The Weight of Departure

Nonfiction by | August 23, 2021

Kumupas na ang kulay ng buhay”

–Radioactive Sago Project

 

I get off the taxi and arrive at Ecoland Terminal. It’s my last morning in Davao this year. When I reach the gate, I open my bag for inspection and fumble around with the zippers and locks of my luggage. They are heavy with books, clothes, and all kinds of knick-knacks. The weight has always made me feel at ease, and it still does. It’s a tangible reminder for me that I already have everything I need – the bags could be filled with nothing but boulders, and I would still feel safe. I could sigh in relief while the rest of the world passed me by, or while other travelers already got past inspection while I was still hoisting the worn straps onto my shoulders, now weakened but used to the strain.

It’s a cold December. The sky is a blank white, like a floodlight behind thin muslin cloth. On the ground, people go about their business as usual: vendors ply travelers going to and fro with their goods, and buses line up with signs, waiting to depart. But it’s not as crowded as I expected. There are people, yes, but only about as many as during a regular workday or weekend. Aren’t terminals supposed to be filled with people eager to go home by this time?

Regardless, I’m thankful I missed the holiday rush. The whole ordeal is an eight-hour land trip. Depending on the bus, I would stop several times before reaching Agora Terminal. If I travel early enough in the morning, I find myself hopping on a shuttle to Bulua by half-past two in the afternoon. If I’m lucky, I might find a Super Five or a Rural Tours bus with a “non-stop” sign on the windshield and get there by that time.

Buses don’t often have that – conductors have to make their money, after all – so it really comes down to timing to figure out how soon I would reach my destination. The bulk of the trip to Iligan will be spent making stops throughout Bukidnon – namely, Valencia City, Malaybalay, and Manolo Fortich – before getting off at Bulua Terminal in Cagayan de Oro. By seven in the evening, the bus would make a quick stop at Tambo for disembarking passengers before finally ending the day at Westbound Terminal. (An irony, calling it Westbound despite the road to Cagayan being eastward.)

This was how I made the trip to and from my home city for a long time since my college days. Other than a few times when I had to go home by plane for the holidays, this is how I still travel.

 

 

Admittedly, I hate travelling. Though seeing new things and meeting new people is critical for anyone looking for an interesting story to tell, this isn’t the case with me.

I find it troublesome having to pack up, leave, and spend time idling in odd places for minutes at a time. Between the various checkpoints and the crowded terminals, much of the eight-hour ride is spent warming the bus seat, watching the same landscape shift from the perilous cliffs and slopes accessible by steep, meandering roads to the silent busyness of Valencia’s sleepy urban center. A few years ago, the trips took longer because the roads were still under repair, with a long line of trucks, buses, and vans forming at junctures that only let one lane pass at a time.

This, if I remember correctly, was when everything outside the safety of the windowpane would be obscured in a dense fog. A small miracle, then, that drivers were even able to make out anything, let alone keep their foot on the pedals for several kilometers at a time without crashing onto a vehicle or the various concrete barriers laid out on the side of the road.

That said, I would still see the crumpled frame of a truck slumped on the side of the highway like fresh roadkill now and then. From the backseat, I would hear other passengers remarking on how dangerous driving at night can be, given how the late hours can prompt some to step on the gas a little too hard out of sleepiness or foolhardiness. This is especially true in the case of drivers along these routes – coffee can only do so much for those long hours on the road, and that very exhaustion can sometimes lead to tragic accidents.

By no means do I consider myself a homebody with a crippling fear of leaving the safety of my room. I enjoy a night out every now and then, sometimes one too many, and I do welcome a land trip traversing the curving road networks of Mindanao just to see the sheer drops and rocky white waters that roll under bridges, as well as the expanse of lush green broken up now and then by sparse buildings, houses, and pylons. There is all this, and much more the outside world can offer, even for weary eyes.

If anything, my main gripe with traveling comes with the inconvenience of it. Whether it’s having to remember every last detail of an itinerary I didn’t ask for, checking every item off a list, or stopping every now and then for a dozen pictures, there is always something about the whole affair that irks me to no end.

And there are other things too, like the fear of forgetting to bring some crucial document or item, that drive me up a wall.

