I don’t normally make a fuss about my birthday but this year I turned 40. That life begins at this not-so-tender age is a cliché embraced by many, even by those who despise clichés.
I was given the opportunity —a choice, really—to spend it in a rather different way, far from loved ones and eat outs (these came before, and after). Instead, on the day itself, I was on an early-morning flight to General Santos and then a drive to Koronadal City to help determine winners in a contest for campus journalists nationwide. It was a choice, I said: I accepted the engagement because I had a soft spot for high school writers—I used to be one myself—and because I was looking for an opportunity to step back from my routines and take stock of how I had been living, now that I have entered, ugh, middle age.
Out of the brief trip were extreme experiences and sobering thoughts:
Up in the air and still in awe at how science allows a mean, heavy machine full of people and baggages to be airborne for even just a second, I realized I had conquered my fear of flying, having gone on a fair amount of trips especially in the past two years.
Crazy as it sounds, I used to freeze upon takeoff, remembering all the episodes of Air Crash Investigation I had seen on NatGeo. Every minute on the flight meant one more minute wishing I were safely on the ground. Despite sophisticated machinery and intensive pilot training, surely there are some things we cannot foresee, much less control. I had thought of downloading one of those anti-flight anxiety applications but was scared that keeping my gadget open would interfere with the signals, making me anxious all over again. To comfort myself, I imagined God carrying the aircraft from one point to another on his hand. But the thought of God with enormous hands gently cusping a plane—that did not seem to make any sense, either.
Eventually air travel had become quite ordinary such that I started worrying about mundane things, like keeping my belongings safe, packing light, and making it to and from airports on time given the notorious Metro Manila traffic.
As I gawked at how the morning sun lent a golden-red hue to the cloud formations outside my window, I realized I had gotten past the early fears and was actually enjoying flying. It snatches you away from the ground you have become accustomed to, transplants you onto another place, reminding you that everything is happening at all places at the same time—not just in the places where you are, or are aware of.
And then, there was the habal-habal.
Short though our trip was, we were able to sneak out for a few hours exploring the province of South Cotabato, specifically, Lake Sebu. We spent an hour in a UV Express van to the motorcycle terminal up the mountain.
I had just been telling my friends earlier that week that I had recently taken a backride at a motorcycle to go around an eastern town I had to write about. But this ride was something else. It took us around 30 minutes, along gently sloping terrain, to reach a point overlooking the lake where, surprisingly, tilapias were being cultured. My companions and I did not have time to take the boat cruise, but to me the motorcycle ride was an experience in itself.
For one, it brought me into close physical contact with a total stranger, a small T’boli man whose name I do not remember anymore.
Despite the noise of the motor and the breeze and the bends on the road, I discovered it was possible to carry on a conversation. Kuya said he alternated between driving the habal habal and going to Manila where he had a few friends, working as a waiter. While he was a T’boli, he also knew some Ilonggo, because his father was from Iloilo who settled in South Cotabato after marrying his mother.
“Wow, true love!” I exclaimed, both my hands steady on his shoulders.
Much later, when I had paid him for the work that he had done, I wondered: how many tourists had he talked to about himself and his family? I bet he would never see any of them again.
How many of us, too, come into contact with people we share our stories with, and reveal ourselves to, only to drift away from them eventually because of choice or circumstance? What determines whether they would stay and be part of the story?
Finally, the zip line.
To be sure, it was not my first time. A year and a half ago, I rode one of those things at a resort in Bataan, but the ride, while pretty, was low and short, and I valued it more for the photos that came out of it.
Now the one in Lake Sebu gives one all the bragging rights one would want. At 600 feet above ground, it is the highest in Southeast Asia.
The first leg is 700 meters; the second, a shorter 400 meters. More importantly, it affords one a view of four out of the seven waterfalls that the area is famous for—that is, if one could keep one’s eyes open during the ride.
First, a confession: As I was being harnessed before the ride, asked to lie facedown and abandon all my weight to the gear, I had a momentary flash of horror at what I had gotten myself into. The view was spectacular, but I looked below and realized we were on a mountain, and the uneven ground, populated with trees and rocks and yes, the waterfalls, was so far down. What if the line malfunctioned? What if the harness broke? What if I got stuck midway? What if I fell?
But the prospect of chickening out was far more unsavory. I could not live with the shame of backing down. I went ahead and clutched at the gear. Pu*yeta, bahala na.
Once released, I was happy I went ahead. The ride was slow and leisurely. I took in the view as far as my eyes could see. Out of the trees I saw a man with a camera and smiled. But even after I had passed him, I could not wipe that smile off my face. I felt so small and inconsequential with the beauty around me. What privilege!
Overwhelmed with this feeling, I felt the last of my fears melting away. What was the worst thing that could happen? If I fell, I might die, but I could not have done anything to prevent it at that moment. There was no point worrying—I stretched both my hands into the air.
Besides, I’ve done well, I think. I’ve raised the four children well, impressed upon them the importance of finding their place in the world while looking after themselves. Now they are almost ready to strike out on their own; they’re great in their respective fields, but more importantly, they’re good people.
I would have fallen knowing that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. I was working to be a good parent, daughter, friend and storyteller, and it was a comforting thought that I had inspired a few people. That should be the way to live, and that was enough.
So yes, I thought, falling would be least objectionable here. I would not feel as though I had missed out on a lot. I knew I’d be missed, but the kids would be fine. And isn’t that our role as parents, eventually, is to be dispensable?
But I did not fall. I lived to smile for yet another picture, to take a ride behind Kuya again for the next 45 minutes in the late afternoon and, on the way back to the city, worry about the usual things again: work, dinner, more work. I flew back and saw all the people I needed to see and resumed living as though I did not cross that line. And today, I feel light and youthful and purposeful, looking forward to things and places and connections that are yet a mystery this early.
Forty is just a number. We begin living every day we wake up.