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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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Friday, March 16, 2007

entry arrow2:33 AM | Backpacker

Many years ago, I became friends with an Israeli backpacker named Elan Frenkel. That was one of the first things that drew me to him: his first name that hinted of the fashionable, the chic. Nothing was fashionable about his long, curly hair made yellow by the sun, and dirtied by the many weeks on the road. But his blue eyes saw through you...

Tourists of various sorts are a common sight in Dumaguete: they regularly cruise our streets with their trademark batik wraparound or their buli hats, their short shorts, their sandals, and their tan, their faces always buried in dogeared travel books, fervently looking for the cheapest place to stay and drop their heavy bags, or for the nearest beach. Most would go south of the province, to snorkel or dive down in the depths of Dauin or Apo, or to Siquijor for the island's mystery (and more beaches).

Elan was just passing through town, having just come off the boat that had began in Malaysia, and was now docked in Dumaguete. I had seen him earlier that morning along Alfonso Trese Street, and I remembered liking his face. He reminded me of Ethan Zohn from Survivor, and he had this intelligent air about him. That night, there was a concert of Bach (or maybe Mozart) at the Luce Auditorium, and I saw him trying to get in with his backpacker wear, but was promptly told by the ushers to come back with at least decent shoes on. And jeans.

I was going home after the concert, and found him walking ahead of me stopping once in a while to look up the acacia trees lining Silliman Campus. In hindsight, it was highly uncharacteristic of me to stop and say hello to a stranger, much less a backpacker. But I found myself having beer with him at El Amigo. We discovered we liked many things in common. I soon quickly found out he was a spiritual man. In a year's time, he said he was duty-bound to join the Israeli Army, and that was why he was taking this time now to journey the world to find himself. He was on his way to China, he said. Later, he told me about Carlos Castañeda's Don Juan, the Gulf War, and what it was like to be a soul-searching Jew. And much later, I found myself inviting him over to stay in my apartment upon discovering he was living in Father Tropa's rundown, termite-infested tourist inn (or tourist trap?) somewhere in the middle of town. (Nothing happened. It wasn't like that at all.) He stayed with me two, three days. He had dinners with my family, and once my brothers and I took him out to Mark Gil's old restaurant along the Boulevard for a formal sit-down dinner with other friends. Then Elan went on his way, each of us promising to keep in touch. (People never do.)

This was the last email I got from him:

Where am I? The simplest, most difficult question possible. Easily, I’m in Hong Kong. That’s geography. Was that what you were asking? I haven’t written for a while -- I felt incompetent to do so. I’m studying Judaism here, not nearly as often as I should have -- but it is a must, if I want to stay here, for free, in this Jewish man’s far-flung hostel.

I cannot believe any wandering Jew can get free food and shelter here, for just a bit of spirituality. I can do spirituality if I have to; a backpacker on a shoestring sometimes cannot have a choice. It was either prayers, or cleaning dishes in some Chinaman’s kitchen. And what will that get me? A fleabag tourist trap in the middle of nowhere, with rotten food. Better prayers and meditation instead of soap suds.

It has been a long time since I prayed, not since I was a kid in Tel Aviv. During the Gulf War, Saddam’s bomb blew my friend’s face wide open, and for a while, I didn’t know if there really was a God.

Judaism is a way of life, I suppose, and I’m so distracted by this world which perpetually feels to be on the fringe of my fingers, never actually touching, writing strokes in the air with a falling feather.

The Philippines seems like the best I’ve had so far. I should return, yet I’m still on my way to China, stalled. I could just go, by myself, across the border, but being a vagabond no longer appeals to me. I haven’t managed to settle the inner turmoil yet. Perhaps I can make you understand now that I was more than rambling when we had those nights in Dumaguete, drinking in the stars with cheap beer. Which reminds me, I left my Lonely Planet guidebook in your place; it is brown with use, but I thought you might want it. I could no longer carry it around; I began to see the world much too simply as neat categorizations of "places to go, places to stay." It was too easy; sometimes, the point of traveling is in getting lost. Maybe things are changing, possibly I can recognize that in hindsight. And I appreciate you writing, though it seems to me behind those sometimes extravagant vocabulary, something altogether simpler lies.

I’m ridiculously lonely at times, much more with this state of separation from the world. I am tempted to say that life does no good. Which is just so common: nebbish talk. I talk, eat, shit, wake up in the morning, and as part of the course, pray to God, thanking him for the miracle of my resurrection daily from the dead. Yet I feel no miracle, no God; my words disperse in a space of four walls.

Nevertheless the quest goes on, I’m planning to buy a handicam and shoot the upcoming seminary here in a couple weeks, also a salad of Israeli backpackers, orthodox and cabalistic Jews swarming the earth. It was Passover a few days ago—3,300 years since the exodus from Egypt. I have only a lifetime, and by mistake I want it now.

I've never heard from him again. When he left Dumaguete, he left behind his Carlos Castañeda book, and his battered copy of Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. On the inside cover of the travel book, he had written: "Ian, Hang it on the wall. Take a pick once every while, till you're ready to dust the trail. Elan." I don't know what he meant by that, but he always told me -- those three days he lived in my apartment -- that the greatest thing one can do for oneself is to go on a grand adventure, to see the world, and find oneself.

Why am I suddenly writing about Elan right now? I don't know why. I was cleaning my book shelves a while ago, and found his old books. I remembered him and what he said. Something in me stirred -- and maybe that's how most adventures begin. With a gentle stirring inside, and then a hunger to leave, and live, for the world.

I don't know where Elan is right now, but I hope that somewhere out there he finally found what he was looking for. That is also my fervent wish, to know and to find whatever it is I am looking for. In that sense, we are all Elan's road companions, backpackers through life, wishing for our own arrivals.

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