Our guide is named Paulo, and upon meeting him, he introduces us to his wife and eight children, who giggle and gawk at me, smiling their adorable smiles. We are invited to a banquet meal before our arduous bout of jungle bashing, where only local ingredients are used. The small fish are caught from a nearby mountain stream, the rice is freshly harvested from a neighboring paddy field and all the vegetables are grown within the homestead. All eyes are on me as I chow down on a delicious plate of rice and veggies, as Paulo informs me that his children have never seen a white man before. His youngest son illustrates this point, by pulling the hair on my leg and barking at me like a dog.
Our journey starts on a well trodden path, wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The weather is hot and clammy, the air humid and heavy, so when it starts to rain - it's with great relief on my part. I embrace is with arms outstretched, Jesus Christ style. My guide chooses instead to wait it out beneath a makeshift shelter of banana leafs, looking at me meekly from time to time, between puffs on his menthol cigarette, all the while shaking his head in disbelief.
"I am here everyday, for hunting purposes," he says. "I am chasing the wild pigs, deer as well."
The national park is also home to the tamaraw, a subspecies of Buffalo endemic to Mindoro.
Alas, Paulo finally stops ahead of us and disappears into the jungle. Thinking perhaps he has gone to relieve himself, he returns instead clutching bananas in one hand and a jackfruit (lanca) in the other. The bananas are different to others I have tried, with a floury texture and slightly bitter aftertaste. The jackfruit on the other hand, is perfectly sweet and delectable - if a little alien-like. Prizing it open with a few swift motions of his machete, we feast on the sticky fruit, which tastes like a cross between mango and banana. The texture is strange, both chewy and soft at the same time.
When we finally do reach the peak of Mt. Iglit, we have only a few moments to catch our breath and stand in awe of our surroundings. It has taken us close to four hours to scale the summit, but nightfall is soon approaching and we must beat it down to the bottom of the mountain. Prior to descent, I spot the rice fields in the distance and fondly gaze at that psychedelic shade of green. A pulsating spectacle, found only beneath an Asian sun.
Due to a mudslide earlier in the day, our downward path is even more difficult than anticipated. I fall so many times that my once blue t-shirt, is now the color of the Earth. I decide a swim in the muddy banks isn't entirely out of the question. The river is fed by a mountain stream and thankfully, is refreshingly cold. I shed away six hours of jungle sweating by situating myself between rocks, letting the constant slap of water cascade on my back.
Nearing the end of our journey, we pass a water hose used for the surrounding rice paddies. Without so much as a second thought, I drop to my knees and direct the stream of water inward. It is muddy in color, and grainy in texture, but I don't give a damn. Overcome with elation, I soak myself from head to toe for the second time that day. It's only then, laying sprawled on my back, that I comprehend the magnitude of what has just happened.