When I was a baby, my mother often kissed my feet to tickle me. That’s how she discovered the black mole at the middle of my sole.
My father declared it was the birthmark of a globe-trotter. Not surprising, since I descended from true-blue wanderers like Mariano Granja, the founder of Lucena, on Pa’s maternal side. My ancestor named my birthplace after his own city in Spain.
And indeed, decades later, I roamed over half a hundred countries (Spain included) in the 5 continents I visited.
For their part, Pa and Ma always dreamed of seeing the world though they never went abroad. Their lives revolved around Manila, where Pa was born, Quezon City, Ma’s birthplace, and Lucena, where they settled down.
(Me in the Alhambra Palace, Granada, Andalucia, Spain.)
However, under the shadow of sacred Mount Banahaw, among Lucena’s whispering coconut trees, Pa was restless. Unable to leave home, he became an avid armchair traveller and took me along in his daily jaunts to the public library as soon as I can walk until I went to college.
In those halls crammed with old books, we read together and spent so many happy summers.
Pa fed my lust for strange lands. He regaled me with stories of enchanting places at the other side of the world – the empire of Rome, the battle of Troy, the hordes of Genghis Khan, the forays of Japan’s shoguns, Russia’s Tsars, the Caliphs of Alhambra, the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Mayan god-kings.
Tirelessly, we leafed through volumes that pictured famous cities, ruins, monuments and great museums with the paintings of the masters. “One day, you shall see them all,” he promised. And I did.
(Me, exploring the interior of Alhambra Palace.)
As for Ma, her interest lay with the flora and fauna, the rain and the cloud forests, the kingdoms of ice. She taught me to love Mother Nature and her wildlings.
Ma could persuade any creature in her garden to eat out of her hands – from passing birds to the neighbours’ fiercest pets. I just took it a bit further, tailing snakes and lizards, graduating to handling tigers and lions when I grew up.
Luckily, my job called for off-site visits, covering product launches, conferences here and overseas. (And of course, we have junkets.) I accumulated flight miles, which I used for extra journeys. I also extended my official trips to neighbouring countries at my own expense.
I backpacked and flashpacked (those who coined the latter added flash – and fancy – to mean “bigger budget travel”) everywhere.
I call myself a “flashpacker” because on sponsored trips, I fly business class, get driven from the airport to my five-star hotel accommodation in a limousine and eat gourmet meals.
But when such trips end, I relocate to hostels or camp grounds, complete with all the creepy-crawlies – scorpions, spiders and snakes.
I live on oatmeal, cup noodles, biscuits and other dehydrated stuff. When I crave for “real food”, I set out to the nearest supermarket or cook rice, corned beef or sardines in the common kitchen. Or I go for take-outs in the nearest Chinese restaurant – if there’s one.
To get around, I take the public transport. Mostly, I just walk. I plan my itinerary as an independent traveller, scrimp as much as I can and skip the souvenirs.
(I traveled using Jump-On, Jump-Off bus for my first 3-month trip in Europe and will use it again this year for my 4-month European sojourn.)
Most of my media colleagues don’t relish such swings from luxury to the most frugal extremes. But what matters to me is I go where I want to go. I do what I love to do and I enjoy myself immensely.
I don’t normally choose easy destinations and activities. If I see an opportunity to walk tigers, nuzzle jaguars, care for abused elephants, buddy up with lions and grizzlies, or wrangle anacondas, I take it.
All the un-touristy, high-adventure, hard-core places appeal to me though I also do “tame” city tours, visits to theme parks, historic places, museums, temples, palaces and churches which form part and parcel of most official trips.
When I covered an event in Thailand, I extended my stay to see, not just the temples of Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but neighbouring Cambodia as well.
In Siem Reap, I did the temple circuit of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Phrom. Then I sailed to Battambang to see more temples and returned by way of Phnom Penh, touring the museums and the Killing Fields.
When I was assigned to write about an airline conference in Istanbul, Turkey, I tarried awhile to see the Topkapi Palace, the harem, the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Then I took the local buses to reach the Underground Cities of Derinkuyu, the cave churches of Cappadocia. I pushed on to Izmir, the birthplace of Homer and to Ephesus where I explored the temple of Artemis and the house of the Virgin Mary.
