On my pad’s door, inches above the knob, is a small Philippine map I ripped out from a travel diary. I marked the places I have been. I paused and rolled the phrase “have been” on my tongue. I paused. I questioned its authenticity and integrity. By “have been,” exactly on what terms and terrains am I navigating myself through, a domestic traveler and a writer.
When can you say that you have been to a place?
My brother, a graduating college student at the age of 24 and never had the hunger to wander, inspected the little map and decided I have been to a lot of places. It’s the extreme edges of the country that deemed themselves slippery—places like Sitangkai and Babuyan. But the rest, he concluded, I have been there.
Someone noticed, there seemed a recurring tendency for me to forget the places I have visited, places I have blogged or written in my column—most of them the names of the resorts I have stayed or the people I have talked to.
I checked the map again. Masbate, Iloilo, Guimaras, Davao Oriental, North Cotabato, Camiguin, Kalinga were some of the dotted places. Could I say or boast to friends and curious travelers that I have been there?
Remembering is a weapon a traveler and writer both have. On a small island in Masbate named Daegan, I stayed in an open cottage, the only accommodation available for non-locals like me.
In Guimaras, Pie and I island-hopped. I slept inside a small tent under the Amihan Boys’ makeshift skimboarding school and got invited to try weed in Mati. Most of our meals in Lake Sebu involved tilapia. I was accused as a betrayer in Camiguin for not listening to the drivers who went overboard with the prices upon seeing the man I was with then: a white man.
Some, feeling cheeky, exclaimed, you could say you have visited a place once you have taken a piss on its ground or kissed a rock seven times. Or if you have done the “five things to do in _______.”
Because I can remember fragments of memories happening in some regions and islands, can I now claim, the seeming arrogance of “Been there. Done that?” I have got that priced tattoo from Whang Od. I have taken that selfie with Katibawasan Falls. I have tried the overpriced yoghurt in Sagada. I have tried skimboarding and laughed at my own failure of not riding a single wave. I have tried the so-called sweetest mango in the Philippines.
What if, I would say, there was something missing with those details? What if I would say, the details—truthful to the experience they may be—were rather shallow and unworthy to be written?
Is it not an arrogance as well to judge something as shallow and unworthy? To judge people for bragging on Facebook their recent trip to El Nido or taking the “That Thing Called Tadhana” route? To label them as mere tourists who do not really know the true value of traveling or solo backpacking? To judge them for touristing or traveling with Facebook in mind? Because to post and brag about your trip is said to be another form of narcissism.
When someone asked, “So what are you, Jona, a traveler or a tourist?” A part of me wanted to insist traveler; but to label the self a traveler is an automatic rejection of anything that is touristy. The label traveler is the constant pursuit of the unfamiliar, the untried, the off-the-beaten; there is no room for places that everyone goes to. The label sounded so absolute, fixed, and yes, contrived.
There is something wrong and so “untraveler” about such snobbish assumptions. Because I go to Moalboal and Malapascua—two of the most “touristy” places in Cebu—almost every month. Because, despite not taking selfies, I self-timed my portraits and sometimes upload them on Facebook and Instagram. So I am not a traveler. Or perhaps I am both a traveler and a tourist. Or a more truthful answer would be I have reached the point where this kind of labeling does not bother me at all.
When I am asked, so what is the most beautiful place you have been to? Me—who has been told, “you and your issues with defining, Jona”—would ask, define beautiful. Are we talking about convenience? Because admittedly, there is something beautiful about joining a big tour group. Everything is taken care of. All you have to do is to marvel the experience at the given limited time. Is it the scenery? Or by “beautiful” you mean the quality of stories the place revealed to me?
I try not to put hierarchies in my travel experiences, but there are places I find more storied, more writable. I forget resorts, names perhaps because they did not leave a mark on me. I travel to write, and the most writable are not necessarily the off-the-beaten paths, the panoramic; but places where all my senses are attuned to their natural workings.
If I were to follow this argument, I would say I have not been to most of our country. I could only afford to stay in one place six days at the most. All I have are snippets, pieces. I feel anxious about pinning a narrative of islands I barely stayed and knew.
My brother did not know any better. The only place I have truly been to is the self.
• Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave of two cats. She is scared out of her wits about traveling in Asia alone this coming July and August. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona or on her blog Backpacking with a Book.