Sabang

Delfin is a guide in Sabang, Palawan’s mangrove paddle boat tour. He sings about the need to preserve these 30-meter mangrove trees that house most of Palawan’s rare species including snakes, birds and fingerlings.

“Huwag lang kayo magagalit, Maam, ha kung may ituturo ako.” he warns this ophidiophobic. He points to two snakes, a monitor lizard and some birds along the way. But my favorite, by far, are the trees and that, in this island, buildings become elfin creatures in their presence.

Solo Travel and Feminism

While trekking through the 3,000 steps it took to get to Sagada’s Bomod-ok Falls, I heard a mutter in Kankana-ey that came from one of the metal-insulated houses. An old man was sitting in his doorway, cleaning his shoes.

I asked our guide, Anita, what he was muttering about.

Anita said, “He’s asking, “Ba’t daw puro kayo babae?”

I looked at my collection of companions – a Creative Director, a Digital Marketing Manager, a DOST Project Head – and realized that I never even subjected them to one category – female companions – until the man pointed it out.

In a patriarchal town like Sagada where some areas still ban the entry of women for fear it would compromise their rice harvest or bring back long-banished spirits, it is perhaps a natural notion for them to question. Even Anita, who belonged to a dominantly female tour guide organization called NOSIGA (Northern Sagada Indigenous Guide Association) isn’t exempted.

But my companion with her urban sensibilities, miffed at what she considered to be a challenge, joked with Anita “Tell him that we’re not ladies. We’re lady boys.”

We go on to enjoy Bomod-ok, eat sardines and drink tea with NOSIGA’s ladies and come back to find the old man on his windowsill, still looking at the outside world.

Since Sagada, I have gone on to travel solo in many other provinces in the Philippines. At 28, I realize that solitude is the best gift to give yourself when traveling. Your trip, its pains, its mishaps, its joys, are yours to own. Thoughts are never compromised, or diluted. Schedules are never mixed up. Stop if you want to. Go if you want to. Traveling alone, being alone, is empowerment.

In the Philippine context though, most people feel that one detail has to be inserted: the fact that I am female, and still choose to travel alone. Solitude in itself is already a novelty for Filipinos but a female wanting to be alone, wanting do things on her own, is like a bowl tipping over. Everyone wants to catch it, lest it breaks. When I mean everyone, I mean even women themselves, who will almost always brand it as a “condition”, never a choice.

The collected pundits from tour guides, tricycle drivers, carenderia owners, vendors and the over all well-intentioned that ask in different ways – “Saan yung boyfriend mo? May anak ka ba? Kaka-break mo pa ba?- Why are you alone here, in other words said in ranges from bewilderment to wonder, are proof.

But more telling is my lack of a sufficient answer. Depending on who is asking, I give them something bite-size like “Walang basagan ng trip.” or “Mahirap na may kasama.” for how can you explain to strangers, or even to the most concerned of loved ones, that it is in solitude that you feel most complete?

I’ve never felt more sufficient, more attuned with everyone and with myself, than when crossing the seas with a backpack, a notebook and a turned-off cellphone so that it is only I who can get to the places most unreachable, often those locked in the recesses of my own mind, without outside intrusion.

It is also my femaleness perhaps that attracts the extra sensitivity of strangers when I travel. Several times have I been saved by a strangers’ concern for my welfare. Some have kindly taken me in without questions. Others have pointed me to the right direction, have given me local rates or have just reminded me gently that “Hey, it’s getting dark.”, “Rides are scarce here.” or “The shirt that you’re wearing is the opposition’s color.”

It is not to say that they may well not do it for a male traveler, but they seem to do it especially because I am female, and somehow feel that I need reminding of.

Reminding seems to be the proper term because I have never had this notion of being a woman as a form of limitation while growing up.

My mother was also an avid female traveler. She made her way to Luzon or Mindanao every week, and would sometimes, if schedule permitted, bring my brother and myself along back when it was a privilege to travel to places that wasn’t in a 50-kilometer radius from your own home.

