he said; but added: “Nobody should attempt the Pass at this moment. It is still far too dangerous. The snow drifts aren’t fully cleared, and most of the trail is not yet visible. One false step, and you’ll end up at the bottom of the valley. I’ve seen it happen many times.”
“F**k”: I subtly whispered under my breath; I knew myself all too well, and I knew what I was about to do. Just then, I felt a hand wrap around my shoulder: It was The Bear’s. “We go now,” he grunted as he shouldered his pack and swung the door open. Nobody in the lodge moved except for the few who shivered and shuddered from the blast of cold air. I took a few moments to gather my thoughts. “It’s now or never,” were the last words I heard and they were from inside my head.
I gritted my teeth as if to fight the urges that had overcome me and soon fled after him. “WAIT,” I yelled. “You don’t think you’re taking all of the glory yourself, do you? I’m coming with you.”
He grinned as if he had already known that I would. He slid his pack off of his shoulders and waited by the door as I ran back to my room to grab my gear. I could feel flares of heat run up my neck from the sudden jolt and excitement; but it was too late, things were already set in motion. When I stepped back outside, I could still see scores of trekkers heading down the snow bank toward Thorung Phedi Camp. To my left, I saw The Bear standing restlessly alongside the Italian. I signaled them ahead and took my time moving about the stones that groped the bottom of my feet. The pounding in my head had come back, and at full force, from the short walk that I had taken to gather my gear.
THE FINAL JOURNEY BEGINS
The rising sun brought with it a soaring, pale blue sky, but the sun wasn’t to be seen for sometime itself; we were sailing high above the clouds, but other rock giants rose higher, shrouding its view. It was for this that the temperatures remained low, but not low enough to keep the fresh snow frozen; it was still solid but latched onto my shoes with each step. As soon as it did, it melted and sank beneath and into my socks. I was wearing sneakers—the only trekker on the entire trail, at that.
I came to regret the decision the day before when I felt, or, rather, couldn’t feel my toes on the trek to Yak Kharka. But this time, the freezing process was moving faster, a lot faster. I wasn’t one hundred meters into my ascent before the loss of feeling became apparent. Among the growing altitude sickness symptoms, I had another worry to fill my thoughts: frostbite. At these temperatures, with the wind chill and wet snow, frostbite was a very real threat and wouldn’t take long before it began eating at my toes.
For another hundred meters, I followed carefully in The Bear’s footprints. They took me around a steep snow bank, where I finally lost sight of High Camp. My point for turning back was now behind me, and I was now fully committed to the Pass as an alternative means for battling my altitude sickness.
Around the corner of another lofty snow bank, I saw The Bear and Italian resting on a short, suspended bridge that united a large, dark, crack in the ice, a small chasm that ran deep into the mountain. By the time I met them, they were already gearing up their packs and getting ready to move. “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” The Bear’s voice lingered my way. For this reason, I stayed. He could see my symptoms growing and knew, better than anybody, that I was in trouble. He knew the type of hiker I was, as he had been hiking with me for the days that led up to this point, and could see a sharp change take hold of me. He was no stranger to altitude sickness himself, as not but three years earlier they had gotten to him, as well.
I saw two other trekkers rounding the snow bank and rising slowly. Their steps were short but confident. My lungs couldn’t bear another step, so I unstrapped my pack and laid it by the bridge that sat before me. Not a thought had passed before I ripped off my shoes and socks. I grabbed tightly to my toes and feet, breathing every precious, warm, breath onto them. It appeared to be useless, but I continued anyhow. I did so for a long time, long enough that the other two trekkers caught up to my position.
The man, a tall, broad, Russian, with a thick, stout beard, broke the silence that greeted us: “You need to keep moving,” he rumbled in his stern Russian accent. “If you do not keep moving, you will lose your toes. Go! Go now, you should not waste time,” were his next words. The woman, his wife, spoke next: “I am from cold country; he is right, you know. You need to keep moving, or else you will lose your toes. What you are doing is foolish. Go now!”
As if I needed more worries placed into my thoughts, their words sounded true and real, so I did not doubt or ignore them. They dropped their packs as I shouldered mine and threw on my shoes. A new energy came about me, and I raced up the long, 100-meter snow bank. It came at a significant cost and took a heavy toll on my body. The steep drop-off alone was nothing to take lightly, but I paid it no attention. A new threat hovered over me: losing my toes. They were as cold as ice and as solid as rock. The last sign of life had soon left them, the tingles. Once the tingles were gone, I knew I was in real trouble. At least the tingles meant they were still there and trying to circulate fresh, warm blood. But as I steamed upward, my toes became a second thought. My lungs soon seized from the blast of effort, and my head was pounding so hard, that I could feel it tremble throughout my bones.
I fell to the snow, trying desperately to catch my breath. My chest was on fire, so I tore off my outer jacket and gloves. Within seconds, my sweat cooled and left me frozen and shivering. I was in what felt like a living hell and was sitting over 5,200 meters in the air. I resented myself for being such a fool and lashed out at the mountain by throwing a large rock down into the emptiness that filled the valley below. It disappeared without a sound, leaving only a hole where the snow once was.
To be continued…
THREE MEN STRONG
The days were unbearably hot and the night’s air was stagnant and muggy. It made it difficult to explore let alone leave the confines of the hostel where A/C made the environment considerably more pleasing than outside. Nevertheless, I did my best to continue exploring, as Legazpi City held so much natural beauty that I had yet to see.
