30 Things I Know For Sure At 30 (despite my uncertainty about everything else)

(1)Every house should have a garden; Every garden should be bigger than the house.
(2) Progress is determined by what isn’t being built. For instance, the view in front of my home continues to be that of trees. For instance, we still have the sea.
(3) Rain is a time machine.
(4) Summer is another lifetime.
(5) Travel, whatever the distance, is circular.
(6) It’s okay to love the ocean more than the mountain, the depths instead of height.
(7) There is no sorrow that dogs can’t salve.
(8) Silence is a place, as is sadness.
(9) The mind is the only unexplored path left.
(10) Chaos is necessary. So be it.
(11) Long-form writing is old-fashioned. So what.
(12) A desk can make a universe.
(13) Books and letters are proof of multiple lives.
(14) Art can save several times over.
(15) Things get lost. So do people.
(16) Sometimes words fail; say it anyway.
(17) Candy should know no age.
(18) Chai tea latte is man’s greatest invention after the pen.
(19) Behind every question is another question.
(20) The body speaks a different language; no one has deciphered it yet.
(21) Beauty can be a distraction. It can also conjure a poem.
(22) It’s only skin; it’s only a face.; it’s only a case.
(23) There are those who think in layers, and those who think in lines.
(24) There are several truths; you can believe all of them.
(25) Memory is inaccurate; it’s truth still.
(26) Wisdom can be regressive.
(27) Dreams should be perpetually improportional to reality.
(28) Goodness makes itself obvious until it cannot be denied.
(29) There are stories so powerful, they are better left unwritten.
(30) The world can wait; the world cannot wait.

What Does Happiness Look Like to You Now?

No. 1 in a Series of 4 Essays on Sadness as the Ultimate Off the Beaten Path

These past few weeks, you’ve begun telling those in your immediate circle of an impending existential crisis. They should know this so that (A) their schedules could accommodate your breakdown, and (B) because you particularly like to plot specific times and dates of your failures.

It should happen in the days after you turn a decade old, say 20, 30, or 40. Do it in a comfortable time and spot, maybe early morning on the desk while looking at the line of hundred-foot long mahoganies that front your house. Stare at them for long moments, unfollowing formal units of time and distance.

At one point in this armchair travel, you will look back at the past ten years and run through the cliche questions those in mid-crisis usually run through – What have you done in the past ten years? What is the meaning of it all? Is it time to reassess priorities? Are you enough? And then the clincher, What will really make you happy?

You input the last question on the search engine because you believe that GMT (Google mo, tanga) answers everything. You’re met with listicles like 25 Ways to Feel Happier in the Next Five Minutes.

You click, and what oozes out are bumper sticker quotations that “Happiness is a now thing. Don’t wait until later to be happy,” along with subheadlines like Hug a Puppy, Think Positive, and Smile. You close the laptop.

In the past, happiness only had one face. It came in the form of a plane or bus ticket. It came in the form of novelty – a new place, new experience, new material to feed the ego. It came in the form of restlessness. It came in the form of escape.

The formula was simple. You wanted more of the sensation, so you bought more plane tickets. You filled your calendar with social obligations. You fed the ego. You productized happiness, put a price on it, and promoted it as a rare, inaccessible enigma. You should be the only one feeling it, or else it loses its rarity.

What you didn’t expect is that, because you productized it – bottled and tied with a large red bow – you also gave it an expiry date.

It grew, found its peak of maturity, and now it’s on the decline. You begin to question the pathos of things. Hence, the existential crisis.

When happiness declines, you can either (A) continue following the same path, adding perhaps a new feature or two to trick yourself of its newness, or (B) sell the happiness to someone else like a secondhand car. It’s time to buy (correction: find) a new dream.

The purpose of a crisis of any kind, it seems, is to force you to restrategize. Perhaps in your pursuit, you’ve lost track of the objective. You sought to be healthy to inspire, and then find that you’ve unconsciously body shamed others. You wanted security for your family, but now, you don’t even see them anymore. You traveled to widen your world, and then you find that your lifestyle is now limited by it.

