Bold, courageous and dauntless

I have handled group tours before but it was in my recent assignment that tested my resolve.

In a panel interview when I was applying for the Mabuhay Guides training program in 2009, I was grilled by travel icon, Susan Calo-Medina.

Watch 2:13 mark of the video.

That bit was less than five seconds but it was a long exchange. I was actually surprised by Susan Calo-Medina’s stern tone during the interview. She was challenging me if I was really determined to attend all the sessions so I said with conviction this line that’s been a running  joke in the group, “Yes, I want this. I really want this.” It felt like she was testing me and what I said really came from the heart. I wanted to be a tour guide. I really want this.

Fast forward 2012 and I was again tested if my feelings are true. I was given an opportunity to work with a veteran tour leader and manage a group of people from different countries: three from the United States, two from Germany, a couple from the Netherlands, one from Belgium, one from the Republic of Ireland, and a guest from Canada.

The itinerary covered fun things visitors can do in the Philippines: a three-day trek in Banaue, caving and a two-night stay in Sagada, a bus trip to Baguio, trekking in Pinatubo and finally, a few nights in Puerto Galera. I was tasked to assist and accompany the group wherever they go.

I was confident that I can do treks since I was able to guide a group last year in Banaue but an email from the local guide named Johnson felt insulting:

That 3 days trek I had with the Company X is not intended for Filipino tourist, However they are very much welcome if the like but kindly brief them (if ever there are locals) as Asians, to trek with Caucasians and Black people, they have very long legs and they are more fit than us so every single step they walk, we as Asians will take two steps. that would means their normal pace is a running pace for us (even me who grew up here have hard time to cope up with them so how much more to people who are coming from Manila) and the trek are very long the first days is 8 hours.

What does this guy know?

We had a briefing the day before the trip going up north to Banaue. I introduced myself and gave a short background about the country. Mr. A provided an overview of the itinerary and some do’s and don’ts in the Philippines. After the briefing, we had dinner at the Aristocrat Restaurant in Robinson’s Galleria.

I acted as an interpreter for the group because they were interested to have Filipino dishes that night. Some ordered chicken pork adobo, the others had seafood and grilled chicken. It’s just too bad that San Miguel Beer was not available at that time so we had a few beers in a bar near their hotel before going to sleep.

I made arrangements with the hotel to serve packed breakfast the following day.

Day 2
It turns out that the hotel doesn’t serve packed breakfast even though it was confirmed the previous night. Luckily, the kitchen was able to adjust but they told me this was a special concession. Gifts from the local agency were distributed before boarding a mini bus bound for Banaue. I also received from the agency the travel allowance and budget for the entire event.

It took approximately 9 hours to reach Banaue including restroom stops along the way. I distributed their packed lunch and started off with commentaries about Manila, Intramuros, the Manila City Hall, the Pasig River, and Quiapo Church. We skipped a visit to the lechon shops in La Loma because we wanted to reach Banaue at an earlier time.

The half-buried San Guillermo Church of Bacolor, Pampanga.

We stopped by the half-buried San Guillermo Church in Bacolor, Pampanga. An old lady charged the group with P100.00 as a form of “donation”. She gave us a brief tour around the church and talked about the extent of the damage made by the Pinatubo eruption and the santos inside the convent-turned-museum.

We continued the trip and made a short stop at the Petron gasoline station for a restroom/breakfast break. Along the way, we interviewed farmers going about their work schedule. I served as the group’s translator. We also passed by Hacienda Luisita then made a stop at a local hardware store somewhere near San Jose in Nueva Ecija. Mr. K, an Irish gentleman, bought an adaptor for his mobile phone.

On our way to Marquez Restaurant for lunch, I gave some pointers to the group about eating in a turo-turo restaurant. I also explained the Filipino palate and the popular dishes here. It was a bit difficult coming up with rough translations but I felt that the group enjoyed their meal.

Initial information about some of the members of the group:

  • Mr. T: Not-the-typical German. Amazing appetite. He had a lot of mangoes and fruits in Marquez Restaurant.
  • Mr. M, a US Marine, went looking for a micro-SIM for his iPad.
  • The American couple Ms. M and Mr. S asked me to watch over their bags as they were lining up for the the turo-turo station. Both were articulate and smart.
  • Mr. J, a towering Canadian. He’s well-travelled and will be flying to Boracay after the tour. He arrived a few days earlier. He was able to trek the Taal Volcano.
  • Mr. and Mrs. K, a Dutch couple. They will continue their stay in El Nido after the tour.
In Solano, we stopped by at McDonald’s to stretch our legs and also to use the comfort room. We also bought bottled water to have enough stock in our stay in Banaue. We reached Greenview Lodge at 5:30 in the afternoon.
Mr. A and I met Johnson, our mountain guide, to discuss the route and trek. I also gave him P1,000 to buy enough fruits for tomorrow. I also gave P1,000 to the driver to pay for the toll.

