The path is rough. It’s hot. It’s steep. Not impossible, but certainly aggressive, quite ambitious–and so I huff, I puff, and I wonder how far it’s going to go on.
This is Botolan, Zambales, and this is Mount Porac.
I finally made it to the trail. For some reason I’d been obsessed with the idea of climbing this particular mountain since I arrived here at the Sambali Organic Beach Farm three days ago, just outside of the little town of Iba on the coast of this small province in western Luzon. I’d eyed the peak on my first afternoon, I’d thought about it all that
evening, and I’d even tried approaching it on my second day via the beach. A few hours later under the blazing sun along the shores of the South China Sea, with the mountain perpetually distant and my way eventually blocked by the mouth of the Bucao River, I turned back but decided that no matter what, I’d make it before leaving. So I returned to the farm for sunset and dinner–which for me was enough for three more days!
With the stubborn firmness of intention that has often gotten me into—and also out of—trouble, I set off early the next morning. I walked into the nearby village of Botolan, foregoing the seventy-peso fare because, while the tricycle ride was cheap and fast, the walk provided an extraordinary way to meet the locals. For me, this is almost always preferable to just getting point to point.
As I walked along past rice fields into the early morning sunshine, I passed through a group of women who were clear-cutting a patch of field on the side of the road. As it goes in the Philippines, one or two words of greeting in Tagalog immediately opens the door wide open for conversation. It’s quite like trying to peak at a show from behind the curtain, and finding yourself dragged right out into the spotlight onstage. As has happened dozens of times in my travels around the country, a simple pleasant smile and a “magandang umaga po” – good morning – passed between several of the ladies and myself—and just like that the entire swarm of ladies had gathered, as inexplicably quick as ants to sugar. They were all talking at once in Tagalog, grinning, laughing, and beckoning more women over. At once one of the women offered to go grab her sister for me, while another one didn’t hesitate to invite herself back to the States with me. A third one kept saying “lumigaw, lumigaw” which means court, court or woo, woo! (I am not that intricate with Tagalog, but I understand it can also be translated as to make love…)
After I asked several clarification questions, I gathered that she was single. I did not ask any further.
I processed on from the group after taking the requisite selfies, and a few houses down the road an older gentleman was sitting outside shaving while having a coffee with his wife. His kids were playing nearby, and as I approached, they all nodded and waved. The greeting passed between us—“magandang umaga po!”—and it began again. The older gentleman with the freshly shaved face was wondering where my own family was, and as I explained I was on a mini retreat at the nearby organic farm, he offered me coffee and his granddaughter. Yes, one came with the other (and I’m not sure it would have come in exactly that order).
We talked some more, and the conversation deepened as husband and wife explained their situation. They were farmers, and the granddaughter was hoping to get to school but couldn’t because her mother was sick, and this gentleman was too old to take care of her alone. Hence, the granddaughter stayed at home, to help with her family and the farm. Thus, the very generous offering of courting (“lumigaw”)and marriage.
This is Botolan, Zambales, and this is Filipino hospitality.
I took my leave, and a short while later I entered the town proper, hopped on the next bus in the direction of Porac, and told the conductor I was headed to the hiking trail. One miscommunication and over an hour later, I was in an entirely different town at the base of an entirely different mountain. Several hours after that, I had accomplished a totally unexpected hike over the valley village of San Felipe, and met several local farmers who guided me up the trail, through the woods and bush, and gave me the low-down on how to catch and cook the local snakes.
This is San Felipe, Zambales, and what they’re smacking their lips about is adobong sawa, or python adobo. Yes, it’s real and yes, apparently it’s delicious. You can find a recipe and a description of this extraordinary dish at Philippine Food Illustrated by clicking here.
Not to be deterred from Porac despite the lengthy detour, I returned in a local jeepney to Botolan, to try again. This time, to make sure the bus driver knew where I was getting off, I clarified with what turned out to be every other passenger on the bus. Yes, Filipino hospitality is like that. Open the door a crack with a question, and it’s flung wide open for everyone on a bus to enter!
If you find yourself in the Philippines, do not be thrown off by this. I have learned the hard way that being helpful can come across as overwhelmingly invasive, but it is still being helpful. Smile, nod, go along with it, and ultimately, do your best to appreciate it!
Once successfully unloaded from the bus, sun-dazzled and a bit weary from my previous unexpected hike yet ready for round two, I proceeded upwards through the campus of the Ramon Magsaysay Technological and Agricultural School of Zambales at the base of Porac, and started my climb.
This is an idea of where I was, if you’re in the area. This is about half an hour from Iba, and roughly 15 minutes from Sambali Beach Farm to the campus and the base of the mountain:
Right from the start it was a hike unlike any other. Just above the campus I passed through a small spattering of huts, which turned out to be a village of indigenous Aeta people, or Katutubo. These farmers lived on the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo before its eruption in 1991, when they were relocated to this area of Zambales. Ever since, they have been living in resettlement villages such as this one, or for example Loobbungga on the northeast side of Botolan. Famous for their curly hair, or “kulot” as it’s called in Tagalog, they are people of the land. This is, in fact, what Katutubo means.
