Notes from a Nomad

Remarkable People, Memorable Events and Fascinating Destinations from Around the World.

45 The Kibungan Circuit (or at least part of it!) – The Cordillera Mountains, Luzon, The Philippines October 24 – 29 2017

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For the absence of doubt I am not a fan of hiking in the tropics which will explain why, despite an extensive record of mountain walking in 5 continents over the last three decades,  for all the accumulated years I have spent living in Thailand I have never ventured further than walks along the Pattaya and Jomtien promenades in an effort to maintain my fitness or walks through the rice paddies when staying in Isaan!

I have never been tempted to join any of the treks to the various hill tribes in Northern Thailand and my rationale has always been that hiking in the mountains is hard enough at my age and do I really want to compound the challenges by adding extreme heat and humidity into the equation?

I think not!

So why in October 2017 did I find myself preparing for a three day hike and camping trip in the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines when I was spending a couple of weeks in the Philippines when travelling between my homes in Canada and Thailand.

I think part of the answer was the personality of my companion Fredda who I had met a couple of years earlier when passing through Manila.

Fredda had a one woman travel business offering her services as a a personal travel guide and had built up quite a successful niche business, as most of her clients were older western men, either visiting the Philippines from overseas or expatriates living in the Philippines. Fredda made it absolutely clear on her website and on the first day of a program that whilst she was willing to share a twin room to keep her client’s costs down, sexual services were not part of the services offered!

Her business did well because she was a knowledgeable and informative companion with empathy for people and a love of the outdoors. As virtually all of my working life had been in the travel industry and I had both trained tour guides and owned a trekking company we had a lot in common and I was happy to advise her on how to develop her business.

That was to prove a difficult challenge because as Fredda will admit Filipinas in general and herself in particular are not by nature proactive or aggressive when growing a business or indeed making their way through life. And this partly explains why many are trapped in a neverending circle of poverty in a macho orientated country that affords few opportunities for single women other than to work long hours on short term contracts for poor levels of pay.

And in Fredda’s case the not insignificant income of $100 a day from her sporadic guiding together with some private income maintained her in a comfortable life style in her mid 30s. So she was not at all aggressive in growing her business which was more of a lifestyle occupation. And if she saved up some of her income from time to time, it also allowed her to make occasional overseas trips in South East Asia sometimes on her own or sometimes with boyfriends.

Whenever I passed through Manila we met for a meal, conversation, theatre visit and talked about hiking together in Switzerland or the Himalaya as Fredda had an almost inexhaustible thirst for travel and a desire to visit new places and share new experiences. Earlier in the year she had come to Thailand for a week with a friend and visited me in Pattaya for a couple of days and she had tried unsuccessfully to get either a Schengen or Swiss visa in the summer of 2017 so she could visit and hike with me in the Alps.

My Thai friend Ampai had visited me in Europe 9 times and although its always an effort, we had successfully managed to get a visa on every occasion.

However the world has different and patently unfair rules for Filipinas because nations are afraid that visiting Filipinas will overstay their visas and work illegally in countries they visit and/or work the sex industry. So despite being educated, intelligent, articulate and with her own business and contracts to return to and a proven track record of having left the Philippines 7 times and always returned Fredda’s application for visas from both Germany and Switzerland were unsuccessful,  even after I offered to sponsor her by lodging a bond!

The other thing that distinguishes Fredda from every other Filipina or indeed any other Asian that I have ever met is her extraordinary knowledge of western music, cinema and literature. And on top of that she is a big Leonard Cohen fan!

I don’t think I know anyone who would has got so much out of a European visit as Fredda and she was very disappointed when her visa applications were rejected. So I suggested that, by way of compensation, if I could not take her hiking in the Swiss Alps, we should go off to a part of the Philippines that she had never visited.

I had an extremely busy summer in the Alps (which you can read about here  and here) and then went off to Greenland and Baffin Island (which you can read about here  and here  ) before my wife Sharron and I took the train across Canada to arrive at our Vancouver home.

