Saturday, February 28, 2009

Walking on Water With My White Coat On

Tonight, I'm temporarily saying goodbye to life. Life as I knew it, at least.

My temporary and short-lived bumhood has prepared me for this. I'm totally psyched out for weekend-less months, sleepless nights, tired legs, an all new fried up brain. I'm ready to receive insults from people I look up to, to again feel that my best will never be good enough, to lose confidence again and again and be reduced to the lowest rung in the ladder, to be stupid and know nothing at all. I've kept my backpack in a corner and stopped planning out-of-town trips, stored DVDs in a closet and arranged 5kg books in their place. I've started jogging along Roxas Boulevard again, practiced waking up at 5AM. My white coats are all pressed and immaculate. My stethoscope is clean. My pens are full.

I'm ready.

I admit there is an intense trepidation, a strong undeniable hesitation. Am I doing the right thing? Am I here for the right reasons? Would I be able to finish what I'm about to start? What type of person will I end up becoming?

Something tells me I'm here for the wrong reasons. Three months ago, after a trip to Dumaguete, I woke up in cold sweat, certain that there's unfinished business yet to be dealt with. Hmmm, unfinished business. Perhaps the nature of that is evolving, it starts out as something and morphs into something else. I only hope that even if I started out with the wrong reasons, everything will turn out to be right. I know they will.

A good friend once said that some decisions need not feel right. They just have to be right. This is one of those choices made that both felt right, and are right. After all, how often does one get Jerry-Maguire moments?

So tonight, I'm saying goodbye to life as I knew it. As Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." This is my chance to redeem myself. And I will.

It's time to heal some hearts... I'm starting with my own. Tomorrow morning, I'm again getting off my boat and start walking on water.

I might not be able to update this site anymore. Just imagine how much time people spend on blogs. If one checks his site for 1hr 4 times a week, that's 4 hours in a week and more than 300 hours in a year - enough time to get me to a secluded island cove somewhere. But it's been fun. And I'm grateful.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tagged! 25 Random Things

Been getting this tagging thing for the past weeks - in Facebook and even from my blogging friends. I've persistenly ignored this tagging epidemic but today, for lack of anything else better to write about, I'm doing this.

Just once. Block my site if I do this again.

25 Random Things About Me

1. I am extremely clumsy, tripping over stuff, bumping against all sorts of things and slipping even on dry ground all the time. I attribute this to my genu valgum (knock-knees).

2. My feet have collapsed transverse arches (a type of flat-footedness) causing hideous permanent calluses on my middle metatarsals.

3. My last normal BMI was 25 years ago, which makes me obese for as long as I can remember, so I just stopped caring.

4. I adore peanut butter especially those greasy enough to drip off the bread. Reese chocolates, peanut butter chocolate milkshake, peanut butter ice cream, yumm!

5. My all-time favorite meal: crispy fried small galunggong toasted enough you can eat the head, warm rice, toyo with kalamansi or sukang pinakurat.

6. I have restless legs when I go to bed – I wiggle my legs rhythmically until I fall asleep, sometimes too vigorously that the bed shakes, so I’d rather have the bed to my own, or I'd rather get the floor.

7. Please leave me alone in the following situations: my jogs or long walks anywhere, and my church hour. If I ask you to join me in these, hmmm, that must be something. If you see me in church alone, oh please don't try to be nice by sitting beside me.

8. When moving about in a line, I prefer to be the last. When sitting on a bench, I prefer the edge. When lying in a cramped space, I’ll take the edge or the corner. Neurosis? Maybe. Go figure.

9. For me, examples of hot, sexy males are: Gary Sinise of CSI New York, Tim Robbins during his Shawshank Redemption days, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and George Harrison from birth until death. If there's a pattern, go ahead, tell me.

10. I still talk to an imaginary friend. I have several. If they’re not available, I talk to objects or animals.

11. I’m extremely lazy – I can spend the entire day gazing at the ceiling or the walls, or talking to myself, and I barely get by with cramming and procrastination.

12. I have a very poor memory – I can’t remember faces or names or directions or numbers.

13. When in class or a lecture, I need to see the face of the speaker and look him/her in the eye, or else I won’t recall a thing. I seem to remember things better for their emotional significance.

14. I never get mad for more than a sunset. And I forget everything the next day.

15. I love the rain so much that I try to avoid using umbrellas as much as I can.

16. My definition of a good movie or a good book is anything that makes me cry. And I cry so easily.

17. My favorite heroine of all time is Eowyn in Lord of the Rings – unrequited love, glory in battle, then happily ever after.

18. I love the Beatles! Though I don’t own a single Beatles record, their songs make up the soundtrack of my life.

19. If past lives are real, I’d be a witch during the Inquisition, a Wild West whore in the mid-1800s, or a hippie artist/activist/ groupie in the 1960s.

20. If I’m not a doctor, I’d be a poet, a rocker, or an ST queen, but I never had the talent or the body to become those. Buti na lang!

21. I hate big weddings (but not marriage itself), so I make all sorts of excuses not to attend one, but I’ll attend for friendship’s sake. Aside from weddings, I hate Christmas, Valentine's Day, funerals, baptisms, anything with pomp and ceremonies.

22. I can’t stand crowds. I avoid huge malls and crowded bars because they make me dizzy and nauseous. But I go to rallies sometimes.

23. My greatest dream is to be a housewife raising a big family in a farm by the ocean. Bwahaha! That's why it's called a dream.=)

24. All my life, I never had a best friend. I have several very good friends, but none that can be dubbed “best”.

25. If I find that best friend and he happens to be a straight male, I'll ask him to marry me.

I'm not tagging anyone anymore. I'm not good at this.

