Ang Dagat ay para sa Lahat: an open letter to the surfers who have always, always known better

My phone has been beeping for hours now as social media notifications come flocking in every ten minutes or so. Facebook private messages come pouring in at a rate comparable to when people flood your news feed on special occasions. But today is no special occasion, and no sweet messages are sent; these are personal hate messages and raging comments related to one remark I made about the thin line between sustainable tourism and people’s greed.

Apparently, when you voice out your opinion, you become a disrespectful **sh*le. You question their intent, they tell you to f*ck off. You tell them to show some humility, they humiliate you. You show your support to boost the local economy, they start acting out. I guess most people are better off not caring. But I am not most people, and I actually care about actual issues. 

Three days ago, a friend sent me a screen grab of someone’s social media post on his thoughts on a commercial surf trip happening in our hometown next month. He is one of the surfing pioneers in the province and is well-known and well-respected in his craft. 

The gist of the post, stated in the most unbiased manner that I can, is that every commercial surf trip in our province (yes, province) must go through their surfing club. Or group. Or whatever they want to call themselves. And if one must post photos, disclosing the exact location is highly discouraged. On-point. 

In the interest of those who care to know the organizers, they are non-locals I met last year, who frequent our town, surfing public spots. Public. Spots. They are responsible for shaping a few long boards that are now seen in the area used by new enthusiasts because long boards were a scarcity back then.

For someone who has been keeping every location of every trip – summits and seas – off the grid, I couldn’t agree more on his sentiment when he said that every surf trip must be moderated to avoid overcrowding, just like how the number of Pulag climbers is limited to the mountain’s capacity for a sustainable tourism – to cite one popular example of tourism gone wrong (and because the case of Boracay is all too publicized). 

I re-read the post for countless number of times and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t some form of greed or owning the waters that are not theirs in the first place and that this sentiment is deeply rooted in truly caring for the environment. 

But they have surfing tours. And they bring in foreigners to our place, and they have been doing so for decades. And nobody says a word, nobody bats an eye, nobody cares. Years later, surfing becomes a new fad, more and more people are seen riding the waves and sharing the stoke, surf tours come sprouting out, and suddenly, they come to the picture reacting like lords because they are advocates of the environment, so they say. And because old school knows better, so they say. 

Respect is a big, big word and it is all we have for all the pioneers out there; we acknowledge that they own those once-uncharted spots because they earned it over the years. They are not called pioneers for nothing; they know better; and nobody has cared for those places better than them. Only fools can argue with that. But like most people, my friends – the organizers – only wanted a little share of the waters in public places. Public places because who holds commercial surf trips in secret spots anyway? But they come forward with their group’s logo, shoving into everyone’s mouth that they exist, pointing fingers to people not involved and emphasizing the word respect.

So I asked, “if you can bring foreigners to our hometown, to our waters, then why the sudden hate when others do the same?”, after all, ANG DAGAT AY PARA SA LAHAT (the seas are for everyone) as long as it is shared responsibly. Do they actually live true to their #ShareTheStoke culture? 

I guess I hit a nerve the moment I dropped the foreigner bomb because everyone blew it way out of proportion: some say that they bring in only responsible people who cook their own food [squeeze in some “FUs” and “disrespectful *ss in between lectures], who do not throw trash to the seas, that I should learn the local’s culture (seriously?) [squeeze in some more of that disrespectful *ss], that there are other ways to boost the local economy [squeeze in some FUs] and the list goes on, to the point of sending rather hostile messages so foul that they would definitely lose all their credentials the moment I post a screen shot of their hate. 

They could actually pass as a surfing mafia lording over the whole coastline of our province with the way they reacted. A few messages that I cared to read went beyond the line and bluntly noted that I am probably ashamed of myself for not having a profile picture on Facebook (as if not having a photo has something to do with the issue. Or world peace. Or sustainable tourism. Or coastal development. Or their sex lives). One prominent personality spoke up on the brighter side of things that it would help boost the local economy and said that in the long run, the province would no longer be among the poorest. [He got some lengthy Fs in return.]***

One would not believe how educated and how accomplished these people are. Obviously, one cannot find manners (and grammar) in the oceans.

No matter how cruel their words were, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they misunderstood and took it the wrong way because Seniors. Seniors have always known better. 

