Published in Fudge Magazine, November 2004
Wawa seems like a profoundly appropriate name for a place to send fitness fiends on a quixotic adventure. This small community in Montalban is no more than a motley congregation of wood and concrete houses scattered along the banks of the Bosoboso River. It is a dusty and humid outpost at the edge of the Sierra Madres, even the recent addition of a shiny new road does very little to affect the apparent isolation of the local way of life. Most of those who live in Wawa depend on agricultural production and a few enterprising locals have also branched out to charcoal-making. Montalban, or Rodriguez, as it is known today, is also home to the legend of Bernardo Carpio. A man of supernatural strength and appetite, as demonstrated by his ability to devour three shrieking chickens and a cauldron of rice in one sitting! Unfortunately, he was duped into being trapped in a cave for all eternity by another supernatural guy with a penchant for beautiful fairies from Pampanga. Essentially, Wawa is an interesting place to hear about legends, chase after exotic stories, and be an adventurer for a day. The place is somewhat similar to an early time “Macondo” in the book “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, but not really. With its brisk flowing river, humid jungles, and imposing limestone pinnacles that overshadow the daily life of Wawa, the place is better suited for a sequel to the story of Don Quixote than anything else. It would have given the “knight errant” a remarkably deep-seated migraine that he would have surely enjoyed.
The man from “La Mancha” would also find it very peculiar that there are people who actually practice his infamous wandering and call it sport! In fact, there is an athletic event that requires competitors to scamper off from the starting line at full bore with only a vague idea where they are headed. This sport is of course “Orienteering” and it’s more recent variation, the “Adventure Race”. Adventure athletes, as competitors prefer to be called, enjoy “bushwhacking” into the backcountry to wherever their magnetic needles point them. Remarkable as well, is that the greatest draw of this sport of “find your way around” is the high probability of getting lost! As if they enjoy being mired in the intolerable fate of aimlessness, and gloriously finding their way back again, adventure athletes continually endure this process of being lost-and-found in the farthest corners of their tattered maps.
And so, an astonishingly inebriated tribe of adventurers gathered once more under the acacia tree in Wawa, Montalban. Significant numbers of whom, were arguing amongst themselves about their love lives and superlative abilities in beguiling women. We set up our camp alongside the other tents under the giant tree, as moonlight trickled down with sleep from the rustling leaves high above us. A little while later, the camp fell quiet with drunken slumber and nervous anticipation for what the coming day would bring.
Not so early the following morning, the campsite began to stir with a heady mixture of anxiety and high-adrenalin as stoves were lit for the requisite morning coffee. The hissing of white gas and butane ignited the vigorous activity of last-minute checklists, pep talks, and hopeful prayers. Race staff hurried about the venue among the crowd as the sun climbed higher against a cloudless sky. The race organizers are members of Team Montalban, they stage the event annually to celebrate the adventure life and to promote competitive adventure sports. This year, as an added treat, the weather seemed to have connived with the organizers to turn the racecourse into an arid sandbox of dehydration.
The racers toeing the starting line fidgeted restlessly as a race official, one hand on the starting gun, crossed calmly in front of the agitated mob. Like a wily “matador” waving a scarlet cape at a throng of angry bulls, the official pulls the trigger in a cloudburst of exploding gunpowder. The racers simultaneously bit down on the hard-packed earth with their slick traction shoes, pushing off in a whirlwind of dust and a blur of color as they sped off. In a few moments, the last of the adventure fiends have rounded the first bend of the Bosoboso River and were gone from sight. Just like that, the third installment of the Team Montalban Orienteering Cup was on its way!
Near the front of the running pack, our own team was clawing its way along a rugged riverbank road as we sprinted towards where we hoped the first Control Point of the race would be. Control Points are waystations along an adventure racecourse designed to check the progress of racers as they navigate towards the finish line. We entered the next trailhead we came upon, ascending the lower slopes of a jagged limestone cliff. The trail inclined steeply up the slope as we progressed deeper into the hillside forest. The vegetation around us was a confusing mix of wildgrass, banana trees, thorny shrubs, and patches of rice plants. We ran up and down the hill in search of the Control Point without ever catching the slightest glimpse of the red and white flag of a waystation. We were beginning to wonder as we occasionally bumped into other teams who were growing equally frustrated at their own inability to find the marked location. The sun continued its obligatory ascent into the noonday sky, scorching the dusty trails that were clogged with heat-stroked racers as we continued with our futile search.
