Friday, May 29, 2009

Inanity and the Absurdity of Posterity

A record of sorts. Beating my personal bests.

No. of hours in pajamas - 25 (maybe barring the times I've been in my sickbed)
No. of kilometers traveled in pajamas - app. 394

Bontoc. I put on my pajamas at roughly 10PM. The next morning, we were traveling to Baguio to spend the night there en route to Manila. I decided I would shower in Baguio. The Baguio Country Club shower, a gazillion stars better than the one at Bontoc, beckoned. I went coffee-shopping in Bontoc and had lunch at Cafe by the Ruins in my snowflake riddled jammies. And then some people, without asking my pajamas, decided to go straight back to Manila. The country club lodging was canceled. And so my pajamas and I arrived home past 10 in the evening. My pajamas practically walked itself to the hamper.

And that, my dear friends, is another installment of utterly useless facts about me.

There is no bottom to the well of inanities I can think of.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Stuff I Like: Oishi Cheese Sponge Crunch

You may be surprised to know that I'm not all that fond of junk food. Except for clover chips, which is comfort food that brings me back to childhood when my dad would bring a pack home for me knowing it was my favorite.

I'm not even a snacker. No, I developed this lush fleshiness through the willful consumption of the real goodness of dead animals combined with the carbo-laden staple of the masses. Real meals for real women and voracious manual laborers. With extra rice.

I discovered this evil snack through this blog -- lafang nation's. Intrigued, I bought a pack each of the cheese and the chocolate for a long trip. I tried the cheese flavor first. I did not expect that my first bite would make my tongue feel what being in love feels like.

Well, it's just crud, really. There is no one main ingredient except for some starch combination, the elements of which may not necessarily come from nature. Starch shaped into little letter o's by machines and then dipped in an evil cheeselike flavoring. Soaked in cheese product. And sugar. And when you put it on your tongue, the crud and cheeselike substance and the sugar and all the additives melt deliciously coating your tongue with heaven, and your tastebuds take control of your brain and you feel like you did when you had your first kiss, and you understand why that tree was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It's so good it's disgusting.

The zip lock comes very handy, because you can really only have a couple of pieces at a time because it's sickeningly rich and cheesy and sweet. A couple of bites that add a couple of pounds to your hips. Agh. Oishi is the anti-Christ!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Red Kimono

Unit 1A GF, Fort Strip, Fort Bonifacio,
Taguig City, Metro Manila

The Bait:
All the Japanese food you can eat
The Line: "Get the best of both worlds -- buffet quantity and a la carte quality."
The Hook: Value for money, or rather, volume for money
The Sinker: Carb fest, not in a good way
The Catch: P535 per person exclusive of drinks and other ala carte items

I just learned about the term "volume for money" in Claude Tayag's book Food Tour. He attributes the phrase to Chef Myrna Segismundo. It refers to the Pinoy's predilection to stuff their faces and load their stomach in buffet lines. Volume a priority, taste only secondary.

Red Kimono's Better than Buffet helped me understand the concept.

It was the second time we went for the 534 peso all-you-can-eat promo. The first time was for dinner some months back. We arrived hungry and joined a group of more than a dozen people. And I enjoyed stuffing my face as well as the camaraderie of playing 1-2-3 pass with all the dishes being passed around the table.

A couple of days ago we went back for lunch, and it was not as enjoyable as the first time.

I need to explain the promo. It is buffet with a twist. And they say it is better than buffet. I disagree. Buffet is a simple concept of lining up the dishes on the buffet table, and the diner is free to strategize what to pick and how much of each.

I tend to go value for money focusing my attention on the starters, which feature high value dishes like sashimis, oysters, and carpaccios; then I skip the main dishes, the pastas, and the rice; and home in on the desserts. In a buffet one can control the quantity per dish. One can enjoy a mere tablespoonful of an item and be satisfied.

In Red Kimono's Better than Buffet concept, there is no buffet table. Instead, they bring the buffet to you. You pick items on a printed menu. You can get as many orders as you like. Then they bring the dishes to you already plated in family style quantities.