There are those who righteously claim to be ocean defenders in their group, so I ask again: If they can bring in responsible foreigners to our place, what gives them the right to bash people who bring in equally responsible travelers to public places because there is such a thing as public access? I can’t even begin to lecture about the carrying capacity of a place or matters on sustainable tourism because if you talk some Science to them, they bash you with FUs. 

Someone angrily told me not to immerse in an issue I don’t know about as I haven’t been asked to pay a few hundred bucks or had been called a monkey by foreigners while surfing in my own backyard. True, I haven’t. But someone I know had been tossed out of the water by a well-known local surfer while learning how to surf in our own backyard simply because He. Doesn’t. Know. How. To. Surf. Looks like you have to be a pro to be allowed in the waters they are so proud to call their own. But never did they hear a word because Seniors. Seniors have always known better.

I used to hate the thought of non-locals exploiting and invading our place, may it be the waters or the mountains, and I used to despise people disclosing locations of local destinations we have been secretly keeping from the tourists’ eyes. I hate organized tours which aim to reap the biggest profit at the expense of pristine environment. But what I hate the most is greed disguised in some “advocacy” for environmental issues when a competition arises. Too dubious of a timing.

Stop the hate. We all have been non-locals to foreign places and foreign lands, welcomed and accommodated and treated with respect. Inasmuch as I’d like to say I hate tourist influx, I cannot play hypocrite this time because I trekked mountain ranges not in my own land, stepped on their grasses, consumed water, ate fresh produce, as much as I had swam and surfed in the waters of the North, where it is actually okay to surf along and learn with locals even on weekdays. 

Stop the hate. We are supposed to be humbled by the places/seas we have been to, the locals we have talked to, and the experiences we have gone through.

What I don’t understand is why they put on too much restrictions for organized commercial surf trips (I know, sustainable tourism), chastise people who show support, throw a lot of foul words and discourage posting of photos with exact locations (I agree with this one though) while they go around hanging some bigger-than-life Surfing. It’s more fun in B******* tarpaulins in the metro, at the airport, at MRT stations with their enlarged surfing photos used as backdrop for the advertisement. Then they send me some links about tourism gone wrong in Bali. I could go crazy right now with how notoriously fickle their minds are. 

Surprisingly, I found one published article in an online news portal some years ago, with the title East*** S****: Surfing’s Last Frontier, and I quote “A hundred more are waiting to be discovered. And we’d like to discover them with you”.  Good Lord, with the way they have been reacting, I have no idea who they are kidding.

This much irony makes me want to buy a one-way ticket to outer space.

I don’t know how big the gap in our generations is, but you have to eventually succumb to the fact that this is already an era of cheap action cameras, promo fares, discounted travel tours, social media check-in apps, and adventure/travel junkies. We can hate all we want, but we have to learn to accept that more and more places are getting discovered and many more will be discovered. Anybody who knows how to use google earth and knows how to read weather forecasts would know where your surfing spots are. 

But you don’t get to hate. You educate.

And dagat ay para sa lahat.


***My bad. This should have been a lenthy discussion about tourism gone wrong with some $!@*# (characters not verbatim) in text. Apologies. 


P.S. To the one who posted the status, thank you for answering my queries  in a civilized manner. I say my thank-yous. 

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On the road

“Heads Carolina, Tails California, somewhere greener, somewhere warmer, up in the mountains, down by the oceans, where it don’t matter, as long as we’re going somewhere, together, I’ve got a quarter, heads Carolina, Tails California” – Jo Dee Messina

Sometimes I wonder why the shortest, most profound encounters always happen on the road. In my dizziest daydreams, I think I am bound to travel the world.
  

A few days ago, a friend dragged me along to travel with him to places we have only discovered through bizarre social media hashtags and clandestine travel blogs we cannot even pronounce correctly. We booked flights on a very normal day because spontaneity is the word we live by. 

With a tight schedule and too many places in mind, we made sleep our last priority to fit in everything in our seemingly impossible itinerary. Instead of spending our nights in some hostel’s cozy bed, we’d hop on trains and buses in the wee hours of the night only to wake up and see the swathes of green in some place with hundreds of acres of passion fruit plantation and where nobody really understands English. Believe it or not, and you can laugh all you want, but our aptitude in comprehending hand gestures, communicating through eye expressions, interpreting things from context clues and whatnot was the reason we made it through. Translation apps didn’t help at all as they drove us nuts by translating things farthest from what we meant to convey. The. struggle. was. real.
 

