One Backpack, One Lifetime

Minimalism is the new normal: a paradigm shift to owning less, moving slow, and relishing this rare, waking life. I had to get out of the big city and flee to the mountains to digest this statement. On a personal level, it means owning only multipurpose, essential things, and freeing oneself of material, mental, and emotional clutter. On the grand scheme of things, going minimalist soothes this hyperdrive consumerist culture that is unconsciously abusing the planet on a daily basis. At one point somebody has got to say this out loud:

Everybody needs to calm the hell down.

While minimalism has been catching fire on social media for the past decade, mystics and yogis have already been on this unconventional road for thousands of years. In 500 BCE, Gautama Buddha walked away from his swanky palace where he was prince, and survived on no more than three robes and one bowl. About 2000 years ago, Jesus too gave everything up besides the robe and sandals he's wearing. In the early 1900s, Gandhi owned no more than a few key items such as a pair of eyeglasses and a pocket watch. Most recently, Peace Pilgrim traveled for 28 years with nothing but a pair of clothes and shoes on.

Essentials: A purse with cash, cards, passport, notebook, and pencil + lead.

Cook anywhere with a tiny kitchen.

What did they all have in common? They preached the gospel of radical simplicity as a fast-track route to liberation and everlasting peace of mind. After all, who wouldn't want to live a zero stress and chilled out lifestyle? In this tech age where most are obsessed with distractions, online shopping, and endless streams of sickening selfies, we are trapped in a samsaric cycle of self-gratification and ego-masturbation. But just around the corner, a new generation is taking over in full throttle. We kids are shaving things off one at a time, and replacing them with experiential wisdom, selective relationships, and enduring moments and memories. Needless to say, we're done with "stuff".

We kids are shaving things off one at a time, and replacing them with experiential wisdom, selective relationships, and enduring moments and memories.

Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and a number of vocal minimalists today may have had a spiritual bent to adapt and thrive through this lifestyle, but what appealed to me was how wild the idea was. Balling it in my mind, minimalism can be an ennobling necessity, a conscious decision to lather a balm on the world's seemingly unsolvable problems: the depletion of earth's resources, the massive production of goods, our unstoppable need to buy, and the staggering garbage turnout choking our landfills and oceans. Of course, no messiah or world government is ever going to step up to undo these things. We just have to shut our whining and do what we can in little ways.

Toiletries include an ear spoon and a moon cup for living waste-free.

My gadgets are reduced to just a laptop and an ebook reader. No phone!

While I have been a minimalist since I started climbing mountains in 2008, it wasn't until the end of 2016 that I took a step further and redesigned an "ultralight" approach for myself. That is, living on just the bare bones, all fitting neatly in one backpack. I gave away my furniture, my beloved library of about a thousand books (Not so minimalist there, was I?), and a few drawers of clothes and shoes. I reduced everything I owned to 10kg when I started, and about 10 months down the road, it's now under 7kg. Succinctly, if something doesn't fit in the bag, it has got to go. I thought, if this experiment won't work for me, I can revert to my old clunky lifestyle whenever I want.

Succinctly, if something doesn't fit in the bag, it has got to go. I thought, if this experiment won't work for me, I can revert to my old clunky lifestyle whenever I want.

The point I'm getting at is not to be some reverential vagabond like Buddha or Jesus, but to live simply, and to simply live. Of course, this "One Backpack, One Lifetime" approach won't apply to everyone, as different folks have different strokes. But then again, others can simply use a larger bag or luggage, or at least downsize to one room of needs. Nonetheless, I took this as a challenge, finding the fine balance between living simply and yet scoring high in other ways. To take care of my basic needs, here are the only things I've kept and have let go of the rest.

Summary of the Backpack

For the past 10 months that I've been living like this, I had to get a little creative on how I prepared my meals. I also started practicing zero waste (that is, producing zero trash) while I'm at it. Once these were integrated into my daily routine, things flowed pretty smoothly. I did not miss my old apartment, my old furniture, my old things. Sure, it was a comforting thought to have them, but I didn't even regret losing any of them. Putting the basics aside, having few possessions can get really boring. Adopting an ultralight lifestyle entails a mental shift not just on how to spend one's money, but how to spend one's time.

Clothes for Warm & Cool Climate

Clothes, malong (blanket), tiny towel, and headgear.

The sack unpacked with everyday clothes.

Minimalist yoga with just the naked floor or a blanket. No mat required!

Because I have stopped buying things and spend only on food and transportation, I've been saving a lot. Otherwise, I could work less and have more time to do whatever that pleases me. With a laptop-based work and just a backpack, I could go wherever I want. In less than a year, I have lived in El Nido, Coron, Culion, Sagada, Kalinga, Siargao Island, and Camiguin Island. While that seems a lot, I've been traveling at the slowest pace possible, getting stoked on the soul of each locale and feeling the undercurrents of its cultural norms and daily life. To break the monotony, I'd go off to nature trails, short hikes, waterscapes, or simply hang out in a cozy restaurant, or on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and read.

