Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#19: Hike to Mt. Pinatubo's crater—CHECK!

As we hiked under the relentless Philippine sun through a seemingly endless path of lahar, volcanic rocks and streams, I recalled the first hike I did as a child. It was more of a walk really but it felt like it took forever, as most things do when you're a kid. We were in Hidden Valley, a resort south of Manila, with natural spring pools fringed with lush vegetation. Someone had decided we should go looking for the hidden waterfall and I couldn't, for the life of me, understand why we had to leave a place that was already beautiful and walk for ages just to look for this waterfall. It didn't help that the waterfall turned out to be a pathetic trickle of water in the end. When I remember my way of thinking as a child, it strikes me how growing older changes our perspective so much. These days, I am so willing to put myself through hell just so I can marvel at something. I would never have sought out a volcano crater to swim in as a child. What for when there are all these swimming pools and beaches just a car ride away? But these days, there's this irrepressible urge to suck the marrow out of life and see all the beautiful things that can be seen, no matter the cost and effort.

These were the thoughts running through my mind the day we went to hike to the crater of Mt. Pinatubo. In a country dotted with 37 volcanoes, Mt. Pinatubo is one intimately known by my generation. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo produced the largest eruption in living history, blanketing most of the northern Philippines in volcanic ash. My friends recall being stumped by the white ash falling from the sky. I was in Hong Kong on holiday with my family and could not get back to Manila for a week because  the ashfall prevented aircrafts from landing. Mt. Pinatubo continues to be active but over the last 10 years, vegetation has grown back and a lake has formed in its crater. Naturally, some adventurous souls eventually made hiking to the crater and swimming in the lake a regular activity.

I'd been mystified by the idea of swimming in this volcano crater for years but never got around to it until my 30 Before 30 Project came about. So on April 20, 2011, I finally got around to ticking this off my list. My good friend from New York, Mitch, arranged our Mt. Pinatubo trek with a local outfit that takes care of reserving guides, transportation and security, as well as our packed picnic lunch for P2,500 per head (approximately $57). We had planned on meeting the guide at the Petron gas station in Capas, Tarlac at 7:30am but ran into some delays so by the time we reached the registration area at Pinatubo Spa Town in Barangay Sta. Juliana, all the other trekkers had already left. Since we were the last to leave and had no cars to convoy with, the tour operator requested additional security to join us, in addition to our tour guide.

After signing some waivers and sorting out payments, we piled into the 4x4 assigned to us. With 5 people in our group plus a driver and a guide, it was a tight fit. So tight that our security detail sat on the hood of the 4x4 for most of the ride (clearly, seatbelt laws are more like a helpful suggestion in these parts of the country). The adventure began with a 4x4 ride that took us through Crow Valley, an area once used by the US Armed Forces as a bombing range and currently still used for military exercises by the Philippine Army (We ran into quite a few army men wearing fatigues and carrying high powered rifles towards the end of our trek as the military is currently conducting exercises in the area). Driving onto Crow Valley is a bit like journeying through the moon, I would imagine. It's a no man's land that was waylaid by lahar during the eruption. The lahar dust swirled into the open 4x4 relentlessly so that we were all covered in a thin layer of dust by the time we disembarked. (Tip: Do not bring a backpack that you like for this trip. It will have lahar dust in every nook and cranny by the time you're done). The drive itself is quite an adventure, as the 4x4 goes through streams and lahar fields in order to reach the beginning of the trail.
I had come into this feeling quite cocky that the hike would be easy peasy. We were under the impression that the hike would just take half an hour, and I've done some advanced hikes in the past so I was feeling confident. But this hike is subject to the whims of Mother Nature and circumstance (not to mention punishing equatorial heat). We found out that the road that could take us close enough to just do a 30-minute hike got washed out by rains last year. There's a "skyway" road that takes trekkers to a point where they'll only have to hike for an hour, but a 4x4 had an accident there just the day before, blocking and rendering the road impassable. So we were instead deposited to a trailhead from where the hike would take 2 hours and 40 minutes (2 hours if we're fast). We got more than we had bargained for but dove in, nevertheless. I thought Kate and I had it rough when we tackled the unmaintained Hermit's Trail in the Grand Canyon last August. This trek definitely one-upped that hike. What is this trail that you speak of? I don't know either.
There were more goats than people in these parts.
Our guides were very helpful, holding us by the hand as we stepped on rocks to cross streams and in some cases, literally heaving large rocks into the stream so that we'd have something to step on and cross over without getting our shoes wet. Only in the Philippines! Once we got the hang of things though, our guide stopped coddling us and let us negotiate the streams by ourselves. Although the trail was largely flat, it was demanding due to the heat and the terrain, which consisted mostly of volcanic sand, rocks and streams. But the scenery was really interesting. I was captivated by how the sulfur in the water imparted a rust-colored hue to the rocks and soil that gave the area an extraterrestrial feel.
An hour and a half into our hike, the lahar fields gave way to lush terrain. Our guide told us that this was where the 4x4s used to disembark and that we were now just 30 minutes from the crater. By this time, the sun crawled underneath some clouds and our hike became slightly more pleasurable. It did get a tad more challenging, however, as there were now more inclines. It was in this area that we finally encountered other hikers, who were now returning just as we were arriving. As previously mentioned, we also encountered armed military men in full fatigues. It might be a disconcerting sight for non-Filipinos but I found their presence reassuring.

