Saturday, December 31, 2016

Those Little Shards of Light

"As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I've got left?"
- David Bowie

Let's get to the point - 2016 will forever be marked as one of those years.

I mean, screw cognitive dissonance. I'd rather not write a list of my struggles down, but this year has brought a lot of loss, sadness and fear. And perhaps least important among my personal troubles, I've not written as much as I'd like.

Then again, I'd like to think that maybe 2016 was meant to teach us some important lesson that we'd forget a year or two down the line. That's humanity for you, but I digress. That lesson boils down to the inevitability of change - and how scary change is (in more ways that one might think).

Our family attended Christmas Mass last weekend as a whole - something that hasn't happened in years (if not a decade or so). I remember the priest's sermon, particularly because I disagreed with it as he spoke. He emphasized the importance of a positive outlook in life, and the fact that we should always try to find the blessing in everything that happens to us - especially the bad things.

I could try to explain why such an outlook is a dangerous fallacy, but over the past few days I've come to realize that the lesson he was trying to say may have gone over my head. I was angry and frustrated at so many things this year. Maybe I still am - knots take a bit of time to untangle, after all.

I guess the priest's point was that we're living in very dark times, and at some point we'd need to look for those tiny shards of light in the darkness to help us find our way in this life. It's way too easy to lose one's way in this world. It's easy to overlook the little things that help us survive another difficult day and give us just that tiny bit of strength to keep pushing forward until things become easier again.

Despite the crap, I guess there were also a ton of cool things that happened this year.

That fantastic backpacking trip throughout Cebu (and Dumaguete) last summer.

Two (!) trips to Baguio.

An eye-opening week in Hong Kong.

Finding a new way to bond and tell stories via D&D.

Learning (and mostly failing) how to surf in Zambales.

And the awesomest girlfriend anyone could hope for.

I could list a lot more to fill a small book, but I'm way behind on my blog posts to recall everything. However, I'm pretty sure there's still a lot to be thankful for. A lot of small pieces of light scattered in the darkness that helped us survive into 2017.

So yeah. Even if you were such a dick, 2016, I'd like to thank you. We're tougher than we look, because we're made from stardust and all that positive mumbo jumbo.

Happy New Year (in a few hours)!


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chapter 28

Mango Bravo for breakfast, spaghetti for lunch, a proper steak for dinner and some ice cream cake to top it all off.

For some reason, I felt that I owed it to myself to have my birthday pass as discreetly as possible this year. For the longest time, I've thought that the "helpful" birthday reminders in our social media feeds remove a lot of human sentiment from the greetings, making them feel cheap and artificial. Removing that from my profile was a breath of fresh (digital) air. Not that the greetings aren't well received, but I personally appreciate it more when people remember the old fashioned way.

Life's been a good run so far, and I have a few stories in mind that I'm just itching to write about. I'll find time - sure - because stories about people's lives are few and far in between, and even rarer are the ones that make one feel alive and hopeful about the world. I'll talk about whale sharks and giant turtles and massive schools of fish that seem like silver whirlwinds under the sea, about newfound hobbies which would put my storytelling to the test, and about random getaways that gave me some much needed second wind to fight life's battles another day.

So yeah, another year added to my life's book and hopefully a little more wisdom added to my belt. Life is still a little too challenging these days but for the first time in a while, I slept last night with a rare sense of contentment and inner peace (hah!).

That's something I'll always be thankful for.

Yes, I'm still around, although not in these parts for the past few months. With some luck, I'll be back real soon.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Conquering Masungi

The Web.  © Almary de Ocampo

For all its fragile beauty, there are very few things that would make one feel insignificant as the majesty of nature. This was my main takeaway from a weekend trip with friends to the Masungi Georeserve, a conservation area hidden away in the rainforests of Rizal.

Torn from beneath the sea by volcanic activity about sixty million years ago, Masungi Georeserve features limestone features jutting out the forest throughout its vast territory, most of which are reachable within four hours' worth of trekking (and picture-taking, for those so inclined).

Limestone Formations. © Almary de Ocampo

The trek began at a base site, which was essentially a garden which had a few covered areas for briefings and debriefings. We were introduced by the park staff to the ranger who was assigned to guide us through the rainforest and we were reminded of a few rules for the trip.

Masungi was a dying landscape as recently as 1999 and was restored with a great deal of effort over a decade by some very passionate individuals. The reserve opened to the public late last year in an effort to raise consciousness for its continued preservation (despite some significant struggles that threatened its existence only a few months ago), thus most likely ensuring its place amongst the better nature retreats easily accessible from Manila.

