6.12.2017

Mount Pulag | More Than Footprints



Leave No Trace - as a mountaineer, we always hear those three words; the principle that bound all outdoor enthusiasts to preserve nature. We are always reminded that in the place we travel to, we must take nothing but only pictures, we must kill none but only time, and must leave nothing but footprints. But more than the footprints and more than leaving no trace at all, what if we leave a meaningful mark to the community we visit?

When a group of photographers and outdoor enthusiasts decided to climb Mt. Pulag last June 3, 2017  it was definitely with a purpose. Bringing their cameras and printing machines, they plan to reach the far flung schools in the Cordillera mountains and provide the students their school ID for this coming school year. I was lucky enough to be invited and join Juan Portrait's 4th and biggest Brigada Eskwela project.

Some of the finished school ID for Mt. Pulag Elementary School

Our group met at Eton Centris one early Friday morning, at around 3:00 AM. There were seven of us driving up to Kabayan, Benguet to meet the other peeps that will join our team. We traversed the highways heading to Kabayan and after a total of 8 hours in the road, I finally saw Babalak Ranger Station, a familiar site that signaled us that we already reached the jump-off point of Mt.Pulag. After having a hefty brunch, we headed to the place we will call home for the weekend - Baban's Homestay. The last time  I was here it was a few years back, the place got bigger, but still able to preserve its humble homey feeling. We laid our bags in our each assigned rooms, relaxed for a few minutes before we decided to plan the activities for tomorrow.

Courageous JP volunteers. "Jus Belib" is their mantra, hoping the best outcome from an unlikely situation.  Appropriate as they take hard routes and trails just to give back to the children of Benguet. Photo from Juan Portrait (c)

This is the fourth time that Juan Portrait visited Benguet to take pictures and provide the students of Mt. Pulag Elementray School their school ID. This year, with almost 40 volunteers participating, they are planning to go bigger, visiting other schools within the vicinity of Mt. Pulag: Line 10 Elementary School, Lebeng Elementary School, Abucot Elementary School and the schools that are assigned to our team: Lusod and Awing Elementary Schools.

Lusod Elementary School. This humble school is situated within the mountains of Benguet. Photo from Nina Beltran (c)

Early morning the next day, a group of habal-habal drivers were already waiting for us outside Baban's Homestay. They were the only means of transportation for us to reach Lusod Elementary School. We rode aboard their two-wheeled vehicle and grasped for our lives, as we drove up and down an off-road track leading to the secluded sitio of Lusod. It was the longest motorcycle ride I had in my whole life, a total of four hours back and forth, and most likely the scariest ride as well. Come to think of it, I would never ride a habal-habal  in Manila. In a addition to the fact that they are illegal, I have a fear of going toe to toe with humongous buses flying by EDSA; but here I am, grabbing for my life as I ride without helmet and literally harnessed myself to the habal-habal driver to keep me from falling immeasurable heights from both sides of the mountain ridges. Luckily, from time to time we have to take a short break and let the motor recuperate from the strains of carrying two passengers along the most treacherous trails it has taken. It was also a great way for us to slow down and enjoy the view on these trails. The view going to Lusod is amazingly beautiful, farmlands on mountain terraces, mossy forest, and pine trees; they were an easy picturesque, but I am unable to to grab the shutter of  my camera while literally holding for my life.

A two-hour habal-habal ride from Kabayan to Sitio Lusod. Photo from Nina Beltran (c)

When we reached Lusod, a number of queries raised from my mind out of curiosity. How far are we from Baban's Homestay? To get here, we need to drive down Benguet, pass by Nueva Vizcaya, Ifugao and back up to Bokod. Is this the only school they got in this place?  The whole sitio including its humble school is situated within the mountains of Benguet. Technically there are no other means of way to reach this place but to take a habal-habal ride.What would the students transitioning to high school do after their school year? During our stay here I am unable to saw or heard a school that caters to secondary level. This concerns me a bit, thinking that a much better education is out of reach from this small sitio. Is the government able to reach this place? I highly doubt; in addition to the good learning materials and computer that they already have, we learned that like the school ID's we are providing, all of them are from donations.

Juan Portrait's Ley (left) taking photo of a grade 1 student from Lusod

The faculty of Lusod Elementary School told us that students from the nearby Awing (with only 9 enrollees) will go to Lusod to have their photos taken here. We also learned that this is the very first school ID their students will own in their lifetime. This gave this mission a much higher meaning for me. I would assist kids to stand up in front of a white cloth, holding a piece of chalkboard with their names and grade level written on it. I advised them to smile as I count form one to three, but most from them I got nothing but blank stares. I wondered how I will crack a smile on their faces. After clicking the shutter of my camera, I turned the dial to review and showed an 11 year-old girl her photo. I was not failed, after seeing her face in the screen of my camera, she burst a grin, exposing the white green-stained teeth hidden in her rosy red cheeks. Then I told her, "One more", and on the next photo she showed me a beautiful smile.

Grade 1 student from Awing before showing his photo
JP's Sarah (right) can't get enough of this kid's cute smile after showing his photo
After taking photos of around 60 students, we promised to directly hand them over their first ever school ID. We returned to Kabayan and headed to Mt. Pulag Elementary School to meet the other Juan Portait Peeps (JPeeps) who were assigned to take photos from the other nearby schools. As much as our tiring body wanted to rest, there were still more tasks needed to be done. We helped on the production of the school ID, from printing, cutting, laminating up to the attachment of lanyards. I noticed how everyone, meeting each other for the first or second time working together to achieve one goal.


There were already a couple of times that Divine (center) and Ley invited me to join their outreach program, but was only able to do so last June; it was an experience worth doing again and again.

It was almost dark when we returned to Baban's Homestay, in here I witnessed a better picture of the well knitted camaraderie of the volunteers. Every one were busy, some finishing up the production of IDs, the kitchen crew preparing the meals for the whole team, others tidying up their gears and bags before heading to their respective rooms, and some chatting around sharing laughter, getting to know each other and exchanging stories of their recent adventures in their assigned schools. The last day was no difference, everyone were arranging their bags and getting ready to go home. It feels like a summer camp with everyone saying farewells, taking souvenir pictures, and promising each other they'll return and see each other next year.

Sunday morning. A thanksgiving climb to Mt. Pulag for a successful Brigada

It amazes me to see common city dwellers like me able to make a big difference in our own small way. To some, photography is a serious passion they pursue, and to others, a hobby that they enjoy during free time, but either way our passion and hobbies were turned into a purpose driven act in making a big impact to these students. If we think of it, to most of us a simple as a school ID is something that we took for granted during our school years, but to them it is a gift to be known, to officially identify themselves as learners; I am very grateful to be part of giving them these gifts and that is a mark [more than the footprints] I am willing to leave to this community I recently visited.

Team Lusod: (L-R) Ley, Divine, Sarah, Nina, Meryl. Photo from Nina Beltran (c). Insert Zee (kitchen crew) and Kuya Manny (transportation). 


Note: Some of the photos featured in this post are from Dr. Nina Beltran and Juan Portrait.

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