Snail Mail Isn’t Dead: See you in the Postcrossroads

Oh, hey look! I’m back! After two years. Finally.

When I told my sister Pil that I’m about to start a new hobby collecting postcards, she scoffed at me and told me that it’s such a ‘tita’ thing to do. Collecting postcards? That sounds boring. For all I know, she could be right, but really, who knew sending postcards could be this fun?

About three months ago, I had the sudden urge to look for foreign casual penpals. I found a website for those looking for penpals online and I actually made correspondence with some users. Eventually, I lost interest since it was still over the web and it didn’t feel genuine to me. It seemed as if we were just exchanging Facebook messages albeit over a matter of days.

It was then when I started using Postcrossing, a crowd-funded web project that encourages people from all over the world to send and receive postcards. I have been a Postcrossing member (actually, my account is for Edge and I, but I do most of the writing) for exactly 72 days as of posting, but I’m so far enjoying this new hobby.

What makes Postcrossing so fun for me? Here are my six reasons:

  1. It’s affordable. Postcrossing isn’t really new to me; I’ve seen friends in the past who have been swapping postcards via the website. At that time, I wasn’t really interested mainly because I was afraid that sending mail abroad might be expensive. When I learned from PhilPost that sending postcards — whether locally or internationally — only costs Php 15 per stamp — I perked up! Regular Philippine postcards sold in bookstores costs about Php 20 to 25. Papemelroti‘s cute postcards made from recycled paper only costs Php 5 per piece. Designer postcards could be more expensive, but really, the choice is up to you. All in all, the total price for sending one postcard could be anywhere from Php 20 to Php 45. Not bad if you ask me.  (Note: Price of the stamp changes over time. Watch out for PhilPost press releases for updates.)

  2. It gives me a reason to be excited for the mail.  I used to dread receiving mail since all I’ve been getting are bills and other junk. When I joined Postcrossing, that all changed. Now, I always have something good to look forward to in the mailbox.

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    As hyped as Harry

  3. It took somebody’s effort for me to receive that postcard.  Wrap your head around this. Imagine a stranger thousands of miles away from you. They actually took the time to sit down, think of something to write, jot down your name and your home address, which probably sounds weird and alien to them (“Caloocan City? That sounds kooky.”). After writing, they walked to the postbox or post office, bought stamps, glued those onto the postcard which they later dropped into a postbox. The same goes for me. There’s something special about writing down a strange address in another country. It’s even more exciting when the website alerts you that the recipient has received your postcard. They are now holding a piece of your small labor. Thousands of miles apart. Wow.

    The postcards I have received so far.

  4. It allows me to listen to stories from people.  I’m new to Postcrossing and, so far, I have only received seven postcards (some Postcrossers have been members for years and their profiles show that they have sent and received thousands of postcards… Someday I’ll be like that too!). But each of these postcards tells a story. The senders tell me who they are, what they enjoy doing, what they love about their country. They let me know what their travel plans are. They share stories about the tourist spots on their postcards. They tell me about their pets and families. It’s nice to know a piece of information about a stranger from the other side of the planet.
  5. It’s entertaining to match a person with a postcard.  Whenever you get a new address to send a postcard to, Postcrossing shows you the profile of the recipient. That profile offers a glimpse of the recipient’s personality and interests, and it’s up to you to be creative in choosing a postcard that they would probably like. For example, one recipient in Germany said that he enjoys diving, so I sent him a photo of the corals in Balicasag Island, Bohol. I knew that it would be cold in Russia and Finland, so I sent postcards featuring the beautiful beaches of El Nido and Coron, Palawan. Another recipient from Greece said that she wants to see photos of lakes, mountains or volcanoes, so I sent her a postcard of Taal Volcano. And finally, a recipient from China proudly declared in his profile that he is a cat lover, so I sent him a postcard of a cat. It’s a match-making of sorts, and it’s fun to know that your recipients appreciate your choice in postcards once they send you a thank you note.
  6. It lets me travel… in a way.  Can’t get to Russia? Here, my postcard can. I’ve been to Europe, especially in Germany, the Netherlands, and Ukraine thanks to my postcards.  I’ve always wanted to return to Indonesia, but my postcard beat me to it. As a huge fan of crime shows, Locard’s exchange principle is on my mind all the time and I know that DNA from my skin cells has traveled to those countries through my postcard. There’s no long plane rides and immigration queues to think about too.
  7. It teaches me to be patient.  Patience is not my strongest suit. I hate it when things are slow. When I first started in Postcrossing, I was impatiently sitting at home, waiting for my postcards to come but there were none! Three weeks later, when I had somehow forgotten that I was supposed to be waiting for a postcard, the first one finally arrived. It was a pleasant surprise. Thanks to that experience, I learned to be more patient and to let things run their natural course. No need to rush. They’ll get to me eventually.
  8. It gives me a chance to promote the Philippines. Being a traveler, I am a huge supporter of local tourism. Through my postcards, I invite the recipients to come visit the Philippines and experience our magnificent tourist attractions and warm Filipino hospitality. Don’t worry, DOT, I use our official tagline: It’s More Fun in the Philippines!