Another thing I have against it is how concerned I can be with getting to my destination. Once I set my sights on going anywhere, everything else falls away, especially the reason why I’m even headed there in the first place. I become more irritable, straying farther from usual disposition that values slowing down to take the world in.

All that would matter is getting there, and that I need to do so as quickly as possible before anything else happened. It’s as if I have a fear of traveling by night, something I really find no problems with, but avoid it like a plague for a reason I can’t put to words, and so I would go.

Losing one’s sense of self is a tricky concept to grasp, but it hasn’t stopped many people I know from turning into drones concerned only with one thing, whether it’s completing a certain task or to simply survive for the next day. Everything else becomes secondary, as if that one thing has consumed them, leaving little time to think of anything else.

The saying “It’s not about the destination, but the journey,” gets tossed around often, but I think the people who say that sometimes miss a crucial detail about travel: it’s that the circumstances affect not just the journey, but one’s outlook on it. When the journey doesn’t allow for a moment to stop and stare, everything else on the roadside becomes a blur, a haze of people and places moving at their own time, as if they were in a world of their own.

The act of going from one place to another, then, becomes a limbo of sorts. I’m not quite out of the world, but I’m not quite in it, either. Everything passes me by and goes on without me.

Nobody even notices me being there, or that I was ever gone: for the stranger on the ground, I’m just another bobbing head on the window of a vehicle barreling down a road to who-knows-where.

When I look at it differently, it can even feel like seeing what the world would be when I bite the dust. Life is a journey too, after all, one that comes to its eventual end – some bittersweet, most mediocre – but too often, many would care too much about getting to the signposts placed arbitrarily along the way.

 

 

In a way, I suppose I should consider myself lucky I even get to places in an air-conditioned bus. Many travelers like myself opt instead for the non-air conditioned buses and jeepneys, many of which are smaller in comparison. They are much older models in without the sleekness and flash of the new ones (that come complete with their own entertainment system!), less suited for comfort, and lean more towards simply being an economical means for getting from point A to point B. They are also more packed with passengers and/or cargo – usually both – which undoubtedly makes for a rather cramped experience; for some, a claustrophobic one.

I do find something enthralling about them, though. Their worn-down appearance is a testament to how they have withstood the test of time. Rust may form on their surface and gather on their axles, their windows may be gone, and they have more than likely broken down more than once, but these antiquated machines still carry their load, still carry on longer than they should.

They have their flaws, yes – their engines are not always regularly cleaned and tuned, and can be huge culprits for smoke-belching on the road – but the lack of maintenance is often the downside of either poverty or greed by the bus line, and often hardly anything the drivers and dispatchers should be blamed for.

But more important to keep in mind is the sometimes rather unforgiving terrain that these vehicles traverse. In many areas, investing in a motorcycle is the way to go since carrying people and goods from place to place becomes more difficult when you consider that these roads are not only unpaved but also sometimes impossible to traverse come rainfall.

Dirt roads turn into inaccessible muddy swaths cutting through what remains of the country’s once heavy forest cover, and in many areas, are flooded completely due to the lack of roots or trees holding the topsoil in place. Consider in this case the skylab, a motorcycle modified by attaching wooden seats or platforms to either side, which has become a critical means of transportation in far-flung areas.

Perhaps I haven’t been on the road long enough to tell – after all, aside from bus rides and the occasional plane from Davao International to Laguindingan Airport and vice versa, I don’t get around much. My disdain for travel is an opinion I’ve long held, and I take measures to not have to go places when I can.

But the more I think about this, the more I come to the realization that the root of my disdain for travel is simply that I fear departure, if not the unfamiliar. The act of traveling itself cannot be possible without leaving something behind, and with only so much that I can carry with me anywhere I need to go, there is always the chance that I would forget to bring something really important, and be caught unprepared.

One might even say that the baggage I lug around isn’t just literal, but also figurative. I keep in mind every mistake I’ve made, every time I forgot to bring a water bottle or an extra change of clothes, and even every instance when I said or did something uncalled for that turned interaction into an awkward mess. One could only conclude that eventually, that baggage will be too heavy for me to move, and that has been the case many times in my life – even now.