Plus there are conditions. They have the usual conditions of no leftovers, no take-home. I can agree with those rules because they minimize wastage. (Yes, we need to remember the starving people in China) The problem is you don't have control over the quantity per order. So you don't get to sample as many dish varieties as you would in a regular buffet.

There is also a condition about a minimum order of rice. The worst thing is they serve only sushis; no sashimis. So imagine how carb-laden you are by the end of the meal, even if you have managed to artfully and deceptively distribute your leftover rice among the plates and under them so it won't be too obvious that you actually had leftover food. Gag me with a sako of rice!

The other reason why this is not better than buffet is that there is no buffet table to walk to. I actually like walking from my table to the buffet table. And back. I can delude myself into thinking that I am exercising in between bites. Walking while carrying the weight of the loaded plate. At Red Kimono, you are deprived of that brisk-walking workout. Unless you need to go to the wash or take a biological break -- for that you need to go take a stub from the servers and walk outside the restaurant to the common rest rooms.

Carbs plus no-exercise -- not the best post-meal sensation. All your body systems focused on digesting all that starch. I was surprised that I was able to stave the lethargy and drive home before having the mother of all siestas. Take note: I am not a siesta person.

But after having said all that, I would still recommend this promo if (one) you are very hungry, (two) you are dining with a big group so you can share dishes, and (three) if you're a member of the extra-rice confederation.

I don't know if there was a change in chef, but the food seemed to be better the first time. Or maybe we were just hungrier. Back then, I loved the crabstick rolls with wasabi mayonnaise, the shitake mushroom teppanyaki, the chicken teriyaki, the grilled miso chicken, and the layered spinach & tofu. The beef kamameshi also seemed beefier then.

On our second visit, I enjoyed the california crunch and the salmon & cream cheese maki. The pork teriyaki is tender and tasty, but make sure you coordinate your orders. We also had teriyaki chicken, and I felt there was just way too much teriyaki in the world.

Of course, dessert is part of the better than buffet menu. If your stomach is not at bursting level, you may have the buko pandan jelly with vanilla ice cream. The green tea ice cream was too overwhelmingly tea-tasting, so I didn't like it. You can also try the chocolate balls.

So, is it better than buffet? Nah. But go ahead and stuff yourself when the time and conditions are right.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kiangan Flashback

This is a cut and paste from a May 8, 2002 blog. The photos were added recently. Made some minor edits before posting.

---start of flashback entry ---

Sappy Travelogue
May 8, 2002

I just had a memorable weekend, and for some reason I cannot find the words to write about it. 

We went up North and maybe my muse loved it there so much that she decided to stay behind. It’s extremely frustrating because I am wishing I can write about it as well as I have experienced it. Muse, muse, come back wherever you are. Nope, nothing. Still at a loss for words. So I’ll just plunge on and try to describe my weekend.

I was able to get some free vacation leaves for Friday and Monday due to 2 instances I had to work Sundays. That meant I had a 4-day weekend to enjoy. And enjoy it I did. Tuks, his sister Yella, his cousin Angie, and I set off for the Northern province of Ifugao in Tuks’ reliable Honda Civic. 

We left our house past 10 in the evening and went to pick up Yella and Angie. And we were at the North Expressway by midnight and out of it in more or less an hour. We exited and got into long winding roads of countryside. The three femmes slept most of the way while Tuks drove, something he seems to truly enjoy. 

We woke up to a breathtaking sunrise, with mountains, hills, and rice fields replacing our daily vista of concrete and steel. The road, lined with trees, stretched towards a horizon. The sky was cast with a pinkish bluish glow. It was refreshing to wake up and know we are out of the city and away from the rat race arena. Our mobile phones inutile as no cell sites were in sight.