Sending and receiving postcards may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine. It’s an experience that lets you be part of a huge global village through traditional means that may be slower, but takes somebody’s precious time and effort. Labor of love, as they say. If you are somehow encouraged by my post, please register an account on Postcrossing and start sending away!

Conquering Kinabalu: Assault to the Summit

(This is the continuation of my blog on our Mt. Kinabalu climb.  Read the first part here.)

After nine grueling hours of climbing from the jump-off point to the Laban Rata mountain lodge, we had to sleep for a few hours to prepare us for the summit assault.

But first, let me tell you about our Laban Rata stay.  We opted for a heated room, which was evidently useless since there were some electricity problems in the lodge during that night. Due to the summer drought, there was also a water shortage which meant we couldn’t use the shower (we didn’t want to anyway; it was freezing cold!).

Thankfully, our room had cozy beds with comforters, which, believe me, did little in keeping us warm. I was wearing double layers of jackets, but I was still so cold that sleep was hard to come by. I also learned (the hard way, mind you) that sleeping in high altitudes is quite difficult.

Early Morning Ascent

After just a couple of hours of sleep, we got up at the ungodly hour of 1:30 in the morning. Light supper was being served in the canteen, which was already jam-packed with sleepy tourists.  Outside the hotel, everything was wet with the morning dew and it was much colder.

Dawet, our mountain guide, grouped us for a final briefing. He gave us the usual tips and said that “we will try to reach the summit.”  Emphasis on try.

Finally, we started the ascent.  There wasn’t much to say about the first part of the assault since it mostly entailed climbing a flight of alternating wooden, steel and rocky steps, with nothing but light from our headlamps guiding us, for a long time.  It seemed endless.  We were higher up in the mountain and breathing became even harder.  I paced myself as I trudged on, climbing five steps and taking 10 breaths of air.  I don’t know the first thing about pacing, but it certainly worked.

Welcome to the Danger Zone

After an hour or so, we finally arrived at the most dreaded part of the climb, the so-called “Danger Zone”.   In this 700m stretch, climbers have to cling onto a white rope as they scale the inclined part of the mountain.  This is where those shoes with good grip come in handy.  I felt unnerved as I moved, checking the narrow path for footholds while ignoring the thought of falling down the steep mountainside.  The darkness helped since it forced me to focus on the path straight ahead.

It was evident that we were making slow progress since we could already see the trail of lights of faster climbers higher up the mountain from the Sayat Sayat Hut, the final checkpoint.  Our guide reminded us that we only had around two hours of climbing left before sweepers descend from the summit, ushering climbers to go back down.  Nobody is allowed to reach the summit beyond 8AM, so we were advised that we have to be there by 7:30.

Almost There But Not Quite

Here’s the nastiest part of the climb, the part that gave new meaning to the phrase “so near yet so far”.  It seemed to us that the slope of the mountaintop wasn’t too steep.  It actually looked manageable.  But when we were there, we had to battle the cold, the fierce winds, and the thin air.  Before I knew it, I was panting furiously for every three steps I took.

So near yet so freaking far.

So near yet so freaking far.

I was probably too focused on reaching the summit that I didn’t notice that I was just a few meters away from the mountain’s South Peak, probably the most photographed and most iconic part of the mountain.  I was overjoyed!  I looked back and saw the endless sea of clouds.  Sunrise illuminated the many other peaks of the mountain. It was awesome.

Edge, Dane, Afol, me and Dawet, our guide.

Edge, Dane, Afol, me and Dawet, our guide.

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With our pace, Dawet estimated that we still have an hour an a half of climbing before reaching the summit. Bad news. This meant that we’ll make it there by around 8am, far too late.  Eventually, Edge and I made the decision not to go forward. We were just too tired. Our companions Afol and Dane hiked further to reach the 8 kilometer mark.

The Dreaded Descent

Everything that goes up needs to come down. Around 8am, we finally made our way back to Laban Rata to pack our things and get off the mountain.

Final snapshot at Laban Rata.

Final snapshot at Laban Rata.

Lots of bloggers who’ve scaled Kinabalu say one thing in common: the descent is much, much more difficult than the ascent. And they’re not lying. So much pressure is being put on your knees and the base of your feet that they start to hurt after a while. While I had no problems going past the danger zone on our way up, it was probably a thousand times scarier going down since you can clearly see the steep cliffs. Thank God for my Merrell hiking shoes and my gloves, which protected my hands from rope burns.

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The Danger Zone is much more frightening during daytime.

The Danger Zone is much more frightening during daytime.

Having climbed for a total of more than 15 hours and running on only a couple of hours of light sleep, we struggled during the descent. The gods of luck also frowned on us that day for it started raining while we were making our way down. It made the trek through the rainforest much more dangerous, with muddy trails and loose, slippery rocks all over the place.

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Tired, dazed and angry at our legs for giving up on us.

Tired, dazed and angry at our legs for giving up on us.

It took us six hours to see the familiar and welcome sight of the Timpohon Gate. We were drenched in rain and sweat and our legs felt like jelly, but we couldn’t have been happier that we made it back in one piece.

