Mt. Banahaw from Calauan

I wasn’t ready, but I did it anyway. The agony of not doing it, of keeping it as an unticked box in my list of goals, which was already a carryover of last year, was stronger than the agony of possible failure.

Last June 9, 2022, I walked 14 miles (22.53 km) from my house in Los Baños to San Pablo City in Laguna, Philippines. I did it in almost exactly five hours. The night before the walk, I slept only four hours. I tried to sleep more than this, but I just couldn’t. I felt like a fly lost in a cocktail of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. I was frightened of what the following day held. Earlier that night, I announced my intention to walk to a few close friends. I was still ashamed to tell the world about the walk, but I badly needed encouragement from people who care. I just had to tell someone, anyone, whom I felt safe with. “Just do it. Enjoy the walk,” my friends said. But even with their kind words of support, I still felt like a fake. I never felt that much resistance to something that was so natural to me. Why would I be afraid of something as trivial as walking?

In hindsight, I know now that what I did wasn’t trivial at all. It was just a walk, yes, but it was a 14-mile walk. No one I know of personally in my family and in my circle of friends has done such a thing. I didn’t have someone I know of whom I can model what I was about to do then. I have Thoreau and Craig Mod to inspire me. But they come from entirely different contexts. They were white men who were capable of conquering the world through a walk. What I needed then was an inspiration from somewhere familiar, from within the Philippines—someone who has walked what I was about to walk and someone who has fairly the same motivations. However, I haven’t found any, at least not yet. Most of my friends hike mountains, some even do it for days. But I am yet to meet someone in person who has walked a few hours, days even, traversing multiple towns. It was something ancient people did in these islands, definitely, but not something anyone perfectly sane would do in a time of traffic. The futility of walking 14 miles in five hours even became clearer to me when I rode the jeep home and arrive back at Los Baños in just about 40 minutes. I have never ridden a jeep and feel so surreal before.

Going through all of those difficult emotions, no wonder I postponed doing the walk many times in the past year. But on June 8, the day before the walk, I checked the weather forecast and saw that after two days, the rains are coming to Laguna. If I am going to do this, I told myself, I should do it now. I looked at the map of Laguna and chose a destination. I needed somewhere worthy of arriving at, somewhere I could pass by several towns before arriving, and somewhere I could arrive in about half a day. San Pablo was an easy choice. It was a big city, it has seven lakes to visit, and walking towards it would require me to pass by the towns of Bay and Calauan. I was still terrified of the thought of going somewhere I have never been to on foot. But on the morning of June 9, Thursday, when the sun was already up in the sky, I opened the door and started walking, one step at a time.

I am glad that I did. That long walk, my first of what I am hoping to be many, taught me important lessons about what I want to do with weeks left in my life.

A tile store at Bay, Laguna

What the Walk Taught Me About Photography

By forcing myself to do the walk, I naturally shifted my attention this month to one of my primary interests: photography. Since the walk will take a lot of time and energy, I would like to take the most advantage of it by taking the best photos I can get. My problem, though, was that I had limited photography training.

Last year, I met Craig Mod’s work serendipitously. His newsletters, all of which I am subscribed to, planted the seeds in my mind of the possibility of not just being a writer but being a writer-photographer. Before last year, I was already taking some decent photos on my phone for many years. I seldom used stock photography on my blog posts; I took them myself on my walks. However, I had very unsophisticated knowledge of what makes a good photograph. I knew the rule of thirds and how to use basic Snapseed editing. But that was it. Seeing Craig’s work and feeling moved by it inspired me to dive deeper into photography.

I took one course on iPhone photography. Mobile photography was what made sense to me at that time. I reasoned that I was not ready to invest in an expensive camera if I didn’t even know how to use what I currently have. I was not yet sure I wanted to pursue photography, so I used my iPhone Pro 11 Max while exploring the medium. After spending about a month learning, my photography improved, and I started getting good feedback from newsletter readers and friends I volunteered to photograph. I continued tinkering with the interest, but like all my interests, I decided to park photography to focus on other interests that felt more natural, mainly writing and philosophy. I was primarily a writer and a thinker, and I wasn’t yet particularly satisfied with my skills in either, so why would I spend more time on a new skill? I told myself.