*drools on passion fruit*

 As the language barrier put heaps of impediment in our journey, we had to go chasing last minute trips to our next destinations because we were either issued the wrong trip tickets or we were skeptical if the taxi drivers really understood where we were going or we’d come late to train stations as our phone’s clock automatically synced with the country’s time zone. But despite all that, never did we miss a single trip because, in my belief, heaven and earth conspired to get us where we needed to be. Every. Single. Time.

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Ga Binh Thuan: where all misunderstandings collided

Unfortunate events untangled into what I would consider as gratified encounters because sometimes, we just need to let things be; and what I loved most in everything that transpired was the chance to meet the people whom I got to share profound ideas with, all the while learning things and discovering places I never knew existed. It was like making a genuine connection with the world while feeling being at home and eating foreign dishes.

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A little piece of Tuscany in the heart of Asia

 One night, we found ourselves having dinner at a building’s rooftop in Phnom Penh, overlooking the city lights clouded with soot. Some guy politely asked to sit with us as he ate the croissant he bought from a nearby french bakery. It was nine in the evening. I asked him where he came from because he didn’t come close to resembling a local, or a southeast Asian for that matter. 

night lights

He said he came all the way from Barbados and is now based in Phnom Penh, teaching English to kids in an international school. I only know the place as Rihanna’s country of origin, and it got me singing her song Four Five Seconds. But other than that, I know nothing else – not even the continent it belongs to, much less the symbol of their flag that was tattooed on his arm.

I was asking too many questions out of curiosity. I believe I even crossed the line when I asked if he happens to be an albino because everything about him speaks of being one – blonde hair, blonde eyebrows and white skin; either that or it was just my inability to contrast people, and the only other person I can compare him with was Rihanna. I really meant no offense and I guess I was just being a little too inquisitive. The moment I realized that, I apologized without even finishing my question, but he was already laughing. I was glad he didn’t take offense and he just told me matter-of-factly that twenty percent of their population are white people. Now I can declare I am a better person.

He showed me the map of Barbados as I munched on the fried noodles I bought from some kiosk in the busy streets outside. It is a small island somewhere near the Caribbean. I asked more questions about Barbados because it was overwhelming to meet one of Barbados’ approximately 300,000 people, let alone meeting one in Asia. I felt ignorant afterwards but he consoled me by telling that most people are absolutely clueless about Barbados and that he always tells people he comes from America to minimize questions and save time. Apparently, I was most people. 

Halfway through my dinner, I asked him how it’s like living in Asia and being away from home for the past six months. It did not come as a surprise to hear him say that he has come to love Asia, its people and its culture despite the pollution, the language barrier, the spoiled brat kids at school, the numerous snatchers lurking in the streets and the barren soil which makes you wash your white shirt three times after an afternoon stroll. Touché. What’s not to love?

He then went on to talk about how much he enjoyed his travels to nearby Asian countries, his frustration on some high school kids articulating foul language at such young ages, how they constantly break school rules and not get expelled, and how life could be so unfair as learning English becomes a privilege to rich kids who can afford the skyrocketing fees in international schools. It was so unlikely yet very pleasant to hear esoteric views of life from somebody who hails from a first world country where 24-year olds are supposed to be young and wild and free, partying at night and getting wasted and not having deep reflections on how lucky they are.

Three hours and hundreds of stories later, we bid goodbyes. It was nearly midnight and we were leaving early morning the following day. It was sad, but we all agreed that some things are left undone, words are left unsaid, places are left unseen and names are left undisclosed because these circumstances guarantee a next time (keeping my fingers crossed).

Flashback to a day before that.

We were in Siem Riep and everybody thought we were Cambodians, from the immigration staff down to the hostel staff, locals and even the monks. The hostel staff even talked us into going with them to the Angkor Wat complex just so we could get free passes. However, no matter how thrilling the pretenses make me, it is always a good practice to have the willingness to pay for the dues to boost the local economy. Good thing I do not speak their language because I believe I could have totally pulled it off.