Day 3
We had breakfast early in the morning. It took some time for Johnson to pick us up from the hotel because I asked him to buy fruits for the group as requested by Mr. A. At first we thought that we will ride a jeepney but instead, it’s a different vehicle that has the same seating configuration as the jeepney. It’s like a Ford Fiera. Mr. A and I rode on top of the vehicle. We enjoyed the view but I have to admit that it was dangerous. The road leading to the Viewpoint was paved. I was a bit worried because I don’t want to have an accident.

Viewpoint of the Banaue Rice Terraces before the drop-off at Awan Igid.

We reached the drop-off point called Awan Igid. It’s located along the road leading to Sagada.

I think I over-packed. I brought a lot of stuff during the trek.

Oh and about the trail, I thought that it’s just a trail. The path will come easy for me after doing it last October but I was wrong. The ground was marshy at times and we would have to do some balancing acts to continue. No mosquitoes but there sure were leeches, the small kind that sucked on Mr. S’s forearm. The hike was eight hours long. One of the Germans, Mr. H was talking to Mr. A during the trek. I overheard topics such as geopolitics and people in their respective countries who complain a lot.

We stopped at Pula Village and relaxed a bit before going on with the trek.

I brought eight chocolate bars with me. I never thought that I’d finish six of them by the end of the trek. It was really a loooooong trek. It was an eight-hour trek!

It was so long that I actually thought that my knees would pop. I’m no mountain guide and I can tell you that I love the outdoors but the weight of my bag and the unstable ground made me question this loving feeling. It almost turned to hate because it felt like an eternity to get to the village of Cambulo.

I had to use a walking stick for the most part of the trek. I was really lucky that we were accompanied by two local guides and it was wise that one of them was at the flank to take care of the slow ones like me. Jay-Ar carried my bag for some time before I finally managed to bring it to Cambulo.

The terrain was steep and dangerous at times especially after Typhoons Pedring and Quiel but the view was amazing. We had to stop by  for photos. It was a long,winding, tiring, gut-wrenching, praying-to-god-i-will-be-good-when-this-is-over feeling but I made it.

I tested my limits and I finished it well.

Dinner was served in Cambulo. The village gets electricity from solar panels donated by a European country. Rosalie, the owner of the guest house, prepared a vegetable dish and rice for the group. I was relishing it. I was so hungry. It felt like eating steak.

My shoes were filled with mud. I had to clean it up in one of the comfort rooms in the guest house. There was no light so I had to improvise. I placed my flashlight between my kili-kili while doing number 1.

I stayed up a bit late for guests, who still have enough energy, to ask about places to visit in the islands. We talked about Palawan, Angeles City, Boracay, Bohol, and the butanding. After that, I went to bed.

Day 4
Instant coffee and vegetable omelette was served for breakfast. My knees still hurt. I can’t bend my legs. I asked Johnson if he can get more painkillers especially for the long trek ahead. Our next stop was Batad. We will have lunch there. I’m not sure if I was up to it because it felt like my legs have taken a lot of exercise the other day. Ms. M taught me an American expression for this. It’s “barking dogs”.

And so we trekked. We were at times on the edge of the terraces since yesterday. I thought that it was almost over but the trail to Batad has more of the terraces. Good ones! It was really looked like an amphitheatre.

There were two ways to reach the pension house: going “downstairs” or “upstairs”. I chose upstairs. My knees are crying out in pain. We reached the pension house at 1:30 pm. Lunch was served. The chicken curry served in Batad Pension House was really good.

Originally, the day’s itinerary included a visit to the Tappiyah Falls but this was changed later on upon recommendation of Mr. A. The group needed to rest.

The Batad Terraces. Taken on our way to see the Tappiyah Falls on Day 5.

Rooms were assigned to guests. Mr. K who was aware of his snoring had his own room at the top level of the pension house.

There was a bit of commotion early in the evening when a moth got inside the left ear of the Canadian, Mr. J. Of course, he was panicking. I got a bit startled too because right in front of me was a big man swearing. He’s like the Incredible Hulk. My first thought was really not to help. One of the things I read from the tour operator’s manual is not to administer medicine to a client because of the chances of worsening their condition. Instinct took over and I sprayed a non-chemical hand sanitizer on his ear. It did kill the bug but it was stuck inside Mr. J’s ear until the next day. I assured Mr. J that we will bring him to the hospital as soon as we reach Banaue.