Final Thoughts

Of course, I was initially disappointed that we hadn’t reached the summit. My resolve was stronger than my body. For all I know, forcing myself could have proven dangerous. Edge also encouraged me when he said that it’s not just about conquering the mountain, it’s also about knowing when to throw in the towel. I never beat myself about it. Instead, I felt proud. Making it to the top of the Mt. Kinabalu is a once in a lifetime experience that only a chosen few can do. Climbing this epic mountain is not about pushing your limits, it’s about discovering them. What I discovered about mine surprised me and made me feel good.

As consolation, we took several great snapshots of the South Peak (which is more photogenic than Low’s Peak, in my opinion, haha).

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Besides, not making it all the way to the top only means one thing: we have to come back, right?

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Tips:

  1. Be physically fit. If you’re trying to use me as a baseline for fitness (come on, I know that I’m quite heavy) and you think that you no longer have to train since I myself made it, then don’t. Train, train train. Train hard. Train months in advance. Climb stairs rather than run long distances in order to strengthen your knees.
  2. Invest in proper gear and good shoes. Conditions at the top of the mountain are rough. You need a good, thick jacket to protect you against the cold. Shoes with excellent grip are recommended not only for the summit assault, but for the entire climb.
  3. Take it easy. If you’re not used to staying at high altitudes, climbing too fast can make you susceptible to altitude sickness. Many have climbed so far only to be inconvenienced by headaches and vomiting, cutting their journey short. Climb at a normal pace. You can ask your doctor for prescription medicine that reduces the effects of altitude sickness.
  4. Bring or rent a walking stick/trekking pole. It helps you balance during the ascent and takes some of the pressure away from knees during the descent. A real life-saver!
  5. Bring trail foods and plenty of water.
  6. Follow your mountain guide and don’t stray from the white rope at the mountaintop.
  7. Bring a poncho or a waterproof jacket in case it rains.
  8. Remember the golden rule: leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs, kill nothing but time.
  9. Check the official Mt. Kinabalu website for more details.
  10. Enjoy!

Conquering Kinabalu: The Long Road to Laban Rata

Two weeks ago, I did the most tiring, challenging, and foolish thing I have ever done in my life thus far: climb Mt. Kinabalu. Standing at 4,095 meters above sea level (masl), Malaysia’s UNESCO World Heritage and ASEAN Heritage site is considered as one of the highest trekkable mountains in the world, which means that you don’t need any technical skills to reach its summit.  This doesn’t make the climb easy though; like I said, it’s a very, very hard undertaking.

So what happened during this struggle?  Was I able to reach the summit?  Join me as I retrace my steps up and down Gunung Kinabalu.

Kinabalu Park

Edge and I, together with our friends Afol and Dane, landed in Kota Kinabalu on a Wednesday, a day before our supposed climb.  From the city, we took a two-hour bus ride that brought us to Kinabalu Park, which in itself is already located in a high elevation at around 1,500 masl.  Staying overnight at this elevation is important to reduce the risks of altitude sickness.

The entrance to Kinabalu Park. Terrible angle, I know.

The entrance to Kinabalu Park. Terrible angle, I know.

We strolled around and explored some parts of the park later that afternoon.  The park is so lovely and is already a good spot to visit for those who would like to commune with nature but have no plans of climbing the mountain.  There are lots of unfamiliar trees, plants and orchids everywhere.  The weather was very cool, with the air being fresh and rejuvenating.

Lots of these

Lots of these “slinky” trees around Kinabalu Park.

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Living like royals in our mountain lodge.

Living like royals in our mountain lodge.

That night was the calm before the storm.  We helped ourselves to a hearty buffet of Western and Malaysian dishes and turned in for the night.  When we woke up, we opened the door to our lodge and this was what greeted us:

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Gunung Kinabalu says hi.

I felt mixed emotions when Mt. Kinabalu showed itself in its full glory. Mostly, I was in so much awe because it really is a beautiful mountain.  On the other hand, fear of the unknown and apprehension also kept gnawing at me.  But what the hell, I didn’t pay good money only to back out now.

When the sun finally rose, we headed to the restaurant to have our breakfast.  I was still so nervous that I only managed to eat a bowl of cereal and a few slices of bread, a decision I would come to regret later.  After eating, we registered at the park office, met our mountain guide, and finally headed to Timpohon Gate, the jump-off point.

So It Begins

“Happy Mountaineering!”

At this point, I managed to drive my fear away and changed it with a sort of cheery resignation.  We arrived at Timpohon Gate where Dawet, our Malaysian guide, gave a short briefing.  Don’t stray away from the trail.  Don’t get too far from your companions.  Rest for no more than five minutes at a time. It sounded too simple. Easier said than done. Our group took off.

The climb surprisingly starts with a downhill trek all the way to Carson Falls, which looked a bit dry when we were there. Just when I was starting to think “Hey, this isn’t so bad.”, the trail starts to go up. And up. And up for the next six kilometers up to Laban Rata, our accommodation for the night.

Out of excitement probably, we were so energized that we made it to the 2.5 kilometer mark in good time. I wasn’t feeling the strain in my knees yet and I wasn’t carrying a huge bag, so I was fine physically.  The trail is also well-established which made things easier.