However, planning the walk from Los Baños to San Pablo forced me to return to photography. Before and during the walk, I started studying editing more. I discovered Lightroom mobile and started taking photos through its mobile camera app, so I can take RAW images and not just the JPEG photos that the iPhone’s native camera app produces. I still didn’t have a pro camera. I still didn’t feel the need to have one before and during the walk. But after learning to edit and taking more photos, I slowly realized how much a professional camera could produce better photo quality. Because of this walk, I think I am already in a position where my skills and desire to learn warrant investing in a beginner pro camera.

More importantly, this month’s deep dive into photography made me see an important fact. I saw how too technical photography can be and how easy it is to drown in this technicality without accomplishing any good work. A budding photographer can easily drown in the concepts, techniques, and facts associated with this field that it is so easy to forget why one is taking photos in the first place. The science of photography can easily out-power the art. To tackle both issues, I decided to pause my learning and do a meta-learning project to create a personalized curriculum for self-studying photography. I wanted to find the best resources to teach myself the basics, then move immediately to learning the works of photographers that I resonate with, so I can start honing my photographic voice.

The two biggest questions I had about photography during and after the walk were: What subject will I photograph in my walks? And what stories do I want to tell through my photographs? I noticed that street and travel photographers almost always have some rough idea of what to look for even before their walks. They still allow the stories to arise organically during the walk, but they have a rough idea that guides their photography throughout the walk. For example, Alec Soth portraits people, while Craig Mod shots artifacts of domestic life (e.g., laundry). Both their approach is anthropological. They intend to learn about the place, the people, and the culture of where they are walking. I would realize later that, even if I find this kind of work inspiring, it may not be the best kind of photography that suits my personality.

However, these questions about the subject and the story that my photographs ought to convey combined with another question that came to me when blisters were forming on the soles of my feet and my legs were burning from the heat: “Why walk?”

A bucket left on a raft at Sampaloc lake

What the Walk Taught Me About Walking

If you have been walking for three hours, the sun grilling every cell of your body, and you suddenly see that elevated highway from Calauan to San Pablo, of course, you have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

I wish I have thought about that question way before doing the walk. I wish I had an articulate reason for doing this. But I didn’t. I knew I wanted to try it, and I have been reading Thoreau and Craig Mod for long enough not to. However, when the walk gets hard, which it did for me, you will realize that doing a long walk just because your heroes did one is not enough to get you through it. During and after the walk (the entire month of June), I spent a good amount of time just thinking about what walking meant to me, what I wanted to get from it, and what I hoped to use it for.

I tried articulating my initial ideas, which first came to me during a long diary session, in a recent Lilim issue (Lilim 03(05)—Why Walk?). However, even after publishing that piece, I knew my thoughts about this matter were still incomplete. Since sharing that Lilim issue, I continued contemplating why I am so driven to walk.

One of the most significant breakthroughs I had while thinking about walking this month was remembering the trajectory of my relationship with walking throughout my life. As a child who grew up in a Christian evangelical household, walking was first a form of penitence. I did not particularly enjoy joining my parents on house-to-house walks, trying to talk to people about the bible, and sometimes experiencing ridicule from people who didn’t like what we did. When I went to college, however, I embraced the faith of my parents and made it my own. Suddenly, walking transformed from being an activity I disliked into a platform to achieve a mission I dedicated myself to. I became a young pastor very early and led a small group of sign language interpreters walking, sometimes hiking, the mountains of Baguio City and La Trinidad, Benguet, to visit the Deaf and bring them “the good news.”

