The Small-time Jet-setter Chronicles: Along Untrodden Paths, A Tale of Survival

Have you ever experienced something so harrowing and painful that as soon as it was over you could finally say all hell can break loose now and nothing else can take you down? After surviving this ordeal all my accomplishments in life, if I ever accomplished anything significant at all, seemed worthless and useless. And I realized that nothing in this world is more valuable than life itself. All that mattered at that moment was survival. And it didn’t even matter how strong I am, I learned that when death comes to stare at you in the face all it takes is the will to survive to conquer it.

I never thought something so dreadful would happen in such a very beautiful and peaceful place. Batad Rice Terraces is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is considered as the most beautiful among the rice terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras. It is one of the most serene places I’ve ever been to, a place that is completely lost in time. And I mean literally lost in time, since the whole town has no cellular reception, so it’s the perfect place to go to if you want to be off the grid.

My itinerary for the trip was an overnight stay in Batad then overnight stay in Sagada then back to Manila. The trip to Sagada never happened, since I got into an accident in Batad on the very day I got there and I fractured my leg. But before I tell the whole story I would like to mention that it was all my fault for believing in myself too much and underestimating the mountains. It was the kind of courage that bordered on stupidity, it got me into trouble many times before and it all turned out fine. This time was different and I finally learned my lesson.

Batad is about 30 minutes away from Banaue, where my friend and I got off the bus from Manila. The trip from Manila took about 8-9 hours, we took the overnight bus from Cubao at 10PM and we arrived in Banaue at around 7AM. We had breakfast in Banaue then we hired a motorcab to take us to Batad. There are other options, but the public transport to Batad from Banaue was not an option. It probably runs once or twice a day. I forgot the details though, it was probably because of the painkillers. I usually have very good memory. But hey, I’m alive to tell the tale, so I can’t complain. There is a tourist center in Banaue where you can inquire about transportation options and it’s also where the buses stop.

Trust me, there is a way down to the rice terraces behind me

We had to hike about 15-20 minutes to get to the rice terraces in Batad. We didn’t have a place to stay yet so we had to look for a place first, which was not a good idea. This is another one of my very few spontaneous trips where I didn’t book lodgings ahead of time. I left my friend in charge of everything since he had been to Banaue and Sagada before, but not Batad. This trip took place one week after my trip to Myanmar, so I wasn’t in the mood to plan anything.

My friend did some research and he had a few places in mind. We chose Ramon’s Homestay because we wanted to stay in a traditional hut with a very beautiful view of the rice terraces. Ramon, the owner, was very friendly and welcoming. He is a native of Batad, and he preserved the huts that had been his family’s home for generations. Our hut was very lovely, with a perfect view of the rice terraces from the window. The downside is that the huts don’t have electricity, so we had to light candles at night. They also have rooms that are modern compared to the huts, and those rooms have electricity. Note that not all houses in Batad have electricity. But if you want to properly experience the tranquility of Batad, the traditional huts are the way to go.

A traditional hut, where we stayed that night
The view from the window of our hut

We had a nice chat with the owner and two Spanish tourists, Julio and Marta, who were leaving that day. While we were looking for a place to stay a local guide approached us and offered to take us to the mountains. He asked for Php800 and we thought it was expensive. Then Julio and Marta told us that they hiked to the summit of Awa view deck the previous day without a guide. It is the highest view deck in Batad and has the most beautiful view of the rice terraces. And so we decided to hike on our own, because if others can why can’t we.

We had lunch after Julio and Marta left, then we started the trek. It was funny how we were able to bring phones, an umbrella, wallets, wet tissues, and even rubbing alcohol, but forgot to bring one of the most important items when climbing mountains, which is water. Two heads and not one thought about bringing water. But the stupidest thing we did was not wearing rubber shoes. We were told that there is only one trail leading to the view deck so we can’t get lost, but we never expected that single trail to be so difficult. We were planning to go swimming at Tappiya Falls after the climb to the view deck, and we dressed according to the latter plan.

Ramon’s Homestay is located near the heart of the rice terraces, and breathtaking vistas greeted us on the way down. We walked through very narrow pathways and even climbed down a few rocks that protrude from the side of rock walls. We had no idea that it was a walk in the park compared to what lies ahead.