Whilst in Vancouver I attended the Vancouver Film Festival and forwarded Fredda reviews of all the films that I saw as well as discussed options for a hiking trip in the Philippines. Because of the large 100,000 Filipino community in Vancouver there are daily direct flights between Vancouver and Manila and as a result I planned to return to Thailand via the Philippines, which meant we could finally go off hiking together.

It was for this reason that October 17 2017 found me flying to Manila complete with tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, camp food and hiking gear and the next day I met with Fredda in Makati and finalized our plans. I was due to stay in the Philippines for a couple of weeks but first I planned to make a brief visit to the southern city of Cebu to visit some friends and mend a broken bridge. Read about that here.

After I arrived in Manila Fredda and I met to check what equipment we were short and to ensure there were no missing parts to my tent!

Oct 24 – 25 2017:  Manila – Baguio – Kibungan

After considering a few possibilities, we had decided to hike the Kibungan Circuit in central Luzon, the most populated (47m) and largest island of the Philippines. And so a week later, reunited after my quick trip to Cebu, Fredda and I were on a bus for the six hour ride northwards from Manila to the mountain city of Baguio that I think I may have visited or perhaps passed through on my first visit to the Philippines in 1976.

The mountainous terrain of Kibungan with peaks and ridges above rolling slopes has often caused some visitors to call the region ’The Switzerland of the Philippines’. This was certainly not going to pass muster with me who has a home high in the Swiss Alps (and you will certainly not not find any snow, ice or glaciers in the Phlippines!) but this still conveys the sense of grandeur of this region where roads and trails offer a never-ending succession of panoramic views.

We understood that the pine ridges and slopes laden with unique white rocks made trekking in Kibungan a unique experience in the Philippines and Fredda had organized for a Guide and Porters to meet us at Kibungan. Our plan was to overnight in Baguio and then transfer to Kibungan town by a minibus organized by our guide.

Our stay in Baguio was distinguished by dinner at an excellent Nepalese restaurant and an extensive photoshoot in the grounds of our hotel the following morning as we waited for our minibus to arrive. Articulate and educated she may be, but I was to learn this did not exclude Fredda from that a common genetic trait shared by 99.9% of Filipinas, which is that a day on vacation is not complete unless they are the subject of at least 100 photos! A Filipina can replicate a 1950s Film Star pose within seconds of a camera or smart phone appearing in the hands of their companion!

Our transfer to Kibungan was memorable in that the rust infected minibus actually successfully made the journey from Kibungan to Baguio to collect us and then return without actually falling apart on a bumpy road that seemed to be almost continually under repair or construction!

Upon arrival at Kibungan we were dropped at the Barangay (Local Council) offices adjacent to a basketball court under a giant roof providing protection from the rain. Our accommodation was in the same complex run by the council and our twin room set us back the princely sum of 150 pesos (£2 or $2.80) for the night.

After Fredda rang him to advise we had arrived, our guide Desenio (33) came and introduced himself and discussed with Fredda our plans for the next three days and what food and supplies we needed to obtain in the morning and meanwhile as the only restaurant in Kibungan was  closed dinner was instant soup and instant pasta cooked on our camping stove in the common room!

On our way to Baguio where we discovered a great Nepalese restaurant

Filling in the time whilst waiting for our minibus in Baguio. Posing is endemic in the Philippines, even for mountain guides!

The road through the Cordillera was replete with lush vegetation

Lunch stop. Filipinos like all Asians love to eat!

We continued through the mountains to Kibungan

I was not sure whether the Jeepney at the edge of Kibungan was abandoned or not

At Kibungan we stayed in the Community Centre which offered great views over the Codillerra mountain range

Fredda planning the next day’s program with our local guide Desenio

Oct 26 2017: Kibungan – Tanap – Buga Campsite

After a quick and basic breakfast at the community centre café and registering and paying for a hiking permit, it was time to buy some additional supplies for ourselves and our guide and porters at one of the food stalls. As Fredda is a self confessed food junkie and I do not speak Tagalog I had every excuse to be nothing more than a casual observer who paid the final bill as she, with some assistance from Desenio, took care of the selection of fresh vegetables. That was a fair division of responsibility as far as I was concerned.

