As second runner-up in Wego’s life-changing travel story contest, the judges were completely enchanted with Amanda Lago’s ‘How to climb a tree’. Amanda shares a visit of the stunning and unique Balete tree that soars hundreds of feet into the air in Maria, Aurora in the Philippines. What was most striking was how she intertwined life-lessons in an almost fable-like manner in her story, and delivered honest and aware observations of her experience. You can see more of Amanda’s writing at her blog, Lucid in the Sky
To begin: forget that you are afraid of heights.
Make sure the forgetting is thorough. Do it carelessly and you will find yourself paralyzed and panicking from halfway up this tourist attraction of a tree, which will be about a hundred feet up, but will look more like a thousand feet in your terrified eyes.
Should you find yourself in such a situation, follow this simple step: cry out for the guide that you hired before you even began the climb. Add an extra shake in your voice for good measure. For example:
When your guide ascends to meet you, swinging casually from branch to branch while doing so, forget that he is only 15 years old. Share the burden of your fear with him and lay all your doubts on the table, like so:
“Hindi ko ata kaya, mahuhulog ata ako, (I don’t think I can do it, I think I’m going to fall)”
Follow this up immediately with an examination of his young face. Notice the shyness in his eyes when he speaks to you, notice how it disappears when he looks at the tree.
Listen to him when he tells you to trust the tree: “Kaya po kayo niyan, ’wag lang po titingin sa baba. (The tree can take you, just don’t look down)”
Take a deep breath (or two, or three) and ascend, one branch at a time. Try your best to copy the way your guide moves through the maze of limbs with comfort and ease.
At the same time, distract yourself with little details: the addicting grainy feel of the branches under your palms, the thick vines that look like snakes, the strange fact that the brightest green you see is your guide’s t-shirt, the big yellow letters that read “Maria, Aurora” emblazoned across it.
Then distract yourself with the bigger details: the fact that you are in Maria, Aurora at all, climbing its famous 200-foot Balete tree when you would have been perfectly happy staying at its base, within its network of roots; the fact that out of all your friends, you, the one with the crippling fear of heights, volunteered to go first; the fact that you didn’t realize what you set out to do until it was too late because the magical sight of the tree vanquished all logic from your brain; the fact that you travel to go out of your comfort zone, yes, but sometimes you head too far out of it that you wonder why you even–why you ever–left home in the first place–
Cut your thoughts before they turn sour. Focus on the task at hand: surviving the climb.
The higher up you go, you will find that choosing which branch to hold on to or place your feet on can be confusing. You will notice that this confusion feels vaguely familiar, but don’t let your confusion with life in general be mirrored in your tree-climbing. Once again, turn to your guide. Notice how he knows exactly which branches to take.
Realize that you are almost at the top.
When your guide asks you to step on his knees so he can give you the extra height you need to pull yourself up a particularly high branch, feel embarrassed, but do what he asks anyway. Remember: there is no way you can make that final ascent without a boost from him.
Offset your embarrassment by keeping in mind that he is more than a ladder. He has his stories too. Ask to hear them. Listen when he tells you that he has been climbing the tree since he was 7 years old. Pay particular attention when he says casually that he would rather climb trees than go to school, because he earns money that way. Gently nudge him in the direction of education, but try to understand why there are some heights that this young man simply refuses to scale.
When you get to the top, find a stable branch to sit on, and wait for your friends to join you. When they’re all finally there, sing. Let all your fears out in a chorus or two, smile when you hear your guide and your friends’ guides harmonizing with you. Be thankful that while they grew up climbing trees in Maria, Aurora and you grew up riding elevators in Makati, Metro Manila, all of you can sing the chorus of Huling El Bimbo together perfectly.
Before you descend, appreciate the details you never could see from below: the sunlight, the sight of the sky from 200 feet up, the tops of neighbouring palm trees, the names of the guides carved on the outlying branches, how tall the guides seem, how confident they move as they perform a balancing act on the branches, how fearless they can be when it comes to this tree.
Finally, descend. It will be easier than the climb, but don’t get too complacent. It is critical to listen to your guide as carefully on the way down as on the way up.
Before you leave, gather your friends and their guides for a group photo. Do the wacky pose for good measure. Say goodbye to each of them, but most of all, to your guide, the young man who has spent nearly a decade climbing trees. Now would be an appropriate time to remember that he is only 15 years old.
Give him an amount that you think he deserves. Keep in mind that while it is your muscles that feel sore, the ascent is not your triumph. It is the tree’s. More importantly, it is your guide’s.
Thank him, and press into his palm, along with his hard-earned money, a prayer that he will never run out of heights to scale, of trees to climb.