We had to climb up and down another mountain, its steps are made of concrete so it was an easy one, then we crossed a bridge over a small river.

It was after the bridge that the agony started. After that the trail seemed to have been reclaimed by the mountain. Most of the trail was surrounded by thick shrubs that are taller than us. They said it didn’t rain for 2 days but most of the ground was wet and slippery. The trail was so narrow that only one person can walk at a time. There were times when we had to crawl because the trail was too steep. It was the most difficult climb I ever had, it was no wonder that my friend lost his energy and almost gave up.

We reached a small concrete bridge and my friend finally told me to move on without him because he was too tired and his legs ached. He was thirsty and he drank from the water flowing out of a small PVC pipe over the stream. I was a little thirsty but I was afraid to drink water from unknown sources, although it looked very clean when I took a look at it. My friend, on the other hand, was already out of his wits and so he had a few gulps. While he was sitting over the small bridge I urged him to go on and told him to rest for a few minutes. We were the only two people in that mountain that afternoon, we had been trekking for about two hours and we never saw anyone, so I didn’t want to leave him behind and put him at the mercy of the forest. All around us the woods are very thick and the shrubs are taller than us, who knows what creatures are lurking there. I didn’t tell him my thoughts though, and I didn’t tell him that I saw a huge monitor lizard, what we call bayawak, a few minutes earlier. Although it wasn’t very big, it is said to have a venomous bite that could even kill cattle. And we certainly don’t need bites from anything on that mountain because we have no hope for rescue. We finally realized why the guide fee was expensive. And the stark realization that we were on our own struck us like lightning.

My friend recovered a little after a few minutes, but he was still tired and he was already stomping his feet on the ground. We stopped every few minutes so he could rest, and he kept complaining that his legs ached so bad. I kept urging him to go on, and he kept wondering why I was still not tired. I just thought about getting to the summit and leaving the mountain before it gets dark. We had been trekking for almost 3 hours and all our hard work would go to waste if we didn’t see the summit and take a picture of what they call the amphitheater view of Batad Rice Terraces. What’s a vacation for without pictures? And we just have to put our faces in those pictures even if we have to climb harsh mountains for hours.

It was almost 4PM when we finally saw daylight again and I knew our harrowing trek was almost over. But my friend was at his last straw when he couldn’t bear the pain on his legs anymore and he laid down on the ground. He insisted that I go to the summit alone, and he looked so pitiful that I had to make a decision. I still didn’t want to leave him, but I also wanted to see the summit which seemed very close. So I told him that I would climb for 5 minutes and if I still don’t see the summit then I will turn around and we’ll go back the way we came from. I didn’t want to leave him alone for a long time.

That was when I slipped and almost fell down the mountain to who knows what kingdom come. I had no idea how high we have climbed, but since I could already see the rice terraces below I could tell we have climbed very high. The trail was more difficult than ever, it was very steep and slippery that I couldn’t help feeling nervous. I didn’t even last 5 minutes, the trail was too difficult that we might have to crawl on very slippery rocks to get to the top, and when I looked behind me I could imagine myself falling down the mountain. So I turned around and slowly climbed down. I don’t have fear of heights but I’m not a mountaineer either. I did not prepare myself for such a difficult climb, and I didn’t want to take chances because we were all alone. There’s certainly a reason why the trail to Awa view deck looks like a road less traveled.

I took a wrong step, slipped, and fell down a little. If my toe hadn’t hit a rock which caused my left foot to twist, I would have fallen all the way down to kingdom come. When my foot twisted I fell on my back and it broke the fall. So you see, the fracture saved my life. But I didn’t know it was a fracture then, I thought it was just a sprain. It was so painful that I couldn’t stand on my feet anymore, so I had to crawl all the way back to where my friend was lying down. All the while I was thinking how we could ever go back when I couldn’t even walk anymore. There was no way my friend could carry me all the way down, and it would be too dangerous for both of us. I couldn’t even think about spending the night in the mountain, it would be too cold and dark. And for the first time that afternoon I felt so thirsty and tired.