Scarier than you think. © Almary de Ocampo

A lot of the views are spectacular and (literally) breathtaking, such as the famous sapot (spider web) and the duyan (hammock), where everyone is suspended several hundred feet in mid-air over rocks or the forest canopy overlooking the park.

Duyan. © Almary de Ocampo

Masungi is laid out like a Dark Souls level - most of the landmarks visible in the distance were reachable on foot, and it was really cool to make mental notes (of personal achievement) as we reached each feature we saw just hours prior.

Nanay, one of the two major 'peaks' (along with Tatay). © Almary de Ocampo

It was a relatively easy trek, as the trails have been clearly marked (although there was a good amount of 'alternate' routes that the rangers warn newcomers about) and a path was painstakingly laid out through the rainforest for both trekkers and folks who just wished to retreat into nature.

While not as physically demanding as the 'easy' peaks like Pico de Loro, Masungi requires a decent level of fitness during the trek. In addition to the rainforest trail, we had to climb up (and down) several rope cargo nets as well as walk (and crawl) through caves - of which some of the crevices were rather small - to move forward.

Yungib ni Ruben. © Almary de Ocampo

The park was a combination of both natural wonders and human engineering. A lot of the artificial landmarks were built by hand over a long period of time, such as the duyan (which took three people ninety days to build) and what I could only describe as a 'rest station that was held up by a hanging bridge over the forest'. It's a testament to the engineers' and rangers' passion to help to raise public awareness for the reserve.

No, seriously. © Almary de Ocampo

I've been to several treks and one of the biggest things I've noticed was that there was not a single piece of litter throughout the trail - something that I was consciously trying to find. The park rangers were adamant that we should leave the place just as it was when we arrived, and the fact that they didn't sell any souvenirs reinforced the idea that they were doing what they did for a singular cause and they were not running the park for profit.

Masungi Georeserve's primary goal was to raise awareness for natural conservation and sustainable eco-tourism, and I believe that they were spot on in providing people with an opportunity to commune with the natural world. It was a gentle reminder that we humans are all but fleeting travelers through this life, and the world will continue to exist long after we move on.

Lame. © Almary de Ocampo

The Fine Print
They charge PhP 1,400 for a minimum group of seven, with a group of fifteen as the largest batch they'll take. Book in advance through their website, as it could take weeks (or even months) for a slot to open up. The cost includes the services of the park ranges (who'll also serve as the guide), as well as a liter of water and a sandwich (and some refreshments) at the end of the trek.

Safety gear will be provided along with a knapsack to carry things around. I'd recommend bringing only the essentials, but I think bringing extra water would be a good idea as the physical activity could lead to some mild dehydration despite the shade from the forest canopy.

I'm not sure if they'd provide ponchos in case it rains. It actually did pour down when we got there, but thankfully the weather cleared up before we were scheduled to start.

The trek isn't as hard as it seemed (despite the pictures) and overall, I'd say it was definitely well worth the price.

Monday, April 18, 2016

To Anxiety and Beyond

They say that video game addiction is pure escapism - that there's something about real life that makes one spend hours upon hours avoiding it.

Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm mentally running from - or maybe it's something I already know deep down and I'm just in denial trying to shield myself from realizing it. If there's anything I know with absolute certainty, it's that I'm in desperate need for a change.

What change that is, of course, is still up in the air (although I have a pretty good idea of what it probably is).

We spent a couple of days in my happy place recently - doing stuff like picking grapes, going to the beach and other whatnot that my younger self would have foolishly taken for granted. In that brief weekend, I felt a sense of relief I haven't felt in months. There was a mixture of fleeting sadness and disdain at the end of the trip because there was a real life we had to go back to. Perhaps the longing for an escape has grown into its own vice - a vice that I don't see myself trying to fight.

I've been waking up much earlier for the past few days (and dreaded the sheer notion that I'll need to will myself awake weeks beforehand). I've also been playing a lot less video games for a while now, for what that's worth. Maybe it's because my time for meaningful (or senseless) conversations, much needed sleep and winding-down-stuff have been cut drastically that I can't fit in some things anymore. In that time, I've learned how to play D&D (another thing my younger self would have scoffed at). I've cooked an awesome batch of hotpot. I've been trying to get myself started on doing a few crafts again.

People need little victories every now and then.

