I read somewhere that 30 is a milestone birthday, but with not much to show for it, I felt like escaping to some place instead of celebrating. I had thought that I would have everything figured out by that age, but in reality, the questions far outnumbered the answers. It didn’t help that I had plenty of regrets in the past and fears for the future. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder at 19 so I did my best to avoid worry-inducing situations even if it meant missing out on good opportunities. I wasn’t much of a risk taker because I didn’t want to trigger a panic attack. My life lacked excitement, but I felt safe. So when I found myself standing at the mouth of Sumaguing Cave in Sagada and looking down into its darkness on my 30th birthday, I wondered how the hell I got there. I thought we were just visiting the waterfalls and rice terraces. Perhaps I shouldn’t have joined my friend’s trip without glancing at the itinerary, but it was a lesson learned too late.
Nobody else was there save for our group of five women plus a guide. It rained at noon, so our guide assumed the other tourists cancelled their spelunking activity. I wanted to cancel ours, but my companions thought it would be exciting to explore the cave by ourselves without other tourists in the way. (Note: Some groups did show up much later.) Unfortunately, we didn’t have the foresight to bring flashlights, so we relied on our guide’s small gas lamp. We had to keep our group tight because anyone left behind wouldn’t be able to see in the darkness. Our guide warned us that the cave was more slippery than usual. Fifteen minutes into the descent, I already bumped my knee on a jutting rock and scratched my leg on a sharp edge. I was getting apprehensive, so when we reached a point where the light from above was barely visible, I decided to back out. My companions tried to persuade me otherwise, but I already felt the onset of a panic attack. I was palpitating and breathing in short gasps. Guide: I’ll bring you back to the top. The others should be fine here by themselves. Me: We’re going back with the lamp and leave them here in the dark? Guide: I need it to find our way. That was a game-changer. My companions weren’t scaredy cats but I could see they weren’t thrilled about being left alone in total darkness. So I made a decision. I chose to go on. Guide: Are you sure? There’s no turning back after this. Me: Yes. Let’s go. I was far from ready, but for once, I ignored that panicked voice inside my head — the one I allowed to dictate my life in my 20s. The next several hours weren’t easy because exploring Sumaguing cave was more than a physical exercise for me; it was also a mental exercise to see how far I could go when I had no choice but to face my fears.
Although finding my way without slipping was difficult, the real battle was in me. Earlier in the morning, I was thinking about how old I felt at 30. But in the cave, I didn’t feel old at all. I was only 30! I was too young to get seriously injured, let alone die. I clung to rocks covered with bat poo and used my butt instead of my feet to navigate tricky trails. I didn’t care if it was gross or undignified. I was ready to do whatever it took to get out of there in one piece. Everything else melted away except me, the cave, and my desire to leave unscathed. I wasn’t about to let my fear get in the way of my survival, though it was doing its best to make itself felt. But after a while, I felt something other than fear. It was a good kind of adrenaline rush caused by happy excitement, and not nervous apprehension for a change. It was the exhilarating feeling which comes after achieving a goal and being rewarded with something beautiful, and I wanted to feel that again.
In short, the adventurer inside me which I didn’t even know existed finally woke up after three decades of hibernation, thanks to Sumaguing Cave’s hard-to-reach beauty. Now, I wish I could tell you that a miracle happened on that day. I wish I could say I’ve taken up skydiving as a hobby and I’ve been around the world by myself with only a backpack. But I can tell you that in the three years since the trip, I’ve been a little less scared. Oh, my heart still jumps to my throat whenever the plane hits a rough spot. My hands still shake whenever I get lost in an unfamiliar city. But I’m proud to say that I’ve tried wakeboarding in Camarines Sur, surfing in Bagasbas, whitewater rafting in Cagayan de Oro, ziplining in Bukidnon, and rock climbing in Cebu since then. As for spelunking, I recently came back from a solo trip to Borneo where I explored Niah Caves. Next on my list is paragliding in Nepal this November. The fears (both rational and irrational) are still there and I don’t think they’ll ever go away. But what has changed is that I can finally keep them at bay so I can get a thrill out of life. It takes conscious effort, but it’s not impossible. The body, I learned, can be pushed beyond its limits if the mind is willing to go the distance. And with so much more to see in the world, I still have a long way to cover.