But I’ve never felt
shittier sillier than people claim I am before we hiked Mt. Balagbag in Rizal on my birthday.
By all accounts, this was supposed to be a moderately easy hike. Pinoy Mountaineer’s Gideon Lasco rates the trail difficulty at 3/9, only a notch higher than leisurely Mt. Manalmon.
There is but one enemy: sunlight.
It’s a battle you can’t win on daytime tramps in wide open mountains like this. The sun loves a good mountain, even moreso a good mountain that’s been stripped off its shade by illegal loggers.
So we did what we can to ease the trek up: wake up the toddler at frickin’ 3am, pack light trail food and tons of water, take the 1.5-hour drive to Licao-Licao – the easiest of four trails – and start walking as early as 6am, before the sun catches up with us.
The husband suggested we take the trike to the registration area, one hour by foot from the terminal (only 20 minutes by trike!).
Silly me declined. “Isn’t that, like, cheating?”
Most hikers claim it takes two to three hours to reach the summit, the road going to straightforward and beginner-friendly, lest the rain makes a grand entrance and turns the earthen path to slush.
And they were right. The trail is indeed, simple and straightforward. There are no technical skills required – no rock scrambling, no crawling on all fours, no 90-degree rope-tied walking. The sights repeat themselves in alternate fashion. Trail rocky, running a mild gradient. Trail flat, earthy, grass-lined. Small stream. No stream. Houses. No houses. Curious children. No curious children.
They were also right about the sun. It has become our most detested foe as we ascended for the next four hours and descended for two hours. A foe worse than Mrs. Macascas, that third-grade English teacher whose hobby was to throw a board eraser at us while swearing off a loud and crisp “Punyeta!”.
Its burden starts manifesting as early as 15 minutes into the first leg of the hike, when my cough-afflicted 15-kilogram toddler reaches out for my arm and says, “Mama, karga!” – something that will, after an hour, become constant and searing until we get back down to the luxury of a 4×2.
At some point, you’ll Take 5 from all this silliness and look back at where you came from. You’ll be smitten by the encompassing peaks and ridges of Sierra Madre hugging the horizon; the fog-covered Ortigas skyline; and the shrub-lined, brackish waters filling up La Mesa and Ipo Dams in the west.
Occasionally, you will come across children in soiled uniforms, no older than your toddler, treading their way to school or to their homes alone. Their warm smiles despite their battered slippers and sweating braised skin a testament of how efficiently they have adapted to life in the mountains.
You will, by around 2/3s into the climb, be thrilled that a smart and endearing dog begins to walk alongside you, guide you, and come back for you when you, lone trekkers on a Wednesday you, take too long to catch up. Your thoughts divert from “F*cking helicopter rescue. NOW.” to “Aaaw…what an awesome dog. Here, have some crackers.”
|I love this dog.|
We found ourselves a 10-foot rock by the gate leading to the “helipad”, a flat expanse of (purportedly magnetic) land that doubles as a campsite and a lookout, or in mountaineer lingo, the peak.
|That rock. Solace and beauty. Didn’t wanna leave. Lia didn’t want to either.|
We parked our numb legs on the rock,
taking selfies gazing over grassy hills and forested peaks lost in the clouds. Reed blending in with bush, ridged over rolling, chartreuse over dark green.
This, the promise of wintry breeze and the greens afront, perhaps, the best thing that happened since I made fries and burger at 2am. They are much coveted rewards that leave your mouth agape and coax you into staying just a minute longer.
|This is what’s in front of the rock. Imagine it being, like, within arm’s reach. Yep. That close.|
“It’s time,” Jigs says, and I realize this is not the end of the trek. The man at the second registration area tells us there’s still 20 minutes left to the summit. I glance over my oversized watch. 9:40.
A hundred times I repeated, “Just 10 more minutes to summit”, as if to convince us that distance is a lie. Ten minutes grew to 20, then 30, until it stretched to infinity. Then it all starts to get painful. Visions a blur, skin blistered. Mind heady with a singular obsession: to find permanent shade from the 35-degree heat, get off the trail and to the summit.
