A Forest Trek to Remember

Forest

A couple of weeks ago, we got up at 4AM on a Sunday morning and drove 188 kilometers (a little over 3 hours) to Subic, Zambales. We have enlisted in MadTravel‘s trek at the Bataan forest of Subic Bay – one of the last thriving rain forests in the Philippines. It was their first official trek with guests on this route and we were quite excited being part of this adventure.

After a quick Jollibee breakfast (we didn’t want to miss the call time), we drove from the Lighthouse Resort Hotel to El Kabayo, where we were welcomed by the elders of the Aetas of Pastolan with homemade Bataan coffee and sweet bananaQ. The aetas, the indigenous people who were the first race who inhabited the Philippines, were awarded ancestral land in Zambales. Five percent of the income of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) goes to the aetas. They use this funding for education, health, and providing allowances for their seniors.

As we began to walk through the forest trail, the aeta elders showed us the different trees and plants they use for medicinal and housekeeping purposes. The trees that stood out for me most were the cupang, tangisang bayawak and the lauan trees. These native tropical trees stood tallest among the rest of the trees and filled the path with their shade – hiding birds of different species and beautiful sounds in their canopies.Bamboo forest

We were told that the cupang tree’s parts had medicinal properties: from its bark, seeds and fruit. The leaves are small and clustered, and when they fall off the trees are quick to decompose, fertilizing the soil around the trees easily.

The tangisang bayawak (Ficus variegata Blume), is called such because of its bark’s smooth texture that lizards are unable to climb the trees at all. The base of the tree are huge, and they remind me of the trees that grew in the temples of Siem Reap.

The lauan, my new favorite tropical tree, produces flowers that are so fragrant. It was a breeze walking under the lauan trees as the scent was very good – it reminds of me potpourri that are sold in shopping malls.Forest

After about an hour, we reached the river and a small falls. Some of the folks in the group took the time to dip into the cool, clear waters. My small group walked up the stream and met some locals and their friendly dog, Lasing. Doggie

Sitting on the rocks on the stream and gazing up to the green foliage, I saw different colorful birds fly above us. It was at this moment that I said a little prayer of thanks for having been able to see this little piece of heave on earth, and being given the chance to be one with nature.NatureWater

Later on, the elders told stories under mahogany trees that were planted by the army. Mahogany trees are not really friendly to the tropical rain-forest as they consume the nutrients of the soil around them. Notice how there are no plants growing directly under the mahogany trees. I think this is one of the things that environmental organizations like Haribon have been communicating more on during tree-planting volunteering activities to increase the public’s awareness, as most of the trees in Metro Manila urban areas are not native tropical trees and do not really help in propagating rain-forests.Hearing stories from an Elder

The aetas make their own honey, and D and I had a taste of different sweet varieties: mango, lauan, and pamulaklakin. Because the latter two were so new to us, and to support the local livelihood, we got bottles of lauan and pamulaklakin. Now we are able to enjoy our tea with these sweet varieties of honey.

As we got back to where we started, I reflected on what our generation now can do to be able to preserve these rain forests.  I remember when I was a child, whenever I go to our backyard, I can see the mountains of Sierra Madre from afar, and I used to think that if i was able to cross those mountains, at the other side I will get to see my family in the United States (well, that was my then perspective on distance). Now, I am told that the mountains can hardly be seen because of the houses and concrete that block the view.

When we got back to the parking site, we spent another hour planting seeds of tropical trees like rambutan, marang, durian. When these seeds turn into seedlings, the aetas will replant them into the rain-forest so that the biodiversity can be enriched. To date, there is only two percent of rain forests left in the Philippines. The number is shocking, but I believe there is hope – if people become more aware and appreciate the importance of saving our earth – not just for ourselves but for the generations, of different creatures, yet to come.

 

 

 

 

Random Adventures

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“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Two years ago, D and I decided to change the way we planned for our weekend activities.  In the spirit of spontaneity, we thought of writing down our ideas of a good way to spend a weekend, and add a twist of randomly selecting what to do in a sort of  ‘pick our adventure for the day’ kind of way. So I dug up a mason jar and cut out small pieces of paper. There I wrote fun activities we could think of, from quiet dinners and watching Netflix at home, to outdoor activities and those that will entail a couple of hours’ drive.

