Tuesday, May 04, 2010

5 Things I Learned About Life While Traveling

True, I have been extremely lucky with my first job because it took me to places in the country I never would have imagined visiting. The “tapon-anywhere” rule sat well with me and sated my wanderlust. I get to travel and be paid for it. And while learning the ropes of my job was mostly tricky (if not sometimes disastrous), learning the tricks to get the most out of my travels proved to be easier to learn.

Some projects would demand you travel alone, some in groups with you in charge, and sometimes you’re just along for the ride. The older I get and the longer I do it, the more I realize that traveling really is a succinct aphorism for life.

I am now of the opinion that if you master the following tricks, and find its appropriate counterpart in living a Life, you might just find that at the end of all things, you have journeyed well and far.

1. Finding (and Losing) Your Way

A sense of direction is not a must-have skill for travelers (because if it is, the number of people who travel will be cut in half, starting with a lot of my friends), but it does help you get to your destination more efficiently.

During happier days, my family would just jump in the car and drive any where we fancy. My assigned seat was just behind the driver’s chair and I would often lean forward acting as navigator for my father. Daddy always has this calm “aura of knowing” about him. Me, I always attributed it to his excellent sense of direction (and it really is excellent). Ask him anytime, anywhere, where North may be, and he’d know exactly which direction to point towards to (and he’s almost always right). When I asked him how he came to have his gift of direction, he answered, “It’s not a gift, it’s a prize.” He taught me that to have an excellent sense of direction, you must be prepared to get lost…a lot. Every time you get lost, you discover something new. It might take you back a few miles, but you’re better off for knowing. And the knowing in itself is the prize. After a while, the prize becomes your tool to finding better ways to reach more destinations.

So when asked, I can proudly answer: I have my father’s prize. I know how to find my way in strange places. But more importantly, I know how to be lost and find my way back.

2. Finding Nourishment

Ah… most of my trips are food trips. It doesn’t always start that way, but it most certainly always end that way. But in uncertain situations, the food I want to eat are not always available or safe. Case in point, trekking up a mountain in Ilocos Sur only to be served pinakbet for lunch (I didn’t eat any vegetables then), or getting hungry in the middle of an urban poor area in Malabon, surrounded by isaw and adidas which would most probably give me Hepa B.

You can switch to survivalist mode: bring your own food, bring your own utensils, bring your own water --- but where’s the fun in that? I prefer winging it --- what the heck, eat pinakbet (and it turned out to be the best pinakbet in the whole Philippines --- it is the sole reason why I started eating what few vegetables I now eat). You know what, try the street food --- newly fried fish ball (even if the oil is old) can be tolerable, just don’t dip it in the dubious sauce (or at least observe first if people only dip their sticks once—and only once). While you’re at it, make new friends with the children who are surely flocking to the stall.

When traveling, it’s not always about eating the best food, or eating at the right places. We find nourishment where we can. And sometimes, nourishment can take the form of unfamiliar things like a bowl full of fresh vegetables smothered in bagoong, or glorious, sticky dollops of dubious fishball sauce dripping from a child’s smiling, chatty mouth.

3. Finding a Toilet

Ooops, there goes that dreaded rumble in the tummy… and you just wish it were only butterflies in your stomach. But no, at one point during your traveling life, you will feel this thundering need akin to stampeding rhinos demanding to be let out of the fence. Or it could be that you desperately need to pee, and the sound of water trickling is pure torture, and you suddenly become conscious of every -s and –sh sound people make while they converse with you. The moment people mistake your weird walk as the hottest new dance step, for the love of God --- find a toilet, now!

But again, we don’t always get what we want. And sometimes, we can’t even get what we need. Travel has taught me --- get what release you can when you can. The saddest thing in traveling is to remember that clean, shiny bathroom 20 miles back when you thought you didn’t have to go. And now you’re hurtling in space at 60 kilometers per hour, clutching your butt cheeks a la supermodel, and chanting nonsensically in the vain effort to put yourself in a trance until the next restroom apparates.

As in life, find release when you can, however you can. Don’t hoard you piss or your shit --- let it go!

