Two things have generally defined Bicol for me — typhoons and insurgency. The reputation is undoubtedly undeserved. It’s not the region’s fault that it’s right smack on the typhoon belt literally welcoming every howler that enters the country. It is also not of it’s own doing that its lush tropical forests and mountain ranges have provided a blanket to the insurgents. Typhoons still regularly make a visit. There are still clashes in remote areas, albeit less and less. Bicol is more than this and that’s what I discovered on Independence Day weekend.
The harsh morning sun greeted as when we finally disembarked at in the middle of Buhi. A stopover at SouthMall in Alabang and really heavy traffic at the SLEX brought the total trip to 12 hours instead of 8. I didn’t really mind as I found the long trip (my first really long bus ride) quite exciting as it would mean an entire 8-hour sleep which of course would be quite impossible as I usually wake-up at bus stops and go down just to explore. I have always found provincial bus stops interesting.
Buhi. We were lucky to have Tupe who lives at Buhi where Mt. Asog is. It was a relief to have a proper cr to wash-up and do all the necessary toilet things. Even more of a relief was being able to deload our packs with stuff that we weren’t going to need at the mountain but only for the rest of the trip. We still had time after breakfast to go to the market to buy food. There were a lot of interesting stuff I saw at the hawker stalls but I didn’t want to weigh myself down with all that food so I settled for pancit bato which looked like pancit canton, adobo, a fried donut, and a fried something that the vendor said was banana. Along the road, some women were molding something from grated coconut and placing them in banana leaves.
We boarded a jeep to the jump-off which was about 30 minutes away. As we slowly sped away from the town, the houses became less concrete and more wood and mountains lined the road. Again, we were dropped-off in the middle of nowhere at a sari-sari store where a couple of men were chewing betel nut. It was a practice that seemed prevalent among the men as I noticed a lot had stained and really bad teeth. We negotiated for some guides and porters and off we went.
The most restful hike. The sky was overcast with a threat of rain as we started the hike. The well-marked trail was very gradual and wound through small communities on the mountainside. At times, we hiked through a corridor that seemed to have been carved out to make a passageway. It was nice walking along these “corridors” as the “walls” were high and covered with greenery while trees formed a canopy above. Ascending on a ridge, we came upon a couple of houses on a saddle and a water source. The lady who was manning the store where I bought a softdrink at the jump-off was there enroute to her house. We waited for the others to catch-up then resumed our hike with the softdrink lady. I asked her about the peace and order situation in the area and she said that it has always been peaceful and there have never been problems. One of the houses was blasting music from a radio. It was surreal hiking up a lush mountainside to the tune of a pop song reverberating among the greenery. The guides said the house owner really turns-up her radio out and loud. With no electricity, she must use up lots and lots of side D batteries. The softdrink lady led the trail and we ended-up almost an hour later at her house where we rested again. Our group of 18 had separated into smaller groups already. About eight of us were in the lead. We stopped at at a small community for lunch. I had to wait for almost 20 minutes as my pack was still with the porter. Yup, I did hire a porter. For only 300 bucks, back and forth, I had the pleasure of hiking with nothing on my back. My really bad right knee gave me an excuse for this luxury. By the time the others arrived, the clouds were just about to give way. We took refuge at the porch of one of the houses and waited for the rain to stop.
Actually, we kept on stopping and resting. Not that the trail was difficult. It was actually kinda easy and very very gradual. Every flat area was a pit stop. On the nth rest at a saddle where two carabaos were wading in a pool of mud and an elderly man was chopping wood by his hut, one first-timer remarked, “We’re gonna rest again?” I didn’t really mind as my knees weren’t really up to a strenuous hike, plus the greenery was just so lovely. “I’m actually walking in Bicol,” I kept repeating to myself. It was my first time in the region and I felt like a wide-eyed boy exploring his new surroundings.
We finally reached the Esplana camp. A herd of goats greeted us with their stench and droppings. An abandoned house stood nearby. The sky had cleared and we could see the surrounding mountains including majestic Mayon whose top was covered with clouds. We were the only ones there and the campsite was big enough. A water source was about 20 minutes away near the trail leading to the dead crater. With so much nooks and crannies created by the vegetation, I knew I wouldn’t have a problem staking my potty hole the next day.