By high noon, only a handful of teams had found the first Control Point. With a total of ten waystations and the cut-off time at Control Point 5 fast approaching, many teams felt the crush of time pressure bearing down on their sunburned backs. We had run out of time by then, and not a single Control Point in our name, as we sat down among the fluttering leaves of Cogon grass to hide from the sun and to reassess our plight. Colorful little “ladybugs” stuck to my arm warmers as my teammates and I squinted at each other, not really knowing what to do next. We had turned our maps every-which-way and spun our compasses around in a valiant effort to figure out the dilemma we were in, to no avail. Nearing the end of our patience, and debilitated from the merciless heat and humidity, we chanced upon a Race Official along the trail who informed us that we were given erroneous coordinates. As it turned out, the needle wasn’t even in the haystack to begin with.
Like a beaten army of barbarians, disheveled racers emerged one by one from the hillside forest with a bewildered expression on everyone’s faces. Teams were in varying states of depletion and disrepair as we did our best to race back to the starting line of several hours past. Some of us were walking, some were just looking down at the ground, and many were just hungry and weary from the morning’s wasted efforts as we finally arrived back at the starting point.
I was running along with my teammates on the way back to camp, but I was just going through the motions of keeping up with them. In truth, I was just smashed and rubbery from all the running that we did under the desert sun. It was really tiring work, I barely made it to the earthpad laid out by our team’s support staff for such an occasion. The heat and humidity had kicked my butt all the way back to elementary school! My head was back in the days when I couldn’t do simple arithmetic even if I tried! It took a gallon of ice-cold water poured over my head, and ice packs on my back, to bring my body temperature back down to normality. It felt like I had fallen from orbit and was burning up on re-entry without those ceramic heat shields they have on the space shuttle. Forget about flint and magnifying lenses, I swear I could’ve ignited a box of matches if they were anywhere near me.
A little later, Race Officials decided on a restart with only the remaining 5 Control Points of the race in contention. Our team was running behind a few others on the way up a very steep hill towards Control Point 6. The Marshals had positioned themselves in a small clearing somewhere high above us. Well, we weren’t really running up the hill, it was more like sprinting up a few steps and then lurching forward in a seizure of oxygen deprivation. It wasn’t pretty at all, it was a scene that wouldn’t play very well with very young audiences on primetime television. Racers were scattered all throughout the racecourse by that time but incredibly, some still had the strength to push themselves past others on the climb. We managed to find the Control Point without difficulty and our morale was buoyed by our achievement. We had our Race Passport signed and then plunged headlong into the maze of razor sharp rocks and thorns of the saddle between the two limestone towers above Control Point 6. The next Control Point was just somewhere on the summit of one of those peaks. The problem was, we were absolutely mystified to find ourselves disoriented yet again, just a few meters away from the last waystation.
The razor sharp edges of the boulders we were clambering over sliced deeply into the soles of our shoes each time we negotiated them. One slight slip and the consequences would have been a lot more costly. It was like walking on a candybar of pitchforks and butcher’s knives, stuck together in nice shiny nougat glazed with broken glass! All the while, long spindly thorns were reaching out to us threatening to tear our skin to shreds the moment we touched them. It wasn’t all that bad though; the view was inspiring as we looked past the narrow valley of Wawa towards the undulating hills of San Mateo. The only part we didn’t like was the fact that, once again, we had no idea where we were! We stomped off in every direction we could go to, going around in circles in that small world of the limestone pinnacles. In the end, we managed to happen upon a small trail on the side of a cliff that led us up a loose rock slope onto the summit Control Point.
It was all downhill from the peak, literally, as we slid down the mountainside on gravel and divine providence. There was a girl on another team who was hit on the head by a falling rock on her way down. She was injured but managed to make it down to safety under her own power. By the end of that afternoon, just before sundown, we reached the suspension bridge that crossed the river towards the finish line. Finally, we had come full circle just as the sun made its arc across the sky. The sun was no longer cruel and unforgiving as it dipped in the western horizon. The jagged towers above us were no longer as dark and mysterious as we completed another tour of the gardens of Montalban. The tribe of adventurers have gone from their gathering place under the acacia tree, but they will be back again, to tempt Bernardo Carpio from his hiding cave. Until then, I think the chickens of Wawa will have nothing to worry about.