Misty Mountains and Unexpected Gifts, Part 1
In a house in Texas there lived a young woman. Not a nasty, dirty, boring house, filled with clutter and a dusty smell, nor yet a quiet, bare, plain house with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a house of blessing, and that means comfort.
“There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” (Jane Austen)
And so begins my story of my third journey to the Philippines. There and back again.
THURSDAY, JUNE 11TH
When my five o’clock alarm went off, I jumped eagerly into what I knew would be the last pleasant shower I would take in two weeks. A couple hours later, our team of eleven met on the sun-illuminating lawn of our church. Our bags were packed, passports checked safely in our pockets, and we were off to begin our extensive travel across the globe.
Our first flight was about fifteen hours, or 8,325 miles, to Dubai. The movie selection was considerable, the chairs moderately comfortable, and the food I found to be delicious (or more importantly, consistent). There was, after all, a designated “Middle Earth” channel, which provided a gleeful opportunity to waste away the hours content as a hobbit. This was my first unexpected gift.
We had a twelve hour layover in Dubai, where the airline provided us with hotel rooms. Though I knew we wouldn’t have time to sight-see, I was still thrilled to get at least half a day in a country I have always wanted to visit. We had showers, naps, dinner, and a few hours of down time. Then we made our way back to the airport, without any hindrances. It was the calm before the storm, or so some might say.
FRIDAY, JUNE 12TH
The second flight was about nine hours, or 4,285 miles, to Manila. I managed to get in a decent amount of writing/brainstorming on the first two flights, but I probably only got less than six hours of sleep total. (Though with the previously listed entertainments, who could blame me?) But once landing in Manila, the rush was on. We landed later than projected and we were already cutting it close to catch our next flight to Mindanao.
Fact: It takes three time zones to travel from Texas to the Philippines, where they are thirteen hours ahead. (i.e. time travel, i.e. we lost half a day)
SATURDAY, JUNE 13TH
If you have been to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, then you understand. The international and domestic sectors are separated by miles – you have to catch a van or taxi to get to the other. This is highly problematic when you are flying with eleven foreigners, must go through customs and baggage claim, then transport to the other airport with only one hour to get there. It worked out though, largely thanks to my husband’s persuasive people skills. They delayed the flight for us so that we could catch it (which we otherwise would have certainly missed). This was unexpected gift number two.
An hour and half later, somewhere around ten o’clock in the evening, we landed on Mindanao Island in the Philippines, the final destination. Our Filipino brother, and agriculturalist/translator/guide extraordinaire, greeted us with two vans and a ride into Butuan City, where we would spend the night. We stopped at McDonald’s for a late dinner, knowing it would be our last opportunity to partake in familiar food for many days to come. Perhaps only an American in Asia could fully appreciate the comfort of French fries. Tomorrow would be a long, and largely uncomfortable, day.
SUNDAY, JUNE 14TH
Skylab (n): known by the locals as a “habal-habal;” a mode of transportation in the Philippines; a standard sized dirt-bike / motorcycle modified to have two wings welded on each side for passengers or cargo; can accommodate up to ten Filipinos. (Caution advised.)
It was Sunday, which supplied us with a quicker commute than anticipated due to the lighter traffic. We rode in a van for an hour and a half to a town called, Talacogon. There we spent almost two hours hiring skylabs, organizing drivers, and strapping our bags to the wings of the bike. There is something you should know about time in the Philippines: it is not like American time. The second hand clicks slower and the minute hand has its own agenda. Typically, you can double whatever length of time you think something should take.
From Talacogon our team set out on what would be unchartered transportation territory for most. We had four people to each skylab, one Filipino driver and three passengers, plus luggage and supplies. The eleven of us Americans, plus our five translators, plus our cargo, plus the drivers, all made for a comical caravan up the mountain to kilometer fifty.
Fact: It takes a caravan such as this approximately four hours to go fifty kilometers, or thirty-one miles, up a mountain.
Four hours on the wooden planks of a skylab ranges in excitement from, “This is awesome! I’m riding in the jungle with the wind in my hair!” to something like, “Oh dear Lord, please don’t let me die like this.” And maybe somewhere in-between with, “My butt is numb. I’m tired of being hit in the face with foliage. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, after all.” Personally, as long as the roads are dry, I love it. We eventually arrived, safe and sound, at our tribe in Agusan del Sur not long before dinner. We unpacked, settled in, ate, and watched the sun set over the lush mountains. We finally made it, just over seventy-two hours after we left our comfy Texas homes. We crawled under our mosquito nets and drifted off into a time-confused and muggy sleep.
MONDAY, JUNE 15TH
The next day began with the rooster’s tenacious songs at four o’clock in morning, like always, and an hour later we were up. The difficulty with starting your day at five in the morning is that by noon you feel as though you’ve labored a whole day and it should be dinner time. I had an encouraging conversation with the chieftain’s wife over a hot cup of coffee to which she shared her thanks for our coming to their tribe again. Among others things, she said, our presence and invested efforts aid in supplying the people with an alternative to the NPA, or New People’s Army, which is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The NPA is making a push in this region of the island, trying to recruit gullible tribes-people.
