Category Archives: Adventure

Week 49: Spend a weekend in a forest

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A jungle jaunt deep into Quezon, Philippines

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.

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The musical river at the foot of the mountain

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.

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Week 48: Kayak

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Photo by Winston Baltasar

It was the perfect day for B to paddle her first kayak. The sun was out and was gently touching the earth–the harsh rays would come later. Our one-minute walk to the river took us through a grove of trees, a foot path that cut across an organic mini farm, and under a canopy of purple flowers that looked like fireworks in fauna form.

Our two guides had picked the tandem kayak that B and I would ride and were carrying it down to the river–Bancal river in Iba, Zambales (northern Luzon in the Philippines). We were spending the weekend at the Mango Grove at Bancal River and after a yummy organic breakfast of grilled dried fish, tomatoes, eggs, and fried rice, we were ready to sweat it out.

R was supposed to join us, but he took one look at the kayaks and decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with them. So he and W stayed on the riverbank and played with rocks. Meanwhile, B and I got into our life vests and did some practice paddle strokes.

“What if we drown?” B likes to get right to the point.

“We won’t,” I said.

“But what if we do?”

“Then you won’t have to have an early bedtime ever again.”

This comforted her, apparently, because she went straight to her seat and plunked down. We chose a good river for B’s first kayak ride. Bancal river is quiet and calm; none of that whitewater adrenaline rush, thank you. (I’m saving that for when B turns 13.) Upstream, as is the norm in provincial rivers, were a few locals washing clothes–Sunday was laundry day. Right across from us was a kid, about 6 years old, buck naked and swimming happily with his dog.

Our guides were on another tandem right beside us, in case our vests, natural buoyancy, and common sense would fail and bring us to peril. They pushed us into the river to get us going. The moment my paddle sliced through the water, I was transported back to the last time I’d been on a kayak. It was for a travel assignment and I was alone on a kayak in a cove early in the morning. It was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever felt.

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Photo by Winston Baltasar

I started paddling. So did B, who was sitting in front of me. In two strokes, she had managed to soak my shorts. In four, she’d sprayed water all over my face.

“I think my paddle is too small for me,” she announced, unaware of the soaking efficiency of her paddle.

“That’s the perfect size for your hands and arms,” I told her. Our guides had given her a child-size paddle. It was yellow.

“Can we switch, just so I can check?” she asked me, her mother, who was, last time I checked, bigger than her. So was my paddle. We almost tipped ourselves over exchanging paddles mid-river. Our guides must have had the word “idiots” running through their head.

It was a little difficult paddling for two using a kiddie paddle, but it worked. B paddled when she felt like it. When she didn’t feel like it, she leaned back to an almost prone position, with her fingers skimming the water on both sides of the kayak. I was torn between continuing to paddle to give her this precious experience with nature and wanting to splash her on the face and tell her to pull her own weight. I compromised and splashed her hair, and only when our load got too heavy.

The sun’s rays got steadily hot. Despite that, our kayak run was a pretty one. We passed under a dark cluster of trees whose drooping branches formed an umbrella of leaves over the deeper part of the river, in the opposite bank. In the shallower areas, we could see the river floor, with its pebbles dotting the sand.

We–or rather, I–paddled about three-quarters of a kilometer downstream which was a bad, bad idea because that meant I would have to paddle a kilometer upstream, back to W and R. With every stroke upstream, it felt like B and I were paddling through mud–wearing 20-kilo wetsuits.

Finally, we made it back. By then, W had beaten R at bato-bato-pick (rock-paper-scissors). The consequence was that R had to go kayaking, too. So he took the place of B and off we went, back downstream.

If B was concerned about drowning, R was curious about what kind of monsters lived in the river.

“Do you think the monsters that live here have just one or two heads? Will they eat us or maybe just play with us, like pet fish? What if a river dragon came out of the water? You know what I would do? I would throw my paddle in his mouth so he can’t chew on us.”

It was good to know that we had an escape plan in place. It was also nice to experience the river with constant chattering in the background. The lilting little voice kept the kayak run from becoming too much of a metaphysical jaunt.

Because I was already tired, R’s and my kayak run was a short one, but he didn’t mind. I brought him to the deep part of the river, where the trees bent over protectively. While we were there, R was giddy with a mixture of fear (“I think this is where the monsters live.”) and excitement (“If they come out, I’m going to jump and shout to distract them.”).

Even though hours later, I could still feel the soreness in my arms and abs, those two kayak runs were among the best ones for me. They were full of kids, sun, water, chatter, and peace.

