Monday, September 5, 2011

Travels to Tabod – Part II – The Hill

She began with the over-frequent “Sir,” and continued, “It is far.”

“I know it’s far. That’s why he’s probably in need. Can we make it there?”

“Sir, yes, but the trail is steep!”

A twang of fear shot through me. I was in shape, but maybe not the right shape. Could I make it? Who knows. It’s probably best to bluff: “I know. Can you take me there?”

And, perhaps hoping that I misunderstood, or maybe I would change my mind, she asked again:

“Sir, yes. But the trail is steep! Do you want to go?”

In many languages, repetition is a form of emphasis. In Hebrew if you want to say pure gold, you just say the word gold twice. It is especially whatever it is. I wonder if that’s true in Tagalog.

Fatimah didn’t look happy. She clearly did not like my answer, but I could not tell if it was simply a fear of hiking or if there was something else. I had been warned about such warning. People here don’t like to disappoint, so they’ll give some excuse for why you should or shouldn’t do something, without stating the true reason. I thought about this, but could see no immediate threats and I had a strong desire to talk to someone we might actually be able to help. And with some delay, I decided to answer: “Yes. I do want to go, if you can make it.”

The discontent in my guide’s face intensified, but she consigned herself to our fate. We were appointed another guide, someone who lived nearby, a real highlander. He started leading our group. And boy could he hike! I had a foot or two on him in height, and was barely able to keep up without jogging on the flat first parts.

The first part of the trail was hilly, but not terribly steep. My other guides were in the back of the line and lagged behind a bit. But after a coconut field, we made it to the edge of the jungle and the hill. And he didn’t slow down. Now, I’ve hiked quite a bit in the US in my day, but we have developed something that the Palawanos apparently have no need of: something called “switchbacks.” Instead of going straight up, the trails are angled so as to minimize the incline to something more manageable at the cost of increasing the distance. When I was a Boy Scout, I cursed them. Why can’t we go straight up the mountain? The answer is: because you can’t go straight up a mountain. It’s too steep for the average American. But not too steep for the average Palawano highlander.

It was just about like climbing a ladder. The trail was perpendicular to the elevation lines, and deviated around obstacles and between property lines, but ignored topography. Rather, it paid attention to topography but only to spite it.

The missionary who worked in the area once explained to me that a ‘steep’ trail was one where you could reach out your hand and touch the trail you were hiking on. I don’t think we had any sections that steep (I tried this and was 6 inches short), so I suppose it was an ‘almost steep’ trail. For the steep sections, there were foot holes dug out of the mud trail like a ladder that were quite sturdy. I thought about the trail when it was wet, and figured it must be impassable, maybe even for highlanders.\

After about five minutes, I was pouring with sweat, breathing hard, but keeping up. But then I looked behind, and couldn’t see Fatimah or her companion. I hadn’t thought that I’d be in better shape than anybody. Not wanting to get separated from my only means of communication, I knew I needed to slow down our guide. Knowing 3 words of Tagalog (none of them presently useful) and not one of Palawano, I tapped my not-looking-behind-him guide on the shoulder and gesticulated as best I could for him to wait. And I was apparently successful.

We stopped, and I got the sense that, if the humidity wasn’t around 100%, my guide wouldn’t be sweating. He certainly wasn’t breathing hard like I was. We didn’t have enough language to even have light conversation. So we waited. And the mosquitoes saw a target of opportunity. We were in a jungle now, and I remembered the anti-mosquito advice to ‘clear out all standing water’ and laughed inside: a billion leaves and puddles and holes were wonderful breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Fortunately and inexplicably, the mosquitoes were not aggressive. I’ve been in places where, perhaps for want of blood, the mosquitoes are ravenous: they will latch onto whatever arm you try to swat them with. With a bit of shooing, I was protected, but there were really enough to be described as a fog.

The other factoid that I remembered is that malaria mosquitoes (anopheles) only bite at dawn and dusk; it was just past 1pm. And I was taking my prophylaxis, so I probably wouldn’t get Malaria even if I was bitten. But, of course, Dengue is transmitted during the day. And there’s no prophylaxis for Dengue.

With those thoughts to comfort me, Fatimah caught up with us, and was exhausted. She needed to take a break. And so we four waited a while, kept company by the swarms of mosquitoes (which, I must admit, seemed to prefer my blood over the locals). My decision to wear shorts was now proving a bad one, as my attending to my legs made me aware of the diverse and noxious allergens that I had been exposed to while hiking; my legs glowed red in a psychedelic pattern of passing leaves and twigs.

Our guide didn’t seem to have a variable speed. There was hiking at full gallop, or there was resting. And so Fatimah and her companion caught up to us, and then rested, and then we bounded ahead of them again. After doing this for a few iterations, my guide pointed at the silhouette of a house on the hill. It was beautiful, peeking through the jungle after so long a hike. It took us maybe an hour to hike at this ‘pace’ from the group of houses below; with the steepness and the rests, I had a hard time estimating our pace.

Travels to Tabod – Part III – The Man


  1. "I thought about the trail when it was wet, and figured it must be impassable, maybe even for highlanders."
    Alvin figured that out the hard way (it wasn't raining on the way up....)

  2. I'm sure you smelled exotic to the mosquitoes - jungle-dwellers eating jungle food, probably blend in to the olfactory landscape.