There is a strong and wrong concept of travel as having to hop from continent to continent, flaunting four-season fashion, exotic food, and designer shopping bags. Somehow, travel became a computation of distance, time zones, and frequent flyer miles. In the frenzy of Facebook posts and Foursquare check-ins, we forget why we really want to get away and go.
We travel because it is good for the soul.
The real joy in being in a strange place is the uncertainty of it all. Behind every closed door and rough road is a nagging fear, but one that isn’t so much about being scared but about being excited at the idea of discovery. We fear only because we do not want to be disappointed, that after having gone the distance, we find nothing. Every time I leave my home, I carry with me this fear, and a certain giddy anticipation to balance it.
But what really makes travel worthwhile is an epiphanic, human moment: That the world remains big only when you do not explore it. It can be as near as the next town in your municipality, or as far-flung as the remotest, uninhabited city in the Antarctic: the only way to make the world small is by going around it.
So why not start close to home?
If we often go by the book, we are left with very few choices. All considerations aside – promo fares, budget accommodations, declared long weekends, approved leaves – we tend to go with what’s easy, familiar, or popular. Many of our travel choices are hinged on one thing: Imitation. What we’ve seen others visit, do, or eat affects our choices more than we care to admit. So it is very refreshing to just up and leave, to somewhere no one has advocated as fun, picture-perfect, or “must visit.” (I’ve learned over time that this phrase “must-visit,” is something people use to justify or defend the credence of a place. In the end, no one is lesser for not having gone there at all.)
Sierra Madre, then.
To someone as geographically challenged as myself, I thought going to Sierra Madre means making that arduous 11-hour road trip to the North. What I didn’t know was that the mountain range began its curve somewhere a lot closer to home: In Tanay, Rizal. With both of my children hacking and sneezing, my husband decided a sizeable dose of fresh, mountain air would do them good. And off we drove.
To the unschooled, Sierra Madre is now a popular biking and longboarding site because of its steep and winding roads (in far better state than poor EDSA). But what really struck me enough to ask my husband to stop the car is the cold. It was about 12 p.m. when we finally hit uphill, and the temperature reached a nippy 19 degrees Celsius. And it came with a very steady breeze.
Our destination was Pranjetto Hills Hotel and Resort, a popular stopover for bikers and longboarders alike. When we arrived, there was a long row of Honda hatchbacks parked on the side of the road. Another group expedition, it seemed. Along the way we had passed several groups of bikers, too. There was quite a number of them in these parts.
Pranjetto had published several fun activities on its website: among them, wall climb, zip line, and paint ball. But none was available that Sunday, as there was a big wedding of a religious group and they needed all of their staff to assist. So we placated our enthusiastic sons with food: no-frills Filipino fare. Thankfully, the restaurant staff agreed to have it served at our picnic cabana, near the pool. Over lunch, we had several unwelcome visits from local animal residents, among them a stray dog, cat, and many colorful bugs. No matter, I was looking forward to a calming stroll on the grounds as soon as we finished the last sinigang bowl.
The fear I mentioned early on was always present during this brief visit, and for good reason. I’ve learned a long time ago that website photos are not to be trusted, and Pranjetto Hills lived up to that disappointment. What I imagined to be sprawling fields and rolling hills are actually just a function of wide-angle lens. The property was a lot smaller than the illusion it perpetuated. And so, my imagined afternoon of frolic and fun was relegated to napping in the garden, where two very comfortable hammocks waited.
After our nap, I explored the property with my eldest son. We discovered beautiful flora, a charming gazebo, a quiet sitting nook on a soft slope, and various age-old trees. Now my initial disappointment was dissipating. And the photographer in me took over. I took over a hundred photos of my son posing amidst the beautiful greenery.
With the day far from ending, we decided to explore the rest of Tanay — surely there was more to the mountains than what Pranjetto had to offer — and left the resort with a quick mental note: maybe not again, or not anytime soon.
Another thing I like about travel: getting lost
As unfamiliar as we were with the vicinity, and hoping to find a gem within the rough mountain stones, we found ourselves making a U-turn near a sign that simply read: JE CAMP. After a quick chat with the guard and a small amount for entrance fee (R150/adult) we were led to a nearby parking area and asked to board a makeshift tour jeep.
First stop: the Joseph Estrada Museum. Eureka moment just then: the JE stood for – you guessed it – Joseph Estrada. And the property is where he served his house arrest until October of 2006. Further exploration revealed that inside the sprawling 24-hectare property was a ranch, a 14-room guest resort, several duck and koi ponds, the venue of a telenovela series, a mini-zoo (with mostly birds), and his personal rest house.
The thing about private properties like this one is that they are undoubtedly better maintained than our government-run facilities (I hearken back to my Camsur nightmare here, but that is for another story altogether) and not nearly as utilized. Sadly, if we had not gotten lost on the road, we would not have seen this place (let alone heard of it). So it was quite a gratifying feeling, “discovering” this piece of private paradise the way we had. We’ve now bookmarked it for further exploration. I will not say it is a must-visit (you all know how I feel about that phrase), but if you live near the area, it would be a shame not to wander through.
Our final stop was a place my mother insisted I make time for. It was the Marian pilgrimage site of Regina Rica, founded by the Dominican Sisters of the Regina Rosarii. Finding it was uncomplicated, as it was a famous destination within the area. But getting to the actual church was no small feat, especially to someone who has had less exercise than a sloth (of late). As I was dressed inappropriately in shorts and a sleeveless top, I had to borrow a shrug and a skirt to cover my arms and legs. One need only present a valid ID at the “Pasilungan” in order to receive said items. Of course, they needed to be returned after your visit.
Thankfully, we had arrived in time for the healing mass. Something I believed to be providential as both my sons were sick at the time. The church itself was nearing completion: all three storeys with an uninterrupted mountain view. Towering above this structure is a sizeable hill where a monumental statue of the Queen of the Holy Rosary stood. To reach her would mean climbing another vertiginous incline. We had to pass. The kids were too weak to make that ascent, and there was no way we could leave them behind.
I must admit I was touched by the presence of holiness that embraced that place. You felt it the moment you stepped into the Pasilungan where guests are initially received. You most certainly bask in it while inside the church, but more importantly, it enveloped you. And you know for sure you are on sacred ground.
The highlight of this visit was snack time at the small restaurant in the Pasilungan where mostly vegetarian meals are served. We ordered a very homey pansit, pritong lumpia, mais con yelo, and their signature Regina Rica herbed bread. We downed these with their free tanglad house tea, and we were sated and happy. It felt like a blessing, being filled with simple, good food. We knew the trip had come to its inevitable but euphoric end. The mountains promised mystery, and God provided more.
The last thing I like about travel: coming home
There is nothing like the idea of your own bed, your own comforts, and your own mess to make each trip feel like a homecoming. The anticipation of familiarity brings an ebullient conclusion to all the uncertainty of your just-concluded journey. The moment you reach the threshold of your all-too-faded door, you are immediately drawn to planning the next expedition, and the cycle begins just as it ends.
Travel is good for the soul.