In 2012, when I finally decided to renounce my childhood religion, I left the house on my bike as my parents and sisters rode in the car to attend the memorial of Christ’s death. That happened one late afternoon in the summer. It was the first memorial I intentionally missed. I rode my bike and found a large mango tree under which I sat down to write. Little did I know that this started my daily late afternoon communion with Nature, which I since did through biking to a spot and walking while pulling my bike beside me. Walking became this organic reaction to that painful act of defiance, of leaving. I ran away from an established worldview only to slowly walk towards nothingness, towards a place where I can build my own worldview piece by piece from the ground up all by my own hands. Walking was leaving and approaching at the same time.

And yet, years after 2012, I would walk the same paths that I walked as a preacher in Baguio and Pangasinan. As a different person, walking the same paths triggered memories of that past and reconnected me with who I was before as I tapped into the wisdom I seemed to have left in those trails. Surprisingly, walking the same trails made me feel good. It reminded me of what good I had back then and how I might reintegrate those into my new life without the baggage of the past. Re-walking those paths reinforced my desire to make walking an integral part of my life as a writer, poet, and photographer. Walking is reconnecting and renewal.

While walking allows me to remember, it also allows me to forget, so I can find new ways of thinking and being. Ten years since I left the church, I still feel like I am looking for something, and the search is far from over. I continue to search for what was once passed down to me by my parents: community, purpose, and belief. Countless times over the decade, that search felt stagnant. Whenever I take a step forward, I take two steps backward. Establishing new friendships is hard. Trying out new ideas only to replace them again is hard. Many times I felt like restarting from zero. Walking while all of these were happening gave me a feeling of momentum. Even if my life wasn’t moving, I always moved forward while walking. Although I am still looking for something during a walk, I do not feel the pressure to arrive, and it always feels like I am making progress. Walking reminds me to keep searching until I find what I am looking for but to do so with a lighter heart. Walking is consolation for the seeker.

But walking isn’t just therapy. Perhaps the most important relationship I fostered with walking throughout the years is how I organically transformed it into the canvass where I do my work as a writer, poet, and photographer. In my past life as a preacher, walking was simply a means towards an end. I needed to walk a road that led to the house of a Deaf I would be preaching to that day. Today, walking is no longer just a means to do my work. Walking is the work itself. I can’t think well and produce insight without walking. I do my best thinking and my rest from it while walking. I catch poems and practice my photography while outdoors, walking. I write field notes, which I flesh out into narratives in my journal—records that I later publish in Lilim. After the long walk to San Pablo City, I also saw firsthand the power of using a long walk to deeply experience and understand the culture, history, politics, and social dynamics of a space. If these are not enough motivations to walk, then think about all the beauty one only sees when walking, the opportunity to practice mindfulness, the health benefits, and the serendipitous meeting with strangers. After the long walk from Los Baños to San Pablo, it became clear that I was attracted to walking throughout my life because it allows me to heal, be myself, and become the person I want to be. In other words, I always saw walking as a tool for personal development.

Aside from these large lessons on walking, I also picked up a few practical learnings about it, which, I hope, will help me prepare for my next long walk.

