Here was the theory before from Frigyes Karinthy in 1929: any two people in the world can meet together through six steps with the help of a friend of a friend. It’s the six degrees of separation. Citing research data from virtual friendships, Facebook now claims that from six, it’s down to just 3.5 degrees, making it more appropriate to call it degrees of connection, rather than separation.
What they’re saying is that our Earth, all 5 sextillion tonnes of it, is what we hope it would be — small and interconnected.
Boarding the bus that would take us from Manila to Baguio and then to Benguet to climb Mount Pulag, the third highest mountain in the Philippines, I wanted to put that theory to test. Are we really only separated by 3.5 degrees?
My sister and I had just come from a five-day trip in Bohol and Siquijor. The first people who made a really strong impression when we were there were Sasha and Lia, from Czech Republic and France respectively. They were roommates at a university in Taiwan, where they are studying two completely different fields.
It started with an awkward gawking around the common dining area when we found there were no tables left. Sasha hit it off with a joke: No you can’t sit on this table! Five minutes later we were laughing so hard that the son of the resort owner asked us to keep it down.
By the end of the night, which was also the last time we would see each other, Sasha had given me an expert briefing on how to apply for international scholarships, and squeezed in as many information as she can about Scandinavia, both as general knowledge and pointers should I want to apply there.
In return, she promised me she would pass along the message to tourists she would meet along the way that the whale sharks of Oslob, Cebu are suffering from stunted growth because of the unnatural way they are living — all so tourists can have an Instagram-perfect photo with them.
This is the advocacy of my friend Gab, who is formerly a producer of ABS-CBN’s Matang Lawin. I thought that by telling Sasha what Gab had told me, I had eliminated the six degrees between them and cut it down to one, and to an extent, saved some whale sharks in the process.
Sasha and Lia were gone the next morning. My feelings for their departure reflect the struggle of humans to let go. But once connections have been made, you move on — on to the next degree.
The next degree arrived on a boat thirty minutes later. Dexter and Anna are college students from Melbourne, Australia. Dex, a Science major, made a striking observation about the Philippines. “Why is it that Filipinos seem to idolize foreign cultures so much?” He was basing his remarks on the Western music the radios played, the Korean pop stars on posters everywhere, and the way that we speak English.
After a brief history lesson on the Filipino-American War, I told Dex to visit Vietnam to see the stark difference in the way Vietnam and the Philippines dealt with American invasion. Where we have American restaurants in our alleys, and American ships at our bases, Vietnam has shops of restored propaganda art showing US fighter jets, reminding their people and those who come to visit that they do not forget.
This was the first connection I made at our camp site at the ranger station of Mt. Pulag. Immediately after meeting a Vietnamese guy who introduced himself as David, I told him what I never got to tell the people I met in Mai Chau, Northern Vietnam — that they should be commended for how they have faithfully preserved their national identity.
Who does small talk now, anyway? I figured that if we are to exploit this 3.5 degrees of connection, all we really have to know is a person’s name, where they are from, skip all the little details in between, and jump to complex things, like perhaps the politics of their countries.
With David is another solo traveler, a Chinese guy who introduced himself as Lucas. I asked them their real names. David is Dian and Lucas is Xu. Why the western names, we asked. “To make it easier for people to remember us,” they replied.
How is it fair that certain nationalities have to change their names to fit to a Westernized world? Would they miss their connections if they go as Dian and Xu, rather than David and Lucas? They shouldn’t.
Briefly after introduction, I had decided to ditch David and Lucas and use Dian and Xu, despite the struggle to pronounce them correctly. Because they deserved that effort, and that’s the only way that the connections are genuine.
By afternoon we had proclaimed a clique: me, my sister, Dian, Xu, a bubbly blonde girl from Bacoor named Gelai, the well-traveled HR consultant Earvin, events organizer Milet — who I went to university with it turned out — and entrepreneurs Rico and Peter. By the end of our trip, Peter and I were calling each other “bestie.”
My sister, Gelai and Earvin had opened up about their love lives, and we had become so comfortable that Xu, who knows very few Tagalog, were already cursing us in the vernacular in the same breath as asking us what we want from the food shop, because he’d get it for us for free.
Xu has been living in Manila for four years and would get annoyed everytime we are surprised by a detail about the Philippines he knows. “I read the newspaper; I visit provinces,” he’d cry.
With Xu, we overcame six degrees that spans a vast sea — a body of water that both of our nations want and are fighting tooth and nails for. The theory was working out, in spite of a political difference so bitter it had reached International Court.
Not to exaggerate, but it became obvious really fast that what the group was having is what most people would like for themselves — instant connection. Something that required no effort, language barrier and all. I thought of all the times that people told other people to mingle, to go out of their comfort zones and try to get to know someone they normally wouldn’t like.
Personally, this advice has led me to frustratingly long nights, painfully awkward lunch dates, and conversations filled with dull silences. Life is too short to force connections that you know just aren’t there, and I have learned that it’s okay when you find that dots don’t connect sometimes. Let go, for your connection is just 3.5 degrees away. Life affords you to wait.
I am a slow trekker and would insist that my friends go ahead and leave me behind. When they did, I found company with other people in the group: Nini and her boyfriend James, Justin, Jhesy and Rommel.
I don’t know if it’s the vastness of the mountains that makes it necessary for people to close in on each other, or the difficulty of the climb that makes any stranger an instant friend, but something about it compels you to make that connection, otherwise miss the chance forever.
I missed that connection once on the trail of the majestic mossy forest of Mt. Pulag. I was not going to miss it again.
In the cold soil, with moist grass as soft as pillow cradling our aching bodies, and the kind of silence you cherish a lot but not so much that the sound of their breathing becomes the difference to giving up and going on, the connection was almost automatic.
I believe in soulmates. I believe there are people out there whose dots connect with yours intricately. But I don’t believe you have just one soulmate, and I don’t believe your soulmate is who you end up with.
Your soulmate is just someone you are destined to meet, for whatever reason or purpose. Not all my close friends are my soulmates, and not all my soulmates are close to me, some of them I haven’t even met yet. Was one of them on that trail that day in Mt. Pulag? Maybe. Did I get to connect with her or him? Maybe not.
But I made a few important connections, and that’s what matters.
Will we ever see each other again? Possibly never. But what we did was cut six degrees to zero, doing our part to make this world, all five sextillion tonnes of it, a smaller place. And if we just continue making those connections, we can close in on the degree of separation until any two people on earth are just one person apart.
We are talking about millions of soulmates meeting, for whatever purpose, for however long or brief. With the Internet, cheaper cost of traveling, and a generation more culturally aware, we can even make it easier for everyone to find love.
All of these, I believe, comprise an important reminder to the young and restless: be still, there is someone out there for you. Just make the right connections; work through all six or 3.5 degrees and let these bring you closer to your match, to your summit of summits.
You have never been so near.
Meanwhile, have fun trekking.
[Entry 123, 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.