You can’t go anywhere, but you can always travel in your mind
Growing up, I read so much about the world outside. I never really ever dreamed of editing a travel magazine, even when I was already entertaining thoughts of doing magazine work. I did read a lot of Life and The National Geographic, maybe some Travel + Leisure, but it was the lifestyle magazines I got hooked on, whether it was Vanity Fair or Vogue. To follow, say, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as they roamed the world, lingering at the cafés they frequented, the hotels they stayed in, the ballrooms they waltzed into, the homes they lived in, was the kind of travel that caught my fancy.
Into the Philippine wild
Grolier’s Lands and Peoples was my grade school best friend, with which I traveled far and away, to places that, to this day, I have not been like Sofia and Bucharest, Greenland, or Patagonia. I have twice changed my mind about going to Bulgaria because I don’t think it will measure up to my grand visions of it when I first read about it when I was nine years old. To a great extent, Sofia was my gateway to Europe. I had to report on the Balkan Peninsula in a geography class in grade school and I obsessed over Bulgaria more than Greece or Yugoslavia or Albania (some of these countries no longer exist or, like Yugoslavia, have splintered into different ones), but it was also my fascination with Sofia that opened me up to the whole wide world.
I didn’t realize that I was, in fact, living in a wonderland, more wonderful than the make-believe world of Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” because, at that time, they were mostly secret, unknown, and inaccessible even and especially via literature.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever really thought of the Philippines as a destination. I was always looking out, though I don’t think I’d ever forget how I felt so overwhelmed at the first sight of Kennon Road on our way to Baguio, in which we would spend many summers as a family. When I was a boy, Kennon Road meandered through a mountainous terrain thickly forested by pine trees, dropping dramatically at one edge or the other into deep ravines in which roared a mighty river. I also had the opportunity to spend weeks in a hut perched on stilts in a clearing on a forested mountain in Benguet, from which we would descend to a stream at its foot to catch wild shrimp with some kind of a primitive funnel fish trap.
Drinking from an orinola in Benguet
The hut alone was straight out of Johann David Wyss’s “The Swiss Family Robinson,” though I didn’t see it that way, but to stay in a house where we drank water from blue-rimmed enamel cups, which I then described as “like orinola (chamber pot),” was pure adventure for a city boy like me. There was no ice or even a refrigerator, but the water was always cold, stored in an earthen jar, in which we dipped a ladle made of half a coconut shell to collect the water. It was mountain spring water that flowed not from metal pipes but through bamboo tubes that did no more than redirecting the stream of water to a point where we could catch it and carry it back to the hut.
Wherever I am, if I’ve got a book with me, I have a place I can go and be happy. —J.K. Rowling
The toilet was interesting, an outhouse and literally only a hole in the ground. Believe it or not, I don’t remember exactly where I took a bath there, though I swam almost every day in the ice-cold mountain stream.
Many years later, in college, I had a similar adventure on a private island in Sagasa Point, Palawan, previously owned by a friend, on which there was the same makeshift hut on bamboo stilts, whose outhouse was, say, 300 steps away on a hilltop. If you had to go in the middle of the night, forget it. You wouldn’t make it back alive.
Shampoo your hair on Ulugan Bay
On this island there was no potable water. The water had to be fetched by a small boat from another island. It would take a thick hide to ask the caretakers to fetch us bathwater, so to make things simple, we didn’t take a bath for three days, though we shampooed our hair on Ulugan Bay.
Now, the beach on Ulugan Bay at Sagasa, I would pay a fortune to have that beach again. It was more virgin than virgin because it was private and undeveloped. We caught a pawikan. We didn’t think we were harming it by shampooing our hair in its habitat (we had yet to learn about our impact on the planet), but we did worry about stressing it out, so we quickly had our picture taken with it and off we sent it back to the wild. Even the mosquitoes, pink and green as I recall, were worthy of respect. “You can kill them, but don’t swear at them,” said the caretaker and, dutifully we, save for one of us, followed. As a result, we all left the island with hardly any sign of the feast the mosquitoes made of us. But for the friend who didn’t do as we were told, hurling cuss words at every mosquito she killed with her bare hands, the mosquito bites turned first into festering little wounds and then into scabs that took months to vanish.
Now that I’m older, I have to make extra effort to remain open to adventure. Imagine all the beauty we miss out on because we demand airconditioning or first class cabins or a warm bath or iced water. I remember being in Boracay before any four-wheeled vehicle was allowed to ply its routes. I remember being in Batanes when the flights were no more than three times a week and there was always that big chance you could get stranded. I remember going to this beautiful house on Logbon island in Romblon, which was total luxury, replete with bells that would summon us from the beach for wine and cheese at cocktail hour, but to get there we had to take a RO-RO (roll-on/roll-out) cargo ship that was as likely to take us to the bottom of the sea as to paradise.
Death wish on the limestone cliffs of El Nido
I wish I had figured it all out when I went spelunking in Sagada. I would have been less mindful of the bat excrement that made everything so slimy we slipped at every other step. I enjoyed the ride from Banaue to Sagada, not on a jeepney but on top of it, dodging every stray tree branch that, had my time been up, could have easily decapitated me.
I am not exactly a fearless traveler, but I’ve had many great exploits with nature. I scraped the sky on the peak of mountains Maculot and Makiling and halfway through Banahaw. I jumped off a cloud atop a protruding rock into a river as a break from defying death by white water rafting in Cagayan de Oro. Barefoot, I scaled the slippery limestone cliffs of El Nido, during which I could have died, but I said no, not this way, not like this. I snorkeled with sea turtles the size of small cars in Bohol. I swam right there, where freshwater met the Philippine Sea just off the Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan. And I learned to swim on my own from a capsizing canoe in Matabungkay because otherwise I would have drowned to death.
The Philippines is still largely underdeveloped and a bold, dauntless traveler would have a field day here without even having to court danger. If only I were bolder in my youth or, if at least, I trained my eyes on the wonders of these 7,641 islands, instead of looking out into the world out there, I would have had a life worthy of Indiana Jones by now.
I’m tempted to make myself an excuse that, if only my bones had not gone a little brittle over time, if only my wounds healed as quickly as they used to, if only my skin had not yet become so oversensitive, I could still have a rather wild life in the Philippines. But no, age is just a number and one is only as old as one allows oneself to feel, so I should throw all caution to the wind.
Next stop (when this pandemic nightmare is over at last): Agusan Marsh in Agusan del Sur, about 105 kilometers from Butuan and once home to Lolong, the saltwater crocodile that, at 20.24 feet, was one of the world’s largest crocodiles ever measured from snout to tail, not that, save for the movies, I have ever had any reason to be afraid of crocodiles.