2011: PLUS ULTRA (a yearender)

PLUS ULTRA.  A Latin phrase translating to “further beyond”.  Upon reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the most appropriate theme of my 2011 travels.  But first, a long word on the historical context (and you all know how much of a history buff I am):

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Plus Ultra is a derivative of Nec Plus Ultra (“nothing further beyond”).  In Renaissance tradition, these words were supposedly inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules as a warning to ancient sailors that they were approaching the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and, consequently, the end of the then known world.  In the 16th century, a minor Flemish prince, at the suggestion of his personal advisor, adopted the derivative Plus Ultra as his personal motto, with the goal of encouraging him to take risks, never rest on his laurels and to go further beyond each success.

A series of favorable events propelled this Flemish prince to the Spanish throne as King Charles I.  Later on, he was elected to succeed his grandfather as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  This personal union of the 2 thrones under one monarch ushered in an era of tremendous political and cultural expansion for Spain as an empire.  From being a collection of minor kingdoms that have just recently been liberated from their Moorish conquerors, Spain under Charles was consolidated, flourished and, through multiple alliances, inherited vast domains in the European continent.  At its height, the Spanish standard flew over Portugal, present-day Belgium and Netherlands, as well as parts of Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Hungary, among others.

Spain's Coat-of-Arms incorporating the Pillars of Hercules and Charles' motto "Plus Ultra".

But more importantly, it was during Charles’ rule that the colonization of the New World came into full swing and an expedition was launched that successfully (though at great cost) circumnavigated the globe and acquired colonies in the Far East – a chapter in world history that most educated Filipinos are very familiar with.  As a result, Charles was the very first monarch who boasted of a worldwide empire where the sun never set.

Charles was such an important man of his time that he was called “Charles the Great” and Plus Ultra was eventually adopted by Spain as its national motto.

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Like what I’ve mentioned before, traveling is a hobby that I’ve taken up only just recently.  Due to the peculiarities of my job, my free days are fixed and limited.  And so this behooved me to adopt a highly disciplined approach to my traveling.  I first started exploring places near where I live and more or less worked my way farther with each new destination.  At a very early point, the seeds of Plus Ultra were already sown, and this subconsciously defined the conduct of my travels.

I initially didn’t intend to go “further beyond” at the start of this year.  As far as my traveling was concerned, 2010 was quite hectic and exhausting and I wanted a more laid-back approach for 2011.  In fact, the entire first quarter of the year went by without me having gone to a single trip.

My choice of my first 2011 destination however unintentionally set the theme for the rest of the year.  I chose to go to Biri Island in Northern Samar, a place that was off the usual tourist route but was nevertheless famous for its majestic rock formations facing the Pacific Ocean.  Going here really placed me far from my comfort zone as getting to the island involved a number of time-sensitive steps (and at least one hazardous step) where things might have gone wrong and I’d be delayed or not reach the island at all.

Waves battering the Magsapad rock formation in Biri Island.

I chose to go here because I wanted to see and experience something different.  My previous travels have so far been dominated by either the beach or the mountains, and I refuse to believe that those are the only two types of geographies that existed in the country.  The rock formations were unique and beautiful, and despite the daunting itinerary (the first half of which I needed to accomplish alone) I was interested enough to do a first time visit to a place no one I know has gone to, braving the rough sea and my intense dislike for mangroves.

San Juanico Bridge

As a bonus to this trip, I got to walk the length of the San Juanico bridge on the way to Tacloban from Samar.  I have a lot of relatives in Leyte, but I have never had the chance to visit the place where by maternal grandfather was born.  This trip gave me the opportunity to do so, even if it’s just for 1 afternoon.

My next 2 trips were both in places I’ve already been to – the Ilocos provinces and Sagada.  But unlike my previous visits with my family where the itinerary was limited, this time, my visits were designed for me to be able to visit areas in those places I’ve never visited before.  So one can say Plus Ultra was still at work, but on a more fundamental level.

Calle Crisologo, Vigan

During my last visit to Ilocos, I was able to explore Vigan for the first time (which sounds really silly, considering Vigan is a very popular tourist destination for a couple of decades now.)  I was finally able to walk the cobblestone-paved Calle Crisologo and see for myself the well-preserved Spanish-era heritage houses.

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Northern Ilocos Norte offered a lot of surprises for me.  I was particularly awed by the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation and the massive Bangui Windmills.  The Kabigan Falls also showed me a different face of Ilocos Norte, and certainly one that I intend to revisit in the future.

Camping at Marlboro Country in Sagada

In Sagada, I was finally able to complete a cave connection adventure – something I always wanted to do ever since my first attempt at spelunking in the same place some years back.  It was a thoroughly exhausting and many times uncomfortable experience which I chose to go through anyway because I knew beforehand that the wealth of memories I would gain would far outweigh the fleeting discomfort of the whole thing.  In the course of this sojourn, I also got to go overnight camping at a place called “Marlboro Country” (not the one in Batanes) and tasted a native dish called Pinikpikan – something that animal-rights advocates might find repulsive.