We then boarded our minibus with two porters aboard who had picked up our bags from the community centre and we set off for the short 20 minute or so transfer to the trailhead at Tanap. Even on such a short journey we had to navigate carefully past several areas of road construction, or should that be reconstruction as we were clearly in an area prone to landslides.

Fredda casually asked me whether I would mind if she had to turn back if the hike was too tough for her and I reminded her she was over 30 years younger than me, fit and an experienced walker who was used to the heat and if anyone was going to find it difficult it would be me and not her!

There are two versions of the Kibungan Circuit, one that takes two days with one overnight and which includes an ascent of Mt Tagpaya (1820m) where most people camp at the end of the first day, and the other for three days and two nights which can include ascents of Mt Oten (1875m) and Mt Tagpew (2105m). We were playing it by ear but hoped to do the longer variant.

At Tanap (920m) I put my hiking boots on and got a baseball cap out whilst Fredda changed from her dress into hiking gear and we set off, descending from the road to arrive at a beautiful area of lush rice terraces. This was clearly a tropical and very different landscape to the Alps, BC Coastal range in Canada and the Himalaya where I had done most of my walking over the previous 30 years! We continued to descend until we reached a sturdy suspension bridge across a river and once we reached the far bank we turned left and immediately started to ascend. The trail was not easy, in fact it was quite rugged and not as graded as the mountain trails in the Himalaya. It was more a track, and despite being regularly used by local mountain inhabitants  it was barely maintained. Fredda had insisted she only required trail sandals (or was it that hiking boots would clash with her bikinis?) but it was not easy walking and I for sure needed to take care with my foot placement.

We walked past isolated family settlements and met local family groups on the trail, climbing at a faster pace than us as they walked to an isolated village and always with incessant chattering, a radio playing and at least one person carrying an open umbrella as protection from the unrelenting sun above.

When we stopped for a break I asked Desenio if many foreigners hiked the Kibungan Circuit and he said the last he could recollect was perhaps two years previously. I was surprised and he in turn expressed astonishment when he found out I was 68 and some 35 years older than himself. As we gained height we were treated to some glorious and extensive vistas over the Tanap Valley, with the rice terraces now far below us and with the Halsema highway the most noticeable feature as a giant scar hugging the mountainside on the far side of the valley below, returning to Kilbungan and continuing onto Baguio.

There was some occasional efforts to make the trail more accessible with some steps and handrails in a rudimentary state of disrepair and, after ascending one set of steps where you would not want to trust the railings with too much weight or pressure, we took a break in a pine forest, which had replaced the bushes and long grass we had walked through previously.

As we recommenced along our trail we came out of the trees to see a long, mainly grassy ridge with occasional trees and bushes stretching away from us and, once we ascended up to the ridge and made our way along,  we came to a sign indicating we had arrived at the spectacularly located Buga Campsite (1445m).

The porters headed off to collect some water from a nearby source and once we had erected our tent, we had time to admire the extensive views as we entrusted Desenio to cook our instant trail meals which I had purchased at the MEC store in Vancouver Canada a fortnight earlier.

However unlike anywhere else in the world I did not expect to see any hikers with MEC* branded gear over the following two days on our trail!

* Mountain Equipment Co-operative is a legendary institution in Canada and was formed by six students at the University of British Columbia in 1970. It is now Canada’s biggest seller of outdoors gear and to this day it remains a true Co-operative as every shopper has to buy a membership and is entitled to vote for the managing trustees. In North America the initials MEC is a byword for quality and when the brand is spotted on daybacks and rainjackets around the world it is usually a giveaway they are being worn by a Canadian!