Here are some examples of the things we wrote down:

Some of the things we have done already, and most of the time the list gets longer. Recently I have segregated the activities by color so we can budget accordingly: activities that we can do indoors for free; indoors for a fee; outdoors for free; outdoors for a fee.

It’s fun brainstorming these date ideas. In the process, I realize, that it does not matter what or where, how much or how long the activities are – what’s important is that D and I make the time to do them together, and make happy memories along the way, every day.

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Our adventure jar

Bomod-Ok Falls, Sagada

Bomod-Ok

This is my second trip to Sagada – I like it so much that I hope to do it a regular trip. Thing is, it’s just so far away. I was so happy when D finally agreed to drive with me during the Thanksgiving weekend. We booked 2 nights to make the most of our time in Sagada.

During my first trip to Sagada with my brother, we were so pressed for time and we didn’t have the energy anymore to trek to the waterfalls. It was an overnighter anyway, and we covered a lot of things in 24 hours: the market, the highly rated restaurants by TripAdvisor, Echo Valley Hanging Coffins, Sagada Underground river entrance. We skipped the Sumaging Cave (short course caving) and swapped it with the market and the restos.

I’d skip Day 1 and will write about it more in detail in a separate blog. In this trip, Day 2 was the highlight.

After breakfast, D and I went to the Municipal Information Center to register and book a tour to the Bomod-Ok waterfalls. I was told it was the highest falls in Sagada, and it would be a 3-hour hike (back and forth) from Banga-an, which was 5 kilometers away from the Information Center.Wayfarers

We hopped on rented van and our driver, Jong, drove us from Aguid to Banga-an where we paid the guide fee. We were welcomed by Fritz who would be our guide for the trek. Fritz provided D and me each a wooden walking stick. She advised us to wear our caps as it might be hot. D and I left our caps at the hotel, and luckily it was a cloudy day so it was not scorching hot. Plus the air was cool and it was windy – I had my hoodie ready. Fritz gave reminders on bringing our trash with us (I assured her we won’t have any) and to have our water bottles ready. Guide

Off we went begin our downward trek. We were to walk downhill for 2 kilometers until we reach the falls.

The view from the top was breathtaking. We feasted our eyes on a lush of green. There were mountains, rice terraces, and some clusters of homes to see. We had to stop every once in a while to take photos. Topscene

Fritz was very engaging and she shared a lot of information about the lifestyle, culture and traditions in Sagada. She said that the main livelihood of the people (herself included) is agriculture. Some days she would be planting vegetables like chayote in the fields. While tourism is also a source of income, planting crops is still what she enjoys doing. The terraces used to be filled with rice, but now they have diverse plantations of vegetable crops. Arabica was also widely grown by the locals, and alongside the coffee shrubs they plant a certain type of tree (I failed to note it down, but it had small pines as non-edible fruit), which grows faster and provides the shade for the coffee trees, and the leaves that fall on the ground provide the nitrogen that will benefit the coffee trees. Fruit-bearing trees that are widely planted are the persimons, oranges, mulberries, and blueberries. Coffee

I asked Fritz why it was so quiet even as we passed through the Barangay Fidelisan where we paid the barangay fee. She said the children were at school, and most of the people were tending to the fields. Come lunch time the community will be livelier when the folks from the fields go home for a meal.