It was getting close to dark when I saw a few Westerners sitting outside of the hostel doors enjoying a smoke and drinking their local beers. Naturally, I joined them. One fellow, Amir, was from Israel and had just spent the last six years of his life servings his country. The other, Klar, was from Germany, exploring the many wonders of Asia, like me. We danced the borders of who we were before Amir turned to me and asked what I had planned to do the following day. To be honest, I had a very tentative plan to hike Mount Malinao, but the slightest change in mood could’ve toppled that plan to the ground. Anyhow, I told him that I was going to wake up before the sun to make my way toward the trail head.
He leaned in with interest and asked me more about this hike. “I don’t know much about it; I’m keen on seeing Mount Mayon from one of the best vantages in all of Legazpi City,” I said. I had his full attention, as not but the day before he took a stab at climbing Mount Mayon, but was turned around due to lack of preparedness and permission. He didn’t have intentions of climbing Mayon that day, so he didn’t go prepared with water or gear. He thought for sure he would be turned around by guards and park rangers. But, to his surprise, he slipped right past them and even made it a few kilometers up the trail. He mentioned that he could have easily continued, but without water, he would not risk it.
Amir shared the same fascination with Mayon as I, and the thought of seeing her from a vantage like Mount Malinao struck his attention. “I want to join you tomorrow,” he said to me. I was caught off guard because I hadn’t entirely committed myself but knew that the plan to conquer Malinao was just set in motion. I gave him the details as to sure up that he knew the risk involved and the type of hiker I was. I didn’t want anybody dragging me behind, but he had a confidence about him that assured me he wouldn’t.
Amir and I confirmed the wake-up time; he seemed to be down with whatever time I said, before the third, Klar, stepped forward and committed himself to the journey, as well. “I too would like to join you guys,” he interjected with a hint of question. “I’m not in the best of hiking shape right now, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to keep up,” he continued. I looked at the two of them, knowing full well that an adventure was in our grasps, and said: “I will see you guys by 5 am sharp, and that if I don’t, I will know that you have rethought your decisions.
I spent the entire night tossing and turning. After all of my time venturing around, the feeling of giddiness always got the best of me. My thoughts raced, and I went over detail after detail about our adventure to Mount Malinao; what time I need to wake up, the different jeepneys we need to take, where the trailhead is, do I need more food, what about more water, what will I take with me or leave behind, were some of the many thoughts that raced through my head.
SO IT BEGINS (May 3RD)
Klar and I shared the same room, and Amir was in the old building for the evening. By the time my alarm went off, I was already out of bed preparing my gear. I couldn’t be too sure of the barriers that laid ahead of us but had nearly a month of experience venturing in the Philippines. One thing was certain: it would not be easy.
I studied my new comrades, as we prepared our gear and got ready to set off in search of a jeepney. Their gear was far from special, but they both had the confidence to do without it. Amir showed no fear in any sense. When I asked him about his water rations, knowing what the heat of the Philippines can do to a man, he replied: “I probably won’t need more than this liter here.” It was not my place to urge advice, but I strongly suggested that he bring more, as I had already strapped three liters of water onto my pack. I don’t believe it was my words that swayed him to get more water, rather the way I prepared myself. From an outsider’s perspective, it must have looked like I was preparing to set off into the wilderness for weeks on end. But what they weren’t aware of, was the trials I had faced thus far in Asia, especially my short time in the Philippines.
No matter what the day threw at us, I was confident because I had my GPS every step of the way. It has saved my life in more ways than one. We flagged down our first jeepney which would take us as far as Tobaco. From there, we would have to catch another jeepney to the Malinao – Tiwi Boundary. As we approached the Malinao – Tiwi Boundary, it was like we had entered an electronically voided bubble. Amir also used Maps.me as a source for GPS. Both of our maps shut down as soon as we entered the bubble. Immediately, we started to get anxious. Without it, we had no idea where to get off or where the trailhead was. I had done many things to prepare for this hike, but studying my map was not one of them. Perhaps it was because I relied so heavily on it in the past, I figured it wouldn’t let me down this time.
We both stared at our maps, hoping that by the grace of God our locations would pin again. The jeepney rolled a great distance, and I knew it was soon time that we got off but was far from certain as the last look I had at my map was some time ago. As I hoped and prayed, my map lit up once more. Our locations were back, and just in time, too. We had nearly passed our mark—not the end of the world, but it would have been a pain in the ass to flag down another jeepney and not a promising start to our journey.
Where we got off, we were two kilometers from our trailhead. There wasn’t much around us, just a lot of dirt and wandering eyes. The three of us stood tall against the mounds of dirt and stretches of rolling hills. A small town guarded the trailhead, and people moved about in everyday life. We were a great distance from Legazpi City, and I don’t believe many of these country folks made the journey, often: this was their land, and they lived fully off of it.
Our trailhead was marked well and was broad around our feet. We could all, easily, walk in stride with one another. But as the path steadily rose, so did the gap between us. It is an unspoken trekking rule that every man works at his own pace and that there are no hard feelings when the gaps begin to grow. I took the lead, like the workhorse that I was and pioneered the path when it grew dim and short. Eventually, the path delved deep into the jungle, but it was overgrown almost as if it hadn’t been trodden for many seasons except for the daring cow who ventured out beyond his usual stomping grounds to taste new leaf.
I led on, and when the gap grew too big, I left markers where the trail was uncertain. At one point in the trail, I assembled all of the stones I could bear and built an arrow in the middle of the path where it split off into two. Thankfully I did because I chose the wrong fork. Two hundred meters up the path, which I thought for sure to be the correct, ended in a giant, burned, grass field. There were no paths that could be made out, and an uneasy feeling overcame me. Remembering how our GPSs failed us a few hours earlier, I began to think that it would happen when we needed them most. We were about to step into the wild and untamed jungle, where the other fork led.