My friend had dozed off a little, and when he saw me crawling he got up and regained all his energy. There was no other way but to walk back. We couldn’t call for help because there was nobody else around, no nearby houses at all, and the whole town has no cellular signal. He helped me get on my feet and I tried my best to walk. The first steps were so painful that I could almost cry, but I couldn’t show any weakness to my friend who looked like he was about to die from fatigue just a few minutes ago. I’ve never felt so much pain in my life, not even when I had an accident at an ice skating rink and the blades of a skate tore into my leg and I got a knee injury. Imagine having unbearable pain with every step of the foot. Only those who have broken their bones would know such pain. I would gladly choose a bleeding wound anytime.

I was moving very slow and I thought that at that rate we would never get out of the mountain before dark. My friend could only hold my hand since the trail was too narrow for us to walk side by side. I thought about people who couldn’t walk, they have crutches and wheelchairs but there was no way we could get any of those. I settled on a walking stick, and it helped a lot since it reduced the pressure on my injured foot. I still couldn’t walk without holding on to my friend, but at least we were moving a little faster. It was so difficult when we got to the steep parts of the trail and we had to crawl down.

After what seemed like forever we finally reached the stream where my friend drank water from. I didn’t even care how muddy my hands were, I just washed it a little and drank from the water coming out of the pipe. I didn’t care about diarrhea anymore, all that mattered was surviving for a few more hours so we could get out of the mountain before dark. If there wasn’t a stream in that mountain I don’t know if we even survived at all. We were truly lucky.

After a few more tests of mental fortitude that pushed my pain tolerance to its limits, we finally reached the bridge at the foot of the mountain that lead to the other mountain. It was almost dark but we rested a little since the trail was much easier after that. My foot was already swollen, but I tried my best to ignore it the way I tried to ignore the searing pain. My friend kept telling me how amazed he was with my strength, and I kept saying I had no choice if I wanted to stay alive.

Moving on, we climbed up and down another mountain. It was much easier because the steps were made of concrete. But it was already dark when we reached the foot of that mountain. Luckily I was able to bring a headlamp since I couldn’t use any of my hands. It was the one thing I brought that afternoon that was useful. My friend used his phone for light. Then we finally reached the foot of the rice terraces, a little more climb and we would have reached the homestay. But it wasn’t the end of my torment and our relief was short-lived. Unlike the mountains with only one trail, the rice terraces have several paths and we got lost in the dark. I’ve never seen such a place where my most trusted travel companion, Google Maps, is totally useless. Although I’ve downloaded an offline map of the area, it looked nothing more like a sketch of a preschooler.

When we reached the middle of the rice terraces and the path had become very muddy, we finally realized that we were lost. We went back to the foot of the rice terraces and took another path. After a difficult climb, we reached a dead end and a local who lived there pointed us the way to our homestay. We went back the way we came from, with much difficulty, and finally found the right path. The steps were made of concrete, but it seemed like a stairway to heaven that went on forever. And I was so thirsty again that I felt like knocking on doors of some random houses to ask for water.

We have almost reached the homestay when we ran into Ramon, the owner. He was looking for us and he told us he was about to send some people to look for us in the mountains. It was past 7PM. The excruciating trek on our way back took over 3 hours.

When we were finally able to sit down at the homestay and drink cold water, I cried for the first time that day. It wasn’t because of the pain and fatigue that came crashing down on me. They were tears of joy at the realization that it was my greatest achievement in life, a tale of triumph of man against nature. It is a tale I can tell my children and grandchildren in the future, if I ever have any.

The ordeal wasn’t over at that moment though. The town doesn’t have any doctors or nurses, only a midwife who wasn’t around. They only have what we call “manghihilot,” someone who practices “hilot,” an ancient Filipino art of healing which involves something like massage. In remote places like Batad, people rely on “hilot” to heal broken bones. Ramon called a manghihilot for me, and although I am a man of science, I agreed because I thought it was better than doing nothing, and I thought it was merely a sprain that could be fixed by twisting my foot like what they do in the movies.