But it sure does feel good.=)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Ultimate Villain

Everyone is a both a villain and a hero for someone. It's all a matter of perspective. (photo from lizajanewvu on flickr)
To celebrate my last few days of glorious bumhood, I indulged in a marathon of “Heroes”. Yes, that Tim Kring series that parodies The X-Men with such a baleful and fiendish scorn it’s almost like a Pinoy telenovela. That series used to be television fodder for the bored people of the Medicine Senior Residents’ Office two years ago. That was when I finished Season 1 which, just like any other overrated and commercialized TV series, was the only really interesting and sensible season ever. In the next seasons, the story becomes so twisted and complicated it becomes ridiculous. Come on, Nikki Sanders dies and a Tracy Strauss suddenly appears? Or Parkman suddenly meets an African pre-cog and marries a speedster? Or the old Mr. Petrelli is alive, plots his revenge on Angela, kills Parkman’s dad who’s after all his evil accomplice? And Nathan becomes a bad guy and Sylar temporarily becomes the good guy and Peter goes back from the future to become the bad guy who suddenly turned good? Yeah, right. How soap-operaish could that get!

Come to think of it, if I ridicule it so much, why did I spend my precious days poring over it instead of finishing my long overdue year-end report? I’m ashamed to admit that it’s because of this three letter statement at the end of each episode: “To be continued…” I started it. I had to see how it ends.
The ultimate villain for low-EQ individuals like me. This is as wicked as wicked could get. (photo from bryanthui on flickr)
Yeah, I’m one of those individuals with very low EQ. I’ll certainly flunk the cookie test, I know. Waiting is just something impossible for me to do. Forgive me, but that’s just how I was made. I have to know what happens next.

A good friend once shared this story:
"There was this boy who reads a story for his grandmother who was already bed-ridden.
Whenever the story would come to a close, the grandson would stop. Genuinely intrigued and curious about the ending, the grandmother would ask ‘What happens in the end?’ The grandson would reply, ‘You’ll find out tomorrow grandma. Now have a good night’s sleep’. ‘Okay, goodnight’, she would say. The next day the boy would pick up a new book and start another story. That was how he kept his grandma alive."


Nah, absolutely not! I find this story infuriatingly unfair! If I was the pathetic old lady, I’d grab the boy and strangle him to his death. The boy, if he has balls, should have honestly told his grandmother, “But grandma, this is already the end!” instead of creating false hopes that the story will continue indefinitely. I think he's such a wicked and spineless boy.

I shouldn't have been affected this adversely because that's supposed to be a nice little story intended to make me feel better. But as you can see, I have very poor EQ, and I will surely fail the cookie test. I finished Season 2 and Season 3 of “Heroes” in two freakin' days (thanks to pirated DVDs!) because I never rest until I find out what happens next. It's appalling, but I'm just built that way. I just think that every story should have an ending, no matter how predictable, painful, horrid, absurd, humdrum, or sad it should be.

“To be continued…” is such a nefarious, diabolical way to say goodnight. Oh please, be brave enough to end a story you had the nerve to start.

“In the case of human beings, friendship is a transitory art, subject to discontinuance without further notice.”
- From “Telemachus, Friend” by William Sydney Porter (O. Henry)

The Last Leaf

If hope is an illusion, it's a mighty good one.

Of the many stories I read, none has ever consistently given me goosebumps as O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf”. It’s always the same, from the first time I read it in high school up to this day, 15 years later, this story has continually given me hope. I’ve always been touched with how the story turned out. After a fierce battle with pneumonia, Johnsy survived because a leaf clung to the bough despite the rains and the winds. And Behrman, the old drunk “failure in art” succumbed to the same illness without having painted his masterpiece. In his classic masterful manner, O. Henry pleasantly shocks his readers by ending the “The Last Leaf” with this statement from Sue, “Look at the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Whenever I reach this part, I always feel strange. The goosebumps start and my eyes cloud. Something is terribly wrong, and yet nothing can be more right. It’s like I’m expecting a few more words at the bottom of the page, when there are none. The story has ended.

Perhaps it’s one of life’s greatest mysteries. We obtain hope from the most bizarre sources: a dream to fulfill, a task to complete, a statement to make, a destination to conquer, a love to claim. At the end of the day, we get better and realize the painful truth – that hope was an illusion after all. But the fact remains – we survived, and even got better.

We move on, while that person who created that illusion we so eagerly fell for - that illusion that so unexpectedly made better individuals out of us – that person who saved us succumbed to his own battles, after unknowingly painting his masterpiece.

For all we know, we may be creating illusions of hope for someone too. So if hope is an illusion, it's a mighty good one. It definitely is somebody's masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brainy Tidbits on the Heart

I received a text message yesterday telling me that the orientation for Cardiology fellowship starts this Monday. All spiced up and excited, I visited my favorite spot in UP College of Medicine since med school days - the UP Medicine Library. Don't get me wrong here. I didn't go there to start reading Braunwald! Geeez, the last thing in my genes is the competitive spirit.

I went there to indulge in something I know I'll never get to do once fellowship starts - read a little bit on cardiac anatomy and physiology at leisure, without being pressured to memorize or even understand anything at all. But instead of anatomy and physiology, I was distracted by another topic I enjoy - history of medicine. I ended up spending several hours on the history of cardiology.