Our accommodation at the Kibungan Community Centre was basic but great value for the equivalent of $3

Early morning views over Kibungan and the Cordillerra where we planned to hike

Arranging our hiking permits

Fredda was in charge of buying supplies for our trek

Meeting the locals whilst the bus back to Baguio prepares to depart

The colourful and retro Jeepney is a unique form of transportation found throughout the Philippines and it was nice to know the local security was watching our backs!

Our drive to the trail head took us part a succession of road repairs in an avalanche prone area

After arriving at the trailhead at Tanap we were soon on our way

We descended to cross the Tanap River and then hiked up to our campsite on the ridge high above the Tanap Valley

As we approached the Tanap River we walked amidst some beautiful rice terraces

Crossing the Tanap River

Our porters just slung our bags over their shoulders without tying their loads to make their task easier

Our trail ascended up steep forested slopes

As we climbed there were spectacular views of the highway back to Kibungan

We were passed by local residents heading for a distant village.

Our porters keep going towards the next ridge

Looking down at the Tanap rice terraces where our hike began

’The Switzerland of the Philippines’

As we climbed the scenery got increasingly wilder

Like all Filipinas Fredda loves being photographed

Time for a break!

Approaching the final ridge

Enjoying dinner at the Buga Campsite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 27 2017: Buga Campsite – Mt Tagpaya – Bulalako Campsite

We woke to spectacular views from our campsite on the ridge and with locals from unseen villages occasionally passing by on the trail as we ate our instant breakfast and dismantled our tent.

We soon found ourselves descending to cross a narrow footbridge at the end of the ridge and passing through dense vegetation before emerging on a hillside with towering cliffs above us and far reaching panoramas to our right.

After a couple of hours we found ourselves on another ridge and passing through stands of ever denser vegetation as we climbed before taking a break for some lunch in a pine forest. Desenio casually mentioned that one of our porters was leaving to descend at this point because he had a commitment to do some work on his family farm. So as well as guiding us along our route, Desenio hoisted one of our kitbags with all our camping equipment and spare gear on his back and set off in a matter of fact manner with not a care in the world.

We found ourselves contouring around through a forested area with occasional wild valleys on our right descending to the valley floor a long way below before continuing to climb, with Fredda pausing to check out the local mushrooms.

After following a narrow moss endowed gully, we crossed another footbridge and then arrived in a wooded and bushy area with swirling cloud amongst the trees and a separate trail to the summit of nearby Mt Tagpaya (1820m). I was happy to sit in the forest and read my Kindle whilst Fredda and Desenio headed for the summit only to return and report that as I suspected it was covered in cloud and they could see ……… very little!

It was sobering to realise that the nearby campsite was where many hikers hoped to arrive at the end of the first day and Desenio advised us that at our pace we would not have time to do the longer version of the Circuit in just three days! I would like to think this was because of all the photo stops we made to shoot images of Fredda and record segments for her video blog but in truth it was because I amble along at a slow pace taking far too many images as this article will testify!

Fredda is the proud owner of one of the Philippine’s great collection of bikinis and I once suggested that perhaps she had more bikinis than Mrs Marcos possessed shoes but she quickly corrected me by advising she only had 40 bikinis including the Sports bikini she was wearing as we continued through the Jungle and maneuvered ourselves across a narrow bridge (or should I say logs across a gully) to arrive at a camping spot adjacent to an unused hut and not too far from a water source.

I instantly named the unnamed campsite ‘Jungle Camp’ although it was known as the Bulalako Campsite and after feasting on more instant camp food courtesy of MEC Vancouver we retired to our tent to read in our sleeping bags. To this day I am not sure where Desenio and our remaining porter slept but they had neither tent nor sleeping bags as far as I was aware.

Early morning views from Buga Campsite

With a passing villager at Buga Campsite

On our way on our second day

Meeting locals along the trail

We were treated to a succession of stunning vistas

Heading towards Mt Tagpaya

Ridge walking

As we passed in and out of wooded areas we were treated to a succession of impressive vistas

As a nationality Filipinos have the distinction and trait of being the nicest people I have ever met. At this point our bearded porter left to return to his farm

We continued through dense vegetation

There were occasional glimpses of settlements below us

Fredda checking out the mushrooms as we passed across wooded slopes

We made our way through jungle type vegetation and a narrow moss encrusted gully

Fredda discovered there were not any views from the cloud covered summit of Mt. Tagpaya

Making our way to our second campsite

We finally arrived at our Jungle campsite!