After perhaps half an hour into the ascent, I encountered a thin Aeta man on the side of the trail, hacking at bush next to a cow that was as meagerly-framed as he was. He and I exchanged our greetings—“magandang hapon” by now, or good afternoon—and before our greeting was over he’d set down his machete and was leading the way up the trail, motioning for me to follow, or more precisely, not really leaving me another option.
We walked on, and he offered to take me all the way to the top. I told him it was okay, that he could return to his work and I should be able to manage. He did, we shook hands, and I moved ever upwards. The trail went on and on—and on and on, and on again, criss-crossing not just Porac mountain but the whole slew of peaks behind it. I made it to the lookout you see below after about two hours, and decided it was more than a satisfactory place to turn around. I could feel my arms burning already, and sweat sticking to me from places I’d only discovered I could sweat in the tropics.
On the descent, I spotted the thin Katutubo man again, still chopping away to clear land. When our eyes met, his face lit up, and his smile was anything but meager. In fact this smile was visible even behind the cloth he kept over his face and hair, to block out the aggressive afternoon sun. He dropped his tools again, and this time he waved me up onto the small incline where he stood, off the trail and down to the left.
There, his small hut squatted comfortably in a small shaded recess, the palm leaves covering a ten-foot-square area that housed all of his possessions. This was his house, his life, and he waved me into it with the ease of old friends. Just like that, he’d heated up some water on his portable gas stove, and was offering me Nescafe. His wife approached, and they both laughed that it was Nescafe, that they didn’t have anything else, and that they were poor but happy. I couldn’t help but smile, laugh, and nod myself.
I’d heard that before, and I’d come to understand that this statement captured the Filipino way. “Kahit mahirap, masaya.” Even though poor, happy.
This expression may not have the same ring in your mind, on your lips, or in your heart, but this expression is powerful enough to move mountains.
This expression keeps the Filipino heart beating. I have heard this many times during my stay in the Philippines, and it is always accompanied by a smile. That smile, that I’ve seen, is always genuine. It is a smile of real emotion: of pain, sorrow, and love, and much more all in one. It is a smile that is as deep as it is simple, as honest as it is indefatigable.
It’s a child smile born from the mother of suffering and the father of joy.
There is no guile in this Filipino smile, and thus it can grow freely. It’s organic—no preservatives, no additives, no cultural chemicals that I’m aware of.
This smile is one of my favorite parts about the Philippines, especially when it’s unexpectedly yet freely offered over a cup of Nescafe coffee, under the shaded overhang of a palm tree hut on the side of a blazing-hot mountain that I might not have ever been able to get to except for my stubbornness and a great heaping portion of Filipino hospitality.
So here we are sitting on this small little bench in the shade of this man’s hut, and his wife speaks one or two words of English and then falls to pieces, giggling hysterically with timid yet earnest pride at her ability to use the words she’s learned in English: rain, hot, my son. Her laugh spreads across the hills, and soon all three of us are laughing. She explains that their eldest son, her “panganay,” is studying down in the valley, boarding with a nearby family so he can consistently attend school. He wants to be a pilot, and his dream is to one day fly commercial planes. Her other children are also away from home in grade school. We talked for a while about their dreams, too. She became emotional, explaining how hard it was for them to get through school.
And just like that, I felt the reality of this familiar Filipino phrase once more, somewhat differently now: “Kahit mahirap, masaya.” Even though poor, happy.
The reverse was equally applicable. Even though happy, still poor.
I saw the contradiction. Laughter even in the pain—or pain even in the laughter. Joy despite sorrow—and also sorrow despite joy.
It literally cost these two parents everything to get their four kids through school. They had nothing to their name, because every peso they earned went straight to their kids. They sold their produce from their small farm—eggplant, mangoes, bananas, papayas, and pineapple later on—at the market in Botolan. From there, they went straight to visit their kids so they could drop off their earnings. They returned home with, I’m guessing, zero savings.
I sat in silence upon hearing this and felt my insides moving at odd angles to each other. This was unfathomable. Here was this Katutubo woman, sharing about her suffering— fully, openly, as if we’d known each other forever—and just as soon as she shared this she’d fall apart laughing over her broken English. In one breath she was nearly tearing up over her difficulties, and then she’d laugh about something as simple as an English word like pilot, or tomorrow.
This family had zero savings, no bank account. They had nothing if they didn’t grow it. Yet here they were, smiling, laughing, and giggling at the absurdity of their English pronunciation. Here I was with them, sharing the coffee they offered—and not just the Nescafe, but sharing their joy and sorrow, their pain and mystery, and witnessing the love for their kids that seemed to be what sustained them, as much as the produce of their land.
This must be the Mystery that was calling me up the mountain that afternoon. Despite various failed attempts to scale Porac, perhaps this was the persistent invitation that day that kept coming my way: the invitation to behold the powerful force of love, of Filipino resilience, that kept this family together.
And as they shared it with me, now I can share with you. Hopefully your heart can ring, and your own mountains can be moved, and perhaps—perhaps—you’ll never look at a cup of coffee the same again.
Even if it’s Nescafe.