When I left for the Philippines I knew it wasn’t a big tea-drinking country. It wasn’t even a small tea-drinking country. Whenever I asked for tea at restaurants the most common response was the splat of a Lipton’s Hot or Iced teabag in my cup and a sad look from the waiter. Expressions of, “Poor girl, asking for tea. She must not know we have coffee,” Or “Oh, she must be sick,” appeared on their faces.
The truth is, the best teas to drink in the archipelago are not made of camellia sinensis. They’re herbal infusions, often with a base of ginger, turmeric or lemongrass.
2017 is going to be a good year for reading. I can taste it. I’ve already finished five books and broke open the spine on my sixth.
There’s a proverb floating around the internet that it takes 21 days to form a habit. I Googled it to make sure before I hit publish. Conveniently and coincidentally, I’m writing to you from January 21 and I am going to surmise that I’ve unintentionally habited myself into reading a lot of books this year and I’m very okay with that. This ‘hit the ground running’ mentality was possibly spurred on by a visit to ‘The Strand’ bookstore in New York City last week.Read More
When I first told people I was going to Bosnia for a month, there were a lot of raised eyebrows. “Bosnia? Why Bosnia?”, “Isn’t it dangerous?”, “Wasn’t there a war there?” and “I hear there are land mines.” I got that a lot. Read More
It’s late morning when we pass a huddle of sheep by the side of the road and turn the last rocky corner into Lukomir, Bosnia’s highest-altitude and most remote village. It’s tucked into the side of the Bjelašnica Mountain, home to semi-nomadic Bosniak sheep herders. It’s accessible via a ten-mile hike or by truck on crumbling switchbacks—except in the winter, when the only way to access it is on skis. It’s a cluster of small stone houses: short, squat, and steep to protect from snow.Read More
Over 7,000 islands and not enough time. I was in the Philippines for three weeks and barely scratched the surface of this complex nation. It is a country that is as heartbreakingly beautiful as it is heartbreaking — from the famous beaches of Boracay and the cliffs of El Nido, to the slum-towns and poverty that affects roughly a quarter of the population. The Philippines is not somewhere I’ll soon forget.
For a short trip, I’m lucky to have seen the natural beauty, experienced many Filipino smiles warm hospitality, ate lots of delicious new foods and heard firsthand stories about the reality of poverty.
Here’s a brief itinerary of how I spent my time — where I went, what I did and where I stayed.
October 1 — Left Toronto airport in Canada. Head to Manila via Seoul with Korean Air.
October 2 — Arrived in Manila late at night. Headed to Manila International Youth Hostel for the night (There were four dead cockroaches in our room, plus the live ones outside. Would not stay again.).
October 8 — Take a kayak up and down Loboc river. Walk into town.
October 9 — Hike and taxi back to Tagbilaran airport. Catch a flight back to Manila with Air Swift. Kill some time in Mall of Asia then head to the Ohayami bus terminal where we catch the ice cold overnight bus to Banaue.
October 10 — Arrive in Banaue in the morning via the overnight bus. Check into our Banaue Homestay and hike the Banaue rice terraces.
October 11 — Rooftop jeepney ride to Batad entrance from Banaue. Hike around the Batad rice terraces.
October 12 — Tricycle to Ha Pao. Hike the Ha Pao rice terraces to hot spring. Come back to town in the afternoon and spend time in town. Catch the night bus back to Manila.
October 13 — Arrive back in Manila in the morning via the night bus. Check into Orchid Garden Suites and register for TBEX. Walk around the markets and catch up on some sleep.
October 17 — Pick up from Belmont and head to a Gawad Kalinga NGO village in progress in Quezon City. Spend the morning helping move gravel for home foundations and hanging out with people in the village. Get back on the bus and head to the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm in Bulacan in time for dinner. Stayed onsite at Oasis hotel.
October 18 — Spent the day at Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, meeting entrepreneurs and seeing their different ventures, looking around the farm, meeting people and asking questions.
October 19 — Spent more time around the farm, meeting people and catching baby goats. Leave the farm around lunch time. We’re back in Manila by dinnertime and check in at the Henry Hotel for dinner. After dinner, I repack my bag and catch a 9pm taxi to the airport.
October 20 — With the time change, I arrive back in Halifax at 6pm on the 20th. 33 hours later. I flew Manila, Seoul, Toronto with Korean Air and Toronto to Halifax with Westjet. I booked my flights with Skyscanner.
Tourism and the Philippines
During one of the morning sessions at TBEX, the secretary from the Philippine Department of Tourism, Wanda Corazon Tulfo-Teo, addressed us attendees. She said that for every tourist who visits the Philippines, five jobs are created for three days.
There is an argument to be made about the negative impacts of tourism on the Philippines. In El Nido and Boracay, there’s the overload on the waste management system and negative environmental impact that comes with loose policies. In Banaue, the rice terraces are not kept as well as they once were because people would rather be in the well-paying tourism industry than tending rice.
