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25 March 2008

Open Road: My Trip to Ilocos

Saud Beach, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte (2007)
Photograph by Rob San Miguel
by Rob San Miguel [Written on March 25, 2008]
(Nueva Segovia was the named used during the Spanish era for the region that now includes the provinces of Tarlac, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, and Isabela on the south and all provinces north of these provinces, way up to Ilocos Norte and Cagayan)

Leaving the City

Day in and day out, my routine is always the same. I go to work, do my job the best I can and then go home. Because I live quite far, it is really futile to go home early. If I want to ride a bus going home, I will just spend countless minutes waiting for a bus. If you are like me, you would like to get a cozy window seat in the bus so that even if the bus becomes packed with passengers, you will be comfortable and safe. So, I usually spend many minutes waiting for a bus that is not too crowded. However, at 7 p.m., that is highly improbable. If you do manage to get a bus that is not too crowded, you will just spend more than 1½ hours on the bus because of heavy traffic. So, after work, I choose to have dinner with some of my co-workers and chew the fat. If there is a great movie showing, I will call my friend who works in GMA-7, and we will watch a movie and talk about it afterwards over coffee. On some occasions, I will get an unexpected call from one of my ex’s and have dinner and make fun of each other. If I am alone, I stay in a coffee shop and catch up on my reading. Right now, I find myself enthralled in the universe of Salman Rushdie’s “Grimus.” All these post-work activities are actually stress relievers. I feel more relaxed at the end of the day. This, ladies and gents, is what a single unattached man (by choice) in the city do. I also sometimes go to a bookstore and browse. It is fascinating what and who you may find in a bookstore. Last week, I found a copy of Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” and I ran into co-worker, C.J., in Fully Booked in Gateway mall as he patiently perused some of the books. It is always a good thing seeing a fellow bibliophile.

But I digress.

On regular weekdays, my life is annoyingly structured. Everything is scheduled, planned, analyzed, doubled-checked and even if I leave room for errors, those are also somehow planned. There are always Plan B and Plan C. I know some of my closest friends want to bash my head with a broom stick just to set me right. I am scared of myself sometimes but that is how life is. Sometimes, you have to be the job, at least for the hours you are paid to do it. I have no complaints. I am still excited going to work every day. The high is still there. But from time to time, it does sometimes get me down.

Last December, I had 7 days of free time. Everyone in the company had a 10-day vacation but being part of management, I spent 2 extra days in school tying up loose ends and my bosses and I had to be back at work on January 1 to entertain new students and prepare. So, I had 7 days of nothing to do. I did not plan to go on vacation. I did not book a hotel nor called some of my friends and asked them about their plans for Christmas vacation. Members of my family were also busy with their own thing. I did get a chance to talk with my mom but she and I are very British in our approach to communication so a few comments here and there about a TV program, the weather and her diet are sufficient. So suddenly, I found myself in my room with no deadline to beat, no backlog job to do, no projects to oversee, no meetings to attend, and no appointments to reschedule or cancel. Most of my friends would also be returning to work on December 26 so I could not ask them to hang out with me. Lastly, the N.G.O. year-ender party which I was really excited to attend was cancelled unexpectedly. I thought it would be nice to see some of my former peer-educators again. It was becoming obvious then that I would have nothing to do in the coming days.

Then I realized that this was what I was wishing for, an unstructured day, to be exact, a week. Anything goes. I could do whatever I wanted and I did not need to worry about waking up early. I got my wish and I did not know what to do with it. It was ironic. You half-heartedly wish for a lot of free time and when you do get it, you have no clue what to do with it and you long to get back to your scheduled hours.

But I was determined to enjoy this free time so I planned to go to Mall of Asia. But then I remembered that I did that last December 2006 and it was stifling because the entire population of Manila was there. I called my friends and began planning appointments. Who was available this day and who I could meet first and where. Then something dawned on me; I was in that planning mode again. I was scheduling my free time and I was about to turn into this monster of control. This may work in the office but it is deadly harmful to my personal life.

So I dropped everything and went with the flow. I watched television, ate and did not exercise. On the night of Christmas, I was listening to music that I had not heard for a long time such as songs from Tori Amos’ first CD, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” and Prince’s “When You were Mine.” Believe it or not, one of the songs was Gary Barlow’s “Open Road.” Hold the laugher please. While I was listening to it, I realized that I needed to get out of the city. I needed to go to a place where time was not measured in fixed hours, and people took their time and the loudest sound was the crashing of the waves and the tallest structures were mountains and old abandoned towers. Mindoro was out of the question. Been there done that. I needed to be somewhere as far as possible. Ilocos came into mind, specifically Pagudpud. It was really far, a 12 to 14-hour trip by bus. So this sudden need to travel came about because of a Gary Barlow song. I thought it was sort of an epiphany in the boy band kind of way. After all, I did spend my early twenties running around on the beach in a Speedo like a perky boy band member. But that is ancient history and I have burned that notorious Speedo.

But I digress.

To make the story short, I surfed the net and found a cheap hotel in Pagudpud, sent text messages to the caretaker that I was coming on December 27. I also checked the weather forecast for the week on the net. The forecast was rain and possible thunderstorm coming and high waves, particularly near the coast. I closed my eyes and pretended I did not see that. I called up my friends to borrow a digital camera but most of them said they needed their cameras during the holiday. Others said they lent their cameras to their boyfriends and girlfriends. I guessed that is the in-thing today. Borrow my digicam as a sign of my love. This probably explains why I am single. I have no digital camera. I tried to buy one two weeks earlier but my credit card literally refused. It was an embarrassing thing hearing the salesclerk shout, “Sorry Sir, but do you have another card because this one is not working.” So I had to fake it, I said, “What! That is impossible? Anyway, it must be a system error. I’ll just come back later.”