  1. The Philippines is not very walk-friendly. Sidewalks are lacking. If cyclists are already struggling, how much more are walkers? This fact might be why most outdoor activities in the Philippines consist of hiking or biking. Almost no one writes about walking. In other countries, I heard you can use a service where your baggage is sent to your destination. This service frees you up with lots of weight while walking, which, based on my experience, is much needed if you want to endure the walk. Furthermore, there are no clear walking trails or routes in the Philippines. We have hiking trails but not flat walking routes. However, just because the Philippines is not as walkable as other places doesn’t mean walking is impossible to do here. It just requires a bit more effort and creativity to perform a multi-day and multi-town walk.
  2. Carry the minimum viable baggage. Because there are no baggage services, you must be more mindful when taking a long walk in the Philippines. One of the biggest mistakes on the trek was bringing my 6-lb. MacBook Pro Mid-2012. It was the heaviest part of my baggage. I will bring a lighter laptop and fewer clothes if I do another long walk. I will take advantage of fast laundry services at my destination rather than increase my baggage’s weight by bringing more clothes. Because the Philippines is not walkable, I am unsure whether a multi-week-long walk is logistically possible. This problem is something I need to think more about. Again, I don’t have a model to follow, so I am discovering this all on my own.
  3. No social media during the walk. Once on the walk, you get excited (or perhaps bored and alone) that it is almost natural to bring out your phone, document it live, and share it immediately. Early on my walk, this is what I did. I posted an announcement via Facebook that I was doing a long walk, and I will be posting live updates (that’s right, when you are on the walk and excited, all your fears the other night vanishes). It was like a way for me to write field notes, although in front of an audience. While I am grateful for the comments I received in that post, which contained recommendations for places to visit and kind encouragement, I regret posting the updates live. Doing so took my mind away from the walk itself and made the walk feel very performative. Next time, I might do daily updates via social media or, better yet, implement a pop-up newsletter as my heroes do.
  4. Take care of your body. I should’ve started the walk at dawn to avoid the Philippine heat. But since I slept late, I woke up later than I originally planned. I also prepared the morning of the walk (a bad, bad idea). I finished preparing at around 8 am, and the sun was already high. Moreover, I didn’t put sunblock on my legs and feet. I also didn’t know I should put some lubricant on my feet’ soles to prevent blisters. Midway through the walk, my feet started having them, and they hurt until I got home to Los Baños the following day.

A dog walks over a platform at Sampaloc lake

What the Walk Taught Me About Writing

Although the long walk forced me to strengthen my photography skills and uncover my motivations for walking, I realized that photography and walking alone are insufficient in creating the most important element in this process: meaning.

After the walk, with numerous photos, field notes, and memories in hand, the question remained: What will I do with all of these? Thinking about this question reminded me that my walks and photos will be more meaningful if I am more intentional about them—if I use them to deepen my sense of meaning.

Living is living. As is, it is mundane. What I was hoping to get from my walks is a connection with the ordinary, the real stuff of life, but also a connection that was more than this. I wanted to see and touch and experience but also elevate all these by transforming them into an artifact that deepens my sense of meaning. I wanted the artifact and the process of creating it to contribute to this meaning-making. There is no better way to do that, at least for me, than to contemplate on it, savor it, think about it, and while doing all of this, write about it. Because writing is the best facilitator I know for meaning-making.

This meaning-making process, I realized, starts by taking good field notes. I take mine using Drafts, a writing app on my phone that lets me quickly capture any thought or observation that comes to me during a walk. I learned recently that Craig Mod takes notes via audio recording instead. While walking, he talks over his phone and records things as he notices them. For outsiders, he is simply on a call. I tried doing this recently, and although it feels weird at first, it definitely is more convenient.

But this meaning-making process will only succeed once we return to those notes and flesh them out into longer narratives. We can start by handwriting the initial narrative in our journal before transferring it to a digital form where it is easier to play around with. Narrative writing forces one to find general, abstract interconnections between what would rather be disparate events and facts. A story has a strong psychological, almost therapeutic, effect on the storyteller as it organizes and naturally interprets chaos. I am not inherently good at narrative writing, so I am doing my best to improve it and incorporate it more and more into my writing. I did that last month, although not with the same intensity I put on photography, by transcribing and editing several narratives I wrote in the past into my Talahardin. I also practiced copying Ben Hewitt’s vignette writing style and using that to write Lilim 03(06)—Where Grass Once Turned Crimson.

But perhaps the best investment I made last month on improving my narrative writing and meaning-making, in general, was ordering the third edition of Kissa by Kissa by Craig Mod and reading it in two sittings over coffee and cake. Reading Kissa by Kissa showed me what is possible by walking. Opening the book and reading the first few chapters convinced me instantly that I wanted to create something like it. I wanted to be a walker, photographer, and writer all in one. Whatever doubts I had about these three identities merging into one vanished. The visceral experience of immersing myself in such a beautiful object showed me what is possible in my life work for the years to come. But reading the book also informed me of the kind of writing I want to pursue.

