B and R go to a small school with a very tight-knit community. So when one of their classmates decided to spend his 10th birthday weekend in a forest, the whole class went along.
It was a riot waiting to happen.
We were going to Lilim Forest Conservatory in the municipality of Real, the province of Quezon, about five hours south of Manila. “There will be some rough roads right before we get there,” warned our host. No truer words were said. If I had a cell signal right then, I would have called for a helicopter to airlift us out of our Honda and deliver us at Lilim’s doorstep. But since there was no signal (also, I didn’t own a helicopter), I drove on. In millimeters, the three vehicles in our convoy navigated the rocks, muddy pits, and the sections of the road that were so narrow that our wheels on both sides skimmed the edges of the road. A half inch in the wrong direction and our vehicles would have fallen a foot off the cemented path.
When we arrived at Lilim, the sky was gray, it was drizzling, but the forest was serene. You wouldn’t have been able to tell, though, with the amount of childish chatter we brought along with us, disrupting the tranquility.
From the three-car parking lot carved into the foot of a hill, we climbed 211 steps to the mess hall. B went ahead with her friends. R, the second youngest in our group, stuck with me and proceeded to update me and everyone within hearing distance of his physical abilities.
“I’m not tired at all,” he announced to the air in front of him. Of course, he couldn’t have been tired because all he was carrying was a pair of slippers while everyone else was loaded down with bags and pillows. It went on until the 198th step, at which time I convinced him to say his words inside his head instead.
All around us were trees and grass, shrubs and wood. We walked on a path flattened by feet that had gone before us. The drizzle made the ground slightly slippery. And the chilly air—we could tell that what we were breathing was completely uncontaminated by anything manmade.
We reached a clearing from which several paths diverged—paths to the colorful cottages we would be staying in. After depositing our bags, we went for a tour.
More than a decade ago, Lilim was almost barren, a denuded forest. But one guy saw its potential. He bought the land and turned it around. He started planting trees of various species, and today, Lilim is a protected forest. Because of his efforts and help from the local government, illegal logging in this part of Quezon eventually dried up. It’s now home to several endangered and indigenous species of trees.
In the midst of these trees, there’s an ampitheater, a grotto with 15-foot statues of Jesus and Mary, an obstacle course, a swimming pool, and a viewing deck that looks out across a neighboring mountain of forests.
Halfway through dinner, the lights went out so we decided to retire to our cottages. Now, our cottage was designed to accommodate five people. That was just the right fit for me, another mom (N) and our children. However, we discovered that utter disregard for the rules took place that night. Our cottage ended up housing three moms and eight kids.
The moment those neanderthals children saw the mattresses lined up on the floor of the one-room cottage, they lost all manner of civility. Someone must have programmed their brains to use “beddings on the floor” as cue for “manic pillow fight.” The fact that they were doing it in near darkness (one candle provided light) added to their dementia. For an hour, they wrestled, pushed, pulled, sat on, piled on, and had a grand time.
At around 8:30, N and I almost managed to trick the kids into going to sleep. We just lay down and the children took it as a sign that they should go to sleep, too. We blew out the candle. And then a diabolical voice piped up in the darkness: “It’s just 8:30. It’s too early to go to sleep!” Up went eight heads simultaneously, and the candle was lit once again. They proceeded to play cards in the dark until they all passed out close to midnight.
The next day was still wet, cold, and gray, but we went ahead with our planned activity: walking into the forest and swimming in the river. After a 20-minute walk into the “wilderness,” we arrived at a field with a couple of football goals and an obstacle course. B, who normally abhors any activity that puts dirt on any part of her body, immediately climbed up the structure of horizontal logs and shimmied down the rope ladder on the other side, landing on mud in her bare feet. And then she did it again. And again. Happiness.
R fell sick halfway through our jungle jaunt so he and I had to go back to our cottage early. But B stayed on and, with her friends, jumped into the river. Nevermind that they had to walk 30 minutes back to the cottages. Nevermind that they did it in their wet clothes. Nevermind that it was so cold they “felt like ice cubes.” Nature has a way of making people love life to its most basic level.
And on that note, the weekend was over almost as soon as it began. Lilim Forest Conservatory is a gem. We intend to visit it again, but this time with a moratorium on wrestling matches pillow fights.