After one final steep climb up an incline, we finally hit the motherlode.
Up until last March, the lake in Mt. Pinatubo's crater was a beautiful turquoise hue. After the Japan earthquake of March 11, however, the color turned dark green. It is still a stunning sight but I wish I had seen it when it was at its bluest. A reminder from Mother Earth that nothing lasts forever and that we should see as much as we can while we still can.

We were famished by the time we got there so our guide set up our lunch. This is another way that trekking in the Philippines varies from trekking in the US. At the end of my hikes with Kate, we would dig into our PB&J sammies and trailmix. Here in the Philippines, the guide carried and unfolded this feast at the destination:
Our food came from Everybody's Cafe in Pampanga, a joint famous for its local fare. Kapampangan cooking is some of the best in the country and this was my first real lunch since returning to the Philippines so I found it to be an amazing treat. We were served adobong puti (white adobo),  a variation of the Philippines' most popular stew that eschews the use of soy sauce (as opposed to the typical dark adobo where pork and chicken are stewed in vinegar and soy sauce). There was also some really delicious longganiza (pork sausage), atchara (pickled radish), chicharon (pork cracklings) and a heaping mound of white rice. My absolute favorite part of the lunch was the pako salad—a mixture of fiddlehead ferns, salted duck eggs and tomatoes tossed in vinaigrette. It's something quite impossible to come by in the US and I love, love, love it.
After lunch, we made our way down to the lake for a dip. It took us awhile to get in as the water felt cold and it had gotten overcast. When we finally did though, it was nice and refreshing. It's a bit disconcerting to swim in a volcano crater though because a) you can't see what lies beneath the surface, and b) it gets deep very very quickly. There are no living creatures in this lake other than some underwater reeds that just add to this lake's Lochness monster vibe!

We decided to take a boat ride (P350 per head or approximately $8) to the "hot springs", as the boatmen called it. It's really just another side of the lake where the volcanic sand is still quite hot and makes parts of the water warm, as well. It's quite a sight to see: steam rises from the shore and the colors of the rocks and water are pretty. Swimming in the water is an interesting experience, too, as you'll find that the temperature varies from spot to spot. Being in this area really drove home the point that good lord, we were swimming in the mouth of a volcano!
While we were swimming in the hot springs, we were told that the "skyway" had already been cleared and for an additional P1,500, our driver could drive to the other trailhead so that we'd only have to do a 1-hour hike back. I'm terrible at haggling but thankfully my friends took the lead on this one. They argued that we had already paid for the skyway fee as part of our package and shouldn't have to pay another fee on top of that just because the driver had to make a detour. In the end the tour company covered our fee, but this is a reminder that you should watch out for these things so as not to pay unnecessary fees (Watch out for a separate post on practical matters for Mt. Pinatubo trekking).

We were told that we had to make our way back by 1:30PM so we made sure we were back on the trail by then. At this point we were the last tourists on the premises and all of the personnel actually packed up for the day as soon as we left. By the time we reached the pick-up point, all the personnel were right at our back with the coolers where they stored the drinks sold by the crater. They also carried the trash out with them, picking up empty water bottles that had been left by tourists (tsk tsk!) in different parts of the trail. I was sorely disappointed that some trekkers thought to litter on the trail but was comforted to see that the personnel make sure every last piece of litter is removed at the end of the day.

We had scarcely left the pick up point on when our 4x4 suddenly stalled. The driver checked the gas tank and said that we had run out of diesel, and I was just dumbfounded. It was getting late, it had been drizzling, and we were all anxious to get out of there. How could he let this happen?!
Thankfully the 4x4 used by the Mt. Pinatubo personnel was right behind us. They said they would transfer some of their jeep's gas to ours so that we could all get back. They later realized that there was just a clog in some artery and did some mechanical magic to get the gas flowing. All the men gave the jeep a few running jumpstarts and to my relief, the engine rumbled back to life. The ride back seemed much longer and was exceptionally bumpy and dusty, so I was utterly relieved when we finally rolled to a stop back at the Spa Town.