Oct 28 2017: Bulalako Campsite – Lungsad Falls – Tanap – Baguio

After an instant MEC oatmeal breakfast we had broken camp and were on our way by 0800, recrossing the log bridge and making our way through some more dense vegetation and then pine forest where we stopped to appreciate a proud pine reputed to be several hundred years old and the oldest tree in the district.

We gained some height to reach the edge of the escarpment within 30 minutes of leaving our campsite and were rewarded with some far ranging views including down the valley we were due to descend to reach the road back at Tanap where we had begun two days earlier.

We had long since given up any thoughts of continuing on the longer variant to Mt Oten (1875m) and Mt Tagpew (2105m and after ten minutes admiring the view we started our descent as the trail weaved its way in a series of switchbacks down steep slopes characterized by knee high grass, occasional trees and then clumps of wooded areas.

After 40 to 50 minutes we could see some cultivated terraces and an occasional structure below us in the valley we were about to enter and there was more rudimentary protection by way of a bent railing to assist us as the trail doubled back across a bare rock face.

It was another unrelenting hot and humid tropical day under a blue sky and we stopped under the shade of a tree for a drink and to share power bars with our guide and porter. We continued to descend passing through more jungle type vegetation and crossing a small hanging bridge as we entered the upper part of the valley that would take us to Tanap and after another 90 minutes got our first view of the road at ten minutes after midday. It was already over three hours since we had started our descent! Another 10 minutes and we were passing some cultivated land but no sign of any inhabitants and after a further 30 minutes, we were walking across some isolated irrigated rice terraces.

At this point our porter decided to take a break and propped the basket he was using to carry our bags up with a stick, only to watch it collapse and dispatch my bag into the water of the terrace. He was very apologetic and I told him not to worry about it.

As the song tells us ‘Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ are out in the midday sun and indeed it was hot but at least my saturated T Shirt was keeping me cool when there was a breeze. At one point I sat in the shade of a large boulder for a drink from my water bottle and Fredda came back and said

‘Do you want a break Michael as it is pretty hot? We could continue mid afternoon when it gets cooler’

At the time I was not sure if Fredda was genuinely concerned or fancied a break herself although in retrospect I am sure it was the former as she is such a caring person and the last thing she wanted was an aged client dying on her hands from sunstroke in the middle of nowhere or rather in the middle of the Filipino Cordillera!

In any case Desenio had told us it was still two hours to the road at our pace although it looked much closer (in fact it took us two and a half!) and I replied

‘I am fine. We need to keep going because we still have a three hour drive to Baguio when we get to the road and its best to do that in the light.’

We could look back and see the tree and grass covered slopes that we had descended to enter our valley but pushed on for another hour to reach an area of rocks around a stream where we found three photogenic kids relaxing and playing . After taking a short break and taking some pictures of the kids we continued on and could clearly see the nearby Lungsad Falls, but did not make the short diversion to get a closer view.

We continued past some more rice paddies and then had a steep descent where Fredda needed to take particular care as she was just wearing (heavy duty trekking) sandals. She was insistent before we began that her sandals would be sufficient but I suggested she was crazy to come without proper hiking boots and indeed the trails had been rough and her feet were blistered by our third day.

After some rock hopping and recrossing the stream at 3pm we eventually came to the long suspension bridge we had crossed at the beginning of our trek two days earlier. It had only taken us 6 hours since we had started our descent! This time we were coming from the right whereas after crossing it previously we had turned left.

So indeed we had completed a mini circuit and all that remained was to climb up through the vibrant terraces to the trailhead on the road at Tanap, although I stopped several times to shoot some images of the mountains we had spent 48 hours hiking through with the lush green terraces in the foreground.

