Lately the world seemed to me both drab and exciting, having acquired the need to forget the blandness of everyday by strapping on a backpack and leaving whenever I could, which was pretty much, for the last few months, every week. But yesterday morning, lying on that stretch where sand and sea met and I was at two places at once, being washed up onshore again and again and feeling light for the first time in a long time, I realized that there is only so much that travel can do.
What I remember is being deeply troubled and liberated by the fact that nothing is holding me back; that I’ve never been truly attached to anything or anyone, and so Home, well, Home became wherever I happened to find myself actually feeling part of the scene — however glorious like a mountaintop or unremarkable like in line at a Jollibee branch somewhere in Nueva Ecija — instead of a boring, insignificant prop. Feeling fully present has become a rare feat for me, on most days despite being surrounded by laughter and being equipped with the certainty that I actually know what I want to do after college and perhaps the next fifty years, I’d feel like I was just mindlessly drifting.
Now, though, I am just all too glad to finally, finally, feel right at Home.
The trip to Burot Beach, Calatagan, Batangas wasn’t grand at all, and it was short — I stayed there for sixteen hours only. I slept in a tent, found my way around with just a small flashlight, roasted marshmallows by the bonfire, survived on canned bangus and wheat bread, and drank cheap brandy. It was simple, and it was exactly what I needed.
I’ve been wanting to get away for a while now and was disappointed when my paycheck was released late, having to cancel the week-old plan to head down south with one of my closest friends, Elaine. But timing has its perks, and I can imagine that I’d only spend the trip thinking about prelims and org responsibilities if it pushed through last week. Packing definitely felt much better knowing I can revel in every minute that’s to come absolutely worry-free. I also met Dwayne, a backpacker from Iloilo, who Elaine met when she went backpacking in Visayas earlier this year. My theory is that despite what Catfish and marathons of Criminal Minds may lead us to think, in this country it is actually pretty nice, not to mention safe, to meet up with strangers you met online, and have them stay in your life for good. Come to think of it, the people I consider closest to me right now are mostly comprised by folks I met through forums who turned out to be not serial killers or some sad compulsive liar, but wonderful people who are as brilliant as they are in real life as they appear to be in their profiles.
I had to pick up something from the office at Buendia, which was about three stations from the LRT-MRT intersection where I was meeting up with my companions Friday afternoon. But of course, being the last Friday before Christmas, traffic was five times more horrible than it usually is, and I was an hour late. I was easily forgiven, though, or my friends are just nice people, so we didn’t dwell on this and raced to Coastal Mall, to my relief. Upon arrival, we immediately spotted a Calatagan-bound bus and boarded, shawarmas in hand. Halfway through Cavitex, we were already empty-handed, dreaming of roasted marshmallows, and spent the rest of the trip buying everything offered to us by vendors. Elaine and Dwayne, whose names rhyme, I just realized, spent the next four hours talking about college and mutual friends online and IRL, while I drifted in and out of sleep.
Upon arrival at the Calatagan terminal which turned out to be the last stop anyway rendering my fight to stay awake unnecessary, we commissioned a tricycle to take us to Burot, which passed through streets completely void of signs of life. This was what I loved about coastal towns, how, at just 8PM, life screeches to a halt, and I always feel like I am sneaking in.
Burot Beach is apparently now owned by Henry Sy, and uniformed guards greeted us as soon as the tricycle parked. The driver, however, told me to be wary of them, since there had been incidents where guests lost valuables because they sneaked in the tents when the guests are out swimming or island-hopping. After finding a decent spot, though, one of the guards helped us pitch our tent and seemed perfectly harmless. Soon, we were having dinner in front of the bonfire, noting how the cloudy sky has now given way for stars to shine through. Elaine got out her ukulele and started serenading us, while we munched on chocolate-covered hazelnuts and roasted marshmallows while drinking. There wasn’t much to see, a headlamp fulfilled its basic function yes, but I would have to wait until daybreak to see how beautiful Burot is.
The view was more than enough to get me out of the tent. Elaine and Dwayne prepared noodles and I sipped a little bit before feeding the rest of my breakfast to a dog I baptized as George, who kept me company as my friends explored the beach. Meanwhile, I was struggling with a hangover so I spread a blanket on the sand and lied down, sacrificing my phone’s battery life by blasting The Cure and RHCP, which surprisingly cured me of the headache.
When they returned, I changed into swimwear and walked towards the edge until I found a quiet portion where no one was around for the next hundred meters or so. Of course I forgot my camera and did not get a chance to immortalize my private beach through the prestigious craft of cellphone photography, but I suppose I’ve stayed in that place long enough to have the wonderful images etched in memory. I prefer it this way, being the sole witness. I was afforded a magnificent view of Mt. Halcon stretching across Mindoro and Ambil Island, as well as fishing boats reduced to pale blue dots flickering in the far distance. It’s strange how lying down by the water’s edge and having the waves ease me back to land and pull me to the sea over and over again made me feel like I was no longer drifting, but anchored on something, grounded on possibilities.
I realized I wanted — no, needed — a clean slate, and that the trivial mistakes I kept agonizing over only endured because I kept them alive, my mind having become a breeding space for a cynicism that’s overrated and just utterly pointless. I travel because I wanted to purge myself of this sense of self-importance, to see how well, if at all, I hold up in strange places and in the company of even stranger people.
People say that those who travel see it as an escape, or as a conquest, an opportunity to find whatever it is that is missing from their lives, and they are correct of course, to an extent. But while I’ll always be consumed by the thrill of being in new places, it really bothers me that for months, I believed that I have nothing that holds me back each time I leave, nothing that makes me mind the distances I cover, that I am now only fueled by these departures. Maybe it’s about time I think of my days not as rest stops in my itineraries. I think I need permanent fixtures I could come home to.
The trip back to Tagaytay, where we decided to have a late Bulalo lunch, lasted for two hours. The only bus out of Calatagan was the non-aircon type which Elaine fondly called a “warbus”, because its drivers are usually unmindful of speed limits and basic traffic rules.
Before Tagaytay was Nasugbu, and the highway gifted me views of Mt. Talamitam and Mt. Batulao, which I didn’t see the evening before but now looked postcard-perfect bathed in the afternoon light. I climbed Mt. Talamitam last month with Elaine and two other friends during a spontaneous night trek, but it was the first time I saw it from a distance. A shift in perspective made me appreciate the mountain, and everything else, more.
Surprisingly, Tagaytay on a Saturday wasn’t that crowded, and we chose a wonderful spot overlooking Taal Lake at Leslie’s.
Of course, having lunch past 3 PM brought out our barbaric tendencies and we finished the meal quickly. By 5 PM we were on a bus headed back to Coastal Mall and soon, a myriad of city lights welcomed us back to Manila.
Around two in the morning, after making a short appearance at a friend’s party in Quezon City and having travelled hundreds of kilometers over the last twenty four hours, I set down my backpack, slipped under my covers, closed my eyes, and realized I am exactly where I needed to be.