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September 7, 2011

I saw the Sierra Madres on the road from Manila to San Mateo.  In a comfortable van ride, I was seated next to a sister with whom I had stayed when I was first in the Philippines.  It was a happy reunion- we had not seen each other in three years.

This visit to the Philippines marked the first time I’d traveled in Luzon outside of Metro Manila.  I didn’t get very far- only a few hours by car in different directions- but I was taken back by the immediacy with which the massive city turns into a rolling countryside.  I was gushing over the mountains to the sister on our way to San Mateo.  “There’s nothing like this,” I said.

“But you have your wilderness, too,” she replied, “in the US.”
I thought about that.  I thought about the woods behind the house where I grew up- pockets of trees, populated with deer, fox, and raccoons.  I thought about running through the brush, the thorns scratching my naked arms as I made my way to the stream in the gorge.

And certainly, out West there are tracts and tracts of uninterrupted wilderness, so much greater than the spaces I grew up in.  The Plains, the Badlands, the Rock Mountains.  I haven’t really seen any of it.  The United States is a big country, like I told the sister, but even if I’d been to those places, I could never claim them as my own.

At least not like my companion can claim the Philippines.  The nun seated next to me in the van was from Luzon.  Her family resisted the Japanese occupation of the island in WWII.  As a small child, her duty was the run notes between rebel sympathizers; the messages pinned on the inside of her dress.  Forty years before, her grandparents had resisted the US Military.  Years before that, her great-great-grandparents had fought the Spanish.  And long before any of the colonizers arrived, her ancestors were traders and her people enjoyed unsullied wilderness.

The lands behind my parents’ house were new to me and my brothers.  My parents had grown up miles away.  Many of their grandparents were from foreign shores.  Generations before any of my family was in America, people who looked like us seized the land from the first peoples.  It is wrong to say that is not my history, because in the American context I experience, race outweighs bloodline.  That act of white colonizing is bound up in my white privilege in a way that will make my connection to the land now called “America” illegitimate.

So where are my mountains?  Or, rather, where is the wilderness where I truly belong?  Where is the land that was not stolen from other people?  In Madness at the Gates of the City, Barry Spector suggests this is the identity crisis of non-indigenous (especially white) America.  Far too late, some of us have finally said, “This is not our land”, but by now, we’ve forgotten where we’ve come from.

My blood connection goes strongest to my maternal grandmother.  My grandmother’s father was from Bratislava, but her mother was from Kosice- a small town in eastern Slovakia at the base of the High Tatras.  As a child, I remember seeing photos of those mountains in National Geographic.  I remember caressing those smooth glossy pages, and wondering when I would trample through the deep snow on my way to the top of the world.

I never seemed to find my way home, and now, almost thirty, my life seems to call me further and further away.  But even if I were to go back, if I were to cross the earth by plane, car, and foot, and arrive at the base of those mountains, what would I find?  Surely, not my home.  I do not know that land, or that language.  The people do not know me from any other American who arrives looking for hot showers and menus in English.

Our van stopped in the heart of a small barrio.  We were barely in the barangay hall when the dark clouds opened and filled the street with water.

“We’ll have to stay,” the sister half shouted over the noise of the tin roof. When the rain pours that hard, there is no traveling on the mountain roads.  It was an imperfect plan, as there were other places we were supposed to be, but if I’ve learned anything from this time in the Philippines, it’s that sometimes the only option is to stay where you are.

The children gathered frogs along the river bank, and their mother cooked the amphibians in coconut milk.  I pulled the meat off the bones and mixed it with white rice.  I ate with my fingers and drank instant coffee to fight the chill of the storm.  We all sat together on the bamboo, and watched the streets fill up with water.

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