Monday, August 22, 2005

Almost, the Shrine

Today I took another stab at the Filipino-Japanese Friendship Shrine in the hills of Valencia. The trip was wholly unplanned as I had expected to be biking up to the town proper instead as per Dean Sinco's invitation last night. Unfortunately, he cancelled just as I was about to step out of the house at 5:15am. All dressed down and no place to go.... What's a bum to do?

I headed out anyway and took my usual route along the Batinguel-Candau-ay highway. I can now claim some credit for building up enough stamina to ride up this road without reducing myself to a panting heap. Well, stamina plus some new-found wisdom to travel a few gears above first, a trick I picked up from Dean and Alex Pal.

Before long I found myself at Purok Iba, proudly proclaiming itself to be the gateway to the Shrine. In finer print, just below the announcement: 1200m above sea level, 5km. inward. Once more I tackled the road ahead. After all, how far could 5 km. be?

Quite far, apparently. The rocky path wasn't really the problem as it soon gave way to sections of cemented road. The problem was the steep ascent, with grades of as much as 40 degrees in some areas. Maybe someday when my muscles are better developed and my gut is significantly reduced, I will be able to pedal all the way upwards. Today, discretion over valor. Wisely I stepped off my bike and pushed it upwards.

Despite the hardship, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the view. For the most part, I was travelling along the spine of the mountain so either side of me tapered down into steep valleys with fantastic greenery. In the distance were lined the tops of rows and rows of coconut trees, giving me some indication of how high I had gone. At one point of the journey I saw dozens of dragonflies overhead, something I rarely see in the lowlands.

Several times I asked the locals if the shrine was still far ahead. Uncharacteristically, they all answered in the positive. It's a truism of countryside travel that the answer the yokels give is always, "just five minutes more." Then again, the residents didn't qualify as yokels.

On the way up, I met several kids in school uniforms heading in the opposite direction. Some high schoolers, some grade schoolers. I marvelled that they should manage the daily trek to and from school in the lowlands. Apparently, that was nothing as I also came across small schoolchildren travelling in the same direction I was. It turned out that there was a public school further on.

On and on I trudged, myriad thoughts swirling in my mind. Part of me thought that I was travelling through fairyland. In fact, wasn't I? Once again, this was undiscovered country, vastly different from my usual surroundings. Yes, there were houses but they were built of bamboo, and they were few and far between. What if I ended in the unknown, lost forever to the real world? What if the kids I met along the way were really imps lulling me into a sense of the familiar as I got sucked into the elven kingdom?

But of course, I'm just imagining things. Travelling alone sometimes does that to a person.

Each time I spied a bend I would half expect to bump into the shrine. But no, it was always further on. Before long, I was already winded. I made my way as far as the public school where a dozen imps lounged around waiting for classes to start. I wanted to ask them if there wasn't an announcement of a holiday today but decided against it. Better if I weren't blamed for spreading the wrong information.

I asked a young lady waiting near the day care what time it was. "Close to seven...thirty," she said. Gadzooks! If I went on any further I would be late to open the store. With much regret, I wheeled the bike around and started the ride home.

Now, if the ascent was tiring, the descent was hairy. Trudging up forty degree inclines meant speeding down the same. It wouldn't have been a problem if I was travelling down a straight highway but these were winding paths, oftentimes with rocky section, with several small pedestrians coming my way. Suffice to say, I kept a tight grip on my brakes for most of the way, cutting loose only when the grades weren't so steep.

It was on the trip back that I realized how far I had travelled since I started in the morning. It took me another half-hour to get to the store, and thankfully that left me another half-hour before opening time. All in all, I estimate around eight or nine kilometers, with three of those comprising the steep sections.

And still the Shrine stands there, unconquered by me.

Someday, someday.

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