The year 2015 began with a sharp turn in my outlook. I was a pathological skeptic, and enjoyed being on my own in my little world of doubts and questions. I was determined to change some of those things. When my high school best friend and roommate asked me to climb a mountain with his friends, I said yes without thinking.
Never mind that I didn’t know how to be around new people, and that I was such a lousy climber that would slow down the whole group. On February, we climbed Mt. Daguldol in San Juan, Batangas. I would stop every 10 minutes. The guide would stay behind with me and I would find pockets of the group hanging by on the way up because as they said, “we won’t move along without you.” Expectedly, I was the last one to reach the summit. I had gained new confidence in my climbing skills, but more importantly, I had gained new friends. One of them would go to Vietnam with me later in the year to celebrate my birthday, the other would shoot for me when my cameraman bailed on the last minute.
A week later, my friends from the newsroom and I would go to surftown San Juan, La Union. The first two trips in 2014 to San Juan brimmed with stories of crying by the beach, text messages that went unreturned and warm nights of waiting for a phone call that never came while jazz music blast from outside my hut. The third trip was going to be entirely different. And it was.
We met young families who were beginning to transfer their lives from Manila to San Juan, and a bartender who was starting a whole new life from scratch, with the help of liquor, and of course, music. I could attempt to write a story about what San Juan means to me, to my friends, or the people who live there, but I’ll just leave it to the pros. Surftown San Juan was the heart and soul of a movie that hit nationwide cinemas months after.
When we were about to leave, two of my friends said they were going the other way. While we’ll hop on an early bus to Manila, they were going to continue North to Vigan and would head home at midnight. I wanted to be spontaneous so I joined them. I have been to Vigan once before, but it is an entirely different feeling walking the streets at night knowing you only have a couple of hours to devour all of it. Calle Crisologo suddenly became more enchanting. And I swore that I was going to spend the entire year doing just that — being enchanted by new experiences.
Two weeks later, I was on the road again, this time to Zambales. The wilderness of Anawangin Cove was perfect in convincing me that there is a whole other world out there, if I could just try and see it. The ocean that stretched to the disputed West Philippine Sea emitted a patriotic feeling of fighting for what is yours. And it goes the same for your own life, too.
Returning to work after Anawangin proved to be contemplative. It had only been three months but I had spent more than I should on travel. My savings, as always, was taking a nasty beating. I told myself I was going to take a break. But the following weeks, I was assigned to cover stories in Laguna and Pampanga that had a lot to do with how unique the Filipino culture is, and how unbelievably fascinating the Filipino ways are in coping with change, time or even climate.
There were no taking breaks in exploring this country. So without much plan, after our newscast aired on a Friday, we hopped on an 11-hour bus ride to Albay.
The stories of loss in Mayon Volcano’s past eruptions, and the continuous story of survival as Bicolanos adapt to imminent threat, rubbed off on me beautifully. This is a place that truly knows how to deal with the past; how to move on gracefully, and with such strength and determination.
The following month, I found myself in Cebu. One of my best friends had agreed to take a second shot at the province. When we were there in 2011, we were just out of college and knew nothing about traveling. We had spent all of our time nestled inside the city. For four days, we took bus rides non-stop and managed to see both ends of Cebu, the travel time gladly spent admiring the sea and landscapes of the Queen of the South.
During our slightly intoxicated conversation by the beach in Santa Fe in Bantayan Island, I realized that the past four months had made me believe in something I was quite apprehensive of all my life: to embrace strangeness. Strange places, strange circumstances and yes, strangers.
More than that, I was starting to let go of this idea that I was put in this world to be alone. There are 7 billion people in the world, 98 million in the Philippines. Every one I tick off on that massive list is a privilege. Especially if their stories end up inspiring you, and end up affecting you more than your own friends and family.
In Polillo Island in Quezon Province, I met a history teacher named Antonio Salumbides. He is leading a cultural mapping of his home island, and that has led to the rediscovery of historical walls that resemble Intramuros.
The island’s elders have become sentimental since; they now look at the once barren wall as a living memory of their fathers and grandfathers who took up the cudgels to protect their home from invaders. It also reminds them of their own battle with growing old — a comforting sight that some things last forever. It was those simple things that matter to Sir Tonton — not the prestige, not the credit — that inspire him to continue reviving their heritage and culture. It always helps to understand where you came from, to know who you really are.
In Alabat Island, also in Quezon, I met Elma Reyes, a fisherman/farmer who was part of a landmark petition calling for the investigation into fossil fuel companies that are believed to have contributed most of the world’s carbon emissions. Because of drought, she is beginning to think of leaving her family to become a domestic helper in Kuwait. She reminded me of my mom, who went on to become a domestic helper, later a caregiver, in England. The government always claims we have no labor export policy but it is so difficult to believe what they’re saying in the 25th year I have spent Christmas apart from my family. I wish that Elma and her family never have to go through what I go through. Migration is our nation’s reality, but Elma is doing all she can to make a difference.