It was a rough and tumble adventure, far more challenging than I had imagined, but every bit of it was worth it. Mt. Pinatubo is definitely something worth seeing and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a little something more to marvel at.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

#20: Rock out at a music festival—CHECK!

On April 18, 2011, I stepped foot on Coachella ground for the very first time and breathed in that desert air, so thick with music and palpable excitement. As I stood surrounded by multiple stages, each spotlighting an act surrounded by its own reverent crowd, I found myself pining for all the Coachella festivals that passed me by. Why on earth did it take me so long to get here?

I'm light years away on the musical uptake compared to the cool kids and hipsters, but I enjoy and love to dabble in all types of music, so the musical buffet that is Coachella is my definition of some kind of heaven. I love how the music festival experience allows you to rock out for an hour, rave for another, trip out to electronica for the next and bop your head to hiphop for the last few ... and then wake up the next day and do it all again!

I'd become so accustomed to living in my own little music bubble with my iPod and white earbuds that I tend to forget how wonderful the shared experience of music can be. Music preferences are a very personal thing, but there's something so cool about hearing the opening bars of a song you like and having a crowd of thousands around you roar in excitement. The recognition of thousands of musical kindred souls gives me the warm and fuzzies.

The key to enjoying Coachella, I found, was to check expectations at the door and just go with the flow. The simple fact is that there's no way to see everything you want to see. Your favorite acts could be on all at the same time, and being with a group of friends with their own favorites complicates things further. You just to have to live with the fact that you can't watch every band perform every single song. Just enjoy what you do happen catch and remember: it's a music festival, not a rat race.
The upside of being at Coachella with a group is that you get pulled into seeing acts that were previously out of your radar. I discovered a lot of new music over the weekend that I would otherwise continue to be oblivious to, had it not been for Coachella. 

Apart from the music, I really dug the atmosphere, too. I'm not a fan of people whose schtick is to make it appear like they'd rather be somewhere else cooler. At Coachella, it's clear that there's nowhere else everyone would rather be than right there, and I love that.
We ran into a few famous people wandering around Coachella like regular folks. Toobs and I saw Marcel, rapping foam-meister of Top Chef infamy, wandering around the parking lot before we even entered. We were so dumbfounded at the sight of him that we just froze and openly stared at him while slurping down our massive cups of pear vodka tonics. We couldn't stop whining about how we failed to get our picture taken with him for days. The next night, our friend Mayi suddenly broke away from the group when she spotted Penn Badgley by a pretzel stand. He was so apologetic about saying no when she asked to take a picture (he didn't want to draw attention to himself) that she couldn't feel bad even if she tried. Sadly, I didn't realize it was he that she was speaking with so I didn't get a good look. All I remember was seeing her speaking to a short dude. Oh well.

Aside from the famous folks, there were also tons of crazy characters at Coachella. There were the muscle daddies (see the anchor photo to this post) who not only obliged to take a picture with us but decided it would be fun to carry us all for the shot. They also whipped out their own camera to get a picture (I suppose Asian princesses are novelty items to Cali queens, as well), and for that I literally got flipped upside down, which was fun! Unfortunately we don't have a copy of that pic so if you see one floating around on the Internetz, do let me know.

I love playing dress up so I was tickled pink with the sight of all the bedazzled and feathered creatures roaming the grounds (the many stuffed animal hats, I quickly tired of though).  These neon, feathered ladies were particularly delightful. Makes me think I'll really have to hit up Burning Man one of these years ...
Overall, it was definitely a rockin' good time and I am glad that my little project got my butt to the California desert to experience the bliss and magic of Coachella. This little spring fling will turn into a yearly ritual, I can tell. Thanks to my Cali friends for showing me a fantastic time. Til next year!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I just came to say hello!

Holla from Coachella! It's been two awesome days of laying out in the grass enjoying the sunshine, the great music and fun company all around. There have been so many great shows so far but one of the most unexpectedly fun sets was Fedde le Grand's at the Sahara tent last night. We were pretty dead on our feet by the time we got there after being in the festival all afternoon in hundred degree heat but when this came on, we couldn't help but go nuts with the rest of the crowd ...
It's been two days so far of great music. I'll do a more comprehensive post and loads more videos soon but for now, I just wanted to stop by to say hello!

Friday, April 15, 2011

I guess I'm really doing this ...

You could say I've been living in some sort of denial for the last week.

I've been fully immersed in the New York life as of late: speakeasies, artisanal bars, dive bars, Chinatown soup dumplings, mind-erasing house parties, brunches ... the whole shebang. It's no secret how much I love this crazy city and it feels strange to leave it just as it's waking up from it's winter stupor. You know you're living in the city of your dreams when you feel wistful leaving it even when there's a ridiculous amount of adventure coming up.

