Happy Women’s Month! March is officially acknowledged in over 100 countries around the globe as a time to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, while also promoting the goals of unity, equality and advocacy. I was extremely lucky this year as I got the opportunity to participate in Women’s month by joining Iloilo Mountaineering Club‘s event, Climb for Women!
The Philippines is a great country to celebrate women as one of the world’s leading counties in gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum the Philippines ranks No. 10 and falls 39 spots ahead of the United States! This is a finding I would have been surprised to hear early in my service. Compared the US, traditional gender roles are more clearly defined and socially enforced. (Example: I am not allowed to carry anything remotely heavy at work because I am female.) However, women often hold positions of power and influence, both in the work force and in the community. (More on gender roles and equality in the Philippines)
Like most of my favorite experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I fell into this event without really knowing what I was getting into and with less preparation than it deserved. Fortunately, I was surrounded by some incredible and capable people who more than made up for my cluelessness.
I arrived in Iloilo City after a busy day of work and a few delays later than I was hoping. After a 2.5 hr bus, 30 minute jeepney, and 30 minute walk, I met up with two friends who would be joining the climb at a Jollibee for a late dinner. We were intending to pick up some food for the next two days at a supermarket, but being after 9pm, we had to made due with what we could find at a 24hr convenience shop: instant noodles, instant coffee, canned tuna, and bread. Next, we made our way to Iloilo Mountaineering Club’s headquarters/indoor climbing wall, Adventure Central, where we were able to get a few hours of sleep.
At 4:45am, we were woken up to the skreaching groans of Adventure Central’s garage door as participants and organizers began arriving for the event. As more people arrived decked out in professional hiking gear, I began to realize I maybe could have prepared better than stuffing a change of clothes into my middle school LL Bean bookbag with a travel pillow and sleeping bag (sign #1 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike).
With a promptness I have become completely unaccustomed to (sign #2 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike), all 135 participants and organizers were there and ready to go on schedule and we left for the municipality of Tubungan by 6am split up into our hiking teams of 10-15.
Once in Tubungan, we headed to Igtuble Barangay Hall to sign in for the hike, just in case we go missing (sign #3 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike). From there, we all regathered at the elementary school by the start of the hike. Official starting time- 9:04am.
Passing by a few houses and corn fields, we started a 30 minute descent to two narrow bamboo bridges. At this point, I was still somehow under the impression that we were embarking on a two-hour hike and would be comfortably setting up our tents at the campsite by lunch. So, spending 30 minutes going down and not up seemed odd (sign #4 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike).
After the bridges, we started steadily working our way up through winding mountain paths, over fallen trees, and by livestock and fields of crops that seemed to appear from nowhere. Around 10:30 someone told me we were maybe a third of the way there (sign #5 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike). I thought they were joking.
At 11, we stopped for a quick lunch and, in chatting with one of the organizers, found out that we were aiming to get to the camp sometime before 3pm. Fortunately, there was plenty of spring water to fill my water bottle along the way.
Shortly after lunch, we were out of the shade and working our way through mountain fields on our way to the ridge. The ridge itself went on a good ways with rolling mountain views on both sides.
By 2pm, we arrived at the camp and could relax and nap in the shade before setting up our tent. The view from the base camp was spectacular, rolling green mountain hills to the misty sea in the distance. Everyone made sure to get plenty of pictures.
Once the sun began to slip behind the ridge, my two friends and I realized another way we were under prepared- we thought dinner was included and had nothing but a few cans of tuna. Of course, in a camp of 100+ Filipinos, there was plenty of food to go around and we were quickly gifted more than enough rice and barbecue.
At 7PM, the official program began. The hikers gathered in a circle, decked out in thick wool socks, knit hats, and wind breakers (except for me– barefoot with just a thin hoodie- brr). Like most all Filipino programs, we started with a prayer. However, this prayer was a bit different than what I’ve gotten used to. In succession, we turned to each of the cardinal directions and said a prayer to the god of the North, East, South, and West, asking to embody their various characteristics. The rest of the program included lessons on inclusivity in feminism, a short history on Women’s Month, poetry in Tagalog, Ilonggo, and English, and, of course, raffles! (No prize for me.)