In Limasawa Island, Southern Leyte, I met Manny Janoyan, an adventist missionary who was spending most of his time away from his family to teach underprivileged children in the island. His salaries don’t always come on time, or in full, or sometimes, they don’t come at all. But his commitment to educating children is unwavering.
In Floridablanca, Pampanga, there is a teacher of Aeta children who only goes home during weekends because the school is so far from town. She has been a teacher of indigenous people for 35 years and she said no matter the hurdles, she will never stop. She told me a story about how her daughter, when she was young, cried to her because her playmates had teased her that her mother was teaching the ‘Baluga.’ It was on that day, she told me, that she made the promise to never leave the side of the Aeta children. “Sila ang mga tunay na Pilipino (they are the true Filipinos),” she told me while fighting tears.
In Puerto Galera in Mindoro, I met a community of Mangyans who were fighting among themselves as their home was being seized by the government to turn into a landfill. They couldn’t agree whether to fight the project, or allow the project in exchange of financial assistance.
The legalities of it all is complicated and on paper, it appears that the Mangyans have no solid basis to claim domain. However, it was a clear example of a weak law for the indigenous people, and policies that have failed to empower indigenous tribes. To this day they continue to be influenced by powers-that-be.
In the Caraga region in Northeast Mindanao, an indigenous tribe had found its strength to resist. But the price to pay was costly: lives. They have witnessed their lumad leaders murdered brutally while they are accused of coddling rebels. They were forced to leave their abundant land, and settle for dire living conditions in an evacuation center where they are seen as helpless, sometimes beggars.
It is difficult for them to be portrayed that way because they have always been self-sufficient. If there is one person who has made the most impact on me this year, it is Michelle Campos. A 17-year-old girl who had taken it upon herself to continue the fight for ancestral domain. “Handa akong ibuhis ang buhay ko, (I’m ready to offer my life),” she told me in a trip that has drastically changed the way I look at the world.
For the last three years, I have been going out of town to celebrate my birthday by myself. For my 25th birthday, I invited friends. We flew to Vietnam and there I really saw my transformation. I no longer wanted to be solitary, I welcomed meeting new people, I was more at ease in conversations.
In Mai Chau, Northern Vietnam, while around people from all over the world, I realized that I had finally gained the self-confidence that had been elusive for most of my life.
It has allowed me to seek stories and perspectives, as prodding as asking Americans whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, or as dangerous as riding a pickup truck up an isolated mountainous community while a soldier tells you “they’re watching you,” referring to armed rebels.
Last week, in a packed jeep in Cagayan de Oro in Northern Mindanao, on our way to go water rafting, people from Zamboanga asked us why we chose to go there. “Hindi ba kayo natatakot sa mga kuwento sa Mindanao? (Aren’t you scared of the stories in Mindanao?)” she said.
I had no idea how to answer that question knowing that I am part of the media constantly blamed for a negative portrayal of the region. I just smiled. And for the next two days my friend and I took the lengthy commute to reach nearby places: Bukidnon, Iligan and Lanao. It was something very personal, a way to appease my conscience that I’m also doing my part in what I want to advocate, which is to eliminate the discrimination of Mindanao.
In 2016 I hope to visit more of the South. I want to reach Sulu, Basilan and Maguindanao and come back to tell people that there is really nothing to be scared of. If there is, it’s our personal bias and colonial mentality that have wedged a divide in an otherwise great nation.
I have never been more convinced of my love for the Philippines until this year. But upon coming back to Manila from Mindanao, I realized that the definition of home is endless. Part of embracing the strangeness of the world is also being open to the idea that one day, I might really have to leave. Leave Manila to go back to Tarlac, or to fulfill an impassioned fantasy of living in Mindanao, or to say goodbye to the Philippines altogether.
There was something that Amy Tan wrote on Facebook early this December that I think set the tone of what I would like my 2016 to be. She wrote about crows in Bhutan which would turn hostile if they hear an unfamiliar sound. A lama told her that it was because they were scared — scared of the strange.
I think I’m done being scared. That’s what these places have inculcated in me. The freedom from fear of doing new things, however unfamiliar they become. Going places means new people, new stories, new perspectives and I figure that if I do it often enough, and far enough, I would soon find that I am less fearful, and therefore, more secure, more sure. In 2015 I vowed to leave my little world of questions and doubts. I think I have accomplished that. In 2016 I have a bolder goal: in my life, I want to find certainty.
And to find it wherever it takes me.
[Entry 114, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.