Tag Archives: Philippines

Week 48: Kayak


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.


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 41: Trek at high noon


That would probably be a non-issue if I did it in a country with a cooler climate, where eggs don’t fry on the pavement in the summer, and where the sun is at least 90 million miles away instead of just next door.

But I climbed this (small) mountain in the Philippines, which is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but also where, in the summer, the sun likes to match the islands’ beauty point by point in heat. Nevertheless, we forged on. We were on the island of Sibale, in Romblon province, at the heart of the Philippines.

Based on how our group had to stop and catch our breath after climbing about 15 steps to get to the forest trail, I placed our collective fitness level at .2 percent. But there was a ray of hope: beside me was a local man in jeans. I figured things were looking good and easy if this guy thought jeans would be the appropriate outfit for the day. So I walked on, encouraged.

We reached the end of the cemented path and went on into the forest trail. All throughout, we had to scramble over huge rocks and duck under low tree branches that decided to cross over to the other side of the path. Our chattering and jokes gradually faded away until the only sounds I could hear were crickets and the crunch of dead leaves under our feet. Being surrounded by nature does that to people, I’ve observed. Trees and mountains, oceans and rivers have a way of working themselves into your soul and the only choice you have is to quiet down and listen.

Some parts of the way were awash with the noon sun. Walking through those hot patches that stretched about 10 feet at a time became increasingly difficult as the path wore on. At several points, I was so close to saying, “You guys go ahead. I’ll just wait for you here.” What kept me going was the shame of bowing out ahead of the guy in jeans. I thought, if he can defy the heat in his denims, I can, too.

Sweat dripped from me as if I were standing under a shower. It even dripped from my fingertips, which had never happened before. It was briefly fascinating. The only thing that stayed sweat-free was my black dry-fit t-shirt. (So they do work.)

Finally, we reached the end of the trail. Approaching it, I could see the rich aquamarine sea through the trees. It was sparkling, as if calling out, “Jump in, jump in!” There was nothing I could do but stare at its majesty. That was all anyone could do.

At the tip of the trail-end was a grotto bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary. It faced out to the sea. The locals built it that way, they explained, so that Mary would protect the island from all coming danger, and also to greet visitors and send off travelers with a shower of blessings.

I like to think that I fell under that shower. See, in usual cases, the same amount of effort that I put in on that trek would have landed me in bed for at least half a day, gasping for breath. But on that day, there was none of that. Sure, I was tired. But I wasn’t close-to-death tired, which I would sometimes get in the city.

So that night, I drank to the beauty of life, the wonder of the unknown, and the power of faith.

At the end of the trail. Sibale, Romblon.

At the end of the trail. Sibale, Romblon.