Climbing in Sagada
Although my toes were painfully doubled over in the climbing shoes, I was relieved to feel purchase when I began to stand up on my trembling right leg. A combination of adrenaline and muscle strain had caused a violent, involuntary shaking of my leg which is aptly referred to in the climbing community as the “sewing machine.” Hanging 30 feet above the sharp rocks below I heard my Filippino belayer, Israel, shout up some indecipherable encouragement. With a two finger hold for my left hand and barely a big toe sized hole for my right foot I slowly inched my way up, face brushing the limestone wall.
Lead climbing a route in Echo Valley, Sagada
A combination of adrenaline and muscle strain had caused a violent, involuntary shaking of my leg which is aptly referred to in the climbing community as the “sewing machine.”
Unlike “top rope” climbing where the rope is looped through an anchor at the top of the crag, “lead” or “sport” climbing involves clipping into anchors along the route as one ascends. After climbing past an anchor a fall will be double the distance to the last clip which makes it more real, more exciting and more dangerous than top rope climbing. I was five feet above my last clip and tried not to think about falling as my right hand inched towards salvation, a promising deep hold.
With my entire body pressed against the wall and less than six inches to go, a creature the size of a loaf of bread exploded out of the hole I was reaching for. “FALLING” I shouted as my right knee bent and I slid back down to a crouch. My right toe slipped out of the hold and the rubber of my shoe skidded down the limestone for a split second before the fingers of my left hand released. Falling with my legs wide and bent I felt the jarring but welcome tension of the rope catch. I swung down and into the wall, bending my knees once my feet reconnected with the rock face to absorb the momentum. There, perched on a branch less than 10 feet away, was a small owl with bright yellow eyes, staring daggers into my soul for disturbing his slumber. Now that I was safely leaning back in my harness, locked in a staring contest with an understandably pissed-off owl, the group of Belgian medical students that I had befriended a few days earlier all laughed at the scene, which was equal parts intense and humorous.
"There, perched on a branch less than 10 feet away, was a small owl with bright, yellow eyes, staring daggers into my soul for disturbing his slumber."
Set back in the mountains of northern Luzon, the small town of Sagada offers incredible views of ancient rice terraces carved into the steep hillsides, outdoor adventure sports, and rich tribal heritage to those willing to stomach the eleven hours of windy bus rides from Clark International Airport, northwest of the capital, Manila. The previous day, the six Belgians and I had spent an action packed afternoon spelunking a three hour traverse from the cathedral-esque Lumiang Burial Cave to the water-filled Sumaguing Cave. After a fortifying vegetarian lunch overlooking the surrounding valley and rice terraces at Gaia Cafe and Crafts, we forged on to Bomod-ok Waterfall. The two kilometer hike down into the valley and along the narrow rice terrace walls ended in a spectacular 300 ft waterfall with several 15-25 ft cliffs to jump off of into the pool below. After splashing around and hiking back out of the valley we called it an early evening to get some sleep for climbing at Echo Valley in the morning.
Siargao to Moalboal
A few weeks before, I had finally wrenched myself free from the intoxicating, island surfer vibes of Siargao Island and made tracks for Moalboal to catch up with my cousin Kim and swim with the schooling sardines there. The first leg of the journey was a ferry from Siargao island to the port city and transit hub of Surigao. Right outside the port, the mobs of tricycle drivers wait at the congested exit-gate bottleneck shouting prices and destinations at passengers. Once you push past, the children whose parents have instructed them to ask for money and look sad begin to silently materialize. Other children whose parents haven’t trained them to beg observe you with curiosity and occasionally a shy wave. The more courageous ones muster a “Hello” and some even give you a high-five.
Surfing Pilar, Siargao Island
At the local corner restaurant I was ordering some rice, pork stew, and hard boiled eggs when one of the children, a boy of about six, began to tug at my sleeve and beg. The restaurant owner waved him away and told me not to give the kids money. Although well intentioned, tourists that have done so in the past have fueled this type of behavior. Parents who view their children begging as preferable to attending school can create a vicious cycle.
A man with cerebral palsy was seated alone outside the corner restaurant on a long, low, homemade bench. Inside the restaurant was uncomfortably hot and there was a nice breeze blowing outside, so I sat down next to him and requested they give me my plate to eat there. As I lowered myself down, I flashed him a warm smile which he immediately returned. The restaurant owner seemed surprised and a bit amused by my seating preference. She even came out and smiled at us sitting there in the shade next to each other. The man wasn’t begging and seemed content to have some company. I told the restaurant owner that if he wanted food to add it to my tab. The woman indicated that he was taken care of but acknowledged my good intentions.
"The man wasn’t begging and seemed content to have some company."
