There’s a song that plays in my head when I think about my first visit to San Juan beach in La Union: Shelter (Oh No), by the happy little indie folk band named Ourselves the Elves. When I’m packing stuff for a trip it’s become my habit to load my phone with new music, which I would listen to on the bus (or plane), and in idle moments, as in that lazy hour before noon, before checking-out, while my travel companions mill around gathering their belongings. Pieces of music, once they imprint on a memory, can preserve moments in a way photos can’t. Pictures allow me to replay the visuals of a moment weeks, months, or years after it has passed, but they don’t always trigger the emotions. I have beautiful pictures from that trip to San Juan more than three years ago—sunset, waves, and lots of sand—but I can’t say that I truly remember that time, unless I hear Shelter, unless I feel the feelings only that song can stir in me.
It’s not that the words of the short but spirited song mean anything particular to me. The song is technically a duet, featuring Aki and Aly’s wonderful, interweaving boy-girl vocals, but I hesitate to call it one, because all the words seem to belong to the same persona—a character losing a metaphorical battle, and calling out to the listener to be her (or his) shelter and shield.
Well, I wasn’t quite feeling vulnerable when I listened to the song in a room by the sea, despite the relentless crash of waves resounding through the window shutters. I merely thought it a rather joyful song, in a swinging way, even if its somewhat foreign texture tinges it with melancholy. It was a great song, an appropriate addition to the soundtrack of my weekend in a carefree, blissful place.
A few weekends ago, I returned to San Juan, with a few old friends and a couple new ones. It’s been only three years, but quite a number of things have changed. For one, as the coastal town continued to grow in popularity (and with that, its economy), people stopped referring to it by the town’s name. It became simply La Union, the whole province equated to a short strip of highway and the surfing spot it gives access to. No, even La Union is too long for millennial speak—it’s just L.U., or Elyu if you’re feeling fancy.
There’s also that film, I’m Drunk, I Love You: two best friends, Carson and Dio, go on an impromptu road trip to La Union days before their graduation from university, and there drink and talk their way through their true feelings. Because I take films seriously (too seriously, some might say), I can’t go to a place I’ve seen in a memorable film and not have that movie color my experience of the visit. Thanks to Carson and Dio, La Union is no longer just a place to unwind, it’s now a place to unload, whatever it is that could use unloading: secrets, other forms of excess baggage, inhibitions.
It’s a little funny though that when my friends and I went to Flotsam, the place to be in after the sun sets on La Union, we saw Jericho Rosales, the leading man of a different travel movie about a different surfing spot.
For my latest La Union sojourn, I brought Reese Lansangan’s Arigato, Internet! and Franco’s Flight. Both records are perfect for such trips to the coast, with Reese Lansangan’s acoustic style and occasional ukulele arrangements, and Franco’s love for the sea and devotion to the subject of recreation. But I had a different song in mind, actually.
I fell in love last year with the song Tides by another indie folk band, The Ransom Collective. It’s easily the best song in their debut album. (Now, that’s just to say it’s my favorite. When it comes to films I have strong opinions about what makes a piece the ‘best’, and I say that being relatable and sentimental are not necessary qualities for a good film. But I know zilch about music criticism, and I only claim favorites. I only have my instinct, and my instinct tells me that my favorite songs should be relatable and sentimental; my favorite songs are the ones that speak to my circumstances and reach deep into my soul, and does so without me having to think, without need for evaluation, without regards for theories. But I digress.)
Tides, unlike Shelter, is a proper duet, and it tells the sweet story of a boy who loves the mountains and beckons on a girl to come with him, to the great heights, the great outdoors.
—It’s been so long
Since I last saw you
—I’ve just been here all by myself
Pulling old books from the top shelf
—Leaves are falling
But I don’t plan on coming down
—How does it look from way up there
Can I survive the mountain air?
She hesitates, but he assures her with the promise of adventure, and she takes the plunge. (The Ransom Collective’s debut album, Traces, is a lot about this theme, going out and finding adventure.)
