Johanna’s Story: Home and the Middle of Nowhere

Botigues looms in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere is how it’s often described. Perhaps this is why no one looks for it. No one cares to look for nowhere. And when they do, they talk about it as the quieter appendage to the more outgoing Bantayan.

The island is not a touristy island by anyone’s account. The only people to tell its tales, if they had any, are the fisherfolk who look far off to the horizon, looking for elsewhere, but stuck at nowhere.

Botigues has one municipal road to cover its peripheries, one community center painted in bright pink, and one basketball court that covers a bigger land area than the community center, barangay hall, and clinic combined.

And because I’d seen it long before I even looked, my eyes take in its coastlines as it would white noise. I shut the island off, and despite my love for fieldwork, pack up without wandering and get ready to go.

The ocean though has a mind of its own, and at high noon, the sea bows down to its lowest point. The boatman, afraid of his kasko being damaged, didn’t want to take me across.  I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the sea to open its palm and let me out again.

And then, like an unexpected surge, loud, booming music engulfs the whole area island 90s beats like the Macarena and Raggamuffin Girl. With nothing else to do, I follow its source. It leads me to the house of teacher who was about to retire and was having a “small party.” She invites me in, gives me food, and lends me a boat for the cross.

Before I leave, I ask one of the fishermen, a party attendant, why the music was so loud. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. More Than Words was playing through five-foot speakers. But through the music, the fisherman answers, “Aw, dapat ana jud kakusog, Ma’am.” It has to be that loud, he said, so that compressor divers, those diving for scallops under the sea could feel the vibration, signaling them to surface and join their comrades.

On the way back, I reflect on this practice, something so novel to me. I entered Botigues with the arrogant sentiment that I knew it like it was an extension of my pulse. I’d visited and revisited Bantayan more than any other place in the Philippines for the past six years. And the more I visited it, the less value it had to me. It was white noise.

Perhaps this sentiment is becoming a social phenomenon in this borderless world where travel, going somewhere new all the time, is the new gauge for success. We’ve often been taught to find home, instead of to feel for home, or to feel athome. When a place is overly familiar then, we feel the need to escape it. Then the Cebu that we know of is too small. And everyone knows everyone. I don’t often feel at home, because my home is always somewhere at a distance.

Perhaps then the most understated meaning of home nowadays are the dwellings that we actually belong in, the places that mold us with its specific features and history. I was arrogant enough to feel like I know Botigues, that I know Bantayan and the Cebu that I grew up in. I assumed that I know of home because I was ignorant of the notion that I didn’t know it, that there’s some part that I can still be surprised with and find value in.

So much of the process of appreciating a place perhaps is not just about learning, but also unlearning. So that the next time we approach it, it seems like an old 90s song. “More than words is all you have to do to make it real.” You’ve heard it before, but not really. It almost seems new again and you begin the slow, enjoyable process of familiarizing yourself with it, with fresh ears this time. And Cebu, the streets that we walk in, the stores that we pass by, the islands that we visit, and the homes as we know of them are met not just with fresh eyes but with more open palms.

In my last eight years of travel, I’ve learned that the search for home is often oceanic. At times, it seems so vast so as to be unending only to find yourself back where you began. Maybe it’s where you should’ve been in all along.

About the Storyteller: Johanna Michelle Lim

Johanna Michelle Lim is an essayist and travel writer in the Philippines. Her first collection of travel essays called What Distance Tells Us: Travel Essays about the Philippines was launched last February in Cebu and available in all major bookstores soon. Her story was shared on August 3, Friday, at Handuraw Pizza – Mango with the theme ‘Oh! The Places You’ll Go!’

Story Nights Cebu is founded by Rachel Arandilla. Story Nights is a non-profit association dedicated to the spirit of stories. It originated in Europe in 215 and is now in 6 different cities: Bratislava (Slovakia), Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary), Chandigarh (India), Manila (Philippines) and now Cebu, Philippines!

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