Searching for the Familiar

by B.J. Stolbov

When I was first assigned by the Peace Corps to the remote mountains of Northern Philippines, I was anxious, confused, and uncomfortable. After an especially disorienting day, everything felt incomprehensibly strange: the weather, the language, the food. That night, after dinner, despite my host’s warning of “kidnappers and murderers,” I decided to go for a walk away by myself. In the full darkness, I looked up and recognized the bright stars of Ursa Major (The Big Dipper). From the Big Dipper, I found Ursa Minor (The Little Dipper) and, at the end of its handle, Polaris (The North Star). For the first time, I felt relieved and relaxed. The stars were still there. I understood why looking up at the stars was such a physical and emotional comfort for me. I knew I was still on planet Earth.

When most of us travel, we search for the different, the unusual, the exotic. I, too, have traveled to see and experience the unique: the 2,000 year old, hand-built Rice Terraces of Ifugao in the Cordillera Mountains of Northern Philippines; Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in Cambodia; Namsan Tower, the tallest structure in Seoul, South Korea; Death Valley, the lowest place in the U.S, in August, at 50°C (122°F).

But, wherever I travel, I also find that I am often searching for the familiar in places. But familiar does not mean that I am searching for something that reminds me of “back home.”

Everywhere, the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, the moon still reflects its phases, tides still rise and fall, clouds and storms still come and go, trees still grow up and rivers flow down. Dogs, cows, pigs, and ducks, still bark, moo, squeal, and quack. Chickens, even in incredibly colorful plumage, eventually still taste like chicken.

People, too, have more in common than we have differences. In the Philippines, the Filipinos are generally browner and shorter than I am. (At five feet and seven inches, I am tall here!) They are generally more generous and hospitable than I am, and they have fewer material possessions. (Of course, there are exception.) But people are people everywhere. We all have our joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, adventures and, often more memorable, misadventures. We eat and sleep, meet and mate, gain and lose, live and die, everywhere. And, everywhere, I find that I enjoy looking for what I have in common with people.

Whenever invited, I always prefer to attend a family’s home-made celebration, or a young person’s special birthday party, or a long-awaited soldier’s homecoming, or a long-together couple’s wedding ceremony. Every place has them, every observance is different, and yet they are all the same – they are all joyous and heart-warming.

For me, the familiar can be as simple as the leaves of a maple tree, touched by an autumn frost, turning crimson, or a wide-eyed kitten purring and looking up at me for a morsel of food, or a shy student asking, in broken English, some questions.

I still believe that people are more kind than cruel, more honest than deceitful, more willing to help than to hurt a traveler like me. I know that is not always true, but I have consciously made the decision that I would prefer to trust people and possibly be occasionally wrong and to live my life in the right direction.

My travels have taught me that I am never “far away” from anywhere. Wherever I am now, I no longer want to be any place else. I know that wherever I am, I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, travel writer, and improving photographer.  He is the author of the novel Last Fall (Doubleday) and the poetry book Walks (Foot Print Press). He travels and explores in Asia; lives and works in the Philippines. His stories, poems, and articles on travel, farming, and life are available for publication. Besides writing, he is an aspiring farmer, growing tropical fruit and nut trees. Most mornings, he can be found on his farm, climbing up the stunning tropical mountain Mount Stolivar (100 meters tall). Please feel free to contact him at

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