—Hold your questions
You’ll find your answers off the page
—I heard you calling from afar
Set off to find out where you are
—I can’t help it,
I can’t help but speak my mind
—I swore someday I’d leave this place
It’s time to take that leap of faith
It leads to the chorus, sung in dramatic (sentimental), heartfelt harmony:
They see me running through their dreams at night
Trying to keep myself above the tide
And if I fail at least I know I tried
Tried my best to keep an open mind
Because of the song’s title, I like to imagine that the girl in this story, in my interpretation of the song, comes from some place by the sea. That is: his haven is on the mountains, and her home is the coast. His soul belongs to the heights, her body yearns for the waves, but the desire for connection—not necessarily love—overcomes fears to bring the two hearts together.
There are many places in the world where you can find geographical pairings of mountains and seas, though there is a highland region particularly dear to me: the Cordilleras of Luzon. And it happens that La Union embodies the coast that lies downhill from the western reaches of the Cordilleras.
I feel silly and selfish sharing this, that my overthinking and misguided imagination led me to attach a song to a particular place from my experience. I guess I crave stories, like everyone else, but that it gratifies me especially to seek these narratives out in the physical world, with my own senses.
On the bus, going home from La Union, I stayed awake watching the landscape. The road to Manila hugs the southern end of the Cordilleras; the sight of the rich green foothills, well-defined and rising sharply from the plains, conjured Tides again in my mind. This time, it wasn’t a place I was associating to music, it was music that summoned for me a place. I wasn’t safekeeping a memory through song; it was a song that gave me a story to live out, and create memories with.
I turned 26 recently. Age is just a number, they say, but I’m an engineer, I take numbers seriously. And 26 had me thinking: I’m now firmly in my late twenties. Which tells me: I’m now at the peak of my life, biologically speaking. In the grand scheme of life, it’s all downhill from here. Perhaps that does not cover my mental faculties, that I will (hopefully) grow wiser as I get older, but the mind is in many ways limited by the body, and my body is done with development, it’s now in maintenance mode. (As far as I know. Feel free to correct me, doc.)
When a friend told me a long time ago that I’m an old soul, I took it to mean that I had an old person’s sensibilities and interests. My body was young, but my mind was old—mature and wise, really, were the words I was self-servingly thinking. And then I learned that ‘old soul’ came from the notion of reincarnation: an old soul is one that has went through many lifetimes, and so, in the latest cycle, finds itself out of step with its physical age. To be called an old soul is not to be praised; it tells me I’m suffering a mismatch, a kind of disorder.
If I am to put order in my life, it means evaluating which opportunities I have to seek out more of, while I still can. I spent a lot of my free time last year sitting in various cinemas across the city, hunting and chasing screenings of the latest alternative local films. If I was not in the theater, I was at home, reading novels and catching up on various literature (at a snail’s pace; I can’t comprehend how other people manage to read dozens of books in a month). But I realize: these are all things I can do later in life, they only need clarity of mind, not strength of body. I’ll have time for these when I retire, God be willing that I reach that age in good health.
What I should be doing, is taking to heart that spirit of freedom The Ransom Collective celebrates in their music: I need to go out more, and find adventures. I have to feel the world with my own hands, trample on the earth with my own feet, take in its scents and tastes and splendor with my own senses. I should embrace my youth, before it fades away.
But as I resolve to do so, my conscience tugs on me. Isn’t this coming from a selfish sense of entitlement? Isn’t it a privileged problem? Don’t you cringe at the millennial ethos? Isn’t adventurism the start of a slippery slope that leads down to consumerism and, ultimately, narcissism? Didn’t you yourself use to look down on the adventures and explorations of others, deeming them overvalued, thinking that explorations with the mind is the only necessary journey?
And now I see: I had built a little fort of unreasonable justifications, unjustified hesitations, unhealthy inhibitions. It was partly out of envy; I had no choice. I didn’t have the material conditions then, I couldn’t do what I saw other people doing. Now I have the means, I perceive with new eyes. It may be privileged, that is true, but it is not necessarily selfish, and it is not wrong, especially if I seek things in moderation and with humility, if I keep faith in virtues. I’ve dwelt in the world of ideas and imagination for too long, and now I share the universal yearning for adventure. It’s time to take that leap of faith.
Will I actually do it? Can I actually take that leap, knowing that I’ll have to sacrifice some of the passions that have given my life meaning and satisfaction these last few years?
