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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

entry arrow11:53 PM | On the Necessity of Travel

Last of Three Parts

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

"Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that traveleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel."
--Francis Bacon, "Of Travel" in
Essays (1625)

It was around this time, on November 1997, when I decided -- together with one Dutch and two Finnish friends -- to go backpacking through the length of Japan. It was the beginning of autumn break, the leaves were slowly turning golden, and there was a nippiness in the air that was quite unfamiliar to me, the sole tropical boy in the bunch. The Finnish girls Kaija and Anu, and I had earlier decided to winter later in December in Hokkaido, of all places, while Martin -- our tall golden Dutch boy -- was intent on visiting Nagano later that year, where the Winter Olympics was being held.

This was our last chance to vacation together, so by the time the school term ended, we had mapped and budgeted out our travel plans. This was, in a sense, our way of bonding close as much as we could before facing the farewells that we knew would come by the following year. We also wanted to see as much of Japan as possible. We loaded our cameras, and packed our bags.

We decided to start way out west, as far from Tokyo as possible, without getting on an airplane, managing our itinerary only through our Japan Railways reservations. I had always dreamed out of traveling by train. In the Philippines, this is mostly an impossibility; what trains we have are rickety affairs that do not conjure the romance of rail travel -- but we do make up for it, I think, via mostly fascinating boat trips and bus rides. But I am digressing.

The best way out of Tokyo to our starting point in Hiroshima -- 894.2 kilometers away -- was the shinkansen, Japan's famous bullet train, which could easily crunch what could be a day or thereabouts of travel time into a span of only three hours and fifty minutes. From Hiroshima, it was decided we would course through a route that would include Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. That way, we could have the best sampling of the country: from the ancient (with Nara's old temples and Kyoto's geisha districts) to the modern (with Osaka's well-defined cosmopolitan feel). In Hiroshima, we knew we could take in the historical as well: this was ground zero, after all, of one of World War II's gravest atrocities -- the A-bomb.

But this is not really an account of the travels I have done when I was a much younger man. What I really want to talk about is how important travel is for any man, or woman. And eventually, what I want most to talk about is how one such traveling can take you to detours you've never planned, and which eventually could change your life.

I had exactly one such detour. You see, we took an unplanned day trip to the outskirts of Hiroshima. And saw the most beautiful place on earth.

Miyajima Island -- which literally means "shrine island" -- is set in a tranquil inland sea and is accessible only by ferry. Our day until then in Hiroshima had been marked by autumnal rain, the cold kind that falls softly and creates mist. Which seemed strangely appropriate for our excursions to the Peace Park, where all memorabilia of the nuclear bombing are enshrined. At the end of that excursion -- nearing four o'clock in the afternoon -- I had suddenly pointed to an entry in my travel book. "Miyajima," I told my friends, "I want to go there next." It was unplanned; but somehow the normally quiet Asian boy got his way among the more aggressive European types. When we eventually arrived, what we saw was probably the Japan of our dreams. The first thing one sees is the grand Otorri gate, resplendent in deep red, that guards the entrance to the island -- and frames Misen San, the island's highest peak. Traditional houses and shops of exquisite beauty -- looking almost like paper houses laced with grids of wood -- dotted a perfectly preserved landscape, the abundant color of which was the green of the grass made damp by the passing rain. There was the famous pagoda and there were shrines and temples, and there were lamps -- both along roads and on the water that embraced the tiny island, and there were those red arches -- the torii -- that symbolized "passage" in this land of the rising sun. That there were hundreds of deer roaming all over the place was an extra bit of magic. This is it, I thought, my travel's fairy tale.

I've always believed that that late afternoon detour changed the way I viewed my life, and my place in this world. I began to believe in the magic of chance and discovery. I began to appreciate what was beautiful -- and to strive for it. I began to appreciate what was strange to me, and to readily embrace it. I began to see the world as a Chinese box, always full of surprises and hidden depths.

The life I've lived for the past thirty years has largely been a fortunate one, if only because it has taught me a fundamental truth about what it means to have lived at least moderately well: to be able to appreciate things deeply, and with such a huge capacity of spirit, one must acknowledge the necessity of travel.

It is a poor man, indeed, who does not get to travel. (When I say "poor," I am talking in the sense of spiritual fulfillment, not economics.) Stasis -- the fact of having remained only in one place, and never having ventured forth to what is promised beyond the horizon -- is tantamount to a metaphysical kind of blindness. Or geographical paralysis of soul. Or, however you might put it -- but the emphasis is on the static life that has known no adventure.

Various wise men from all of history have prescribed travel as a requisite part of growing up -- because it means two things: that you are finally able to leave the stifling (and it is always indeed stifling) confines of your comfort zones; and that you are also finally able to encounter strange things and strange peoples that will help you realize what is the unifying truth about the universe: that this is a marvelously diverse world, made colorful and vibrant because of that very diversity.

We can only learn to appreciate all our differences when we get to travel, and that is what is needed to achieve the harmony that eludes us all. All wars, if we must be reminded, starts from the premise of a consuming need to mandate sameness -- of religion, of race, of politics. To learn to appreciate the diverse is the surest way to a world at peace. But alas, most of us are trapped in the confines of small places. Make that a metaphor for a state of mind, and there you go. The most narrow-minded people I know and who affect the worst kind of discrimination in society (and thus stagnate it) are usually people of these two kinds: non-travelers, and non-readers, which is really a kind of adventure travel via the imagination.

It should be laid down as law: one must travel extensively before the age of 30. Or else risk having every ounce of our ignorant prejudices become the essence of our lived lives.

Someone once said that the Philippines is a country invented by writers. I think that person was thinking of Rizal and his revolutionary contemporaries when he came up with that very thought. I will go even further and say that it is also a nation invented by travelers. The ilustrados of our noble, heroic past -- count among them Rizal and his ilk -- were largely travelers. And their very travels became the objective correlative for the fact of their "eyes opening": in Spain, for example, they saw how democracy could be so sweet. In other lands they had visited, they saw the kind of progress they could only hope to achieve back in their native shores. This is particularly true of many of the educated people in the West who see to it that they travel Europe, or the rest of the world, as part of their education, and before they finally take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

Some people are pessimists and readily take into account "expenses." But I know so many people -- myself included -- who travel on charm and a shoestring budget. And you don't even have to go far to partake of travel. The Philippines has infinite places to start our legs wandering. The saddest thing is, I know of many Dumaguetenos who haven't even gone beyond the Boulevard -- not to Apo, not to Siquijor, not to Casaroro Falls, not to Lake Balinsasayao. Not even Bayawan, or Canlaon. What sad, boring lives they must live.

To travel is to commune with the world, and in the process you become a repository of great things observed in the course of that travel. Without travel, you cannot truly say you have managed to live well at all.

In photo: With Kaija Korpi and Martin Slot.

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