This is the age of cardiovascular revolution. Overwhelming invention and discovery started only in the last few decades. No wonder cardiology fellowship training took only 1 year in the early 1980s. Here are interesting information I discovered:
(Sorry, medyo nerdy information, but this is interesting, I promise)
  • The ECG machine, invented by Willem Einthoven in the early 1900s, used to be a 600-lb apparatus requiring 5 people to operate. Wow! I'm glad I wasn't a doctor during those times.
  • The 2DEcho was invented only in the 1970s. The color-flow doppler in 1982 and the CT-angiogram in 2005! What, no 2DEcho in the 1970s!? No wonder Dr. Abarquez relies on the ECG so much!
  • Modern cardiac catheterization started in the 1950s after a 29-year old surgical resident inserted a ureteral catheter into his own antecubital vein until the tip reached his right atrium! Angioplasty started only in 1997! (I was already a 1st year college kid in UP Manila at that time.)
  • Cardiovascular medications as we know them now began rather recently. Beta-blockers started only in 1975, ACE inhibitors in 1981, statins in 1985, Aspirin (for the heart) in 1988 (wow!), and angiotensin-receptor blockers in the 1990s. What were they giving then? And more importantly, what were they studying and memorizing then?
Da Vinci's rendition of the human heart - generally accurate but he got the anatomical position wrong. Hence, the wrong image of the "Valentine" heart. Be smart everyone. The next time you have to create a figure of a heart, it should be lying down with the apex directed to the left. (photo from mordicaicaeli on flickr)

Too nerdy ba? Here comes the juicy and the cheesy part of this entry. Even before I picked CVS, I always had a fondness for the heart - not the literal heart but the metaphorical images it invokes. I wonder if these great researchers really wanted to prove a literal point, or they just wanted to send a metaphorical message across...
  • Heberden, in 1768, who was the first to describe angina said:

"But there is a disorder of the breast marked with strong and peculiar symptoms, considerable for the kind of danger belonging to it, and not extremely rare."

  • In 1908, Mackenzie in his attempt to explain that it was the exhaustion of the heart muscle that led to symptoms and signs of heart failure, briefly and poignantly stated:

"A heart is only what a heart can do."

  • This is my favorite quote. In the 1960s, in his advocacy for CPR, Beck wonderfully explained"

"The heart wants to beat, and often it needs only a second chance. The heart is too good to die..."

I closed the book. The library light became too strong my eyes hurt...

Hmmm, isn't it a mystery that despite the advances of modern medicine, there is still no way we can regenerate infarcted myocardium? That would be the ultimate discovery, right?

What are we talking about here? Haha! Metaphorically? Figuratively? Literally? Go figure.

Whatever it is, something tells me I chose the right subspecialty... =)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Excerpts from My 15-Minutes of Fame

For this blog entry, I’m going to give my ego an indulging massage and do something really narcissistic bordering on mad. Yesterday, I poured my heart out to a crowd in the PGH Science Hall during the graduation ceremonies of the residents and fellows of the UP-PGH Department of Medicine. Today, I'm posting that speech in this blog.

I know only great people get their speeches on blogs, posted by other people. I'm one of those hugely pathetic ones who posts her own speech in her own blog. Arrogant and vain. But what the heck. Other people might pick up something good from it. My main purpose however is this: to give credit to where it is due. Some of the people I am truly grateful for were not in the audience.

(Though the great Dr. ALD (TD) was there. wohoo!! =)
And the great Dr. ADM too. Yes Emeritus Professors RFA and EOD were there. But just to speak in front of your 2 greatest mentors, whew!)

Please indulge my big headedness and my lunacy. Here goes...

To say that this is an honor is an understatement. Few people will ever get this chance – to speak in front of such a great and honorable audience and be sure that she’ll be heard. If I take too much of your time, please Dr. Reyes and Dr. Nicodemus, go ahead and drag me out of this stage.

It was in August of 2007 when discussions about the next chief resident who will succeed the great Mark Sandoval were hot in the SRO. Maybe because I was one of the youngest in my batch and the only one then more eager to be a farmer than to be a doctor, my batch mates were badgering me to get the job. Even if it was just call room talk, I thought about this seriously. Chief residency is probably the biggest intellectual and emotional challenge a resident could ever imagine, that it would take a super human to do it. I did some research and listed down the names of the previous chief residents in the department: Tangco, Dans, Jorge, Isip-Tan, Nicodemus, Ona, etc. Wow, super humans indeed! So in the end, I made up my mind: No way! Chief residency is just too grand and too fancy for me.

One day, however, a brave well-meaning soul, a very good friend, approached me and said, “If they ask you to be chief resident, would you take it?” “Sabi ko, “Hindi ‘no! Di ko kaya ‘yun!” Then sabi nya, “Hmmm, that’s funny. Because I never thought you’re the type of person who’d say ‘no’ to a chance to do something good.”

I was speechless. All of a sudden, chief residency as THE ultimate daunting task was transformed and simplified into a chance to do something good. The thought became so tempting that I could not resist it. I figured, how bad could it get? The worst I could do was lose my head in the middle of it all, be yelled at, turn out to be a hilarious catastrophe nobody would ever forget. But at best, I could actually do it!

So a few days later, when the EXECOM asked “Are you willing?”, I said, “Yes.” And the rest was history.

I’d like to share three very important things that I learned during my one year as your chief resident.

First, the notion that chief residency is a sacrifice is false. Up until my last day in office, I never found any evidence that would qualify it as a sacrifice in any way. True, I had to spend extra hours in the office doing paperwork, but I also learned important skills I would never have learned anywhere such as: using the fax machine, photocopying, paper shredding, etc. Every time Dr. Mejia asks me to draft a communication, I consider that as a special lesson in writing, something like a crash course on English as a language, that I began to appreciate writing again. True, I had to spend sleepless nights constructing exams for residents, but if not for those exams, I wouldn’t have bothered reading Harrison’s (hehehe) and I wouldn’t have realized I’d want to spend the rest of my life as a teacher. True, I had to hear complaints from consultants, fellows, residents, nurses, patients, and other departments everyday. But I was able to get a better perspective on things, I had the chance to listen to strange people and to talk to them, when that used to be impossible for me. One of the best perks from being chief resident is that in the soap opera called PGH Department of Medicine, I got the best seat in the house.

