The archipelago experience
If one focuses solely on the national political and developmental stage, one unduly marinates in frustration and exasperation. Lucky for some of us who do not travel for pleasure, our work brings us to other points of the archipelago, and there, whatever shenanigans happen in Metro Manila, one gets refreshed, renewed, and recharged. A road trip outside of Metro Manila is necessary to gain perspective on the broader state of the nation. There is a calming effect as the breeze gently cools one’s face while you gaze at green and gold rice fields and blue mountains capped by clouds yonder.
The Philippine archipelago is a group of islands surrounded by the sea. Or, better, it is a sea studded with islands. What this means can only be fully understood when one travels across the islands. Being a native of an archipelago does not automatically give you the feeling that you are one. You can live on a big island like Luzon and not see the sea in your lifetime. It is hard to imagine this for many Filipinos who have not seen the sea and may not do so ever. Many people in the provinces live all their lives perhaps within 10 kilometers from where they were born.
The first time I traveled out of Luzon was immediately out of college. I was 20 years old and already had the truly “important” and “adult” work of organizing and undertaking the survey of education graduates across the island of Samar for the Fund Assistance to Private Education. My first airplane trip was to Calbayog, Samar. My job was to hire and organize local survey teams to conduct interviews, and supervise and edit their work. The work took almost two months, and I was able to travel the breadth and width of the island. Apart from Calbayog, I based primarily in Borongan, Catbalogan, and Guiuan. This quaint experience included a priestless Misa cantada in Spanish in Homonhon Island. The churchgoers simply recited the whole Mass from memory. But it was riding pump boats to reach island destinations, swimming in the sea at will night and day, and staying and working never far from the sea where the sound of waves indefatigably roar up the beach the whole time night and day, that gave me the essence of my first archipelago experience.
It was this lure of the archipelago that goaded me to organize in 1998, the centennial of Philippine independence, what we participants called the “Philippine Centennial Run.” It was a small convoy of vehicles that included a group of newly retired Meralco staffers in an L300 van, members of the Volkswagen Club of the Philippines in a Westfalia Kombi, a Toyota FX, and a Toyota Lite Ace with an assortment of passengers from the Ateneo Observatory, the Philippine Motor Association, and the Concerned Citizens Against Pollution. The convoy ran from Marikina City to Cagayan de Oro City and back, a distance of some 3,000 kilometers, in seven days, including a one-day rest in Camiguin Island.
The most memorable part of this centennial run was how the convoy, traveling at the break of day, would see a long stream of students in uniform and an occasional teacher walk toward a school. Soon, we would see students, teachers, and administrators assembled for the flag ceremony in town after town, as we traveled in the early morning through Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, and back. One never gets used to the wonderment that the Philippines is. Despite its poverty and vicissitudes, it is one country under one flag, visibly so as one moves across distance and ethno-demographic and cultural boundaries.
There is a certain cadence of life and development in the country’s periphery outside of Metro Manila. This gives one the realization that no matter how skewed and skewered governance has become in the metropolis and at the national level, the Philippines is still a big overwhelming sea of individuals, families, and communities striving in their own dogged ways to improve their lives. The government of the day may be able to bludgeon specific enemies and get away with peculiar impunity, but in the larger balance it will be unable to dampen the spirits of many people who, sad to say, do not feel the relevance and presence of the government.
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