Lakbay Norte 7: Sides

Whenever I come home from Lakbay Norte, I am overwhelmed with bittersweet joy. Lakbay Norte trips are close to my heart because they are as real as real can get; friendships that spring forth from them, even more so. Participants are encouraged to be themselves for better or worse, without fear of being judged by the organizers and sponsors. I've been a participant since 2016, and even though I terribly miss Lia every time I leave for five to six days, there isn't a day that I feel lonely in their company. Alone, more importantly.

This year was different.

I've been financially struggling since last year's tail end. There are delinquent ex-clients who still haven't paid their 2017 dues until now. I also simultaneously lost clients I've worked with for years. Until now I can't find enough replacements. Yesterday, on our last day, shit really hit the fan. There's that voice saying, "You are alone in all this."

We lined up one by one at the Laoag Provincial Capitol. “One, two, three!” Martin cued, flicking the camera shutter. My face turned tight and numb. I can't smile. I can't laugh. I can't talk to anyone - neither did I want to, not even to a friend sitting next to me on the tour bus. They won't understand what I mean as a mother, I thought. To be the hand that caters to all; that which lays the moral fiber of a kid who will outgrow her soon. Hands that are not enough for themselves because both are full with nonself-related matters, from raising money to raising a household. To be carrying that magnitude -- it's a hard and lonely place to be in.

For the first time in my Lakbay Norte history, I felt alone. The collective laughter in the bus was foreign noise to me. Why do I need to explain myself? Why won't these fucking tears stop?

I plugged in my earphones until we reached Sitio Remedios in Currimao. I sat on a barren spot along the shore, not minding the sun's skin-braising rays. Maybe then they won't dare come?

But then Mike, a former PBA player, did. “Are you better now?” he asked.“I have some painkillers in the bus. Just tell me if you need some.”

I looked up to all 6'6” of him and replied, “No. I'm okay, really. Thank you."

What I really meant was, “This one can't be treated by painkillers, Mike.”

I got home at past 3 am, still without my usual laughter-loving demeanor. Still damaged. Still hurting. I wrapped my arms around Lia, her tiny body in deep slumber. I knew then that I am finally home.

I woke up to small hands touching my face. “Good morning, Mama," Lia giddily said. "Namiss kita.” My body began to tremble.

She asked, “Umiiyak ka? Bakit ka iyak?”

“I'm sad,” I answered.

She pulled me toward her and lifted her shirt to wipe my wet eyes. One hand cupped my head while another patted my back. There were no words. Small as she is, Lia knows that sometimes you don't need to say anything to make it better.

I unpacked my bag downstairs and inside it are four beautiful things: a tiny burnay jar signed by National Artist Fidel Go, a white blanket that Ms. Rhycel bought for me (“I just want to make you happy”), chocolates that Celine gave me, and a Nikon telephoto lens that Martin handed down to me. It was one of his first lenses and he wanted it to be used – not sold – by someone he knows.

I thought about these people trying to cheer me up yesterday even if they didn't know what's going on. The many others I met in Lakbay Norte who have changed my life. The secret conversations between the stars and bus seats. Hugs and I love you's. How our company, even if we start out as strangers, always end up feeling like family. How they make me feel like I'm with Lia, like I'm home. In these little hours, I am reminded why Lakbay Norte always holds a soft spot in my heart.

For the first time in two days, I smiled a genuine smile - and it didn't hurt to do so.

First photo: Shot by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap of Eazy Traveler

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