By the time I made it back to my arrow, I could see Amir, and a few paces back, Klar, huffing it up the hill. I waited for them, and when they arrived, presented our options. The path was, for certain, unsure of itself. The ground below the overgrown bushes and thorns had undoubtedly been marked before, but how long before was the question. Nevertheless, none of the two showed any hesitation in following me into the jungle. I liked that about them, and they reinforced my confidence—no matter how misplaced it was.
We waded through billowing stalks of grass, some, close to two meters high. The landscape was dripping with color. Everywhere from the tall grass to the rooted trees radiated in life. There was no shortage of rain where we found ourselves; as we brushed against the foliage, our clothes became damp from all of the sitting water within them. Sections of, what appeared to be, freshly grazed path would open up before us, time and time again. Each time it did, our hopes were restored, as we knew we were on the right path—especially when our GPS showed the trail always a few meters away. We all rationalized that the GPS was only accurate within a few meters or so, but I knew deep down that we were atop no man-made path, and that, in fact, the real path was moving further and further away. I kept those details to myself as not to alarm or unsettle anybody.
But, after time, not even I could pretend that we were on the right path anymore. The trail had gotten so bad that not even a shroud of evidence supported a walkable path. We had worked hard up and to this point, and nobody was content with turning back. My confidence was faltering, and I was looking for any sign of hesitation to turn back. Even for me, the thought of pushing forward was unnerving, but I believe no man wanted to be guilty of throwing in the towel.
From this point, we stepped off of the only sign of path that was given. We agreed that if we continued farther just a little more, the path would open back up again like it had done so many times before. But, to me, something felt different this time. The path from where we had come was no path at all. I just think our minds rationalized that it was because nobody wanted to face the reality that we were most definitely lost.
With their nods of approval, I moved aside the jagged thorns and noxious plants that guarded the border of the thicker part of the jungle. A deep breath filled my chest as I placed my first step into what would be our judgment.
Every step tested us as we moved upward, very slowly, in a long chain. I held the thorns aside for Amir, and he did the same for Klar; this went on for hours, but we made no ground. If the conditions were any different, we would’ve moved over ten kilometers by that point. But we had barely moved 1,000 meters, according to my GPS, which showed our location nowhere near the path. The further we pressed on, the harder we made it to turn back and the less likely it was that we would find where we had started. We were lost, and at this point, everybody knew so, but nobody showed fear. I admired them more for this, but at this point, I had lost hope beyond reckoning. I kept my grin about me, though, as our confidence was all tied together at this point. If one man were to give into the fear that surrounded us, one by one, we all would. What then? Panic? Call for help? Who would hear us? Nobody. We were lost in the deep, wild jungle, far from the likes of people.
I kept my map tied to my belt and gave it a scan every 15 or so steps. Although it showed our location far from the trail, we were still progressing toward the summit. Even if we were on the wrong path, if we made it to the summit, we had hope of finding the real one, and we could take it back down the mountain. Trekking back down the mountain the way we came was not an option.
We were completely covered in bush and thorn but were only a few hundred meters from the summit. Mounds of loose, wet, dirt had become our path as we scrambled upward. The small cuts on our bodies sparkled and glimmered from our sweat. The question of water and food was next, but we would wait to address that until we had met the summit. The small cuts that appeared on our bodies were the least of our worries; at least we knew where they were coming from: the hundreds of thorn bushes we were forging. The numbing tingles, though, were troubling. We were surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of species of plants, and among them were noxious ones. Our legs and arms tingled and shivered; mine even changed colors to a deep purple in some parts.
Amidst the sweat, blood, and poison, we were losing what little spirit we had left. But the biggest crack to our spirit was just ahead, the summit: we are less than a hundred meters from it, and our spirits rose immensely! I could see genuine smiles upon release of the newly found data; and I, myself, was beginning to celebrate—far too soon, though.
We reached the summit not long after, but to our dismay, it was not at all what we had expected. Nothing, we could see nothing except bush, plant, and fog; this can’t be, I thought. How is this even possible? There is no view, no platform to gaze from, not even a small window through the trees. Worse yet, there was no trail—not even a hint. Amir could sense my frustration, and, in an attempt to bring us centered, said that we had had a great experience. “So what if we can’t see Mayon from here. Look what we accomplished! We are rewarded with this experience and must accept it for what it is.”
His words were true and wise, but I was far from content—even outwardly frustrated. We had spent the entire morning and afternoon forging through jungle. And for what? A healthy view of fog and plant? I thought not! At this moment, a new fire burned inside of me. I wanted to see Mayon and would not step from this summit until I did. I knew it was there, beyond this thick layer of bush and fog; I just needed to get higher.
I scanned the small patch of summit, looking for a tree sturdy enough to bear my weight. Not a single tree in sight stood confidently rooted, and all of them swayed uneasily in the wind. I didn’t care and started climbing the thickest tree I could find. I tested each branch as I moved up their mangled stems. The tree creaked as if it had succumbed to old age and was ready to give at any moment. When I reached the tree’s brow, I could see nothing except the thick leaves that grew. I stuck my hand forward, parting the leaves and branches; they gave with ease. When my hand was through to the other side, I gave a hard push, opening a hole in the leaves and branches.
“MAYON,” I whispered in a soft voice, as I sat in awe at what looked at me. The sky was blue and filled with feathery, white, clouds. Below them was Mayon, standing alone and strong.
“What do you see?” I heard a voice echo from below. It was Amir. “You need to come up here, friend,” I replied. I could see his grin from a mile away and feel his energy explode. He knew I found what we had been looking for and that our journey’s end was not yet at its end.
I climbed down the tree, and Amir scrambled up the branches soon after. The same creaks and groans came from the branches as he moved up them. I could hear his laugh, more of a deep chuckle, and Klar’s wonder as he too, asked what was up there. Amir appeared from out of the branches, and up when Klar. The same response followed. We had found our treasure and relished in our victory for a short while.
