Someone once asked me, “Why, despite all its efforts at promoting tourism, can’t Ilocos Norte hold a candle to other provinces in the Philippines that are doing so much better?”

I didn’t know the answer to that back then, but I may have an inkling of it now.See, when I visit a new place, I don’t just go to the most hyped tourist attraction or eat at the restaurant with the most positive reviews and get a photo for social media.

I do all those things, that’s for sure. I’m just an ignorant little tourist taking pictures for social media approval, after all. But also, and more importantly, when I visit a new place, I honor its soul.

In that fleeting moment when you step over the threshold into someone’s ancestral home, for example, in your mind you pay respect to all the souls that have passed through that house throughout the centuries.

Or when you’re at the beach and you take off your flipflops for the first time to allow your feet to sink into the sun-warmed sand, as if to say, “Mother, I’m home.”

And when you dive into the water, you stay in a constant state of wonder, always marveling at the fact that the ocean could easily take you right now but it doesn’t.

I realized I haven’t given the same kind of honor to my home province, Ilocos Norte. I’ve tried to, but all I came up with in the past was a hard-heartedness, perhaps caused by the fact that I have almost given up on this place.

Except I didn’t. Except I kept going. Except I continued to sit with the hard-heartedness until a bit of softness was able to make its way through.

And so I was able, for a brief moment, to be with the soul of this place I call my home. And in that moment, she reminded me of what I had always known all my life.

She reminded me, as someone who calls this place my home, of my duty to continuously honor her soul, to guard who she really is, and to remind her people who they really are.

I can’t tell you who you really are. That’s for you to discover and experience and understand on your own. But I can perhaps point you down the right direction by asking a few pointed questions, like:

How do you go out of your way every day to honor the soul of the place you call home?

When you cook, serve, and eat your pinakbet and inabraw nga marunggay, do you stop and say a little prayer of gratitude, admiration even, for our barren lands and the hardy vegetable plants that have somehow made their way through the earth, reminiscent of the hardiness of a people who have to make do with what they have? Or do you just wolf it all down in one go simply because it’s what you’re used to?

When you walk down the streets of the capital city of Laoag, do you really enjoy inhaling the scent of garbage, or do you never remember a time not so long ago when Laoag was known for being one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the entire country? And do you never remember that Laoag came to be that way simply because people took responsibility for their own yards, similar to how they should take responsibility for their own lives?

When you proudly wear your trendy inabel tops and sleep under your newly bought inabel blankets, do you take a moment simply to take in the fact that you’re carrying history on your body and not just a pretty thing endorsed by some fashionable influencer who, all of a sudden, thinks it’s cool to buy local when a few years ago she wouldn’t wear anything but Forever21?

When you watch any of the government’s spectacular events live or on TV, do you allow yourself to recognize all the time, talent, resources, and energy expended to ensure the success of that event, including, most especially, the largely ignored trauma experienced by high schoolers sexually harassed by their teachers during the preparations for these events, unpaid overtimes forced out of already underpaid government workers, or the large sums of money used to finance yearly spectacles that become more and more tiring every year?

When you drive to Maira-ira in Pagudpud during Holy Week, do you not long for a time when that ugly beach resort decorated with dinosaurs wasn’t there blasting loud party music to the entire beach while smaller resorts leaked their wastewater into the sea? And when you stop by the windmills in Bangui, do you recognize the gift of power bestowed upon us by the mighty North Wind, a gift it doesn’t freely give anywhere else in the country, or do you stay there for the jump shots then leave, like almost everyone else does?

Have you ever held your hands to the outside walls of the Paoay Church, marveling at the fact that the coral blocks were once underwater or wondering how many chickens must have been employed in the massive construction project, or do you simply see it as just another backdrop for just another wedding video that goes on Facebook or a 10-minute light show to generate manufactured holiday cheer in a pandemic-ravaged third-world province?

Don’t you ever get tired of trying to compare what we have with what others have and, if there’s anything that’s remotely similar to another, immediately giving it ridiculous names like Boracay of the North, Batanes of the North, and Sagada of the North, as if somehow we have to use some other place’s identity to prop up our own?

When you cross the border between Badoc and Sinait, do you ever think to yourself, “These are my people too. They are Ilocanos too. We share the same origins, the same blood, the same closeness to the land, until the Spanish thought they had to split us in two so they could quell the rebellion”?

And has it never occurred to you that our great-great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers were fierce and strong people who fought against injustice and oppression and have you never wondered where have all that fighting spirit gone?

Have you ever left only to come back breathing a sigh of relief once you see the bright green fields and the cloudless blue skies once again?

And will you ever want to stay simply because you want to honor the soul of the place you call home and not because of the numerous self-defeating attempts to turn Ilocos Norte into something it’s not?

How did we ever come to forget over such a short period of time who we really are as a people? Take away the gaudy displays of spectacle, turn off the blinding lights, and turn away from social media for a moment. What do you see? What do you remember about who you are as a people? What makes you YOU?

All those crowd-pleasing events designed for the benefit of a small group of people, those made-for-Instagram new hotels and restaurants that barely make any money for their owners let alone for the economy, those giant malls with so much empty space insideall those fall away.

All those fall away for the truththat we are a basic people and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The sooner we’ll accept that, the faster we’ll be able to rise without having to rely on things outside of ourselves to lift us up.

Pretty things and places revamped for the social media likes and exciting-only-for-the-first-time events are okay to have, but they’re last on the list of priorities for a people born and bred in the barren lowlands trapped between the northern mountains and the sea.

Have you noticed, on ordinary pre-pandemic days with no holiday events to look out for and no virus to stay out of the way of, mall stores start closing at 7 p.m., busy streets start emptying at 8 p.m., and most people are in their homes getting ready to rest for another busy day of work ahead of them?

That’s because our true priorities are simple. For us, Ilocanos, only a few things are important: that we have food to put on our table, clothes for our bodies, and a roof over our families’ heads. We work hard, we live simple lives, and we remain close to the earth.

Why ask these questions now? Why not ask instead the more pressing question, “Why are COVID cases rising and what can we do about it? Is it because of a lack of self-discipline or a lack of proper implementation of health protocols?”

Well, for one thing, I’m not a medical expert. I can’t tell you much that you can’t already read about from better sources. And, perhaps, you’ve answered the other question yourself a few months ago when you were bragging about how disciplined Ilocanos were.

But also, my dear fellow Ilocanos, shedding away your pretenses, going back to your roots, and remaining true to who you really are is THE ONLY WAY to thrive, whether there’s a pandemic or not.

Look at Sagada. Look at Coron. Look at Batanes. They don’t need to do much beyond stay true to their heritage. Maybe it’s about time we start doing the same thing ourselves.

And if you’ve got all sorts of objections and violent reactions and a sudden desire to throw a brick at my face, perhaps you need to go within and ask yourself why you have so little faith in the place and the people you claim to love so much.