Young Star

Chasing liberty

TOFF of the world - Christopher De Venecia - The Philippine Star

Being away has allowed me to think and reassess how I truly feel about the city. It is a place I call home, one that awakened me to the world as I know it today — fast, exclusive, lopsided, noisy, and exciting as it is a genuine source of worry.

For starters, I realized that Manila is not the world. It is but a parcel of it, a segment of a more intricately woven tapestry spread across our archipelago. I also realized that traveling to a foreign country is not the only way to escape. You know, when it gets too claustrophobic. Congestion shouldn’t have to be the opium of city-dwelling masses. There are places in the hinterlands that call out to you when the dust settles; when you feel like the detritus of your doing has brought you to a point where there is no other recourse but to get the hell out.

I was in San Juan, La Union for a weekend sojourn and I was awakened to the vibrant surfing culture that the locals have initiated and altogether engender in their area. It possesses the kind of savoir-faire of collaborative, eclectic, artisanal Manila but all the character and richness that was uniquely La Union’s. It wasn’t about where the rich trotted or where the poor were relegated in order to maintain the socio-economic divide. Here was an inclusive community that united for the love of surfing and love of the sea.
I was surprised to have seen more than a few familiar faces from my past. One of the proprietors of Flotsam and Jetsam is a guy I met over 12 years ago at San Juan Surf Resort. He reminds me every time I bump into him in Manila that my friends and I were among the first to go to San Juan before it became gentrified. It was pretty quiet and laidback, back in the day. Well, it still is. There’d be bonfires at night, and they’d serve kinilaw which the locals and surfers would feast on, a delicacy I never got around to eating. It was a sleeping giant, now awakened with the deifying power of third wave coffee shops like El Union Coffee, eateries like Surf Shack, and even Moonleaf, a UP village favorite.

During Happy Hour, I bumped into a friend who was in the midst of her bachelorette weekend. The next day, a colleague at sea trying her luck at surfing; then a theater critic soaking up the sun with his pals; a lifestyle proprietor, a surf legend, and even Young STAR’s very own Marga Buenaventura who was with her cousins. Note that all of this was happenstance. It was a beautiful convergence of people whom I suppose were all looking to escape the trappings of Manila, which a lot of people say will be unlivable in the next four years because of poor city planning. Better start planning your escape routes.

I tore through this overnighter in San Juan the best way a Manila kid knew how, documenting my every move and surfing fail over Snapchat and through VSCO-ed posts on Instagram. I guess it was my way of staying connected, or perhaps, showing my friends that I was finally being adventurous while waxing bucolic — a total 180 from my sedentary, city kid, junk-food-every-night lifestyle. One half of my evil twin thoroughly approves.

In the act of “living” in the digital sense, seeing as that you ought to have posted your experiences on social media, otherwise it didn’t happen, I realized that what it is that was keeping me invested here (and averse to there) was the cyclicality of Manila’s sting machine and the desire to stay connected with friends and family members.

Friend Number One was curating his experience of an art gallery, then his lunch meal with a foodstagram and some fancy caption. Friend Number Two was finding newfound emancipation in what it means to be on social media (and dating someone whose savvy is a ship that launches a thousand likes). Friend Number Three was neither here nor there, chronicling his quest towards the perfect latte art. Me? I was in a surfing capital, moving in and out of my phone, wanting at that very moment for my friends to experience the beauty that lies outside of our decaying metropolis. I wanted La Union to save my friends from the city. I wanted to be saved.

What with traffic, our decrepit public transport, constant bickering over anomalous deals, scandals and disqualification cases, Manila moving at breakneck speed and the night and day of work and play cementing us towards a fatigable routine, I realized that being away might actually be the best away to stay connected — at least a bit to yourself. I came to realize just how small the world is, and that I am no big fish in a small pond; rather a fingerling in a vast ocean.

A fashion editor friend has made it his weekend habit to leave the city to heed the call of the surf. A photographer friend is finding renewed purpose in breaking the waves (and posting selfies of his back as a digital Adonis). Over a smoke in a city condo, my editor friend spoke about how there’s something so uninspiring about the city that we dwell in. Unlike Paris, London or New York where the city takes on a life and character of its own, Manila has become a mimic, psychologically turning its back on its cultural identity, always favoring urbanization, development, and strong macroeconomic fundamentals, always with the blueprint of America in mind.

It makes me wonder. Whatever happened to the Pearl of the Orient? The only place you can experience culture in the city these days would be in Intramuros, or perhaps Poblacion (colloquially known as Williamsburgos) because of its homey, laidback feel. Everything else seems to be a dilapidated or second-rate version of something you’ve already seen, hardly original and yet it gets the job done.

As I waited for a wave to come for a chance at another wipeout, I thought to myself: How come we’re perfectly fine with being second-class citizens to our own country, playing second fiddle to an idea of the west, with no one else but our wrongly imagined selves? I always wanted so bad to be on top of the city’s “cultural” food chain but I now realize it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. There is more to life than waking up and wanting to get through it. There’s actually waking up and experiencing the thrill of the unknown.

The next day, I stood on the surf, arms spread out like airplane wings (which in hindsight, based on a viewing of my friend’s multiple snaps, looked a bit awkward). I felt the sun on my face and my worries behind me (and somehow ahead of me). It wasn’t any hotter than the heat that burrows through my scalp when I’m walking in The Fort or waking up in the city. I guess it felt different. And when you’re shackled into thinking that life is life because it’s life, different sure goes a long way.












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