Just like climbing a looong flight of stairs.

Just like climbing a looong flight of stairs.

Still smiling. Genuinely.

Still smiling. Genuinely.

Still energized.

Still energized.

Though it was a particularly sunny day, the forest cover is thick enough to provide us with some shade. I kept my eyes peeled for fauna, and I was later on rewarded with a sighting of a mountain squirrel.  Well, actually, they aren’t rare in this area.  They’ve grown used to humans and actually depend on us for food, so these critters tend to flock in places where humans gather, like the mountain huts.

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Squirrel!

Squirrel!

And oh, those mountain huts. Thank heavens for those mountain huts.  These sanctuaries are scattered in strategic points along the trail. These huts have benches where we can rest longer, segregated trash cans where we can dispose of our garbage, and, best of all, functional toilets! Huzzah!

Almost There? Nah.

Five or six hours into the climb, we were still far away from our goal. Exhaustion, as well as frustration, was starting to set in. Suddenly, I was struggling with every step and panting a bit more. Every now and then, porters would pass us by, making us feel both envious and inspired.  These strong demigods with legs and back muscles made of steel dash up the path while carrying at least 35 kilos of goods up to Laban Rata.  Without a word of complaint. Without a minute of rest. Sometimes we couldn’t help but stare at them in wonder. How are they doing it?

Porters, the mountain's superheroes.

Porters, the mountain’s superheroes.

The higher we went up the mountain, the steeper the trail became. Secure stony steps turned into craggy, rocky slopes.  At this point, it was getting harder to walk.

The real struggle begins.

The real struggle begins.

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Into the [Bonsai] Woods

The transition was quick. The scenery changed. As we emerged out of the mossy forest, a different world came into view. The thick foliage and tall hardwoods were replaced by leafless trees, huge ferns and a sea of bonsai. It was so lovely that we forgot how tired we were. We took a brief moment for rest and photo opps.

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Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived. Because of the thick fog, light rain poured which made it even colder. What’s worse is that the next set of steps were even steeper and we had to climb even higher. Unbelievable.

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That white thing are clouds. Very wet clouds.

Smoke? No, clouds. Very wet clouds.

Final Stretch

It takes the average hiker 4-5 hours to climb from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. We were already on the eighth hour of our climb and, sadly, the coveted mountain lodge was still far from sight.

At this point, my knees were buckling. Despite the cold, I was sweating profusely. I was sure I didn’t even look human anymore. Like many climbers before me, I questioned myself, “What the hell did I get myself into?”

Suddenly, we came upon a clearing. I looked up and, for the first time, I saw the naked rock face of Mt. Kinabalu. I was so exhilarated that my strength returned. “One last push, I’m sure Laban Rata is close,” I told myself.

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In truth, Laban Rata was still around 30 to 40 minutes away from that spot. But Edge and I trudged on. The high altitude was starting to take its toll on me and my breathing became heavy. Finally, after about an hour, we saw the iconic white paint of Laban Rata, our abode for the night. It was starting to get even colder so we hurried inside. The place was jam packed with tired climbers, majority of whom are already digging in to their dinners.

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Reaching Laban Rata is in itself a major accomplishment for me. The mountain lodge rests at an altitude of 3,270 masl, which is higher by roughly 316 meters than Mt. Apo (2,954 masl).  Somehow, by proxy, I managed to “conquer” the Philippines’ highest peak!

What’s even more motivating is that the summit and Mt. Kinabalu’s many peaks are just a couple of kilometers up.  We could literally see it from Laban Rata.  But for that moment, that’s all we could do, just look. In that instance, our priority was to sleep and to regain as much energy because the real climb will start in just a few hours, in the cover of total darkness.

So We Meet Again, Makiling

Earlier this Holy Week, we took a day off and headed to Laguna to climb Mt. Makiling.  This was not my first encounter with this famous mountain since, obviously, I had lived in its foothills during my entire college stay.  I was also required to climb the mountain for an elective course back in 2009.  The entire 8.2 km Makiling trail is divided into 30 shorter stations; I only reached the 22nd during my first failed climb so I’m thirsting for some redemption.

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Considering that my last decent climb was in 2011 when we scaled Mt. Pulag, I had a pretty tough time.  Luckily, Edge was with me, whispering words of encouragement and even carried my bag during the initial stretch, which was what I honestly think of as the difficult part.  It’s just a very long road that relentlessly slopes upward.

An hour or so during the climb, after we had reached Station 15, we finally reached the point where we had to enter the danger zone.  Here, we were surrounded by nothing but trees and vegetation, and the only thing we heard, aside from our own huffing and puffing, was the sound of nature.  It was quite overwhelming.

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Mt. Makiling is also known for its excellent biodiversity, and we happened to stumble upon hedges of pretty flowers and strange plants, as well as the infamous Rafflesia or corpse flower.

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The trickiest part of the climb for me was the part nearest the summit, starting from Station 25 (yes, I kicked Station 22’s fat ass).  The trail gets pretty steep in these parts.  Apparently, it had also rained a few days prior, so the trail was really muddy and slippery.  Still, despite these difficulties, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Laguna and nearby provinces, which made things okay.