As kids, we saw Clark, Bukidnon, Samar, Leyte, Cagayan and many other lulling provinces that have woken up since. I never saw traveling alone as slightly heroic or edgy. It was always the norm.

Her independence seemed to stem from her being a single mother. And so, I also never associated being female in the same terms as others – fragile, dependent, needy – or the male as the antithesis of – strong, decisive, unlimited. My mother taught me, by the way that she lived, that a female need not be tied to any of these social constructs and preconceptions, nor did my brother in his role as sole male in our family.

Soon after College graduation, she gifted me with an Mp3 Player and a trip to Dipolog as her own gesture of saying “Go.”, and I have traveled almost always alone since.

It was surprising to me, then, to know that what sensibility lurked outside my own family’s was different, sometimes degrading.

Culturally, solo female travel becoming an anomaly could be a remnant of olden Filipino culture. In ancient times, in anthropological context, Filipino women were expected to stay at home and nurture the children, but men, men were expected to transfer from village to village, woman to woman, to ensure the continuity of the tribe. And so, women simply didn’t travel. It was the men who have earned the rights to be nomads. Women made a home, provided the stability.

The world, I also soon found out, didn’t take on the role of male and female as Yin and Yang – two forces that needed each other. Instead, it looked at it as opposing pawns in a chess match. One had to be less in order for the other to be more. Or perhaps they were roles that had to be played. Deviate from it, improvise, and you risk ruining the whole play.

But this notion is now never more loosened than in modern travel. To be some place else seems to be the best excuse to break from social construct and personal biases, ideologies tied to the physicality of a place. A woman can climb mountains, drive through cliffs, forage for dinner, move by herself, all the things that others says she can’t or shouldn’t do when tied to home.
In turn, the man can be more spontaneous, less controlled, less pressured to take on the machismo role others say he should take.

A male traveler has a different sensibility from a female traveler. He takes to change – new places, new people, new sensations – in a different way than a woman would. They will look at the same thing closely – a karst, a tree, a stalactite, a basket weave, a tattoo detail – and still come up with different realizations from entirely different contexts. But being male or female is only part of that context. “Different” is not connotative of better, or worse.
To me, identity is what supposedly should be taken in, the holistic view of the person to include not just gender but history, milieus, culture, customs and most of all, personal beliefs, the complicated amalgam that makes us travelers, us. No one is the better, and the world, I feel, needs both.

This is why I avoid articles that come up with disturbing generalizations that point out how a male traveler is better than a female traveler, or worse, vice versa, when the female is better than a male, especially in an age that supposedly is more enlightened about gender equality.
For any equality to prosper in an area I am most passionate about, travel, one doesn’t have to resort to making it competition, but recognition that the other exists, and has equal right to exist in this nomadic landscape.

This is, of course, an ideal in the Philippine setting, but we aren’t exactly there yet. In reality, there are still some places when flaunting femininity makes you prone to harm. There are still some places where it is better to be androgynous in order to blend in.

In Zamboanga, I noticed too late that I was the only one wearing shorts on their Main Square. I noticed this because of the magnified stares of passersby that seemed to realize that I was an outsider but are not all the more forgiving because of it.

In Biri Island in Northern Samar, my guide told me while we climbed their isolated rock formations, “Mabuti, Ma’am, at ako yung napili mo. Sa totoo lang, ang daming mga loko-loko. Wala pa namang tao dito. ”

For many years, I have stubbornly traveled without pepper spray, but have finally succumbed to the advice of loved ones to bring one if more for their peace of mind rather than mine. Thankfully, there have been no real horror stories to share although unknowingly, there might have been near hits.

Where then should the empowerment come from?
The empowerment should come from the active conviction that while it is the norm now, it shouldn’t be the norm for long.

There should be many more who will own the right for themselves, not with pomposity, but with a quiet acceptance that yes, it is okay to travel by yourself, even if , and especially if you are female in order for the rest to follow. In settings where stereotypes thrive, the most difficult person to convince is often oneself.