Instead of a sacrifice, I’d like to believe that chief residency is a gift – a chance to grow as a person and as a doctor, a chance to teach and be taught, a chance to touch lives, a chance to be forced to do things you never thought you can do, to know your limits, to make mistakes and be better because of them. It’s a gift given only to a few people. And I was one of those lucky enough to get it.

Second, there is no such thing a stereotypical chief resident. So you need not change who you are to be able to be one. During an interview, a candidate for chief resident asked Dr. Mejia and Dr. Jorge what the typical chief resident should be. They said there’s no such thing. You need not be a geek who knows every page, diagram and table of Harrison’s, or a super-sungit dude willing to get into fistfights with anyone, or an obsessive-compulsive neat freak who won’t sleep until every piece of paperwork is done. They said that the department adapts to each working style. The EXECOM picks up the rhythm and works according to that rhythm. Every year, the chief resident is different. And it’s okay to be different. When they said this, I was so relieved. The way I understood it, I could get drunk once in a while or indulge in occasional backpacking trips and still get my job done. Buti na lang.

Third, I learned that the initial reason why I accepted this job, which was “to do something good”, was arrogant and even silly. I started out self-assured and convinced that I will do great things and change the world. But then real life came. Good intentions are never enough. In fact, huge chunks of my already minute self-esteem crumbled and everyday I was humbled. This supposedly hotshot chief resident barely got through each day praying, “Lord, just please give me your best today and I will give you mine” True, there was probably a little good thing done once in a while: a task completed, a resident comforted, a conflict resolved. At the end of one year, I demanded to myself, “What did you do? Show me.” There was nothing. I couldn’t identify one big thing, one permanent, concrete and tangible monument to my good intentions.

But then I look at myself. I have come a long way since that first day I sat on Mark’s chair. That timid, beer-guzzling, occasionally hot-tempered resident from God-knows-where in Mindanao who can’t even talk to consultants without melting, managed to write letters and talk to VIPs straight in the eye, send emails using Dr. Mejia’s personal account, attend meetings and speak out on behalf of the department, pester fellows into submitting reports and completing pay charts, call consultants early in the morning to drag them out of bed into the residents’ orals – things she never would have done if it’s all up to her. That girl who can’t even talk to anyone on the phone without peeing, is now talking in front of you, and loving every minute of it. Therefore, that concrete and tangible monument to my good intentions is me.

I agreed to be your chief resident because I had hoped I could do something good for the department. I didn’t realize that all the while, it was the department that was making something good out of me.

I’d like to end my talk by thanking everyone who helped. Dr. Mejia, ma’am you’re the coolest boss anyone could have. Dr. Jorge for the patience and gentleness, the rest of the EXECOM for the unwavering support and indulgence.. To the staff in the office: Ma’am Gina, Ma’am Cris, Ma’am Hazel, Ma’am Nilda, Sir Alfred, Mang Dan, thank you for the friendship. Thank you Mark S. for the helping me with so many things and for showing me the ropes. Dexter, thank you for accepting the challenge. I know you’d do so much better than I did. I’d like to thank the fellows from the sections and Dermatology for your support and quick action whenever we needed anything. I’d like to thank all the consultants for your tireless and selfless efforts in offering a huge part of yourselves for our patients and our residents. I’d like to give my special appreciation for the Section of Adult Medicine, to Dr. Dans, Ma’am Lia, Homer and everyone, for being my conscience, my mentors, and my touchstones whenever I aimlessly drift around.

I also would like to thank my batch mates, for bringing the five o’clock club into the chairman’s office, for being my gripe buddies and whining walls, my eyes and ears in the department. But above all, I’d like to thank the residents. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your growth for one year, for giving your all even if you’re tired and underappreciated. I’ve always known I got the best people. I only hope I gave you justice.

I think every chief resident would want to be remembered for something. Last night I was brainstorming on how I’d want to be remembered. I will never be the best chief resident, it’s easier for me to be known as the “Most Relaxed” or the “Most Forgetful” or the “Most Unlikely”. Maybe you can think of me as “The One Who Never Cried On the Job” or “The One Who Gave the Longest Graduation Speech”. That would be fine with me. But if it’s okay with you, I’d like you to know that I’ve been the most blessed. So I want to be remembered as the “Most Grateful”.

Thank you very much.

Oh, by the way, I meant everything I said. Really.=)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine Surprise

It's Valentine's Day. Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

I'm embarassed I'm celebrating it. Surprised I even knew today has a significance of some kind, that February 14 stands for something. I'm the greatest anti-Valentine's day fan that I know. For several years, I made it a point to wear black as a protest. Then black for Valentine's day became chic, and so I stopped caring. I thought (and still think) that Valentine's Day is an overrated, commercialized nonsense; a ploy by media and other industries to get people to shell out their hard-earned bucks, as if love can be bought. If anything, it's a large-scale attempt to brainwash people to give in to their carnal instincts believing love is equal to sex and the other way around. It seems successful. Malls and restaurants get crowded, traffic sucks on Valentine's week and more babies are born on Novembers of any year.

But this year, despite my disgust for this hype, I'm celebrating it. Of course I'm not wearing red, or going out for a solo dinner in a fancy restaurant, or asking any male friend out just so I could pretend I have a date. Those would be hideously unforgiveable. In my quiet way, I will celebrate it.

Perhaps I shocked several of my friends when they received "Happy Valentine's Day" text messages from me. I really meant it.

Love, requited or otherwise, no matter how painful or sweet, was, is, and will always be worth it.

That deserves a celebration, doesn't it?