By 9PM, I was exhausted after an unexpected 5 hour hike after just 4 hours of sleep the previous night. However, maybe people seemed to have plenty of energy left, as evident from the music and laughter that went on for a few more hours. Still, despite the noise and cold (for the tropics) temperatures, I was quickly out. That is, until the wind picked up and tried to rip our tent from the mountain. Again, fellow campers came by and helped my friend secure our near collapsed shelter well enough to make it through the night. Shamefully, all I offered my tentmates was the advice: “If the tent blows away, at least we’re inside it.” Big help.
I’m not much of a morning person under any circumstance, but I had to be practically dragged out the tent before 6AM to witness the sunrise. It was nice, but retreating to the relative warmth of the tent was better.
Slowly and groggily, I made my way back out, welcomed by the sunshine and offering of brewed coffee from new friends. At 6:30, after a little bit of of stretching, I was asked if I would join on the morning hike to the summit. I figured, why not? I’d come this far and I was told it would only take about 45 minutes. (He lied.) So, at 6:45, I was off again up a steep, narrow path more often used by wild horses and carabao than casual hikers.
About an hour up the mountain, the camp site was just a few colorful specks in the in distance and the trail was practically vibrating with the hissing sounds of cicadas. The final stretch to the peak had me climbing on all fours with my knees up to my chest through thick grass. But once at the top, I could see the island of Guimaras to the South, as well as the mountains of Antique in he neighboring province to the West. The wind felt as strong at the top as it did blustering against our tent the previous night.
I sat down to take in the view (and hide from the wind) when I realized some sort of a ceremony was beginning. I thought it was maybe a group prayer. It wasn’t. It was an initiation to a university chapter of the mountaineering club. Becoming an member of the Iloilo Mountaineering Club, isn’t an easy process. It can take people several years and many treks to prove themselves to the club leaders. I was told it’s more about attitude than skill. Still, I think a bit of skill is required. So this was an exciting moment.
Looking down over the fields where we started, it was clear that getting to the summit was the easy part. Now we had to get back down. I did this 60% sliding on the seat of my pants, praying the seams held. Sliding still counts as hiking, yeah?
At 9:45AM, 3 hours (not 45 minutes) later, I was back at the camp site and back with my team who was awaiting my return from the top. They graciously saved me a plate of food and gave me a whole 15 minutes to eat it before we headed back to the elementary school where we started.
We followed a similar path down as we took up- over the ridge, around some farm land, down through some shaded trails, then back over the bamboo bridges and up again. This time it took only 3 and half hours with only quick stops for freshly-picked star apples, coconuts, and spring water. (And candy– this is the Philippines. There’s always candy.)
Before 2PM, we made it back to the covered gym where organizers were waiting with cold water and hot lunch. Covered in dirt and sweat from 7 hours of hiking, I was even shown into someone’s home where I could wash up and change into fresh clothes. Not everyone was offered this privilege. I’m not sure if it was because of my connections, being an American, or that I was somehow much dirtier than other hikers. (Most likely the latter.) I’m also not sure who’s house I went into.
Once we all signed out of the logbook (we don’t want them having to send up a search party) and squared up fees with our local guides, that was it, and we were on our way back to Iloilo City.
Two days later, my legs are still aching and my sunburn hasn’t completely faded. But, I’m extremely grateful for this experience. Not only did I climb a mountain, I got to do it with an awesome group of talented and kind women (and supports of women). Special thanks to the organizers from the Iloilo Mountaineering Club for putting together such a great weekend of hiking, camping, laughing, and learning! (It wasn’t their fault I didn’t more carefully read the event itinerary or attend the pre-meeting.)