Notes from the far side of the world

An earlier version of this article was published in the Manila Bulletin on April 4, 2012.

I write this from a computer I can hardly operate, hoping to make it in time for the Manila deadline. The document is entitled “Sin Titulo 1.” I have been on six flights to five cities in three weeks: it is the first time I have ever traveled alone, and the farthest I have ever been from home. Most importantly, no European romances have yet materialized for me; I don’t understand how they always happen in the movies during trips like this.

Still, there have been many other things I’m understanding better: the Spanish language, myself, my country, the world outside it and the worlds within. More than anything, I know for sure that San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.

Traveling has been fun, especially because I’m young: I’m curious enough to want to see things (like my first Picasso or Gaudi or real flamenco), stubborn enough to go find them (with a map, on foot or by bus or metro, and getting lost an obligatory five times), and naïve enough to be endlessly amazed by them when I do.

Barça briefs, anyone?

Barça briefs, anyone?

But what they don’t often tell you is that traveling is also, essentially, a lonely thing. It’s hard to be talkative when there’s no one to talk to, when no one understands (literally–lo siento, no lo entiendo). Sooner or later you will find that there is no one to call, even when you know locals or are traveling with a group, and you will have to learn that it’s okay.

To travel is to go an adventure in solitude. You must be able to sit with yourself for long periods of time without going crazy, and I’ve had only moderate success in this area. I’ve taken to writing more, and drinking more (which, in wine country, is acceptable behavior). Sometimes, I’d wake up in the early morning hours, check my watch, and catch myself singing, “It’s five o’clock in the morning / the conversation got boring…” Other than that, I think I’m okay.

Once, I had to buy moisturizer from the local drugstore to keep my skin from freezing to death. The saleslady and I spent several minutes pointing back and forth from L’Oreal to Olay to Ponds to Nivea. She was trying to give me facial scrub, I was trying to say, “I may have pimples but that’s not what I’m looking for.” Finally she got the hang of the charade, pointed to a moisturizer with an English translation, dia y noche, I answered si, and paid for it. I think it was the longest time I ever spent shopping. The point is that I was able to shop.

Because while cultural and linguistic barriers block you off and cause severe difficulty in some places (purchasing moisturizer, for instance), one of the most pleasant discoveries I’ve made in my adventures is that the desire to communicate can transcend these limits.

During my trip I paid a visit to the Andalucía, the replica of a 17th century Galleon ship, which incidentally visited the Philippines back in 2010. One of the engineers who built the Andalucía and actually sailed to Manila on it (which is enough material for another column altogether) proudly gave me a tour and talked animatedly, incessantly, the whole morning. He fumbled every so often, trying to find the right word in English, and I listened and understood. They were stories–of how it was built, how they first set sail, the inside jokes among the crew, the run-ins with sharks and fires and pirates that aren’t supposed to happen in real life but do. They had been many places, and had plenty of stories to tell, all surprising and amusing, and I wondered how much funnier or more exciting they would be if I could grasp them in their original language.

But perhaps the stories themselves were the language. Perhaps Spanish and English are too small to contain them. Everyone understands stories. In a way, I think, traveling is about finding stories to tell.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

While walking across a bridge over a quiet river, my engineer friend asked me to stop and look up into the vast night sky. The streetlights burned bright; I couldn’t see the stars so clearly.

“Light pollution,” he muttered.

I strained to look as he, with sailor’s eyes, began pointing out different constellations, starting with Orion’s Belt. The pinpricks were faint, but they were there. I had never seen them before. We have always had them in our sky back home.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote Tolkien truthfully in The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, we wander in order to make our way home. I’m excited to come back. I’m no balikbayan, but I think I’ll join in the clapping when my plane touches ground in Manila.

It’s simple, you see: San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.

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Quitting Facebook

Originally published as “The Sosyal Network” in the Manila Bulletin, October 26, 2011

I recently shut down my Facebook account. This is partly for pragmatic reasons: doing so has saved me a lot more time for work and leisure reading. It is partly for security reasons: like most people, I live with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and am in constant fear of creepy strangers looking at my bikini photos.

I do not regret it. Getting rid of my Facebook account has liberated me from the bondage of constantly keeping up with my peers. I no longer know where everyone else is going and with whom and what they are doing there, and I no longer feel bad or uncool about not being there too. It has also saved me the trouble of trying to find good photos of myself to post, and evaluating my self-worth on the number of likes or comments that it gets, with extra credit if the comment or like is from a really good-looking guy.