It's that pathological itch for learning rearing its familiar head again. "That's a good thing", someone once told me, or rather, someone told themselves while we were in a conversation. Without much choice in the matter, I agreed.

I feel like I'm at a different level of anxiety lately - the kind that ties the stomach in knots every waking moment and makes one reconsider their life choices. I remember a story about one of my college friends. Shortly after we graduated, he got a job at a call center, called it quits after mere days and returned to school to take a second degree in the medical field. He never looked back, and back then I wondered why anyone would make such a mistake in life.

These days, I know that it was I who was wrong. Four years are nothing compared to the rest of one's lifetime.

There are two more important things I've learned so far since then.

First, life is too short for us let our mistakes run too long. More importantly, life is long enough to allow us to correct them and live the rest committing more meaningful ones.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Thoughts After Lent

Basically me, over the Lenten weekend.

Like most years, the past weekend was spent at home.

We usually maintained a silent vigil as the rest of the household went off to the province, giving us much needed time for reflection over life in general.

I got a few things done over the past few days like repairing my debased Mage Knight miniatures (which I've put off for years) and managing to get enough exotic ingredients for a hotpot (like taro seafood balls, enoki and shiitake) amidst a silent city (which was extremely delicious).

It was nice that some of my favorite hangouts in Banawe were open (and barely crowded). I noticed that the servers were unusually cheerful (which is something I should try to be more of these days).

Besides that, all I did was sleep.

Maybe it's my body trying to greedily lap up the hours of lost sleep from living in a city with nightmarish traffic. Maybe it's my mind trying to comprehend the incomprehensible complexities that make up our lives. Maybe its the exhaustion from trying to discern what is important and, well, what things can be discarded as unnecessary burdens in a life meant to be lived.

Four days are not long enough to get shit together, but I guess it's enough for a start. The world will always keep moving despite what I think of it (and no, life is not as fair as movies make it out to be), and I guess it's an injustice to myself to not do anything about it.

Like I said, mine is a life meant to be lived and that's what I'm going to do.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Traversing Kalinga, Cagayan and Apayao

The North.

It has always seemed like I get to explore more of the north with every visit, and this time was no different.

Instead of a bus ride, we were lucky enough to book a cheap flight to Tuguegarao. The weather was beautiful during the entire week of our stay - cold and gloomy yet there was enough sun to bathe everything in a soothing light not unlike those we often see in magazine articles or documentaries of the north.

Batil Patung.

Our first meal was a serving of the famous batil patung- a dry noodle dish with an absurd amount of different toppings. Generous portions of sausage, chicharon (pork rind), pork liver and (in my case) carabao (water buffalo) meat were placed upon a helping of noodles. The dish was self-seasoned with onions and black vinegar, and is then served with egg drop soup that one can slurp separately or pour over the entire dish.

Our visit was paticularly busy this time - we managed to get to the fringes of two other provinces this time (apart from Kalinga) along with its sister province of Apayao and the paths through Cagayan that connects them.

Magapit Bridge.

Buntun Bridge was one of the landmarks of the many trips we had through the region. Overlooking the Cagayan River, it's the second longest bridge in the Philippines and is surpassed only by San Juanico Bridge that connects the islands of Samar and Leyte down south.

Nondescript Rice Field.

Rice fields are not an unusual sight in the region, along with groves of many different fruit-bearing trees. In open fields like these, the chill from the cold air is greatly magnified - doubly so for me because I didn't think to bring anything longer than shorts.

Freshly Picked Wood Ear Mushrooms.

It's not uncommon for people to partially live off the land out here - something that isn't really apparent for anyone who grew up in the cities, where every single amenity has a price tag attached to it.

Things like fresh coconuts (which are extremely costly in Manila) and mushrooms (which left me utterly fascinated) seemed to grow just around the corner, ready to pick for anyone who happened to pass by.

The Castle.

The Ramparts.

A Distant View of Buntun Bridge.

Saint Philomene Church, Alcala.

We also passed by Alcala in Cagayan, where the Saint Philomene Church - with its ornate golden doors - are located. Alcala also happens to where TeaƱo Milk Candy originates - a delicacy that's seen practically everywhere around Region II.

The Alternate Route to Cagayan.

Thanks to its geography, the region is rife with winding mountainside roads and bridges that cross flowing rivers. A lot of the places we passed by were incredibly picturesque, owing to the relatively unexploited natural wealth of the land.

Bridge Over Cagayan River.

Park View.

