Where is your companion?
It is Independence Day in the Philippines and having heard that there will be a parade in Rizal Park I make my way into Central Manila from my current home in Quezon City (slightly out of town) and follow the slowly gathering crowd of people towards the grandstand. Almost immediately as I join the throng, someone approaches me and asks me who I am and where I’m from. I’m used to this (see my previous post) and I tell her I’m a visitor from England come to see the parade. “But,” she says, confused, “where is your companion?” I explain that I don’t have a companion with me – that I am attending the parade on my own. Shocked, my new friend – a student called Camille – resolves then and there (and with no encouragement from me at all) to spend the rest of the day at my side. She tells me to tell her where I want to go, and she will go with me. I tell her I want to go and catch the front of the parade, and is she sure she wants to walk all the way over with me, but she follows; I tell her I want to take photos from the special photographers area and that she should get to a good place to watch the dancing, but she patiently waits on me and finds me afterwards, even in amongst the mass of street performers busy posing for the eager cameras. When the parade ends I explain that I intend to stay for the fireworks and she waits with me as I watch the military displays and take photos of families flying their kites. In fact, despite my insistence otherwise, Camille doesn’t leave my side until she has walked with me to the metro station from where I will catch my train home.
This kind of behaviour attracts contradictory feelings from me – on the one hand I find it enormously touching that often people here will be so worried for me that they will go out of their way to make sure that I have company. In particular as a solo traveller – and the only European volunteer for my organisation in a country where both tourism and volunteering are not widespread – it’s great to be able to meet new people and to spend time in the company of others.
At the same time however, the culture of independence that I am used to in the UK means that the constant companionship that is expected in the Philippines can feel very suffocating. Every weekend my colleagues ask me what I have done, and they inevitably follow my account with the concerned question “but who was your companion?”, and if I explain to them that I was on my own (yet again) they laugh almost disbelievingly and tell me that I am very brave. In fact, so disbelieving are the Filipinos that anyone would want to do something on their own, one visitor to our organisation even asked me if, outside of work, I just stayed in my room all the time.
This absence of the very individualistic ideal of independence that is characteristic to some extent of European and American culture is noticeable in other parts of Filipino life as well. Children rarely move out of their parents homes unless they get married, and even then will usually not move too far away from the parental house. Houses themselves are often filled to bursting point with family residents, and even a small one-room studio might be inhabited by three or four people – there doesn’t exist the same construction of “personal space” as in EuroAmerican imaginings, although poverty is undoubtedly a factor here.
I have also observed that being alone is considered dangerous by many Filipinos, even those who belong to the community of young, urban professionals whose values are more influenced by American trends. I have many acquaintances in this category who have expressed surprise that I have visited some of the large flea markets on my own because of the perceived danger of these busy spaces and of the vulnerability of a person alone. These kinds of fears, while often present in British culture, are more likely to be mitigated there by awareness and caution than by arbitrary companionship, but in the Filipino understanding two are always better than one.
In reality, even though I have been quite happy to travel to and see places by myself, I have rarely been alone since I arrived – whether I wanted to be or not! In many ways, a big part of the draw of solo travel is meeting people and enjoying the company of strangers – I’ve been very proactive about this and as a result I have had a great many “companions” in my adventures – both Filipino and other travellers, and many of whom I hope to travel more with.
They’ve come from all sorts of places – work contacts, international and ex-pat groups, online travel communities like Couchsurfing, and even people like Camille who have just approached me in the street. However, that said, I have still been far more in my own company than I’m used to and so I have had a lot of time to reflect on my situation. The lessons? That strangers can be overwhelmingly kind, generous and fun to be with; that even so, sometimes you don’t have to be alone to feel lonely; and that other times being alone can be all you crave – given my cultural background anyway.