We were welcomed with much hospitality and generosity from the moment we arrived. The tuktuk driver fetched us from the station, drove us around town, made us eat local food and local beer and drove us back to the hostel, FOR FREE (well, except for the food). There were four of us now: me, my friend, the tuktuk driver and a Balinese friend we met on the bus to Siem riep. 

There were people at the hostel’s lobby playing billiards and watching TV. Upon hearing us talk (confirming that we were not Cambodians), they immediately asked if we were from the Philippines and kept telling us how much they love Manny Pacquiao, and they did so for the rest of the evening while we were in the lobby. It made me realize of just how much we need to take pride of who we are, where we come from and what we are capable of doing. 

Fast forward to two days after Siem Riep. Grey skies hovered above me.

The rain poured mercilessly as it left droplets of water on the car’s windshield while I listen to Jason Mraz’ The Sunshine Song on repeat for seven hours. I was about to see Vietnam. Again. In seven hours.

I must have traveled through time while listening to just one song. I remembered being on the bus surrounded by Caucasians as we embarked on a 12-hour journey to somewhere, three days prior to The Sunshine Song. 

It was also pouring; and being the childish creature that I am, I was saddened because the window pane was covered in mud and I kept on murmuring about having no view. With my earphones’ volume in full blast, I didn’t realize that the bus’ ceiling was dripping with rainwater – almost everywhere except for a few spots, mine included – and there was a little bit of commotion. But instead of hearing rants from people who were now drenched, it seemed like they were all smiles as they embraced the imperfections and inconveniences of traveling across Asia. Sweeeeeet.

And the view-less window pane did not bother me anymore.

Still three days prior to The Sunshine Song, there was the tuktuk driver.

The tuktuk driver, I remember, told me while we roamed around Siem riep one night that he really wanted to learn English (he was already good though). According to him, since Siem riep is touristy, it is only fitting that people who make a living through tourism be good at it. He shared to us that on regular days, he drives tuktuk during the day and studies English at night. I am fully aware of life’s unfairness. And while I do not live a perfect life, I have always been grateful of how circumstances like these make me realize of how privileged I am as a person. I swear I would have volunteered to teach the tuktuk driver for free had I stayed a little longer.

Last stop: being tourists in Ho Chi Minh city.

I was having separation anxiety and I thought only good food can cure that, or a dose of vanity with my red lipstick on.

We walked around the city and tried all the food we could get our hands on. Since I am far from being a foodie and I’m afraid that I might not give justice to these delicacies, I’m letting these photos speak for themselves.

Eating whatever.

There is nothing (not even heart aches) that good food can’t cure. (what?)

Separation anxiety

“I think you and the moon and Neptune got it right”

After three hours of walking around the city, feeling like foodies, we decided to settle in a coffee shop that took us a little over an hour to find. Good thing, we didn’t lose our patience. Or at least, my friend didn’t. 

*drools all over the place*

Boho finds!

I sat next to three blondes while sipping the most delicious iced coffee I have ever tasted and taking small bites of the lemon tart I ordered. I was minding my own business reading the cafe’s journal and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on them, but with our close proximity, it was impossible not to overhear them or get distracted by their conversation that was rather interesting. And, sensible.

Their topics ranged from social media, to their friends back home, to kids at school, to backpacking around Asia, to the cafe’s food and even the complexities of life – all of those incoherences over cups of coffee and jumbo french fries.

All three, I learned, are English teachers in Ho Chi Minh. This one guy made an impression on me as he made a very blunt remark, chastising people who are on social media a lot, saying that what they portray online aren’t a representation of what truly happens in real life. He was right in so many levels and I couldn’t agree more to what he said. However, I didn’t know how to react to that because his timing couldn’t have been so right: in that very moment, I was Instagram-ing the food and coffee I ordered. In my argument, it was happening in real life, real-time. But still, I was totally guilty!

This photo…nevermind.

I had a feeling that he deliberately said that and honestly, I wanted to laugh at myself, or at him, because he had a point. But instead of laughing, I just shrugged it off and pretended I didn’t understand anything. 

An hour later, I found myself looking intently at a map of Mekong river that was hung on the wall, to the left side of our table. I was trying to memorize its winding path until this same guy started talking again and got me distracted, again; this time, it was about backpacking Asia and how his friends have always wanted to try it.

With my ears on him and my eyes glued on the map while I had my back on everybody else, I was grinning from ear to ear as I heard him say, and I quote, “If you come from our country and get to live here, you would appreciate life even more”

Touché.