We reached Tanap at 1530 some thirty minutes after crossing the bridge and our minibus soon arrived to pick us up. We dropped Desenio and our porter off in Kibungan and enjoyed the three hour drive back to Baguio in so far as it no longer required any efforts from the two of us to get from A to B or rather Kibungan to Baguio. Three challenging days of challenging mountain walking in the tropics was quite enough!

The road took us past the popular hiking peak of Mount Ugo and Fredda suggested that maybe I would like to come back and climb that with her on another occasion. I think I made a pithy comment about the tropics being good for Beach holidays!

We celebrated the end of a demanding but enjoyable three days with a return visit to the Nepalese restaurant in Baguio that we had discovered three evenings earlier.

Early morning departure from Bulalako Camp after Fredda has her morning coffee!

Our guide Desenio slung one of our kit bags over his shoulders and made his way through the rugged terrain

Fredda admires the oldest (reputedly) Pine tree in the district as we approach the escarpment

Admiring the views from the escarpment before we descended

Views from the escarpment including Mt Tenglawan (Centre) and our previous route (Right)

With our guide Desenio as we descended into a wild valley that would lead us back to the trailhead

There was some very rudimentary assistance to help with the steepest parts of our descent!

Looking back at the escarpment where our descent began

As we descended into the valley, rice paddies, terraces and signs of cultivation were evident

Heading forward………….and looking back!

After three hours of descent we got our first glimpse of the road – still three hours away!

Crossing rice paddies under the hot midday sun

The road slowly got closer as we kept going under a hot sun

We passed some local kids playing in a rock pool

Unfortunately our porter’s stick and basket were not so stable earlier and deposited my kit bag in a wet padi!

We passed close by the Lungsad Falls

One final descent as the road got ever closer

We finally arrived at the suspension bridge we had crossed two days earlier

We retraced our route and ascended up through the rice terraces to Tanap

One final glance up the valley that we had spent six hours descending before arriving back at Tanap

A tough and hot hike completed!

It was great to admire the impressive Cordillera landscapes from the comfort of our minibus!

We passed by Mt Ugo on our drive back to Baguio where we enjoyed a celebratory Nepalese dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 29 2017: Baguio – Manila

The following day we took the six hour bus journey back to Manila.

Fredda can be exceedingly perceptive, brutally honest and like many Filipinas endearingly open and naïve and we had some interesting conversations that helped pass the time but once in Manila we quickly went our separate ways as I had arranged to meet another friend and Fredda had a Canadian client waiting and this time she would be remunerated for her efforts and organizational skills rather than only receiving the delights of my company on our trek!

In fact she benefitted even further as she got on so well with her Canadian client that for a few months at least, he was bestowed the high honour of being referred to by the highly esteemed description of ‘boyfriend’ for several months until ill health prevented him from returning to the Philippines. Filipinas receive many kudos and respect from their friends if they can refer to a ‘boyfriend’ who could even be an online chat mate they have never met or maybe a foreigner living in Europe or North America who comes to visit them for a few days each year.

For almost 30 years I have spent part of each year hiking in either the Swiss Alps, the BC Coastal Range in Canada or the Nepalese Himalaya but with the exception of climbing Kilimanjaro in 2006 with our daughter Lisa and nephew Daniel, this was the first time I had undertaken a serious hike in the tropics. (My second which was not a success followed only a few months later and you can read about it here

And although I spend several months each year in Thailand and trekking around Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand is a popular pastime, I have never been tempted to join one of the hill tribe treks and I think that is partly because deep down I think hiking is for the temperate latitudes rather than the Tropics. Or more bluntly its hard enough to hike for days on end at my age let alone without adding the factors of heat and humidity into the equation! Furthermore I only have to look at a hill to sweat like a pig so ascending a thousand metres in high humidity is nowhere near the top of my wish list.

