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An Act of Returning

Backpacking with a Book

Ex-stasis: where one does not belong to any place, where anything can lead to something, where something can lead to nothing, where the self is not located nearby, where the self is left somewhere else.

Notes on Baguio

Houses constructed on mountains’ shoulders looked like painted boxes arranged drastically like they are about to stumble, somersault, and then fall, pulp into pieces on the mountain’s foot. They are like moments frozen, stilled in photographs.

It reminds me of Kiran Desai’s Darjeeling’s houses: “the weight of more concrete pressing downward had spurred the town’s lopsided descent and caused more landslides than ever. As you approached it, it looked like a garbage heap rearing above and sliding below, so it seemed caught in a photostill, a frozen moment of its stumble.”

Flowers save us.

At the mouth of the city, the bus suddenly entered a tunnel. “Tunnel tungas dan? Ka-absurd. Mura manig way pus ba!” A minute after, I saw the whole structure, which is just a few meters long and realized it was quite innovative. Benguet, where Baguio belongs, is gifted or cursed—depending on whom you ask—with soft, unpredictable earth which often causes dire landslides.

Landslides frequent some parts of the road; and since humans cannot completely alter the course of nature, the structure functions as a shield so the daily operation of the city continues.

Session Road’s pavement is almost as wide as its road itself. It is basked with life: tourists enjoying an early-night walk, teenagers sharing a joke or two, establishments welcoming their guests with open, opened windows. I cannot help but compare Session Road to Colon. It is everything that Colon is not. It offers safety, convenience; but it does not make Colon less interesting. Colon’s gut is where one can find stories, lives in their rawest, if not truest, selves.

Death Road: Halsema Highway

On our plane to Manila, I came across with news daily’s editorial cartoon titled “Benguet’s Death Road.” I did not take it as a premonition, but it did not fail sending a little shiver to my nape knowing it recently claimed thirty lives.

Halsema is considered as one of the scariest roads all over the world. It is chicken innards materialized, with an eighty-degree-deep cliff on the side, and ranges of vulnerable earth on the other, not mentioning it is rainy season. And the highway always reflects the unpredictable mood of the weather: it is clear in one minute and ultrafoggy in next. It will not be called “Death Road” for nothing.

Driving in Halsema, being the highest point of Philippine highway system, is like driving with a blind fold on. The drivers, even how seasoned they can be, perhaps feel the presence of death. And perhaps they got accustomed with it.

I could only see the driver’s back, but it didn’t hinder me picturing his intent—the unwavering belief that we could return to Baguio intact, safe.

Although it was a little uncomfortable, the bumpy, zigzag ride lulled me to sleep while it made others seasick.

On Changes and Reading

At first, I thought we would head to Sagada, yet with the arrival of two members from Singapore and one from Maldives surprised us . And by then, I know there would be some changes.

I had a conversation with an officemate before the trip. She was a bit agitated with the changes of the company activities. I just smiled. I used to be like her. Yet, in retrospect, everything changes. And the least one could do is to adapt. She further argued, in her life, nothing has been altered, which I doubted. State of denial—everyone undergoes such, in one point. Others even experience, suffer a lifetime of it.

Peter Matthiesen’s “The Snow Leopard”

Changes make life life. One cannot possibly imagine life without it. So instead of Sagada, we had Baguio, centuries-old mummies, Mt. Timbak, and Halsema Highway for a trade.

As Peter Matthiessen put it, “How easy it feels to be superfluous on this expedition, in no haste and without gainful destination—gnaskor, “going around places” as pilgrimages are described in Tibet.”

I brought his The Snow Leopard—hoping I could cross a page or two while in transit especially in our overnight stay in Baguio.

The act of bringing a book wherever I go becomes a habit, which started in earlier college. I was trapped at SM due to a downpour. And it is out of my character to linger on boutiques. I was a bit ashamed to trace back my step to National Bookstore since I stayed there for three hours straight, tolerating the unwanted glances of staff implying “No Free Reading.”

I hesitantly purchased John Updike’s Brazil at RSO Bookstore since I didn’t have my tote with me, which always had a book or two. An Updike cost P50, which was a big cut in my allowance then. It worth it—I had a taste of capitalism, Marxism, magic realism, and, yes, Brazil.

Window at Sta. Theresa Inn: (074) 446-4919

On Our Way to Mt. Timbak

Coffined in wooden boxes (which appeal to me as time-withstanding chests), not more than three-feet long, the mummies become tourist attraction for the curious.

Ilang centuries na po ’yong mummies sa baba?” I asked the locals playing a card game alongside the road. The farther cave (there are two), where the mummies located, is a fifteen-minute walk from the dirt road.

Hindi po naming alam. Sabi po ng mga lola naming, andyan na po ’yan sa panahon nila.” Opening the coffins was restricted during our visit since the mummies were raked with chemicals.

Para s’an ‘yong chemicals?”

Para manatili silang mummies.” Did he intend it to be a pun?

Perhaps due to a constant exposure to moisture, there is a possibility the centuries-old mummies may deteriorate soon.

Mummies are wrapped in time. Or perhaps they mock time—though lifeless, they withstand its persistence. Perhaps mummies are time preserved to silence another time. Perhaps time preserves time; time deteriorates time.

Translocating the Familiar

In most climbs, excitement comes not from reaching the peak rather from the stories I meet along the trail.

Stories from the locals, from the place, from the weather they are most familiar with while we―the invaders of their privacy―tried to draw out our own place from the unfamiliar place before us.

Murag Mantalungon noh?” I heard a friend saying while looking at the wide, thick vegetation before us. Indeed the scenery reminded us of Dalaguete, Cebu, which is known for its carrots, sayote, cabbage, and pechay. It reminds us that we have our own home to return to.

Translocating the familiar is an act of nostalgia.

Traveling is not about leaving; it is an act of returning.

by ©Jona Branzuela Bering

Published in Sunstar Live.

Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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