Arts & Entertainment

This Travel Series Inspires You to Ditch Your Plans and Get Lost

Know Your North, an online film series, will make you want to explore the Philippines.
IMAGE Gabby Malvar
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We’ve lost our way with travel. Blame the Internet. Blame “bucket list” mentality. Blame a lack of work-life balance forcing us to make the most of what little free time we have.

Blame all three combining to create bullet-point tourism, where travel becomes the mode in which we tick off doing the Top Five Absolutely Must-Do Things that influencers condense into rapid-fire factoids on Facebook videos.

There’s fulfilment to be had in achieving a goal, sure, and travel can be serviced by having a clear direction on what you want to see. But too often do we fall into the trap of having our trips defined by those goals. In doing so, we miss out on some of the magic travel has to offer: those odd, spontaneous bursts of true discovery that come to us when we don’t quite know where we’re headed.

IMAGE: Gabby Malvar
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In his short online film series, Know Your North (a collaboration with Victory Liner), director Gabby Malvar inspires people to get lost again.

Currently on its sixth season, Know Your North features the sights, sounds, and stories of the Philippines’ northernmost regions in a format that favors narrative over flash. Rather than overload your senses with facts and visuals, the series presents intimate explorations into the locales and their people, oftentimes capturing truly rare narratives along the way.

The current season covers, among other fascinating people, a faith healer who sends sicknesses away on handcrafted miniature boats; a blind furniture maker known for building some of the finest butakas in the region; and the lonely guardian of a massive forest reserve—each one the sort of person you wouldn’t encounter on a typical tourism video. These are stories found only by listening to the man on the street.

Or, in Malvar’s case, by not sticking to a plan.

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IMAGE: Gabby Malvar

“When I was younger—I’m 52, okay—I really liked going around,” he shares, in a mix of English and Tagalog. “I wanted to explore. I wanted to discover. I wanted to be Thor Heyerdahl.”

“But in the 80s, it was a different time. You couldn’t Google anything. There were no blogs. It shapes how you behave. You get lost. You ask questions. Your tricycle can’t find its way because no one really passes through that area. And then you end up sharing stories.”

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That sense of intermingling is what’s given direction to Malvar’s approach to travel, as well as his approach to documentation. He avoids googling his destinations. He doesn’t read any blogs on what to do or where to go. Instead, he arrives, he stays, and he listens.

“You feel the sense of community this way,” he says. “Stories jump out to you because you actually meet these people. You’ll be engaged in a conversation, and then eventually, they say something compelling.”

IMAGE: Gabby Malvar
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This is how he found Nanay Melba, a member of Isabela’s little-known Yogad tribe, and one of the last few—if not the only—practitioner of the Banca healing ritual. In Know Your North, Malvar’s cameras capture a demonstration of this on film.

“But in the 80s, it was a different time. You couldn’t Google anything. There were no blogs. It shapes how you behave. You get lost. You ask questions."

According to Yogad tradition, illnesses are caused by evil spirits that somehow enter people. Nanay Melba’s job, as healer, is to send the spirits away. She begins by decorating a miniature boat with intricately cut pieces of colored paper. She then loads it with eggs, fats, and sticky rice—food preferred by the spirits, she explains, making the vessel as attractive to them as possible.

Once the boat is ready, she performs ritual songs and dances before the afflicted individual, eventually pulling the evil spirits away from them. She passes the spirits onto the boat, and sends it sailing off into the horizon.

Witnessing this act, which is at once both curious and beautiful, play out on video almost feels like a privilege; Malvar notes that the tradition will likely die with the elderly Melba, who has taken no apprentices under her wing.

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Another video in the series—this time directed by Malvar’s wife, Ginggay Hontiveros-Malvar—takes a deceptively light look at Maconacon’s Binaging festival. For the past eight years, the municipality has celebrated its lobster harvests with an enormous feast, serving the shellfish in dozens of local, foreign, and fusion preparations. But it’s how Hontiveros-Malvar chooses to present the festival that captures you.

 IMAGE: Gabby Malvar
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IMAGE: Gabby Malvar

There are no narrations, no words onscreen telling you what’s going on. Instead, you see people cooking lobster in different ways. As the video plays out, you begin to see the true value of the festival: indigenous peoples, ordinary housewives, trained chefs—people from all walks of life—are preparing their dishes, united in all their stunning diversity, over something as simple as lobster. The final shot, that of an indigenous fisherman smiling at the camera, reminds us of how food can keep us close to our roots, if we let it.

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Know Your North is really about narratives,” Malvar explains. “Everyone’s a photographer. Everyone’s on Instagram. And so the storytelling is a certain way. ‘This is a nice shot.’ ‘That’s a nice shot.’ ‘We ate crabs.’ ‘We ate this.’ No one really writes narrative-based videos anymore. We wanted to add more depth, to add balance to the stories.”

He continues: “We want to ask why. Why are these people so trusting? Why are they like that? Is what we’re doing harmful? We want to understand, and so we meet these people. There is a message here, and it’s coming from them.”

IMAGE: Gabby Malvar
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IMAGE: Gabby Malvar

In Know Your North, Malvar’s passion for an organic approach to exploration is apparent in every frame, from the flour flying off freshly made pancit noodles to the sun dancing on Batanes’ less-travelled waters. The series also serves as a reminder to take our time and truly connect with each destination we go to; some of the best stories happen when we start to listen to what’s around us.

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All episodes of Know Your North can be seen on Victory Liner’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Season 6’s episodes are being released individually as of writing.



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