We rested our bones and filled our mouths with the water we had carried with us. The energy we gained from seeing Mayon was enough to get us back down the mountain. Although we could find no path, we had already made one ourselves. Shifted and broken branches led our way from which we came. Going down, we found ourselves moving a lot quicker than before and could even recognize most of the parts that we strode past. Within an hour, we were back on the man-made path and gliding down the mountain. Just in time, too. The sun was at a mark in the sky that warned of a soon to be setting sun.
The last stretch of path went by effortlessly, and before we knew it, we were back in town. We spent no time wandering; we were exhausted beyond belief, and a hearty meal and soft bed beckoned us back at Mayon Backpackers. A long road laid before us, but we were guided by the jeepney and needed not worry about finding our way anymore. The sky fell around us, as darkness overcame the air. A glint of orange and red was the last light to be seen, and, one by one, our heads started to stoop with tiredness. Klar was the first to succumb to sleep. I remained restless and wary and kept track of our location.
That evening we all parted ways, but not before celebrating our journey one last time. A heaping plate of Pancit awaited me and a strong glass of whiskey, amir. It was an undertaking I shall never forget and will go down as one of the most rugged adventures I have ever embarked.
A SUNSET FOR THE AGES
That evening, I caught wind of another peak—much, much smaller—that was said to be a lot more accessible and a great spot for catching the sunset; and better yet, it faced Mount Mayon. I was sold immediately, and as soon as I recovered myself, I flagged down a trike to take me the distance. There was no doubt about it: it was a lot more accessible than Bariw! The driver dropped me at the entrance for a small fee, leaving me with an 800-meter climb to the summit. The path was a freshly paved two-lane road all the way to the top. It was somewhat steep, but I couldn’t complain after having to bushwhack through the countryside, a few hours earlier.
The plateau of Lignon Hill looked out to the barren fields that painted the base of Mayon. It was a sunset for the ages, no doubt. I could feel the stresses and frustrations of the last few weeks leave my thoughts. I had found a place of paradise amongst the chaotic and otherwise dangerous Philippines. I didn’t want to leave and chuckled to myself for having almost thrown in the towel a few days ago.
ON SECOND THOUGHT…
That night, sleeping in the old quarters had been hell, and I had barely made it through. At points, it was so hot and muggy that I had to step outside so I could breathe. All I could think about was my dangling carrot: a night in the new building with A/C!
The next morning I caught wind of another land to explore, Cagsawa Ruins, sitting at the base of Mount Mayon. It was only a short jeepney ride away, and the view it gave was awe-inspiring. The old church ruins looked out to kilometers of rich green rice fields that halted at the base of Mount Mayon.
There was a small footpath leading into the valley, so I slipped away from the crowds of tourists and onto the path. It followed a cold, crackling river before cutting through an old broken-down village. The locals looked at me as if they’d never seen a Westerner before. I asked one fellow if it was okay to be walking through his lands. He responded with delight and said I was more than welcome to continue. His English was tough to understand, but I was shocked that he knew the few words he did, as he was so far from needing them. As I continued along the path, the views became more and more charming. Before too long, I was the only person in sight and surrounded by lush green fields and grazing cows.
I would’ve loved to have stayed for the sunset but wasn’t able to hold out for it: boredom overtook me. After an hour or so of waiting around, I became too antsy to sit still and decided to grab a jeepney back to town.
Back at the hostel, I ran into a group of foreigners who had just gotten back from Donsol. They were still reminiscing about their experience swimming with Whale Sharks when I had introduced myself! They spoke so highly of it and implored me to make the short journey south. It was two days until my birthday, and I didn’t want to risk traveling to another town, as I was completely content with Legazpi City and old memories of traveling up north reminded me of what was at cost. I was worried that something could go wrong or that the whale sharks might underwhelm me; after all, it sounded like a tourist pit, if I had ever heard of one. I have made the mistake of taking people’s advice at face value in the past and was almost always left underwhelmed.
Nevertheless, they continued to rave about how amazing the place was and that it would be a worthwhile journey. I nibbled a bit more by asking how much the lodges were, how long it took to get there, how much it cost for the boat, so on and so on. Their answers seemed too good to be true. They mentioned that their resort, not hostel, not hotel but resort, cost USD 10 per night and to hire a boat only cost USD 22.
I thought for a second and told myself that if Mayon Backpackers Hostel was willing to cancel my future reservations for free, then I would go to Donsol; and to my surprise, they were. My plans changed that instant. I spent that night in Legazpi City with the group. They hadn’t been to Lignon Hill yet, so I took them for one last look at Mayon.
DONSOL, Home of the Whale Shark
The following morning I took the first available bus to Donsol. It was cramped with people but went by in the blink of an eye. From what my GPS said, I didn’t have a far walk to the resort, and, about a kilometer down a dusty dirt road, I looked up at the sign reading: Welcome to Woodlands Resort. “This must be it,” I sarcastically said out loud (I talked to myself out loud a lot those days).
I kept my fingers crossed, as I made my way to the front desk. Down a long stone walkway, a beautiful glistening pool, overlooking the ocean, was the first thing to catch my eye. I smiled, and the initial anxiety from traveling to Donsol immediately fell aside. From that point, I knew I had made the right decision. From the pool, I looked out to a short gap of beach that met the crashing waves of the sea. “Good decision, Stauffer,” I said to myself (again, aloud). I was staying at a resort on the beach for a measly USD 10 a night and, better yet, this is where I would spend my birthday. I could feel all the worries and stresses, which the Philippines so kindly dumped onto me, dissipate with each crashing wave.