When I had finished and paid, I walked to a fruit cart and asked to buy half of a bunch of bananas. The vendor wanted to sell the bunch as one unit. Fifteen bananas was more than I could eat and they didn’t stand a chance of survival on my overnight sea journey to Cebu but I gave him 100 pesos, $2, and took the whole bunch. As I walked back to the restaurant with them, I made eye contact with the owner, and pantomimed giving one to a child. She nodded her approval and I went on a banana giving spree. I gave them to every child I saw, those that had begged, those that had not, I gave one to the man I sat next to, I gave one to the security guard at the port gate, and one to each of the personnel working the x-ray machine and metal detector. It was a gesture that indicated openness and kindness but no real monetary value. It was unquestionably the highlight of my day.
An additional benefit of my banana largesse was that the port security at the x-ray machine didn’t catch the machete or the speargun in my bag. It was really a toss up if they would confiscate them, especially the speargun, but I figured it was worth a shot. The security woman at the metal detector asked me to remove my sunglasses so she could see my eyes. Playfully, I asked her what color they were, blue or green. She giggled, blushed and then said, “green” followed by, “Where are you from?” “USA”, I said. “Want a banana?” Without hesitation she plucked one off of the bunch and I made the “want one?” face at the x-ray operator. He didn’t need to be asked twice. They were happily chomping away as I hefted my backpack full of weapons back onto my shoulders without so much as a second glance from security.
By speargun standards, mine is the size of a hooker pistol from the old west but it probably still shouldn’t be in my ferry carry-on
"They were happily chomping away as I hefted my backpack full of weapons back onto my shoulders without so much as a second glance from security."
The overnight ferry departed Surigao at 7pm and got into Cebu City at 4am. The air conditioned cabin I had paid a few extra dollars for was a loud, bustling mess so I left my big pack there and found a quiet, dark area at the aft of the ship to sling up my hammock under the clear night sky. After a few hours of star gazing, gentle rocking, and light dozing I ventured back to my tiny bunk to snatch a little more shut eye.
Sardine Schools on Moalboal
My early bus to Moalboal on the western coast of Cebu Island landed me at my destination just after 7am. Feeling groggy, I shuffled into Cranes Guest House where my cousin Kim, her German husband Michael, and their 18 month old Finn were staying and checked into my very own, miniature bamboo hut. The next few days were spent catching up with Kim and company, swimming with schooling sardine “balls”, and venturing to the many limestone waterfalls that adorn the lush, rainforest hills of Cebu island.
Freediving with sardines
On the second morning, Michael appointed himself the group’s official barista since my previous morning’s brew had been too weak. They had been subsisting on the instant stuff so the discovery that I had actual grounds in tow was enough to raise spirits and expectations. Alas, without any coffee preparation paraphernalia I was reduced to creating a pot of “cowboy coffee” and pouring it into several vessels to separate the spent grounds from the brew, hopefully avoiding the dreaded “crunchy sip”. It wasn’t my best work and would be better described as an abject failure. Nonetheless, I secretly hoped that some of the difficulties I experienced would also beset the new brewer. Peering nonchalantly over my shoulder while preparing my oatmeal I saw Michael struggling to turn off the stove as the coffee pot boiled over the brim, extinguishing the burner flames. Metaphorically similar, my spiteful little heart brimmed with joy. Despite this setback, his batch was admittedly better than mine. I considered it a win-win since I got to have my spite coffee and drink it too.
"Metaphorically similar, my spiteful little heart brimmed with joy."
Catching up with Kim and discussing how our lives had developed was eye opening. For one, watching her and Michael travel with a young child was sobering. If my solo travel could be likened to doing a leisurely backstroke while theatrically spouting an arch of water from my mouth, theirs looked to me like thrashing about wildly while sputtering water to avoid drowning. A one and a half year old, no matter how well behaved, is invariably a screaming poop terrorist that commands constant parental attention.
Me, Kim, Finn, and Michael in Moalboal
Veteran travelers who met in northern Thailand, Kim and Michael admitted that travel with a child was a very different experience. That said, the joy on their faces when their own flesh and blood laughed while splashing in the pool can’t really be quantified. The cost-benefit analysis of deciding whether to have children or not consists of an equation riddled with intangible benefits, like the boundless love for one’s own children, and opportunity costs in lifestyle, which makes accurate calculations impossible.
"A one and a half year old, no matter how well behaved, is invariably a screaming, poop terrorist that commands constant parental attention."
Kim and I also mused about how people find themselves on the long term travel track. This alternative existence is typically characterized by a minimalist lifestyle, a value system that prioritizes one’s time and freedom over career achievements, and insatiable wanderlust. Life doesn’t cater to alarms or a 40 hour work week, adventures don’t need to fit into 30 day blocks of annual leave, and maintaining a steady occupation until 65 is out of the question. But this worldview is fleetingly rare in western culture. Why?