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A view of Laguna, including Mt. Kalisungan in Calauan and Mt. Banahaw in Quezon.

Five hours after we had started, we finally reached the summit.  I was already aware that the Mt. Makiling summit itself is enclosed by thick vegetation, which covers the view.  However, since it was the Lenten season and the officials anticipated the influx of visitors, a tarpaulin was placed at the summit.  It congratulated the climbers for reaching the highest peak at 1,090 masl, and I must admit we had a very nice pat at the back.

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After a quick lunch, Edge and I began our descent.  I had the impression that we wouldn’t have any problems with the way down, but, boy, I was wrong.  I was just practically slipping and sliding down the muddy trails; my clothes were covered by dirt and grime.  We had managed to make it back to Station 15 before I cried out in pain and frustration, so we cheated and rode a habal-habal back to the gate.

All in all, despite being incapacitated for the next couple of days, I had fun.  It’s awesome to come back and finally conquer Makiling, six years after my first failure.  Oh, and did I mention that this climb is just some sort of training?  This is just a warm-up for our more ambitious climb on Thursday (eep!) on Mt. Kinabalu.

So help me God.

Beautiful, Blissful, Breathtaking Batanes

I realize that this is my first blog post in over three months, so let’s backtrack a bit, shall we?

2015 started in a truly happy manner for Edge and I.  Remember that, half a year ago, we got lucky and got ourselves a couple of tickets to Batanes, one of the most elusive provinces in the Philippines. It’s the big one situated right there, at the top of my bucket list, so I was just dying to cross it out.

Well, it’s been two months since we’ve been to that wonderful place and I must admit I’m still not over it.  A word of caution: this blog post will be chock full of photos of our faces.  For the Batanes itinerary, check out our other blog, The Backpack Couple.  [Check here, here, and here!]

The trip began in a frightening note for us when the flight was momentarily delayed.  Turns out, the weather in Batanes in January is as unpredictable as it gets. We were told that it was extremely cloudy in the province that morning causing visibility issues. I was waiting with bated breath and finally, after what seemed like forever, we were told to board the aircraft.

I rarely fly up north and I really enjoyed looking at the vast plains and mountain ranges of Luzon. But that was nothing compared to the rocky landing apparently experienced by all Batanes-bound flyers.  Due to its short landing strip, the proximity to mountains and the strong winds blowing from both the Pacific and the West Philippine Sea, it’s always challenging for pilots to steady the plane as it lands. Thankfully, we landed safe and sound.

What greeted us was the tiny and sleepy town of Basco, with its interlaced narrow streets and smiling residents up and about, tending to their daily businesses. The weather was amazingly cold; we had to don our jackets and scarves to keep ourselves warm.

After a few hours of sleep at the lodging house, we were fetched by our guide, Sir Art from the BISUMI Tours and Services, to begin the North Batan Tour.  Comparing the trip to a full-course meal, then the North Batan tour is just the appetizer.  The northern part of Batan Island, the largest in the province, is beautiful and breathtaking, especially for those who are not familiar with this type of scenery.

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The ocean view from the Vayang Rolling Hills.

The ocean view from the Vayang Rolling Hills with the partially clouded Mt. Isarog in the background.

The surreal coastline of the Valugan Boulder Beach.

The surreal coastline of the Valugan Boulder Beach.

A new talent discovered in Valugan Beach, balancing stones!

A new talent discovered in Valugan Beach, balancing stones!

Apart from its nature spots, North Batan is also rife with famous man-made structures.

The famous Tukon Chapel or Mt. Carmel Church.

The famous Tukon Chapel or Mt. Carmel Church.

Naidi Lighthouse, just one of the many lighthouses in the island.

Naidi Lighthouse, just one of the many lighthouses in the island.

The reason why I compared North Batan to an appetizer is because it excites you, gets your senses going and asking for more.  And that’s what happened to us; after our first day of touring, we wanted to see more. For our second day, we ventured to the opposite side of the island for the South Batan Tour.  This took us an entire day well worth the exhaustion because of the breathtaking scenery. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

That impressive cliff-face absolutely dwarfs me.

That impressive cliff absolutely dwarfs me.

Go down the hundred or so steps from the Chawa Viewdeck to get closer to the sea.

Go down the hundred or so steps from the Chawa Viewdeck to get closer to the sea.

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The view from Alapad Hill.

Look at that coastline! The locals call this Little Hawaii.

Look at that coastline! The locals call this Little Hawaii.

The pebbly sand and cold waters of Batanes' White Beach.

The pebbly sand and cold waters of Batanes’ White Beach.

The most famous home in Batanes: The House of Dakay.

The most famous home in Batanes: The House of Dakay.

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Do not even attempt to leave Batanes without visiting its famous Honesty Store!

Do not even attempt to leave Batanes without visiting its famous Honesty Store!

The most photogenic place of the lot, Racuh a Payaman a.k.a. Marlboro Hills.

The most photogenic place of the lot, Racuh a Payaman a.k.a. Marlboro Hills.

Another great thing to love about Batanes is its food.  For three days, we had our fill of delicious Ivatan dishes like lunyis (pork cooked in its own fat and a little bit of salt), pako (salad made from fiddlehead fern), and my personal favorite, uvud (savory balls made from banana trunk, fish and meat).