I've been traveling at the slowest pace possible, getting stoked on the soul of each locale and feeling the undercurrents of its cultural norms and daily life.

I've been watching the sunrise every single day, rain or shine, to sync my waking time with that of the earth's, and make the most out of every single day. Weekdays and weekends don't exist anymore. Everyday is a holiday, a chance to surrender into the arms of uncertainty, surprises, and adventure. Otherwise, a typical quiet day is spent exploring the wilderness of inner space through meditation, tantra, or yoga. This kind of solitude, alongside being close to nature, has spurred me to finish my first creative book of prose and poetry--while on the road. And when I'm hungry for connection, I just go out and talk to newfound friends instead of logging on to social media.

I do not know how long this experiment will last, but I've been savoring every moment of it. Sometimes it just feels a little too perfect to be here now, without the need to analyze the past or plan for the future. I just need to take care of today, and everything else seems to unfold effortlessly. Above all, I am living out my ideals as an earth lover and will probably preach this ultralight lifestyle for as long as I am alive. In hindsight, one doesn't need to be an environmentalist to slow down some of the beastly forces of this world. To a few, having just one backpack is enough.

// Oct 2017


When we were in Cloud 9
you asked me what it's like to
be with you. I didn't know it then
but I think I do now. When I am
close to you, I feel like I am near
the ocean. Maybe if I listen
close enough, I'd feel the warm
rooftop of Pacifico's lighthouse
and hear the sound of big,
barreling, beautiful waves.

// Oct 2017

Lazy Afternoons in Siargao

There's this 5km-long beach just a short walk away from where I live.

I bring some essentials and then read or talk to strangers. (Or nap. XD)

The breeze is amazing in the shade of coconuts.

Then a little guy would drop by and say hi.

By sunset the whole place transforms and the water becomes pastel-blue.

That's when I head for a swim... when the sky is lovely.

I float on my back and wait for the darkening night.

...until I visit the following day again.

// Oct 2017


A story for kids.

The smell of the cave was a secret language only the two of them knew. Before he met her, he and his parents had moved around the world as they dug in one archaeological site after another. However frustrating that was, one thing he could never forget was the four months spent in Dewil Valley, a rice plain surrounded by massive limestone karst towers on the east coast of El Nido, Palawan.

They had set up camp near the foot of Biyaya Cave, the main cave to an uncharted cave system in the area. His parents belonged to a group of 30 archaeologists who were going to excavate, among other things, earthenwares, seashell jewelries, animal bones, and human remains, to learn about how people lived there thousands of years ago.

The day they arrived, he wandered around and found a trail in the dense rainforest where Biyaya Cave peaked out like a giant limestone fallen from the sky. The forest was riot of color and sounds, beating to the rhythm of metallic insects and bizarre birds. When he stopped to look, he found raindrops hanging at the end of every green leaf, each drop full of forest and light.

Just when he was heading back to camp, he saw her footsteps, a little smaller than his own, pressed on the soft earth. He followed them and ended up at the mouth of the cave. There, he caught a sight of her dress in a distance as she disappeared around a bend, walking off without caution, without a lamp, as if she glowed with her own light in this sunless bowl of earth.

The dimly lit passage felt like exploring a large esophagus, leading to the cave's stomach. There in its high domed black womb he met, to his horror, a thousand pairs of bat eyes. He dashed towards a brighter area lit from from a navel opening in the ceiling, and saw her facing a wall, she half-covered in the shadow, her brown hair falling over the whiteness of her kamiseta.

With a piece of charcoal in her hand, she had drawn pieces of her life in camp: spiral seashells, banaba flowers, fish-tailed birds, cashew apples, and an outline of the limestone tower. After that, she drew a stick figure of a girl facing the cave entrance, and then a stick figure of a boy with curly hair. There she turned around and looked at him intently, all knowing he had been following her all along.

Their first few words were a disaster, an exchange of unfamiliar sounds, followed by grunts and sighs. It turned out that she spoke Cuyonon and he Ilocano, and neither of them could understand each other. During the long pause that followed, they stood there baffled and amused with each other, held together by the cave's deep silence and the fragrant smell of guano.

With a gentle stirring inside him, he picked up a charcoal, walked towards the wall, and started to draw a slice of his life in his hometown, Vigan. He sketched stick figures of his best friend and cousins, his collection of firetrucks and beetle-shaped kites, and his beloved wooden bicycle that his father made for him on his tenth birthday.

With a large wall of drawings from both of them, they went over their sketches with renewed interest and found out they understood some common Filipino words: bisikleta, insekto, and kweba. Despite these, the rest of their talks were still hard to understand. But they had their canvas, and that was all that mattered.

