To wrestle down the strong urge to smoke (a cigarette), I decided to write.

I quit smoking fourteen (14) days ago. I had been cuddling the smoke for three months… not a long time indeed. Smoking boosted my productivity at work and my way out of finding a reason to stay away from my laptop and ‘feel’ myself.

A friend of mine was arguing that productivity is just a placebo. I shrugged and responded, “Well, as long as it helps me. At this very moment, the urge to spin a cigarette between my lips is dancing in my head.

You could suspect me that I’m being overdramatic considering the short amount of time I smoked. I am fine with the idea that I am overdramatic, highly sensitive, and mentally unstable, just like most of the millennials I know.

The absence and the urge of nicotine gave me the courage I needed to pursue writing, and I reached out to the editors of Palawan News to have my own column.

It is preposterous of me to think that I am good enough for this task. As the adage goes, there’s no harm in trying and committing myself to write weekly moving forward.

I’ve been living in the U.S. for more than five years, and I always think of going back to Palawan every single day. So writing is a good way to relive my memories of home.

Home forced me to be independent. I grew up with restrictions and sometimes older people talked to me as if I had no sense of what was right or wrong. There are some older people who think they are smarter than you because of your age and not because of what they know.

When I was a teenager, a storm hit Puerto Princesa and the gusting wind chopped off the mango tree, which fell on my first cousin while he was asleep. He died right away. I did not know him personally, and I wished I did. But as relatives, you were expected to gather and help during the wake (lamay).

We went on the first day we found out about the news. I was dragged by my mother to go, and so I did. I was expecting to see him inside the casket, but we found him lying on a native mat (banig). My whole body was shaking to see a dead person lying in the open space.

I was so anxious. I was so anxious that I imagined that I was inhaling the same air that he was breathing (though I knew he was dead). The air I was breathing was cold and churned up my stomach.

I stood still and appeared calm. A part of me was blaming my mom for introducing me to the dead anatomy and claiming that she should have known better as an adult. Things were escalating quickly, and the local embalmer (embalsamador) in the town grabbed some strings and pushed them into my cousin’s mouth and started pumping the blood out, and it was flowing out of his eyes, ears, etc.

Then, he scooped out all the residue and the blood and shoved those, and filled two empty cans of biscuits. (I was referring to those famous ‘pasalubong’ cans of biscuits). This horror was happening inside the barangay hall, three blocks away, or around a 10-minute walk from their house. While the embalmer was cleaning up, they needed help carrying the two cans filled with my cousins’ blood-and-something-else to their house.

The embalmer looked around and found his eyes staring at me. The next thing I knew, I was carrying the two cans and struggling to keep my balance. Back then, the road was gravel, not paved.

I was sweating and my hands were mostly wet. Halfway, with all my diligence, I tripped but caught myself quickly enough, yet too late to keep the cans stable. It was an absolute terror as I felt the cans were swaying back and forth and spilled a good amount of blood on my feet.

I was wearing flip-flops (a pair of ‘ramboo’) and sensed the stickiness of the blood while I was struggling to put myself together and moved my feet forward. Blood is the source of life… but I was literally stepping on my dead cousin each time I took a step. Fast forward, I reached their house and everyone looked surprised, and someone blurted out to ask what those cans I was carrying were.

I proudly responded that it was the blood of the deceased being buried in the backyard of your house. I went a long way and painstakingly carried the most ambitious task of the day from my perspective, so I felt proud of it. Independence is bliss and scary sometimes.

Experiences like this hold me accountable for life. I never saw life as it was before. I thought about death almost every single day. My fate and your fate are akin to that of my cousin, breathless and unconcerned. My youth’s collective experiences, as well as the best parts of my mistakes, inspired me to pursue something else and swept me away from the glorious idea of the unavoidable and adventure.

Fast forward fifteen (15) years later, I found myself backpacking in Denali National Park in Alaska. The park itself is 6 million acres of wilderness, or around 7,400 square miles (Palawan is around 5,600 square miles). Bears, foxes, moose, and vast trees, seemingly endless land and mountains, and hostile weather are all part of the wilderness experience.

I was supposed to go with a friend, but he ditched me a week before the trip. It took me around eleven (11) hours of flight from Boston (my present address) to travel to Alaska, in the northwest of North America. The idea of hiking alone stirred my adrenaline, but it was not ideal for my destination.

The network is limited, and the weather and topography are very unwelcoming to a curious, lonesome soul. In fact, I gave my friend my bank account and insurance information, and I asked her to manage my finances and pay for my burial expenses if I died. I reached out to another friend and told him that I would text about my location each day and the longest time he would not hear from me could be three days. Longer than that, they would have to call 911.

As I reached the commercial and base areas of the park, I thought to myself that I had made the wrong decision and could probably die. I felt so small, and nature has a good way of pressing humility on my ego.

The universe conspired, and I bumped into a guy from France during the check-in to reserve my backcountry unit. The park manages a backcountry unit system where they allow a certain number of people to a single unit to let you experience the place in a very remote and secluded setting, where you can see miles and miles of unfamiliar land without seeing another group.

I tagged along with this French man with a thick, lovely accent, though most of the time his English is incomprehensible. We picked our spot and attended the thirty (30) minute introductions to the place and things to do if you see wildlife such as bears and moose.

The park ranger required you to put your food inside the bear can to secure it, and you have to cook, eat, and brush your teeth a certain distance away from your tent, at least a hundred yards away from the place to cook, the place to eat, and brush your teeth, and the tent… just like the triangle.

There’s only one road going to the interior of Denali. The bus is limited, including the time for pick-up and drop-off. We headed off with our backpacks and all I could think of was that, if worst comes to worst, at least I have a buddy that I can offer to the bears to keep their stomachs full and preoccupied while I’m running away.

To be continued… please be on the lookout for my column “Palaweño Marites” for continuation.