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TEDxUSanCarlos Talk | How Traveling Shapes Me as a Woman and a Writer

Photo lifted from TEDxUSanCarlos

It was TEDxUPCebu that invited me first to debunk the popular dictum [quit your job and travel the world] after some of the students read my open letter Dear Isa, It Is All Right Not to Travel here on BWAB. But I’m leaving Cebu to pursue a year-long trip abroad while fending for myself through jobs online, so I declined their offer. Another opportunity knocked on my door, this time  around from the University of San Carlos. Here is the piece I shared to a very attentive crowd.

“Wa ka mahadlok maglaag-laag nga ikaw rang usa? (Are you not scared traveling alone?)” I remembered JC, the lead steward at Sambawan Island, asking me over a gallon of tuba, sinugba, pinirito, kinilaw, inun-unan, tinuwang isda—all from the same fish called molmol.

Sambawan is an elongated strip of an islet, a part of the much bigger Maripipi Island—an island municipality of Biliran. The year was 2012.

“No,” I answered, after gulping three glasses of tuba. So perhaps it was the tuba saying no.


In retrospect, I wonder how I reached that place and many others without thorough preparation and without the aid of Google maps. It is almost a common knowledge among my friends that I cannot comprehend maps—that south, north, east, or west of something sounds very intimidating to my ears, that Cebu City alone is a labyrinth for me.

So how did I, a woman, survive her trips in our archipelagic country?

But before talking about survivals, let us talk about beginnings. Beginnings are more romantic, you know. How did I start traveling solo? And why did I do so?

I remember, Inday Janeth, my older sister, texting me, “Dagko ang bawd? Naa bayay bagyo. Nabalaka bayas Mama.” Already aboard the ship, I texted Mama that I would be traveling to Leyte. Alone. For the first time. And there was a storm coming.

My family was used to hearing me climbing mountains with a group or me traveling with a friend.


But I reached the point where solo traveling became a need.

Despite the low pressure brewing in the east, despite the smell of doubts and storm of fear inside me, I pushed for my solo trip, hoping that it would help decide me what I wanted to do with my life.

My first solo trip was an initiation of some sort—traveling solo as an act of finding one’s self, an act of validating one’s worth—and as an amateur writer—it was act of seeking that literary voice.

But all these ideals were forgotten upon checking in an old pension house in downtown Tacloban. It smelled of years-old decay. The tap water was slimy. When I turned on a square box of a TV, the haunting soundtrack of Paranormal Activities filled in the room. I hurriedly turned it off and turned off the light as well, but the light bulb kept on blinking.

The joke was on me. As you can see, there is no romance involved. Just pure horror.

What happened to the romance of traveling that Pico Iyer talked about? Naïve to the ways of independent traveling, I refused to accept that horror was part of it.

Photo was my only portrait during my first solo trip.

Photo was my only portrait during my first solo trip.

My senses were in full force that night. In the dimly lit room, my eyes picked up the slightest movement. No amount of sanitizer could convince me the bed was clean. The air conditioner’s snore and the hums of the passing vehicles accompanied me throughout the night.

Without sleeping a wink, I sauntered the city streets at six in the following morning. I entered, exited streets whose names became a blur. I kept looking at the houses and wondered if one of those was Merlie Alunan’s, a notable writer in the Philippines.

With the maze of streets, I reached the market by the bay. The market’s smells and scenes were rather familiar—like I was just somewhere north or south of Cebu. But Tacloban, insisted that I was indeed away from home. Its language—Waray—seemed too different from my Cebuano despite the geographical fact that these two are basically neighbors. How could they be so different and familiar at the same time?

I got lost in my meanderings of its streets.


Tacloban taught me that there is nothing wrong with getting lost, that getting lost is essential in finding one’s way. It was Tacloban, or perhaps the poet’s presence in the city, who taught me that I should take writing seriously.

Those were the resolves I packed back to Cebu. The year was 2010.

Three years after and twenty days after Yolanda, I found myself again at the very place the super typhoon made unrecognizable.

Tacloban bore the weight of its own language; it became the city of waray, the city of nothingness, the city of pain.

It struck me that the state of myself three years prior was laid out impeccably in the city’s landscape: a cityscape of sorrow, confusion, fear, doubts, deaths.


Disaster added another purpose of my trips. At first, traveling is the search of the self, of its worth, of its purpose in this world of confusion, despair, heartaches. Later on, traveling—at the height of disasters—can literally mean the search of others’ lives.

Traveling is more than bragging on Facebook and Instagram that you have been to a new place. Traveling means having the ears to listen to the multitude of stories that our newspapers could not accommodate. Traveling is giving voices to the unheard of. Traveling is understanding the nuances and flaws of a place.

After the earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda, I learned to accept that horrors more outrageous than blinking bulbs and stinky rooms are parts of trenchant realities of traveling.

It would be too naïve to call them romance, don’t you think?

But these very heartaches did not stop my affairs with our country. I travel to let Mama know that the world is still beautiful despite the news of morbidity and horrors on our analog TV in Tuburan, my hometown. I travel to let others—especially women know—that yes, a woman can travel, yes, a woman can travel alone. I travel solo to make myself at peace with my own fears. I have come to learn that traveling solo is not about overcoming and conquering your own fears, rather it is about acknowledging and accepting them as part of yourself.


I travel to find stillness and solitude in movement.

During the past and present disasters, I traveled to the center of heartaches looking for stories of love and hope burrowed between the cracks of pain and losses.

And to answer JC, yes, fright consumes me whenever I travel solo, whenever I cross seas in a small outrigger, whenever I am confronted with super typhoons named greed, corruption, bigotry, misogyny, and hatred, whenever I am shaken with a personal earthquake named heartbreak.


Call it stubbornness but I still believe in kindness, I still believe in humanity.

After years of traveling, I now know who I am and what I can be.

I am a writer. I travel to look for stories.


Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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