Very recently, I was in Puerto Princesa, Palawan and the Leisure Manager of a resort there shared this statistic: that of the foreign travelers who go to the island, around 65% are female. Majority of which were Scandinavians and Koreans who, even with the language barrier, still choose to go by themselves or with a tight-knit group halfway across the world to immerse in a place and culture they do not know will understand their most basic needs and wants. They will have to decipher the nuances of saying “food” or “bathroom” or “click the button of the camera.” They will have to talk in gestures. They will have to endure the heat, a far-fetched idea from their long winters and fur coats. They call this a vacation, and along with it the discomforts of growth, of finding oneself and one’s thresholds. I dream of these discomforts for Filipinas too.

Palawan

I’ve prejudged Palawan. Labels such as “best island in the world” and “7th wonder” often throw me off. However, despite its newfound popularity, Palawan seems to stay true to its core, tipping its decisions in favor of nature. It paces its progress, not wanting to grow too much or too fast.

I need to backpack my way the next time around. There’s far too much to see.

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To trees that bend down to kiss the water.

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There is a branch here waiting for me and a book to come back.

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There’s plenty of bat jokes to go around with these tourist guides.Trained by international organizations, their spiels are bordering pun-ny and yet they pull it off quite effectively.

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The rock face that greets you at the shoreline before the Underground River.

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The Hoarder

IT’S been years since we last opened the grandmother’s room. We allowed her, the spirit of her, to live there. She haunts us through religious books, perfumes in the boudoir, clothes that smell like moth balls. We left them untouched and undiminished, in order not to feel the loss.

The woman had her own method to organizing madness. She compiled articles from dailies and kept them in one whole closet, some dating as far back as the 70s. She had a cubbyhole of clocks; all had stopped ticking long before she did. Another cubby had burnt out candles. Yet another one full of fans, a different color for every outfit she had custom-made. You’ll never know when you’re going to need these things, she would say.

We tried to empty the closets through the years, give away unnecessities. But more things pile in, those outgrown by ordinary life, forgettable to the everyday – a crib, comic book collections – but somehow preserve a phase. We kept them in that museum of a room to gather dust. Until such time we’re ready to pick them up again.

The originator of all these hoardings, the grandmother, was born at a time when a relationship with grandchildren was faux pas. Grandchildren weren’t hugged, but taught good manners. Achievements weren’t celebrated, except as entertainment chitchat with guests. We questioned perhaps at one point whether she had any empathy left for us, or if she did, why the uncanny way of showing it? I look at her room now and remember the smell of fire going out, rosary beads in our hands, a practice she impended until I was in College.

But it is time to let go of accumulations finally perhaps. The brother needs the room now, bigger space for the wife and niece.

So we slowly trim through her memories, sort out what we needed to keep for our own children. I open my grandmother’s closet and find all the vintage jewelry I played with as a child. At the back, I find an unassuming metal box that used to hold saltine crackers, and there, are knick-knacks of my own memories she chose to keep. There were school IDs, earrings, report cards, hair barrettes, things I’ve outgrown and found unnecessary in ordinary life. I hand a pink clip to the daughter, and thank the hoarder who somehow premeditated the need from the past.

The Beauty in Redundancy

Here lies “The Point beyond Forgetting,” said a sign by the road. It is one of those trips to the North that need unaccompaniment, other than perhaps a bag at the feet and a seat by an open window.

The sign went unnoticed before. Perhaps because there had been other things that called attention, more imposing things that distract from the minute. The dancing of the sugarcanes. The smell of mascovado. The rolling of the hills that play with light and shadow.

They all sought attention, the type that a first time traveler greedily catches and tucks in her backpack to be hoarded or shared as she wished.
You see, I handle places with the same sentiment I handle human relationships. I fall in love with novelty every time.