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Oceans.

 

 “Time is the single most precious commodity in the universe” (Jupiter Ascending)

  At three in the morning on the day that you were leaving, I left a message of bon voyage and complementary cliche parting messages. There was no reply and I went to bed.

I woke up five hours later only to see my phone with a few missed calls from you which registered thirty minutes before my eight o’clock alarm. In the hopes that you may have left a message after a series of unanswered calls, I figured I should check the inbox right away. True enough and as if I have read your mind, you did.

It was a short message of heartfelt gratitude and goodbyes, stressing the obvious that you were already leaving. I went through your message for a countless number of times, replaying it in my head, and I thought to myself: this is indeed our farewell. 

I felt bad. And nervous. And sad, and a myriad of unexplained feelings in between. My heart skipped a beat when I decided to fish for my contact list and attempted to call you back because I just had to. Hundreds of times, in fact.

But much to my horror, the only thing I heard was the automated voice of the service operator because in that moment, I knew you were already up in unreachable altitudes en route to somewhere four hours and four thousand two hundred eighty three miles from where I am for God knows how long.

I was dumbfounded. It felt so unfair and I kept wishing I could turn back time to thirty minutes before eight. Or if I could wish for more than that, to the times we spent sharing our profound and priceless thoughts about life and feeling infinite together over a bottle of beer by the moonlit shores, listening to the soothing sound of crashing waves in the middle of the night. It was perfect. You kept asking me why I love the oceans, but I have never really known the answer. Sadly, I cannot turn back time. Or moments. And I am only human.

I kept staring at the ceiling for a few seconds, or probably a few minutes which might have lasted for a good few hours. I can’t really remember how long I stared at it, feeling feeble. I glanced at my phone, scrolled through your message and slowly, as if something seared through my heart, I was reduced to tears as I contemplated on the words that were left unsaid or how the universe didn’t conspire so I could hear your voice one last time. How can thirty minutes be so cruel, I asked the universe repeatedly but to no avail.

I know there is no way you’ll stumble upon this. But if the universe casts its twisted miracles upon this, upon us, know that I am more than grateful for having known you, for letting me see through you, for sharing with me your hopes and ambitions, for staying grounded despite the fame, for the endless laughter, for the adventures on the road, for tolerating my childish instincts, for treating my friends as your own, for the respect and deep understanding that I am my father’s daughter and that there are things I cannot give you just yet, for agreeing to my principles in life no matter how silly they seem, for letting me ridicule your otherwise sexy arm tattoos, for putting up with my tantrums, for sharing your time and for loving your family. Yes, YOUR family. And, for loving God.

N years from now, maybe we’ll see each other at the crossroads of nowhere, all grown up and accomplished and contented and happy. By then, I’ll be laughing at why I even wrote this in the first place. 

And when that time comes, I will tell you why I love the oceans.

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Stars

I looked at the skies one night, lying on my back, in a tiny spot of the Cordillera mountain range.

I was very happy to set eyes on the faintly flickering sea of stars from above. But in an instant, I was saddened.

It dawned on me that some things can only be admired from far-off distances. And just like how I marveled at the stars in the freezing cold, behind the silhouette of the moonlit trees, I slowly came to realize that sometimes, the closest thing to loving the most precious being in our own universe is to love it from the most distant of places.

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Live. Laugh. Love. Liw-Liwa.

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My kind of blues.

 

Sometimes, we all need a little bit of solitude. Whenever I look for it, I always find myself slouching in the volcanic sandy beaches of Zambales, in this superb little place called Liw-Liwa – my happy pill next to home.

Happiness because everything about this photo speaks of solitude…

Pseudo Pines.

I’ve frequented the place on solo trips and sometimes with friends who wanted to try out surfing for the first time. A lot has changed since my first visit 2 years and 3 months ago. And though it may not be as “quiet” as before, I am happy that my ultimate go-to destination is finally getting the recognition that it truly deserves; I am even happier because this would mean a bigger source of income for the locals of the place.

Over the weekend, I invited a few friends to see the place I always come to when I am (1) happy, (2) very happy, (3) depressed, (4) looking for peace and quiet, (5) itching to surf and (6) when I am being spontaneous, weird and random at the same time.