For starters, I'm opening a bottle of red wine. Cheers!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Thinking loosely and in outline form

  • For the first time since I started traveling, there's no post-travel depression to deal with. I now realize why post-travel blues happen - it's when you know you can never be part of something beautiful even if you want to, when you're certain you will never see the place again as you used to, when you're terrified of losing something you never really had. The remedy, I realize, is acceptance. In Kubler Ross' vocabulary, I'm in the acceptance stage. That stage when you scratch at something so hard to see it bleed, and then nothing happens, so you just let it die. After years of being a doctor in the country's biggest government hospital, watching someone die has become an art I have skillfully mastered. What I learn in Medicine has to be translated to real life. Watch something die and do nothing. Watch something die and feel nothing. It's about time.
  • I'm finally back in the city. The old building in my street has been demolished. The walls are now filled with colorful, neon graffiti, very masterfully designed that I wondered if it's an art form in a way. Who defines art, anyway? What constitutes ugliness? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it then defined by the number of people who consider the subject beautiful?
  • Few days to Valentine's Day. I have resolved to never celebrate it. But this year, I'm going to celebrate for the first time in my adult life. I'm going to ditch my black outfit and wear red, have a fancy dinner and cap the evening with a bottle of red wine. No matter how commercialized the day has become, love is always a wonderful thing. Love, in whatever form, as long as it's real, deserves a celebration.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

And In the End...

Hopefully, this is the last of my Batanes posts...

(Written with The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers playing on the background… )

Once there was a way to get back homewards
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby…

I am leaving Batanes for Manila tomorrow. This extended, 18-day love affair with solitude in the country’s most isolated islands has finally come to a close. As I was packing my suitcase this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder, now what?

He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land,
making all his nowhere plans for nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to.
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
– Lennon-McCartney

Before I left Manila I had the good fortune of talking with an old friend who said that this long retreat from the rest of the world would most certainly be life-changing. We imagined that I’d probably come back with a beard and a wistful look on my face, as if ancient and sacred secrets have just been revealed to me. Like Moses after he walked on God’s mountain and spoke to the burning bush, we joked.

But after 17 days, I look at myself in the mirror and examined if anything has changed… Then I discovered... Whaaat?! I do have a beard now!

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive…
- Lennon-McCartney

Kidding aside…

I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that at the end of it all, nothing has changed. Oh yeah, I’m darker, with more sun-induced blemishes and wrinkles on my face, with disheveled hair badly in need of a hair spa, cracked fingernails on scaling hands, calloused and deformed feet, more prominent varicose veins from too much walking around under the sun and the wind. I also gained several more pounds from my dozen-egg-a-week low-budget traveler diet. The image I see on the mirror would have made me depressed. But as this journey comes to a close, there’s a certain joy, an elation, a state almost akin to enlightenment, but not quite.

The long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear.
I’ve seen that road before.
It always leads me here, lead me to your door.
The Lonely Planet has a slogan which says “I search. Therefore I travel.” But do we really travel in search for something? Do we really find anything at the end of each journey? It’s hard to say. I do not agree with the notion that one needs to wander far away from home to search for epiphanies. Perhaps there are really no such things. There are only ordinary miracles in ordinary places and ordinary moments, just waiting to be discovered.

But since I took the pains of detaching myself from my everyday environment, I wonder if this is all worth it, when at the end of this 18-day retreat, I’m still the same. I cherish the same passions, feel the same way for certain people and things, I’m still the same idle procrastinating bitch who blogs all day despite mountains of unfinished business, I still can’t find the guts and the sense to say some things and to do the things that really matter, I still cry over silly movies and lines, my premature Alzheimer's Disease is still hounding me, I still cannot say what it is that I really want out of life, I still talk to that imaginary friend, and yeah, I still don’t have that well-designed plan that will enable me to get laid.

But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down,
and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round…

Existential angst? Nah. Truth is I’m long done with that crap. Perhaps I’m just lonely that this trip is ending. Perhaps I’m just coping with the inevitable post-travel depression before it even starts. Perhaps I’m just excited about the real world that awaits. Perhaps I am hoping that after this trip, the next journey will finally be one that will lead me home. Ahhh, home…

Someday, you'll know I was the one
But tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun.
One day, you'll look to see I've gone
For tomorrow may rain so I'll fillow the sun...

I hope I’ll find out soon enough. But for now, I’m back to where I started.

Oh well…


And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…
All photos belong to the author unless otherwise specified.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

More Portraits: Sabtang

Chavayan boys and me. I look like a pedophile here. And they look like a young gay couple. Hehehe. Ooops, sorry. Hmmm, this looks like a shot from war-torn Vietnam in the 60s.

Crying for mama. "Mama, the fat lady is taking my picture..." Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes.

Little boy staring at me from the driver’s seat of the jeepney on the way to Ivana. He's probably thinking, "What's this fat lady doing in here?" I was the only passenger then.=)

Boy making faces. Barangay Chavayan, Sabtang, Batanes.

Very nice smile. But they could sure use a dentist here. Savidug, Batanes.

She’s devouring her corn, while trying to make the pogi sign. Good girl. Chavayan, Sabtang, Batanes.

Puppy love? Buti pa sila. Sana ako rin meron. =( (eeew!)

Another rare geriatric shot. He was worried he had no teeth, but was gracious enough to flash me a nice, genuine smile. Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes.

Girl with the pink bonnet. Also in Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes.

After looking at these portraits, I realize one very important fact. In this life we are all travelers. As we move along, we meet people. By some strange design of fate, we get entangled in a variety of situations: in our schools, in our jobs, in our travels, in the streets, in the malls, in the LRT, even in ways as fascinating as blogs or as absurd as Friendster. In one way or another, we connect with them and they connect with us. And then after that brief interaction we just pass each other by, often without even realizing it, without even saying "Bye, it was nice meeting you."

I wonder who decides who meets who. I wonder who gets to decide whether we get to meet these people again in our future journeys. No matter how we try to keep the connection going, we just have to move on without them.