In an existential crisis, you’re forced to ask, what does happiness – joy, contentment, sanctity, whatever you want to call it – look like to you now?

 

 

Travel in the Digital Age

 

The daughter of my mentor, Aurora Uypuanco, interviewed me recently on the use of social media to propel different advocacies as part of her thesis. Mine centers mostly around travel and conscious tourism. Here’s how the conversation panned out.

When did you start utilizing the internet and social media to publish?

I first started publishing my work (writing, photography, graphic design, digital art) online through sharing platforms like Multiply and DeviantArt. This was back in 2003 in the latter part of my College years. The lure was instant gratification. I needed feedback to improve my work beyond what I received in the classroom. Social media complemented my formal education because it connected me with other writers and visual art practitioners who had a completely different perspective from the theorists and professors at University. Art became experiential and interactive. A sharing platform made me feel that I was part of this bigger, more dynamic community; that I was somehow taken seriously as an artist because other people actually bothered to read, comment, or provide constructive criticism to my work. That search for validation has its boon and bane, but at that time, it propelled me to move forward in what is usually a solitary endeavor.

The internet was also integral in letting me experiment with different mediums. As a starting artist, I couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to excel at. I knew I wanted to create, but creation took on different, ambiguous forms. I was divided between the world of visual art – graphic design, digital paintings, photography – and the world of words – poetry, short stories, non-fiction. Blogging was a very fresh concept at that time, and so I experimented with that too. These forms called for different schools of learning, and I was lucky enough to find a holistic middle path. I’ve since used visual art, or at least its dynamics, as part of my profession, and made writing my passion.

 

You’ve been traveling before the world became “Facebooked”. What is the difference between traveling now compared to, say, 10 years ago?

With search engines and a layered digital footprint, you get a more visible picture that nothing is new anymore. Almost all physical manifestations of travel have been explored. You cannot say that any content is unique because places, these days, are not as inaccessible as they once were. Type in, say, “Bungee Jumping in Papua New Guinea”, and you’ll have 150 pages of resources to investigate, all with different voices, moods, tones, and levels of relevance. 10 years ago, this body of work was still being collected, much like the building of a physical library.

The birth of Facebook and blogging though have helped curate that information so that you don’t have to be completely overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. You can choose who to follow, and consequently, which information you believe to be relevant. This may have given birth to the internet personality as well. Travelers, these days, also have to create a personal brand and digital personality. Facebook has taken on the role of what publications like National Geographic Adventure, Lonely Planet, or Outside Magazine, did 10 or 20 years ago which is to highlight specific storytellers and stories. Facebook made that personality closer to us and has also made the creation of a personality easier. I once rebelled against this need to create a persona. Perhaps this was why it took me three years to get into Facebook. I’ve since realized that the control is still mine. How much you give in to the system is your choice.

 

Was it your love for traveling that led you down this path? 

It was my love for writing, more than travel, that led me to what I choose to do now. A professor of mine named Radel Paredes once asked me, in a casual chat, what I wanted to do after graduating. Quite spontaneously, I told him I wanted to be a travel writer. The next day, he gave me a photocopy of Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel. The first line was “We travel initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next, to find ourselves.” That line fixated me for a year, and I knew then that somehow, I wanted to capture that feeling for someone else. I wanted to create something – a line, a moment, an intangible image – that would catalyze a transformation, and would stay with them the same way Iyer’s line stayed with me. In a world that’s so ephemeral, I thought, what work could be more beautiful and defining?

 

What has the “magic” of the digital age brought in your travels?