By the afternoon, I found myself on a hammock with a fresh coconut in hand—not a cigar, but it made due. A cool ocean breeze swept over the resort and rocked me into a waking sleep. I couldn’t get enough of the moment and didn’t want to fall fully asleep, but I couldn’t fight the will of Mother Nature, and before too long, I was out. My hammock continued swinging from the constant ocean breeze. I woke to the sound of crashing waves and the sweet scent that it blew in. The moment I didn’t want to end was right where I had left it: all around me.
Feeling wholly refreshed, I made the 100-meter jaunt back to the pool and outdoor patio. There, I met a fellow holding a fresh coconut. When I asked him where I could get one, he pointed and ventured the words: “from that tree over there.” From that moment on, I knew I liked the guy. His name was Segev, and he was from Israel. Like me, he had been traveling about Southeast Asia without a plan or worry for the past several months. Months later, I would find him in Japan, and we would take on the desolate country roads of its mainland; but that’s a story for another time.
A WELL MARKED QUARTER CENTURY
Date: May 1, 2016. My birthday had arrived, but I felt no different. Nobody but me knew the importance of that day, and I kept it that way. I couldn’t tell you why because to this day I still don’t have a good explanation. Something inside me just said there was no need to bring it up. Most people want to be hailed on their birthday as if to bring unusuality (not a real word, I know) to an otherwise usual day; it’s almost like being resuscitated for a brief moment by superficial happiness. Truthfully, I had all the happiness I could ever want, and adding birthday praise would’ve surely cheapened the moment. But who could actually say?
From the advice I was given, I made my way to the information site early in the morning to catch the first boat out to sea. I heard that the best time to see the whale sharks was the first thing in the morning before the tourists rumbled onto the scene. They were right. I shared a boat with five other people, two of which were Chinese tourists who didn’t know how to swim and remained on the boat for the entire excursion. As our boat set sail, we geared up for the experience of a lifetime.
I couldn’t help but smile, as I turned around to see Mount Mayon towering over the landscape. Even from across the country, she watched over me. It was the greatest gift the earth had to give: diving with its ocean’s friendliest creatures under the watchful eye of her most mystical volcano.
Wind and water thwacked against my body, and I heard the spotter yell: “Gear up! We got a whale coming!”
I didn’t even have a moment to get excited, as I was motioned to fall backward into the ocean depths. The boat was still moving, as I plunged into the water and when I surfaced, I had no idea what was happening, but I could see the lead diver swimming speedily away. There were no directions given, but it was clear that we were to follow him.
We swam for a few meters before being told to submerge. As my mask hit the water, the first thing I could see was a massive blue-spotted whale shark. “HOLY SHIT!” bubbled out from my snorkel. I became giddy with excitement and dove deeper into the ocean so I could swim alongside the mammoth creature. It was so calm and grazed through the water with ease. It appeared to be moving slowly, but I assure you, it took everything I had just to keep pace. After a few seconds, the whale picked up its speed to the point where even the fastest of swimmers would’ve struggled to keep up, and before I knew it, it was completely out of sight, like a thief in the night.
We waited for the boat to circle before climbing back aboard. I figured that we came, we saw, we conquered and would head back to land, but I was wrong, dead wrong. Before I could get my fins off, I heard the spotter shout: “gear up!”
I couldn’t believe it, another Whale Shark was in sight, and we were back in the water. I hadn’t had a chance to recover from the last one, but as soon as I saw it, I kicked it into full gear. This went on for seven more Whale Sharks! I got way more than I had bargained for and would’ve been satisfied if my day were to have ended here, but it didn’t.
Later that evening, after taking full advantage of the pool and hammocks, I saw Segev sitting on the patio over a searing dish of fresh tuna topped with egg. It was the most expensive thing on the menu, a few dollars, but after seeing his plate and rationalizing that it was my birthday, I ordered it. It was the best, most fresh-tasting tuna I had ever had the pleasure of tasting. It was so good that I was tempted to order a second, but settled on a lineup of colorful shots instead. They were as colorful going down, as they had looked sitting in front of me. Any by colorful, I mean awful in every way you could imagine! Anyhow, it was the perfect way to cap an incredible day, and I owe it all to a kid named Mark!
LEGAZPI CITY: THE HOPE LAND
My patience for Filipino transportation had, by a great distance, surpassed its limits, but forgoing the opportunity to see one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful creations heavily outweighed my petty grievances and lack of willingness. A new vigor filled my bones at the thought of another adventure, and I soon found myself on an overnight bus headed for Legazpi City—against my better judgment, I might add.
The bus was frigid, almost as if they were overcompensating for the unbearably hot temperatures outside. If it weren’t for my sleeping bag, I surely would’ve frozen to death. It made for a long, shivering, 12-hour bus ride down the coast. But, as sure as day, 04:00 eventually ticked by and my bus rolled up to Legazpi City’s bus terminal. It was April 28TH when I arrived, and I was hopelessly tired, as I didn’t sleep well on the bus; it was far too cold.
Upon stepping down from the bus, I could feel my weary legs quiver and ache beneath me. Looking up, I saw that darkness still had its cunning hold over the sky; calmingly so, it revealed an unimaginable abyss, lit with millions of stars and a glowing moon that touched the streets below my feet. The enchanting ambiance was at its final stage, though, as it wouldn’t be long before the sun cleansed the sky of its stars and lit every corner of town with its light.
Unfortunately for me, I had yet to conform to apps like Agoda or Hostelworld. I’m not entirely sure why, but it made searching for a place to sleep quite a headache; often I was forced to go door to door until I found a place that was fitting, yet not too expensive.