It was Marriane, a co-worker, who agreed to lend me her camera. She said that she would not need it for the holidays. We agreed to meet in SM Cubao since she was going there anyway to buy some stuff. The next day, I went to Shopwise and bought some necessary supplies. I met Marriane and she was sipping a big root beer float. It was like seeing Meg Ryan, if Meg were a Filipino. She gave me her camera and she showed me how to use it. Well, she tried to show me how to use it because she also did not know exactly how to use it. She just laughed while she tried to explain. Yes, definitely Meg Ryan. I still felt kind of guilty borrowing her digicam for the holidays so I bought her a blouse, if blouse is the right term for it. I don’t know women’s clothing. Actually, I forced her to accept my gift. She suggested that I just buy her some facial wash and soap in Body Shop so it would be cheaper but I insisted that I would buy her clothes. She reluctantly agreed. It was also fun waiting for her while she chose which clothes to buy. It has been a long time since I sat on a couch in a women’s clothes store waiting for a woman while she did her shopping. Have you ever wondered why there are big couches in some women’s clothes stores? They are for the poor boyfriends who patiently wait for their girlfriends. One of the first things that I learned about women is that they shop for a long time. The second thing I learned is that when you are sitting on that couch and your girl asks you what you think about this skirt or shirt, you say it is nice even if it is not because she would not take your comments seriously anyway. But she will still ask and you must say something. Do not just sit there like dead wood. And do not join her and choose her clothes and make fashion comments like you are one of the fab five in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” When she asks, never say “I don’t know” and never never say that shirt or skirt makes her look fat. Ah, this was a life I had before. Not bad at all. When Marianne finally got her gift, we went our separate ways. I was on memory lane, another scene from my past. “Let’s go our separate ways.” This is a funny expression. What if you and your ex lived in the same area? Do you have to take a bus or taxi going the opposite way and then when you think she or he had already gotten home, you’d make a U-turn so technically speaking, you really had gone your separate ways.

But I digress.

After that, I went to Florida Bus Station on Lacson Avenue near UST and tried if I could buy a bus ticket to Pagudpud. The first and only trip was at 9:30 p.m. It was a 12-hour bus trip with only one stopover. Imagine that. There was a long line of people in the station. When I reached the ticket window, there were only 7 seats available. 6 of those were at the back of the bus near the toilet. I chose seat 32. It was a window seat. Providence was on my side. At this point, I had a feeling that even the spirits were determined to get my ass out of the city. I went home and packed my things (1 big bag only. I travel light). I went back to the bus station. I got there at 9 and the bus was almost full. The bus was pink. Friends of Rob, insert comments here.

I sat next to a Swiss man with a very interesting accent. He was traveling with his Filipino wife, his in-laws and his very pretty 6-year old daughter, another proof that Filipino gene goes well with any foreign gene. The Swiss man was an amiable person. We started talking and he complained about how cold it was in the bus. He said it was the same thing in Switzerland. Inter-state buses are always cold. At 9:20 p.m., the bus was full. The bus left the station 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I guessed the driver also belonged to my kind. Be on time or 10 minutes early! I put on my earphones, and when the bus left the station and hit the road, I played Gary Barlow’s “Open Road.” I thought it was appropriate. I was about to start an unplanned trip. I was taking an open road so to speak. I thought to myself that when I get to Pagudpud, I had no idea where the resort was. I just had to ask a tricycle driver. And what the heck would I do for 7 days alone in a place where I did not know anyone. I sent text messages to my friends. One wrote that I was crazy and my friend from GMA7 wished me luck and hoped that I would have a good time. So there I was, next to a Swiss man on a cold bus on my way north, on top of the Philippines, literally. The next song on my play list was Madonna’s “I Deserved It.” I listened to it as I looked up the evening sky. Traffic was light so the driver drove very fast.

As I stare at the cloudless evening sky with the moon shining bright, Madonna sang, “This sky was meant for me and I was meant for him. This sky was dreamt for me and I was dreamt for him…Many miles, many roads I have traveled, fallen down on the way, many hearts, many years have unraveled, leading up to today.”

Saud Beach, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte (2007)
Photo by Rob San Miguel
For those who are wondering about Gary Barlow’s song, here are the lyrics. It is good song. It is not like Tori Amos’ songs but Gary sang it with sincerity. The beauty of this is its simplicity.

“Open Road” by Gary Barlow

My life is extraordinary bare.
I fought the fear and chased the pain.
My life doesn't need to be explained.
I chose to walk the line as one.
Sometimes, I live upon my island,
Cut off from emotion and its pain.
Ohh, that's when I am tempted by the waters,
The waters that can take me far away.
So I’ll just keep on walking down this open road,
Hoping someone somewhere needs me.
So I’ll just keep on walking down this open road,
Talking to the man who knows me.
Yes he knows me,
the man is me.

My life was once full of people's faces,
Brought to me by love which isn't strange.
Oh my life had the goodness of blue waters,
A day's a day for all I used to say.
Sometimes, I can sit and cry my heart out,
Drowning in my autocratic ways.
Oh, that's when I am tempted by the waters,
Waters that can take me far away.
So I’ll just keep on walking down this open road,
Hoping someone somewhere needs me.
So I’ll just keep on walking down this open road,

Talking to the man who knows me.
Yes he knows me,
the man is me.

My life is now full of people's faces,
Within the light of change I pulled away.
My life shows that no man is an island.
I've exchanged the piece of life I cut away.
Now you won't see me walking down that open road.
I've found someone now who needs me.
No, you won't see me walking down that open road.
I've found at last the man who knows me.
Yes he knows me and the man was me.
The man was me.

Originally published in “Sardonique.”

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