Do you mean, have my travel philosophies changed because of the digital age? Well, yes and no. Logistics has become easier through the years because the digital age has given birth to more options. You don’t have to stay in hotels anymore; you can couch surf. You’re not forced to take an expensive tour; you can DIY. You don’t have to just pray for good weather; you can actually Accuweather how it’s going to be like on-the-ground. The magic that the digital age has brought in travel is summarized in two words: mobility and accessibility. In this sense, travel has become more much more “comfortable.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, to be comfortable is not my primary intent when traveling. I am compelled even to make any trip uncomfortable with the belief that comfort equates to complacency. As a traveler, I feel that you have to take advantage of the heightened senses a new place or experience brings. Being uncomfortable means you’re learning, growing, debunking set beliefs. So, I don’t always fully utilize all the comforts and access to information the digital age brings. I purposely do not read blogs before going to a place, just so I won’t have a preconception of what it is. How the place presents itself to me is how I write about it. This may be foolish but there’s a sense of authenticity there, a sanctity between traveler and place, that I don’t want to break.

 

As someone that utilizes online channels to get your work out there, how do you feel about the irresponsible use of social media by other travelers? How do you think this can be properly regulated?

Just to clarify, I don’t think there is such a thing as the irresponsible use of social media, whether it be in travel or in any other area in the same way that I don’t think there’s such a thing as an irresponsible use of traditional media. The medium itself is not the acting agent. It doesn’t have control or consciousness. It’s simply a platform that magnifies content and context. The irresponsible one is the informer, and any information published without due diligence to both content and context.

We live in an era where everyone’s opinion is valid; where personality sometimes supersedes facts. We believe what we want to believe without taking all aspects in. I myself am guilty of that, so it’s important to check yourself once in a while; to remind yourself you’re not an expert in all subjects, so best to keep mum in some issues to give way to other people’s more relevant opinions. Silence, these days, is an act of being responsible.

Some sectors have more at stake than others. To me, travel has less to lose compared to, say, education or politics, because travel compared to these two is a very subjective industry. You can even argue that nothing is factual about it. People will always have a different sense of place even when they’ve inputted with the same stimuli. There are different types of travelers, and so, there will always be different interpretations. I think that is perfectly fine, and it shouldn’t even be regulated. I always believe it’s the reader’s greater responsibility to regulate, and validate. Read from different sources. Get a second opinion. Find a valid argument. Question all points.

 

How can tourism establishments and tourists curb the negative effects of social media to tourism?

No matter how good your intentions are, there’s always a fine line when it comes to using travel to catalyze social change. Because it’s an anchor industry, meaning when tourists are brought in, it gives birth to other industries, the impact of that can see-saw between positive and negative unless your control mechanisms are really strong.

Say, for instance, you have a community-based initiative that allows travelers to witness the everyday lives of the indigenous tribes of the Philippines, and even volunteer in helping them make a community structure or teaching them English. As a positive effect, they may go on to learn new skill sets while realizing the need to preserve their identity because now there’s an external audience that’ll appreciate te. Or as a negative, the community-based endeavor might teeter out of control, and it mutates to become a commercial industry that will compromise the tribe’s human dignity.

As a platform, social media can be a great tool for storytelling. It can also help manage expectations so that travelers will more or less know what they’re getting into even before they go experience something on-the-ground. When you travel, you’re subject to an overload of information and sensation. Social media assists in giving you the right context so that you get an initial sense of place even before arrival, not to say that you should stick to this alone, but at least you know what information’s floating out there. You can either heighten or debunk the archetype. Social media should be seen as a way to create a collective consciousness. All this information out there will later chronicle the zeitgeist of our generation. So any content, whether it be a simple post or an image, has to be telling, layered, and substantial.

 

How has social media helped you touch the lives of the people you have met? Places you’ve seen? 

Travel allows you to show a multiplicious self. You never know what self is going to appear when in a new place and with a different set of companions. Not to say this self is any less authentic, but it is different from what you show in your daily life. Before social media, the people that you meet along the way in your travels will only see that one-dimensional side of you; that side that reared itself in the limited time and space when you were together. With just that, it’s difficult to gauge whether your friendship can really withstand domesticity (what you call your real life) or if it’s the type of relationship that only stays in the streets of Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok. I believe that social media has become an integral part of having that ability to show that domestic (“real”) part of yourself, so the people you meet along the way get to see what you do when you’re not traveling. You get to know each other more across cyberspace. I’ve had friends I’ve met in hostels message me and ask, “What? You have a child?” or “So, you work with fishermen?” These are integral parts of me but they just didn’t show up when we were together. Social media fills in those gaps.