I still have friends, still go out and have fun, and occasionally still meet good-looking guys, but I no longer make any public announcements of my activities after the fact. For the most part, life has been made much simpler.

I feel like I have become more myself.

One of my smart friends told me that the lightness I am experiencing is due to the fact that I’ve given up keeping up with our image-obsessed culture—this world we live in that is so saturated in external gestures, performance, branding.

Each gesture has a corresponding label: using an eco-bag makes you an environmentalist, quoting philosophers makes you an intellectual, having 3000 friends on Facebook makes you popular, and wearing a Louis Vuitton purse makes you sosyal (Is there an English equivalent that properly captures the essence of the word?)—even if it means, as the old saying goes, spending money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to please people we don’t even like.

We take all these externals, post them on the internet, and build our identity upon it—when in reality, they are all just projections, speaking volumes about what we do (or try very hard to seem like we do), but little about who we are.

People used to keep photo albums with actual printed photographs, and they would store them and have them accumulate dust and then dust them off and look at them with fresh eyes, because back then it was about the photos, not about the comments people made about them. The value was in the substance of the photos, not in the branding that they provided.

Not so now. The idea of intrinsic value is lost on us; the idea of being is alien to us. We have been reduced to statement shirts and popular (or even indie) music, to Friday nights out in the right places with the right people. And when there are no statement shirts to wear, no popular music to listen to or say bad things about, no clubs and cool company to be with on the weekends, we are nothing. We have no identity apart from the image of ourselves that we project.

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Even our solitude we post pictures of.

Ours is an impoverished generation that cannot deal with silence or solitude. We do not find value in having photographs and nobody to show them to. We cannot operate without knowing that we are being watched; we affirm our value only insofar as we get attention from an audience. We are incapable of sitting with our naked selves and being comfortable in our own skin.

We are always striving, always projecting, always putting on another layer of externals, always trying to seem smarter or cooler or richer, that at the end of it all, we end up empty, and lost and lonely.

Why?

Originally published in the Manila Bulletin, November 30, 2011

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I studied Philosophy. Let me explain.

University being an institution of higher learning, I thought it ought not be so arid as a place where you go simply to take the course that meant better job prospects afterwards. I realize that few children enjoy the luxury of such sentiments, but early on I decided that my education was going to be about learning, whether or not I could make money from it later on in life. Education and livelihood, I thought, are two distinct seasons of life, and must not be confused as stages in a progression, with one necessarily leading to the other. I just wanted to know, and that must be a good enough reason to study.

I suppose it takes a child to want to study philosophy, because when people grow up they get so caught up in what works, in what is practical or useful or profitable, that they rarely ever stop and ask why. I think this is because the answers to many of the whys are very inconvenient, and very impractical, and asking the question means looking for the answer, and finding the answer means having to adjust to its implications, and sometimes the cost is too high.

People normally have a stake in any important question—Is science true? Can the law ever be unjust? Does God exist? The science-loving antireligious need science to be true; lawyers need the law to be just; believers need God to exist. They need the answer to be a certain way because their whole way of life is founded upon it. Any contrary answer would cost too much. For instance, annulment is a practice that works, but it makes no sense. It dissolves an existing marriage by denying that the marriage exists. But annulment is useful to a country like ours—it allows married couples to un-marry themselves without doing something so un-Catholic as to consider divorce, and so we stick with annulment even though any closer examination renders it senseless.

It is this obsession with pragmatism that boxes us in, that keeps us from asking the questions. Such curiosity is something you can only afford when you’re young and aren’t too settled in your ways. This is why I studied philosophy. Because I think it’s worth rethinking the ideas that I inhabit everyday. One such idea is the idea of democracy, which we think is the system of government in this country—but what democracy is it if a wealthy few only pass the power around among themselves from term to term, if the ordinary citizen whose voice it supposedly champions does not really have a say in the creation of public policy because he was not educated enough to even understand it?

But this brand of democracy, if it is a democracy at all, is all we have in this country, so we make do with it. What’s the point of asking the questions if they don’t lead to anything? Philosophy is impractical.

Of course it is. That’s why people who study it often end up becoming so detached. Of course, unless you become a philosophy professor, the job you end up in will probably have nothing to do with your degree. There are no Wanted: Philosophers on the classified ads. Philosophy won’t pay for the electric bill. (Does the electric bill exist?)

But it never promised to anyway. Philosophy arms you with questions, with a way of looking at things, with a beautiful irreverence, and that’s more than can be said about many other things you could study. And in every generation someone has to keep asking the questions, because without it we’re just rats on a treadmill working and running without ever knowing why.