I walked the long perimeter of Legazpi City looking for a lodge. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had chosen the wrong direction to circulate. The first two kilometers were nothing but wide-open countryside with no sign of accommodation or people. BUT, that’s where I first saw it, Mount Mayon. Just like the picture Mark had painted with his words, it was surely one the Earth’s most beautiful works. It stood spiraling from the ground like a beacon for any lost or weary travelers. Its presence was so commanding that the sight of it stopped me in my tracks.
I dropped my pack where I stood and gazed at its beauty for minutes on end. Soon after, the sun peaked out from beyond the horizon, torching the chiseled rock edges with a hue of pink and red. Mayon’s features slowly became visible with the sun’s light, and I could make out its various marks and indents. “Most Symmetrical Volcano in the World,” was the title it had gained, and it was clearly evident why.
Tiredness soon subdued me, thus breaking my state of mesmerization. Mount Mayon wasn’t going anywhere, and I needed a place to lay my head. Thankfully, the first guesthouse I stumbled across gave me permission to check in way before their typical check-in time, about eight hours before. I was grateful for this, as I could barely keep my eyes open; the thought of any more walking made me shudder.
By the afternoon, I awoke fully rejuvenated and ready to embark on another adventure. I scanned my map for any mountains within reach. I wanted to get a higher vantage of Mount Mayon and see her true beauty unveiled from the obscure light of the moon and rising sun.
A small victory emerged: there was a trailhead a few kilometers from where I sat, and it gave way to the summit of Mount Bariw, a small mountain adjacent to Mount Mayon that overlooked Legazpi City.
A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
I made for the trailhead and, for the first time, caught sight of Legazpi City in full daylight. It was a quaint town, bothered by none, surrounded by three massive yet dormant volcanos. I stopped in town for a few things before continuing my journey to the summit of Mount Bariw. I wasted no more time than needed gathering small supplies; I was too eager for the view that lay ahead to waste time.
As I closed in on the trailhead, I came across an exaggerated mural painted on the wall; it colorfully read: Mayon Backpackers Hostel, with an arrow pointing the way. What could it hurt? I thought to myself. Anything would be better than the sad excuse for a guesthouse I was currently occupying. I led on. One sign guided to another which eventually led to another, and before I knew it, I was weaving through the jungle-like neighborhood in hopes that what I found was worthwhile.
At the end of the final straightaway, I saw it. The building was rose proud and appeared to have been recently built. The details on the great wooden door were so aesthetically pleasing that the building stood superior to the rest of the neighborhood. The passage door looked to have been made by giants and had intricate carvings hewn from wood. The details were astounding and inviting.
I walked into the great hall like the weary traveler that I was. My eyes glanced left, right, up, and down. The floor, made of rock and granite, shimmered like emeralds as the sun poured in from the many windows that lined the walls. The woodwork had attention to detail that begged a closer look and carvings that told a story. Multiple uniformed staff members walked the hallways, cleaning as they went. What is this place? I wondered in delight. I had spent the better part of two weeks traveling all over the Philippines and had never come across anything that resembled order or attention to detail such as this. I was beyond stunned and ecstatic to have crossed its path.
I stopped one of the blue shirts, a twenty-something, attractive, female employee, to see if they had any rooms available. She turned to me, without checking, and said that they were fully booked and had no rooms to spare. I didn’t bother questioning her, as the possibility of a full booking was abundantly valid. Who wouldn’t want to stay here? I thought enviously to myself. I was a little bummed that I would have to stay another night at the Ronaldo Guesthouse, as it was the opposite, in every way, of Mayon Backpackers; Staff members did not clean as they went (actually, they didn’t clean at all), attention to detail was irrelevant and the rooms smelled of stale, stagnant, air.
I proceeded to leave with my head held low before one of the employees yelled out for my attention. A room has opened up, was the first thought that popped into my head. Rather, I heard: “We do have one bed available, but it’s in our old building.” She said it with a slight hesitation in her voice, as if she were embarrassed to offer it as a choice. Nevertheless, she took the lead, and I followed cautiously behind, wondering what caused such a tremble in her voice.
It wasn’t far, in fact, it was right next door, and it was nothing like the mansion I had first fallen for. The old quarter was a dilapidated old building with the shutters barely hanging on by its hinges. The screen door, covered in rust, had holes in it and gave out a loud, long, screech as she pushed it open. I could feel the muggy, humid, air smack me in the face as I entered. Dirty dishes had been piled up in the sink and flies made the kitchen their own. The beds stacked on top of one another and stains plastered their sheets. One fellow, dead asleep, laid flat atop his covers with nothing but his boxers covering him. I could see beads of sweat dripping from his body and grew frightened by the decision I was contemplating.
My hopes dropped to the floor; but stuck with the decision to stay another night at the slightly better Ronaldo Guesthouse or endure one night in the old quarters, I took my chances with the latter. After all, it was only one night, how bad could it be? I settled up for my one night in the old building and put my reservation in for the new. As soon as our business was done, I was back on the trail with my sights set on Bariw.
THE ELUSIVE MOUNT BARIW
I had the entire day ahead of me and was full of energy from the brief nap I had just taken earlier that morning. I found the trail in no time and moved up the mountain with haste. As I got closer to the summit, the trail came to a screeching halt. Odd, I thought. My GPS-map showed a trail for another few hundred meters, along with a clearly defined summit. But where this trail ceased to be, I was granted no sight of Mount Mayon. I did, however, make out a measly footpath that led in the opposite direction from the trail on my map. I had come all this way and didn’t want my effort to be in vain, so like any true adventurer, I ditched my map and followed the tracks.
I pressed forward for a few hundred meters, gliding on top of the footpath that guided me through a wondrous countryside. I was trekking through a widely spread village placed high above the reach of Legazpi City. Although, It soon became evident that I was trekking on private farmland. Glancing eyes, from local farmers, gave me an unsettling feeling. They didn’t approach me; rather they looked on with a strange curiosity. I continued anyhow, but with caution; I was far too motivated to see Mount Mayon, unobstructed, to turn back.
