Of Human Designs

The previous year ended in what can only be accurately called a turbulence. I spent the last quarter, from October to December, moving from one place to next, mostly up north, so much that I doubt I got to sleep in my own bed for any longer than half a week.

Towards the end of December, on the flight home from my last trip for the year, from Boracay, I fell face-first on my bed, my last reserves of energy run dry, and hoped that on my retreat into sleep I will not wake for another year. Of course, as with most things in this world, I did not get my way, as I had to wake up a few hours later to unpack my soiled (or sanded? as I loaded my shorts and underwear into the laundry, I discovered that every fold and pocket had been inundated by Boracay’s famous white sand. Despite supposedly strict regulations against tourists bringing home some of the island’s sand, I inadvertently managed to sneak out enough to fill a small airline shampoo bottle.) clothes and get everything back into normal operations for my return to the office come Monday.

And yet now, as I resurface from the exhaustion within the safety confines of the new year, safe in the knowledge that the company won’t be making me travel again until the next semester, I look back at the previous months with a kind of breathless nostalgia. I must have seen more, traveled more, in those three months than in twenty two years of my life. And speaking of years, that year must have taken me more places than I ever managed before. If the amount of life lived could be tracked on a line chart running along the horizontal axis that represents our age in this world, then last year would make for that large spike in the chart, that sudden peak after a seemingly interminable plateau of twenty-one years. I mean, as early as February I found myself in faraway Cebu, diving into open ocean with my best friends from college, for the first time having arrived in a Philippine island that wasn’t Luzon.

Yes. This is my overdue New Year’s Essay.

A statue outside the Manaoag Church. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019). I wish I could call it more than just a “statue” but I’m hindered by my lack of familiarity with Catholic imagery. Maybe you can tell me in the comments, kind stranger.

I had actually wanted to write this earlier, coming home from Manaoag and Dagupan, back when I could still write it as a manageable short travel essay on two destinations. But immediately after that week, I was deployed, after just a weekend of rest at home, back north, to La Union, and from there two weeks going up and down the map, to San Fernando, to Vigan, to Candon, then finally to Baguio, after which I was sent home again for a short rest, and then sent back out, this time south, to Tablas, to Iloilo, then to Caticlan and Boracay. Each time I asked for a moment of calm to sit down to read or write, the currents went frantic once more, and I would be drifted away elsewhere, like I was stuck inside some gigantic washing machine, where I had only the one-second intervals of stillness before the whirlpool started anew.

But again, even though I look back at the last quarter of 2019 like some survivor of a fatal crash, I feel this sense of accomplishment when I remember walking down Calle Crisologo in Vigan, into the hushed silences under the large, vaulted ceilings of the cathedral in Manaoag, at the terraces opening out into the bay on the Ma-Cho Temple in San Fernando, La Union. Like I had more gained than lost in those turbulent weeks. Like the person that had gotten on the expressway up North was no longer the person that had checked into his Caticlan-to-Manila flight two months later.

I remember being nineteen, still in college, reading from a hated teen celebrity (in)famous for his nice-guy act that life’s greatest stories are in the pages of one’s passport. I hadn’t traveled then, had never sat (consciously) inside the cabin of a commercial airplane, or even ventured anywhere outside of Metro Manila, and I thought of said celebrity’s statement as being very narrow and privileged. Did that mean that poor people, people who had never had the financial freedom to meet their day-to-day needs, let alone splurge on a weekend getaway to Cebu, hardly lived lives worth telling about?

View from the front of the Ma-Cho Temple in San Fernando, La Union. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

Even now I still feel that way. I still think it’s very privileged to say that one has to blow off hard-earned cash on a trip in order to experience the variety of human existence, or that such experiences are even necessary for life, but there has got to be something to be said about the heart-wrenching beauty of watching crystal blue waves rolling up a shore of perfect white sand, of walking along the beach at sunset with the people you treasure, of getting lost inside foreign cities, of simply knowing that there are places where life goes on, completely oblivious to your existence.

I remember walking inside the Manaoag church and feeling the humbling heaviness of meaning, of generations, exuding from the tiny cracks on the concrete pillars. This must be the reason why churches and mosques have always taken on scales skirting the border between spectacle and hubris. The lofty murals, the vaulted ceilings, the marble floors, all point to a design that is no longer human, that is already beyond human. Faced with this grandness, all human voices fall flat, hushed by the feeling of becoming a tiny speck within a massive picture.

Overlooking the Lingayen Gulf from the Ma-Cho temple. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

Halfway down the aisle of pews, my coworker, with whom I’d been assigned to handle the work down in Manaoag, asked me if it was fine for me to visit the church since I wasn’t Catholic. I shrugged, not wanting to waste a moment’s thought on the our own church’s strict regulations (most – if not all – of it I break on a regular basis anyway), wanting to focus all that energy, instead, to basking in the cathedral’s atmosphere. There, I concluded to myself the point of travel: not as a necessity, but as another cultural activity, like reading, or listening to music. If you only read the same books as everyone, or listen to the same songs as everyone, you’ll only think the same thoughts as them. In the same way, if you only go to the same places, then you’ll be bound to live your life just like everyone else.

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