In a more functional sense, it helps sustain what was started during travel. Now that I’ve sort of built a steady network when I go to a place, I just instantly message friends I’ve met from those areas and they take me in. Juxtapose this to a conversation I recently had with the mother of a friend. She met a Japanese friend at a youth camp when she was younger. They only corresponded through letters after, but those quickly stopped. Everyday life gets in the way. Snail mail is slow, or it gets lost altogether. They only saw each other again 40 years after through Facebook. I thought, how lucky are we to have a platform where we won’t have to wait 40 years to see each other again?

 

Why Solo Travel Isn’t For Everyone

“I hate travel,” says a friend over lunch in a Taiwanese shabu-shabu house, and the way she sticks her tofu in the hotpot tells me she isn’t joking. She takes insult over everything physical journeys represent – the entitlement, the unpredictability, the commercialization. Oh, and what about the impermanence and fleetingness of it all? To her, travel is overrated.

She doesn’t buy into the concept of travel being the best educator either. For isn’t it any person’s choice to learn in whatever set-up he’s in, whether it’s in the confines of a classroom or at the height of Mt. Apo?

It might have been the secret sauce, the putrid combination of shallots, vinegar, sriracha, and other flotsams I can’t quite recognize, but I found myself nodding to all points.

Conflict arises when two people find the need to be right. I find no need to be lately. But it did take me back to the many instances, in my earlier years as a traveler, when arrogance led to imperatives. How many times have I tried to transform other sojourners to carry my beliefs? How many times have I gauged the authenticity of their trips based on how similar their principles were to mine?

Take the concept of solo travel, this over glorification that it’s the braver, riskier, more fulfilling and nuanced way to see the world. I first started to travel solo out of choice, then later on as necessity. But to justify it as the only way to reach self-actualization is distorted.

If you’re thinking of traveling solo, long-term or short-term, here are a couple of things you might want to consider.

  1. | There is no one to share expenses with. 

Travel is, first off, a play in economics. Your pesos go farther when you have someone to share expenses with – from the room down to the taxi fare. Case in point, it took P7,000 to go around Southern Luzon for 8 days when I had 4 other companions to share costs with. The same amount only allowed me 3 days traveling solo in, say, Zamboanga. This takes a big toll in comfort as well. P400 per person can already get you a room in a 3-star hotel when shared with a companion, but it can only get you a bed in a far-flung hostel when traveling alone.

 2. | Doing every little thing on your own.

When expenses really aren’t a hindrance, logistics might be. Get used to doing the simplest of tasks on your own, such as lugging your bag on and off the carousel, taking it up the stairs to the train platform, or even taking it with you to the bathroom because you’ll have no one to leave it with. Independence, other than being a mindset, is also found in the little, detailed acts of pragmatism. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Have the desire even, to experience hardships. If your intent to travel solo is to take a vacation, then you might find the reality to be terribly skewed, and an outcome of mismanaged expectation.

3. | Situational awareness is a must.

Travelers are often played out to be dazed wanderers, lost in the sunset or drinking in the mountainscape. But any lapse in self or situational awareness is an opportunist’s dream. As a solo traveler, the heightened sensations brought in by a new environment should be taken advantage of especially because there is no one else to fall back on in case of emergencies. In my case, I got robbed during a ferry ride on my way to Iloilo, a fault I can blame to no one else but myself. The romanticism of getting lost in the moment is broken by the practicality of a bigger priority, your security.

4. | There is no such thing as collective memory.

Memory isn’t duplicable, but it can be shared. In solo travel though, there is no one to take in that emotional glue with. No one can chime in when you talk about that drunken night in Catarman, or the missed boat ride in Samar. If you’re the type of person who takes pride in the inaccessibility of your stories, that might be fine. But unless you find a more permanent avenue to share your experiences, such as writing or photography, be prepared by the notion that there is no one specific you can relate your experiences with and to.

5. | You are energized by people, not by solace.