Tourism can also be hugely positive. Tourism dollars can pull people out of poverty and create jobs that people are proud of.
Some people would say the natural beauty of the Philippines is its most attractive feature, but really it’s the people. People everywhere met us with hospitality and kindness. I couldn’t turn a corner without someone saying, ‘Good morning, ma’am”. In the slum I visited, the kids called me ‘Ate Mel’, big sister Mel, and asked to see whether I had Pokemon Go on my iPhone.
The Philippines are beautiful, friendly and affordable. One day you’ll be swimming through a hole in a rock to a secret beach and laughing with your guide as he cooks red snapper on the back of your boat, the next you’ll be brushing up on your colonial history and acknowledging your tourist privilege. If you ever get the chance to go, you should take it.
My travel partner for this trip was Lauren Marinigh over at Twirl the Globe. She’s Canadian too! You can find some great itineraries on her blog.
Whether it’s the first time or the fortieth time, going away to university or leaving to climb Mt. Everest, leaving home can give us all a sense of dread.
Nine years ago I was sitting on the Halifax tarmac on a Lufthansa flight bound for Germany. My stomach turned as we started down the runway and as the wheels were lifting off, I glanced out the window at the receding ground and thought, “Oh no. What have I done?”
I was 17 and en route to Hamburg, Germany for a year as a high school exchange student. The longest I had been away from my family was maybe two weeks, at a summer band camp, 45 minutes away.
The extent of my German was “Your house looks nice,” and “I’m hungry.”
I was terrified.
Until I landed. Then I was overcome with excitement at meeting my host family and discovering on our van ride back to the suburb of Bramfeld that most Europeans don’t like Air Conditioning.
It was August and the van was hot.
Flash forward from the summer of 2007. Now it’s 2016 and I’m 26. By many accounts you could call me a world traveller.
After Germany I went on another student exchange in Japan. I’ve road-tripped around North America, backpacked through Asia and Europe and speak a handful of languages.
In summary, you’d think I’d be a prime candidate for not blinking twice when an airline gate calls my name.
The thing is, I’ve never stopped blinking twice. Every time I leave, it’s exciting and scary all at once.
Tomorrow I’m headed off to the Philippines for a few weeks. It’s a trip I’m really excited about, but hidden amongst the excitement, as always, is that pinprick of fear.
It’s my buddy.
It says things like, “What if something happens? What if you never see Rob again?(Rob is my fiancée. I met him in university and I love him very much) Wouldn’t that be horrible?”
Yes. I’m allegedly a travel writer yet part of me never wants to leave my boyfriend, cats or apartment. It’s cozy here. I’m basically Bilbo Baggins before his Hobbit adventures.
When these feelings flare up I respond the same way I would to a kid reaching for a hot pot on the stove. I try to slap its hand away.
Stop messing around with my soup, fear.
It shrugs, glances up, shuffles its feet. “Iunno,” it says, “I’m just saying why, why, why would you want to leave any of this to go do something in the Philippines? We have it so good. Let’s just stay here. It’s so safe and nice.”
Then the curious part of my brain pops in and swoons, “But Mel, the WHOLE WORLD!”
In 1923 some nosy journalist was asking the legendary mountaineer Sir George Leigh Mallory why he would ever want to climb Mt. Everest:
“Because it’s there,” was Mallory’s famous response.
Flying to the Philippines is hardly climbing Mount Everest. No external oxygen required.
But be it the Philippines or the grocery store down the road, it’s the same basic question.
Why risk it?
For some people, leaving the apartment might require as much courage as it took others to climb Mt. Everest.
Certainty and uncertainty.
Darwinism hardwires us to reduce risk, especially as we get older.
New things are risky. Risk is unknown. Unknown is death. Avoid death. Propagate!
I find myself more timid to try things now than when I was younger because I have a much more developed sense of time and consequence. When you’re young and stupid, who cares?
As you get older and deal with harder things, you form a catalog of reasons to dissuade yourself from doing things.
But sometimes you have to close the catalog of fears and say, “Fuck it. I’m terrified. Let’s do this.”
Life needs a bit of risk for delight. This 1937 essay in the New Yorker tries to uncover the source of laughter and they come up with novelty. Something unexpected.
So part of me will always say, “Stay at home, Mel. Get a safe job. You have shelter. You have a mate. Uggah, uggah.”
And that’s cool. I hear that. BUT, if I always did what it said, I’d miss out on a lot of delight and wonder.
This time tomorrow I’ll be somewhere in the air, en route to Toronto.
The voice will pipe up, “Oh Mel. Seriously? Did you really do this again?”
To which I’ll reply, “You bet.”
“You’re crazy,” the voice will say.
“It’s okay. I know,” I’ll smile.
So good luck in your travels! And remember, it’s okay to be scared. There’s a little hobbit inside all of us.
Don’t let it stop you from doing something awesome.