The man with no birthday

It is officially the birthday of my blog. After instagramming for nine months I am ready to greet the world with more words. So here I am about to venture out on a new journey online, and all I can think about is the trip to a virgin island in the Philippines where I met a man with no birthday.

After a long and tiring journey we arrived at the port where a boat was waiting to take us over to the Island. It was a typical Filipino bangca boat, narrow and long with overlapping bamboo booms in vibrant colors. Horribly uncomfortable and with a single cylinder pump motor it is also frustratingly slow. The boatman, barefoot, in his worn out shirt and shorts, laid out a plank and jumped up to offer me his hand to help me board. Such a simple gesture yet a powerful one, a helping hand. He hoisted me on board and steered me towards a plank where I could sit with a makeshift back rest of bamboo. If you have ever rested against bamboo, you’d know it’s not exactly comfortable. He guided all eleven of us on to the bangca and placed us strategically around.

Water sloshed at the bottom of the boat and I tried keeping my feet up towards the sides so my shoes wouldn’t get wet. I watched as the boatman grabbed a long piece of string and started carefully wrapping it around the motor. This wasn’t a simple – push the button or pull the cord and the motor starts kind of boat. He had to manually wrap the cord before he pulled it. He pulled and the motor chugged and died. Again. Again. Again. My impatience vanished with the sheer admiration for his persistence. Most of the women on the boat had fans they were fanning themselves with. I just watched him as he wrapped and pulled, wrapped and pulled. A second boatman ready to push off the pier and a third in the front pulling a rope. Finally it roared into a deafening life. We had travelled all day and now night had fallen, the ocean was a dead black.

As we pushed away and started puttering towards the island I welcomed a slight breeze on my face. Despite it being nighttime, it was still 33 degrees and the sweat was functioning as glue between my skin and my clothes. I closed my eyes and just listened to the loud roaring of the boat and the bamboo rhythmically hitting the water. It was calming in a way. I looked down at the water and saw blue luminescent water jump the bamboo. I had heard about this before, bioluminescent algae, but I had never seen it with my own eyes. I looked at the boatman with eyes of wonder, a huge smile and pointed at it. He just smiled.

We all sat there in a trance, feeling our destination nearing. To occupy us, a guy in the back wanted to try out the birthday paradox.

It states that in a random group of 23 people, there is a 50-50 chance that two people have the same birthday. If there are 75 people in the group, there is a 99.9% chance of two people having the same birthday. There were 14 of us on the boat.

When is your birthday? he asked around, and people where quick to reply. October 1st.

When is your birthday?

March 22nd.

When is your birthday? He asked the boatman.

I don’t know, he said.

“You don’t know when your birthday is?” I asked. He just shook his head and smiled. “But then when do you celebrate your birthday?” He shook his head again, and I realized he probably didn’t. “He was born on that island across from here”, a lady next to me said. “He doesn’t have birth certificate and his parents died a long time ago”. To me, this was the paradox. Not knowing your birthday. The very day that signifies all the milestones in your life.

Age 2 you start preschool, age 6 you’re in elementary, age 18 you can drive and age 20 you can drink hard liquor. In your twenties you experiment and travel, in your thirties you settle down and get a real job and at 65 you retire. If you don’t know your age, how do you follow the course of a life? Which age box do you tick? Will they let you buy an age based ticket if you cannot prove your age?

This, of course isn’t really a topic in the provinces of the Philippines, but in Norway this is a real thing. So much of our everyday lives revolve around the identity of our birthdate, our passports, our visa cards, our income, our taxes etc. How do we live without these numbers?

At first it seemed unfathomable, and slowly, the pieces started to come to me and fall into a sentiment I remember having felt, but that I had lost touch with a long time ago. You simply live, without expectations and without the burden of time. You reach out a hand to someone that needs it. You do something over and over again until you get the result you want, because you are not stressed by time, or by the waste of it. You are not tied to expectations of your age and that makes you free to live in any way. You stop worrying about getting your shoes wet, you get comfortable in the situation you are currently in, and when everything gets too loud, you listen to your own heartbeat.

I knew dates and schedules and time,
he knew the ebb and flow of the tide.
I knew the price of every trip,
he knew the value of every ride.
My hours were carefully counted
His flowed alongside the sea
His prison was timeless freedom
All the difference between him and me.


The bangca and the virgin island.