A Turtle’s Heart

Cindy Velasquez shares a personal life-changing story about mountaineering and teaching and the transcendent power of the now.


I always wanted to be a mountaineer. But I never had a chance until I said yes to an invitation by my closest friend, the backpacking poet Jona. It was way back 2009 when I joined the Freedom Climb held at Mt. Babag. Heading straight toward the mountain, I almost collapsed. Hot winds somehow robbed my lungful of air. Gathering my breath, collecting them like seashells while outlining a long shore. I could remember how unwelcoming the trail was.

When I saw the rippling orange beam scarfed with the gloomy red light, I was almost near the peak. A slow dance of charcoaled and pirouetted skies, I felt I visited this place perhaps in memory or imagination. It was like my very first handwriting when I was beginning to write my name. There were traces of happiness shadowed by some fear and tired feet. Yet, it travelled through the air like faint noises or the crickets’ inhospitable sound. Suddenly, the smell of the city had died.

After the climb, I found myself at the state of smallness. To be connected with the mountains, I was fascinated. It was an overwhelming weight of loveliness yet unarmored with the truth: I’m a dot in this universe. An audacious moment, comforting yet it was fleeting. Early morning, I couldn’t move even a single part of my lower body. Soon, all parts were someway paralyzed except my heartbeat. Reposeful with yesterday, I was so drained yet so alive knowing I was still on top of the city. Out of nowhere, I began to feel like a turtle’s heart: “It beats for minutes long after the turtle itself is dead.”

From then on, I simply looked at the mountain as my guide. It maps to my forgotten courage, locating a mixture of my peculiar guts and timing bravery. Though my body is somehow lifeless after every climb, all because of muscle pain, my heartbeat is enough. Surprisingly like a wizard’s effect, it leads me to my youngest mentor.

As a teacher myself, I always believe: one way to have a little transcendence is to simply seek learning without comparing with someone’s birth year. Teaching is an art that truly conceals age. Instead, it firmly anchors on friendship. Perhaps, it owns a vortex of an imagined time. Let just say that in teaching, age is simply an invisible thread, it may stretch or tangle, but never break. It bonds each one of us. No wonder I often think of teaching as a magical place. And in here, people do not age.

Just this year, I met an incredible friend but he is more like a manghod (a younger brother). He has this habit of doing good word-plays, a lover of siopao. He has a talented hand that can easily solve shape puzzles and has the most creative eyes especially when he gets a little drunk. He is four years younger than me. Yet when we are in the mountains, I change the way I look at him. I inhabit in my eyesight a mentor, embarking on him trust. This may seem bit pretentions, yet he is eminently older than me when we are in a labyrinth of a difficult trail. Or when he starts sharing his stories about the mountains, his narration is reckoning on how I value places aside from home. He has these stories that speak to me like the infinite spaces of the sea where it encompasses wonders and possibilities. Sometimes, it talks like an unknown geography that outstretches my little childhood fear. His stories have a form that I need to relearn. It takes me some time to decipher this situation. But I begin to grasp that I am becoming his student.

A confession: he taught me how to unite with the mountains, to truly confirm its existence, resting a fact that sometimes a man needs greater force than gravity. These are days when I feel younger than him by years.

It is through Edward that I learn to seek more information about mountaineering. I remember him saying: “Safety is knowledge.” I climb mountains for years, but it was just recently through his help and with our fellow-mountaineers that I entirely appreciate the value of the Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC).

Most of the people who know that I’m a mountaineer often ask this classic question: “Why do you climb?” To have less word to answer, I often replied: Makig-uban sa kinaiyahan (to be with nature), to be more earthbound. But giving this answer for the sake of answering it pollutes the peak’s worthiness. Listening to Edward’s stories, it narrates unmistakable signs of absence. Then it hits me. I finally realize why I become a mountaineer. The truth is: my answer is not anymore to be with nature, but to be with nature in that very particular instant. To feel the now of everything as if I have no expectations of what will happen tomorrow, enjoy the unifying force of the present, belonging with uncertainties while becoming one with nature. For not being yourself at this moment is the saddest. Perhaps this is the truest thing, the youngest mentor that I have taught me the oldest principle in the world: to fully appreciate the present.

Once again, out of nowhere, I feel like the turtle’s heart. Its dead in the past will not matter, not even its transformation as it decomposes in the future. The most important thing is my heart, its beating that marks the now.

This is an official entry to the The Learning Site’s Christmas Carnival