Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Outside Looking In

I saw the beauty of the Philippines. And beauty became familiarity. And familiarity became boredom. And that boredom ignited a feeling—a quest to see something new.
So I wandered far to see what’s out there.


Finally the last step! But the last step happens to be the most dreadful. So I keep fumbling on my travel documents. As I hand them to the immigration officer my hands feel cold. She engages in a tense talk with me, her gaze transiting from my face to my documents and again to my face. Then she goes into a room with my papers. After five minutes she comes out and tells me “Okay na!” (You’re clear!).

Those two words were the overture to my first international flight in February 2014.


I have seen the loveliest beaches in the Philippines and set foot on its highest mountains. But when the plane landed in Bangkok, I was filled with the excitement and joy of having come to a new place—a sense of anticipation reserved for the first-time traveler. This overwhelming ardor was my only companion during my six days in Thailand. It got me through the 50-kmtrail race in Khao Yai. And it lingered on in Ayutthaya as I marvelled at the ancient temples that testify how rich Thailand’s history is. Finally when I visited the Grand Palace and Wat Pho complexes in Bangkok, I knew what ‘grand’ means.

After seeing all the greatness of Siam, I felt ashamed for my country. It cannot match the tourism industry of its neighbors.


And this lamentation intensified when I chanced upon an American blogger’s open letter to the Filipinos. The blogger asks “What has the Philippines contributed to the world?” It was as scornfully simple as it was hurtfully honest. But as I pondered over it, I realized that the Philippines has nothing to envy about its neighbors. If I remember well, I never really enjoyed my visit to the Grand Palace. I was awed; I’m not going to deny it. But as soon as I laid eyes on the temples, the excitement vanished. It was not something that I would want to go back to. And if I may add, I was particularly annoyed, to say the least, at the chaos of the crowd cluttered with tour guides speaking different languages. I just wished I could have the place all to myself.

the crowd at the Grand Palace complex 

In my travels around the Philippines, on the other hand, I can often enjoy the country’s natural wonders in peace. It may be hard to get to some of these places but once you’ve gotten there you’ll know that your effort is all worth it! There are more than 7000 islands in the Philippines to choose from. You will never run out of a quiet cove or lake in this country.

alone with my climb buddy somewhere in Benguet

alone with my guide at a crater lake in Ormoc

But more than the natural beauty of the Philippines, it is the friendship I make in these places that I keep in my heart. It is this ingredient of travelling that makes me want to savor each moment again and again. The Philippines is rich in people who will make your visit more than just an escape from work or the city. With them, travelling becomes more of a return to home.


And these people may speak a different language but they always find a way to communicate their friendship. I remember my Benguet-La Union cross-country. In the midst of the forest, I came upon a solitary house where an old couple lived. I was asking for directions when the old man, who spoke no Tagalog, told me ‘By and by, you see [sic] bamboo forest …” And I was just like “Wow! That was World War II English!” It turns out the farmer fought the war alongside the Americans. Y’see, anywhere in this country, people will go beyond linguistic barriers in order to reach out and help the weary traveler. And when the language of the tongue fails, we speak the language of the heart—a language expressed through a smile that says “Everything’s gonna be all right!” And this smile ushers in the Filipino hospitality.

The Ballagans of Kabayan, Benguet, who have become family to me
This is the answer to the blogger’s question! It is the Pinoy Smile that we contribute to civilization. It is this smile that sets the Philippines apart from the rest of the tourist destinations in the world. You see this smile in every corner of the country—from the receptionist in your hotel to the street vendors around it. You see this smile among the farmers that till the terraces of Banaue and on the face of the boatman who will take you to the lagoons and secluded beaches of El Nido.

And this same smile gets us through any storm or tremor. It touches. It inspires.

So maybe the reason why we don’t have those grand historic landmarks is that our ancestors were not willing to contribute to the world a temple like the Pyramids, which were built upon slavery. Neither did our ancestors wish to stain history books with bloodshed from great conquests like Alexander’s. Instead our ancestors chose to busy themselves perfecting the Pinoy Smile and seeing to it that the Pinoy hospitality lives until today.


So if you want something more than just sights, choose the Philippines. Because when you do, you choose the Pinoy Smile! It is not a history frozen in ruins. It is not a sight whose beauty disappears as soon as you've seen it. It is a living history, well-crafted by our ancestors for you to experience now and to keep in your heart for years to come.


