I scribbled my first travel bucket list aged eleven because doctors said I’ll be dead before I’m twelve.
Not fair, I seethed, to kick the bucket when I haven’t ventured outside my birthplace yet, much less explored the best places on earth.
Dying didn’t scare me. Not having lived enough, not seeing the world, the journey ending before it begins – that’s my greatest regret.
It’s hardest on my parents. Ma can’t stop crying. Pa prayed and fretted.
Me? I picked a gown. Dress me up before you put me in the box, Ma, I said. Make me look like a debutante. No flowers. No dirge. Play the fiddle for my send-off, Pa. Burn all my diaries. Let the cats inherit my bed.
In the meantime, I’m supposed to have a year – no more, no less. I can amuse myself with lists.
I scribbled what I wanted to do in far-off places. My parents don’t have the money to send me anywhere, of course. They’ve never been outside the country themselves.
But even then, I’m a veteran of vicarious pleasures.
Pretending to be all grown up, a rich adventuress embarking on a grand tour, I typed letters inquiring about my dream destinations to embassies, chambers of commerce and tourist establishments overseas.
I was ecstatic when Pa handed me my first response mail – a fat envelope from Africa with a prospectus of safaris, glossy booklets showing big cats, wildlife migrations, grass huts and savannahs.
The postman marvelled at the volume of my letters. This little girl was swamped with packets crammed with price lists, proposed itineraries, brochures of breathtaking landscapes – golden dunes and red rock canyons, emerald seas and ice-capped mountains.
Then doctors disclosed my X-ray plates got switched with a terminally-ill girl my age.
I’m not going to die after all.
But I’ll still die one day. That’s for sure. Better live to the hilt while I can.
Item number 10, travelling from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi, took ten years. In the intervals, I got my scuba diver’s license, swam with whale sharks, surfed, parasailed, body-boarded, explored forests, caves and mountains all over the archipelago.
City destinations proved easier than wilderness trips. I breezed through watching Broadway shows and browsing the Metropolitan Museum in New York, visiting Hollywood and touring the homes of film greats in Beverly Hills, California, making the rounds of theme parks in Orlando, Florida and watching Cirque du Suleil in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In Cambodia, I temple-hopped across three cities, lingering in the Angkor temples. In Thailand, I trekked the wilderness, saw my first wild tiger and lived among Buddhist monks. I visited Borobudur and got my “wayang kulit” (shadow) puppet in Indonesia, studied falconry in Singapore.
In Beijing, I climbed four sections of the Great Wall of China, gawked at the treasures of the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, sailed along the Nile in Egypt, gazed at Tutankhamun’s golden mask, visited the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.
In Turkey, I went to Hagia Sophia and viewed sacred relics in Istanbul, prayed in the Blessed Virgin’s last home in Ephesus. I backpacked in 12 countries in Europe, desert-trekked in Dubai, rode the trans-Siberian train, gallivanted in Ulaan Bataar, the world’s coldest capital, and hunted with golden eagles in Ulgii, Mongolia.
What followed was glacier-trekking, climbing the Rockies and backpacking in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. I hand-fed wild dolphins in Tangalooma, Australia. I climbed Japan’s sacred Fuji-San and temple-hopped in Kyoto.
The moment I started checking off the really dangerous items on my list – the ones that required waivers when you’re killed, a number of friends suspected I’m sort of “cramming” because I’m dying soon.
I’ve come across terminally ill globe-trotters seizing on brief remissions to complete their bucket lists.
One guy, who slaved away at his business all his life, sold everything he owned and vowed to spend his last penny on the road before he croaks. The worst cases coerced their tourist guides to stand in as caregivers.
In my latest safari, a fellow traveller flaunted her still fresh scars. Surgeons carved her up from chest down below the navel to remove a malignant mass and half her diseased organs. Afterwards, they told her to put her affairs in order. Instead, she drew up her bucket list and set off.
Incidentally, the first item on my childhood line-up – wildlife safaris and dives with great white sharks in Africa – was the second to the last I crossed out several months ago.
And now, it’s time for a new bucket list – the second and the ultimate.
As could be expected, the roster will be longer now and harder. I’m not as strong as before. I can’t heft heavy backpacks over the mountains the way I used to, workout six hours straight daily or run so many kilometers.
I’ve acquired lots of injuries through the years, among them 17 stitches in my left hand from a cougar bite, wrist bones still separated, damaged shoulders, fractured leg bone from a race plus extra weight from surfeits of hotel meals. Funding remains to be a huge headache.
(Copyright to me. Reprinted from my Sunday column at Manila Bulletin, “My World In a Flashpack”.)