Falling in Love With The Philippines and Its People
If you are reading this article, chances are you have already read my first article “From Canada To The Philippines- 1 Canadian’s Epic Journey“. In that article I focused on the mental hurdles of preparing for that potential journey, and how I overcame them. In this article I want to give an idea of “why” The Philippines and in a forthcoming article I will explain the “how” the transition experience worked for me . I will share a “short” version of my own stories in these articles, but caution you in advance. I made so many stupid mistakes that this will read more as a guide of what not to do, lol.
With the decision firmly made in my mind to start seriously looking for a life that looked and felt different than the one I had grown to expect, my first thoughts were towards destinations closer to my Canadian home, specifically the Caribbean and South or Central America. I visited The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Chile and a few others, and though I admit I had some great vacations, nothing ever moved me to the point where I could honestly see myself living in the places I visited. I cannot say I had anything resembling a checklist with a point scoring system, but I guess the best way to describe my emotions were simply this. I felt like a tourist! Nothing less, but nothing more. Now of course there is nothing bad about that as it was exactly what I was, however it never spurred me on to considering moving to the next level in my quest for a second home and a new and exciting life.
The next step along the thought process for me became Asia, and at the time, this seemed to be a bridge too wide to cross. Though I had many friends and acquaintances that traveled regularly to the Caribbean and places like Mexico, the people in my circle who had experience in a world halfway across the globe were few and far between. I had no one else’s footsteps and experiences to follow and would be on my own. It was far, it was unknown and to be truthful, it was scary. Alien cultures, which I knew nothing about and felt I could not relate to, and languages I could never expect to understand. So, though the “exotic” image of Asia I had was enticing, there was also a fear that made me think really hard about whether this was an adventure that was just too risky.
Regardless, I put my foot in the water in a safe way and started doing some basic research online. At the time, Thailand was the go to place for many expats so this turned out getting my first look. The logical choice was to join a dating site. Here, I would like to stress that I was neither looking for sex, nor was I looking for marriage, lol. Having been divorced and single for 20 years, I had grown quite comfortable with my independence and though I was alone, I never felt lonely. My attitude in life was simply that I was happy about who I was on the inside and though I was open to a relationship if the right one came around, I did not need it so bad that I felt the need to go looking for it. My idea with the dating site was simply to find a companion who could show me their country from the inside, not as a tourist on the outside looking in.
This was when I hit my first hurdle. After several weeks of initiating conversations, I had been totally frustrated that not one single person I talked to was I able to really communicate with. The language barrier was just too great. This may have have seemed like a small problem to a guy whose interest was simply in sex tourism, or a person who pictured themselves hanging around expat bars mingling with their “own” people, but since neither of these were my goals, I began to realize that I would always be an outsider in Thailand. A perennial or full time tourist, so to speak.
A little depressed, feeling that an Asian dream was not in the cards, a funny thing happened when I shared my experiences with some of my coworkers. Like most people in Canada, but something I never really recognized fully, I was surrounded by Filipinos, and when I spoke about my Thailand frustrations, they looked at me like I was crazy. Go to The Phillipines they said !
To be honest, the Philippines had not even crossed my mind. I had seen very little on the country in my online research, and though I knew a pile of Filipinos who had emigrated to Canada, I knew no Canadians who had emigrated there. The idea to check it out further took hold, bolstered by all my Filipino friends in Canada who insisted that if I were to go there, I would have to visit and stay with their many relatives. How it was starting to look was this was exactly what I had been looking for. A chance to visit a country, not as a tourist, but as someone who was actually going there to meet the locals outside the typical tourist setting . At the time, I also decided to join a dating site called Filipino Cupid, though it appeared that the need for a companion to travel with was not as necessary as I felt it would have been, now that I had what seemed to be an endless supply of contacts in country.
It only got better from there!
The first few days on the dating site blew me away, but this is maybe where I should take a little sideways trip in this article and speak briefly about my experiences and opinions about online dating. It may help some of the single men retirees who will no doubt read this
Online dating horror stories are not few and far between, to put it mildly, but to be honest my experiences were different. Filipino online dating is in no way different than if one chooses to go this route in our home countries or abroad in other countries. My opinion is you get what you look for and if you do not use your brain then you probably deserve any disaster you might end up finding yourself in. I have heard many men say that all women on these sites are gold digging liars out to scam you but that is not what I saw. Yes, there were plenty, but the red flags were always visible if one choose to look for them.They were easy to weed out and what was left were many woman who were fine decent Filipinas looking for the most basic things. To love and be loved! I feel that the vast majority of the men who share the horror stories were either good guys who were so desperate to find a woman to love that they chose not to see the warning signs, or were guys who were out for sex who figured they were too smart to get themselves in trouble. For my own part, I was not looking for either marriage or sex, was always up front about it, and ending up falling into an unexpected relationship beyond my wildest dreams/. (more on that later)
Ok, time to get back on track here. The most important thing I learned from my experiences on the dating sites was not only that I was able to communicate with Filipinos because English was their second language, but also that we seemed to be able to relate to each other. The latter seems to stem from two facts. First, in the past few centuries, The Philippines had been a colony of Spain from 1565-1898 and also a colony of The USA during the years 1898-1946. The influence of these two western countries in the Philippines you see today is undeniable with an interesting and unique blend of Asian, Spanish and North American. The second factor is that The Philippines biggest export is people. Most Filipino families have at least 1, if not many more members who have gone the OFW(overseas Filipino Worker) route and have gained exposure and experience in western life. Many of those OFW’s have returned back to The Philippines in the past decade or two and brought with them Western traits and expectations.