(Me in the Cotton Springs of Pamukkale, Ephesus,Turkey)
And inasmuch as I came from so far, I thought I might as well see a nearby country. Egypt was cheaper than Greece, so I went there. I booked a jump-on-jump off bus in Cairo. I went to Gizah to see the pyramids, sailed a felucca across the Nile then visited the temples of Luxor, Kom Ombo, Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings.
(Me between the sphinx and the pyramids at Gizah, Egypt.)
My longest adventure todate was 3 months of backpacking all over Europe, a personal pilgrimage I undertook after my parents died to visit the places they longed to see but didn’t. I will repeat it this year, extending the trip to four months and adding more countries to my list.
I’m using jump-on, jump-off buses (much cheaper than trains) in a loop route covering over a dozen European countries and over half a hundred destinations. I’ll just jump off the loop to cruise the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Before, I jumped off to sail to Athens, onwards to the Cyclades, then to Capri, Italy and to Morocco from Portugal.
(My travel route during my first 3-month European adventure.)
Of course, I favour adventure travel above all – surfing in Siargao and Aurora, swimming with whalesharks in Donsol and hitching a ride on the fin of a 30-footer. I did caving in Callao and Bohol, trekked and snorkelled in Batanes, scuba dived in Mindoro, Batangas, Palawan, Davao and Cebu.
Overseas, I swam with reef sharks and bull sharks, hand-fed giant rays in Singapore and Florida as well as wild dolphins in Tangalooma, Australia. I went canyoneering all over Arizona and Utah.
I trekked in the Canadian Rockies, explored the national parks of British Columbia and Alberta, climbed a couple of mountains and ventured over the glaciers of Athabasca.
(I glacier-trekked across the Athabasca, Canada.)
Solo-trekking in the jungles of Khao Yai in Thailand, I saw my first wild tiger hunting deer. I had my second wild tiger sighting in the oldest rainforest in the world, in Taman Negara, Malaysia.
In Mongolia, I hunted foxes with golden eagles. I lived with Kazakh hunters at 10,000 feet, in minus 30 degrees temperatures in winter, in the Altai Mountains.
I did desert trekking in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the middle of summer and climbed a glacier, 12,000 feet up Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in Lauterbrunnen.
Volunteer travel is just as close to my heart.
I’m a licensed scuba diver and a member of Ecorescue. So, I did three-day live aboard dives at Apo Reef, Mindoro and Batangas. I volunteered to conduct reef checks, measuring the effect of global warming as well as dynamite and cyanide fishing on the corals.
I also built artificial reefs where fish could find refuge and where corals can grow again. This involved carrying and piling concrete blocks in the bottom of the sea in cold waters and in strong currents.
But so far, the most exciting and the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done is volunteering in wildlife sanctuaries abroad.
I volunteered in Chiangmai, Thailand, taking care of abused Asian elephants. A good number of them have killed their mahouts or handlers.
Next, I volunteered for one month in Kanchanaburi, in Southern Thailand. There I took care of tigers, lions, a leopard, a Himalayan bear and a serpent eagle. My last volunteer travel was in Fallon, Nevada, where I took care of lions, tigers, lynxes and a cougar.
The elephants would untie my shoe laces and rummage through my pockets with their trunks, they would nuzzle me and give me hot air kisses. The tigers and other big cats would run to greet me, purr as loud as truck motors, roll over like giant house cats, begging to be petted and cry when I try to leave.
They made me feel so privileged, so loved. My time spent with them was the happiest in my life
Yet, you can’t avoid getting injured or even killed when working with wild animals. It’s part of the risk. My big cats in Thailand were orphaned by poachers. They never hurt me. But the abused ones owned by a demented couple in Nevada were different and my stint there nearly cost me my life.
Still, I long to work with big cats again and plan to volunteer caring for jaguars at the Inti Warayassi sanctuary in Bolivia.
(Reprinted from my regular Sunday Travel column at the Manila Bulletin, “My World in a Flashpack”.)