Week 45: Go paragliding

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Cradling the wind with Airsports Adventure Philippines. Photo by Winston Baltasar

Cradling the wind with Airsports Adventure Philippines. Photo by Winston Baltasar

My feet left the ground and started running on air. And then I was being carried–pushed–forward. It was as if I was riding a conveyor belt going 30 mph, except that I was standing on nothing. Between me and the cows munching on grass in the field below was 300 feet of wide open space. All I could hear was the soft, but insistent, whistle of the wind. And there was screaming, too, which I eventually realized was coming from me.

To fly (outside of an airplane) was something I’d always wanted to do.

See, in the bowels of the storage shed at home is a small pink Hello Kitty backpack filled with all the things a little girl would hold dear. For example: a wooden tea set whose cups are as small as a baby’s fingertips, a dried rice stalk harvested from the Banaue rice terraces, a dirty white t-shirt covered with notes in ink from my friends in grade school.

But the most interesting of all those odd objects is a piece of brown paper, folded and unfolded many times. It’s the bucket list I wrote when I just started high school and referred to all through college. The list has some un-checked items that are a little difficult to do–“Drive an 18-wheeler truck.” “Ride to the sunset and touch the sun.”

And until a week ago, “Go hang-gliding” also stood un-checked. (I know hang-gliding is not paragliding but I’m willing to be flexible with the prefixes.)

Early on Sunday morning, The Hub and I packed the kids into the car and drove to Carmona, Cavite–easily a 40-minute drive from Manila without traffic–to the fly site of Airsports Adventure Philippines. The Hub was going to shoot them doing their cool thing while the kids and I hung out with the cows. The One with the Toilet Humor wanted close contact with the animals (“If I flick that cow’s butt, do you think he’ll kick me?”) and The Manipulator practiced his math (“There are 17 cow poops in this field”).

After half an hour of that, Buko and Albert–the main men of Airsports Adventure Philippines–came by in a truck to bring us up to the jump-off point at the top of a hill. There was no shortage of trees at the top. About 50 feet away from the edge of the grassy summit, under the shade of trees, was a small hut that served as the pre-departure area. Sitting on the bamboo benches, we had front-row seats. We watched Buko, Rolly–another paragliding enthusiast–and others from their group one by one lay out their paragliders, wait for the right wind conditions, get into the harness and strap their radio on, and run off the edge and into the wind. Albert–who The Hub dubbed The Wind Whisperer–stood by with his radio, murmuring instructions for whoever was in the air (“Veer left.” “Now swing around, it’s carrying you away.”) From the hut, we could hear the strong whoosh each glider made as it caught the wind and rose up, carrying the pilot away with it. It was exhilarating even to just watch.

After a filling lunch of pork chops and rice, it was my turn. I was riding tandem with Buko, who, incidentally, is an award-winning paraglider. Albert was giving me instructions while strapping me in but all I could think of was how high we’d be flying. Once the glider caught the wind, Buko and I took several running steps before we swooped off the hill. I felt like we were riding a giant swing that suddenly decided to take off from the playground. We steadily rose and all I could see were treetops and then, just sky and clouds. It was all so beautiful that I felt like crying.

We went in wide sweeps over the field and twice, went low enough to “walk” on the trees by the jump-off point. And for maybe 10 minutes, we were still. I have no idea how Buko did it, but we didn’t move–we were suspended in mid-air. We could have been watching TV, but 300 feet from the ground.

From where we were hovering, I could see the Makati skyline, a horse racetrack, rows of houses, grazing cows, our shadow on the field–all in dollhouse proportions. And, of course, I could see the sun. I guess birds didn’t want to have anything to do with this strange flying contraption so they stayed away. I was hoping to go eye-to-eye with them mid-flight.

I felt completely safe with Buko that several times, I let go of the straps and let my hands skim the wind. And there was no noise. The wind flapped in my ears but that was it. Everything else that made useless sound was far away. With a world like that, eagles must be the happiest creatures on earth.

All too soon, after about 20 minutes of euphoria, we were descending. We hit the ground running and the second we stopped moving, I got the urge to go up again. Paragliding took my breath away and right then, I wanted to hug everyone I could see and laugh until I cried. I felt so giddy with happiness.

Now, to find an 18-wheeler truck to drive.

*Huge thanks are in order for Buko, Rolly, and Albert and all of Airsports Adventure Philippines for this truly unforgettable experience. I will be back!