“… FIFTY-EIGHT, FIFTY-NINE, SIXTY,” I count, then press the shutter button. The shutter clicks and within seconds the image appears on the camera’s sensor – a minute-long exposure of Joseph, Dave and Theresa sitting on a log by the beach. The night is silent, with only their conversations, the giggling of Theresa’s cousin, and my steady counting to accompany the splashing of the waves.

“Let’s see that,” Theresa says and the three huddle around me and my camera. “Our faces are blurred.”

“Yeah, I know,” I sheepishly reply. “I should have bought a tripod.”

“Let’s do it again,” Dave says. “This time, let’s not really move.”

Theresa is Joseph and Dave’s friend – or more particularly, an “online housemate,” whom they met in the Facebook version of the reality show Pinoy Big Brother. The three were among the top 10 finalists, although it was only Dave who managed to get into the final four, before being declared the “online big winner.” When we were in Vigan, Theresa, who is an Ilocos Sur native, invited us over to her house in the town of Santa Cruz with the prospect of spending an evening by the beach, bonding over a bonfire.

Which is why we are now here. The three of them, I, and Theresa’s cousin sit on the sand under the moon and the stars, enjoying some chips and soda we bought from a convenience store. Unfortunately, we didn’t remember to bring matches nor a lighter, so we’re in the dark. Literally.

At around ten, Theresa signals for us to go and return to their house. We’re scheduled for a trek tomorrow to a nearby waterfalls and we’re planning to go there early. “You guys can get up by five in the morning?”

“Sure,” Joseph says. “We’re early risers.”

Ilocos Sur may be synonymous with Vigan, but the province also has forests, rivers and waterfalls ripe for exploration.
A favorite among locals, the enchanting Kagutungan Falls in Santa Cruz, Ilocos Sur doesn’t even appear in Google Maps.
Left, going to the Kagutungan Falls involves a 30-minute trek through a forest. Right, Dave and Joseph meet fellow Pinoy Big Brother online “housemate” Theresa in her hometown.
A young girl enjoys the cascading waters of the Kagutungan Falls.

WE WAKE UP at around seven in the morning, two hours later than planned, and it took us one and a half more hours to eat breakfast, get ready and hail a tricycle to take us to the Kagutungan Falls. By nine we make our way to the central market to buy more chips and soda. It’s a Friday morning but the town center isn’t as busy as other large towns, with only a handful of people, mostly tricycle drivers, hanging around.

Vigan may be in Ilocos Sur, but other than that, the province flies well under the tourist radar. Riding around town, it’s only now I’m realizing that while much of the province is naturally rich, it’s largely unknown. It may not have the white-sand beaches of Ilocos Norte, but it’s nevertheless bordered by the South China Sea to the west and mountain ranges to the east, which means both water and mountain adventures are accessible. And today it seems that we’ll have all of Ilocos Sur to ourselves.

It’s ten when we arrive at the tourist information center, a makeshift structure in front of what appears to be a town plaza and basketball court rolled into one. We are required to log in and pay a conservation fee of five pesos each. The tricycle drives a few more kilometers until it reaches a dirt road. From there, we walk along a river, past a rice field and through a forest. We clamber among boulders and, after a few minutes, we reach the falls. It’s an enchanting place. Waters cascade down tiers of rocks with large tree roots hugging them. We spend about three hours swimming, leaping to the waters below, and generally just wishing that time stop.

This is one moment I have a hard time letting go.

Theresa’s father Cris, left, and mother Marilyn, right, prepare bread to be sold in the family’s bakery.
Left, Theresa’s cousin helps in the preparation of bread. Right, a batch of bread is about to be baked in the oven.
Joseph, Theresa and Dave enjoy each other’s company under a starry sky by the beach.

BUT ALL THINGS COME TO AN END. We’re back at Theresa’s house in the afternoon to prepare for our journey back to Manila. Theresa’s parents, along with her cousin, have started with the day’s production of baked goods – kneading the dough, mixing them with the other ingredients, and baking them in the furnace – which they will sell in their bakery afterwards.

Sooner or later, we’re going to face responsibilities back home as well. But for now I’m savoring the closing moments of a journey that has been nothing but delightful.

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