As an introvert, I adhere to Nietzsche’s belief that “loneliness is one thing, solitude another.” Traveling alone then becomes an avenue for me to listen to my own voice, without the noise and the many small compromises that have to be listened to in daily life. However, if you’re the type who is truly exhilarated by conversations, by dissecting activities with another at the end of the day, or connecting through any form of shared experience, then you’ll find more fulfillment when traveling with company.

While many choose to travel alone, the notion that it’s the singular way to do so defeats the very purpose of world-widening travel is supposed to bring. The notion that travel defines any person, even, is just an act of navel-gazing. To sharpen the edges of life, I would think, has never been dependent on the presence of warm bodies, or of none.

“I’m tired of the term ‘responsible traveler’”

As a brand strategist, I work a lot with labels. Cut through the clutter. Create a single message. Package everything in a box, ready for consumers to take home. But not all labels are created the same. Take those I’ve pinned on myself, for instance. Apart from writer, I use descriptors like “sustainability advocate” or “community builder.” I wear them like badges, insert them in conversations because they spark a kinship with like-minded people that conjure an excited “Me too.”

This is part of the job, one that I’ve learned to accept because it allows me the financial freedom to do what I love, to travel and find stories in the backstreets where most don’t bother to look into. There is very little misalignment between my passion and my profession now. Both require an obsessive amount of storytelling.

My literary side though gives me the satisfaction of subtle imagery. My commercial side follows a simpler formula: create repetitions because repetitions create truth. Pick a word. Drive it down in all platforms. If you say it long enough, effectively enough, and convincingly enough, it’s true.

But I’ve been double-taking on all the labels I’ve been using lately. What have I really done to make my lifestyle “sustainable”? I carry a BPA-free water bottle. I buy local products whenever I can. I walk a kilometer and a half from my house to the coffee shop to lessen my carbon footprint. Does that make me a “sustainability advocate?” Maybe.

But have I stopped buying from fast fashion conglomerates? Do I bring ecobags everytime I shop? Have I written enough about the worsening water problem? The oil in the ocean? The GMO in my food? No. I mean to, but I forget. Or, I mean to, but I don’t like imperatives.

Is there any depth to what I’ve been saying then?

Labels like these, I realize, are attractive. But they are also dangerous. They’re ambiguous enough so that everyone can start claiming them. But they can’t, haven’t, and perhaps will never be qualified.

*

No label bothers me more though than “responsible traveler.” But what does it mean anyway?
According to a travel website, responsible travel is when “we realise that every destination is someone else’s home, (that) we should leave places as we would like to find them, and (that) we should ensure that communities benefit from our visit.”

Respect the culture of the place? Yes. Leave no trace? Yes. Yes. But other than that, what is it? The term is so deliciously foggy that it can be taken several ways, depending on the one who’s using it. Another website even trips itself by merely defining it as “what irresponsible tourism looks like and then imagine its opposite.”

When the concept came around, it became a hit for those finding a way to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack who were shouting YOLO, brandishing graffiti on heritage sites, jumping off rice paddies in wakeboards, extending their selfie sticks to bewildered locals who barely had time to pose before the click.

It seemed the end-all and be-all to solve cultural insensitivity, ethical appropriation and environmental degradation tourism was bringing in.

It was a way to reduce guilt, to greenwash perhaps the seeming pointlessness of movement. All we need was to be ‘responsible tourists’, then we could travel all we want.

It certainly lured me in, especially at a time when I was traveling at an abnormal pace. I left all sundries in the backpack, and made it a habit to reserve three days’ worth of wearables in case of any unexpected flights, which at that time were more frequent than my staying home.

Even then though, I wore it like a shield because, no matter how hard I tried, I was not moving as far, as fast, as I wanted. I had a daughter who told me testimonies of my absence. A week of absence was magnified to a month of blame. Even if I wanted to, YOLO wasn’t an option anymore. I traveled when I could, whenever I could.

To a fellow traveler, my miles were petty. And my travel style was certainly not Instagrammable. A blogger once pointed it acutely by asking, “You like to be on the mundane side, don’t you?”