There was one Kodak moment when we caught the sun peeking out at that point where two mountains overlap. Kind of a photo cliché opp, but it was too beautiful to pass up. I asked Tuks to stop the car. I said the word stop about five times but he kept on driving. When he slowed down it was too late. The view was gone and if we drove back the sun would not be in the same place anymore. His excuse for not stopping was that he did not think I was serious about asking him to stop. Sounded like something from a rape trial. I said stop and I meant it. But Tuks, the Vacation Nazi himself, has this race he plays in his mind as if Michael Schumacher and the devil are after him, and the jury of the Guinness Book of Records are waiting at the destination point to clock in his record breaking time. There could be a Mother Mary apparition by the side of the road, or a real, live Elvis Presley sighting by the highway shoulder, or Jennifer Lopez herself in a thong with a sign that says “will f*** for food” and he still won’t stop just to take pictures. It messes up his flight plan or something. I tried to sleep to forget about missing the photo op, and as I woke up Yella realized we were lost and we had to do a U turn. Ironically, the turn we missed was about a kilometer from the photo opp spot. I think Tuks, in his rush to ignore the sun peeping over the mountains scene, stepped on the gas and that’s how we missed a turn. If we had stopped to take that photo we would have been coasting leisurely and we probably would have noticed the little directional sign. And we wouldn’t have lost so much time.

Other than that sour moment with the Vacation Nazi, every other moment went well.
We arrived at the house of our host in time for breakfast, checked in at the Yamashita Shrine, where we were billeted, and headed for the Banaue Rice Terraces.The Banaue Rice Terraces. We grew up being taught in school that this place was the eighth wonder of the world. As adults we realized that almost every country has its own “eighth wonder”. Call me biased, however, I think this spot is quite deserving of that claim. I will try to post my photos as soon as I can, but you can drop by this site I found through google to get a preview of how amazing this place is. Think Mt. Rushmore in grandeur, but prettier. It is a wonderful example of God and man’s coalition to create monumental art. Think 2,000 years back and how the tribal mountainfolk who created this wonder had to survive against or with the environment. Too far from the sea to subsist on seafood, their mountain slopes too steep for traditional rice fields, the Ifugao folk carved rice terraces following the contours of the mountain, meticulously piled and matched the rocks for reinforcement, used mud to bind the structure, built an ingenious irrigation system, and combined function with art leaving a work of beauty and a source of sustenance for future generations. 

Having said all that, I also have to honestly say that it was a bit of a letdown. Modernization has brought about damage to what would otherwise be an awesome piece of nature art. Shanties of corrugated iron and wood scraps speckled the otherwise green and amazing scenery. Time has diminished its beauty, and the artists who created the original are no longer here to care to save it. It is on the list of endangered World Heritage sites and that at least is helpful.

And then we saw Charlie’s Angels. These are the 3 Ifugao women clad in full regalia, faded feathers on their hair, clad in hand woven costumes, standing by the road to have their photos taken with the tourists for a little forced "tip."

Afterwards, we went to the market place to look for local craft and interesting produce. We (meaning Tuks) just spent a small fortune the day before on my car A/C repair so a shopping spree was out of the question. I used all my will power not to buy anything. Okay, so it wasn’t will power. I just did not bring any cash with me. At the end of the market trip, all I bought were two hand woven sashes that I used as a bow to bind the photo album. The photo album turned out so pretty, with pictures (took 5 rolls of film) and illustrations.

We lunched at this hole in the wall place called Las Vegas Inn. Nothing Vegas about it thought. Rustic meets tacky. With a great view of the terraces. We had curry rice; igado, a local meat stew dish; something with lettuce and cucumber they call Israel Salad, which tasted really good; and fried milkfish.

We went back to Kiangan back to the Shrine where we were checked in. Showered. Walked towards the house of the bride, Lenore.