The manghihilot massaged my foot inside our hut, with very little light from the candle. He said he didn’t need light, and he seemed to know what he was doing. I prepared myself for more pain than anything I ever felt that day, and I took a deep breath because I thought it was going to be swift. I was so wrong, he didn’t just twist my foot, he massaged, pulled and twisted my foot. It was the most agonizing few minutes of my life, and the pain I felt while walking with the injured foot paled in comparison that I had to bury my face in a pillow to keep myself from screaming out loud. When it was over all the strength drained from my body and I just went to sleep without even cleaning up.

Awa View Deck from our homestay

When I woke up in the morning the swelling was gone but the pain was still there. I tried to walk and took a bath. We planned to move on to Sagada. After taking a bath the swelling returned and it looked very ugly. I decided to go to the hospital, and Ramon decided not to let me walk anymore so he called some of his workers and they made a hammock so they could carry me to the jeepney stop. The jeepney leaves at 9AM so they moved fast. It didn’t seem like a long way when we hiked from the jeepney stop the day before, but the way back was a different story since it’s an uphill hike. It would have been very difficult for someone with an injured foot and carrying a backpack.

I looked really funny in the hammock, and I felt funny too. Although it was really scary since some of the paths were steep, and one wrong step from the people carrying me and I would fall. They walked really fast, and their strength was amazing. We arrived first at the jeepney stop, and I had to wait for about 10 minutes for my friend to arrive. When he finally arrived he looked like he was about to die again. Ramon came with us and he carried my backpack because my friend was having a very hard time.

The jeepney dropped us off at the only hospital in Banaue. The doctor scolded me for getting “hilot.” Then they ran some x-ray tests and found a fracture in the distal fibula. They call it lateral malleolus fracture. Unfortunately they didn’t have an orthopedist so I had to go to a hospital in Manila to get treatment. They gave me a shot of painkiller and some medicines and put a bandage on my leg. The doctor was very kind to contact the bus company in order to reserve us two seats in the afternoon bus to Manila. And they took us to the tourist information center in their ambulance, where we would take the bus to Manila. The people were so kind, especially Ramon and the doctor. I will never forget them. And above all my eternal gratitude to my friend who never left my side. I wouldn’t have survived without him.

The bus arrived at around 1:30PM, and we arrived in Manila at around midnight. We headed straight to Makati Medical Center from the bus terminal, and after a series of x-ray tests they finally put a splint on my leg. The doctor gave me crutches and taught me how to use it. I was accustomed to seeing men in crutches and casts since I grew up in a military camp. They were soldiers who got injured in the battlefields of Mindanao. Those were truly honorable causes, mine was merely for picture-taking purposes and I felt so damn stupid.

It wasn’t over when I left the hospital. I stayed for a few days at my aunt’s house in Taguig before I traveled back to Cebu. I had my birthday 4 days after the accident, and I spent it at my aunt’s house. I traveled alone to Cebu, and they put me on a wheelchair at the airport. I live alone in Cebu, and it turned out to be the ultimate test of my independence. I survived on deliveries since I couldn’t cook and go anywhere. I went to the doctor alone for a checkup, and some people at the clinic asked me why I was alone. It didn’t bother me. I’m alive and that’s all that matters.

My first day at work after the accident

But my positivity didn’t last long. I went back to work on the second week, but I could only go from the house to the office. I dropped the crutches after 3 weeks, but I still couldn’t go anywhere I please. I fell into depression, and due to my boredom I spent a lot of money on online shopping. My leg healed after 2 months, but I still couldn’t run and do strenuous physical activities for 2 more months. It was a great relief to finally remove my cast and wear normal shoes again. And life goes on.

At a party I attended 2 weeks after removing my cast, with my injured leg still dark from the bruises

The accident taught me a lot, but I won’t stop here. I will go back, with better shoes next time. I intended to visit Sagada because I was trying to get over a broken heart and Sagada is where broken-hearted people go on a pilgrimage. It’s because of a local movie that’s a rip-off of Before Sunrise. Sadly I broke my leg as well, which is far more painful, and I didn’t even get to Sagada. I realized it was much easier to get over a broken heart since you can drown it in alcohol or ice cream. You can’t do that with a broken leg, and the healing process is far more inconvenient.

Now that it’s all over, I say, “bring it on, life!”

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