So many people, names and faces already forgotten, so many interesting individuals out there to meet, and know, and invariably lose in the future. Sometimes thinking about all these makes me tired, and sad, disappointed in the vanity of it all.

But then I remember those ones I meet again and again, those who share more than a nod, or a smile, or a shallow conversation. Those who will surely be welcoming me when I come home, the same people who will patiently listen to my adventures even if I rant about them again and again, the ones who have their own journeys but who consider it worth their while to walk with me or to find me again. Then the peace returns.

People will always come and go and all they leave behind are their portraits in our memories.

But what would matter the most, are the ones we get to keep.

Portraits 1: Itbayat

Whenever I go out of town, I usually make a list of the sights to see. But most of the time, I end up not seeing everything. For this Batanes trip, I have a list of must-see places prepared since more than a year ago. Now I have 2 days left and yet I still haven’t visited several places on my list. Although I’m an avid walker, I almost always end up losing interest in the sights, usually staying in one place instead of moving about, and strinking up conversations with the ordinary people I meet. That's how I learn the most.

When I reviewed the pictures that I took, I was disappointed with my photos of the beautiful Batanes scenery. They were few, very poorly taken pieces. However, I was glad I was able to take pictures of people.

Photographers visiting Batanes always capture fascinating portraits of old people in front of stone houses. Before I came here, I had resolved to be some kind of a photographer myself and come up with excellent portraits of the geriatric Ivatan population. However, I can’t seem to find the guts to ask these senior citizens to pose for pictures. But the children just seem to gravitate towards me.

Of course I’m no photographer. All I have is my trusty Canon point-and-shoot. I am essentially photography-illiterate and Photoshop is Latin to me. But I’m deeply proud of these pictures. They remind me of the connections I made with the people I met during my journeys.

One of my very few geriatric photos. An 82 year-old lola in Raele, Itbayat coming home from her farm.

One of my favorites. Reminds me that somehow lahat tayo, dumaan din sa pagiging uhugin.

Boy on tree. He just wouldn’t come down to me…

Another of my favorites. I love that faraway look, dreamy to some extent. He looks like a boy from war-torn Eastern Europe or the ruins of Afghanistan. Believe it or not, this is a staged shot. He was simply following directions.=)

Two of my favorite boys in one photo. Cute, di ba?
Two boys playing with their black dog, Obama.

Then the girls came. Taken in front of the abandoned schoolhouse beside the church in Itbayat.

Two boys in a wooden cart being pulled by a carabao, on the way to their farm. Itbayat, Batanes.

My Ivatan friend, Katrina, in black and white.

More on Sabtang: Exploring the Villages

Batanes is so outlandish that when you roam around its villages, you won’t be surprised if you find a druid mixing his brew, or a hobbit smoking his pipe, or Gandalf and Saruman sharing a laugh. Whereas in Basco only a very few stone houses remained and in Itbayat, houses are usually far apart, the old arrangement of the villages are still very much preserved in Sabtang.

Old man walking home in Malakdang, Sabtang. Being around the villages makes you feel that you’re trapped in another world. Sometimes it’s so quiet that you’d wonder where everyone is. The population of Sabtang and Itbayat has remained the same since the early 1900s. For instance, accounts from the friars in the 1800s show that Itbayat has a population of 1,500 in the 1860s. Today, its population has been pegged at 2,600. While every other town in the country is growing in numbers, population growth in these parts has stalled, which could only mean one thing: the young people are leaving.

While the oldest documented Ivatan house is the House of Dakay in Ivana (built 1887), the houses in the villages of Savidug and Chavayan in Sabtang seem to be a lot older. This is a typical structure.

A familiar fixture on the houses. A large number of Ivatans grow onion and garlic on their farms. Dracula will find Batanes deadly.

The typical village streets are narrow, good enough for people, or a bicycle, or a motorcycle to go through. This is one of the streets where the traditional cobblestones are still preserved. Chavayan, Sabtang.

A dog guarding one of the houses in Malakdang, Sabtang. Canines are still man’s best friend. While trekking along the National Highway everywhere in Batanes, it’s not an unfamiliar sight that you see an old man or woman, in a vakul (the traditional head protection gear made of grass), sporting a yuvok (a type of basket strapped from the head), leading a carabao, with a dog or several dogs trailing behind.

Some of the houses have whitewashed walls (still made of limestone) giving it an immaculate look, adorned with colorful flowers. The structure somewhat reminds me of houses in the Italian or French coastal towns I see in the movies.

That’s me, sitting in front of a window of one of the houses in Savidug, searching for that elusive epiphany. Somehow being at the edge of civilization has an uncanny, unsettling, even terrifying way of bringing us home. This photo seems to illustrate how everything just seems to be out of place…

Up next… Portraits, Sights, and Insights. I still need to organize these photos and my thoughts. Two more days and it’s back to real life.=) Perhaps I’m ready. “Perhaps” – I love this word!

More on Batanes: Sabtang This Time

Last Friday, I managed to overcome my decelerating inertia, packed up my bags, and took the long-delayed trip to the Southern island of Sabtang. Sabtang is the smallest among the 3 inhabited islands of Batanes. It lies only 3 miles southwest from the seaport of Ivana. It can be reached by the falowa, a smaller version of the tataya to Itbayat. Despite the deceptively short distance between Ivana and Sabtang, the Lonely Planet warns travelers that “it’s a very rough crossing and poor weather could strand you for a couple of days”.

So geared up for another thrilling boat ride and the possibility of getting stranded for a few days, I packed enough provisions to last me the entire weekend, all secured in plastic bags because everything I read about the trip gave warnings such as “it’s a splashy ride” and “prepare to get wet”.