Unfortunately, one of the places we tried to visit - Talama Viewdeck - was closed. We got a few shots of its exterior, which was covered in pine trees like some abandoned outskirt of Baguio (with much less people).

Pines at the Talama Viewdeck.

Old Pasunglao Bridge.

One of the things that this trip reminded me was how much of an imperial mentality the powers-that-be have for Manila. Still, the unpaved backroads and old infrastructure still have a charm that I've always seen from old, forgotten things.

Conifers at the Tabuk Capitol.

We also got to visit Calvary Hills in Iguig, Cagayan - a sprawling hillside adorned with life-sized statues depicting the Stations of the Cross overlooked by an old brick church.

Calvary Church.

I'll have a separate post about this place in a month or so (if I remember to do it). I've never imagined a place like this existing in the Philippines. It's a shame that this isn't something that has been featured in any public tourism campaign I've come across. Still, there's some reason to assume that the place is packed during Holy Week.

Calvary Hill Altar.

Shrine to Our Lady of Piat.

We also stopped by Our Lady of Piat - one of the most venerated Marian images in the country. The Lady carries half a millennium of history with it (and is credited with countless miracles across the centuries), and I can only feel awe mixed with reverence as we walked through the inner recesses of the shrine (which, strangely enough, held a vague scent of roses) along with other pilgrims.

Ringo (the tabby) and Snowball ( the black cat).

Ringo, the pictured cat, has a rather interesting story. He was a feisty stray we rescued over a year ago (and by stray I mean we had to fish him from under a water tank because he has been crying in the same spot for a few days). He mistrusted everyone and tended to be a bit nippy when he didn't get his way. It was a tough decision, but it was decided that he'd be better off in the province where the world was a less terrifying place (for a rescue animal).

A year later, he was the sweetest cat along with his 'mate', Snowball. I don't know if it's because he's aged a little and has thus mellowed out or if it's the weather that prompts them to seek the nearest heat source, but Ringo is a testament to the inevitability of change.

Overall, with the amazing food (because goat meat is my weakness) and beautiful weather, it was a week well spent.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

We're Alive: A Story of Survival

© Wayland Productions

The Gist
The definitive aural experience for zombie apocalypse fans. Ads not optional.

The Story
As the beginnings of an unexplained global outbreak unfolds in Los Angeles, three soldiers are caught in the middle of the chaos as they are called back into active duty. As the city falls into mass panic due to the ever increasing numbers of the infected horde, they will need to work together with a ragged band of survivors to try and outlast the end of the world.

As events unfold across California's Central Coast, the ragtag group must fight for their very lives not just against the infected but also against other survivors in the vast wastelands that were once populated by millions. The story would test the survivors' resolve as they attempt to start anew and learn as much as they can about the now alien world that they once called home.

I've started listening to a couple of audio podcasts sometime last year before stumbling onto We're Alive.

The first one was Welcome to Night Vale, a strange fiction podcast that was dressed up as a community radio show. It was fairly amusing and I've gone up to four episodes before stumbling onto another podcast which grabbed my attention a little bit more. I plan on returning to this series in the near future, however, as I've not seen a worthwhile podcast since We're Alive.

The second one was The NoSleep Podcast, which featured stories from Reddit's r/nosleep forum - a collection of user submitted tales of horror and the macabre. I've been reading the subforum for a long time now (which may have been accountable for a few sleepless nights) and hearing the stories as they are narrated by voice actors took things to another level. Unfortunately, only their first season was offered free and soon enough I was looking for another podcast to listen to as I wasn't ready to go back to Welcome to Night Vale.

Upon reading several reviews on the Internet, I decided to go ahead and download episodes of We're Alive: A Story of Survival. I've been listening to it ever since for the past month and have just recently finished the series' concluding chapter. Needless to say, I was hooked. We're Alive not only has a compelling and gripping story, but it also features amazing voice acting and extremely high production values that were consistent across all forty-eight hours (which is ridiculous by any standard) of audio content.

Perhaps the best part of this is that We're Alive is available online at no cost. Personally, I think the podcast is something definitely worth paying for (and the team behind it is exploring this option for their Kickstarter project).

The end result is an audio drama that has to be amongst the best out there for the zombie apocalypse genre, which features memorable characters and their plights in a world gone mad. Did I mention that it's available for free?

It's incredibly easy to be absorbed into the story's established universe, and it's highly recommended to give this podcast a good listen. We're Alive is the perfect thing to listen to for those idle hours of the night, or during those ten-hour bus rides both inside and outside the Metro.