Everything was awesome – is awesome. Great is even an understatement of how we felt when we went for a night swim and saw countless of bio-luminescent phytoplankton glowing in the waters with every stroke of our hands and feet. Even when our bodies were trembling from the cold in the darkness of the night, we managed to witness how the waters became a vast sea of stars.

Regrettably, we didn’t carry a camera that night, so as a rough representation of how the water looked like when it was disturbed by our swimming maneuver, here is an image from imgarcade.com.

Special thanks to Board Culture Liw-Liwa (BCL) for making our stay really fun as we opted to rent tents and go camping within the vicinity so we could have an “outdoorsy vibe” for the weekend, as one of my friends stated.

Sharing with you random photos of the place  so you can have a taste of Liwa (also, for your future reference).

To all the alcohol lovers out there, rejoice! It’s not everyday that people get to drink a shot of Bacardi 151 for 60 pesos or a shot of Absinthe for the same price!

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side by side: absinthe and bacardi 151 (DISCLAIMER: not my drink)

 

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DISCLAIMER: not my drink

 

If happiness is one tangible thing, this is what it looks like.

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Surf boards! — you surf when bored.

 

BCL overloaded with “gypsy feels” night lights.

Gypsy night lights. © A. Gajigan

 

serenity

 

© A. Gajigan

 

 

Need I say more?

 

Everything I love on a single wall! Ride a board when bored.

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Life on Board hanging on the wall.

 

Meanwhile at the beach…

Brushing elbows with the legendary Manoy Bazar in the shores of Liwa! We come from the same town in Samar and it is always a privilege to be able to see him rocking the waves!

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Manoy Bazar!

 

No surfable waves? No problem. SKIM!

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© A. Gajigan

 

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waiting.

 

And because there were no surfable waves… VANITY!

For the first time in more than 2 years, I didn’t surf Liwa.

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© A. Gajigan

 

 

This is my good friend, Queen! Her first time in Liwa was one heck of an adventure!

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Since it’s summer and Liwa seldom gets challenging waves  at this time of the year, people can try out other sports. Skaters and longboarders out there can try out Liwa’s skating ramp (although you probably know that already) (not in photo).

And here is a shout-out to our newfound friends! For the short duration of that getaway, we met these awesome people as we “gate crashed” their karaoke night!

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just because.

 

And…

Commencing a well-spent weekend getaway with this photo of the uncrowded beach.

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Solitude.

That’s all folks!


*If you wish to contact Board Culture Liw-Liwa, you can reach them at +639065161263.

Board Culture Liw-Liwa rent out tents that come with pillows and cushioned pads (for only 200 Php and it fits 2 people!). If you haven’t pitched a tent in your entire life, don’t fret because they will do it for you!

Happy beachin!


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Dream Catcher

 The little things.

They are small — miniscule and insignificant to the unwary eyes of many; even with their beauty, their existence remains unnoticed as they get drowned from what most people consider as “big and bigger” things in life.

But beautiful things do not ask for attention. And only a few see that elusive beauty in the tiniest of entities.

I have always  wondered how these few see things others fail to see. I know we see things from different perspectives, but maybe, if we take time to see through things, to imbibe everything at our own pace, to truly appreciate, then we can possibly see the  rich tapestry of nature — of life — like they do.

Nature’s dream catcher

 One day, when I ventured one of the higher altitudes of the universe, I stumbled upon nature’s very own dream catcher, and I dreamt of finding meaning to what I do. Then, I found you — one of the few.

I learned from what you do and marveled at how profound you see through things. I was greatly humbled and I realized that sometimes, we have to let go of our superficial indulgences to see the greater things in life.

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Of Meaningful Sunrises: Mt. Pulag via the Killer Trail

Pulag Sunrise

Dream high and reach for the skies!

It was one courageous decision to scale Luzon’s highest peak- Mt. Pulag – via the trail less hashtagged, or what is popularly known as the Killer trail (Akiki), and to descend via the Beginner’s trail (Ambangueg) because going through extremes has never been my strong suit. Dubbed as Pulag’s killer trail, Akiki has always been deluged with terrorizing negative comments because of the difficulties one has to face when one goes through this route. Apparently, you just have to have your curiosity bigger than your fear for you to go on this trail. Or, a will to live will do.

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What is more dreadful than to be greeted with this?