Lenore was a social worker working for the Child Protection Unit where Yella also works. She is a 40ish single mom, and was about to marry Paul, a 50ish American divorcee. They met 20 years ago, as maid of honor and bestman to Lenore’s cousin, and Paul’s brother’s wedding. No sparks, but they met again after 20 years, fell in love, and was about to marry. Their wedding was actually our pretext to having ourselves a grand vacation.
An Ifugao wedding is more than just interesting. It is such a memorable, astounding experience. It is steeped in tradition, and very rich with symbolistic rituals. There are pre-wedding and post-wedding rituals that involve the slaughter of pigs, cows, carabaos and chickens. I do not think I will get into detail with this because it requires much cultural tolerance to appreciate. Some parts are gruesome but we had to respect the cultural differences.

During the eve of the wedding, we were at Lenore’s house. There were some rituals done. We did not understand the dialect used so mainly we just watched. There were gongs playing, dancing, chanting, and lots of ground stomping. Ancestors were called, gods were invoked. Afterward, the priests and the couple, who were forbidden to touch each other, walked to a neighbor’s house to drink rice wine brewed specifically for the occasion. The wine tasted good. We continued to just watch and take photos because the people were conversing in their dialect and we could only guess what they were talking about. Poor groom, of course, was hopelessly lost.

We went back to the house for the highlight of the evening – the “poor piggy should have stayed at home” scene. The main ritual involved the sacrifice of a native pig and the extraction of its liver as an unusual alternative for tea leaves. The chief priest looked at the state of the liver and the bile sack to determine if the union was to be blessed by the gods. The liver seemed to have passed merit, and the shaman foretold that the coupling would be successful and fruitful. Offspring will be many despite them being 40ish and 50ish old already.
The ceremony went on till dawn. Chanting and dancing mostly. But we left right after dinner. Which was merely choked down out of respect. Nothing like witnessing a pig execution to ruin the appetite.

The next morning was the Catholic wedding, which we decided to skip. We instead went to the market where we did not find anything of interest. They were selling city stuff – plastics, fake jeans, etc.

We then drove to Bae, a valley of rice fields and amazing beauty. Nothing, not the photos, not my wordy descriptions can ever do justice for the spectacular sight of rolling fields, and mountains, and wild flowers, and vines, and more rice terraces and the locals doing their farming. It’s just so awesome, so incredibly beautiful it can make an atheist thank God. The road was a single lane concrete path winding over the fields and so you get this feeling that you are rolling in clouds of green. It is just beautiful. Spectacular. Priceless. Again, God and man conspired to draw out ooohs and aaaahs and OMG’s from us gaping, drooling spectators.

We parked the car and walked 283 million steps down a hill. My legs were trembling at the exertion; muscles left dormant struggled to keep up. At the bottom of the steps was a rusty bridge spanning a river. It was summer, and the water was barely ankle high. We followed the river downstream where they said there was a waterfall up ahead. Up ahead might be a short distance to the locals, but for us used to cars, escalators and walkalators, it was quite a walk. There was no clear path so we had to walk on mossy rocks and pebbles, hold on to vines, dip our teva’ed feet on cool water. I slipped twice, once breaking 3 nails on my right foot. We did not even see the waterfall because getting there seemed too dangerous for our old cranky bones to survive. So we just sat and marveled at the view.

On the way back, we stopped by the bridge. A part of the river was deep enough for swimming and a lot of pre-teen boys were happily playing, diving from the cliff onto the water. We wished we brought a change of clothes so we too could take a dip in the cool water.

Walking back up the 283 steps was more difficult than going down. We had to take a lot of “nature appreciation” stops just to catch our breath. Gasping, panting or not, I would have stopped too. It is an awesome feeling sitting down alone just allowing nature to beguile me with its spellbinding magic. Basking. Praying thanksgiving for being so privileged to be where I was. Composing snippets of poetry in my head. Inhaling the strange, rare scent of fresh air. I would sit and observe insects sucking pollen from wildflowers, watch a butterfly color coordinate itself with the flower petals it lands on, look at trees and notice how their branches serve as picture frames for nature, highlighting portions of the vast scenery. A few seconds of rest and I had the time to notice the lone tropical palm tree seeming out of place and yet looking strikingly beautiful, standing defiant in a forest of hardwood trees. Leafless Jemilina trees with their white trunks serving as accents to the dark verdant background.