It was then agreed to turn off the lights and just have a candlelight dinner, which was actually a good decision as most of the guests enjoyed very good meals from the pension house. Except for Mr. J. He soon left after dinner.

The Germans, the Irishman, the Belgian and I stayed for a couple of beers. We were soon joined by the master of the house. He treated us to a story about how these terraces were created by a deer hunter and another story about Wigan, his dog. It bit people on three occasions that’s why he sold it and he’s not sure if Wigan became supper.

Day 5
And I really thought that the trek will be a lot easier. Not really. Johnson, Mr. A and I agreed to cut it short. We skipped a visit to Banga-an Village and arranged for the group to be picked up early.

Before leaving Batad, nine of us took an hour’s trek to the Tappiyah Falls. I was given the option to skip this part but I was determined to go where the group goes. I want to know what’s ahead because I wanted to be at least two or five steps ahead of my future groups. I just had to know.

It was worth the pain and the trek. Beautiful Tappiyah Falls.

Lunch was served before the group left for Kinakin. Climbing, going down and crossing streams. My knees were hurting a bit but I was able to just go on with it. I realized that it was a mistake to give the walking stick to one of my guests the previous day. It was good thing that one of the guides from the pension house in Batad gave me his staff. It was lighter and looked better because it was shaped like the letter Y.

Oh yes. Why? That’s the question during the trek. I didn’t sign up for this torture and it looks like I’m in for four or five more of this.

Am I up to it? Is it really worth the money? What if something happened to me?

I really thought that the trek will never end. Finally, it did. As we moved upward, we reached a store and the Fiera was waiting for us. Buko juice was available. The group boarded the vehicle and I was again, too gung-ho, to go on top of the vehicle. I was in for a big scare. It was like riding those mechanical rodeo bull. I got to hold on tight and show Mr. A that I can also do what he’s doing. Good thing that it rained because it made us go inside the vehicle until we reached Banaue.

I had limited web and mobile access for almost two days. It felt great seeing the messages from my wife. I was catching up on the events in Manila through Twitter. Along the way, we saw road widening construction. There were times I thought that the vehicle would hit another bus. Yes, yes. The thought crossed my mind. It’s probably to make myself more aware and not panic too much.

We dropped of the group at the hotel. Mr. A, Johnson and I brought Mr. J to the hospital. The doctor was able to pull out the moth as big as 25 centavo coin. He said that this was a common occurrence. Sometimes, he had to pullout cockroaches. Okaaay.

I made arrangements with Badong, the Fiera driver, to bring us to Sagada for the following day. I also met Johnson to settle the bills and thanked him and Jay-Ar for taking care of the group. However, I couldn’t stress enough how important it was to change the trail so that we can skip areas damaged by the typhoon. Johnson will meet me before we leave.

That night, the group had a meeting to talk about Sagada. Most of us went back to our rooms to rest afterwards.

Day 6
We’re all set for Sagada. Each participant was given a trash bag to cover their bags in case it rained. We had to place them on top of the vehicle so that we can have enough space inside the Fiera.

I had breakfast with Johnson and we discussed about next month’s assignment. Before meeting him, I was able to talk to a veteran guide who’s been doing tours in Banaue. His name’s Mr. P. He was emphatic about the importance of having travel insurance provided by the tour operator.

The hazards that come with this profession were real. Mr. P had his share of accidents that’s why he never goes with the group on treks. He does have a point because it’s not worth the money to die on the job. It got me thinking. It got me worried a bit so yes, I will be more careful. My wife is depending on me. I want to live a happy and comfortable life with her for the next 50 or so years. Going home safe and in one piece after each tour is my commitment to her.

The road leading to Sagada was beautiful. It’s well-paved. We had to stop by in the middle of the road for some photos.

“It’s like in Colorado,” said Ms. M. Mr. J had nothing but “beautiful” and “amazing” for words.

There were more terraces along the way. It started to get a bit hot as we approached Bontoc for lunch. We ate lunch at Archog Restaurant as recommended by Ms. A, the proprietress of the Greenview Lodge in Banaue. Food was good. I left my business card and I told the cashier lady that I’ll be back.

Our next stop was Bontoc Museum. Cameras were not allowed inside. A visit to this place gives more perspective on the Philippine Cordilleras. We saw photos and items used before modern equipment came into the picture. We also saw photos of the headhunters of yore.

Replica of traditional Cordillera houses at the back of the Bontoc Museum.

Within two hours, we reached Sagada. We asked Badong to take us around the town center since our hotel is in the outskirts. It takes an hour by foot to reach it from Rock Inn. We checked in at the hotel at 5:00 p.m.