4. Choosing Your Souvenirs

Anywhere you go in the world, you’re surely to find a myriad of souvenir shops telling you that their product is the ONE ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE SOUVENIR of (fill-in-the-blank). And at the end of the day, you are drowning in a sea of cheap scarves and jingling key chains and reeking of that delicacy fruit you could only find in this place (and some other parts of the region).

Hey, I love to shop. I used to be the type of person who would buy all of my friends shirts, key chains and allstuff proudly bearing the name of the place I just visited. But the more I travel, the more it has become an expensive habit which is seriously taking a huge chunk off my budget. And seriously, how many key chains or statement shirts do my friends need? Now, I often just invest in foodstuff special to the region. You don’t have to buy what would probably end up as kitsch and crap, and you bring a taste of the place even if it’s just a tiny bite. And if nobody eats it, you could turn it into fertilizer and help Mother Earth.

I also used to have this fascination with picking up stones from wherever I travel. I will pick two or three pretty rocks which I tell myself would remind me of the (wonderful/ beautiful/ interesting/ hellish) place I have just experienced. At least, that’s what I tell myself. But honestly, I put the stones all in one bottle, and unless it was something extremely memorable (perhaps odd-looking), I can’t remember where I got all of it from. And now, they’re just a lot of stones, difficult to clean, collecting dust.

We accumulate baggage along the way. Life has a way of making us want to keep everything, treasure everything; if we could physically catalogue our memories we would. But sometimes, the very things we want to treasure are the things that hold us back. Choose your souvenirs wisely.


5. Doing What You Came To Do

Last but not least on this list is the veritable truth: Do what you have to do.

You went to Baguio to stuff yourself with peanut brittle. Do it. You went to Cagayan de Oro to white water raft. Don’t sissy out. If you went somewhere to work, or have fun, be sure to do it, and do it well.

While we’re alive, we only have one gargantuan task, and that is to live it well. Anything that detracts you from having the most of your living is crappy kitsch. Anything that holds you back from becoming the person God intends for you to become is baggage. We can’t always know our purpose, God knows it’s hard to find. But if we pursue trying to find out the reason why we exist, the better our chances of actually getting to do what we came here to do.

And in my opinion, a huge part of that purpose lies in the journeys we make.

Journey well.

The Mountains Within

We’ve heard it said, we have worlds within us, crevasses so deep, an ocean so vast. I personally like the ocean within us: impregnable, tempestuous, and indiscernible. But for every ocean that roils inside the human soul is a mountain that is equally unassailable and it towers over us virtually unreachable. I have spent years trying to understand my ocean. I figure it is now time to understand the mountains inside.

Tackling with the ocean within brings us closer to self-realization. It provides us a chance to break down the basic elements of our existence. Reflecting on the ocean helps us comprehend what lies deep within us. Contemplating about mountains on the other hand, is mostly visual, a panoramic view of your life, which hopefully brings us closer to the dreams we’ve always had, and the barriers standing in our way. In short, mountains help us comprehend what lies ahead of us. I needed this mountain vacation more than I thought I ever would.

Ever since I’ve sworn to move forward, I have been taking blind steps in whatever direction that presents itself. The feel of movement is glorious, thrilling and empowering. But I can’t keep walking blind for long. Gaining a higher perspective would help me get to where I’m going more effectively.

While pondering on steps forward and backward, in front of a newly dead bonfire, my breath came out in a mist that intermingles with the smoke of pine and cedar. I needed no more better proof that I am alive. My very soul is almost visible as I inhale and exhale the blistering cold air. Perhaps the air spelled it out for me. Maybe the foliage did. I suppose even the very skies and its nearness helped me gain the answer. The way forward is this: CHANGE.

Change in the way I handle relationships.
Change in what I do to sustain myself: body and soul.
Change in what I seek from other people.
Change in the way I treat myself.

I admit, I am relatively scared of change. I’m not always sure I can handle it. Not sure if I’m smart enough to dodge the harder blows. But now I realize, times like these, being smart is easy. Being brave, not as much. There will always be versions of Mt. Everest within us, and in the end, it is courage that carries us through.

So as I’ve said before, I take a step forward and another one, and then some more, to the music of spoons and forks. Having done that, now I believe it’s time to change the rhythm.

Sabi nga ni John Lloyd Cruz: Level up ka na!