I recognized the shape of the island immediately, a rugged, horn-like protrusion emerging from sea. Lush vegetation nourished by rich volcanic soil made it a green brighter than the turquoise shallows caressing its beaches. The sky, the soothing pale blue of daylight, was clear enough to see broad plateaus and dark canyons beneath the shifting cobalt of deep ocean swells. On a flight from Germany to Australia a few years ago, I looked down from my window and stared at the place that meant more to me than just another coordinate on a map. I never expected to see it again.
A short time earlier, I had glanced at the standard passenger map screen out of habit, one of the small things I like to do when flying. I like to know where I am in the world at any given moment as my plane catapults across the sky like a comet. My flight path was a smooth curve that crossed China, Thailand, the wondrously vast archipelagoes of the Indian Ocean and the South China sea. Then it struck me, the plane also happened to cross directly over the tiny island in southwestern Philippines where I was born.
At the very moment that the large passenger airplane shone like silver bird to a child standing on a sunlit field of sugarcane, I pressed my face against the window and looked down at the place where I was born, where generations before me lived and died. A small tropical island on the deep blue sea. At one time, my ancestors lived like lords of that world, small though it was. Yet, they neither found contentment nor peace.
The countless stalks of green sugarcane swayed in the wind, like the ceaseless waves surrounding. The sugary scent of their sap caramelizing in the heat was as comforting as a mother’s embrace. The child could hear the metallic whirr of the engines far above her, she had never set foot in an airplane before. As much as she liked to look up at the sky and watch them, she couldn’t even imagine what it was like to sit inside one.
Her parents would leave the island one day because they wanted a different kind of life for her. Some people would call it greed, opportunism, cowardice, selfishness or irresponsibility.
What they actually wanted was what everyone wanted: Á life of maximum possibility. A life in which their children could be anything they wanted to be.
Little did they know it was just a dream. It was everyone’s dream. One that would cost them a lifetime of labor, isolation, alienation and struggle.
No matter how hard we try to escape our fates, they seem locked in superficialities, internal and external, real and imagined, nature, culture or machine made. One day, we may soar above our past, look down and feel the sting of tears threatening to surface. We may yearn for something as vague as the world once was outside that island.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2018.
Note: This essay is part of a series on this blog called “Origins” which will retrace my past and decode my DNA as I reflect on my identity and try to conceive a better future. They will be gathered in an upcoming book of essays: The Origins of New Life, I’m looking forward to sharing the link to this book here with you!