And more than their novelty is the accompanying temptation to create first impressions. A new place meant a reinvention of the self, the unquestioned liberty to be somebody else. This, in part, is what makes traveling so necessary, to meet several selves that have yet to be seen.

But I have been to the North a good 20 or so times since those initial encounters. It is the longest this self-proclaimed nomad has kept to a place since, and the redundancy has created an unfamiliar sense of familiarity.

I now know the proximity of arrival from point A to point B. I sleep through the sugarcanes, the rolling hills, the coconut stumps, and still wake up somehow knowing where I am.

Arriving at the port, a suki porter calls me by an endearment, grabs my bag, light as it was, and places it on a spot at the ferry he knew I preferred.

Some locals know me by name now, ask me how long I’d be staying this time around, and suggest I bring their newly caught seafood, ones still in net bags wet from the sea, home. They offer this even when they still question what exactly it is I am there for. In this zone where you are no longer an alien but not an insider still.

And when they don’t know me by name, they most certainly know me as the girl in shorts, often listening to fishermen, or women, or foreigners, or anyone deemed interesting in a place grasping to find familiarity again, even as I constantly grasp for the unfamiliar.

There is no safety in being anonymous anymore. In the repetition of visits, one cannot “unfamiliarize” the familiar.

But “The Point Beyond Forgetting” deems me wrong. I look at the sign now, every time I go back, and ask how many have actually noticed the profundity covered in grime.

How many have added it to their own milieus, deemed it relevant enough to be visible in theirworlds. How many have passed it and not really seen it. Or like waking from sugarcanes and coconuts, have seen it only for the first time.

There will be more rides to the North. Each time, I notice more grime than the last. But also, more poetry.

To handle places and relationships perhaps, one must find the beauty in redundancy. And looking past it, realize there is no such thing.

Love Advice from the Carenderia

“Now you’re ready to get married, Inday”, she smiles toothily. Her brown hands inspect the malunggay leaves I had carefully handpicked, searching for stray inedible branches. She had skillfully picked through her bunch, no sooner building a pile of greens on her plate. I plucked through mine one by one.

Handpicking malunggay was a sweaty task. The leaves were as soft as rose petals, as small as a pinkie nail. They clumped on my hand, salt and soil from the palm adding flavor.

But Nang was patient to those whose hands have never known domesticity. Her makeshift hut, where she sold food to tourists, opened to a garden by a cliff. She decides to get a few more ingredients from there. The soup had to be ready for lunch in time to feed customers. But no rush, no rush, she tells me.

When she returns, she hands me water from a gallon-sized bottle. “Fresh from the waterfalls.” she says, and smiles that toothy smile. I drank. I had visited the Falls earlier. Katibawasan, they called it, a combined name of a primeval hunter and his wife. I hadn’t thought of drinking from it then. But she prods so enthusiastically, it felt like she offered more than water.

Nang positions her plump body beside me and leans over to get from the unpicked bunch. There is a technique to handpicking, she demonstrates. A soft assertive tug at the base of the branch, so leaves can easily separate from their stems. I tried. The leaves came down in a messy, wrinkled bundle. I went back to picking them piece by piece.

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“My two kids lived on this. So did my husband when we started. Poor man’s soup.” she says, for malunggay grew everywhere, and most of the time, it grew without care. Her soft paunch beneath the spaghetti straps and baggy shorts, I noticed, revealed her motherhood. Her flabby arms start to ready the wood-fired stove. She drops ingredients to the broth: onions, tomatoes, squash, dried fish.

“ Pang-enganyo man pud ni.”, she says in passing. But in Camiguin, it seems, a plant is never just a plant. A vendor passing by tried to sell a shrub that, he said, cured 99 diseases. The malunggay is no exception. The leaves were left for last. So as not to overcook them, Nang advised.  Her pile made a mountain. Mine was still a molehill on the plate. But the broth was starting to simmer. So, Nang unceremoniously takes the remaining branches from me and cleaned the leaves off effortlessly.