View from the summit of Mt. Batulao.

Last August, I settled an old score with Mt. Batulao and completed a successful attempt at conquering its summit.  My previous trip here 3 years back was abruptly cut by a storm when we were camped less than halfway to the summit.  This time around, I had the benefit of good weather, better equipment and preparation, as well as past mountaineering experience at Mt. Pulag so I was able to confidently do this climb solo.

Dozing off at the top of Mt. Iraya, Batanes.

The Mt. Batulao climb was actually intended as practice for my planned climb of Mt. Iraya in Batanes.  After promising myself that I’d return to Batanes after my December ’09 trip, I finally was able to do so last September.  In many ways, Mt. Iraya was the most difficult mountain I’ve climbed and I can certainly say I “suffered” both going up and coming down from the summit.  But it was a great experience overall.

Boat-shaped burial markers at Nakamaya, Batanes

I wanted to go to faraway Itbayat and already made arrangements for it, but the bad weather prevented me from doing so.  I had to content myself with making the most out of the main island of Batan when exploring things about Batanes I wasn’t able to see before.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  My return to Batanes was in many ways more of a discovery than my previous visit, the highlight being my visit to the prehispanic Nakamaya Burial Grounds.

An ancient balangay, a national treasure, unearthed in Butuan.

Plus Ultra as a mindset really gained ground a mere 2 weeks after my Batanes return trip.  Through the efforts of an online acquaintance and fellow blogger who organized everything, I was able to set foot in Mindanao for the very first time when I joined a group trip to Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur via Butuan.  This was indeed further beyond anywhere I’ve ever traveled to within the country.

Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig, Surigao del Sur

I had a grand time seeing with my own eyes just how beautiful Mindanao is.  Sohoton Cove, Tinuy-an Falls and the Hinatuan Enchanted River are real gems that are worth the visit, despite their relative inaccessibility.  And although we had very limited time to explore the ancient and modern city of Butuan, I nevertheless was able to satisfy my interest for anything historical by visiting the museums and actual archaeological sites of the city showing the rich culture of prehispanic Filipinos.

The Hinatuan Enchanted River

You can say that an underlying secondary theme of my 2011 travels is “returning and rediscovering”, and this was certainly the case when I returned to Marinduque for a charity activity by a group named “Happy to Live, Glad to Give” and their climb at Mt. Malindig.  While the climb itself was relatively uneventful (we didn’t reach the very summit due to bad weather), I particularly treasure the charity activity that we did, wherein we gave gifts of school supplies to a foundation established for the benefit of children.

Some of the beneficiaries of the gift-giving activity.

Finally, as the year closed, I fulfilled my dream of seeing Angkor Wat when I made a solo journey to Vietnam and Cambodia.  I was supposed to do this exact same trip the previous year, but I ran out of time and favorable air fares.  I had the good fortune of visiting the two ASEAN countries that are probably the easiest to go to for Filipinos, and where a lot of helpful first-hand information was already posted online.

Banteay Srei Temple, the jewel of Khmer architecture

With Cambodia, I actually corresponded online with a pair of Filipino travelers whom  I met for the first time in Siem Reap.  We took the tours together to cut costs and I was glad to make new friends in a foreign land.  With the exception of Kbal Spean, we made a very good itinerary for ourselves and even had the chance to visit the very faraway temples in Koh Ker and Beng Mealea.  We also got to experience authentic rural Khmer hospitality.  (In this case, hospitality meant they actually bought and cooked wild boar meat for us… because there was no deer meat available.)

Traditional Khmer-style meal at a farm near Koh Ker.

Vietnam though was largely a solo experience for me, except for my first day when I met Filipinos who were in the same Cu Chi tour group that I found myself in.  I found Saigon to be a crazy, colorful city and I was thankful that I took the time to visit Mui Ne, where I saw some really breathtaking natural formations and I got to stay at a guesthouse with the kindest, warmest and most hospitable owners.

At the White Sand Dunes, Mui Ne, Vietnam

I’ll certainly return to Vietnam and Cambodia in the future.  These two countries simply have too much to offer.  Just like the Philippines.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

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And so we come to a final accounting.  While 2010 took me out of town more times, 2011 took me farther than I’ve ever been before in my young life as a traveling enthusiast. It’s the classic quantity vs. quality distinction, and 2011 certainly gave me more quality travels.  I experienced rather than just observed.  I took more risks.  I had the option to take the safer, more comfortable and more convenient route, and for the most part, I chose to go the other way.

2011, you definitely took me Plus Ultra.  Thank you for giving me such excellent memories.  Thank you for teaching me that sometimes, as far as traveling goes, taking chances is the wiser option overall.  Although I confirmed what I already knew about the world not being exactly a safe place, I learned that it is not a reason to avoid risks in the course of exploring new places.  (And even old, familiar ones.)

As for you 2012, you have pretty big shoes to fill.

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