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.