With only two weeks of training for this climb, I was horrified at how steep the path was. The steps going to the Akiki jump-off point had been the steepest steps I have ever climbed in my entire life, and I was consuming oxygen in an almost immeasurable rate as early as 5 in the morning. It was then that we became uncertain if we could even draw near the camp site that day with the substantial amount of loads we were carrying on our backs. Two guys were even carrying a little over 20 kilograms. Girls carried a maximum of 10-kilogram loads. I can’t even begin to describe the hesitation painted on our faces as we were about to embark on that 13-hour trek that we even considered hiring a porter for a moment. But we believed in ourselves and in the end, no personal porters were hired.

We were the only Akiki trailers for that day.

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The A-team. © Rago Photography

And so the trek begun…

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happy trekkers!

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Hanging by a moment. © Rago Photography

If there’s one consolation to what we were getting ourselves into, it was the rare sight of an exceptional beauty nature showcased in this trail less frequented: the sunlit plentiful greens of pines early in the morning, the erratic gust of cold wind and the calmness of nature. A friend once told me that beauty is equally distributed around the world. Turns out that it is actually true. And as improbable as this may sound, one can actually see beauty even in the most unsafe slopes of the mountain range in Benguet – after all, beauty isn’t about perfection.

For 2 hours of trek, picturesque views welcomed us!

Steep slopes

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Sunrise!

first stop

Paparazzi!

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Sunrise trek

Spring waters

However, no matter how much I try to sugarcoat it, a killer trail is a killer trail. And some things cannot be as beautiful without having some flaws. The almost symmetrical grove of trees in our path didn’t seem to amaze us after some time for we were already drained.

In our seemingly endless assault in the trail’s pine forest called Marlboro country, we were almost a lost cause – resting for more than 5 minutes for every 10 steps we made. And as if it were not enough to torment us, the situation was exacerbated by the free flowing  Tussock moth caterpillars (Tagalog: Higad) literally scattered everywhere, latching onto pine trees, hanging in spider webs and descending in the most arbitary fashion, and lurking on the ground in numerous numbers. They made us even more restless.

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Steeper than it looks

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non-stop assault

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Again,  steeper than it looks

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THE ULTIMATE CRAZY GROUP! © Rago Photography

That kind of scenario went on and on like a vicious cycle for 6 hours until the supposedly altitude sickness became ATTITUDE sickness – the higher we went, the intolerable the attitude became.

Akiki clearly tests one’s physical strength and character.

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Tussock moth caterpillar (orange). © Pam Delos Santos

tussock moth cat

Tussock moth caterpillar. © Pam Delos Santos

A friendly reminder from myself to myself.

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Trek with attitude. And a good one at that!

We finally set foot in a flat piece of land six hours later. Such a happy pill! We had our lunch at 2 in the afternoon, refilled water from the spring, rested for a while and had a photo shoot with the cows  because what is Marlboro country without cows? Totally recharged for another assault!

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Flatland. © Rago Photography

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Flatland – Marlboro country isn’t infinite after all. © Rago Photography

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Flatland. © Rago Photography

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Flatland is my happy pill! © Rago Photography

cow photoshoot

Cooperation: It’s their Nat Geo thing!

What came next to Marlboro country assaultwas the Mossy forest. Thinking we could go up faster because we were energized from our rest, we were mistaken. It was equally challenging. We kept track of time because we needed to follow our scheduled pitching of tent at the campsite by 5 in the afternoon. Otherwise, the biting cold would slow us down if we don’t make it to the campsite by that hour.

With our grueling assault,  we were literally eating every trail food we had in our bags. Occasionally, we would take rests and plan on how we would go about our Mt. Everest assault. Yes, we were slowly becoming delusional because our trail food and water were running out in an almost equal pace as our breathing.

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Mossy Forest

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Into the wild. © Rago Photography

SLEEPYHEADS IN THE MOSSY FOREST!

After some time, we were getting hopeless of ever seeing the campsite in daylight because the mossy forest seemed infinite and because WE.DOZED.OFF.FOR.A.LITTLE.BIT.IN.THE.FOREST. That was how tired we had become. As for me, I felt bad about not having the enthusiasm to appreciate the forest because I was too worn-out and I felt like I was just dragging myself to make it out of the forest.