When her first customer arrived, asking for soup, I watched the fellow clean off the bowl.

“She helped make that, you know?”, Nang says beamingly, pointing to me.

“I see.” the fellow says. “Mao diay daghan kaayong bukog nabilin.”

After he leaves, I asked this wife and mother half-jokingly, “I’m ready to get married, yes?”

She makes a nonchalant gesture in the air.

“Oh, you shouldn’t hurry those things.”

*Appeared originally in SunStar Cebu

Traveler or Tourist?

While winding through Benguet’s cliff-wedged roads, a familiar accent booms from the back of the bus. It does not have the soft guttural tone of the Manileño or the fast-paced manner of the Igorot. No, no, it is clearly Cebuano with the hard drop of the tongue followed by a distinct cackle. The rest of the passengers are soundless. In high altitude, it is an effort to stay awake, let alone converse. But he is clearly a party of one, this man, and the phone call he is taking must come from across the archipelago. How else to explain the volume of his broadcast. After 30 minutes of tuning in, he ends the conversation with a statement that I will mull over for months.

“Okay ra ko diri, Bai, oi.” he says with what I can imagine is coupled with a smirk. “I’m not a tourist, you know. I’m a traveler.”

Of course, everyone is a traveler these days. Just ask the abundant outcrop of travel shows, travel magazines and travel websites. The insurgence of cheap flights have made destinations so reachable, just a click of the mouse to be exact, that travel is not just trendy, it is status symbol. Batanes, once so mythically far-flung, via a 3-hour open sea cross in frail boats or P13,000 chartered planes, has now opened its doors through mass flights. Busuanga, a tedious four-hour road trip from Puerto Princesa’s Airport, can now be linked to directly. And Zamboanga, an infamous territory, is reviving itself as an “off-the beaten path” destination, and really, with a cliché like “off the beaten path”, what traveler can resist? Even miniature islands such as Camiguin have built enough market that airlines choose to touch base there, however short-ended its ramp is.

Travel, more than ever, has become accessible. And accessibility brings in numbers. Numbers bring the need for niches. Niches that equate to identity and the need for uniqueness. This is where the need for delineation also comes in perhaps, when such questions like “Are you a traveler or a tourist?” pop out in the need for segregation.

But there has always been alienation between the two personas, as epic as the battle for bus seats. One has always downplayed the other. The tourist looks at the traveler’s disheveled hair, the numerous crafted bracelets he collects in his wrists, the worn-out bag he lugs around, and the tourist dismisses this experience for nothing but wear.

On the other hand, the traveler looks at the tourist, the brochures he holds until sweat softens them, the colorful outfit he dons for picture-worthy opportunities, his need to buy ready souvenirs from “overexpensive” traps, and as reverse snobbery, dismisses the tourist in arrogance. No, there is nothing to learn from each other, they seem to say, and in defiance, guard their niches like, like dogs fighting for territory. Tourists should stay in resorts and comfortable viewing decks. Travelers should veer toward the untamed and underdeveloped. So, there.

But what is a tourist, really, and what is a traveler? What is their delineation?

Very few can spot the line especially since budget or even modes of travel are not determinants. While the act of transitioning from one place to another is true to both, there is obviously something that sets them apart. What?

The mindset, of course. And no, it is not in terms of depth but the direction they choose to take.

More often than not, the tourist is grossly misinterpreted as lazy foreigners privileged enough to buy comfort. Moneyed, he shortcuts his way to the best spots, eats gourmet food and interacts with selected locals who only show the best side of a place’s hospitality. This may not always be the case.

Touring, by general definition, is only this: traveling from place to place for pleasure. Whether because of time limitations or some other factor, the tourist embodies the spirit of the planned, of careful itineraries, of trusted pathways that attempt to symbolize a place’s essence. Tourist spots, they call it. His end goal, through prerequisite research or guidance, is to find what he’s been looking for whether it be something as simple as relaxation, or knowledge, or enlightenment. This is hard to do and it hasn’t always been successful especially since the success of touring, in a way, is following a mapped layout of those who came before him and has ironed out all nixes before he, the tourist, has even treaded on the path. “Commercialized”, travelers will curse, and will easily give it the cold shoulder. “Why go, when everybody’s been there anyway?”, he may ask.

