Our friends Claire and Brent left Canada in June for a journey of a lifetime: they decided to live abroad for a year in Southeast Asia, learning to dive, taking pictures, and making a living off of both those things; first stopping in Australia, where Brent is originally from, to set up their site and blog, Carrots for Coffee.
A few weeks before they left Canada, we were their halfway house of sorts after the mass exodus of their apartment – you should see their super organized storage locker – which meant two things: 1) The contents of their fridge and pantry merged with ours (which is awesome because they eat mostly paleo and very well – perfect supplements to our own stock!); and 2) We got to spend a lot of quality time with them before they left. It was really nice.
When Claire sent me her guest blog post, I went hunting for a quote and I think the one I found complements what she wrote.
We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have
– Frederick Keonig
Mildly jet-lagged in Edinburgh and trying valiantly to sleep, I invite you to enjoy “Feeling the Philippines”.
When Yasmine asked me to write a guest blog for her, I was flattered and pictured myself writing about the tropics, diving, the excitement…but really this post surprised me (one of many surprises on this trip!) because what came out was my feelings surrounding traveling. The reconciliation between what I expected, and what I am experiencing. Soooo, this post is all about my (yikes!) feeeeeelings.
They struck me quite hard and by surprise on my first “day off” from diving in the Philippines. As some background, the trip I’m on is about my boyfriend, Brent, and I quitting our jobs and taking a year (finances allowing) to create a travel/work opportunity of some kind. We are taking all our dive courses up to Dive Master and then hopefully finding work around the world in that field or whatever else subsequently pops up. So, to continue, doing this adventure means a lot of change: leaving all my creature comforts (organic, sustainable, healthy food, regular transportation in safe vehicles, hearing my own language when I leave the house…being able to flush toilet paper…) and adding some new attractions (fresh tropical fruit every day, diving in a beautiful undersea world, incredibly cheap massages, and haphazard transportation in some of the craziest vehicles I’ve ever seen…yes, this is both a plus and a minus). I always thought I was a good traveler: well prepared, easy going, and not so addicted to my “normal” sphere of life that I couldn’t shake it up a bit without falling apart. The first section of this trip has made me question that.
As you can read in our previous blogs, the trip to Malapascua, our first stop in the Philippines, happened under less than ideal conditions. We are definitely not traveling light, we had late flights, early mornings, crazy bus and boat trips in typhoon weather and immediately following all of this, I learned to breathe under water. So looking back on it I guess it’s pretty understandable that on my first day off after completing my course, with a chance to breathe (air!), relax, and get a much needed massage, I fell apart.
Well, to be honest, it was an internal falling apart. I don’t think the massage lady had any idea there were tears of pent up fear and much needed release flowing down my cheeks as she rubbed my back…I didn’t even sniffle! It only lasted a few minutes but when I thought about what may have triggered it, it made me wonder…am I getting old? Too set it my ways? Is budget traveling not for me? (Well, I think we all know that budget traveling is only a means to an end…no one really actually enjoys it.)
Anyway, upon (tearfully, of course!) discussing it with Brent, I think it’s safe to say that I am not old and set in my ways. It’s just that the combination of hectic heavy travel, a third world environment, and a small underwater panic attack added up to more than my fragile little sensitivities could handle in four days. I can assure you all, I have been fine since but I will admit to having my expected, soaring “I’m-on-the-adventure-of-a-lifetime” mood dampened by the poverty and garbage that is ubiquitous with most parts of South East Asia.
For the vast majority of people, a vacation always two facets: the side of the place you see, and the side you don’t. Staying at a resort with a stunning beach and 5 star facilities while being able to afford high end travel means you’re often blissfully unaware of the negative side of the country you’re visiting. Up until this point, that had been my usual experience. I had been to Thailand for a month but my budget was bigger tun it is now and we were in Thailand for a wedding so there was lots of partying and gallivanting…and an easier time having blinders when it comes to the negatives. This is a totally different kind of trip. On this trip, I can’t shut my eyes to the other side of the coin and it’s difficult to see. We’ve seen a lot of the countryside by bus and almost everywhere you look there is garbage and poverty.
The garbage pervades the ditches, the streets, the sidewalks, a lot of people’s homes, and most sickeningly to me, the waterways, beaches, and seas. I have seen diapers, maxi pads, and several various kinds of plastics underwater and above it. I feel completely helpless about it and I hate feeling helpless. When I come across it in the ocean, I pick it up (if I picked up everything I saw on the land I would never move more than 3 feet in any direction) but my mind spins with how much more is out there, strangling already rapidly declining sea creature and other wildlife populations. It’s disheartening to know that the only things I can do are to refuse extra plastic for any items I buy and make sure to put the stuff I do get in the bin. In other words, not much.
As far as the poverty, I’ve noticed it more in the countryside north of Cebu City (and of course all over the actual cities). There are literal shanty towns identified by run down, slipshod, tin roofed leantos that I wouldn’t even house animals in and they are homes to entire families. These homes regularly get torn apart by typhoons or drowned by floods and these people are left with nothing and sometimes less than nothing. It makes me cringe thinking how I and every other tourist must seem to them; it’s like we’re from another planet. We come in to town, spend a few days and a few dollars and then leave through an ever revolving door, often (for the less adept) unintentionally destroying loads of sensitive marine life with misplaced fin kicks.
And yet, the vast majority of locals seem happy. Filipinos strike me as a generally happy, helpful people, with a sense of humour that I’m not sure I would have the strength to have were I in their shoes. Without fail, through the places we’ve visited, it’s usual to hear peals of laughter amongst the locals as they talk amongst themselves and go about their business and throngs of children and often adults wave and greet you with a smile wherever you go. Then I think of my sometimes grumpy moods. Who am I to complain about anything when these open-hearted people can laugh with much less?
So this is where travel in South East Asia leaves me…feeling conflicted: truly grateful for the privilege that I enjoy as a somewhat (by the standards here anyway!) affluent western girl who has lived in one of the cleanest, most environmentally aware cities in the world (Vancouver); and a huge sense of helplessness and guilt feeling that I can’t do very much to help either the environment or the people of this country and somehow feeling like my presence here (no matter how lightly I tread on land and in water) contributes to the demise of both. Conflicted…and yet, hopeful. Perhaps after we are done all our dive courses we will have the opportunity to give back with more than just tourism. Perhaps reef conservation, environmental education, or even humanitarian work is in my future. They are the things that may ease my conscience and allow me to feel good about traveling through South East Asia. I have hope.