I was reminded by Facebook today that it has been a year since our Mindanao mountain adventure. This is a life event that I will never forget. Allow me to share it again as my way of reaffirming to always live life fully.
It feels as if I just came from a surreal dream. I feel that I have to recount it immediately for fear that I might forget. And I don’t want to. There is a shift within me that I cannot ignore, an inkling that something has changed. It has left me with a swath of calm and acceptance and I realize that life is about putting yourself out there. The trip has definitely left me deeply grateful that I am alive and that I am whole. As I replay the series of events in my head, I am reminded to be gentle and be patient with myself and with others and that things will not always go as planned so it pays to steer accordingly.
The day starts at 3:00am on May 3. We were told to meet up at the provincial capitol of Cagayan de Oro. The three photographers and I were the first ones to arrive at 3:10am. That was an early indication that things will not play out in clockwork precision. Then other volunteers started to arrive and at around 4:00am our “ride” finally arrives. They arranged for us to use the provincial jail mini truck that can accommodate 18-20 people. We were around 35 volunteers with big backpacks. I wasn’t too happy sitting inside an overloaded truck that was an accident waiting to happen. It’s a good thing that the group decided to transfer to another truck, this time a dump truck. We loaded all our bags, food, school kits, medicine donations and school bags for the kids. Then we each clambered up and found our individual positions- some were seated on the truck bed, others stood and were lined on the side of the truck. The more gutsy ones sat atop the truck’s head. I stood at the far right side of the truck and braced myself for an exciting ride. The first three and a half hours was smooth since we were traveling on national roads. It was my first time to ride at the back of a dump truck and I was quite happy to have a great vantage point as we sped through coast lines on our left and mountain ranges on the right. The sun was just about to rise and so everything was cast in a gentle golden glow. The next hour and a half was a totally different story. Bumpy would be an understatement as we got tossed around as traversed off road trails. At one point we had to negotiate a steep ascent and I asked them “Kaya ba ‘to?” and everyone just casually said “Kaya yan!” while hanging on to the haphazardly crisscrossed ropes that served as an anchor for those who didn’t have anything else to hold on to. I felt as if my whole body was bruised from this roller coaster ride. I was almost squished when the truck had to navigate through a river crossing and so I asked if we can just start the trek instead of getting all black and blue from the ride. We had a short breather when we were asked to all go down at the military checkpoint to log our names on their record book. After around fifteen more minutes of this bouncy ride, we were finally deposited at our first river crossing, the start of the trek.
We asked what level this climb would be and they said it is a level five mountain because of the technical trail, river crossings and steep ascent. We started the trek at around 9:30am but even at this time the sun was already scorching hot. I braced myself for a different kind of heat training. We had around six to seven river crossings, some waist deep with strong current. I looked forward to each of these crossings as it was a welcome and refreshing break from the heat. I noticed that the forest cover was also different from the mountains I have climbed. There is a certain roughness to it and even the trees were wilder than what I have seen so far.
We trek for around seven hours, stopping only at one of the river crossings for lunch. During my mountaineer days, the practice was to break the big group into smaller units of four to five people. This sort of created a buddy system to ensure that everyone was accounted for and we usually conducted a headcount during the scheduled stops of the climb. But for this hike, we trekked as one big unit and no one was really tasked to wait for each one although there was a sweep group at the tail end. You also stop when you wanted or needed to then you proceed based on your own pace. Orange trail markers were tied to branches to guide everyone. I guess this method has made these people hardcore mountaineers who are adept at fending for themselves.