At the community, Fritz showed us a hut where the elders hold their meetings. This is called ‘dap-ay’. Adjacent to it is a house where teenage men reside in as they are trained to become future elders. In their community, the elders facilitate wedding ceremonies first before the newly-weds hold the church weddings.Dap-ay

As we passed through the rice terraces I was amazed by the irrigation system that the people built. The water comes from a natural spring (it does not dry out) and flows down to the bottom of the valley. From that spring people could also get water to drink. Near the terraces are rice granaries (wooden houses used to store grains) called ‘agamang’ by the locals. But these are now seldomly filled. That’s because rice is not as widely grown anymore and there are also field mice to look out for. Rice terraces

At last we were able to reach the Bomod-Ok falls. It was a spectacular sight to behold! D went close to it and took a lot of pictures. I dipped my feet in the cold water (and envied a couple of visitors swimming in the shallow pool). Fritz showed me where she replenished her water bottle with mineral water. We spent about 30 minutes walking through the rocks. Falls

Bridge

Going back we took a different route going to Pide where Jong would be waiting for us. I felt exhaustion kicking in halfway through and begged for several rest stops. D and I finished our big water bottle. Needless to say, going back was quieter as I opted to stay mum and catch my breath. Thoughts of where we would have our big lunch occupied my mind. I was so happy to see Jong’s van (Jong fell asleep waiting for us LOL).

I’m so glad I trekked to the falls with D. It was a good long walk (and climb) and we were fortunate to have a good guide. If you are in Sagada and up for a cardio adventure, the Bomod-Ok falls is highly recommended.

In total, we paid P1,170 (about US$23) plus tip for our trip to Bomod-Ok falls. Here’s a breakdown of the cost:

Guide Fee: P500 (approx. US$10) for 1-7 visitors

Barangay Fee: P10 (approx. US$2) per visitor

Transportation Fee: P650 (approx. US$13) two way vehicle hire from the Information Center

Five Faves from a blissful weekend in Sagada

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Sagada – the beautiful place on top of the mountains that’s so far away – 456 kilometers from where I live to be exact. About 9 hours’ nonstop drive – that is, if there would be no traffic jams. And light traffic is quite rare when going through the streets of Metro Manila. My only challenges in going is that one, D wouldn’t drive that far (not with the traffic), and two, I’ve seen discouraging news about landslides and road accidents affecting folks going to or back from Sagada.

Yet, Sagada constantly beckons. Its lush mountains, caves, clear streams, organic food, picturesque surroundings are just too hard to resist.  So, having checked the weather forecast, I looked for tour packages from Manila, and booked a trip for my brother and me. We got a 3 days/2 nights tour package on a good deal. We left by van at 11 o’clock on a Friday night, and woke up in the far north of Luzon on Saturday morning. We were supposed to have breakfast at Banaue Rice Terraces, at the Ifugao Province, but we got stuck in a traffic jam en route to Banaue that morning. Wikipedia describes Banaue Rice Terraces as “occassionally called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World‘”. It’s majestic views were even used in the Avengers: Infinity War movie ending, where *spoiler alert!!!* Thanos was enjoying the view from his hut one fine day after he wiped out half the universe’s population. Remember that scene? That background was the Banaue Rice Terraces.

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Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao

Oops, I digress. Anyway, our van reached Sagada at around 2PM that Saturday. So much for the 9 hours’ drive. We were relieved and excited – we were finally there! Our first stop was at a restaurant. Our late lunch included veggies and brown/red rice that Sagada is known for. At the backyard of that resto was old Igorot hut. It was awesome!

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old Igorot hut

After lunch, we checked in to our hostel. The rest of the folks in our tour opted to go to the spelunking activity. My brother and I stayed behind and explored the town instead. We reviewed must go to places in Sagada town and checked them out.

These are the places in Sagada that are my favorites, and I highly recommend them all.

Sagada Lemon Pie House

I loved the concept of the restaurant. Guests can choose between sitting on the floor or on short stools. We were surprised to see that they sell their lemon pie and tea for cheap price. A slice of lemon pie costs 30 pesos (around 60 US cents); and a cup of tea costs 20 pesos (around 40 US cents). The lemon tea was sweet, and the mountain tea had a gingery taste to it. I preferred the mountain tea over the lemon tea. As for the lemon pie – it was simply delicious! I guess that’s why the resto was named after this specialty, right? I saw a sign at the counter saying it’s best to order the pies in advance as they sometimes run out of stock. I’m not surprised.

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Sagada Lemon Pie and tea

Yoghurt House

We read good reviews about this place. We had a bit of a wait when we got there as there was a queue. I’m not really into yogurt (I like kombucha more), so I’m relaying what my brother thought about it. He liked his yogurt, and the price was also affordable. For a healthy daily dose of probiotics, this place is worth checking out.