As days went by, the cave wall was filled with sketches of their shared memories: the sun setting behind mountains and other limestone towers, the large dugong that they encountered when they went out fishing, the small crabs they picked from the mangrove, the red-crowned woodpecker they caught sight of in the forest, and the fireflies that glowed in glass jars at night, among other things.

In several weeks, five walls in the cave's womb turned into their secret vault of memories in Palawan, hand-drawn with care and relived daily like a picture book. In all the silences that they shared sketching, watching each other, and doing things together, the smell of guano stuck to him like a perfume that was invigorating as it was alluring. It wasn't until an archaeologist found out about their drawings and told their parents.

To put it shortly, they received a beating--or she did. Two lashes of a leather belt stung from the back of her legs. She took all the blame, saying she started it all. Their parents and most from their team of archaeologists couldn't believe their eyes of the massive scale that their sketches took.

Filling a total of eight walls, their drawings were elaborate as they were numerous. They called the two defilers of a "national cultural property", destroyers of a "cultural identity", and took their activity as a crime. They called it vandalism. And like outlaws, they were torn away from each other, and were banned from stepping inside their cave again.

When the fierce habagat winds and the rainy season were ending, the archaeologists had dug something groundbreaking: bones of a young woman who was defleshed, crushed, burned, and then placed in a small box. The artifact was 9,000 to 9,400 years old, the oldest cremation burial in Southeast Asia. In the meantime, the charcoal vandals were wiped clean, with a few remaining smudges here and there. Not a word came out of their "child's play".

It's been fifty years since he has left Dewil Valley. When he tries to remember the sketches they made and the time they spent together, he is always met with an indescribable blankness in his heart. It is only when he closes his eyes that he sees her beauty amidst all these bits of obscure memories, she illumined with her own light, surrounded by the cave's darkness and deep silence, all smelling of batshit.

// Oct 2017

Graffiti in the City: A Bike Tour of BGC

"Wonderland" by Faile // Website // Twitter

A city without art is a city without a soul. While Metro Manila is often identified with slums, floods, smog, and gridlock traffic jams, there's a little breathing space there called Bonifacio Global City (BGC).

"Bear" by Nate Frizzell // Website // Instagram

What had once been a vast military army base with nothing but weeds and a choir of crickets was transformed into an upscale city filled with tall green buildings, recreational parks, outdoor shopping centers, and plenty of sculptures and street art.

"David's Hand" by Bunnie Reiss // Website // Instagram

For the two years that I worked here, I'd bike or walk around different routes just to revisit some the artworks that I admire. (The images are pretty much cleaved in my head by now.) I borrowed a bamboo bike, took it for a spin in the city, and snapped some shots using a borrowed Nikon camera.

"Pangako" by Anjo Bolarda // Behance // Twitter

Since I quit owning stuff, I'm used to borrowing random things from people these days. At least I don't have to earn for the thing, take care of it, and dedicate a special space somewhere to keep it. Clears a lot of mental (and environmental) space, mind, especially when you add them all up. I need to be free; anything else ties a rope around my neck.

"Between the Lines" by Cyrcle // Website // Instagram

Then again, would be nice to have a lightweight Olympus Pen camera which I've been longing (nay, aching) for the past couple of months.XD In the meantime, carrying a borrowed monolithic DSLR is fine. I'm working on growing my forearms while I'm at it.

"Mother Nature" by Dee Jae Pa'este // Instagram

These are by no means the only street art in BGC. I covered only half or even less and have not even seen the new graffiti since the time I left--which gives me a reason to bike again and hunt all visual treasures in the area.

"Manpower" by Kris Abrigo // Instagram

Sure, not everyone appreciates these things. After all, graffiti is in the eye of the beholder. If it's a crime to have painted these, then the artwork becomes even more alluring, if not anarchistic.

"Charlotte" by Nate Frizzell // Website // Instagram

But then again, these pieces have zero political agenda other than to force random passersby to stop and appreciate walls: walls that used to be blank and full of potential. Isn't that how everything begins, empty?

This one is new. I don't know the artist.

While in some parts of Metro Manila, graffiti borders on violence, of walls spraypainted with crude sketches of groins and middle fingers, there still are others that evoke beauty and harmony. For the most part, BGC is free from defacement of buildings, public or otherwise.

"Pop Art" by AKA Corleone // Website // Instagram

Almost all these artworks are sponsored and curated, with artists coming from all over the globe. While the more specific term for these are "murals", their outdoor setting and spontaneous street styles give them more of a graffiti feel than the traditional fine art of wall paintings, such as those seen in the protected interiors of churches, temples, and other religious spaces.

"May You Find Comfort Here" by KFK Collective // Instagram

These art pieces won't last forever, due to weathering, or in some cases, replacement, but their lives will survive in the hearts of us city dwellers, and in the pages of online blogs.

Downing on the Moon. Another new graffiti.

// Sep 2017