“her travel is quickened by a knowledge of the heart-sorrow that underlies it all.”
– Henry Morley on Mary Wollestonecraft’s Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark
I didn’t believe that the world would end in 2012, but during the past year, I tried to live as if it would. I tried many things I’d wanted to do but was too afraid or busy or broke to. I’ve always been a responsible kid, been super down with detailed plans and checklists, achievement and respectable goals. Like, you know, excellent grades and fellowships and publications, important jobs and a goodly amount of money in the bank. But I ended 2011 and began 2012 without a sense of purpose or motivation. I’ve been pondering the questions What’s the point of living? and Why don’t I just die, like, now? since I was six years old, but I’d always tended to brush them off and get busy with the next item on my to-do list. But last year, I don’t know, I suddenly was tired of my life. Not that it was miserable—I had a job that I liked, was back in university (where I always want to be), rented my own place, lived near friends, ate out and went to see movies or plays every now and then. But I remember these weeks in late 2011 and January 2012 when I spent every day crying for no apparent reason. I was convinced that my life had no meaning, no value, and that there was nothing I could offer to the world, or that it could offer me, that would make my time on this planet worthwhile.
And then I started travelling.
It wasn’t my idea. As a (very late) graduation gift, my Tita got me a plane ticket to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, because I’d told her I wanted to climb the mountain there. I wrote much about that week-long solo trip last year, because it was a life-changing experience for me. Being a homebody, I never expected to find so much joy in mountain-climbing and travelling. I’d been hiking before, but summiting and traversing Mt. Kinabalu gave me the confidence to really get into the sport, and awakened a desire to see more breath-taking sights, do more lung-busting feats. And so in 2012 I climbed 16 mountains, hiked to five waterfalls, played in four beaches, and went backpacking in seven provinces in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. I joined my dream organization, the UP Mountaineers. I helped rebuild the rice terraces in Batad, Ifugao, planted coffee in Atok, Benguet, joined villagers in a tribal dance in Lusod, Itogon, learned to play the kumbing from T’boli children in Lake Sebu. I hitchhiked from South Cotabato to Davao, couchsurfed, borrowed money from a complete stranger to pay the airport terminal fee, and ran through cogon and forest trails in a simulated zombie apocalypse. One morning, as I watched the sun rise over the mountains atop one of the more solitary peaks of Mt. Pulag, I cried. I cried because I finally realized that life can be beautiful and sublime, that ours is a participatory universe, and there is much that I can offer to the world and that it can offer me. I cried because then I decided that I wanted to live—painfully, joyfully, meaningfully, with abandon.
And in the past year, that is what I did.
Do I carry on today, pick up from yesterday, or do I fling myself from some height and cease the nights, the questions, the moving? … What is the sense of movement? If only I could stand atop a mountain, in the heart of a forest, and be the mountain, the forest: monuments of subtle changes that keep steady, rooted—for all their quivering, still.
I met him on the highest mountain in an island, far, far from home, a swift-footed boy, silent and amber-eyed.
I believe in chasing after happiness and love and dreams, though dreams may be perpetually deferred, love illusory, and happiness fleeting, for they are the only justification for hanging on.
After the fact comes the lesson: In life as in writing, development is key; beware the grand romantic narrative painted in precipitate strokes, beware clichés. Beware days that unfold too much like fiction.
I am always running—on the track, on the trail, off to school, off to work, on a quest, after love, after deadlines, after dreams. There are no finish lines, only milestones and pit stops, detours and roadblocks. It isn’t easy to want so much.
Outbreak Manila, Nuvali, Sta. Rosa, Laguna
You told me, once, that we needed to wield mastery over the emotions that crash like waves over our heads, get rid of this tendency to wallow, learn how to deal.
Learn how to deal. Not like this: you—break down. I—break myself.
Ba’t ‘di malimutan ikaw na bulaan?/ dagat man ang pagitan, dinama’t ‘di malisan/ awit ng lumipas sa nakaraan./ Lecheng ka-kornihang ‘di maiwasan,/ lecheng pangungulilang ‘di matahan!
What is it about tenderness that thrills my veins/ like the sound of raindrops kissing tin
how absurdly easy it is to pack up and leave everything … [when] the plan no longer applies, and suddenly the future has become a blank page to me. … So why don’t I go live in an indigenous community in the mountains, be a schoolteacher, and plant vegetables. Or be a travel writer and earn peanuts but get airfare and bus tickets and board and lodging free. Teach English in the countryside, or in China. Whatever. In the end we all die, why do I want scholarship grants and publications and a Ph.D to my name.
The other thing they asked of my piece was vulnerability, which is a funny thing to say to someone who’s loath to exhibit it in real life. I may have no qualms about eviscerating myself and splaying my bowels upon the page, but I don’t let my own mother see me weep. … How to write with tittering, when in the process of verbalizing thought you accomplish what you set out to do—to yoke the chaos, get a handle on the formless that promises to overwhelm.
The sky has turned an unrelenting grey that grows lighter or darker but never another hue, even after the cloudbursts early in the morning or late in the afternoon. All day and through the night, we hear the sea roaring as it crashes upon the crags bounding the beach. Sometimes there is a lull, and the soft waves roll over the shore with a kind of humming. But we have learned not to trust the calm.
Of course there are boring days, lousy days, days in which I only see myself as an utter failure, days that make me feel lost and stupid and weak, days that make me think the air I breathe and the space I occupy in this planet would be better given to a colony of polyps or a single flowering tree. That I would be more useful six feet under, as fodder for earthworms and vegetation. But I also know that such days pass, that the blues aren’t forever—that no matter how long it takes or how tough it gets, making it is a matter of hanging on.
Just as the charm of travel is its transience and distance from the familiar and everyday, the lure of the travel fling is the brevity of its giddy indulgence. You travel with your heart thrown open to the world, eager to take all in—ready to fall in love with the sights, sounds, and scents, with the new and unknown, with culture, places, people. You fling all caution to the wind to slide down a rabbit hole, give free rein to impulses … But one cannot be casting off the self and falling headlong all the time—that only leads to two things: a broken neck, or a lost way.
And then I met a man, I met him by the quay. I remember his silhouette in the light of a street lamp, and waves gently rolling across, licking, lapping, the shore. In the ebbing tide, he kissed my feet and gave me glass shoes and left, fading into the mist down a crooked street. I waited until daybreak lit up the cobblestones. I didn’t wait for him; I waited for what he took with him. But I never got it back. I flung his gift towards the bay and watched them shatter against the rocks into a million shards that disappeared into the sea like moonstones melting into foam.
A place of my own will have a vast view of sky. It will rise above rooftops and smog and the din of car honks and passersby. Pigeons will fly up from electric lines left quivering to perch on my windowsill. … The door will never creak on its hinges. It will be kept closed, bolted and double-locked.
Davao City; Cotabato City, Maguindanao; Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
Mt. Cristobal Traverse (Dolores, Quezon – San Pablo, Laguna)