Jigs and I alternate carrying Lia over our shoulders, but mostly over mine (He’s a heavy smoker and can’t bear the weight uphill for over 10 seconds). I watched her dwindle like fire burning out of a wick, her head bobbing as she battles falling asleep under the sun’s seething rays.
Stories tell of a force in that one-kilometer gradient that tends to pull you back down. It’s not too steep. But rocky and depilated, it’s a perfect invitation for the sun to torment you some more.
Forty five minutes later, we were at the highest point of the mountain. Seven hundred eighty meters. We should be screaming “Hooray!”, but there was nothing left but tired sighs. I scooped my toddler, now fully asleep and nursing a fever. A bamboo shed with a rusty roof overhead has never felt this comforting.
I am no stranger to estranged birthdays. I’ve had many birthdays that coincided with home-ravaging typhoons, blackouts, and other terrible mishaps. Yet this is, by far, the most torturous one I have ever had. And I asked for it.
|Shed fronting the helipad|
Looking out the circumferential mountain ranges, feverish child at the hip, part of me felt conflicted. We chose the wrong mountain. We were hassled more than we were wowed. And while I have never felt so elated being so close to the Sierra Madre range, I cannot say I enjoyed the climb or the mountain.
|That cat. Inupuan ‘yung mukha ni Lia. LOL.|
Doubt Sets In
There is something to be said about climbing Brazilian wax-bare mountains like Mt. Balagbag, where heat stroke is a possibility and the ones before you tell tales that prove so. As a person, as a parent, there are realities that confront you at the face of something spellbinding, like the big ones that haunt you at the precipice of change.
The reality that your journey only begins once you reach the top becomes truer. You probe. You doubt. You ask if this is something you truly want for yourself and your child, if it is even worth it. Why did you, with all 32 years of overweight-ness, had to drag your arse and your daughter’s at 4am for this half-punishment, half-reward?
Have they been right all along?
|Wide open like that. Like that.|
Like in many of my solo mom-and-toddler jaunts, I’ve received comments ranging from “bold” to “You deliberately tortured your child”, even from people who have never birthed nor raised one. On that mountain, where I saw her grew languid by the minute, her fever caused and aggravated by pollen and extreme heat, part of me believed the latter.
Reality versus perception
Mountains teach us great lessons on life journeys. Much like parenting, you realize that you’re only a speck of a grander scheme beyond your command. The journey is more overwhelming than you had predicted, even with your guide books, maps, and plans A, B, and C. Nature sometimes takes course. You will make mistakes. Sometimes you’ll end up in the wrong path and that’s okay.
|First leg, 30 minutes in.|
Because the reality is this:
I am raising a daughter who’s living in a time, in a culture, in a country where, even with all its modern practices and skyscrapers, tells her she’s on the disadvantaged side of the spectrum and she’s not equipped to fend for herself because she was born with a hole and men, with sticks.
I am raising her to learn the contrary, not so she becomes condescending, but so she knows the scale tips to both sides fairly. Except maybe when it comes to carpentry and driving.
I am not raising a damsel who must be rescued from a tower to realize her fate, and only to realize that that fate is limited to the four corners of a house. There are women who find their calling in that choice and that’s admirable.
But the operative word is CHOICE.
I am raising a kid who must learn that life always comes with options, all with risks and trade-offs. Often they are ridden with long, arduous journeys that suck the life force out of you, test your resolve, and make you just want to raise your hands and say “I want to NOT do this. I want to be rescued.“.
I am raising her to go with all her heart whenever she chooses an option – even if it’s an option everyone disagrees with – because a halfhearted choice is as bad as not making one.
|Registration area/ barangay hall fronting Balagbag Elementary School. Mt. Balagbag in the foreground.|
I am raising her to see that not because one mountain was harsh and insurmountable, every other mountain is.
I am raising her this way because there is a bipolar society out there that tells her she can have it all, but who also tells her she can’t and shouldn’t when she tries to; because her definitions shouldn’t depend upon the majority’s prescription.
These are things that mountains impart.
They are humbling and empowering places where one sees there are gifts far greater than what money can buy; that another year has turned and it will be filled with overbearing tasks, with hurdles and lessons anew. A year where you will learn that in roads one treads, the journeys we make and the mistakes and surprises that come with them matter more than reaching the destination.
There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living – Nelson Mandela