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The third day was hands down the most exciting part of our trip.  For this tour, we headed to the nearby Sabtang Island, which means that we had to ride the Batanes flat-bottomed fishing vessel called faluwa.  If you’ve ever had the chance of riding those ships that rock back and forth in amusement parks, kind of like Enchanted Kingdom’s Anchors Away, then consider that as training because you’re in for one very rocky ride.  At least you know that the park ride is safer because you’ll never know when the faluwa will hurl you into the violent point where the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea meet.  The waves are so high that the horizon and the island ahead completely disappear from view.  I kid you not when I say that this is not for those of weak stomachs; a lot of other tourists threw up in the boat.  Alas, we just rested our worries to the highly experienced Ivatan fishermen (and closed our eyes for most of the ride) and in just 40 minutes, we arrived at the island of Sabtang.

Sabtang is less-developed than its cousin Batan.  Here, the stone houses are practically untouched by time and the population is noticeably low.  The community, dotted by stone houses, even narrower streets, and hugged by massive forested mountains, will transport you into a different world.

Wearing the traditional vakul (for the ladies) and kanayi (for the men).

Wearing the traditional vakul (for the ladies) and kanayi (for the men).

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#kaartehan

#kaartehan

Another famous rock formation in Sabtang, the Nakabuang Arch.

Another famous rock formation in Sabtang, the Nakabuang Arch.

Sabtang is also home to my most favorite destination in Batanes, the one our guide repeatedly described as the Filipino version of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, called the Tinyan Viewpoint.  Reaching this place is somehow challenging because it involves quite a bit of hiking, but the views are absolutely spectacular.  Everywhere you look, it’s very, very surreal and out of this world.

To this day, I still shiver whenever I think of this view.

To this day, I still shiver whenever I think of this view.

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We toured Sabtang for half a day and then it was time to return to Batan via the heart stopping faluwa ride.  The waves were even stronger in the afternoon because of the high tide.  We were soaked from head to foot when we arrived in Batan.

Looking back on all of our local trips, I would probably consider Batanes as the most beautiful place I’ve been to.  It certainly is the most photogenic — point your camera anywhere and you’re sure to get a good shot.  It’s also the place with the kindest residents I’ve ever met.  The locals sport genuine smiling faces and polite attitudes certainly missing from the big city.  Interestingly, the province of Batanes has an astounding 0% heinous crime rate; the only crimes that occasionally happen here, we were told, are petty ones like stealing fruits from your neighbor.  A pretty forgivable offense if you ask me.

That’s how I began my year, by crossing out one of the biggest items from my bucket list.  I wouldn’t even think twice about putting it back on the list again and again, just to give me an excuse to return to this wonderful paradise.

Backtracking 2014

Despite its fair share of heartbreak and tragic losses, 2014 is something that I consider as one of my better years.  It’s truly been a year of discovery and rediscovery, realizations, success, love and family.  I scoured through the many memories that I’ve created this year, and these would be what I would place on 2014’s pedestal:

5.  San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title

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Yes, it’s in the top five.  Read through my Facebook and Twitter timelines and one glaring fact that you would know about me is that I’m a huge San Antonio Spurs fan.  I have been since the early 2000s.  Since my team’s last Finals victory in 2007, it has been a long road filled with challenges and disheartening early exits.  After a heartbreaking 2013 where the Spurs were dealt with the franchise’s first NBA Finals loss, watching the team come back harder, faster, smarter and stronger for this year has been such a thrilling experience.  Here’s to hoping for a back-to-back championship win, something the Spurs haven’t done before.  Go Spurs Go!

4.  Fourth anniversary with Edge

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Last July, Edge and I kicked off our fourth anniversary as a couple.  We went to Boracay (his first time there), where we spent the next three days swimming, snorkeling, parasailing, walking and playing by the beach and pigging out.  It was a weekend different from our other backpacking trips, since we allowed ourselves to relax as much as possible.  I’m quite excited for our next anniversary trip, no matter where that may be.

3.  Landed a new and better job

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I’ve always believed that working a job is a lot like being in a relationship.  I’ve been in several relationships so to speak, and all of them never worked out.  What I have right now is a great one.  When I applied for this job, I honestly never thought that I would get it since I always underestimate my capabilities.  Now, I’m here, and I’m just so thankful.  It’s a tough job that brings out the best and worst in me.  It has allowed me to visit places and do things I’ve never done before, as well as meet important people I never thought I would have the pleasure of meeting.  Simply put, I’m just glad that with this job, I’m confident that I’m treading my truly chosen career path.

2.  First overseas trip with the family

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It has been so long since our last family trip.  That’s why our family trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam last November is really a special one.  The trip was actually marred by the tragedy when a friend, my brother’s girlfriend, suddenly passed away.  Nonetheless, we tried to make the best out of the situation and still had fun.  I’ve gotten used to traveling with Edge, that’s why it was a nice to see new places, eat strange food, and learn about a fascinating country’s history and culture with my family and relatives.  I really hope that we get to do this again soon!

