We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. -T.S. Eliot
I left for Dumaguete not knowing why I had to visit except because I purchased a ticket. It was my first plane ride alone and I had hoped, as most young people do, that it would signal my transition from adolescence into adulthood. At least, I hoped my parents would see it that way.
At a very young age, I knew that leaving home was something I always felt I needed to do but I could never say when the journey ought to begin. The end of college sorted it out for me. It came with some finality. I went up stage, retrieved my diploma, and bowed. Therefore, it was time to travel. It was time for life to begin, or so I hear my younger self explain.
I chose Dumaguete because all my favorite local writers raved about the romance of its trees (and God knows I would go anywhere for trees). They set up the allure of this literary hamlet defined by its proximity to towering acacias.
I was hooked, obviously, so I booked my flight and waited months to leave.
What I didn’t expect was that I would visit the island to convalesce. Some months prior to my trip, I had undergone surgery to remove my left eye and replaced it with a prosthetic. I decided it had to be done so I did it. I arrived in Dumaguete a pirate, eye patch firmly tied around my head. The bluest of skies welcomed me but even that was no match for the shade of blue I felt inside. Losing something that defines you can leave you feeling unmoored, floating aimlessly in a vast and empty sea.
I was hoping that this, along with my knapsack, would be the only luggage I would take on this trip but I was wrong.
Three days before my flight, I caught my mother scrubbing the same portion of floor for a good twenty minutes before starting to sob. She explained that my uncle was perishing on account of lung cancer which he told no one about.
I packed my sadness with me on the plane bound for Dumaguete and immediately felt selfish at the sight of the blue sea that effortlessly crossed over to a cloudless sky. When there is so much darkness, how can one deserve such a stunning sight?
Pondering the depth of this water, I wanted to know if it matched my sorrow—or at least the depth to bottom of my heart for don’t we all say we love from here? I love you from the bottom of my heart.
In Dumaguete, a friend adopted me. I lived in her ancestral home. She and her brother took me away from my loneliness and placed me on the back of a motorcycle where only the wind brushed against me. It was a maddening few days of challenging the distance a motorcycle could travel.
On the first day, we drove from the city to Valencia and further on west until we hit a fork in the road and had to make our way by foot in pursuit of waterfalls. Neither of us had been to Casaroro Falls and the thick expanse of green that led to it made us wonder if it was there at all.
On the second day, we took off again from the city but this time we headed south. We sat on the bike longest that day and made headway into the towns of Bacong, Dauin, and Zamboanguita until we were finally in Siaton. Each town blurred into the next and we drove until there was no more road.
On the third day, we woke in time to catch a ferry to Siquijor. It was a trip I was desperate to make. Childhood mythology classes taught by nannies included stories about the island being home to witches and warlocks guarding portals to the supernatural. People who were ill came to heal here.
Ferrying toward the island, gasoline wafting in the air, I was convinced I could sell my soul to any being in exchange for a few more of my uncle’s good years.
When we arrived in Siquijor, I did away with all the warnings and gazed into the eyes of every old woman whom we happened upon. I secretly hoped that one or any of them—astute as they are in healing and sensing—would read into my predicament and take interest in my offer.
No one did—none but the trees.
Only we noticed each other.
I recall the magnificence of mangroves, roots jutting out from the earth, appearing to walk toward us. There were lanes of fire trees that grew to a medium height and bloomed excessively, painting an entire row of trees bright, bright orange. In Lazi, home to the church and convent dedicated to St. Isidore Labrador, acacias competed with the structures in size, grandeur, and age.
We met no other people but I hardly felt their absence—especially in the presence of the old Balete tree. Hiding from my companions, I crawled between its many arms, lodging myself into one of its rooms to hurriedly whisper:
“I don’t want him to die. I don’t want to die either. I’m afraid to leave because things will change. What do I do when things change? What do any of us do, in the face of death?”
I stepped out reasoning that I disappeared to photograph the tree from another angle—a bad excuse from the get-go, since I hadn’t taken any photos. None I could show, anyway.
We mounted the bike once more and drove along the coast from Lazi to San Juan until we were back again where we started.
In Manila a week later, my uncle called from his deathbed announcing travel plans.
“When I come home, we can go anywhere you want to go.”