Traveling writers, writing travels

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By Edsel Van D.T. Dura and Jordan Mari S. De Leon

Traveling to different places is probably one of the top things a person would want to do to get away from the hurly-burly of everyday life. Breathtaking scenery, scrumptious food and beautiful people are just some of the things a person looks for when traveling. But to write about these things in a way that would catch the attention and stimulate the imagination of readers is a gift.

Fortunately, Thomasians need not to look further for people with this gift as UST has produced two exemplary writers in Carlomar Daoana and Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, who do more than just jot down what they see in their travels.

Daoana, a former Varsitarian associate editor and Literary editor, has traveled to many places in the country such as Ilocos, Siquijor, Dumaguete, Baguio and Palawan and also to Malaysia. One of his well known works is Marginal Bliss, a collection of poems with themes ranging from happiness to suffering to love. He has written for the Daily Tribune, Metro, Experience Philippines magazine, L magazine and Metro Him, and is about to publish his second collection of poems, tentatively titled Slow Dancing in the Kitchen.

Hidalgo, on the other hand, is no stranger to travel literature. Several of her travel-related books have won national awards, including the Palanca Grand prize for the novel Recuerdo, and three National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle for Tales of a Rainy Night, Catch a Falling Star, and Coming Home.

Described by Daoana as the “mother of nonfiction narrative,” Hidalgo has been to many places in Asia such as Korea, Bangkok, and Beirut and she always comes home with a story on each of the places she has visited.

Arranging the pieces

When a person travels, he or she normally has an itinerary of the places he or she will visit. The amount of money he or she has, and accommodations are also heavily considered. But Daoana has different perspective.

“Most people worry about the trivial things like— do we have enough money? Or is there film in the camera? When I travel, I let go of all of these things and just let things happen,” Daoana said, adding that this keeps his travel writings sharp and focused.

Daoana said when his travels are assignments and work-related, he only writes from memory and does not usually take down notes unless there are things unfamiliar to readers like a local name of an animal or a type of food. However, if his travels are personally financed, he writes heavily on his journals.

Hidalgo, on the other hand, said every time she travels, she writes on her diary.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 10 years old,” she said.

And Ordinarily, travelers only write what they see. For Daoana and Hidalgo, however, there is more than just the beauty of the ocean and the splendor of the sunset.

“Since most people who travel tend to rely on sight, they forget what they feel, what they smell, and what they hear,” Daoana explained.

He said that using the four other senses when traveling helps him add color to his writings.

When he was assigned to Malaysia, Daoana described its sidewalks as nothing he has smelled before, “like human skin trapped in a heavy fabric.” The foreign tongue of the natives also excited him. By noticing both of these, he said he was able to write a better story rather than just writing what he saw.

“I love that feeling of being confronted with the new and the foreign. So it’s best to really keep your senses alert to what’s happening around you,” he said. “Letting yourself be transformed by the places you travel enables one to write a better travel story.”

For Hidalgo, there should be two journeys when traveling—the physical and the spiritual journey. If there is no spiritual journey, one should not write about his or her travels.

And the place need not to be very far as it could be near as Baguio or Quiapo.

“The trick in travel writing is called ‘defamiliarization’—when you are able to present the familiar in an unfamiliar way,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very important if you are able to present your writings on the place in a new way, with some new insights.”

She said that what happens in a travel essay is that the writer becomes the reading companion of the reader.

“It’s like asking the reader, ‘come with me, I would like to show you a new place’,” Hidalgo said. “So you have to consider things like— as a reader, who will you go with? What type of person would you prefer to go with for you to enjoy the journey? Therefore, the personality of the writer also counts.”

Hidalgo explains that having a good sense of humor, being able to see what others cannot see, and being able to capture the essence of the place are some keys to be able to write a good travel essay or piece.

“It’s important to input details like the taste of the food and the type of music of a place. But what’s more important is to put the over-all final impression that you came away with,” she said. “No matter how boring the place is, if you are able to make readers feel how cool, romantic, or weird the place was when you were there, then it would be an enjoyable piece.”

While most people prefer to travel with companions, Daoana prefers to go alone as writing from the first-person point of view helps limit the focus of his travel piece to one perspective.

“Your traveling companions have their own opinions and perspectives regarding the place and it’s so wide to accommodate all of them in your travel piece,” Daoana said.

Daoana explains that one of his secrets is that he doesn’t push himself too hard nor does he rush when writing about his travels as it could result to piece being cluttered.

“You may want to say so many things at the same time. So instead of a hurried journey through the mountains, why not a leisurely walk?” he said.

Language is important for any travel piece to be successful or interesting.

Being a gifted poet, Daoana finds no difficulty in choosing the language to use when writing his travel pieces.

He said he usually uses the different figures of speech when writing to able to illustrate his travel experiences vividly.

“That’s the reason why the best travel writers are those who are involved in poety since they can use colorful languages,” Daoana said. “Their travel essays have a plot and a structure and no matter if the writer shifts from one timeframe to another, the reader won’t be confused.”

“It all boils down to one thing—to be able to write a good travel piece you have to be a good writer. Use your imagination,” Hidalgo added.

Tracing origins

While UST is fortunate to be home to two known travel writers, it is noticeable that in the country, there are only few of them in this line of work.

“Travel writing is not that developed in third world countries simply because people living there have less money and so they are not able to travel that much,” Hidalgo said.

Daoana added that here in the Philippines, to be able to travel that much is considered a luxury.

“For example, Boracay. Not all of us can go there just like that. In fact, there are more foreigners who get to visit the exotic locations around the country than the Filipinos themselves,” Daoana said.

So how do these two Thomasian travelers manage to go around and produce masterpieces?

Hidalgo’s husband served as the United Nations head in different countries such as Korea, Kathmandu Burma, Cyprus, Bangkok, Beirut, and Rome.

Daoana, however, has a different story. Although most of his travels are because of assignments, there are times when he goes to places for no reason at all.

“I visit Baguio at least 7 times a year and most of those visits are just on an impulse,” Daoana said, adding that he only brings with him a day’s worth of clothes, and money for food and humble accommodations.

One of the reasons why he does so is because for him, traveling is a “basic human need” which can change his perspective of life one way or another.

He narrates that when he went alone to Sagada, a family of 5 took him in and traveled with him, giving him food and shelter.

“Had I not gone to Sagada, I wouldn’t have learned about the kindness of strangers nor would my faith in people be reawakened,” Daoana said.

But what started this trend of travel writing?

History tells us that one of the earliest known records of taking pleasure in travel and writing about was when Petrarch ascended Mount Ventoux in 1336 just to see the top of the famous height.

Michault Taillement traveled through the Jura Mountains in 1430 and wrote about his personal reflections like his horrified reaction to the sheer rock faces and the terrifying thunderous cascades of mountain streams.

Also, Antoine de la Sale climbed to the crater of a volcano in the Lipari Islands in 1407 and left us with his impressions.

Hidalgo said that Western countries like Britain, in the process of civilizing the new world, were one of the originators of travel writing as they were able to write about the countries they colonized.

In the Philippines, according to her, Jose Rizal was one of the pioneers of travel writing as he was able to write about Spain and other countries he visited.

Montage Vol. 9 • February 2006