 

 

What happens when the journey stops only for me to forget the things that really mattered? If I don’t have what it takes to get through a situation despite the weight of the world – my world – on my shoulders, would all my efforts have been for nothing? What would happen instead if I let go of that said weight, and simply let the worst come to me without anticipating it at every turn? And if it happened that I took the wrong one, would I buckle under pressure, or calmly look at my options before making a decision?

I never gave myself the chance to ask these questions. Looking back, I never even knew what my raison d’etre was for going back to Iligan – I could have simply stayed the whole time, even when my mother said otherwise.

The moment I first stepped foot in Davao was for college. I knew then that I wanted to be here, not just for the duration of my studies, but throughout whatever career path I chose. Davao is where I could be truly myself, unrestrained by expectations and insecurities that would otherwise hound me back home. Most, if not all of the connections I had painstakingly built over the years, are here. Finally, it’s here that I really felt that I could make something of myself, where there is a place for people like me whose particular skill set isn’t likely to amount for much anywhere else.

And not much awaits me in Iligan – aside from the construction of some new buildings here and there, that city remains essentially the same when I first left it. The atmosphere is as dreary as ever, even with the influx of refugees from Marawi making the place much more crowded. Everything is more rushed and pragmatic in that city of failing waters. Throughout my time there, I didn’t feel as much of an appreciation for the arts, and certainly not much for writing.

Even on sunny days, there is a sense of bleakness to it, from the buildings to the people who walk its streets, to the buildings, the jeepneys and brand-new cars that pepper its highways. It feels stifling, in a way, how passersby walk briskly. Iliganons, when walking, always seem like they’re one or two steps short of breaking into a sprint. Everywhere I turn, there feels like a hushed talk of going someplace else, of being more successful or finding work, a career, or a business in some distant city, perhaps in Cagayan or in the wistful mentions of far-off Manila.

Perhaps I say this because I am full of misgivings about my own home city – after all, it is not uncommon for those writing about their own places to initially hate them, and later come to terms with it in terms of nostalgia. But it has been years now, since I first tried to put my feelings about the city into writing. As of my last visit, it has stayed the same. Davao, by contrast, seems much better for me. So why do I bother?

The short answer is that I don’t know. The span of two decades simply isn’t enough for me to find out, given how nearly all of my trips started during my college years up until now. There wasn’t anything to think about: I went home because I was told to, and I still go home for this reason. I hate it, to some degree, but not enough to actively avoid doing so come December.

After all, I end up justifying to myself, the rest of the month is family time. Try as I might with my wanting for solitude, I still have my obligations. To set foot in that city after spending most of the year in Davao is in a way of saying, I am still here, still alive. Work has taken the better of me, and I bear the mental scars of life and living. This never needed saying. Mere presence was enough. Whether it was acknowledged was another story.

 

 

 

I feel that the answer is something more than just having no good reason to stay away for good.

I will start with this: I admit that there is a sort of banality to every return trip. When you dread the prospect of travel, you look forward to the end of it. The moment you arrive home and get to shut your eyes after a long day sitting on a bus is a rare joy, almost a feeling of reprieve. But when I consider Davao to be my home away from home, every trip becomes a return trip. Each time, traveling becomes a chore as the whole affair becomes wrapped in a veil of the mundane. Repetition is the death of novelty.

But even repetition can turn something into a part of involuntary memory, the same way constant practice at touch-typing lets you put more words onto a blank page faster. Before, I faced travel with fear and dread. These days, I only treat it the same way as cooking rice, or ironing my shirt for the next day at work.

All right, I would say to myself, and start packing whenever December started rolling around. Take out the duffel bag and the old maleta. Start stuffing them with clothes, books, and your favorite knick-knacks. Remember the Tupperware containers, the little padlocks. Pack just enough for the trip, for the few weeks you will spend your time in that cramped house. Remember to wake up just in time to catch the bus – race against the sun to get home before nightfall. Rinse. Repeat.