The falowa, arriving Sabtang on an uncharacteristically calm and glorious sunshiny day. The crew, by force of habit, went fishing on board. Splashes were minimal. The Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea were kind to ocean- phobic travelers like me.

The falowa driver, expertly using his legs. Legend has it that once he starts using his hands, you’re in for a lot of trouble. The sea plays an essential role in an Ivatan’s life, so much that ancient Ivatans place miniature boats on their graves. Ivatan seafarers are experts even without formal education: they study the moon and are able to predict the tide and current, they can even read the clouds, the shape of sand dunes, the movement of the waves, and understand the behavior of animals and know when it is safe to sail.

The beautiful Sabtang lighthouse welcomes every visitor as the falowa docks in San Vicente Port in Sinakan, Sabtang's main barangay.

The Lonely Planet mentions that traveling to Sabtang “increases even further the feeling that you have somehow left the rest of the world behind”. Most of the houses around Sabtang are still made out of the traditional limestone and cogon. This is one of those houses, right in the middle of town, fronting the immaculate accommodations of Sabtang School of Fisheries where I stayed. The very colorful doors and elaborately designed shutters seem to make up for the plain, functional structure of these houses.

The falowa, leaving the port on a normal day. Winds are hard, the waves are rough and you will really get wet. It’s 40 minutes of floating on waves that tower over the boat, you’d be amazed how the boat remains afloat without turning over. On my ride home, the driver was using his hands. But I noticed he wasn’t the real driver – just someone being trained while the real driver was fishing. So I heaved a sigh of relief.

More on Sabtang in the next entries...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wondering While Wandering

After being stranded in Itbayat, I decided to postpone my trip to Sabtang until the later part of this expedition. So instead of taking another falowa ride, I’ve been walking around Basco and its nearby towns these past few days. Last Tuesday I walked for hours until my calves ached. I was even pleasantly surprised when my good old hideously deformed and calloused farmer’s feet still developed blisters despite the impenetrable carapace they have developed. (Reminder to myself: The next time I get a surplus paycheck, I would have to lavish these unsightly but unfailing appendages with first-rate walking footwear.)

Perhaps it was providential that the earphones of my iPod finally gave up after two years of faithful service during this trip. I was devastated when it did - I lost the only boyfriend I ever had. But I was also compelled to enjoy silence more, to listen to what the wind and the waves are saying, or to simply enjoy the sounds they make. I also lost my cheap but trusty sunglasses. I mourned for this loss since I was never without them during my Philippine journeys from southernmost Mati in Davao Oriental to the northernmost Itbayat. They have concealed my fear, masked my affections, veiled my wonder. But with this loss, I am obliged to look at the sky and see its colors just the way they really are.

Walking has a way of clearing the mind. I learned a lot of things during my walks. I’d like to illustrate them using some pictures.

A late afternoon scene from Tukon Hills. Batanes is hilly and walking across these hills can be grueling. But I figured: If you’re having a hard time going up the trail, be assured that the walk down would be a lot easier.

Mahatao View Deck. The view up there may be spectacular. But there’s a different view below, and it can be just as astonishing as the view on top, or even better.

Signs like these abound in the winding roads between Basco and Ivana. Blow your horns, people, especially if the road is narrow and winding. Sometimes, you just have to say it!

Inscribed in a glass from a carinderia during one of my frequent stops. Sometimes, we ask God for signs. He sends us a written directive in response. No admonition can be more vivid, coming at such a perfect timing that perhaps even the poet can forgive his wrongly spelled name.

The abandoned old port in Ivana, also known as Radiwan Point, with the island of Sabtang looming ahead. Some things, when ruined, become more beautiful, the way broken people can become even more beautiful too...

Itbayat 2: Taming the Isolation

How the Ivatans try to tame their islands has really fascinated me. I know Filipinos are by nature creative and resourceful, utilizing limited resources very efficiently. One of my traveling friends, in awe and wonder, once described to me how fisher folks in Capiz cleverly but dangerously raise tons of wreck metal from the bottom of the ocean using the simple oxygen compressor tank. Stories like this make traveling all worth it, when you see people triumph over their circumstances and limitations and realize how petty and worthless your own troubles are compared to theirs.

Nowhere in the Philippines have I seen resources as scarce as in Itbayat, where the rough oceans isolate the people from the usual conveniences of the modern age. I was really amused by how they move cargo from down below the port to the flat area above where they can be hauled by the trucks to the barrios. I hope that by sharing these stories amd pictures in my blog, I can give credit to these great people. I am really awed and amazed, definitely.

So here’s the docking tataya in Chinapoliran Port. The men unload the cargo, consisting mostly of construction materials such as sand (Itbayat has no sand, remember?), commodities such as rice, flour, groceries, and of course, gin. Take note of the wooden crate-like structure on the far right. That’s the trolley. Note the man wearing orange over-alls. He’s the trolley driver.

So the men fill this cart with the cargo from the boat. With a wave of his hand, the man in the orange over-alls now riding the trolley, is pulled up with the cargo. Smart, huh?

They unload the cargo from the boat at the landing up above, then load the trolley with the cargo for loading to the boat. Nice system. Sturdy trolley, strong men, wave of a hand, then the cycle goes on: trolley goes down, gets cargo from ship, man in orange waves his hand, trolley goes up with cargo, men fill the trolley with cargo for loading, man in orange waves his hand again, trolley goes down. Very simple.

Must be a complicated pulley mechanism they're using here, huh? I was very much surprised when the force bearing the weight of the trolley plus cargo is...