But travel, even if it were for the greater good of anyone’s existential well-being, including mine, burns hundreds of gallons of fuel every hour. A plane’s take off and landing alone burns 25% of a plane’s fuel.

And because it now happens to be cheap to flit from one place to the other, each person’s frequency to travel doubles, which also doubles ozone production.

Planes account for more global warming than all cars combined. And because I fly twice a month, on short flights, or overnight boat rides, I alone account for 16 tons of CO² emissions on average every year.

This can be contested, of course, and has been through the years. New studies present a different angle everyday, but these arguments mostly revolve around the scale of degradation, not the denouncement that it’s happening.

In this case, the more “responsible” thing to do is to stay put. The farther you move, the bigger your carbon footprint is. To be a responsible traveler, then, is to understand the hypocrisy in the term.

*

The other argument to responsible travel is the concept of travel philanthropy. Travelers now want their presence to be less invasive, more community-oriented.

Imagine this scenario: instead of running around on a half-day tour in Puerto Princesa, being stuck in a van with other tourists that go in and out of destinations, with barely enough time to talk to anyone including their own tourmates, responsible tourism suggests you stay with the T’bolis in Cotabato, eating the food they eat, going to the river banks where they hunt for frogs, listening to their dream chants at night. It aims to connect directly to the community, placing hard-earned pesos in homestays, family-run museums or craft workshops with women cooperatives.

But in whatever form they come in, both are still invasive. Both still exoticize places and people. For that is what is common in all forms of travel: that no matter how hard we try to whitewash, we will always be outsiders witnessing an insider’s life.

It is holed. It is a paradox for the very act of wandering the physicality of place already disturbs natural habitat, and its inhabitants, no matter how noble the effort to camouflage foreignness.

The responsible traveler, no matter how much the term is said, is an external stimuli, an unnecessary disturbance. It builds a wall of exclusivity that disturbs those who aren’t “responsible.”And because my medium is often the written word, I cringe everytime I have to use the term.

*

But will I stop traveling now that I have this in hand? Never.

Will I let the imperfection of travel stop this greater need to find the self outside the self? Never.

This is the lure of spaces lost to us. This is the romantic, impractical part of distance that has baited so many before in an inexplicable cry for fernweh and sehnsucht.

There is perhaps rectification though in using the right term. True, it is not a strategy. It is an argument, but I would rather that most people use the term “conscious traveler”.

The “conscious traveler” is mindful that wherever he goes, he creates unnecessary repercussions in the world. And so, does whatever he can to abate whatever footprints he made in his acts of restlessness.

The conscious traveler creates as little carbon mark in his domestic life to rectify what was made in his months of movement.

The conscious traveler is aware that because he foregoes the tourist package in order to search for authentic experiences, that he may well be very well foregoing tried-and-true systems already locked in placed that, down the line, would have created more progressive employment for more stakeholders in the value chain – the homestays, the indigenous tribes, the fishermen, the farmers, the drivers.

The conscious traveler knows he is part of the problem, and is not entitled enough to be excluded from it.

There is an again conscious recognition that because we have a tendency to messianic about our advocacies, there is also a tendency to demoralize those who do not have the same cause, in effect saying that all the rest are “irresponsible”.

The conscious traveler knows he is far from perfect, and therefore, does not chastise others who travel differently than he does.

Travel has never been easier, and that is why, it has also never been more difficult to make its value chain more stable. Every traveler is a disruptor. Language that aims to simplify may perhaps create more barriers, perhaps even including this writer’s feeble attempt.

*

So where is the resolution in this rant? Very recently I was in the Southern Cebu town of Argao, getting tsokolate and scrambled eggs in Alex Kafe, walking through its century-old church and buying tableya in the local carenderia. The next day, I flew to Manila to walk around the Red Light district of Katipunan where I usually stay. In the middle of Powerplant and Century City Mall, is a pre-war home that was recently renovated by its historian owner. There was a sampaguita on my bed and waling-waling on my window. I listened to the K-Pop bars around me, and guessed which of the passersby were real women or transvestites.