Dinner was hash browns and bangus belly. I didn’t know there was a water source nearby so menu was food that needed no water which meant it had to be fried. Hash browns make great easy to carry and easy to cook carbo.
Socials with the Sabit mountaineers is one entire night of drunken revelry. Except for Jay, Mavie, Melvin, Doc, and Alex, it was my first to meet the others. One of them even used to attend my class at Glorietta! I climbed back to my tent past 11.
I was awakened by the need to shit. It had rained in the early morning so the ground was wet. The dog that was lazing around the campsite the previous day had apparently taken off with the pack of hotdogs as they (both the dog and the hotdog) were nowhere to be found. The dog with the hotdogs. Sounds like fun. Doc had his oatmeal while I had the leftover hashbrowns and bangus (after scraping off the ants that had got to them) and my malunggay pandesal.
The guides said that the trail to the dead crater was easy and had little ascents. Lesson learned: never trust a guide when he claims a trail to to be easy and flat. The trail was terribly overgrown and at one point, they couldn’t seem to decide the correct route with one guide saying that way was easier and another one say that way was the way. The steepness of the trail more than made-up for the flatness yesterday. We climbed steep paths, ducked through trees, waded among cogon and bushes, and generally kept clearing a path that seemed to not exist. At one point, making ourselves along a really narrow path, I glanced on the sides and to my horror realized that we were walking along a razor’s edge with steep drops on both sides. Thick foliage hid the sides of the trail which meant that veering too much on the sides could be fatal. It seemed like we were hiking forever but in truth it was a mere 30 minutes. We finally reached the crater. There wasn’t much of a view as the “viewing area” where we stood was quite small and stepping back would lead to kingdome come. The crater was deep as craning our necks down, all we could see was the top of trees. We were told that the other trail, the more difficult one, had a nicer and grander view.
I had already packed before setting off for the crater so back at camp, there wasn’t much to do but just wait for everyone to break camp.
The only stop this time was the place with the carabaos where we had some freshly-picked pomelo. Back at the jump-off and out of the mountain greenery, the sun was in full blast. It took a while for the jeep to arrive so we waited at the sari-sari store. Thankfully, they had ice-cold softdrinks.
Itbog Falls. We had lunch at Tupe’s house and rested a bit before walking to the pier for the short boat ride across expansive Lake Buhi to trek to Itbog Falls. The boat didn’t have any outriggers but the guide assured as it was stable. The trekk to the falls took a little over an hour and the ridge trail brought us to rice fields, past an Agta community, and in the mountain interiors. Halfway to the falls, it started to rain heavily, since we were going swimming anyway, we just let ourselves get soaked. The sound of rushing water greeted us as we went inside the mountain, gingerly making our way to a ridge obstructed by roots and rocks. We had to wade across the rushing cold water of the pools then clamber up some steep rocks to reach the swimming hole. A group of local teenagers were huddled among some boulders trying to finish-off their lunch of rice and laing. I admit, after tasting Tupe’s mom’s laing, I was tempted to try theirs. Though not very high, the two falls were magnificent to look at as gallons of gallons of clean water rushed down and pelted our backs. It was really really cold and the rain wasn’t letting-up.
As we made our way back, the trails were mini brooks where brown muddy water rushed around our ankles. It was fun going against the current. It felt like river trailing. The rain finally stopped by the time I reached the dock. Our guide said that typhoons in Bicol were unbelievably strong and was something that we had probably never experienced yet. During those times, Lake Buhi turns into a seething sea with huge waves that could overturn the boats. I said I quick prayer not to let it rain again.
We showered back at Tupe’s house and had some spaghetti that his mom had prepared. In 2 vans, we took the 2-hour trip to Naga where we were to stay at the Goldenleaf Hotel for the night.
