It was on the base of Mt. Manabu, with a young man and his dog named Saber, where I was graced with the opportunity to be truly humbled and experience a lesson I will never forget.
It was just a sliver of a moment.
If I wasn’t paying attention, I would have missed it.
If I wasn’t completely exhausted from the day’s hike and elated with wonder from the adventures I encountered, I wouldn’t have appreciated it.
I vacationed twice to the Philippines prior to moving here. It was 2011 and just a few short days remained until I was to return to the United States. I, along with some friends, had been awake since sunrise. We woke up early to account for the long trip and complete our hike before dark. Equipped with driving directions like “turn left at the mango tree,” it didn’t take long before we got lost; and we hadn’t even reached the trail head. Wrong turn after wrong turn, our chances of actually starting the trek grew dim. We drove through tiny barangays, asking pedestrians and tricycle drivers for help. Nobody seemed to know how to reach this trail.
Our luck turned when we came upon a man on the side of the road. He lived near the mountain and was headed there right then. He was happy to show us the way in exchange for a ride home.
Fifteen minutes later we parked in front of a small cottage, surrounded by chickens and a garden. This was his home. Bedroom sheets draped across the windows and a clothesline, tied between two trees, held the day’s wash to dry in the sun. A few children played in the grass, shyly stealing glances at their new visitors. A black and white dog happily greeted us.
The man introduced us to his family, including a young man named Rommel and his dog, Saber. My friends and Rommel exchanged a few words in Tagalog. “He wants to take us to the top,” my friend said.
I noticed a machete hanging from Rommel’s shorts and watched it bounce on his thigh as he led us into the woods. Saber trailed close behind.
I belonged to a hiking group back in the States and had spent many summer vacations backpacking through the redwoods and Sierra Nevadas. Within minutes, the heat, steep incline, and thick vegetation proved that this was a whole different game. Flip flop-wearing Rommel strolled easily along and Saber weaved around us to take the lead.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
Rommel handed each of us a freshly cut branch and slid his machete back into its holster. “He says we’ll need this for the rest of the way up the mountain,” explained my friend.
Climbing with sticks in hand, we made our way towards the top, encountering giant beetles, a hidden grotto, and a one-eyed man named Tatay. He was the famed keeper of Mt. Manabu and proudly showed us a clipping of a newspaper article written about him and his mountain.
When we reached the summit we collapsed to the ground, digging into our lunches, nearly forgetting to take in the commanding view of the hills below. We sat on the top of the mountain for a good hour. Rommel showed us the lay of the land and it was entirely magnificent.
The Way Back…
While I experienced the ascent one heavy step at a time, the way down seemed like one big blur, disrupted only by the moment I came face to face with a snail the size of my palm, and then the following moment when Rommel plucked it off the tree and dropped it into his satchel. The snail, along with others he picked up along the way, was to be simmered in fresh coconut milk for dinner later that night.
Soon, we entered familiar territory and arrived at Rommel’s home. It was near dark and time for us to leave. Rommel’s cousin came out of the house and provided directions to the highway so that we wouldn’t get lost again. Full of thanks, we offered Rommel some money for serving as our guide that day. We each pulled out a few hundred pesos from our wallets; looking at his house, clothes, and surroundings, it appeared that he could use the extra cash.
And yet he refused, insisting that we put the money back in our pockets.
“No,” he said. “Just come back here one day so that I can take you up the mountain again.”
Stunned by his pure act of generosity, there was nothing left to do but give a mighty thanks. All smiles, we said our goodbyes to Rommel, his family, and Saber, then headed back to Manila.
I never returned to Mt. Manabu in the two years that followed, though I still carry with me the lesson that Rommel taught me that day.
We get caught up in trying to be important – on gaining more money, power, or fame. Meanwhile, there are people in this world like Rommel who live on less than $5 a day and struggle to support their own family; yet they would bend over backwards to make sure a stranger is fed, comfortable, or safe to climb a mountain in unfamiliar terrain – all with a happy heart.
I’ve met lots of Rommels since moving to the Philippines. A young worker from the province gave me a fresh crop of bananas when she could have sold it in her market. The security guard at my office never fails to greet me with the biggest smile, even when he’s standing in the pouring rain. Like Rommel, they have very little by Western standards; but they possess gifts of grace, humility, and resilience – a message of hope that can connect people worlds apart, and a lesson I now aim to bring into my own life.