A leaf fell and I was there to hear it drop. And then another leaf fell, and another leaf, and another, and another. And soon it was raining leaves. I likened them to little children running home screaming, the rain is here, the rain is here for the leaves falling occurrence was followed by a drizzle. I was praying for it to pour just to complete the nature experience.
Who said words were necessary for poetry? What I was so privileged to see was poetry for the eyes.

And as if God knew the climbing, wading, trekking exercise was going to knock the breath out of us, there was a halo-halo stand waiting for us near where we parked. Halo-halo is a dessert concoction of sweetened fruits mixed together with crushed ice and milk. It was heavenly, especially because we forgot to bring any water with us and we were really thirsty from the trek. In the halo-halo stand, the lady who minded the store had an infant covered in homemade comforters. He had a name that sounded like medicine, benadryl or something like that. He had the cutest smile. And he was unaware of how lucky he was to grow up in a place of such beauty.

From where we were we could hear the gongs of the wedding reminding us to drive back for the tribal wedding ceremonies. It was the most difficult task to pull ourselves out of that huge slice of heaven. After a quick trip to buy more film, we went to Lenore’s house. Lunch was being served. Now, this you’ve got to imagine. There is no such thing as a small private wedding for the Ifugaos. At least 17 pigs were killed to feed all the townsfolk. No RSVP customs here. Everyone can just drop by, queue for the meal, which they ate on de-layered banana trunks. After lunch, they had the Ifugao wedding ceremony. Even more ceremonious than the previous activities.
The bride, the groom, the priests and the entourage were in full regalia. There were so many rituals. More of the gongs, the chanting, and the ground stomping. Bride and groom were given beads for their hair, fertility necklaces, intricate headpieces. More ground stomping and chanting. The other shaman’s feet must have withstood a million stomping. They were the widest feet I’ve ever seen, spread out like a fan, contorted, and twisted, and sturdy. Wine was poured on the couple’s feet.

Then the entourage was led out into the streets. Like a line following the pied piper, they walked and danced with the groom and the men striking the gongs in an unusual beat.
We did not follow them, but from what we heard, they went to another place and a dozen chickens were choked to death; one of the unfortunate fowl was tied to the groom’s waist. The standing joke was that there was a new definition of love. Real love is dancing out in the streets in a g-string with a dead chicken on your hip just to marry the woman you love.

We left the bride’s home and went to check out of the inn. We were supposed to stay and maybe view the post-wedding ceremonies the next day, but we were all overwhelmed with ceremony and decided to cut short our stay and drive back to the next province to make our trip back to the city the next day a little shorter.

We ended up at Solano, a bustling town in Nueva Ecija, which boasted of no major tourist attraction. The board, lodging and food costs were double of that in Kiangan. On the way to Governor’s Hotel, we stopped at the Dutch Pancake Restaurant. I went out of the car to ask the Dutch owner what time they opened in the morning. We were planning to have breakfast there. After checking into the hotel, we decided to have dinner at the Dutch restaurant also.

The T-bone was highly recommended, but I found it a bit tough. The scalloped potatoes were very good though. The pancake desert was also good. And it was fine service for the owner to run and get us wine even if it wasn’t offered in the menu. On our way out, he mentioned a little girl who went up to him earlier in the evening asking about what time they opened in the morning. It turned out that I was that girl, but he said I looked much younger a couple of hours ago. He said I looked no more than 14 then. I didn’t know if I would be thrilled to be mistaken for a teenager or aghast that I aged so quickly.
Nonetheless, he was a nice host and we had breakfast there the next day. He mentioned wanting to expand his restaurant as a franchise and was willing to give the first franchise for free just to break into the market. Mental note to remember this when we are looking for business ventures.