The novelty may have worn off, but so has the fear of getting lost, and, perhaps, even the dread. What is there to do? Let the mind do its work: at any time during the day, I could walk around Iligan with a crude sense of nostalgia. Visit the decrepit, dusty second floor of the public library, or wander along the public market to take in the view of the now-closed Berds Cinema. Stare at the horses bound to their kalesas, toasting in the midday heat, waiting patiently on the sidewalk for passengers. Remember the internet shops I used to spend time with friends in – and where are they now?

Amidst the sweltering heat, the city still breathes, its air of pragmatism embedded and enduring like the constant smell of cold steel that somehow permeates its every corner.

I did mention that there is nothing much that awaits me in that city, and my view on it hasn’t changed. This still stands true. What has changed, at least for me, is how time and distance allows me to take even my own views into perspective. A breather, if one might call it. These days, I am able to ask myself questions such as: why exactly did I hate being in Iligan? What was it about the city that frustrated me so much to want to stay away from it?

Among others, too, were the questions of why I badly wanted to run away from itin the first place. For all these reasons, for all these claims of mine, I still don’t hate it enough to truly stay away from it. I remain transfixed by the city, its awkward melding of old and new that I see in every street corner.

 

 

Ultimately, the most definitive answer I can give is that Iligan – my Iligan, at least – is an urban maze of memories, where the old and the new squeeze themselves alongside one another. The city tries to present itself as something new and emerging, and yet all along its boundaries are countless reminders of what it kept trying to be: boarded-up shopping centers, the closed down power plant, streets littered with potholes and graffiti.

From the busyness of the main highways, you can turn a corner and find yourself in a quiet nook, and spot the odd building that somehow stays open despite being lost to time. You can even hail a jeep to Pala-o, Suarez, or Bara-as, and find yourself lost in completely different worlds, but there will always be the route that will get you home. Perhaps this is how old memories persist, jostling for whatever spaces they can find while new ones hog the spotlight of one’s attention.

The orange streetlights bathe these ancient structures in striking, lovely shadows, putting them in a more romantic light compared to the blinding harshness of the day. And in this light, too, the crevices and hidden corners seem almost inviting despite the unnerving silhouettes and stray dogs.

Take a right turn here and a left turn there, and you will find these crevices and corners, seemingly forgotten enclaves that sit just out of sight. Here, there are homes new and old that bear silent witness to the world going by. Everything changes and stays the same in these pockets, in a manner of speaking.

Here, residents come and go, new houses cement themselves into being, and children acquaint themselves with the world. They learn the intricacies of borrowing a bike, the near-death experience of scraping a knee on the pavement, and the first taste of Armageddon from an angry parent with a belt or a rubber tsinelas.

Everything begins in these corners, from the first wish to see a bigger world to the first dance with failure and the thrill of the first lie. Here starts the first late-night over homework, the first victory, or the first impulse of creativity, but also the first heartbreak, the first taste of defeat, and the first brush with inadequacy. Absences linger. Broken promises compound in these quiet corners.

When left unchecked, negative emotions cement themselves into memories, paint themselves onto walls, and etch themselves deeply into the mind. They meld to form mindsets, colors of the world, contrasts of light and darkness varying from eye to eye, and mind to mind.

Some can see with clarity just fine, while others need assistance. Sometimes, they get it early enough, while others get it only when the world to them has already become a hopeless blur of multicolored hues, and clear lines and boundaries only make themselves known when viewed too closely.

In my case, the blurred vision became both reality and metaphor. I did not know where the fine lines lay, and this proved to be my undoing in my formative years.

I learned how embarrassment tasted like. I became acquainted with the first insult hurled my way without my knowing, and the distances that ill-spoken words can reach. While I learned their power, I couldn’t use it correctly. I didn’t know when to hold my tongue, nor did I know which words cooled tempers. One wrong utterance spurred another, spiraling into a chain reaction that left me unable to reach out to anyone until it was too late.

Of course, this rings with normalcy when you’re young and stupid, but when strung together long enough, there comes a point where it starts to weigh down heavily, making it difficult to lug around on a daily basis without buckling and breaking down into angry tears. All this, and more, simply because I didn’t know.

The city became a picture of my failings: how I failed the world, and how the world failed me. Each embarrassment, each action and lack of it, and each word left said and unsaid – each a grain of sand that would become the whole of that weight.