The staff met us. They were friendly, young and inexperienced. We were met with blank expressions when we asked about the basic things such as the location of the rooms. It was a taste of things to come.

We also made the mistake of pre-ordering breakfast for the next day but that’s for Day 7. We also asked them to take care of our laundry.

Sagada Sillhoute. This was taken while I was strolling.

The group explored the town proper while Mr. A and I arranged for the tour for the next day at the tourist center. The Log Cabin was our intended place for dinner but we weren’t able to make the 3:00 p.m. cut-off to place an order and make a reservation.

Mr. A, Ms. M, Mr. S, Mr. M and I went to the Yoghurt Place while the rest had dinner at Masferre’s. Service at the Yoghurt Place was fast. I love Chicken Curry. I also had yoghurt for desert. We ate at the balcony while watching the stars. I found out that there’s a fixed satellite in the sky from Mr. M’s iPad app.

We were happy with dinner. As for the other group, they just finished their meal when we arrived to pick them up. After two rounds of beer in a bar nearby, we went back to the hotel and slept.

Day 7
Mr. A and I were roommates for the duration of the tour. I sometimes get concerned because I wake up too early and I don’t want to bother his sleep. I’ve taken this mindset that my job isn’t really over until the last guest arrives safely to their home country. I had to be two or five steps ahead of my guests.

I woke up to the cold Sagada morning. I met Mr. J during breakfast. I was expecting that everything will be in working order because breakfast was ordered the previous day. I was wrong. The staff was slow and there was even an instance when the orders got mixed up. It was a disaster.

Trees that greeted us as we made our way to the entrance of the Lumiyang Cave.

We were still able to take the optional tour that morning upon recommendation of the Sagada Tourist Center. We saw the hanging coffins from a view deck, the entrance of the Lumiang Cave for more coffins and a tour inside the Sumaguing Cave.

The tour inside the Sumaguing Cave was awesome. A bit dangerous if you can’t find your balance. The rocks were slippery. The guides were nice. However, a guest observed that though we may speak English, we need to work on giving clear instructions. Nothing can be more true than the sight of a guest trying to hang on to a rope while trying to follow inaudible instructions from the local guide.

The coffins at the entrance of the Lumiang Cave. Part of the note says, “Please do not get anything inside.”

Mr. M slipped and had some bruises after scraping his leg from a sharp rock. Good thing, it’s not a serious injury. It’s my first time to actually see heat coming from the human body illuminated by brightness of the gas lamps.

We went back to the hotel to pick up the other members of the group and also to change clothes. We picked the Yoghurt Place for lunch and pre-ordered dinner at the Log Cabin. I had enough energy and my knees were fine, I thought. The trek in Sagada will be easier. I thought.

We started the second part of the Sagada Tour by visiting the town cemetery, a closer look at the hanging coffins, a trek going to the entrance of the underground river and finally (Thank God!), a walk to the small waterfalls. My knees were killing me.

I took this photo because I remembered the trees in Baguio. I hope Sagada will not suffer the same fate.

Mr. A and some of the members of the group were convincing me to skip the last part of this tour. I was grimacing in pain but I told them that I wanted to test my limits. I had a walking stick and it helped me during the trek. The painful part was actually going down. My knees were feeling my weight. Good god, I made it.

We had dinner at the Log Cabin afterwards and most of my guests agreed that I chose the best order. I couldn’t agree more.

The last known burial was in November 2010. Eager tourists took photos regardless of the stench.
The group enjoying the breeze near the small waterfalls.

I reminded the group to settle their accounts that night so that when we leave for the early morning bus, we won’t be late. The staff said that laundry will be ready. Unfortunately, one of the guests lost two shirts. It turns out that the laundrywoman mixed up the group’s clothes. Mr. H was able to brush it aside and told me that he’ll look for souvenir shirts.

Lights out at 10:00 p.m.

Day 8
We had to leave Rock Inn at 7:30 a.m. to catch the bus for Baguio, which leaves at 8:00 a.m. We chose not to have breakfast at the hotel because of the slow service. We were able to reach the terminal within 15 minutes. The luggage were loaded and I advised the group to take their seats in the bus. Ms. M went outside to buy bread. The Dutch couple, Mr. D and Ms. A bought some snacks. Mr. A went around the terminal to observe. I bought bread from a nearby bakery.

We left at 8:10. The road leading to Baguio was beautiful. There were a lot of scenic spots. Mr. S and Ms. M told me after the journey that it would have been nice if the bus stopped once in a while for the group to take photos. It was just beautiful. We were at the highest highway in the Philippines. Along the Halsema Road was a restaurant. The group had lunch there and it took us two more hours to reach Baguio.