On the drive back to the city, we stopped for lunch at this charming restaurant called Vicentico’s Grill. Food was excellent and the local antique décor was lovely. A couple of stopovers to buy goodies for the folks back home.
Tuks dropped me off at my Dad’s place so that I can say goodbye to him before his trip to Europe. I stayed the night there. The next day, Monday, I had my practice round of being a woman of leisure. Woke up late. Breakfasted leisurely. Spent the good part of the morning creating a roller coaster park in the computer. Dragged my nephew and my niece to have my nephew’s tuition fee assessed. Went to see Spider Man. Hohum. Try as I might, I just can not find Kirstn Dunst pretty. Had popcorn, soda and fries for the movie. Mc Donald’s ice cream cones, chicken poppers, mashed potatoes and fries for after the movie. Back home, more computer games, dinner and Tuks finally picked me up to go back to real life. My greatest learning out of the whole experience is that I really should not worry about my Islandhopper business venture. Seeing the places I saw, falling in love with my own country, experiencing so much pride to call this land home, I know now that whether I succeed or fail in this venture, I would have had the time of my life traveling and seeing all these wonderful places and getting to know my country. Aaaah. God is good!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Nine Things I Learned about Life by Spelunking in Sagada

14 fun, fearless, clueless souls, most of them book geeks from my book club took advantage of the Labor Day weekend and grabbed the chance to tick off a bucket list item: Spelunking at Sagada. I was one of them. And that cliche about learning lessons the hard way -- this experience exemplifies it.

Here are the lessons I learned the hard, slippery, slimy, smelly, scary way:

LESSON ONE: The dumb gets farther; the dumber gets dead.
- For a bunch of book geeks, we did not do our research thoroughly enough. When asked to choose between the normal cave tour (PhP 100 per person) and the Connection Challenge (PhP 400 per person), which traverses 2 caves, Sumaging and Lumiang, we chose what sounded more exciting, more difficult, more unforgettable. Maybe we’ve been reading too much fantasy. Maybe it's the hashish in the Sagada air. We wanted to release the inner extreme athletes inside us. And we got what we asked for. And failed to anticipate just how difficult it would be, for geeks as well as non geeks, for the fit and for those whose most strenuous exercise is carrying bag loads of books from Booksale. We all had no idea what challenges lay ahead. The guides did not give us a clue.
On hindsight, that naiveté, that ignorance, that stupidity was good. If we had known how formidable the challenge was, most of us in the group would probably have not taken it. We would have backed out when we still could. At the mouth of the first cave.
Instead, we went in, excited, awestruck, dumbfounded, dumb as rats led by the pied piper. And got the surprise of our lives. Many surprises, in fact. Gimongous walls to scale, steep crags to climb down, cliffs to descend, slippery rocks to walk on, knee-deep muck to dip our bare feet into, blind corners to hug, streamlets to swim in, the narrowest of edges keeping us from plunging into deep dark pits. It was unbelievable what we had to go over, go under, go through, jump into, squeeze in, hurdle, straddle.
Truly, if somebody had shown me first a video of what we had to do, I would have chosen not to do it, knowing full well knowing that given my fitness level, I couldn't. Not knowing made me do it. It was sheer stupidity that got us there, literally in between a rock and a hard place. The uncertainty almost killed me, but it was also what got me through. The dumb, the clueless, when unaware of the dangers ahead, can actually accomplish more as he walks in ignorant bliss. And I’m glad I was stupid enough to do it. Because that was by far, the most exciting, most amazing thing I had to do in my whole life.
Of course, we were blessed to have survived relatively unscathed despite our ignorance. Tales of those who were stupid enough to go in without guides, never to come out again, serve as a counterpoint to this lesson. It’s okay to be clueless sometimes, but rash stupidity could cost you your life.
LESSON TWO: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Aww, shut up! - I do not fear heights, nor water. I have scuba dived in open water. I have rafted through grade 4 white water with a stupid smile on my face. I have parasailed alone and was able to look down without feeling squeamish. I get a kick from roller coaster rides, the higher, the faster, the scarier, the better. My bucket list includes bungee jumping and skydiving.
The first time I had to take a high ropes challenge, I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted to zip down the wire a dozen times. I was fearless. I was 25 years old, a size 6. I could do anything.
As a trainer facilitating high ropes challenges, I had seen participants break down in tears as they confronted their fear of heights. I could only watch without really understanding what that fear was all about.
Until now. 42 years old. 70 pounds overweight. My sense of balance faulty. With nothing to rely on but the grace and strength I got from ballet classes with Ms. Valeriana in second grade, and from a few lousy attempts at a badminton regimen.
In the cave, we had to rappel down a cliff, the bottom of which we couldn’t see from where we were. No harness, no safety nets. The ropes did not even have knots for gripping. And what confounded us was that the rope was tied to a lithe, little man, barefoot, sitting by the edge of the cliff. Our lives depended on him being strong enough not to be pulled by our weight to go hurtling down with us to our sure deaths.
I was afraid of falling to my death, the guides picking up my brains and innards splattered on the cavern floor. I was afraid I would die without having completed my scrapbooks. I was afraid of falling and not dying, but being permanently disabled and not being able to drive myself to the bookstore. I was afraid I'd look stupid.
I was afraid. Petrified. As afraid as I’ve never ever been in my whole life. So afraid I cried for a few seconds. What made me cry was this inner struggle of accepting that I had to do it. There was no chickening out, no charming or bribing my way through, no delegating the tough parts to others, no negotiations, no way to circumvent the challenge. I had to get down that cliff or else stay in that cave forever subsisting on a diet of bat sashimi. I was so afraid, so stupefied my brain could not even manage to make my life flash before my eyes.
But then again, after all the drama, when I got out of the cave, got home, and had a shower, I realized I had no scratches. No bruises. I did not even break a nail or scratch my pedicure. Even though I slipped a dozen times. Even though I missed a step rappelling up a crag and I held on the rope, swinging dangerously, ramming my already sore body against a rocky wall. I suppose fear kept me safe. It made me walk slower, and made me look like a stupid granny wimp, but it was also the instinct that made me take only sure steps and kept me from harm.
Fear is not always a bad thing.
LESSON THREE: We are stronger, faster, harder than we can ever imagine. Like I said, I’m not in the best shape. I find myself panting just mounting the bed. And I would never believe that I could do what I did in those caves. I still could not believe it now.
Nearing the exit, we stared at a 3-storey high, 15 degree steep wall that separated us from the freedom outside. In normal circumstances I would have thought it impossible to climb it and survive. But all the earlier challenges showed me that I could do what I never thought I was capable of doing. So even if the adrenalin was already starting to dwindle, and I was tired from 7 hours of gruelling spelunking, I just took a look at the challenge in front of me and did it. I heaved, I grunted, I whined, and I climbed, and climbed,and climbed until I finally got out of that cave. I realized I am stronger than I ever thought. I can do far more than I ever thought possible.
I realized how much our mindsets limit us from doing what we want to do, how much we underestimate our strengths, how much power is within us. It took the caves of Sagada and 5 sadistic guides to make me discover my inner strength.
LESSON FOUR: Crap is inevitable.In the last upward stretch out of the cave, we had to climb stone steps, made extremely slippery by bat excrement. The stench was unbearable, but the worst thing was that we had to hold on to some of the rocks to balance or lift ourselves up. Our fingers would land on inch-thick sludge – thick, icky layers of moist, mushy guano. And every germophobic fiber in my body would cringe and cry. But I just had to hold on for dear life fueled with the desire to just get out of that wretched cave that had held us captive for far too many hours.
In a Mythbusters episode, Adam and Jamie once concluded that “Poo is everywhere.” Literally. Sadly, it is true metaphorically too. Life can get crappy sometimes. Oftentimes, one can walk around and avoid stepping on poo, but there are times when there is just no way around it, and one has to bear with all the crap. You just have to grin and bear it. The thing is, a little crap ain’t going to kill us.
LESSON FIVE: That big, fat ass (or nose, or ears) of yours will someday be put to good use. - What got me through the toughest physical challenges and the most perilous conditions? My stamina? Strategy? My upper body strength and leg power? Nah! It's my big, fat ass.
As we slid on rocks and soil, our guides asked us to rely on a skill creatively called the butt technique. Many, many times, we had to get ourselves closer to the pull of gravity and sit down, and let our butts do the walking, the wading, the sliding. And for the first time in my life, I thanked God for my ample assets.
I have always had what are euphemistically called child-bearing hips and the most generous rump to go with them. I hate how they get in the way of fashion and vanity. But that time at the cave, I was so grateful for all that generous padding.
It was a clear case of making lemonades out of life’s lemons. Life is fair when the things we consider as faults are actually blessings in disguise. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about 1930s born Jewish lawyers who were barred from WASP law firms forcing them to develop skills that would actually spell their success 20 years later.
So, don’t whine too much about your big ears or your big butts or whatever it is you consider a liability. They just might come handy someday.