By the time I flew to Baguio, I was spent. My sensations were muddled, still drinking tsokolate in the neighborhood cafe in Argao, or roaming the streets of Katipunan. The Japanese family’s house where I was staying overlooked the city of Baguio. Every morning, I would wake up to women sorting out coffee beans one by one. And every night, in their art cafe, there would be a spoken word session or a folk musician playing his guitar on his lap. There were so many stories around me waiting to be coaxed out. But I mostly just stayed on the second floor, listening to the ruckus without being part of it, my sensations overloaded. I could no longer appreciate any of them. There was no transition, no time to digest information.

When this happens, and this has happened often, I rely on the camera to keep memories for me. Because moments aren’t processed as they are happening, I rely on visuals, not consciousness, to give me a sense of place.

I get home, review the images, and find out that I don’t remember the nuances of travel. The details so important to holding on. The conversations with porters. The mutters of the tricycle driver. The taste of local food. The back stories of fellow nomads.

When you travel too much, too fast, you experience places less and less. Sensation that was once heightened the first few times you transitioned from one geography to the other becomes a norm, a triviality even. Delayed flights ruin your day. Small inconveniences balloon into monstrous issues. You lose the very consciousness the novelty of travel brings.

The secret perhaps to traveling more responsibly, if not consciously, is to travel less. To give time to relish moments when they are happening, as they are happening. Respecting the place that you’re in then becomes common sense when you are fully in it. And that very consciousness emanates to not just what is left behind, but what is brought home.

Oftentimes terms like these, ‘responsible travel’ or conscious travel, becomes just a selling point for another Instagrammable shot. But when we intuitively find joy, or even just solace, in the places we go to, we find that the connection so needed to protect it becomes second nature. This is the type of travel that doesn’t need to be documented, or validated. This is the type of travel that doesn’t need labels.

The God of Here

THESE days, here seems to be just as mystical to me as the mountains of Nepal or the temples of Myanmar.

When I’m home, on the very rare occasions that I am home, I stay in my pocket garden and take in the plants that have grown or shriveled without me.

This collection of greens never really thrive together.With the recent rains, the calamansi and pepper have started shedding their leaves, drowned perhaps, while the heat-sensitive ones like the mayana and oregano have overgrown their pots, climbed bars, leaned lopsidedly from the new, unexpected weight.

Together, they mark the passage of my absence.

There are times when I come home to half of them gone, weeks too late. When I stare at them, it is the closest thing I’ve taken to meditation.

But my presence in these occasions never last for very long. I take time to water them, to reset the clock, then the plants become backdrop to the lights of the laptop.

No sooner has here overtaken me that I once again become a virtual tourist in an information super highway that glorifies a multiplicity of selves. When I am here, I think of the many theres that I have yet to be in.

Here becomes valuable only because it maps out a point of reference, for in my mind, I may already be in mountains of Nepal or the temples of Myanmar. Elsewhere consumes me. It always has.

The daughter constantly complains that I am rarely here. I’ve taken note that she never says that I am always away. There must be a difference.
Like my calamansi, she waits for a drought of things to do, places to go, people to see. Only then might she have me.

When she pleads, it is tantamount to fighting the lack of gravity, that people and personalities to her seem to float away to a vacuous there or what David Foster Wallace would describe as “the agonizing interval between something falling off and it hitting the ground.”

I admire the tenacity of children to stay in a certain place. They have the ability to be fully present in short, fleeting moments. They laugh fully without ever thinking of losing breath, place everything in a drawing and judge it as a masterpiece. Then, they forget about it until the next masterpiece comes along.

Never mind. By then, they’ve already lined up a short, fleeting series of full moments. Better than any adult’s concept of reservation and process, preparation and “finding” passion; finding, what, happiness? A child is passionate, is happy. Those things reside in the realm of the here.

But I am most comfortable when chasing after the unknown, of the far off. It is the exact thing that both excites and incapacitates.

Most recently, sensing my restlessness, a mentor sat me down and talked to me, not about work or not even about far-off plans, but what I might be doing the next day, part of a long weekend.

