Sunday, March 21, 2010

Traipsing through the playground of the gods

‘Remember before you do anything on the mountain, you need to ask our ancestors’ permission! For you are on the land, that is their home in their afterlife.’

These were the surreal words that welcomed us, as we stood shivering more from anticipation than cold, at the foothills of Mount Pulag. The mountain is famous as the third highest in the Philippines and held in sacred esteem by the indigenous tribes like the Ibaloi. They believe, that this is where their native Gods live, rest and frolic thereby giving it the nickname of the “playground of the Gods”. The tribes also believe that the mountain is the final resting place for their souls.

We had travelled a sometimes winding, sometimes bumpy road all the way to the sleepy town of Benguet, where Mount Pulag is located. It was at the Department of Environment and Natural resources here, that we had been given a crash course on the mystique that surrounded the mountain. We had been expecting a difficult climb up to the almost ten thousand feet high summit, but now the air of mystery that surrounded it, made it all the more intriguing. Were we ready for it? A quick gulp of the pine-fresh mountain air and we knew we were.

Backpack strapped on and armed with a stout stick that I found at the beginning of the trail, I put my best foot forward. Our destination for the day was Campsite two, at the grasslands near the summit. At almost six and a half kilometres away, the trek up was certainly no walk in the park as my climbing group and me soon found out. The reddish-brown sandy trail wove its way through vegetable patches on one side and sheer drops overlooking lush valleys on the other. On and on we trudged, the occasional cold mountain breeze momentarily lightening the weight on our shoulders. As our steps grew heavier, the trail path grew narrower, till we reached a point where there was only space to keep one foot at a time, and that too sideways. Trying to ignore the feeling that our lungs were going to explode, we focussed on the sights on the way up to distract us.

Monstrous trees that seemed to be growing out of nowhere, bowing their heads over the path and weirdly shaped moss that would not have looked out of place on the ocean floor, bordered the trail. I peered through the gnarly trunks and the leaves of varying sizes and different shades of green, to catch a glimpse of Mount Pulag’s famed fauna. Yet neither a cloud rat nor a deer scurried past. Undeterred and with the promises of many a sight ahead, I hoisted my backpack a little higher and hiked on. Stumbling on slippery pebbles and stepping over natural springs that flowed over onto the path, onward we climbed, till we suddenly emerged into a clearing. People were already pitching their tents and there were collective sighs of relief. There, looming in the distance and looking over the proceedings below, was the summit. To me, the peak looked forbidding and inviting at the same time.

Now however it was time to throw down those backpacks and give our cramping muscles a much-needed break. It was half-past four in the evening and temperatures were already dipping fast. Pulling on our warm clothes, we explored the grasslands, snapping pictures of the mountain bathed in the soft orangeish- golden hue of the setting sun. As I settled down in my tent, with the moonlight streaming in, images of tribal ancestors drifted in to my mind. Firmly pushing them out, I curled up to sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day.

We were woken up at the almost unearthly hour of three in the morning. Teeth chattering in reaction to the sub-zero temperatures, despite the layers that I was wrapped in, I took my place in the long line that was ready for ‘Mission Summit Assault.’ We were told that it would take a little more than an hour and that it was to be single-file all the way. Though moonlight illuminated our path, our headlamps and torches helped quite a bit too as we half-trekked and half-stumbled our way up. And then somehow we had made it over the treacherously steep paths and we were standing on the summit.

Tired and half-numbed from the cold we looked at the hills that lay below. From just beyond it, a sliver of orange was cutting through the darkness in a straight line. The horizon was coming alive in front of our eyes. As the light spread across the skies, the clouds also rolled in, forming waves that covered the lower reaches of Mount Pulag from our view. We were witnessing the ‘Sea of clouds’ phenomenon that melted the pains of the trek away. We watched nature in all her glory, with the full moon continuing to look over the peak as the sun made its way up too. As the sunlight fell on the curves of the hills removing shadow after shadow, it was almost like the hills were stretching and shaking off their sleep. It was a silent group that made its way downhill after soaking up the sights at the summit. Nature does have a way of leaving even the most talkative of souls speechless.

Back at the campsite, the group was now taking its time to pack and wrap up. It was time to trek down, but no one seemed to want to leave. Mount Pulag had cast its spell over us. As everyone dawdled over his or her tasks, a sudden mist crept over the site, bringing a mild shower with it. And then stretching across the grasslands was a rainbow. I cannot imagine a more perfect ending to the adventure we had embarked on. As I peered at the summit standing proud as a background to the rainbow, I could not help but wonder whether this meant that the Gods of Pulag were smiling down at us.

New Indian Express, March 2010

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