The Taking of Tambaliza

Visible from the port shores of Concepcion is the small island of Tambaliza. For the most part it is an unremarkable island, holding a small population of rice farmers and fishermen, with very little to distinguish it from the surrounding islands. The only thing that makes Tambaliza stand out at all is a small mountain that dominates the landscape. The zenith is no more than a few kilometers above sea level but since the other islands lack such a feature, Tambaliza is fairly easy to distinguish.

I had passed the island on several trips and, with each pass, the desire to climb the peak grew. When I expressed this desire, I was quickly informed that more than one person has failed to return from their climb alive. Though such knowledge should deter people, it threw a log onto my fire. When I discovered that our church’s 5-day summer camp was to be on the island, let’s just say it did not take me long to make a decision about going.

Travel By Boat

Travel By Boat

While Mt. Tambaliza isn’t vastly impressive in the distance, it’s a majestic work of God’s creation when you stand at the base. The peak graces any passing clouds and the sheer cliffs are dotted with plateaus of trees and bamboo. When the sun rises and sets, the landscape is painted in a myriad of breathtaking colors. As I left the boat and waded in the clear waters towards shore, the mountain hypnotized me. Yes, I will climb this mountain. I will stand at her peak and shout victory. I will take Tambaliza!

Our gear was unloaded from the boat and the church group headed inland to our camp site. We sweltered in the heat as we hauled our gear. Every few meters I was given a new view of the mountain and, as I dripped with sweat, my route up was slowly plotted. My heart was torn though, there was great fun and fellowship to be had among the church leaders but I was distracted by the towering rock. It was a distraction impossible to avoid as our well water was located in a rice field at the base. Mount Tambaliza, so it seemed, was taunting me.

I am by no means a mountain climber although I’ve always enjoyed a good solid hike (even if treacherous). So why climb a mountain? Most mountain climbers will give you the same answer: “Because it’s there.” Climbing a mountain is the symbol of how we conquer every problem in life: one step at a time. When you reach the top, you rediscover the simple truth that you can do anything you put your mind to. Besides that, I’m an adrenaline vampire. I don’t have to feed that often but when I have to feed, I have to feed!

Mt. Tambaliza on the Left

Mt. Tambaliza on the Left

Aside from the mountain, my other primary distraction was a nice ocean swim. The heat was killing me that Monday afternoon and the cool, clear waters beckoned to my soul. There would be time to climb like a monkey later, now I must swim like a fish. A small band of our travelers headed back to the shores and we waded in for a few good splashes. Sadly, a good portion of the Filipinos I know can not swim very well so I headed out into the deeper waters by myself.

I dove under the sea-green ocean waters and swam as if I could hold my breath forever. The water is my second home. I looked at corals on the sea floor and stretched all my muscles before heading back up to catch some air. The water level was well under my chin but Jennifer, who panics at the very thought of danger, began to wave me back towards shallow waters with the rest of the group. I try not to antagonize her fears any more than necessary and so I took a fresh breath, dove back under the water and swam towards the shore.

I distinctly remember those few moments before fatality struck. I was under the waters of a blue ocean in South East Asia, free to exercise my soul while thinking of nothing but water and rock. If joy was a mountain, I had climbed it and was standing at the top. Nothing could take the moment of happiness from me. Well….almost nothing.

Under the small waves I stretched my arms in front of me and parted the waters to hurl myself forward. My eyes were open but I saw nothing out of the ordinary when the first shock hit my right arm. Immediately following was the searing burn on my left hand. In waist deep water at this point I stood up and let out a small scream. The introduction had been made: Jellyfish, meet Jon. Jon, meet Jellyfish. I made it to the shoreline where I collapsed down upon the sand with a pain so severe, profanities lingered in my mind begging to be released.

Welcome To Walmart

Welcome To Walmart

With the swelling on my hand and arm it was a few minutes before I could make out the transparent tentacles that were still embedded into my flesh. I quickly took some sand and scrubbed my arms. Jennifer reached out to assist me but she too was stung in the process of touching me. I rinsed in one of the shore pools but it was to no avail. This pain was not going away anytime soon. I managed to feign being ‘ok’ so Jennifer wouldn’t freak out and I headed back to camp alone. As I passed Mt. Tambaliza, the swelling grew and the areas of my stings were about 4 times their normal size.

Back in camp I tried not to attract attention but it was impossible. The only white person in the crowd, I stand out as it is; add to that the look of agony on my face and the hanging of my hands forward like a man begging alms…well….I got noticed. Everyone scrambled for first aid and I fought back the lingering tears. The worst part it seems was that I could not tend to myself. With both arms swollen, helplessness added insult to the injury. I was happily indulging in a bit of self-pity when the first of my first-aid arrived: some lady in the crowd spit on my arms and rubbed them with her thumbs while chanting a mantra I couldn’t identify. Awesome, the village witch-doctor was here to help. “Thanks for the bacterial infection. I appreciate the superstitious nonsense you grew up with but could I get some Benadryl?” I held the words back as I bit my tongue.

Jellyfish Wound

Jellyfish Wound

Next on the medical list was some vinegar. The vinegar actually provided a *small* bit of relief as it was poured upon my arms and for that I was thankful. Nonetheless, the pain and the swelling grew. It was at this point I learned the nickname of my new friend: the locals call him the Lightning Fish and, as the rumors go, people with stings across the midsection seldom live. All of the conversation would have made some great campfire storytelling but their timing was horrible. I was now wondering if I was going to get to keep my limbs; We’re on a remote island with no hospital, no pharmacy, no electricity and no cell phone signal.

Following the vinegar, Jennifer arrived back at camp and dived in to assume her role as nurse. She and one of the Pastors began to chop up some buko to soak my arms in. Buko juice actually has many therapeutic properties so I was anxious to see if it would help. Sadly the buko did not provide any noticeable relief and I was then rubbed down with petroleum jelly. I began to doubt this would help either but, if nothing else, we could throw some garlic in and I’d make a good Adobo dinner.

Thankfully the petroleum jelly hindered the constant burning sensation. I was now ‘somewhat’ ok as long as I didn’t move. Suffice it to say I didn’t move (think statue). It was Wednesday before I could swing my arms freely but it was Thursday before the swelling really abated and though Friday is more than halfway over, I am still the proud owner of two Jellyfish tattoos: one on my left hand and the other across the underside of my right arm. From the appearance, it will probably scar. I’m comfortable with that. I want a visible reminder the next time I’m swimming: I’m looking for a jellyfish that is missing two legs, if you see him, let me know.

Do not hold Jellyfish in your hands!

Do not hold Jellyfish in your hands!

The week was not wasted. Camp was enjoyable and my limited partaking in the games was fun. The food (as always) was delicious and the only other trauma experienced was the unexpected rainfall on our last night. We got soaked for an hour but were otherwise unharmed. If you have good food and good fellowship, how can you complain?

I had my heart set on taking Tambaliza but instead, Tambaliza took me: God’s gentle reminder that I am not immortal. I don’t like such reminders but I’m sure I need them from time to time. Climbing the mount of Tambaliza with swollen hands would be impossible (I’m risky not stupid) and so my goal has to wait. I do not know when I’ll return to the island but when I do, I won’t be swimming until after the climb 😉

One Response to The Taking of Tambaliza

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