I can’t say for certain. I only have a good feeling, and a new attitude, which I feel reflects the changes I’ve went through. Between my first and latest visits to La Union, I was transferred to a different department at work, did night shifts, changed residence, resigned, went back to university, and said goodbye to a relationship. Those events left a cumulative impact and a bewildering aftermath. I had to navigate through a time as distressing as I’ve ever had. I had the rug pulled out from under me, and somehow I didn’t just fall onto a hard floor. To over-stretch the metaphor: I discovered a deep hole under the rug, and I plunged into some sunken place, à la Get Out.
By the time I finally clambered out of that hole, my stance towards life had shifted. I saw the foolishness of having been so certain about many things. I came to value the people around me a lot more than I used to; it is to my shame that I had tended to overlook the goodwill and love they’ve always offered me. I thought I’d never go through what they call a quarter-life crisis, yet that is precisely what I faced. I still don’t have all the answers yet for the feelings of isolation and loneliness I inevitably feel every now and then, but at least I now know that everyone else experiences it too.
As The Ransom Collective assures in part of the dialogue of Tides:
—They call me headstrong
But I have had my ups and downs
—I’ve seen reflections of the past
Beneath the shadows that you’ve cast
Another, albeit small, difference between the first and latest times I’ve been to La Union, is that in the intervening time I picked up a few water skills. You can now throw me out on the open sea and I’d no longer drown, at least not right away.
La Union is a surfing spot, but in my first time there, I only waded on the shallows, where I discovered it’s impossible to relax because of the endless breaking waves. In the shower later, I had to dig out gritty loads of sand from my pockets; I even failed to wear the right kind of shorts for the sea, the kind that doesn’t act like sand filters for seawater.
But in my latest trip, I was the person in the group most excited to dip into the waves. A few of my friends expressed interest in surfing, and we agreed to do it on the morning of our last day on the coastal town. That morning came, and at 8 o’clock I promptly rose from my bunk bed and slipped into a rash guard. In truth, I felt like my liver hadn’t yet completely processed all the alcohol in my blood, from the night out before, and all my companions were still sleepy. But I was determined; I ended up going to the beach looking for a surfing instructor for only myself.
If you’ve tried it before, you know how it goes: a few minutes of lecturing on dry sand, learning the anatomy of a board, finding out which foot you have to put forward, and drilling safety basics, before actually going out to the water for a punishing hour of waiting for waves, and when you finally catch one with a shove by your helpful instructor, you muster your best to stand up, bend your knees, and swing your outstretched arms for balance as the wave carries you and your board shorewards, and you try not to fall off too soon.
It’s the waiting part that’s actually my favorite. The excitement is in the anticipation. For a first-time surf session, the instructor does all the work of watching out for a good wave. So I just lay prone on the board, catching my breath, feeling the sun beating down on my skin, smacking my lips and tasting sea salt. The board bobbed along with the water’s undulating; I wanted to close my eyes and savor the movement of the sea, but my instructor would call out “Ready!” to me any time, to alert me to a good wave coming.
The wave-riding part itself, of course, has its unparalleled pleasures. When my board caught a wave, I felt a surprising jolt and energy not unlike the sensation of being in a plane taking off. At the same time, I had to get on my feet; it’s like trying to stand up after freeing myself from the harness on a rushing roller-coaster car. When everything worked well and I found myself riding a wave a good distance, it was a high not unlike the joy of that moment I first learned to ride a bike. But then I reached the shore, I had to dismount and then plod my way back through brutal waves, dragging my board back to starting point.
I tell this story not as the beginning of an imagined future where I have pledged my existence to the surfing lifestyle. I’m merely celebrating a small victory: this experience is one little adventure I wouldn’t have bothered with before. It’s a preview of the kind of worldly, dirty-hands experience I wish to have more of, while I still can.
Twelve hours after my humble coastal stunt, I was back home in Manila, lying on my bed. Despite the fatigue, I couldn’t fall asleep, because when I closed my eyes, I would feel a floating, swaying, dizzying sensation, as if I was still on that surf board on the waves of La Union. But everything was all right, I told myself. Beyond the physical distress, everything actually felt really good.
I played Tides in my head one more time, thinking of the relief they sing about in the final lines:
—Look around you
Can you feel the open air?
—The view is better from right here
You’re right there was nothing to fear
Photos by the author.