And so I saw the beauty of the Philippines. And beauty became familiarity. And familiarity became boredom. And that boredom ignited a feeling—a quest to see something new. So I wandered far to see what’s out there. But, alas, I saw not what’s out there. Instead, I saw the gem that had always been inside—the incomparable Pinoy Smile!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

How Pooping Outdoors Changed My Life

There's more to the Philippines than just beaches and dirty politics!
“Are we there yet?” My tone came with a tinge of impatience. “You tell me! You’re the one leading.” My dad said in jest. For a second it sounded like a blend of sarcasm and condescension. Being one of the best athletes in our city, I hated being patronized. I knew the only reason he put me on the lead was for him to catch me in case I fell. I chose not to give any response lest my voice betray my growing irritation. Somehow he sensed my resentment, so he said “It’s just a walk’s distance!” Y’see, good timing is probably not my dad’s best talent! My annoyance gave me this shot of adrenaline that channeled all my strength to my arms because my legs had all but hung purposelessly from my torso. Then I pushed myself up the trail with my trekking poles piercing the ground. But by some freak of fate, I stepped on a loose rock and my right calf got cramped. The pain was unbearable that I screamed “Fu#k!” The word was a warm congratulation to my frustration that had consummated itself into anger! I was so humiliated! I was in my prime and Dad, at fifty-five, was walking uphill without the aid of trekking poles. Yet there I was, looking like a lifeless object strewn carelessly on the ground. He casually sat down next to me. Then, staring blankly into the mist he said “You’re not the only one! Thirty years ago, at this same spot, I kept calling out Hello! Anybody there?’ shivering in the cold…scared…’’ after a short pause he turned to me and said “ashamed.”
the foggy trail up that nameless mountain in Atok, Benguet
“But I pushed on and saw a woman quietly staring at me in front of that house. And she gave me directions to the tower I was looking for!” Obscured by the thick afternoon fog, a house was indeed at the direction my dad was pointing at. For a moment, the pain disappeared and I managed a sigh of jubilation. Dad went on to stretch and massage my calf. “Feelin’ better?” I gave a nod that pretended to be angry. But Dad knew I was in a good mood again.


We resumed our trek and upon reaching the house, we turned right. About 500 meters farther was the peak with the tower. We camped outside the walls of the tower. After dinner, Dad told me a story that he said changed his life.


Thirty years ago, at the spot where we camped, Dad met a man named Elmer Basongit. He was the security guard manning the tower then. In his childhood, he had a simple dream—to ride a plane! His father had always told him that for a child born to a simple farmer in Benguet, the dream to ride a plane was a fantasy no more realizable than the legend of Kabunian. But Apo Elmer was unfazed. He kept his dream alive in his heart and when he was in his twenties, he was among the three individuals who were chosen by the DENR to help in the reforestation and rehabilitation of Mt Halcon! And so he was flown from Manila to Mindoro. He had fulfilled his dream!
After his job in Mindoro, he came back to Benguet and raised a family. When all his twelve children had settled down, he quit farming and became a security guard. My dad never met Apo Elmer again.
a picture of my dad taken by Apo Elmer 30 years ago
The following morning, I woke up with an upset stomach. Dad told me to ask permission from the guard at the tower to use the outhouse. Sensing the urgency of the situation, the guard hurriedly opened the gate. When I pushed the loose door of the run-down outhouse, I saw a row of planks on the ground with a cover at the center. And when I lifted the moist cover, the stench was more than I could take. The drum under the planks stored all the dirt that fell through the nasty hole. I felt sick but I knew there was no turning back. It was a five-minute ordeal but somehow, I did it! When I came out I saw my dad giving me this grin that seemed to say “Thirty years ago, that same thing happened to me.” I still had no appetite so we decided to take pictures. The views were spectacular! The peaks around were like rocks jutting out of a vast sea of clouds! It made me think that indeed there was more to the Philippines than just beaches and corruption. And I almost did not notice—the field had been covered with frost. ‘Is this for real?’ Dad smiled saying, “They call this andap, it may look cute to you but the farmers in Benguet dread this. This lays waste to their crops when it melts!” Before having breakfast, I lingered on a boulder contemplating the beauty and peace of that nameless mountain in Atok, Benguet. I wanted to stay one more day but we had to catch our flight back to Cebu.
the sea of clouds that greeted us in the morning
Apo Elmer’s life story was so profound that it took Dad about ten years before he was able to come up with words that could justify its depth. Then one day, following the lesson that he learned from Apo Elmer’s story, Dad did what his heart wanted—he quit his job and focused on writing. In 2014, he joined a writing contest and his story about Apo Elmer won an award. That success opened a lot of doors to his writing career.


On our flight back to Cebu, I kept thinking about a very important lesson that I learned from that trip. It was the same lesson that had kept my dad optimistic and worry-free doing what his heart wanted. It was a conviction to start following my heart and stop worrying about failing and suffering afterwards because if I could survive that trek and if I could poop in that outhouse, there’s nothing in life I can’t survive!

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Blogger's note: In case it wasn't clear enough, this is a story written by my future son twenty years from now.
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