For a lover of movement, he suggested, I might try doing something new for once. “How about doing nothing?” he said.

This, he continued, was what happened, or didn’t happen, a couple of years ago when his coffee shop chain reached the hundred branch threshold. It is in these pendulums that anx

iety often overcomes rational thought. What if he fails? But just as fearful is: what if he actually succeeds?

So, for the next couple of months, he did nothing. It was the best advice he ever gave himself.

I pray rarely but when I do, I pray to the God of Here to visit me and find his solace in mine.

The Minimalist and Maximalist

In this house, there is a perpetual battle of eras.

The porcelain tea cups sit alongside the compact discs and VHS tapes. An old Spanish galleon floats with a mermaid Barbie doll. Vinyl players and stereos. Typewriters and laptops. Century-old pianos and dirty laundry. They all reside in one home.

In the Philippines, it’s never about moving out, or moving on. What constitutes “moving out” is moving in to the next room, if you’re lucky. I think of my home more as a thrift shop, a gallery of past existence, more than an inhabited place.

The mother, born in the 60s, grew up with a collector’s sensibility. She kept stickers, books, signatures from classmates, stamps, bottles, dolphin figurines; in other words, any item that can be deemed as a collectible, and some questionable others that are not. She was taught that things of importance needed to be kept. Her flagstone for affection was when someone gave her a bit of their past as remembrance to a life lived. She herself pictures out the day when she passes on her heirlooms to the next generation, to her two children, who were raised in a different time.

“I don’t want them.” I jokingly tell her. As an 80s child, I grew up at the end trails of a materialistic age where accumulation was a way of life. Like my mother, I started collecting hats, watches, stationaries, bottles, PEZ toys, Archie comics. Most of these were backed by her willing purchases. They gathered in a room, becoming factoids classmates would share about me. I was always an ambiguous figure, preferring to absorb other’s people’s interests instead of sharing my own. So when they found out that odd detail, a bottle or two would pop up below my chair. Finally, I was someone concrete and describable. I was the girl who collected things.
By high school though, accumulation turned to claustrophobia. There was never any place to put them anymore. They constantly collected dust. They depreciated even when there was never a chance to use them yet. I was cloistered in a small room full of possessions that owned me. Could I really be simply the sum of all these things, these nothings? Even memory, their sheer weight, should sometimes be given away. Eventually, I bundled them up and passed them on in bulk.

The household, these days, continues to be a battleground between sentiment and pragmatism.

“You threw away my attaché case!” the mother complains during one of my purging expeditions, when I sneaked it into the trash bin.

“It’s cracked and old, and it’s starting to grow molds.” I tell her as she scavenges it out and puts the clunker back in her closet.

I tell my mother space itself, not so much what is in them, will be the ultimate luxury in a world that closes in, takes away your personal cosmos, day by day. Several years from now, we may even have to pay to take away the very possessions we’ve fought so hard to amass.

My ideal house, I picture out, is a place stripped down to bare essentials, a Mondrian painting where everything has place and purpose, something the painter said that’s “constructed with awareness, but not with calculation” to become something “as strong, as it is true.”

My 5-year old, a Millennial baby used to these battles by now, complains that our house is too small for our egos. It stores too many departed eras in its termite-worn walls. She once showed me a picture of what her dream home is. In a hap dash reconstruction, she shows me a structure with far too many windows, about ten abnormally cramped in a rectangular box with a pink roof. She explains that the first window was the room where she was going to practice her dancing. The second room was where she could practice her singing. Another room was where she could paint. And yet another room was where she could unwind, watch movies.

It occurred to me that her ideal house was where she might have enough stretch to accommodate her several selves, and that several selves could actually be accommodated in such an undiscriminating space. This is the extravagance of those with enough legroom to come into their own, unperturbed by the realities of what was left behind.

I tell my child with a voice loud enough for the mother to overhear that I will not give her anything else but genes and education. And when the years have opened more windows than she cares to look into, may she recognize that to in order to give her more, I gave her less.

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.

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.