Saturday, October 15, 2016

Mt Matuon in Maligcong, Bontoc: Exploring New Trails with Human and Canine-kind in the Highlands

Tiny, one of our three companion dogs, surveying the scene from Chagachag
The sky threatened rains any moment now as we trudged up from the main village in Favarey.  It's not unexpected as it's the rainy season anyway.  I love traveling in the off-season though instead of joining the crowds during the peak season when catching buses and jeeps seem to be a challenge in themselves, and finding accommodations adds to the stress.  Sort of like wanting to find a vacation after a vacation.  The downside is finding good enough weather to shoot.  Save for work, I haven't found many opportunities to shoot.  But as I grow older, I want to find a balance between eagerness to shoot and inclination to rest.  I also subscribe to the local expression of "weather-weather" and enjoy what the weather brings.  Except for occasions when storms and typhoons would make a break dangerous, I would not want to wait for sunny blue sky weather to take a break when I feel my mind and soul are being called by nature.

I haven't had much cardio exercise in the past months and looking up from the main village to the steep mountainside, I had to summon enough willpower to not be intimidated.  When our guide, Mang Ruben, pointed to the mountain, I could hardly see the trail, the paved and cemented walking path from the terraces giving way to rocks and thick brush.  While some would say that hiking can be a torturous experience and I can agree to some extent that it seem to be an exercise in masochism, it can also be rewarding.  Well, I can use the exercise for one.  Another thing is it's different just looking at the terraces from afar and walking through, over and under them.  Most of all, it is an immersive, sensory overload experience for me.  
Lunch break for humans and canines on Mount Matuon
Our group is a somewhat balanced mix of humans and canines, four humans and three dogs (Kunig and two of the neighbors' dogs, Tiny and Misty).  I don't suppose the dogs, even my beloved canine, Kunig, venture to these parts beyond Favarey and for the whole duration of the hike, they were kept busy by the new and strange scents and sights.  I try imagining what they might be experiencing and if I am intoxicated by the sweet scent of dewy grasses and shrubs, I surmise they might be overloading their noses with new, unfamiliar odors.

Passing through rice fields planted late to different varieties of rice plants -- Isokan a hairy variety from nearby Alab;  Korsimay, a heirloom variety; Chomanling or red rice; and Famsang, a white rice variant -- is in itself fulfilling especially for the curious visitor.   I've always held on to the idea that no matter how progressive the Philippines could/would be, we would always be an agricultural country, and I long to see the day when we could be self-reliant especially in rice production.  Mang Ruben, who tills fields for other villagers, is knowledgeable and game to answer all our queries.

From the fib-iling (rice granaries), we ascend to foraki and later, the uong where walking through trails rendered almost invisible by growth, we find lots of pitcher plants growing alongside the ferns and small shrubs.   We can also see Katabu, the lush pasture land from a distance, maybe a half-day's hiking away and a sharp, undulating contrast to the rice terraces.  Eagle-eyed Suzette, our friend who owns the homestay where we always lodge ourselves, found two mushrooms in the undergrowth.  These would find their way into our dinner later in the day.
Brightly colored Paramfang berries used in sinigang
Wild strawberries along the trail
As this was an exploratory hike, we would've wanted to venture over to the pasture land. However, our late start (7am) and the fact there were guests arriving in the afternoon meant that Katabu would have to wait until a later visit.  We had lunch on the fern-covered grounds of Matuon overlooking the main village, some 280-300 meters above it in fact.  The dogs were busy romping around marking the trees and plants, sniffing strange but familiar scents, taking a break only to eat their share of our meals of boiled eggs, white rice and canned pork along with our dessert of bitukang manok (fried fish crackers?).

As we were also here to gather itsa, the leaves used by the locals to make tea, Ruben was bushwhacking through the growth in Siblo with his bolo to find the leaves.  The forest show little signs of humans passing through.  We found pinit or wild strawberries here and there as well as parangfang, purple tiny berries used to make sinigang (sour soup broth), tasting what we can find.  By this time, the sky opened up a little with a drizzle.  The forest scents seemed to intensify, wrapping us in a cocoon of odors.
Pitcher plant on Siblo


The drizzle stopped momentarily but resumed when we ascended to Chagachag, lower down the Siblo with a widescreen view of the terraces surrounding the village in Favarey.  We were shooting in the rain as the dogs sheltered under our umbrellas, the scenery overcast but hauntingly beautiful.  In a way, the rains prompted us to slow down and stop to admire the breathtaking view.  It's a somewhat rare experience to see the village from this vantage point, an experience shared only by some of the locals and mostly the carabaos that graze this side of the mountain - a fact that was not lost on us.

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