Parts of our hike were tiring and indeed I was always wearing a sweat drenched wet T shirt. The trails were not as well marked or maintained as in many parts of the world and the Kibungan Circuit is not as well known or peopled as some of the more popular mountain ascents in the Philippines (which might provide an easier introduction to hiking in the tropics) but that meant we largely had the mountainside to ourselves.

As I stated earlier there are two variants – a two day version or an extended three day variant (which some people manage in two days) that continues to include Mount Oten 1875m and Mt Tagpew 2105 m. I will offer my age as a humble excuse for doing the shorter two day option in three days and as a result our trek was indeed a pleasant, positive and rewarding experience with a succession of far ranging vistas often over the Halsema highway stretching back to Kibungan and towards Baugio. And as well as the neverending panoramas as we walked along a succession of Pine covered ridges, the immediate views of nearby slopes laden with unique white rocks and passing through such a variety of vegetation including jungle, woodland and cultivated rice terraces made trekking in Kibungan an attractive and unique experience

And Fredda was a most congenial companion who I can well recommend for anyone looking for a personalized hiking or general tour guide for a visit to the Philippines.

You can visit her website at:

https://freddaruth.tumblr.com

And you can contact her directly at:

freddaruth@gmail.com

Fredda sorting out her gear after our bus ride back to Manila

Postscript: I consider Fredda to be a good friend and we chat online at least every week and often daily. I follow with interest and admiration her support for environmental issues, her opposition to the excesses of the Dutartre government and especially her concern for the well being of her fellow Filipinos and enjoy looking at the images she posts as she travels within the Philippines with an ever reducing number of aging clients.

I keep telling her to be more proactive and find new social media outlets to advertise as there is no shortage of aging western males looking for an educated, attractive and informative companion to guide them around the Philippines!

I am forever impressed and sometimes surprised at the interests we have in common and we often exchange details of what we have recently been reading and I was once quite literally gobsmacked when I told Fredda I had read an obscure account of the relationship between the actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to learn that she had also read it. There may be 100+ million Filipinos but I am not sure more than a handful will have read ‘Furious Love’!

When I recently struggled through ‘The Emperor of all Maladies’, the Pulitzer prize winning account of the history of cancer she agreed parts of it were a laborious read and just a few days ago when I told her I was finally reading ’A short walk in the Hindu Kush’ (Eric Newby’s classic account of two amateurs attempting a climb in Afghanistan in the 1950s) she agreed it was very amusing!

Like me she enjoys reading a diverse range of topics and is incapable of going to a Book Fair without acquiring more discounted books than she can reasonably expect to read in a lifetime although she must have at least 35 years longer than myself to solve that particular problem!

I often think she is like the kid sister I never had and from time to time when a new potential boyfriend appears on the scene or one of her many chatmates makes a romantic suggestion she will naively ask for my input:

‘No Fredda, its not respectful to say you have a cute arse on your first date – he is clearly an uncouth American slob trying to get inside your pants. At least we Brits are usually more subtle!’

And like all Filipinas Fredda has a love for gossip and everyone else’s love life and is not slow to comment or give an opinion (or at least ask questions) about my friends and companions.

And like any kid sister she never hesitates to tell me when she thinks my ego or desire for self gratification is outweighing common sense! Of course I am not sure she is always right!

One of her former boyfriends has established a charity to assist deprived Filipino families and retains Fredda as an assistant to visit the families, assess their needs and claims and distribute funds to them and, together with her sporadic income from guiding, she is able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle far beyond the reach of most single Filipinas. And as an incurable romantic she is always looking for partners for her single female friends!

But unbelievably although we were regularly in touch, it was to be over two years before I met Fredda again!

After our trek I continued to my home in Thailand but returned briefly to Manila just six weeks later on my way to a family Christmas in Vancouver BC, but Fredda was either at her home in Cavite south of Manila or travelling with a client.

In September 2019 we were both in Vietnam at the same time but she was in the north near Hanoi and I was in the south in Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau. Fredda was with a Saudi friend who was just looking for some sympathetic company and a friendly shoulder after breaking up with his girlfriend and I was with my friend Mariz also from Manila who I have known for over 6 years and from time to time we meet up for a few days here or there.

