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.