Four hours of assault and we finally made it out of the mossy forest and we were beaming with positivity that even if we were a little late, we were still able to see Junior Pulag before sunset. Standing a few meters above the mossy forest, we witnessed how the clouds embraced the forest in a creepy kind of way. That would have been really cold had we not make it out.

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A little above the mossy forest. © Rago Photography

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Clouds hovering above the mossy forest. © Rago Photography

Junior Pulag at dusk.

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D-U-S-K. © Rago Photography

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the journey. What seemed like one peak in Junior Pulag from one point was really a series of peaks we didn’t see coming. It was already a little past 6 in the evening and clouds were all over the place and we could hardly see the trail. Drenched in sweat from the mossy forest ascent, we had no choice but to wear warm clothes right there and then. We stopped for a bit to cherish the cold and take pictures of the surroundings. After all, we don’t get to see flowers like these in low altitudes, and more importantly, we don’t get to see art in its most pristine and immaculate form.

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Pinkish Glow! © Rago Photography

Too artsy! © Rago Photography

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Art in Nature. © Rago Photography

Nature: the epitome of art

And, this is me pretending to love the cold.

After almost an hour, we finally made it to the campsite. Trembling due to the extreme cold, we managed to pitch our tents while others cook dinner in the blackness of the night. Kudos to the people who braved the cold and made dinner for the group even if only a handful of people got out of their tents to eat because the cold bothered them. In my case, I had no choice but to eat because I needed energy for the early-morning climb to the summit the following day even if it meant making my sleeping bag as a cape to fend off the cold and looking really, really ridiculous.

I have to confess that I am not a big fan of camping as I am a ‘day-trip only’ person (which is what I always do in my surf trips). But I have to say that I really love seeing people camp (and in my case, experiencing it first-hand) because it serves as an avenue where people can value what matters most in life; where we can see other people living life far from the luxuries of modern living even for just a short while; where we don’t have to complain about the little blunders in our imperfect lives (like having late lunch or unpleasant meals); where we will eat whatever is edible and drink whatever is potable. 

Camping! © Rago Photography

As the night progressed, I was able to get a glimpse of the sky in the nighttime and I realized that I haven’t seen that much stars in my life – and it was the most beautiful.

Sadly, a glimpse was all I can do. I had to get in the tent and get myself warm or I would die in the cold glorifying the stars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take pictures of the night sky, and these photos from a colleague are the closest thing to a star-filled night sky (for the readers’ reference).

Starry, starry night. © Rago Photography

At 3 in the morning, we were already awake and my colleagues started making coffee for everybody. It wasn’t the best coffee but it sure was the most delicious and the most comforting during that time. I was able to cook noodles and it was the first time people complimented me in my cooking endeavors. Hail to instant food!

At 5 in the morning, we started our ascent to the summit. It was a 30-minute assault and the cold went from slightly tolerable to very inconvenient while we were at the summit waiting for the sun to come out. Taking photos became a struggle as our hands went numb from the cold.

When the sun finally revealed itself, my jaw literally dropped and I stood there frozen, unable to believe that such immense beauty in nature exists. For a few minutes, I didn’t bother turning my camera on as I didn’t want to miss every single detail of this legendary Pulag sunrise directly above the vastness of the sea of clouds. After all, no matter how expensive or superb the camera is, we have to admit that photographs can never really capture what the eyes really see. As a consequence, I am borrowing Gerald Rago’s photographs so readers who have never been to Mt. Pulag would know just how captivating the sunrise was.

Breathtaking. © Rago Photography

Summit and Me. © Rago Photography

When I finally got into my senses, I got my camera rolling to have a few shots of the sea of clouds as a souvenir. In any case, I have to have a reward for myself because I didn’t go through the killer trail to pass up on the opportunity to have a picture of the rising sun and the sea of clouds. (And by the way, this shot is dedicated to Sir Chris Burkard, the greatest nature/landscape photographer I have always looked up to!) sunrise (GoPro) It was one victorious Pulag moment!


On our way home (Ambangueg to La Trinidad), we chanced upon these scenarios whose pictures are worth sharing to the world.

A man cooking eggs in the sulfur mud spring in Benguet

A Benguet kid posed for the camera.

Lastly, there’s nothing like this beautiful sunset to commence a successful climb.

Nothing like this beautiful sunset to commence a successful climb! © Rago Photography

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