After spending a few months talking extensively with Filipinos, both online and in Canada, the idea of a first hand fact finding trip became more real, and something that I began to feel entirely comfortable with. I booked flights, packed my bags and with a little black book full of contacts, hopped on a plane.
My first trip was planned for 3 weeks and during that time I expected to roam around and meet up with a few of the contacts I had made.
After a 24 hour journey, I got off the plane in Manila in the early evening. I walked out of the terminal, and to be blunt, my whole life changed in a matter of minutes. I am not sure if I cannot put into words that first feelings I had, but will try. Coming from a snowing suburban lifestyle in Calgary, in the dead of winter, I stepped out into tropical land of wonder that I knew no friend of mine had ever experienced, so could not adequately ever prepare me for. I was like Indiana Jones on a new adventure! It was nothing short of the biggest rush I had ever experienced.
From the terminal, it was much easy than I expected to arrange a ride to my hotel. Unlike even most places I visited in South/Central America and The Caribbean, it was easy communicating with people. After an evening wandering and exploring the streets of Manila, the vibrancy of the cultural experience I had was nothing short of magical. It was easy mixing with locals far far outside any of the usual tourist trap set-ups I had experienced in my earlier vacation
The next day though, my trip truly started.
My first stop was Davao City, the capital of main city of Mindanao. the place where everybody tells you to avoid because it is dangerous, lol. I had arranged online to rent a car at the airport and with keys in hand, off I went on my discovery tour of Mindanao. Though plenty has been shared in the media about the dangers of Mindanao, and by extension, I guess the Philippines as a whole, don’t believe all you here. Plenty of it has, in my opinion being blown way out of proportion. What I found was an amazingly welcoming , but extremely simple culture and way of life. Just practicing the most basic principles of situational awareness that one should follow anywhere in the world, not once did I find myself in a position that I would consider dangerous.
On my journeys through the Compestella valley , then along the coast to the city of General Santos, everyone I met treated me like a king and more often than not I found myself invited into homes to share a meal and listen to stories of what it was like to be Filipino. The common underlying theme was simple. The majority of Filipinos had very little in the way of material possessions, yet they more than made up for it in an ability to be happy. The hardships I both saw and heard about, would easily be enough to crush a westerner like myself from a 1st world country, who had grown to accept as standard of living that most Filipinos could not even come close to imagining. But they appeared to take it all in stride with resilience and a true smile on their faces and in their hearts.
I cannot truly put into words how this experience changed my life. It was like an awakening for a guy like me, who had spent his whole life worrying about what tomorrow might bring, only to ignore the joy and happiness that I could find right in front of me today. Here I was faced with a people who had little worry about tomorrow and focused only on the here and now. And they certainly seemed in general to have found more happiness in everyday life than I could ever claim to have experienced in my own, except for a few fleeting moments. Had I just accidentally stumbled onto the meaning of life, lol? Not totally I am sure, but it was lesson, or reminder anyway, to start looking further inwards in a quest for the true happiness I was searching for. With the risk of maybe skipping ahead and losing my story-line here, I do want to share where I am at today on this. After spending over 8 years here in The Philippines and embedding myself in the Filipino culture, I have come to believe that neither us westerners, nor my Filipino friends have gotten it right. I readily recognize and admit that I still spend way too much of my brain space worrying about things that might happen tomorrow, but rarely do, but I have also come to believe that Filipinos spend too much time living for today, then find themselves in trouble tomorrow. My humble feelings now are that we can probably learn something from each other in this respect, and personally, i am constantly trying to work on a balance between these two extreme ways of life.
Anyway, As I said, the roughly 10 day journey through provincial Philippines changed my life and what was the simple result was that I had fallen truly, deeply , in love with The Filipino people, their culture and their way of life! to this day, and yes there have been some frustrations along the way, that love has not wavered.
So onto my next leg of my first visit to the Philippines.