1.  Visited three countries and ten provinces with Edge

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This is where most of my savings for 2014 went.  Heh.  Edge and I manage to tick off a lot of items off our bucket lists when we went to Bolinao, Pangasinan in January; Miri, Malaysia and Brunei in March; Oslob and Moalboal, Cebu and Baybay City and Sogod, Southern Leyte, as well as going back to Tacloban City in May; Boracay in July; Legazpi City, Albay, Biri, Eastern Samar, Capul Island, and Catarman in August; back to Dumaguete and Bayawan City, Negros Oriental in September; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in November.  Nothing really beats the feeling of fulfilling your wanderlust with someone you love.  2014 also saw our blog The Backpack Couple‘s transition to a dot com blog, a big milestone for us.

That said, thanks for the memories, 2014.  I’m ready to let you go.  Time to shake the problems and emotional baggage off and look forward with positivity and motivation.  Come at me, 2015.  I’m ready for you.

Top of My Shelf: The 15 Books That Have Stuck With Me Over the Years

The newest Facebook trend these days, at least among my network, is the “15 Books That Sticks With You” list.  I’ve been tagged by a handful of friends for which I am thankful, but while I’ve enjoyed reading their selections, I never really conformed to this fad mainly due to two reasons: first, I am too lazy to do it; and second, I’m not Facebook-active enough to participate.

Eventually, I figured that I can still share my own list on my blog where I can set and follow my own rules.  So I scoured through my Goodreads shelves to find the top 15 books that really stayed with me.  In no particular order, here are my entries and the reasons as to why these books have held so much power over me for many years:

1.  Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

I nurse this unhealthy fascination with holocausts.  I have always been curious about the Nazi’s Final Solution that wiped out millions of Jews, and quite recently, I learned about the genocide that is happening today in the hermit kingdom of North Korea.  Escape from Camp 14 details the hellish life of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector, within the walls of the country’s concentration camps.  The torture that Shin and other prisoners experienced was so cruel and grisly; sometimes I forget that it’s fact, not fiction.  I never thought that this book would be available in the Philippines, so imagine my happiness when I stumbled upon this at the bookstore.

Favorite Quote:  “And so Shin’s misery never skidded into complete hopelessness.  He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend.  He did not find it degrading to lick soup off the floor.  He was not ashamed to beg a guard for forgiveness.  It didn’t trouble his conscience to betray a friend for food.  These were merely survival skills, not motives for suicide.”

2.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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One of the first books that I read on my short-lived Nook e-reader.  Set in 1930s Nazi Germany (again, the holocaust reference), the story of young Liesel Meminger is beautifully told from the point of view of an unlikely sympathetic character, Death.  This is also one of the few books that has left me crying and depressed for an entire day.  Remember when Rudy Steiner died?  And that bombed that killed Mama and Papa?  Those hit me like a brick right in the feels.

Favorite Quote:  “Even death has a heart.”

3.  A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin

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ASoS is widely regarded as the best book in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series [so far].  Filled to the brim with jaw-dropping revelations and heart-wrenching deaths, this book took me on a cruel roller-coaster ride of emotions.  One minute, I was so angry that I threw the book against the wall when Robb Stark died; the next, I was laughing with joy when Tyrion Lannister killed his father Tywin and that bitch Shae.  And don’t tell me about spoiler alerts.  You should’ve watched this part of the show by now.

Favorite Quote:  “A harp can be a dangerous as a sword, in the right hands.”

4.  Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas by Bob Ong

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While its predecessor ABNKKBSNPLAko?! features a more entertaining story, there is something that draws me to Ang Paboriting Libro ni Hudas‘s dark humor.  So far, this is the only book I know that talks about fear of the pesky flying cockroach, one of my biggest fears.  Plus points for the creative book jacket.

Favorite Quote:  “Istorbo sa pagtulog ang ipis.  Lalo na yung tipong magigising ka dahil merong nagla-live show sa mukha mo.  Kaya isang mumunting kaluskus lang alam ko kaagad kung ipis.  Bumabangon ako kaagad, nagbubukas ng ilaw, at nag-aamok kahit alas-dose ng madaling araw.”

5.  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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To be honest, I have this love-hate relationship with Murakami.  Some of his books I really like, but some I never even bother to pick up.  Norwegian Wood, featuring the bittersweet love triangle between Watanabe, Naoko and Midori, is different because of its mysterious hold on me.  Murakami’s description of the places and the characters gives off a truly Japanese vibe not found in other books.  Plus, I can never listen to The Beatles’s song of the same title without my mind drifting to that quiet forest frequented by Watanabe and Naoko, and Midori’s house-cum-bookstore, an inspiration for my future abode.

Favorite Quote:  “But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a lifetime, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”

6.  Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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I can never forget how I hungrily devoured this book — which is 400+ pages long, by the way — from start to finish, and loving every single part of it.  Of course, there’s something strange about the family saga of Cal/Calliope Stephanides.  It’s not hard to be swept away from the slopes of Mount Olympos to the crowded streets of New York while learning about the intriguing and incestuous story of the Stephanides family.

Favorite Quote:  “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy’, or ‘regret’. Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling.”