Just like my last path, this one, too, ended without a hint of warning. I couldn’t be sure, but from where I stood, the summit of Bariw looked to be a protruding grassy hump with a large red radio tower anchored to its summit. My GPS showed the summit to be near but pinned my location distant from its trail. The idea of being lost didn’t threaten me in the least; being lost without gear, food, and water, on the other hand, did. I hadn’t expected my journey to Bariw to take such twists and turns; after all, my GPS showed a small summit with a trail leading all the way to the top.
I had a small bottle of water with me, but its contents disappeared as soon as my first bout of thirst hit. My only source of energy was a pack of Oreos that I had bought earlier that day along with a few slices of plain white bread. The sun struck the earth without mercy, and the moist farm soil sent humidity up into the air, but the thought of turning back didn’t once come to mind.
My mouth was bone dry, and I could see my vision beginning to cave. Once again, underestimating the journey I was about to partake, I hadn’t eaten or packed enough water. I thought I would only be a few hours, at most. My body was beginning to fail me for the last remaining hundred meters or so. “Just over the next hill,” I kept repeating to myself, knowing very well that it was a lie.
Hill after hill, I summited every: each turning out to be a false summit. I began to worry. You hear stories about hikers who get lost without water and perish as a result. Could this happen to me? I thought not! But I was far too naive. I too could have easily fallen victim to the threat of dehydration. The thought pinged back and forth inside my head as if to distract me from the predicament I had put myself in.
My feet dragged behind me with uncertainty as I conquered grassy bank after grassy bank. The illusion of meeting my summit was exasperating. Most hikers know the feeling of thinking you’ve reached the summit only to learn that there is another mountain right before your feet. I pressed upward anyhow, like a gambler trying to win back his losses. As I peered over yet another grassy bank, I thought surely to be a gateway to another, I found that I was indeed standing on the summit, staring directly in the path of the presiding Mount Mayon.
The thought of water and food became irrelevant as I stood in the presence of one the Earth’s most astounding creations. I was content, sitting on my grassy patch, watching nature work around her. The thought of collapsing became secondary, as clouds grazed past her, painting an entirely different picture as they came and went. I had planned on staying for the sunset but was in no condition to hold out for another six and a half hours. Boredom aside, the thought of getting lost without my torch, water, and food, wasn’t worth the risk, even for me.
TO BE CONTINUED…
D e e p
S p a c e
Australian Camp, Nepal
A look into Deep Space will make you think twice about what you see; rather, what you can’t see. The Milky Way over Australian Camp, Nepal.
R o o t e d G i a n t s
Muktinath, Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal
A storm broods over the Annapurna Range. The clouds wrench and arc as the sun sparks its last light into the web; thus the final stage of the day is at hand, and the village falls quiet and faint.
Below, the fleeting sun casts a dim glow on the fallen snow. Muktinath will soon fall into darkness, but only for a little while: the snow will hold the light, like a lantern, under the moon and stars, giving guidance to any and all weary wanderers.
CHANGING COURSE: April 26, 2016
Days before my birthday, I barricaded myself inside of my solicitous quarters, recovering from the scars that the Philippines had dealt unto me. As the days passed by, I could feel the stress and anxiety fall from my shoulders as the needle swiftly fell from the red zone into the yellow and, eventually, the green. The warming charm that was once me, was once again. I could now step outside and enjoy my surroundings. I could hear the singing of the birds as they whispered softly among the trees, and feel the wind as it crept over the grass and through town.
I had found a haven nestled deep within the rural neighborhood of Tagaytay: OMP Hostel (Our Melting Pot Hostel) was its name. It was known by backpackers from all over the world and, although new to me, accommodated our kind with ease. It was the first of its breed that I had come across, most looking to take full advantage of what they saw to be walking ATMs, Westerners, by charging outrageous rates for mediocre rooms; rightfully so, I suppose! So many Westerners had crusaded these lands, shelling out money carelessly and foolishly only to set the bar for backpackers who are looking to journey the world with what little money we have left.
OMP Hostel had a quaint balcony that looked out to a small stretch of land. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was enough for me to find solace, as I stared aimlessly into its rift. Many thoughts raced through my head, as it was the first time I had been able to think clearly since my arrival into the Philippines. Among my many reflections, the idea of spending my birthday in the, somewhat exceptional yet uneventful, town of Tagaytay surfaced.
“How mundane! Of all places, I could go anywhere, do I want to spend it here counting the days until my flight?” I reflected over these thoughts over and over again, wrestling with the decision to continue exploring or remain steadfast where I knew I was welcomed and at peace. Moments later, one of the two thoughts prevailed, and, in my heart, it was the right one all along. I would go somewhere and do something noteworthy; And since I couldn’t be in Hong Kong due to lack of planning on my part, I would have to celebrate it in the Philippines with unseen barriers standing in my way!
A FEW DAYS EARLIER: April 22, 2016
For this part of the story, I will take you back to a time when I was venturing through the many towns that sprouted like lost flowers around Lake Taal. If you remember, I wrote: “more on that later.” Well, here is the “more on that later.”
My day began like any other but with one minor difference: This day rose with a magnificent sunrise over the green-hilled peaks of Mount Batulao and the prospect of a long, fruitful day of continued exploration. It started with the tall grassy hills catching ablaze like wildfire at the sun’s first light and with the dark blue sky changing hue, becoming less menacing as the world below it radiated with golden shimmers.