As Mariz was busy working online as a virtual PA and Fredda’s companion sulked after she told him he needed to be more compassionate and considerate in the way he treated local people, she and I were chatting to each other saying how nice it would be to rent a cottage on a Vietnamese beach and be reading books together.

However a couple of months later in November last year (2019) we finally met up again, this time in Kathmandu of all places. I always felt bad that it was so unfair that countries made it so difficult or virtually impossible for single Filipinas to travel to Europe, where someone as informed and intelligent as Fredda would get so much out of visiting the great museums, galleries and cities about which she had read and knew so much and not least experience the thrill of walking in the Alps, so I was able to procure a travel grant and discounted place and assist with getting her to the Himalaya where she could at least experience walking amidst the highest peaks on the planet.

So in November 2019 together with my friend Ampai, who Fredda had previously met in Thailand, and Fredda’s friend and former client Joel from California, the four of us met up in Kathmandu for an eight day trek to the foot of the Manaslu, the world’s 8th highest mountain and you can read about that journey here.

I was back in Manila in December 2019 and January 2020 both on my way to and returning from Vancouver for Christmas which gave me two more opportunities to meet up with Fredda and introduce her to other friends of mine. The males usually comment she is one of the most impressive and articulate females they have met and the females grudgingly say ‘Yes she is nice’ and incorrectly assume she is or was a lover!

Today as I write the Philippines is still under one of the longest and most severe lockdowns anywhere in the world and Fredda has been confined to her home town of Cavite about an hour south of Manila and has not been able to travel beyond her home district nor risked travelling into Manila and her favourite stomping ground of Makati where she lived as a student and still has many friends and belongs to a book club.

But Fredda being Fredda she is always concerned about the welfare of others and has been trying to raise money to assist those local guides all over the Philippines who she has worked with over the past 8 years and who currently have zero income from guiding.

The following is a recent Facebook post from Fredda:

Hiking guides all over the country have lost their livelihood in an instant. From the Cordillera mountain ranges to the Caraballo, Bataan to the Sierra Madre in Rizal and Bulacan, they all report the same thing: they have not received financial support from their municipal or the national government in the last three months.

While it is true that people seldom go hungry in the mountains, guides in less popular and accessible areas like Kibungan and Bakun in Benguet are in a more vulnerable state economically. Tourism allowed them to supplement their meagre income as farmers for their daily needs, like cooking, transportation and hygiene. During peak hiking season they earn P5000 (£80 or $100) monthly. Even though people up north generally save money, this loss of income from the pandemic has a huge impact on people living on the edge of poverty.

Take Desenio and his porters who have guided me and my friend Michael along the Kibungan Circuit trail in October 2017. What struck me about them was not only their gentle kindness and humility but also their stoic acceptance of their living conditions. Until then the Cordilleras for me only meant majestic sceneries and summits close to the clouds. Spending three days with them while chitchatting over their tasty vegetable dishes, I was truly humbled… what a dignified bunch of guys, I thought, meekly trying to eke a living in this terrain, remaining stoic, content and cheerful in the midst of everything that life throws at them. Agricultural price fluctuations, typhoons, lack of roads, destruction of dreams, a family member suddenly needing medical attention, the need to hire a private vehicle during emergencies, plunging into debt… They also opened my eyes to how romanticized my views were about the ‘tranquility’ of mountain living and the myriad problems that they face…

And so again, I thank my donors who allowed me to help people like Desenio and his porters at this time. Many of you live so far from me and will very likely never see these areas. Thank you so much for being so kind and generous to my hiking community, and to those whom I care about.

If you would like to assist any of these deprived rural communities or retain Fredda as a guide if you were ever to visit the Philippines you can contact Fredda at

freddaruth@gmail.com

© Michael Bromfield

With Fredda and her friend Joel in Nepal Nov – Dec 2020

With Fredda and her client and friend Joe in Manila Dec 2019 and Jan 2020

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