7.  Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

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One word to describe this book: delicious.  Tita Dela Garza’s romance with Pedro Muzquiz is not perfect — in fact, it’s annoying and very frustrating — but, in the end, you still yearn for them to be together.  Esquivel’s use of Mexican cuisine and the art of cooking to describe and symbolize Tita’s life is masterful and amazing.  As one of the books that I dissected down to the tiniest core for my high school English class, this is also the book that introduced me to one of my favorite literary genres: magical realism.  I still read excerpts of this book to this day, and yes, the magic is still there.

Favorite Quote:  “Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches.”

8.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

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I will never forget that fateful day when I was just 10 years old.  My mother came home, holding a book about this unknown boy wizard and encouraging me to give it a try because it might turn out to be a good story.  A few months later, I finished the book, demanded the second one, and the third one, and the fourth one… until I was already in college when I cried my heart out because I’d just finished the last book in the series.  Reading is the treasure chest and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the key that opened it.  This is the book that started it all.

Favorite Quote:  “There will be books written about Harry. Every child in the world will know his name.”

9.  The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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The only novel written by the great Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical in nature so… imagine just how dark it is.  Also, imagine how I managed to read it without losing my mind at the tender age of 15.  And managing to write a book report so excellent (yes, I’ve no qualms about praising my own work) that my great English high school teacher gave me a grade of 97 and exclaimed in front of the class, “Now that’s how you do a book report!”  To be honest, I’d already forgotten most of the stuff that happened in the story of Esther Greenwood, but I’d be more than willing to re-read this now that I have a more mature mindset.

Favorite Quote:  “Death must be so beautiful.  To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence.  To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow.  To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”

10.  If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon

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There was a time when I didn’t think that cliffhangers could exist out of TV boxes and silver screens until I was introduced to the writings of Sidney Sheldon.  If Tomorrow Comes was my first Sheldon book, and the first that made me squirm with anger and whoop with triumph in just 300 pages.  Plus points for girl power.

Favorite Quote:  “I will survive, Tracy thought. I face mine enemies naked, and my courage is my shield.”

11.  The World According to Garp by John Irving

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I’m not a fan of thick, fat books, but Garp is a huge exception.  Mostly hilarious, often serious, and sometimes horrifying, this is one of the first books that opened my eyes to the ideas of feminism, rape and transsexualism as told through the story of TS Garp, his strong-willed mother Jenny Fields, his reserved wife Helen Holmes, and a whole bunch of strange but memorable characters.  Thanks to this book, I still think of the ‘undertoad’ whenever I go to the beach.  And yes, that scene with Helen and Michael Milton in the car?  Still my favorite part of the story.

Favorite Quote:  “Helen’s mouth was snapped shut with such force that she broke two teeth and required two neat stitches in her tongue.  At first she thought she had bitten her tongue off, because she could feel it swimming in her mouth, which was full of blood; but her head ached so severely that she didn’t dare open her mouth, until she had to breathe, and she couldn’t move her right arm. She spat what she thought was her tongue into the palm of her left hand. It wasn’t her tongue, of course. It was what amounted to three quarters of Michael Milton’s penis.”

12.  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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Sometimes, I owe my obsession with a certain book to academic reasons, and The God of Small Things is another example.  I was assigned to write a  report about this for my HUM1 class in UPLB, and frankly, I had a really tough time reading this book.  Not until my second or third re-reading did I finally understand the tragic lives of twins Rahel and Estha.  The frequent interweaving of Malayalam words in the story complements the description of the culture and history of Kerala, India.  And yes, I got a final grade of 1.25, thanks to this book.

Favorite Quote:  “And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”

13.  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Most people think of 1984 or The Hunger Games when they hear the word ‘dystopian’, but, personally, I associate that word with The Handmaid’s Tale.  Set in the not-so-distant future where the government reigns supreme, human rights are optional, women’s rights are non-existent, religion is dead, and emotional freedom is unheard of, it’s amazing to think how Atwood conjured this terrifying world that somehow still reflects some parts of our present society.  I’m still wishing that Offred has finally found her way to freedom.

Favorite Quote:  “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

14.  The Count of Montecristo by Alexandre Dumas

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The only one of its genre on this list, this is one of the first books that introduced me to that elite pedestal called the classics.  I once had the impression that classic books are boring (I have to admit that most of them are really dragging though), but it was a different case for Montecristo, which I considered to be unputdownable.  It’s not difficult to be engrossed as you read about the Edmond Dantès’s story of revenge while learning some things about 1800s France.

Favorite Quote:  “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”

15.  The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

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I have no shame in tagging this book as my favorite of all time.  No, I don’t love this book because I had to write a report about it.  I learned about the iconic Holden Caulfield’s story during my teenage years, the perfect age for reading this infamous masterpiece.  It’s hard to find the ultimate reason as to why this book remains on top of my list, but I would chalk it up to the feeling of relating to Holden, his feelings, and his thoughts.  And maybe because I still can’t get over Holden’s wit and humor when he described dancing with Marty as “like dragging the Statue of Liberty across the floor”.

Favorite Quote:   “I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.  Take the Disciples, for instance.  They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth.  They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.  All they did was keep letting Him down.”