Later that day our team began to get acquainted with the village and went over our teaching materials with the translators, to make sure the things we wanted to teach in the schools and in the discipleship classes would translate appropriately. We also started the foundation for the platform for our water pump tank we hoped to install.
It rained today, as it would every day we were at kilometer fifty.
TUESDAY, JUNE 16TH
We were up, packed, had breakfast, and were on our way out by six o’clock in the morning. We hoped to get the majority of our trek underway before full sun, and the humid heat that it brought with it. Our trekking was comprised of three Americans and our Filipino Brother Extraordinaire. Our mission was simple: hike out to a remote tribe (which was some unknown distance away), take them food, share our testimonies, and get to know the villagers.
Today would be a day that I would not soon forget.
I believe the first estimation of time and distance was ten kilometers, or about two hours. Remember what I taught you about Filipino time? Well the same principle applies to distance. Therefore, I knew that we were probably looking at doubling those estimations. Perhaps it should have alarmed me when the chieftain, his wife, and his daughter continued asking me the morning before we left, “So you’re going on the hike? Are you sure? You don’t have to go.” But I did have to go. This was the one thing on this trip I was certain that I was supposed to do.
It took us an hour to reach kilometer fifty-five. So five kilometers down, and who knows how many we had left to go. The morning was still cool, our bodies not yet feeling the weight of our packs. Soon we acquired a local guide who would lead us through the jungle. We trekked another hour, which I believe to be another five kilometers, then we reached “the trail,” which was actually more like a foot path compared to the dirt road we had been previously hiking on. Here we acquired another local guide to show us the way – so now we had one in front and one at the back. So far, so good.
This is where things got more interesting. To be honest, I am not sure how far we trekked up the mountain in this jungle. I know it took us about three hours and it felt like we were on a more dangerous version of a stairmaster the entire time. At some point in this part of the journey I switched packs with Filipino Brother Extraordinaire, because his was smaller and mine was throwing me off balance. This was unexpected gift number three.
Fact: To prevent overheating, the body regulates temperature by sweating. Water absorbs heat from the working muscles and dissipates this heat to circulating blood and ultimately through the skin.
We climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed. It was incredible, the views, the rainforest, the fact that we were in actually doing this. Oh and we sweat, how we sweat, how we sweat. I am certain that I have never sweat that much in my entire life. One of our party actually claimed he was sweating out of his eyeballs, which he assured us was possible. I was thankful for the four liters of water we each brought with us, because that weight was absolutely essential. (Backpacking is, after all, all about the grams. Or so some would say.) We sang Misty Mountains and quoted Lord of the Rings, naturally, and loved [almost] every minute of the journey.
I was thankful to have three of my brothers with me, because if I learned one thing from Samwise Gamgee it is the value of friendship and allowing them to aid with the weight of your burdens. Frodo (you may remember him from my post, Southern Inklings and a Texas Oasis) was always several hundred feet ahead of us. But that was acceptable because he proved his worth in preparedness once we got to our destination. My Filipino brother was the most help to me during the hike, making sure that I didn’t fall into razorblade leaves or off of fallen tree bridges. So that leaves my last brother, who is the newest to me, though he worked his way up the ladder rather quickly with his innate ability to make me laugh. He was also very acquainted with the allowing-others-to-carry-your-burdens concept.
Fact: When going on an adventure of some distance (known or unknown), it is advisable to have someone who is experienced with a knife, someone with local connections, and someone who can make you laugh.
We acquired a few more locals along the way, which created a more exciting caravan. And sometime just before noon we arrived at the tribe. They welcomed us with boiled potatoes, sugar cane, and water, which were gladly accepted. We set our things in their meeting place and changed out of our dripping wet clothes. Frodo and Newbie went down to the waterfall to rinse out our clothes and fetch more water, while the Filipino and I took a few minutes to cool off. Although we weren’t being chased by Orcs, I still like to imagine that my relief at arriving was about how Bilbo must have felt when he made it to Rivendell.
A short time after, a couple of the men that joined us on our way up the mountain were sitting in the meeting place with us reading out of a book. We then learned that these men were the ones sharing the gospel with this tribe. Because of the uncivilized nature of these remote tribes, and their animistic beliefs, gospel-focused Christians have chosen to use fifty-two stories to thoroughly explain Christianity. This takes an entire year to accomplish, but has proven to be the most effective system. This particular tribe had only heard the first few stories.
Before dinner, most of the village joined us in the meeting place to hear this week’s story. Once they concluded their teaching, our team got a chance to share our own stories and how we came to be with them there. We had already given them the food we brought and they dispersed it among one another.
Evening came and dinner turned out to be more of a feast. They lined the length of the meeting place with rows of cut banana leaves. Then they heaped scoops of fresh rice on top. Then they added a noodle dish containing vegetables and some sort of meat. Everyone piled in, one on each side of the banana leaf plate, and we shared a grand meal together. But we shared more than that, they shared their community and we shared our hearts. It was truly a beautiful experience. This was unexpected gift number four.
Now I realize that I am not even through the first week of our tale, but I would not want to cut out important details for the sake of length. So I will leave my story here for now.