Backpacks Unpacked: Of Strangers and Stories

Backpacks Unpacked: Of Strangers and Stories

For many, backpacking has always held a certain type of allure. The thought of trading your daily routine for a nomadic lifestyle, even just for a few days, has probably crossed your mind. Yet most people leave these thoughts as just that–lush dreams that will never see the light of the day. I’m too busy. I can’t just abandon my responsibilities. I don’t have the budget for it. These are the the things we’ve all told ourselves.

But you don’t have to quit your day job or empty your bank accounts to go backpacking. In fact, you don’t even have to travel far. We at MAD Travel believe in the importance of exploring our own backyard in new and different ways. In this article, we share the adventures and insights of our resident artist and social media extraordinaire, Risa Barcelona, from her own time spent on the road.

Whether you’re thinking of backpacking for the long haul or just planning your next weekend getaway, we hope Risa’s story inspires you to pack your bags and go on an adventure of your own.

Living in paradise

Risa’s backpacking adventures began long before she joined MAD Travel. In fact, she started exploring as soon as she graduated from college. Having a stable job meant financial freedom and this allowed her parents to be more lenient towards her. With this newfound freedom, she set out to do something that had always been on her bucket list–camping outdoors.

But she didn’t stop there. After the trip, her curiosity kept her wandering and seeking new experiences. Since then, she’s started exploring all kinds of places – from trekking through waterfalls in the Kalinga province to watching the sun rise in an island along Masbate. She had felt a rush–one that emanated from the thrill of discovering new places and meeting people from different walks of life.

One particular trip that stands out is her visit to Jomalig, a little-known island noted for its unspoilt beaches. To get to the island, which is located on the easternmost tip of the Polilio group, one has to take a 6 hour boat ride. Risa recalls the seemingly endless journey getting there. “I fell asleep 3 times on the boat and everytime I woke up, we were still in the middle of the ocean.” Yet any trace of exhaustion she felt quickly disappeared once she stepped foot on the island. With coconut trees dotting its lines and a clear beachscape that seemed to stretch on for miles, the island looked like a standstill straight off a postcard.  

Moments like these are gentle reminders of the beauty that can exist right in our backyards. Yet a lot of the times, we forget about these places, opting for more exotic destinations outside the country. Risa too once thought like this. “Back in college, I always dreamt of living in another country because I’d think doing so would give me a better future,” she explains. “But backpacking helped put things into perspective. I think I’m already living in paradise.”

Photo by Asia Wy (onewytrip)

I fell asleep 3 times in the boat and every time I woke up, we were still in the middle of the ocean.

Photo by Risa Barcelona (@risainabox)

I’m too busy. I can’t just abandon my responsibilities. I don’t have the budget for it. These are the the things we’ve all told ourselves.

Photos by Risa Barcelona (@risainabox)

Kindness of strangers

Witnessing the beauty nature has to offer is just one facet of the backpacking experience. Another aspect of travel is the different people we encounter along the way. From the shop owners to the local guides, everyone has their own story. And while local cultures and traditions differ in each province, one common factor Risa finds among everyone she meets is their warm hospitality.

She recounts one experience during a recent trip to Kalinga. She and her colleague, Sophie, had been hiking towards falls with their guide, Paed, when there was a sudden downpour of rain. Having no waterproof gear with them, they had to climb back up to the village before the sun would completely disappear. When they finally reached Paed’s home, his mother who saw them shivering, immediately invited them in and offered them hot coffee. Later that day, they found out that the homeowner of the homestay they were to spend the night in was nowhere to be found. Paed’s family was quick to offer shelter for the night. In the end, the pastor of the village, Father Lawig, helped Risa, Sophie and AM settle down in the village’s multipurpose hall. To keep them warm, he started a bonfire and then proceeded to offer them more hot coffee.

Risa also experienced such hospitality when she first visited Sagada. During the trip, she and her friend stayed at a foster family’s home. This allowed her to be closer to the locals who welcomed her with open arms–from the barangay captain who offered her a place to stay to the neighbour who prepared sticky rice for her to take home to Manila. Her foster mom, Nanay Dipyao, always made sure she had a delicious, healthy meal on her plates, while her 3 granddaughters acted as her guides to different places in the area.

Although Risa didn’t end up seeing the sea of clouds or other mountains in Sagada, the trip is one that lingers in her memory because of the relationships she formed and the moments she shared with these people. She reveals that it’s the people she encounters along the journey that she learns the most from.

Stories we tell

Risa continues to backpack whenever she can. Not only is it a way for her to destress, but it’s also a way for her to seek inspiration for her passions, one of them being working towards a more sustainable environment. “I don’t know about you, but if you see nature at the peak of how beautiful it is, there’s a part of you that just wants to protect it so it stays like that (or looks even better) forever,” she explains.

When asked how her mindset has changed since she first started backpacking, Risa admits, “Before, I would always google the top places I had to visit in the destination we were going to.” Now she makes sure she spends as much time interacting with the locals as she does visiting attractions. Because while scenic views make for good photos, it’s the connections we make with strangers that leave us with the most lasting memories and compelling stories.

Photos by Risa Barcelona (@risainabox) and AM Valdez (@am_valdez)

Backpacks Unpacked is a feature series of the MAD Travel Team and their own personal backpacking stories. Follow along as they share their insights on what they’ve learned while on the road.

Louise Moro
Louise Moro

Louise is an intern and content creator at MAD Travel. She's currently (and hopefully!) on her last year as a student at De La Salle University.

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