July 07, 2019
IF there is a problem plaguing travel writing these days, it is that too many people fancy themselves as travel writers. They seem to think that merely highlighting the appeal of a particular destination and what it offers is enough. Fortunately for more discerning readers, the truly great ones always stand out, even in a sea of self-proclaimed influencers.
One such great is the late chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who was revered as a travel documentarian. His show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” is standard viewing fare for travel scribes of this generation. His voice as a travel documentarian dominated pop culture. In his Esquire article “Anthony Bourdain Asked Us to Have a Greater Sense of Obligation — to Trauma, to Triumph, and to Food,” Dan Q. Dao writes that “Bourdain bolstered people so conditioned to being silenced, from the everyman behind lowbrow food to the new, mostly young generation of food and travel writers for whom he became an idol.”
In fact, Bourdain’s most famous quote is this timeless life tip: “If I do have any advice for anybody, any final thought, if I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in somebody else’s shoes — or at least eat their food — it’s a plus for everybody.”
In contrast, Pico Iyer — another great travel writer who’s around the same age as Bourdain — isn’t quite in-your-face. Where Bourdain was manic and unapologetically opinionated, Iyer has a less intense approach to his own journeys. In a 2018 interview with Rebecca Gerny in The Daily Californian, Iyer said: “One of the things I like about traveling is that I’m not talking very much and I don’t want to be voicing my opinions on the people around me.”
Iyer, though, agrees with Bourdain when he advises, “Especially the first few days in any new country, I try to walk, walk, walk as much as possible, almost around the clock, letting the place introduce itself to me.”
Spanish journalist Ramon Vilaró clearly agrees with both Bourdain and Iyer when it comes to moving. Since he’s at least 10 years older than the two, it may be said that he was on the move ahead of them.
Vilaró travels through the Philippines — from Sagada to Zamboanga and everywhere in between — is documented in Mabuhay: A Historical Travel Narrative (Anvil Publishing; 260 pages; 2018). The book, translated from the original Spanish by Luis Mañeru, collects 32 essays featuring what we would presume to be Vilaró’s most memorable encounters in the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years.
He explains in the introduction: “This is a narrative of experiences in the Philippines encompassing numerous trips and extended visit over almost four decades. It covers history, geography and people, paying special attention to the human aspect, characterized by the hospitality of the Filipinos — at every level. From the most humble who live in beach settlements, plains or mountains, including the least-favored neighborhoods [in] the large cities, to political personages of the highest rank, such as businessmen, writers, academics or religious leaders, they all extend their welcoming spirit — mabuhay in Tagalog, the national language of the country — toward the foreign visitor.”
It’s delightful (and ironic) that a Spaniard would express so much love for the now-embattled archipelago. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Tagalog is not the Philippines’ national language. It is Filipino, which includes a lot of Tagalog words.
In any case, it’s easy enough to forget that error when Vilaró waxes poetic about “The Most Beautiful Bay in the World.” The first essay in the book is, naturally, about the first time he saw Manila Bay. He recalls: “The first time I beheld Manila Bay was in July of 1979. I traveled to the Philippines to cover the news of the exodus of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees known as boat people, because they arrived on rickety boats. The breadth of the bay surprised me. It was almost impossible to define its coasts — except during the fantastic sunsets, one of the favorite spectacles of the people from Manila, seen from the boardwalk of a city that, at that time, boasted five million inhabitants.”
The charm of Vilaró’s essays is that he never seems to lose his sense of wonder about the places he goes to, even if they’re not necessarily the most convenient. In “Manila, Distinguished and Loyal City,” he reveals: “Each time I visit Manila, I like to walk around Intramuros, even if the city, with its general heat and humidity, does not lend itself to much walking. It is best to leave it for dusk, when lengthening shadows begin embracing the silent walls of the fortress, softening the stones at twilight.”
Clearly, Vilaró’s decades of experience as a journalist is his strength as a travel writer. In an era when travel writers aim to be more like Bourdain than Iyer, Vilaró is a mix of the two. I’d say 80 percent Iyer and 20 percent Bourdain. This explains why his opinion on certain hot-button topics isn’t really manifested. For instance, in “Batac, Marcos Territory,” he writes: “Although Marcos was born in Sarrat, also in the environs of Laoag, he grew up and lived out his youthful years in Batac. That is why his widow, the controversial Imelda Romualdez Marcos, decided to convert the town into a pilgrimage point for admirers, or detractors, of the administration of Ferdinand E. Marcos. Two monuments, thousands of photographs, a museum, and a mausoleum with the embalmed corpse of Marcos make up the main components of his memory.”
Fittingly, one of the essays toward the end of the collection is “Davao, Duterte Territory.” The piece actually does not discuss Davao City’s landmarks. It’s more of a piece on President Rodrigo Duterte. Vilaró writes: “Evidently, with his lights and shadows, President Duterte has completely overturned the Philippine political scene after less than half a year in power. Also, in terms of foreign relations, he turned the tense geopolitical situation in the area inside-out like a sock.”
Overall, it would seem that Vilaró does not pass judgment on anything or anyone. Not outright, anyway. He simply chronicles what he sees and what he sees is a country that has welcomed him. Mabuhay is like the diary of someone experiencing the throes of first love. In Vilaró’s case, that love has lasted 40 years (and counting).
Mabuhay: A Historical Travel Narrative costs P595 and is available in leading bookstores.
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