Strawberry Cafe

I did see strawberries grown in their garden, but for some reason I did not see any strawberry cake in their menu. I asked the owner and they did have it – it just wasn’t listed. My brother and I shared one huge slice which we bought for only 80 pesos (around US $1.60). Wow the cake was so good! It was not too sweet and the strawberries were fresh. If I had not just eaten late lunch and a slice of lemon pie I would have loved to have another slice of the strawberry cake. I’ve looked far and wide for this taste, and Sagada is where I found it.

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Home grown strawberries at the Strawberry Cafe, Sagada

Sagada Market

Just like what I did when I was in Baguio, I brought eco-bags during the trip to Sagada because I anticipated some marketing to be done. I was going to the vegetable capital after all, so why not make the most out of it. I was delirious with the low prices of the merchandise in the market that I ended up asking my brother to carry some of the items in his bag for me. I bought persimmons, mountain tea, sweet potato, broccoli, and other vegetables. I wanted to get more but I remembered my commute back in Manila when I get home. So I bought only what I (and my brother) could carry. Oh, if we only drove in our car!

Sagada Brew

Went here the next day for a quick breakfast. Their service was impeccable, and they offered a wide variety of food choices at reasonable prices. Of course, being named Sagada Brew, I expected their coffee to be good. It surely did not disappoint. Interesting what came with my wheat bread toast was something that looked like kimchi but tasted like jam. I think it’s their homemade strawberry preserve. It was so yum!

Echo Valley and The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Just walking distance to the main road of the Sagada town center is the entrance to the cemetery. An interesting trivia about the cemetery is during All Souls Day (which is today, 2 November), people remembering their dead light up acorns instead of candles.

We walked past the cemetery to get to the Echo valley.  Echo valley is a beautiful place – cool weather, fresh air, nice scenery. The only downside when we went here with a tour group on a Sunday was that there were so many other tour groups that came with us. We could not take a decent photo because people were lined up and taking their time to get their selfies and different poses taken.

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overlooking view of the Echo valley

After the Echo valley we took a short trek going to the hanging coffins. On the first landing I saw 18 hanging coffins. Our guide told us that anyone who has reached at least 100 years old can be buried through the hanging coffins. The most recent one was placed there in 2010. Some of the coffins were small because these were for bodies who were ‘buried’ in fetal pose – there is a belief that since they were born in the fetal pose, then that is the way they will leave the world. Along the short coffins were chairs which are called death chairs (hope I remember it right). This is where the bodies were prepared prior to ‘burying’. The longer coffins are for the ones who have been Christianized.
On burial day, the coffins are hang first, before the bodies are put in.

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The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

After the first landing, we went further down to see other coffins placed way up higher.  My brother and I were just amazed at how our ancestors were able to apply this practice and maintain the tradition throughout the ages.

We took a different way back where we passed through a clear stream and a cave. It was quite fun walking through the cool waters of the stream (and trying hard to maintain balance). img_5537

There you have it, my five favorite places in Sagada. People who might have already visited Sagada would probably ask why I did not include Kiltepan. This is where people go to very early in the morning to get a view of the beautiful sunrise (just like the Sunrise Tour that I did in Borobudur). When we went, the sun failed to show up as it was masked by clouds. I was a bit disheartened at Kiltepan because it was packed with hundreds of people and I saw a lot of tourists littering.

Overall, Sagada is one of my favorite travel destinations in Luzon. I would love to go back, so I will persuade D to schedule a tour so we can drive there – on a sunny weekday so we can get away from the crowd. I really hope that Sagada will not be commercialized and that its beauty, simplicity, serenity and cleanliness can be preserved. It truly is spectacular as it is now.