Baguio welcomed us with its not so appealing side. The traffic, noise and pollution was there. It’s a far departure from what the group experienced in Sagada. The road trip ended at the bus terminal. We had to recover our bearings quickly amidst this chaotic backdrop. We took four taxi cabs going to the Benguet Pines Inn. Surprisingly, Mr. A’s cab driver had no clue where it was located.

I thought that the arrangement with the hotel was already settled and all we needed to do was check-in. Wrong. It took us a long time to get to our rooms. The agreement between the agency and the hotel wasn’t clear. It was a long check-in and we had no choice but to wait. When all of us got to our rooms, the common reaction was they were all below standard. There was one room that has one towel. And more cockroaches. The only good thing about the hotel is that it’s close to Burnham Park.

After checking-in, I went to the nearest internet cafe. I also printed the waiver form for the Pinatubo trek. In the evening, we had dinner at Cafe by the Ruins. The ambiance was excellent. I enjoyed my food.

I enjoyed Cafe by the Ruins. My girlfriend-now-wife and I went here 10 years ago.

We had to sleep early because the next destination was Mount Pinatubo. We have to be at the bus station at 5:30 in the morning. I accompanied Mr. H, Mr. M and Mr. K at Padi’s Point. We had a beer tower and I went back to the hotel after finishing my glass.

Day 9
We left on time from the hotel. We left on time from the bus terminal.

On our way to Capas, we asked the group to read and sign the waiver form. The waiver was two pages long and it’s understandable. It covered almost everything, the do’s and don’ts, the correct attire, and the understanding that we go together as a group. I had two hotdogs on a stick for breakfast. Mr. A bought some too. Mr. M had two of them. Soon, some of the guests were raving about the hotdogs. Bibo hotdogs, you did not disappoint.

We arrived at 11:00 a.m. in the Tarlac junction. We had lunch and waited at Chowking for PinayKeypoint, the tour operator for this trek. Juliet gave the briefing in the restaurant and then we took a jeep to the Pinatubo Development Corporation (PDC) Spa Town where we left the group’s luggage.

We took a 4×4 to reach the drop-off point. Along the way, we made some stops. The guide explained that the US Airforce still conducts drills in this area. The ash from the 1991 eruption changed the terrain of the place.

It’s not a rock formation. It’s ash from the volcano.

Another interesting thing was that the terrain changes every time it rains. The guide told us that 4×4 enthusiasts were responsible for making the trail to the crater. They said the trek would take 1.5 hours but it was longer. The trek was 2.5 hours long.

The organizers prepared pork sinigang, steamed bangus and rice for dinner. Good thing that Mr. J brought two bottles of Boracay Rum because the group was expecting that beer will be available. The tents were also set up before nightfall.

We camped out under the crazy dark clear skies. The stars were there. It was beautiful. There was also a bonfire made for us. Hotdogs and marshmallow on sticks were given to us. Man, it was my first time to camp out and it was amazing.

I’m beginning to see why a bonfire is the main event in outdoor camping.

Mr. A for some reason opted to stay outdoors. He took his sleeping bag and just spent the night outside our tent. I wasn’t offended at all. Instead, I was worried because it was freezing cold outside.

Day 10
It was freezing cold at 4:00 in the morning. I was already up. I heard the strong whispering sounds of the wind. I tried going back to sleep but I can’t. I was mindful of my trekking shoes. I cleaned them up after the trek to the crater and I left them to dry outside. Good thing, they’re still there.

I was already up by 6:30 a.m. None of my guests took a dip in the lake.

Try swimming across the lake at your own risk. PHIVOLCS estimated that it’s 280 to 300 feet.

We were waiting for the others to wake up. Breakfast was served at 7:00 in the morning. Chicken longganisa, eggs, bread and 3-in-1 coffee were served. We were still waiting for the sun to come out. Our guide told us that suns comes out later because the mountain was blocking its rays.

Now she’s there!

We left the campsite at before 8:00 a.m. and arrived at the pick-up point at 10:30. Another hour more to reach the spa town for a quick shower. The group was exhausted and hungry. I was planning to bring them to the nearest Max’s restaurant but some members of the group requested to stop at the nearest restaurant we can find.

So, I took them to Jollibee. Out of the 11 guests, only one Chickenjoyed. The rest weren’t Jollied with their food. I was building up on how delicious was the Champ but turned out that they weren’t impressed.

We reached Manila at 5:00 in the afternoon. We met at 7:00 p.m. for dinner at Cafe Adriatico. I also took the group around Nakpil afterwards and went home to unload and unpack. And see my wife.