Words by Katrina Swee| Photography by Gio Panlilio
I’m awakened by the sound of zips fastening and the soft rays of the morning sun. It’s 6:00 AM and the excitement finally hits me after being in a daze. I gather my surroundings—the little bugs caught in the net of my tent and the mass of green beyond it, the silence with occasional chirps of birds from afar, and the sweet smell of wet grass. I’ve never felt so blessed to finally be away from the city.
Koi and his partner, Nadine, greet me while they prepare for the day ahead. You could tell they’ve been up for a while with all the items sprawled across the table. There is freshly made coffee next to oat milk and hot oatmeal sitting on a portable stove, a pipe, a conch shell, and a basket full of leaves among other objects. I’m not entirely sure what the last two are for.
Nadine leaves and I watch her pick flowers near the campsite. As she walks back, she tells me they are offerings for Pachamama, the “Earth Mother” in Inca mythology. She pours sage, jasmine, lavender, and cinnamon bark onto a wooden plate and proceeds to sprinkle a couple of skittles in her hand. “Pachamama likes sweets,” she says, as if she knew I was curious and wondering what the candy was for. Oats, sugar, nuts, and seeds followed. She gives me a little container holding what she says are khuya stones left in Jupiter oil and how they would be representing us in today’s Despacho ceremony. I smell the stones; they smell pleasant and calm me. Meanwhile, Koi is sitting on his banig mat, legs crossed, deep in meditation. I am immediately reminded of how different it is out here and think of myself as the stereotypical city dweller, a Manila girl participating in yesterday’s and this morning’s experiences as an outsider and it troubles me.
It’s been less than 24 hours and I learned many things about and from Koi, even just from observation. He’s known in the mountaineering world for accomplishing FKT (fastest known time) treks during his hiking exploits, and his work as a mountain guide and ultra runner. For those who aren’t familiar with the latter, he’s able to run through different, tedious ranges with distances of 160 kilometers or more, ranking second in the Philippines and top five in Asia. He’s trained and led Nadine and her hiking group to the base camp of Mount Everest, and his favorite mountain to date is Mt. Guiting-Guiting in Romblon—one of the most difficult climbs in the country due to its rock formations named “Kiss the Wall” and the jagged, steep ridge, “Knife Edge'' one must cross to reach the summit. Nadine calls him a mutant.
As he continues to conquer ranges and pursue different career paths, Koi’s story is heavily guided by one significant detail which emerges throughout every experience he has. Originally from Quezon City, he expressed how his teenage years were the start of his transformation into exploring our lands and embedding himself within indigenous communities.
"I was exposed to world music and went to underground, cultural gigs. From there, I met people who organized events for indigenous medical missions and community work prioritizing the culture of indigenous people. I was exposed to [their groups] and had an interest in their lifestyle. It was a political, counter-culture thing and I found out it wasn’t really a safe space for me because of that. I met a hiking group through the organization and saw that they went to the mountains and explored them in a recreational manner. That's when I transitioned into hiking.”
From the ages of 18 to 21, Koi constantly spent time with our indigenous communities and began to organize hikes to culturally inclined destinations, exposing others to our heritage and traditional customs as the ranges are ancestral domains. The mountains weren't an escape but the place he felt most at home. It’s as if his first encounter created a bond between him and the land, and it called to him ever since.
In the time we spent together, the words ‘intuition’, ‘vibrations’, and ‘frequencies’ were mentioned often. He would speak of the trees and how they communicate with each other, how everything in the forest is connected and he could hear them too. His yearning for exploring enabled him to grasp a deeper understanding of our environment.
“It’s like a message whenever I go to the mountains. I feel this connection that’s different from others. Everything was intuitive. I would practice shinrin-yoku even when I didn’t know what it was.”
Everything Koi learnt from the forest, he learnt conceptually after experiencing it. His introduction to an alternative, indigenous way of living through Tunay na Alyansa ng Bayan Alay sa Katutubo taught him that humans could live sustainably and harmoniously with nature, while fully detached from society. A year with the head hunters in the ancient days, the Bugkalot tribe, left Koi fascinated and interested in their practices honouring nature and led him towards a different path in life.
I was fortunate enough to witness the connection, to see a snippet of Koi in his element the day before. As we walked into the forest and Nadine began instructing us with breathwork, the first thing I saw was Koi chucking off his tsinelas, grounding his feet, and curling his toes into the soil. With our eyes closed and slowly awakening our other senses, I secretly wished I did the same. The breathing was followed by shinrin-yoku, more commonly known as forest bathing. We were free to wander and connect with the habitat through different invitations based on an ancient scheme of the four elements: water, fire, earth, or air. Walking farther away from the group until only the trees that hovered were in sight, I decided to let my senses guide me through the process. However, around twenty minutes in, I heard Koi calling my name. It took me a while to figure out where he was. I found him crouched on a small boulder as he blended in with the background in his yellow shirt and green shorts.
We spoke about nature and I was intrigued to see it through his eyes. He told me,
“You know, I see nature as me, as us. We are a part of nature itself because my experiences with nature are this feeling of, “Where does air come from?” It’s just a byproduct of the atmosphere created by the forests. I built this foundation where even if you are in the city, you cannot separate yourself. On a surface level, you can see that you are separate because you’re distant from nature but on a molecular level, you’re connected because you’re breathing nature. I see that everything I need is nature.
I am a plant. I had this realization that I need sun, air, and water. The very essence of the human body is electricity. It’s different because I don’t see nature as something different from myself. This noise and energy around us are part of us. Even if we have reached this height of technological advancement, what do we eat? We eat food that comes from the dirt. We eat plants. Even if we have this technology, our bodies are primordial and rely on nature.”
Sometimes, we forget how wonderful our Earth is, our similarities, and our interconnectedness. We are only reminded of its beauty and this relationship when it’s tangible and we are physically present. I realized Koi has been in this love story for more than half of his life.
“If I had a teacher, it would be nature. It is my source of inspiration for equanimity in each present moment,” he says.
These deeper connections with our surroundings, our indigenous communities and ancestors, have guided him in developing new passions and ways of thinking.
He now practices shamanism—a way of life he was exposed to during an indigenous ceremony offering the harvest in the mountains. Koi insists that he isn’t a shaman because it isn’t his birthright but says he is a journey sitter who navigates the realms.
As he sits in front of me today, I am in awe as to how he lives based on intuition and being in the present moment. With all that he has accomplished and experienced, I finally ask who he is and how he defines himself. Is he a hiker, a mountain guide, an ultra runner, a healer? He tells me,
“I am no one. People think that they have an identity but it doesn’t mean it’s who you really are. It’s just a part of you or a memory that you have gathered along the way. You are constantly growing and there is no fixed form. Everything is just right in the particular, present moment.”
I look at him while trying to take in all the things that were said up till now, whether profound, abstract or spiritual—all I feel is grateful to have experienced my first camping trip this way.