By Tiny Diapana
AS IT turns out, distance has much to say. In Johanna Michelle Lim’s first collection of travel essays, we hear how distance speaks of transience, of solitude, of fear, of hope, of pain.
Distance speaks of the never ending quest for the self as the traveler chases after little pockets of escape; identity taking shape as the traveler aligns and realigns the self according to what one finds traversing through space.
In “What Distance Tells Us,” readers not travel along the memory of Lim’s footsteps as she takes them to 12 different points across the archipelago, but they also find themsleves plunging into parts of Lim’s consciousness.
Readers feel the struggle she feels during the first travel with her three-year-old child.
They feel the dull heartache that comes with the realization that she has no power to save a displaced T’boli trapped by ancestry and obligation.
Lim’s essays, which revolve around the personal discovery and growth that comes along with travelled distance, are written with the keen eye and the sensibility of a poet.
With poetic skill and grace, Lim brings attention to the cosmic deliverance that arrives in the shape of a dog in Sagada; with a deft hand of a brilliant writer she strings together stars, fireflies, bioluminescence and suffering in Gigantes.
Though Lim admits in the book’s first entry “A Thousand And One Steps” that she didn’t really grow up with a great deal of faith, her essays speak so much humanity.
Lim painstakingly searches for stories in the people she meets, interviewing the guides she takes, the habal-habal drivers she comes across, the restless wives she meets in her travels.
In “Five Ways To Look At The Winds,” the reader’s heart cracks a little after meeting Noy Stanley, a displaced Bisaya in Batanes who finds himself drawn by the nostalgia of Bisaya company and becomes Lim’s accidental tour guide.
Stanley used to have a wife and son 28 years ago in Cagayan De Oro, but was eventually separated from his family when he wandered off north, settling in Batanes. When it is time to for Lim’s group to leave, she underlines Stanley’s loneliness, bring up the guide’s comment on how lucky she and her travel mates are because they finally get to go home.
Lim’s story about her perilous visit to Tawi-Tawi throws readers in a harsher terrain where Lim is escorted in her travels by younger members of the Philippine Marine Corps.
There’s a sense of danger reading about the Abu Sayyaf and the human traffickers that travel by speedboats that pass through Sitankai.
However, while the authoritarian kill-or-be-killed ideology of the Marine members she meets seem rather intimidating, there’s still a lot of humanity in Lim’s essay, the readers learning about poor farmers’ sons who become soldiers to pay for their family.
Readers meet a lot of different characters like these in “What Distance Tells Us,” and like the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko quoted in Anthony L. Kintanar’s introduction to the book, “their fate is like the chronicle of planets. Nothing in them is not particular and planet is dissimilar from planet.”
And like the characters, each essay in the book offers readers a different experience to bask in, each one giving a different glimmer and a different slant of light.
So, travel with Johanna Michelle Lim in “What Distance Tells Us.” It’s a meaningful ride.