The quintessence of travelling

You’re back on the bus, off to a destination no one has ever been to (at least that’s what you think).  Seated in front of you were two giant European girls talking to each other in Dutch or Finnish and on the aisle a woman in her 20s brandishing her well-earned sunburned skin; she’s with the two girls seated in front, the biggest among the three. You really got no idea what language they’re speaking, but you know they’re not conversing in Bisaya.

You checked out the view outside, nothing changed. You’re still at the bus terminal in Manila. So you got off the bus to buy some Ponkan (etymology unknown, but you didn’t bother Googling it up because it’s not the most pressing concern of the moment) oranges. You spotted an oldish lady outside selling those round fruits. You tried to haggle, your modus operandi: accusing her of selling bruised oranges, even hinting they’re rotten. She sounded defensive, indignant. You began feeling like giving in, even almost afraid of her, but they’re just oranges so you gave her her fifty pesos anyway.

You got on the bus. Now seated, you realized you forgot to buy your hardboiled eggs and hopia. So your friend volunteered to buy them for you. Before you could say no, he had already left the bus. A while after, he’s back with three hard-boiled eggs and your all-time favorite hopia. You smiled beaming with gratitude.

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The bus conductor began his all-essential headcount. You almost kicked the European tourist in front of you whose way of grandstanding was to stand on the aisle, distracting the conductor from completing his task. You gave her a criminal look. She acquiesced and kept her quiet the entire trip. You spotted her again in Nueva Vizcaya. This time, however, she avoided your stares. Good, you thought, she should know where she figured in the great scheme of things.

 

 

 

Everyday

While browsing an online travel magazine that left me torpid afterward because of the writer’s endless narration of his itinerary donned in a language too sweet and delicious I’m sure it will leave a diabetic’s sugar level shooting to the ceiling, I thought, unless he was high on drugs which made his senses super keen, he must be lying.

Travel writers are a special group of writers. They thrive in the extraordinary and the bizarre. Most of them have a special truckload of word ammunition that often leaves my mouth agape because of  its sophistication and elegance. I often see a mountain, a room with a view, and a meal as they often are–a mountain, a room with a view, and a meal, respectively. For travel writers, however, a mountain is a cascade of boulders and debris swept by the gentle blow of the easterlies, a room with a view is a room flooded in a carefully orchestrated foxtrot of sunlight and cool wind on a tranquil Saturday morning, a meal is a plateful of freshly harvested farm produce perfectly showered with a local concoction of cane vinegar and a hint of muscovado. To a travel writer, everything is a novelty, and so it has to be written in a hyperbolically romanticized way to an extent that a reader who is a local of the place he’s writing about will not recognize, take offense at, and find patronizing.

I seldom trust, if not completely distrust, travel writers. They do not understand the dreariness and the dryness of the everyday and the commonplace. They are passersby who cannot wait to leave the place and catch the next bus, train, or plane because the thought of what is out there, the other side of the mountain, the horizon, the antipode beckon with tempting invitation that the now is expressed in such succulent platitudes.  I gravitate toward the everyday because the everyday does not imagine itself other than what it is. The everyday defies any attempt at making it look rosier than what it truly is. It is only in the everyday that reflection is possible and truthful.

Here’s to the five years of blogging

I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.

That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.

Writing down about those gamut of feelings  I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely  convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.

I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.

I wrote this to console myself:

“On Being an Exile”

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.

No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.

A sojourn

By now I should already be in my warm room in Cornell sipping hot coffee, maybe sleeping, compensating for my lack of sleep after more than a day of journeying from Manila to New York, or probably daydreaming about my talk on Sunday. Instead, I’m now in a deserted bus terminal in Syracuse, shivering, waiting for a 3:30 am trip to Rochester, or just waiting to be mugged like how it is in the movies. From Rochester, if I get very lucky reaching it, I shall wait until 8 in the morning later for a bus bound for Ithaca.

This is the most recent misfortune in a string of misfortunes.

I left Manila on February 27 on an Emirates flight going to Dubai that had to layover there for 8 hours (!). I did not realize before purchasing the ticket that I would be spending eight hours figuring out the best way to position myself in those narrow airport seats attempting to sleep knowing fully well that I can only sleep horizontally.

At least this decision to take the Dubai route was something I feel could do nothing about. Since it’s the cheapest among my three options that time.

But.

I forgot to bring my suit which I carefully ironed the night before I left. This means I shall look like a naked banana on Sunday. Thank God I remember to stash a necktie in my shoe.

From Dubai, I was asked, and gladly said yes, to give up my seat for a family of three that wanted to be on the same row, then only to be seated next to an elderly Indian couple who seemed to be fighting each other over everything.

Did I say I spilled hot coffee on my crotch? And since it was too much of a hassle to request the couple to stop fighting for a moment and let me pass, I endured the pain of the heat and the later uncomfortable feeling of the soaking sticky liquid that’s beginning to dry up and stain my gray jeans.

As I am getting off from a shuttle at Port Authority in Manhattan from JFK, just when the van was speeding off, I found out that my pair of wayfarer were missing.

And now. Caught in this cold Greyhound bus station in Syracuse, many miles away from my real destination, I have no idea how to get to the next bus that will take me to Cornell. But I am feeling these misfortunes will soon end.

It’s cold. But at least I got this for a view.

rochester-ny

India’s

taj mahal

What a foreigner will first see upon disembarking from his plane is the hugeness of India whose obviousness is rivaled only by its ubiquitous poverty. It’s not part of my countries-to-visit list. It’s in my sister’s, though. Had I been given a chance to give it to her as my Christmas gift, I would gladly let her take my place.

But, I cannot be more grateful. I got smitten by incredible India. Almost.