Craig Mod's Kissa by Kissa (3rd ed.)

Kissa by Kissa is an anthropological piece of art. It concerns itself more with place, people, history, and culture. While this excites and inspires me, I distrust myself to create something like it. I feel like I am less courageous than Craig Mod in engaging in conversations with strangers. I try my best to greet strangers along the way and talk to them as much as possible, but not in a way that will produce the stories to write a book like those in Kissa by Kissa. I need to accept who I am: both my strengths and weaknesses. My strength as a writer is finding insights and beauty during walks and sharing them as best as possible. This strength entails that the kind of writing I think I could and want to write is in the tradition of Thoreau and Dillard—walking or walking-inspired poetic prose that combines narrative with palatable philosophical language. And by philosophy, I only mean grappling with the question, “How to live?” This writing is the kind of writing I think I want to focus on moving forward—writing centered on the human quest to learn how to live better with the outdoors as its backdrop.

Of course, I also create meaning through photography. But with photography, it is a bit more challenging. It is difficult to be more intentional with the images one captures since most images pop out along the way. However, being clear about the kind of images, not necessarily the exact pictures I want to take, definitely assures that my photos are more deliberate and interconnected. Moving forward, I want my photographs to be repositories of meaning. They would be an extension of text, although I am also open for them to dictate the path that text follows.

A mural at the Sampaloc lake baywalk

What the Walk Taught Me About Living

The core of what I do with my life is to cultivate a rich inner life by learning to be alone well through a combination of experience in the real world, in space, and deep thought. In other words, walking + writing. These two are not the only fundamental parts of the life I want to live. But they make up the engine that drives this life. The gamble I am taking is that through investing about 80–90% of my efforts in the solitude that walking and writing necessitates—that is, in cultivating an unquenchable passion for this inner life through a self-directed pseudo-monastic practice—everything else falls into place. I put faith in the ability of walking + writing to nurture the virtues I want to embody as I go out and show up in the real world: deep understanding, moderation, humility, modesty, joy, and perhaps, most important of all, compassion. Given my knowledge of who I am, I don’t know if I can reverse this process. I couldn’t build a public image first a let that trickle down into my private self. It just wouldn’t work for me.

If anything enduring came from my first long walk from Los Baños to Laguna, that is the cementing of this prioritization of inner life into my psyche. The long walk and the pain that went with it made me realize how much I am committed to the inner world that I am willing to be out in a less comfortable situation just so I can be totally in here. Publishing Uman and Lilim is important. Talking to my readers is important. Going out and meeting new people is important. Being around family and friends is important. But none is as important as doing the core of the work: enriching my inner life through walking and writing.

In Kissa by Kissa Craig Mod reveals that his desire to look for and learn about the kissas of Japan and the pizza toast that come with them was inspired by his experience as an adopted child, relocating to a foreign country, and not feeling any sense of belongingness. The kissa became his haven in Japan, and the pizza toast his comfort food. After reading this, I asked myself whether I have a similar organic relationship with walking. What was my kissa? What was my pizza toast? What draws me towards walks, no matter how short they are? What I learned surprised me.

I am naturally drawn towards dirt roads—underdeveloped roads that link main roads and highways to farms. These are the only real walking routes in the flat Philippines—accessible to most Filipinos living in the provinces and their suburbs. These dirt roads were where I walked most of my life, where most of my thoughts, photographs, and poems came to me. It is there where I mended my broken heart, broken psyche, and broken soul throughout my young life. Unlike Craig, I am not drawn toward a specific object but all things in my safe space. And throughout all the walks I took in my 30 years of existence, my hope was always to come back home after a walk a better person, and if not better, then at least renewed so that I can go back the next day and try once more.

A blue boat among green algae