I was one of the first four people of the group. My primary motivation for moving fast was to be the first to freshen up. I didn’t want to be hurried and harassed after a tiring climb. A little past 4:00pm, we arrive at a junction and it looked like we were just a few kilometres away from the camp site. I stop for a while and watch as the guy behind me stops to look for branches to block the wrong path at the trail fork. The two other people ahead of me also tried to look for wood to use for the directional. Two locals who were walking alongside us also stopped and one of them even tried to cut down a small tree but we motioned for him to stop. As I prepared to start walking again, I suddenly see a man in full black and fatigue attire complete with black mask and a long firearm a few meters from where we were setting the marker. I had a strange feeling about this and so I bolted. I also thought that maybe the guy in black was just a figment of my imagination and that I was hallucinating from the exhaustion. I noticed that the people in front of me and behind me were no longer in sight. I sped on despite the muddy and narrow trail. At one point I stopped, worried that I made a wrong turn because I could not see anyone anymore. But I saw that there were fresh boot marks on the mud and I decided to plod on as fast as I could. My heart was racing for a good fifteen to twenty minutes until I finally caught sight of a clearing, then the school where we were to camp in that night. I felt relieved that I even took some photos as I entered the village. There were four of us who made it to the camp site. I asked two of my fellow trekkers if they saw the guy in black and they said they did so they also ran as fast as they could. Two of us girls decided to take a bath at the nearby stream. Two village girls accompanied us. As we were walking, we asked one of the locals who we saw at the junction if they saw the guy and they said no. But the girl I was with didn’t buy it because she said the two locals also ran as soon as they passed that intersection.
As we head back to the camp from the stream, we were expecting to see the other mountaineers at the school. But it was just still the four of us. We were then told by one of the kids that the rest of the group were held by a group of men. The group president, who was with us decided to go back together with one of the school teachers. We wait, together with the village children who dressed up in anticipation of the visitors. The girls in particular put a lot of effort and even had accessories (clips, headbands, ribbons, bracelets, etc) on. They were eagerly waiting for the Ates and Kuyas who will play with them. At around 6:00pm, the motorcycles carrying the food, school kits, backpacks and other provisions arrive. We unload all the stuff and try to figure out what food to prepare for the group. By this time I was sick with worry, wondering whether I had made a wrong call. I asked myself if it was worth all the risk just to cull great content for this project. It would have been okay to just have a formal turnover of the school items at our Cagayan de Oro office but then we said chronicling the journey would make for a great material. I invited three young, bright-eyed photographers with me and if anything happened to them, I don’t think I will ever forgive myself. I was also wondering how I would tell their parents if anything went wrong. To take my mind off all these thoughts, I started to look for things to do. I needed a mindless task to calm me so I started peeling and slicing onions and garlic. We were surrounded by the village kids who did not have anything else to do except to wait. At around 8:00pm, the other mountaineers started to arrive.
I breathe a sigh of relief and started looking for the three photographers. I finally see them and I just had to restrain myself from hugging them. I asked if they were okay and if they got hurt. All three were okay except that one of them had to give his two mobile phones to one of the guys in black. Another had a hard time climbing, both his legs cramped up and he could barely move for an hour. Other than that, the guys were okay. They too were worried about me and thought that I was kidnapped since they didn’t see me at the junction. I ask around what happened and everyone seemed to be reluctant to talk. They were told not to openly discuss it first. I got to chat with the guy who was behind me during the trek. He recounted that after he set up the directional marker at the junction, he stood up to see that there were six to seven armed and masked men surrounding him. They asked if he was an “agent” because he was setting up directional signs. He explained that he was part of a volunteer mountaineer group on an outreach program. They ask him to open his bag so they can check for contents. They ask for his cellphone. A few more volunteers reach the junction and they too are asked to give their cellphones and open their bags. After getting a total of seven phones, the masked guys leave. The remaining group decide to just wait for the rest of the mountaineers before moving to make sure that everyone would be safe and accounted for.
The once quiet school camp site was now abuzz with activities. People were cooking, freshening up, talking with the kids, making jokes, preparing their sleeping areas, etc. Part of the evening’s event was a feeding program for the children. We knew that the kids were already hungry and so everyone hurried to get the food cooked. The children lined up patiently, holding their plastic plates and eagerly watched as a cupful of rice, a mound of adobo and an egg were scooped into their plates. The volunteers were also excited to partake of the food prepared by the kitchen committee. We had adobo, radish with dilis, escabeche and even biko. We also had coke. Lights out was at 10:00pm but people were still laughing and talking as I drifted off to dreamland.
I wake up at 4:30am and see that there were some people who were also up. They invite me to have coffee and bread. We talk about what happened last night and one of the theories was that the men were part of a government sanctioned private army composed of indigenous tribes. They said that the military usually contracts these people since they are familiar with the territory. Some said that they could also be rebels. But what baffled them was why they took the cellphones. Usually they just look at the phone to check messages and give these back. I had more questions unanswered after hearing all their speculations. It was a good thing that we had a lot activities lined up for the kids that morning to keep us busy.