 

 

A Side Trip to Montreal

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Aside from my passion to travel, I love learning new things. Recently I have started taking French language classes online and I was so eager putting my (minimal) French to practice, such that I impulsively included a detour stop over at Montreal, Quebec, from my original Los Angeles to Chicago route. Aside from my (over)confidence that I will be able to talk fluently with the locals, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had enough air miles to cover my additional trip. I took it as a sign and next thing I know, I was already booking my accommodations too within that one sitting. I chose a room along Rue St. Denis, near the Jean-Talon Market.

And so one fine day, I bid adieu to my mom, who was vacationing to the US with me, and hopped on a Delta plane from LAX on what would be the start of my first ever solo travel in North America.

Efficient, Reliable Transportation

When I landed at the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, the first thing I looked for was the vending machine where I could purchase the 3-day STM pass for Montreal’s Metro. It cost me $19 and I thought it was such a cool deal because I was able to use it at the 747 bus that brought me from the airport to the AirBnB, and I was able to make full use of it going around exploring Montreal. The Montreal Metro was very easy to navigate, and their timetables were reliable. I also took the 747 bus going back to the airport.

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Montreal’s Metro

Churches and Cathedrals

The first church on my list that I visited was the Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. From afar, the church was a sight to behold, situated on top of a hill. Though I was quite tired from my very early morning flight, I pushed myself to climb the hill and was able to get a good panoramic view of the neighborhood. I spent about an hour inside, and learned a lot about its history through the printed displays.

The next church I went to was the oldest Catholic church in Montreal, the Notre-Dame Basilica. I went here on my second day, as I timed it going to the Old Montreal Port. The entrance here was $16, and they only accepted cash. Now I didn’t have Canadian cash with me yet, and it was a relief that they accepted US currency (note that no exchange rates applied). One description I can think of when I think about the Notre Dame Basilica is – magnifique! I was astounded by the interior’s intricacies. The stained glass was a spectacular sight. There were guided tours that ran every 20 minutes or so. I thought the Sacre-Couer was very serene. Taking of photos was not allowed at the Sacre-Couer, and it’s kind of sad that some tourists still took photos anyway….Notre Dame

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Buildings in front of the Notre Dame Basilica

The Cathedral of Marie-Reine-du-Monde, in the heart of downtown, is the last church that I visited in Montreal. I was amazed by the interior of the church – it was vast and had a beautifully painted ceiling. Now, let me digress just a bit: as soon as I got to Montreal, I realized I still have A LOT to learn regarding the French language. I participated in the celebration of mass here, and it was in French. Though I did not understand anything at all during the mass, I’d say the service was very heartwarming and solemn.

A Walk Along the Old Montreal

A visit to Montreal won’t be complete without going to the Old Montreal. It was a lovely stretch of cobble-stoned streets, lined up with little shops, cafes, and historical landmarks. I had a quiet afternoon walk, stopping every once in a while cherishing the quaintness of the place.

One of the buildings that caught my eye because of its grandeur was the City Hall, also referred to as the Hotel de Ville. The first City Hall was built in 1878 and was destroyed by fire on March 3, 1922. The present building was erected on the same site and opened on February 15, 1926. Entrance was free and there were some literature about its history. I was also able to get a glimpse of a courthouse.

Parks and Squares

It was mostly sunny when I visited Montreal, and I loved the vibe and energy of the people around me. My landlady said people would go out and make the most out of sunny days. I would attest to this as I did see a lot of folks on a picnic or just hanging out when I took a stroll through La Fontaine Park. It was a big park with a lake. img_8702

Right across the Cathedral of Marie-Reine-du-Monde is the Place du Canada and Dorchester Park. I spent time relaxing here, after a day’s walk. It was calming watching squirrels and birds, and the people walk by during rush hour.

Another quaint square is the Phillips Square – perhaps my most favorite of all because of the beautiful flowers that surrounded the place. There were stalls in the square and close by was a Tourist Information centre.

Incredible Street Art

My eyes had a feast of street art which I found in all corners that I went to during my short stay in Montreal. I also saw a lot of the murals and street art along Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

Next time I go back to Canada, I’ll make sure to bring D with me so we can explore Montreal together. There is so much more of the city that I have yet to see for myself, and hopefully by then I would be more proficient on my French. Montreal – ville fantastique – à bientôt!