LESSON SIX: Trust the experts, especially when you’re not one. –For all the bravado and the pride we felt after that incredible experience, we all know we couldn’t have done it without our guides, James, Andrew, Mark, Matthew, and Jory. (Those apostolic names did not escape my attention.) So many times in that whole experience, we really did not know what to do and were too afraid to do whatever it was we had to do. We had to literally let our guides lead our feet through every step. I mean every little scaredy step. And they would even let us step on their knees, shoulders, hands, and bear our weights as we shifted our balance to move forward.
For control freaks like me, it was very difficult letting go, trusting someone else, and bearing the shame of total reliance on others. But what choice did I have? So, I had to let go and let the guides get me through. When the guide said, “Trust me,” I had no choice but to obey. I trusted him with my life.
It’s the same thing in life. Don’t be macho. There are times when we have to let the experts show us how. We have to humble ourselves and allow others to help us for the sakes of safety, survival, and success.
LESSON SEVEN: Rest when you get the chance and enjoy it. – Spelunking with a large group, we had to sometimes wait for each other as we shared 5 guides and the light of a few kerosene lamps. Those were moments for rest. I loved those moments as we caught our breath and had the time to look around and admire the beauty within the cave – the fantastic rock formations, the shadows and the lights creating moving art against the smooth and the rough rocks, the heights, the layers, the sexy curves of walls, the secret crevices, the trickling and falling of the water, awesome sights no camera can capture. They’re meant to be etched in memory.
Those rest breaks slowed us down and stretched what was meant to be a 4-hour trek to 7 hours of torture. But those breaks actually fueled me, not just by replenishing energy, but also by inspiring me with beauty, and reminding me how blessed, how privileged I was to experience something so awesome.
LESSON EIGHT: The less you have, the less you fear. – Travel light. Travel light. Travel light. It’s a lesson that in my years of jet setting and island hopping, I still cannot comprehend. But when you’re in a slippery niche, 20 feet off stable ground, trying to balance yourself is made more difficult by anything hanging from your neck, shoulders, arms. Having too many things -- some of them precious like high-tech cameras, your return tickets -- complicates matters as you try to protect your goods when really you should be protecting your head and limbs. The less you have with you, the less you worry about losing or breaking them.
At one point, I had to accept that my camera had already been destroyed by the water and the blows. Strangely, I felt liberated from having to take more pictures and finding time to download them when I get back home.
Travel light. It’s still a maxim I find hard to accept wholeheartedly. But it is a lesson well learned in those dark, dank, dangerous caves where material possessions play second fiddle to life and health.
LESSON NINE: Shoes are important. – You have to use the right shoes for the right time and place. I thought my trusted Teva’s were good enough. But they are trekking shoes, not spelunking shoes. And at some point, it was better to go barefoot to let our feet grasp the rocks more securely. Having the right shoes for the right time and place is important. Okay, I don’t really know what this teaches me about life. I just want to justify my shoe closet issues.

Today, I say CAVE is a 4 letter word. My joints are still sore. My voice a bit hoarse. My body recuperating from all the slips and falls. But I can say about spelunking at Sagada, I’ve been there and done that. And I’m glad I did.
Sagada pics here: