Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Travel Diary: Mt. Pulag

We left Manila near the dead of night, sitting on hard plastic chairs in a grey bus station, waiting for the next bus to take us to the mountains. I held his hand and rested my head on his shoulder, the only comfort I could find among the sullen faces of people yearning to go home. We wondered if every person with a tent strapped to his back was going where we were going, if we would meet them along the way and share a quiet connection that yearners often do.

6 hours later, there were still busses and waiting, but this time in a different place, 6 hours closer to our destination. The novelty of smoke escaping my lips with every cold, spoken word was enough to distract me from the few hours of sleep I had. We sat on wooden benches and listened to the pigs scream as they were slaughtered, and the buses roar into life as they carried the people miles away. Zach fell asleep, head rolled back against the boarded up shops, and I paced around the parking lot, searching for our bus. I ran to Zach when it finally arrived, and shook him with Glee, "It's here! It's here!" I squealed, ready to kickstart the adventure.

It was a flurry of people and dialects, unfamiliar towns and breath-taking mountain views, we raced past valleys and evergreen forests and white-wash rivers, and all Zach could say was "one wrong turn, and we fall to our deaths." I thought about this the whole ride through, and figured that there could be worse ways to go than into the bowels of nature. 

13 hours had passed since we left our homes, but there we were, still in transit. The view was even more spectacular as we raced up the mountain - emerald trees and a radiant sun glowing over an entire valley. There are few things more breathtaking than the fading view of a sunlit mountain from the back of a motorbike. We went higher and higher until we were speeding through the clouds and the sun was nowhere to be found. I shivered in the rain and breathed in the fresh pine. As I clung to a stranger for dear life on the back of his motorbike, I felt strangely calm.

Far beyond that beautiful view was a small wooden house known as "the ranger station." It was there we met our guide and started our three hour trek through the forest. It was like a scene from a horror film, but set in daylight- the dark pine trees surrounded in fog, the cold, crisp air that so quickly filled your lungs. The forest floor was scattered with acorns, foot-long worms, abandoned cabbages, and a muddy trail that led directly to another forest- a vibrant green one home to miracle berries and humidity. I walked and walked and walked, short of breath, bright behind the eyes. I felt exhausted and dizzy, but I knew there was no turning back. I was saved by spring water, straight from the mountain and into our mouths, the freshest water I had ever tasted awakened me from my slurry fatigue.

Arriving at our campsite was the sweetest victory I had ever known. That cold, hard, ground was the only bed I ever truly earned in my life and I embraced it. The air was painfully cold by the time we reached the site, and four layers of clothes were not enough to protect me from the winds bite. My feet were wet and stinging, my fingers threatened to fall off, but the view of clouds rolling over the mountains below me was a reminder of how far I had come, and no pain could ever match the desire I had to go even further.

It was a sleepless, starless night. Tossing and turning, shivering, and desperate for any form of comfort. The wilderness holds no promises for anyone, nothing but the pitch black night and a song of crickets. I counted down, 12 hours until the sunrise, and then 10, 8, 5, until finally, I fell into an undisturbed sleep, balled up and clutching my feet to save them from freezing.

4AM and it was now a race against the sun. Barely eating anything, we set out for the last leg of our trek- to the summit. It was a narrow path in dead of the night, surrounded by grassland and looming hills. Weak from fatigue and hunger, I felt my body falling in on itself, and cried to my companions that I couldn't do it. They sat beside me and urged me on, poured ice cold water into my lips and stroked my hair. "You can do it, you've come this far," Zach whispered, crouched beside my aching legs. Chest stretched and lungs dry, I stood up and powered through. He was right, I had come this far and it wasn't for nothing.

5AM and there we were: 29 hours, 335 kilometres away from home, and 3 thousand metres into the sky. The only two people on the highest point of Luzon, at the crossroads of four provinces. I sat, embraced in Zach's arms, exhausted from our journey. I held onto him, burying my hands in the warmth of his corners, saving them from the cold. Before us, there were only clouds, and behind us, there was only grass. We couldn't believe we had walked the entire journey, it felt like we were in a whole new world, one of the Philippines' best kept gems.

Watching the sun wake through a flurry of clouds, silenced by its morning elegance, I kissed Zach's lips, happy to be holding his hand and watching the day break from the best seats in the world. I thought that being on the highest tip of luzon would make me feel miniscule and insignificant, but it did exactly the opposite.  The whole world was under us, around us, above us, the Earth was turning and the stars were disappearing and the sun was rising and we were breathing, and thinking, and loving. I felt like the most royal of Queens, laid out on grass carpets under the pale blue sky with my curly-haired King. We were giants among men, in our castle in the clouds.