Unfortunately, the start of my day was no prelude of what was to come. The very thing I was trying to avoid is what I ended up doing, wandering aimlessly through towns I had no business being in. I spent the entire morning jumping from jeepney to jeepney, battling through vacant, unwelcoming towns. All morning and into the afternoon, the hopeless crusading continued. Eventually, the afternoon faded without so much as a warning and the possibility of sleeping on the streets had become a closing reality. I had lost track of time and was far from anywhere suitable for sleeping.
I ended up in the small, secluded, town of Tanauan where the sun had begun its final descent—soon to be a faint memory beyond the many rooted volcanoes that lined the coast. The evening grew in bolder about me. A malevolent darkness crept in and devoured the streets, leaving nothing to light except for the small circumferences of flickering street lamps; even they cowered at the starless sky above.
I was far from the comforts of friendly accommodators, and there were no information centers or 24-hour shop to take refuge for the night. As luckless would have it, a local convention reserved the only two hotels in town, entirely. Furthermore, there were no open grass fields to erect my tent or safe corners to lay out my crash pad. The streets were crawling with muggers, thieves, and those so heavily drugged, that killing a man would bear no consequences. From the stories I’d heard, I was less than thrilled to go back outside but would have no choice as the impending doom of night had all but arrived.
I had nearly given up, as I ordered yet another coffee to gain access to wifi and stretch what little time I had inside left. Defeat filled my heart, and I knew I would be left wandering the streets looking for a hidden crevice or alley to lay my head. It’s not that I minded sleeping outside, in fact, if the conditions were any different, I would’ve been content with the idea; But the conditions were unsettling. Not to mention, I had just spent the night before sleeping on the summit of Mount Batulao: I sat covered in a layer of filth that could be seen from across the room. That night, Mount Batulao had claimed me as its own. Another night on its summit and I would’ve completely blended in with the landscape. There was no doubt that I looked homeless and would’ve fit right in with others sleeping on the street.
Covered in dirt, I sat within the confines of a small coffee shop that faced the main highway. The place was lifeless and cold, yet the air around me was hot and muggy. I fidgeted with my phone trying desperately to find a place to sleep, but the wifi connection was frustratingly weak and didn’t hold steady for even a minute. I didn’t need a coffee but had ordered one to gain access to their wifi. When I discovered that it didn’t work, I was furious. Frustration overpowered my emotions and kicked reason shamelessly to the curb. I knew the employees could do nothing about my situation, but I needed to vent my frustration, and, like most, did so on the wrong people. I was exhausted, tired, hungry, and thwarted left and right by the Philippines. The two employees, no older than college graduates, shrugged their shoulders with sorrow and pleaded that there was nothing they could do. I knew this but continued pressing them anyhow. I wasn’t outwardly aggressive, but passively enough to notice what I was doing. It made me feel better, if only for a brief moment—at least until I realized what I was doing.
Another customer, standing at the counter waiting for her coffee and glancing at her phone, looked over in my direction. She could clearly see my frustration and knew that I was anything but a local Filipino (a misplaced foreigner at any rate). When she spoke, her English flowed flawlessly—she had been living in Paris for the better part of four years and needed it for her job. She introduced herself and empathized with my situation, although I had yet to disclose any details. It was at that moment when I realized how weak my body language must have looked. She could read me like a book and could tell that I was in a bit of trouble. She mentioned that she was back in town for a short while visiting her family and related to my current situation. She had shared the same struggles while abroad in Europe and reminisced how grateful she would’ve been for a local’s help.
I spent a brief moment explaining my position and how I was left without a place to sleep. “There is a local convention, you see,” I went on.
“This might sound odd, but I’m staying at my parent’s house and have a vacant house that you are more than welcome to sleep in tonight,” she said hesitantly.
She continued: “I don’t want you to think I’m going to mug you or anything, and don’t know how I’d feel if I were in your shoes and a stranger came up to me offering a place to sleep outside of city limits.”
“ARE YOU KIDDING! That would be amazing,” I blurted out before she had the chance to reclaim her offer.
I told her that if it came to it, I would’ve found a place to sleep outside. She was absolutely frightened by the possibility and exclaimed that it was not at all safe in this part of town, and how very bad of an idea that would’ve been.
She paused for a moment: “On second thought, why don’t you come with me and sleep at my parent’s house tonight. They have a spare bedroom, and my house keys are there. It would be a pain to travel all the way there and back,” she said.
She mentioned that her family’s house was in a safe and guarded community and that her family would be more than happy to accommodate me, even feed me without question.
“As long as you don’t mind a house full of people and kids, it should be just as good,” she added.
It didn’t make a difference at all to me, as I was more than happy to escape the grasp of the criminal flooded streets.
At the house, a friend of one of the grandchildren, a teenage boy, painted the most beautiful picture of Mount Mayon, a volcano in the southern region of the North Island, with his words. I had gotten to know the boys pretty well that evening, and even played a full court game of basketball with them the following morning. The three of them had vivid imaginations and spoke of life outside of the Philippines, but made sure to proclaim that the Philippines has always and always will always be Home. As I departed the house, they naturally asked where I would go next.
Next? Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about it. All I knew was that I had another full day ahead of me to figure things out, or at least to make it back to a town that was more suitable.
One of the three, Mark, continued speaking about Mayon with such envy and passion that he struck my curiosity in the deepest way.
The only bummer, he mentioned, is how far away it is and how long it takes to get there. “But it’s more than worth the struggle of getting to,” he sighed with nostalgia.
CHANGING COURSE (continued)
As I sat in my hostel, pondering if I should continue forward or remain steadfast, this memory appeared tall and vivid among my thoughts.
When I finally came to, after a few days recovering inside my haven, and when it came time to choose where I would spend my birthday, my mind was already made up: I would make the long journey south to Legazpi City, home of Mount Mayon. I would face the Philippines once more no matter the cost.
TO BE CONTINUED…