Passing beyond the ordinary

In its ordinary sense, traveling allows a person to momentarily escape life’s harried pressures. By going to places which he had only previously read about in books or seen on television documentaries, it gives the traveler the pleasure of being able to let his hair down and explore something new.

However, it could go beyond the sights and sounds. As Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo shows in her collection of 20 travel essays Passages (UST Publishing House, 2008), traveling to foreign places not only satiates the Wanderlust of a tired city dweller, it also provides new insights on how people from other places live out their lives. The essays were culled from the author’s previous collections of travel essays, such as Sojourns, I Remember…Travel Essays, The Path of the Heart, and Coming Home.

Aside from being an eminent travel writer, Pantoja-Hidalgo is also known as an award-winning novelist, short story writer and literary critic. She has won the Palanca Grand Price for the Novel in 1996 for her work Recuerdo and has published collections of short fiction such as Ballad of a Lost Season and Other Tales (1987) and Sky Blue after the Rain (2005). Pantoja-Hidalgo was also the author of two books on literary criticism, namely Woman Writing: Home and Exile in the Autobiographical Narratives of Women and A Gentle Subversion: Essays on Philippine Fiction.

The collection is divided into two parts, namely: “Brief Encounters,” and “Old Haunts.” The essays compiled in the first section narrate the author’s impressions on the foreign places that she has visited either for the first time or only occasionally. Meanwhile the second part reveals her attempts at gradually understanding the culture of the places that she was living in for several years. (her husband was, at one time, posted in Lebanon, Burma and South Korea, as an emissary of the United Nations Children Fund or UNICEF.)

In the essay “Letter from Cyprus,” Pantoja-Hidalgo immediately admits that their trip with her husband to the Mediterranean island was just “quite simply an escape” from the hassles of work as diplomats posted in the Middle East. And so, she and her husband tours some of the historical (and mythical) sites in the island such as the Church of Saint Lazarus, Paphos (said to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess Aphrodite) and the capital city of Nicosia. However, she realizes that even in a seemingly charming and enchanting place like Cyprus, the turmoil of politics does eventually get in the way as upon learning that ordering a cup of coffee has also shades of political overtones. “Connie Clark…warned us to say Greek coffee if we want to order Turkish coffee. Anti-Turk feeling in Greek Cyprus prevents the acknowledgement of even this little debt.”

Cyprus was divided into two portions in 1974 after a brief war between its Greek and Turkish inhabitants which ended with the invasion of the northern part of the island by the Turkish army.

The same also goes for her visit to Damascus, the Syrian capital, in 1980. As recounted in “Letters from Damascus,” Pantoja-Hidalgo compares the animosity felt by the Lebanese and the Syrians against each other. The Lebanese considered the Syrians, who were in their country as peacekeepers, as occupiers; on the other hand, the Syrians had thought that the Lebanese were primarily preoccupied with money and not governing their country well, hence the civil war raging in their country during that time. However, Pantoja-Hidalgo says that she managed to forget these during her visit to the city when she was able to tour some of the historical spots of Damascus, such as the Hamadie Souk, a passageway, and the Great Mosque, which was build by the Ummayad caliphs.

In her travels, the author was also able to encounter fellow Filipinas who work as overseas workers. Pantoja-Hidalgo recounts her experiences with them in the essays “Visiting Pinays in Geneva,” “Pinoys Down Under,” and “A Stretch of Smoke and Waves.”

Pantoja-Hidalgo delves deeper about her stay in Beirut during the height of the Lebanese Civil War in the late 1970s in the essay “Beirut: Pages From a Journal.” It consists of seven journal entries written in a span of two years wherein the author recorded her various impressions of the Lebanese capital and its inhabitants: how it used to have a vibrant and harmonious culture before the outbreak of sectarian strife, its wonderful physical location on hillsides and near the sea, and how the Lebanese gradually became divided politically and socially during those turbulent times.

Meanwhile, her essay “The Junk Shops of Rangoon,” gives wonderful insights to readers on how life goes on in Burma, which grew isolated from international affairs ever since the military regime invalidated the 1988 elections said to be won by the opposition. The reader may feel a sense of being “time-warped’ to the past with the author’s description of Rangoon, circa 1989: “ Downtown, the buildings are still British –colonial, in various stages of decay and disrepair…There were no theatres, night clubs, pubs or discos and only a couple of decent restaurants.” Despite this drab-looking setting, there are some colorful characters which the author had got to know while visiting the city’s junk shops: the shabbily dressed and capricous Madame Te, the temperamental Nepalese who is known by his pet phrase “Why Not” and the Burmese-Chinese merchant “Ati,” who had a reputation of being knowledgeable in the trade of selling antiques.

The essays were written in various forms, such as epistolary (letter) form, journal, and column-style. In all these forms, the author beautifully described the details of the places that she has gone into. One can see this in “A Letter from Damascus,” when she narrated her group’s tour at the Hamadie Souk: “(It) is a domed passage, about a quarter of a mile long. One enters it via an ancient Roman arch and loses oneself in a maze of little alleys.” Pantoja-Hidalgo has also put tidbits of historical narratives in her essays, thereby making it easier for the reader to figure out the places that the author has visited.

The only drawback that a reader may notice from the essays is the length. “An English Major in Oxbridge” is the longest piece in the collection, with 20 pages of narration on the author’s experiences at the Cambridge Seminar on the Contemporary British Writer in 1996. But the reader may yet be entertained by this piece with the author’s stories of meeting with fellow writers from Africa, Asia and India.

Overall, the essays in the collection may convince the reader that traveling is not merely the “passage” of one’s feet from one place to the other. It also requires the “passage” of one’s heart and mind from the ordinary to the new in order to better appreciate his existence. 

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