...That truck up above the cliffs!!! No radio, no high tech signaling mechanisms. The wave of the hand from the man in orange tells the driver of that far away truck to move forward, or to move back, and trolley either goes up or down. A bit too simple and too dangerous, but fascinating isn’t it?
They say that some time in 2008, a representative of the Pope from Rome visited Itbayat. The townsfolk fashioned that trolley into a fancy carriage that would bring the church guy up. Same system, but the guy in orange was dressed up as fit for the visitor from Rome (I imagine a Spanish bullfighting costume, cape and all). The papal nuncio survived the ride. If he knew it was that truck pulling him, he’d have died of a heart attack. I would.
By the way, that truck is the same truck that makes rounds across town. Since the winds are very unpredictable, the town has devised a system of informing the folks if there’s a trip or not. If the winds are suitable and a boat is coming, the church rings the bell thrice after the 6AM prayer. Clang! Clang! Clang!
The townspeople then prepare whatever they would want delivered to Basco: letters, food stuff, farm produce, livestock, etc., place them on the road in front of their homes, and this truck picks them up. This truck picked me up too, along with the 3 pigs, several chickens, and sacks of farm produce. Good thing I didn’t have to take that trolley ride down.
A sociologist once said that culture is the system of a people’s recognition of their needs, and their activities by which they strive to satisfy those needs. This is culture in its purest, most awe-inspiring form. There’s the harsh environment, the hardy and creative people, the enduring assistance and guidance of the church, all working together to create something like this – something that a mere outsider like me can only gape at and be awed about.
I wasn’t surprised the papal nuncio survived the trolley ride. I believe God, who created such beautiful place, people and culture, was in that ride too. And He was probably smiling.
That’s me, while waiting for the truck to pick me up and bring me to the tataya that would take me back to Basco. Whining about getting stranded but happy just the same. I was indeed blessed to be given this chance to experience even just a facet of the great beauty of it all.

Itbayat 1: It's the Journey AND the Destination.

Before I move on to describe my other journeys around the Batanes islands, I’d like to backtrack a bit and give you an idea about Itbayat.

I’ve read somewhere, written by some egotistical Filipino adventure-hound, that there are only two types of Pinoy travelers: those who have been to Batanes and those who haven’t. While I contend that this is just one of the countless ways of classifying this breed (for example, those who have been to Boracay and those who haven’t, where I, in a mix of pride and embarrassment, belong to the latter class), let us just agree with this for now, for the purposes of this blog entry. Since I’m one of the luckier ones who have already walked on Ivatan soil, I’ll further bloat my head by claiming that there are only two types of Batanes travelers: those who have been to Itbayat and those who haven’t.

I’m also fortunate enough to be among the latter. While I’d like to claim that going to Itbayat needs sheer guts, a very strong sense of adventure and a little bit of recklessness, I’ll be humble enough to admit that the only vital resource an Itbayat traveler must have is time. Most people can go to Itbayat. As a matter of fact, I think anyone can. Fear of the alone can be easily remedied by good, reliable company. The seasickness can be averted by a strong sedative, and those who can’t endure the ocean can avail of the 8-seater planes (currently not in service now since they are converting the runway into concrete. Yes, the runway used to be a dirtroad along the hills of Raele). Time, however, is an absolute necessity. Some travelers get stranded for weeks during bad weather. If you want to conquer Itbayat, assume to be stranded, unless proven otherwise.

I was one of those unwise enough to believe that the winds would look on me with favor and behave. I brought my daypack with a couple of clothes, a jacket, a bottle of water, and several hard-boiled eggs to equip me for a trip to southern Sabtang, 40-minutes away. The weather was perfect then. I had planned to stay overnight in Sabtang for a day or two. However, when I got to the Port of Basco, I was told that boats for Sabtang dock in San Vicente Pier in Ivana town, 30-minutes away by jeep. I found a tataya almost ready to sail so I asked one of the crew, “Saan po ‘to papunta?". He told me “Papuntang Itbayat po ito” "Di po ba mahirap ang byahe dun?" "Ma'am eto na po ang pinakamagandang panahon na pumunta. Wala po masyadong hangin." So I figured, “Oh well... My stupidity brought me here, I might as well make the most out of it." I got on the tataya, received she-must-be-crazy looks from the crew, and the rest was history.

The tataya to Itbayat. The boat is a motor-driven, outriggerless, shallow-hulled, open decked boat that would navigate the 25 miles to the northernmost inhabited island of the Philippines. The Lonely Planet describes the trip as “four hours of sheer hell, packed in with livestock and often seasick people”. It turned out to be the greatest sea trip of my life, so far.

The tataya bound for Basco, the same that took me to Itbayat five days before. They have everything you can imagine on board: pigs, chickens, lumber, empty gin bottles (the province of Batanes contributes P40M to San Miguel in gin alone, with Itbayat being the chief consumer!). The sea was tougher on the way back, but they say it’s the normal ride. Being jumpy when it comes to water since I was a child, this trip cured me of my hydrophobia. Though even if I appear scared and stupid, I still wear my life vest all throughout the trip while the everyone else is dozing it off.

They say Itbayat is a coral reef island that rose out of the ocean millions of years ago, one of the biggest in the world. It has a jagged shoreline and not a single beach or a cubit of sand could be found. It is a continuous massive wall of cliffs riddled with caves, underground rivers, most likely still unexplored until now. These cliffs form a rim, and along with the hills, they serve as a fortress to the town that lies in its basin.

Because of the beach-less terrain, the ports were constructed this way. When the boats dock, you have to follow the crew’s instructions on when you will jump off the boat and towards the port. Since huge waves continue whacking against the boat, your jump has to be perfectly timed or you’ll get sandwiched between the boat and the concrete slabs of the port.

You then start your long climb up. If the winds are strong, you may need to crouch or it feels as if they can blow you away. They say that this concrete port is a recent innovation. They used to clamber up these rocks to get to the plain on top. You may ask, “What happens to the cargo?” How they get the cargo up is a very fascinating innovation that I have resolved to describe in detail in the next entry.