But is it not the ultimate goal of the traveler to experience a place in a manner that is his, no matter how many others have treaded there?

A traveler no matter how “enlightened” has not always been a traveler. At a different phase of his life, he must’ve been once a child of caution, and will be so again. He may have also, once, been afraid of the unknown. Unsure, he stuck to places comfortable in his stead and went through travel sites or books to ask guidance from those who came before, no matter how glorified media has made of him, he, with more depth and definition than the average. He, who uses local transportation and eats where the locals are. The traveler, who by now, has probably learned that the fun is not just in the spirit of finding, but in searching even without an end goal in mind, will look for the unknown only to realize that there is no such thing as unknown anymore. This is the trap laid out for him.

In a CNN article entitled “Why travelers think they’re better than tourists, and why they’re not.”, Hunter Braithwaite writes, “The dichotomy is not only daft, but damaging.” The search for the authentic, he says, is artificial including those “off the beaten paths”, which more often than not, become famous in Lonely Planet , yet with time disappear altogether because of a lack of planned sustainability or have evolved into tourist traps.

Mostly, of course, the dichotomy becomes reason for self-limitation. This is true in the likes of people who snub Boracay, or El Nido, or even Cebu because of a case of branding, as I once did. How would one know if he hasn’t been there? You can’t. For a traveler to snub an area even as he aims to, let’s say, understand a culture or fight prejudice, is a disconnection.

As the world gets smaller, and all have laid footprints to where there were once none, where will the traveler go?

The easy answer, of course, is everywhere. Everywhere where everyone has been, and will be again. Everywhere, without the traveler’s limitations of only the “unique” and uncommercialized.

Whether in the spirit of searching or finding, travel has become more diverse, and more necessary than ever. This is regardless of mindset. The delineation, like so many who fall into the trap of branding and niches, seems to be an illusion.

Reaching Sagada, the broadcaster picks up his backpack and, like many coincidences you just bump shins with, disappear into the crowd.

In my mind though, the cinematic climax would’ve been this: Mr. Traveler walks into one of the roadside cafes one day, Bana’s perhaps, to take in his Ganduyan coffee fix.  And realizing that he is not the only Cebuano in the premises, we will somehow lock eyes. He will ask all the prerequisites of those stuck in ephemerals like “Where are you from?” and “Why are you here?” We will compare notes on places where fate has somehow jotted in our itineraries.

“So you travel often?”, he will eventually ask me.

And with a catch in my voice, I will note his chagrin when I answer,

“No. Just touring.”

Aloguinsan

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I met a crystal healer in Aloguinsan. She said she saw in me such profound sadness, that what hovers around my chakras are too many questions. She gave me a bracelet with Amazonite for strength, Lapis lazuli for healing and Aquamarine for balance. It’s now on my wrist. I’m waiting for it to dispel the questions, just as quickly as the sea seemed to move away from Aloguinsan’s shore.

Laguna

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It’s a familiar sight in an unfamiliar plane. Trees have fallen or have been left leafless. Coconuts, used for their famous buko pies, have been cut in half. Tin roofs have been opened so violently that a companion aptly remarks “Mura man di kibaw mogamit ug abridor.”

This is Rizal, Laguna, left devastated by the recent Typhoon Glenda, the strongest storm the municipality has experienced in over a century.

I say there is no better time to visit it. It’s as if the place, like a woman after surgery, bare and lethargic, looks you straight in the eye and says with utmost conviction “I am still beautiful.”

This photo was taken at the foot of Mount San Cristobal. When I asked this man how he was faring after the typhoon, he looks at his horse with a spark in his eye and says “O, two meals a day na muna tayo ngayon ha.”