Going Gaga in Naga
We arrived in Naga almost 9 pm and checked-in at the hotel which looked more like a big motel minus the horny couples awaiting rooms. It reminded me of the pension house some friends and I stayed at in Cebu a decade ago which turned out to be a place where sex workers bring their clients. Doc and I got a room to ourselves with an ensuite toilet and 2 single beds with thin matresses and even thinner pillows. At least it was room and the airconditioning was strong and cold. Walking towards centro to find something to eat, we bumped into Alex and Bernice. Looking for Mavie and co. we headed to Magsaysay Rd on the advice of the cashier at the convenience store on the best spot for restos and bars. Being a university town, Naga is fairly sizeable and modern and dominated by the very new SM Naga which was walking distance to the Golden Leaf. Lined with restos and bars, we settled at a comedy bar-resto named
Hollywood Star on the second floor of a small complex. We were lured by a poster that announced a drga show. We ordered a beer tower equivalent to 10 bottles of beer and some dinner and listened to a couple of people in the audience singing karaoke. The evening’s highlight was a drga show that was quite entertaining. Shows I’ve seen always feature an ugly queen who usually had the most extravagant costumes and the most flamboyant acts. This was no exception. The queen started her act in a bridal gown and went around the audience flirting with the guys. When she sat on my lap, I showed her my shirt which read, “Sorry girls, I’m gay” which of course, drew a hilarious reaction from her. On her next act, she grabbed my hand and asked me to stand-up and pointed my shirt to the audience. After the “One Night Only” finale the drag queens shook hands with everyone, a gesture which I found really nice and touching. It was a small venue and there wasn’t much of a crowd. It kinda made everything more personal and sincere. We were the last to leave the bar and as we walked out, two of the queens who were seated at a table outside talking, stood up and thanked us. That was probably the best customer service experience I ever had. Kudos to you Hollywood Star!
Back at the hotel, Jay and some of the Sabit were drinking at a house just across where 2 Naga-based mountaineers lived. I stumbled back into the room way way past midnight watered with The Bar.
Pili and Pinangat
I have always loved anything cooked with coconut and chili. More than the daytrip to CWC, I was looking forward to trying authentic Bicol food. With most of the food shops still closed around 8am, Jay and I found a bakery-cafe where we had the famous <strong>toasted siopao</strong> and <strong><em>kinalas</em></strong> which looked and tasted like batchoy. The Bicolano take on the Chinese siopao was made of bread toasted in an oven rather than steamed dough. Apparently what I had was bola-bola which was ground meat and egg. It was quite good but not really spectacular. <strong>Mavie said the toasted siopao she tried at Daet was so much better. Pan de Lagaspi</strong> was a non-descript small bun. Geewan, according to the locals, was the best place to try authentic Bicolano food, according to the locals. The prices were kinda steep (mains P45-80) but it was definitely worth it. The pinangat and laing was succulent and the hotness was just right, not overpowering. The Bicol express was a surprise as the meat was finely minced and tastefully flavored with the contrasting sweetness of the coconut milk and fierness of the chili. It was hot! I didn’t get to taste the one at Geewan as they ran out but I did try the one cooked by Tupe’s mom which was on the table. When no one was looking, I lifted the cover and got a spoonful. Hehehehhe.It was really really good.
I got my pili stash at the downtown market where small bags of candied pili were being sold for 5 for P100.00 which was a really good price. My best buy was a P50 big bar of mazapan de chili which had a creamy and melt-in-your mouth texture. 3 bars of Chocolate de Naga, milk chocolate with pili nuts, cost of P 100.00.
My embarassment in not knowing how to swim, the difficulty I have with my knees, and my general feeling of insecurity with so many people lining-up awaiting their turn, stopped me from wakeboarding at the CWC. I spent the rest of the Sunday at the complex eating and sleeping and with a quick dip at the pool. There was a sizeable crowd with the entertainment provided by a group of caucasian hunks flipping on their boards as they skimmed the water. The complex is big with areas with lots of accomodations. I would prefer to stay the night at Naga though where there’s some nightlife. Staying at the CWC would leave you stuck with really nothing to do at night except perhaps chill-out at the bar where beer costs P60.00. Anyway, it’s just a 30-minute bus or jeepney ride and a 5 minute tricycle ride from kapitolyo where the bus/jeep drops you off.
The bus station was crowded with people getting a ride back to Manila. Our Isarog coach was really comfortable and I slept most of the way. Thankfully, the entire trip only took 7 hours and I was back in my bed before 7am.