An architect by trade with credentials from Wellesley, MIT, Harvard, and Cambridge, Kim is intellectually gifted and no slouch. For the past six years, she and Michael often won’t work for over a year at a time, carefully managing their finances to ensure economic sustainability, and taking contract work when necessary. They met in Chiang Mai, Thailand where Kim worked as an adjunct architecture professor at Chiang Mai University and Michael worked as an engineer for a German-owned manufacturing firm. After two years, Kim opted to bow out of the professor gig as it didn’t pay enough to warrent the constraints it put upon her schedule and freedom. Michael also stopped working and the two of them enjoyed rock bottom cost of living which they paid for with savings from their previous careers, stashed in US dollars and Euros respectively. When asked how they arrived at their current station in life, neither currently working but he takes computer engineering contract gigs and she provides english editing services online, Kim leaned back in her chair and thought about it for a minute before answering. “Something has to go very wrong,” she said.
“I don’t wish for anyone’s plans to fall apart but I’m so glad that things happened the way they did for me,” she said, contently popping a slice of mango into her mouth and bouncing Finn on her knee.
After a 10 year relationship that was slated for marriage and kids ended abruptly, coinciding with graduation of a soul-draining, architecture school experience, “straight and narrow” Kim threw her hands up in the universal “fuck this” gesture. She flew back to Chiang Mai where she had worked as an adjunct architecture professor through a University of Maryland exchange program and took some personal time to re-ground herself. This eventually morphed into a “funemployed” exploration into life on the other side of the hamster wheel. She made new friends, traveled, pursued passions both new and old, and met her husband. Without her “fuck this” epiphany resulting from a series of unfortunate events, Kim would likely be a career architect grinding it out until retirement. “I don’t wish for anyone’s plans to fall apart but I’m so glad that things happened the way they did for me,” she said, contently popping a slice of mango into her mouth and bouncing Finn on her knee.
Thresher Sharks on Malapascua
After a few days in Moalboal I parted ways with Kim and headed up to the tiny island of Malapascua, located a 30 minute ferry ride from the northern tip of Cebu. The island is a darling of the diving community, renowned for its Thresher Sharks which rise from the depths in the early morning to a plateau “cleaning station” where smaller fish, known as cleaning wrasse, symbiotically eat dead skin and bacteria from the shark's body, gills, and mouth.
A group of us met at the dive shop at 4:30am and were already in the water by the time the sun breached the horizon line. Generally opting to freedive, it had been awhile since I had donned a dive rig and at first it felt clunky and awkward. But after we got down to 90 feet and started looking around for our long-tailed pelagic friends I was glad to be able to breathe. Some things you just can’t do freediving.
Out of the blue, the first Thresher silhouette appeared just at the edge of our visibility. Curious, it came cruising directly by us, passing within 10 feet of where we knelt on the plateau. The whole experience would have been far more intimidating if it weren’t for the shark’s silly appearance. Threshers have giant pupils and narrow frowning mouths that make them look like a japanese anime cartoon shark having a really bad acid trip. The whip-like tail is as long as its body giving it a frilly appearance, like a drag queen with a feather boa. We had several more Thresher drive-bys before our controlled ascent and 5 minute safety stop.
Thresher Shark at Monad Shoal, Malapascua Island
"Threshers have giant pupils and narrow frowning mouths that make them look like a japanese anime cartoon shark having a really bad acid trip."
Back at the dive shop there was talk of diving Gato Island, an hour boat ride to a small, uninhabited island, with caves and tunnels where white tip reef sharks and healthy coral were abundant. Instead of paying to join a dive trip, a German and an Italian freediver agreed to split the cost of a boat with me. The three of us rented some additional gear like wetsuits, weight belts, fins, and dive flashlights and headed to Gato.
Above and on both sides you are surrounded by stone, you can’t see the surface anymore, and there isn’t much room for error. Severe foot and calf cramps can strike out of the blue and if you push it too far, shallow water blackouts claim lives every year. But I remained calm as I ventured up to the next room. Then as my flashlight beam panned across the floor I saw the glint of a shark's eye on the ground just a few feet in front of me. The white tip reef shark that was laying on the bottom seemed uninterested by my presence but caught me by surprise. Feeling my heartbeat quicken, I slowly but deliberately swam back through the first cavern, out of the mouth of the tunnel, and up to what felt like a long distance back to the surface for that sweet breath of air. My heart full of sun, salt, and sand I was ready to head to the cool, misty mountains of Northern Luzon.
For videos and pictures of my travels follow me on Instagram at: restlessben
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