Or maybe it's just that even I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around what lies ahead ...
My itinerary for the next three weeks:
  • April 15-17: A weekend in Indio, California rocking out at Coachella
  • April 18-19: Fly from Cali to Manila
  • April 20: Trek to swim in the crater of Mt. Pinatubo
  • April 21-23: A weekend in Donsol, Sorsogon to swim with whale sharks.
  • April 24-28: Mo' Manila
  • April 29-May 2: Journey to Sagada to spelunk in caves, see mummy burials spots, jump into waterfalls and soak up all that nature!
  • May 3-4: A little bit mo' Manila
  • May 5-6: Hong Kong
  • May 7: Macau to take on the highest bungee jump in the world at Macau Tower
  • May 8: Fly back home
  • May 9: It's up to you, New York, New Yoooork!
It's gonna be a crazy few weeks so stay tuned!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Coachella Playlist: Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun

Listening to "Walking on a Dream" by Empire of the Sun brings me back to my fantastic summer of 2010. My favorite Aussie Jodie introduced me to this band from Down Under when we watched their concert at Terminal 5 in New York last August. This song was part of the road trip soundtrack that Kate and I listened to on our seven-day road trip through the Southwest. In Ibiza, this song was our wakeup call, prodding us out of our vodka-induced slumber and out into the sunshine soaked pool. I have some really great memories with this song and it would be nice to create more when Empire of the Sun hits the stage at Coachella next week.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Snapshot Sunday: Sintra, Portugal

Last summer, I spent a week in Portugal to work around some visa issues for my trip to Ibiza. It was a big gamble to travel solo to this country I'd never been to and where I didn't know a single soul. But it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips of my life. I learned how to surf, made some incredibly cool friends, and saw so many amazing sights. This picture, taken at Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra illustrates how I felt then: I felt like the King of the World.
Sintra was one of the most picturesque places I visited in Portugal. A lush, beautifully preserved town steeped in Romantic architecture, all of Sintra is a UNESCO heritage site and visiting it is like stepping back in time. It is an easy day trip from Lisbon and a quick bus ride from our surf camp in Ericeira. The afternoon we spent there was not quite enough time to explore everything Sintra has to offer, but I wouldn't change anything about that day for the world. A morning of surfing, scrumptious wood-fired pizza by the beach for lunch, and an afternoon spent exploring the beautiful city of Sintra is a wonderful way to spend a summer day, no matter how you look at it.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Coachella Playlist: Mumford and Sons

I cannot stop listening to this song. Who knew banjos, foot-stomping and a wee bit of profanity were all elements of an addictive song? See you in a week boys!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

You've got mail

Hello, lover ...
It was a nail-biter of a wait but finally, my 2011 Coachella passes have come home to Mama. I bought these on layaway last December, not knowing who would be on the lineup and not realizing that the festival would sell out in five days once that stellar lineup did come out. It's music festival gold, pretty much, and I am stoked to finally have that sought-after wristband in my hands. Eight days to go, and I can't wait!

Coachella Playlist: Arcade Fire

The truth is, I didn't know a thing about Arcade Fire until they ran away with the biggest prize at this year's Grammys. And though I realized then that there must be a reason why they have both that shiny new paperweight and a spot headlining at Coachella, I didn't make a huge effort to listen to their music until tonight. 

I didn't realize there was a sound to the restlessness, nostalgia, acceptance of life's disappointments, and stark awareness of the years slipping past that so dogs those hanging halfway between youth and maturity until I listened to Arcade Fire's album, The Suburbs. It's music that definitely resonates with me, and I'm glad Coachella gave me the reason to dig in.

These days my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface
'Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They're calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
- The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last
It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
- We Used To Wait

Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm movin' past the feeling
Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm movin' past the feeling again
- The Suburbs

Friday, April 01, 2011

Winners are simply willing to do what losers won't.

Tonight I spent an hour and change at my very first boxing session, so it was inevitable that I would get to thinking about Million Dollar Baby. This great quote is from that movie and I thought it would be a good thing to share and keep in my back pocket for the next time I need a good kick in the butt.

It's not because I have grand aspirations of being a champion boxer that I like this quote. As far as boxing is concerned, I'd be over the moon if I just learned how to jump rope like a boxer and if I could work that speed ball without looking like a kitten chasing string (more like Hillary, less like Monster Truck is the goal). What I like about this quote is its emphasis on the will to do something.

I wouldn't say that the last year has made me an expert on anything. I'm mediocre, at best, at the things I decided to tackle this year: running, poledancing, surfing, snowboarding—heck, even karaoke singing. But I already feel like I've won because it blows my mind to know how much I'm actually capable of. Now that I know what I can do, I can reach so much farther. All it took was the will to start.

So I hope this quote gives you a good push if there's something you've been putting off forever. Stop being the person who wants to do things or loves to talk about someday doing things. Be the person who just goes and does it.

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