The first part of the program was games and play. The volunteers had games, prizes and balloons prepared for the kids. Peals of laughter and giddy squealing filled the usually quiet valley. Then the children were divided into two groups, the older ones did an art workshop and the younger ones sat for storytelling. It was inspiring to see how the volunteers transformed into game masters and story tellers as they regaled the kids. Then it was time for breakfast- boodle style. The community joined all the volunteers and we were one as we partook of rice, pansit and embotido. After breakfast, a short program was prepared and several individuals were asked to give a short speech. The children rendered three songs. I was told that these were local love songs like a kundiman. To cap off the event, the school kits, school bags and treats were given out to the kids. A water filter system as well as medicines were also turned over to the community.
Then it was time to leave. We decided to just take the habal-habal down since we did not want to risk having one of the guys cramp up again. We also did not want to be trekking in the dark since we knew that it might take another six to seven hours before we reach the base. They said good luck to us after hearing that we will take the motorcycle down the mountain. The traveling party was composed of two motorcycles fashioned with planks on both sides, onboard each were all of our bags. The stronger bike carried the three photographers, one on each plank and another at the back of the driver. I was assigned to ride at the back of one of our fellow volunteer who brought his bike and who has been biking up and down mountains for two years now. I again braced myself for a scary exciting ride. The rule for the ride- do not panic, do not let go and hold on tight. I have always been scared of biking even after conquering a 70.3 triathlon distance. But my cycling was just like riding on training wheels compared to motorbiking down rough, steep and technical terrain. It was a crazy ride to say the least. But we trusted our skillful drivers who were like modern day cowboys steering an unwieldy steed. I finally got to relax enough to enjoy the exhilarating ride.
A lot of thoughts raced through my mind. I was thinking how this project was an interesting way to cap off my stint with my current company, an institution I am proud to have been part of. The trip, and the ride in particular was a fitting start as I take a leap of faith and choose to enter a new phase in my career. It is an apt introduction to the roller coaster start-up ride that I am about to embark on. The trip also further strengthened my resolve to not lose that sense of adventure in whatever it is that I do and that a little foolhardiness is healthy. At the same time I also fervently prayed that I get home to my family in one piece, unscathed except for a few bruises and wounds. We continue to ride down until we see a blockade of trees on our path. I immediately feel another wave of panic. Was this another rebel blockade? We clear rows of trees and our drivers say that it looked like it was just part of a clearing drive of the barangay.
Finally we reach the military checkpoint and the fellow mountaineer I rode with asked if he may talk to the commander so he can report what happened last night. I noticed that there were three big armoured trucks, artillery and canyons at the camp. These were not there when we logged in at the checkpoint the day before. He comes out and looks a little perplexed. He tells us that Impadiding was part of the red line that the military has defined. There was a rebel training camp seven kilometres from our camp and that they were on standby to do a strike. They were just told that a group of volunteers were up in the mountains and that they should wait until everyone was safely out of the way. All artillery and canyons have been positioned ready for the go signal. When he told them about the masked guys, they said that from our description, these were not government sanctioned units. I felt a big knot in my stomach and all I wanted to do was get out of there, out of harm’s way.
We continue on with our ride for another half an hour or so. Suddenly, the bike I was riding on started to break down. I get off and join the three guys and our bags plus the driver in the habal-habal. And suddenly all four of us start laughing like mad men, finding hilarity in the interesting series of events that took place all in a span of two days. At this point, nothing could surprise us anymore. Not even the strong rain that peltered down on us as we rode to our home stretch. We got to the bus station just in the nick of time but that did not stop us from taking a selfie with our mountaineer-motorbiking friend and our trusty driver just to cap off the mind boggling randomness of the trip. With wet clothes on, we board the bus to Cagayan de Oro. I change into dry clothes, get a snack and will myself to rest and relax for the duration of the bus ride. We arrive at the city at around 9:30pm. As we enter the hotel, we were reminded of the stark difference between what we just experienced and the usual lives that we lead. We bask in the luxury of being in a safe and secure hotel, having a nice meal in a restaurant and lying on a comfortable bed. As we ate, we were quiet, trying to recount what just happened. We were all in agreement that this is definitely one for the books, something that we will remember until we were old and that it will never happen again. And that we will never be the same again.