I have to say, that though I found my love for the Filipino culture and its people during my stay in Mindanao, I was not overly turned on by the country’s landscape at first. The places I visited in Mindanao, except for the compestalle Valley, were by and large large flat rice fields. I admit, my first rice field was a new experience and cool to see, my dreams of retirement did not include a me living house in the middle of a farmers field lol. So the next step was to travel to a smaller island.
When discussing this plan with most Filipinos I met, they insisted I check out this place called Boracay. It was supposedly the best of the best in The Philippines when it came to that tropical beach vision I had in my head and so I figure I better give it a shot. After a long plane trip from Davao to Manila and then onto what I thought would be Boracay, I found myself victim to the domestic air industry’s many challenges. With problems at Boracay’s adjoining airport in Caticlan, the airline dumped us off in a place called Kalibo and then loaded us on a bus for a middle of the night ride. Getting off the bus in Caticlan, I was met by the “Sir Gord” sign., so all appeared right on. Little did I know of the adventures that lay ahead, lol.
I started to clue in when all the other passengers form the bus walked over to the port in Caticlan, apparently for what I now know was a short ferry ride over to the island of Boracay, while all my bags were loaded onto a tricycle (my first real intro into this uniquely Filipino mode of transport.). Well off we went in the opposite direction , ending up on a secluded beach in what what appeared to be a small fishing village. Wading out to a small 20 ft pontoon boat, my escorts with suitcases on their head and big smiles on their faces kept reassuring me that everything was “no problem sir”. I do admit that this point I was starting to get mildly nervous.
Then, the boat ride from hell began! As we shoved off, the rain, thunder and lightning started, but ever the optimist, I looked at the brightly lit shoreline of Boracay across the channel and figured, “hey that cannot be more than a mile or so anyway, so what is the worst that could happen?” Well let me tell you, lol.
As they pushed off and pull started up their massive 5 hp lawn mower type 2 stoke motor, I wrongly believed that my day long journey was close to its end and soon I would be strolling down the beautiful white sand beach that Boracay is so famous for. To my surprise, we went around the point on the tip of the island and started off to sea. As the bright lights of Boracay receded into the background, and with the waves picking up and the rain coming down in buckets , I found myself in a a sea with what felt like 20 foot waves with the only light coming from the lightning that was picking up in both frequency and intensity. This is when the white guy starts getting a little more questioning of his Filipino escorts, to put it mildly, but was only met with wider ear to ear grins and the fallback, “no problem sir”.
So, picture this. Gord, being tossed around in a 20 foot Philippines banca (their name for the traditional Filipino boat), dead center in a roiling sea with 2 local seaman running form pontoon to pontoon to keep it from capsizing, with lightning and thunder engulfing us. and no one else on the boat who could speak a word of English who might at least give me some false sense of hope. Time to get nervous? Yup, no doubt about it. The only thing that get me even remotely sane was that every once in a while when we were at the top of a huge wave, there appeared a light in the far distance that everybody pointed at, and cheered. I assumed that lone light in the distance was what we were shooting for and found myself desperately waiting for the next big crest that would reveal we were getting closer.
Eventually, and I mean about 3 or 4 hours later, we were run ashore on a deserted beach, amazingly right in front of that one lone light. Soaked, and pumped on adrenaline form what was surely a near death experience, I was shown to a little cottage, ready to pass out.
The next day was the second life changing event I experienced on my first journey here to The Philippines.
I awoke to the sound of gentle wave lapping the beach, walked outside onto the terrace, to be met with the perfect vision of that topical beach paradise that had haunted my dreams for years. I stood there watching the local kids splash around int he water while their parents picked urchins and seaweed, and an incredible calm and peaceful feeling coursed through my body which I had only rarely experienced in my 50 or so years of life on this planet. I knew right then and there, I was home, and one day this would be the life I wole up to every morning.
I later found out, that I had actually ended up on a small island next to Boracay, called Caribao Island. Truth be told, I reckon that this was one of the best screw ups I had ever gotten into. I have gotten to know Boracay as well over the years, and though it is definitely beautiful and has it charms, it is a tourist trap like any other tourist trap the world over. Had I ended up there instead of Caribao, then I just don’t know if I would still be here today.
Over the next 10 days, I swam, snorkeled, fished and explored, and by the end of my time on Caribao Island, I was not only in love with the people and their culture, I was in love with the country!
After 3 weeks on my first visit to The Philippines I left knowing one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. One day, I would call this country home!
If there is one piece of advice I could leave you , it is this. The Philippines is a country of over 7,000 island. Each and every island has its own beauty, as well as it own negatives. I personally eventually ended up in Dumaguete on the island of Negros , because it was the perfect mix between tropical island lifestyle and also modern amenities, but that does not mean that it will be right for you. Come, explore and I guarentee that on one of those 7,000+ island, you will probably find your own paradise.