Thursday, March 4, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Thought (and Many Words) on Expectation and Travel

So I recently returned from a trip to the Philippines. With every new plane I board, I find myself flying further and further away from the girl who left Boston back in September. My dear friend Julie and I bought our round-trip tickets from Taipei to Manila a month ago, but we had planned absolutely nothing else in between these destinations.

We arrived in the middle of the night Feb. 16. Slept at the airport. And walked into a beautiful Filipino 7 a.m. sunshine with only the weight of our little backpacks and the bright, shiny feeling of freedom and optimism that comes with being in a foreign country with no plans. We literally did not know our next step until we planted one foot in front of the other.

I thought that with such little expectation, there would be no room for disappointment. However, poor planning (or nonexistent in our case) is not the same as being void of expectation. You can't escape expectations.

I had this postcard image in my head of a palm tree-lined beach along a clear blue ocean that we had seen when we arrived in Manila (and promptly booked our next flight to said beach shortly thereafter).

My mind never ventured to what lay beyond the sand in the photograph, and I found myself extremely bummed the first days beach bumming through Boracay. It was such a mecca for mediocre food, beach-side tattoos and hair-braiding, drunk men using the ocean as a giant public urinal, and rows full of stalls peddling Boracay-labeled trinkets -- not the off-the-beaten path adventure I had hoped for. 

I'm reading Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, and I love how he describes his personal experience with this phenomena during a trip to Barbados:

"Nothing was as I had imagined it, which is surprising only if one considers what I had imagined. In the preceding weeks, my thoughts of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable...If pressed, I would naturally have recognized that the island had to include other elements, but I had not needed them in order to build an impression of it."

But for me everything changed when we accidentally wandered into a cemetery in the mountains. There were stone coffins/tombstones seemingly haphazardly stacked atop one another. We realized that one of the young women buried in front of us was born just a few months after me. She died at 16.

Suddenly I felt so ungrateful and selfish for coming to this girl's home (it really looked just like the paradise pictures had advertised) and not appreciating it for everything that it was and might have been for her had she lived long enough to see me face to face that day.

I thought about all the experiences I would have missed if I hadn't made it past 16 -- how small my world was then and how little hope I had for my future around that time.

In just the 10 days we spent in the Philippines, there really was so much to experience and so many new things to see:
  • became a certified scuba diver
  • danced alongside posh Brazilian models in Manila
  • got attacked by a family of jellyfish in Moalboal
  • sang love songs over the intercom system to a plane full of Cebu Pacific passengers
  • ate chicken fetuses
  • swam under waterfalls in Kawasan
  • hiked in dark caves alongside baby bats and alien spiders
  • ate a cheese popsicle
  • met tarsiers in Loboc
  • slept in the jungle and showered with big lizards
  • pet the tiniest goat I have ever seen and admired Chocolate Hills in Bohol
  • ...while all along the way getting to know this amazing new friend who lived an ocean away from me only months before.
Boton quotes J.K. Huysman's 1884 novel A Rebours (while discussing the protagonist's ambivalence toward traveling to faraway destinations): "the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience." But what would the point of travel be if everything always came as expected? Isn't that the whole idea of an adventure?

Thanks to Julie, Boton, Huysman, that 16-year-old girl, and many other friends made along the way, I had an amazingly unexpected voyage to the Philippines and am loving the vulgar reality of actual experience.