This, I think, is what I keep tucked back in the far reaches of my mind, lurking in crevices, corners, and far reaches left undisturbed. They are the clutter, the knick-knacks I can’t get rid of no matter how hard I try to clean house. At the bottom of my luggage, or in the tiny corners, they squeeze in and settle quietly in place: not exactly invisible, but often overlooked.

More visible instead are the polished, more contemporary and recent facades, which are more embellishments than the actual memory of the struggle for each high point in my life. They seem glorious, perhaps – but also vainglorious, and ultimately hollow, serving as mere purposeless constructs to look back on with fondness.

Combined, this is what weighed me down to an extreme, so much that I wanted it off my shoulders as I could. When the opportunity to study at a distant place came around, how could I have refused to leave it all behind? With that I went, wishing to never look back.

The weight, however, never left me. Instead of being on my shoulders, it followed me like a ball and chain. Thinking that I had successfully run away from it turned out to be a mistake: everywhere I went, and no matter who I talked to, it rattled on.

I hated leaving Davao and coming back to Iligan exactly because of it: I carried that weight everywhere I went. I strained to keep myself afloat, to try to make a name for myself. In the new city, I had a rather clean slate. To leave Davao would be to put that weight back on again. If I ever came back, the memories would crush me.

Small wonder, then, that they never did. It was only until I started paying attention to it that the weight started shifting. By the time I graduated college, it was still heavy, but now bearable.

The weight only started getting lighter once I came to terms with it roughly two years after graduating college. The responsibilities of adulthood have since taken center stage, and I found myself fully immersed in the struggle for survival, first as a content writer, and later as a call center agent.

It was adulthood, I found, that made me realize that other people were more or less in the same boat as I was. People find themselves tossed into the world grasping at straws, trying desperately to stay afloat, or just trying to find the right route home.

My weight was lighter compared to the people I met: a good number of them were lugging worlds on their shoulders, and yet they were able to go about their daily business light as a feather. My former bosses and co-workers carried all their failings, misgivings, and regrets in stride, and though I didn’t always see them eye to eye, it was something I admired – even envied – about them.

For instance, my first boss was diagnosed with tumors in his urinary tract by the same time the higher-ups planned to cut our 13th-month pay. In my second job, it was common for employees to be single, working mothers with mouths to feed, or young, estranged fathers come to terms with the gravity of their actions. And yet they marched on, and still do.

It turned out, too, that there were other ways to lighten the load on myself. I could stop worrying about never bringing the right thing by leaving room only for the things I truly needed in my journey.

 

 

This, I think, is my raison d’etre: I agree to go home to leave the heaviness behind, one grain at a time. Yes, there is the departure, but there is also the return, and I return each time not as an exorcist seeking to silence internal demons, but as a pilgrim looking to reconcile with myself.

These days, I hop buses from Davao to Iligan, now able to appreciate the ride. True, it’s still a pain to carry the weight around, but I learned not to mind it. Most of the knick-knacks I still keep in my maleta and duffel bag, though now I keep them for sentiment rather than out of bitterness and an inability to reconcile my misgivings.

After all, I already have everything else I might need. I carry it no matter where I go: stories of past failures to learn from and let me deal with similar situations.  Guidelines from awkward silences, memories of points high and low to serve as signposts of where to go, what to avoid, and what not to say.

No matter how well-prepared I try to be, part of the journey is the inconvenience, the possibility of the sudden turn, and the sheer surprise of it all. I could suppose treating the missing document or water bottle as an extra feature or something to laugh about when everything is said and done.

The wrong turn can even be a pleasant surprise: catching the bus late might allow for a view of a brilliant sunset or a strange cloud formation. No two, after all, are ever the same.

The same could even be said for each time I travel. The motions are similar, but there is always something different about every trip: the passengers, the seats, or perhaps the bad movies. Novelty can spring from anywhere, even from the dullness of the familiar.

Perhaps, too, from those hidden corners of memory, I can pluck out a souvenir. Just for keeps.

 

 

 

***

John Oliver Ladaga hails from Iligan but is currently based in Davao City.

 

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