The opportunity to serve as a volunteer in the Philippines has provided a context for me to identify parts of my identity such as values, needs, and comfort levels. I have known for several years that one of my needs is structure in routine, probably in part because I grew up in a society with the resources I for granted, such as a reliable public school education, dependable public transit and constant access to health care. Here in the Philippines, though I enjoy countless privileges including having the resources to pay for travel, doctors visits, and needed supplies, anything related to scheduling or dependability is up in the air. Thus, living in this culture requires a certain willingness to be flexible to adjust to surprises and last-minute changes. This is something that I struggle with but believe I am slowly, slowly gaining, especially from experiences such as traveling alone after Christmas.
My Filipina friend Vida, who I met in Dumaguete City where I live, was working on an island called Semirara, situated about 3/4 of the way from Dumaguete to Manila. For a point of reference, the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands, which altogether make up about the length and width of the state of California. I vowed to find a way to see her after Christmas, and though the distance to her would only take about an hour by flight, with my volunteer budget it would make more sense for me to travel by land an ocean. I was advised that about it would take two full days of travel to reach Semirara due to winding mountain roads, waiting time for buses and ferries, and rough seas during December, which falls during typhoon season. So I filled up my backpack with clothes and snacks, grabbed a few books and headed for the bus terminal Christmas day after spending Christmas Eve with my host family. Christmas morning was oddly sunny following the torrential downpours and winds we’d experienced for the previous three days- actually, Vida was doubtful as to whether I’d be able to reach Semirara at all due to countless delays and cancellations in travel during the prior week. However, I was determined to see her and experience more of the Philippines while I had the chance.
People-watching kept me occupied for the first hour of travel on Christmas morning, as the bus filled up with people visiting loved ones or commuting to their jobs. The family in the aisle across from me had two young girls under the age of 10, one of whom sported a t-shirt which stated in enormous letters, “SMOKE WEED.” I didn’t doubt for a second that neither of her parents spoke English or had any clue what the shirt meant. Ah, the Philippines. Seven bumpy hours later, we reached a port town called Bacolod on the northeast side of the island. I had asked the bus driver to drop me off at a convenient place to catch transit for the port, so the bus stopped at a gas station where a strange motorbike/tricycle/mini truck holding six or so people was waiting and I hopped on. When I asked the driver where he was from, he responded in not a single word that I understood. A sinking realization hit me: I was no longer in Bisaya-speaking territory. Bisaya, a derivative of the language Cebuano, is spoken almost exclusively in the central region of the Philippines called the Visayas, so if you’re an only-Bisaya speaking foreigner in the Philippines outside of this range, you are out of luck. I was just as clueless as any other foreigner now. Sigh. I grabbed the first boat to the island Ilo Ilo and waited thirty minutes to board.
Upon my arrival there, I was greeted by a friend of my site coordinator Cobbie. The friend sent his son to bring me to their family home for an overnight stay. As I had been informed on the bus that morning, my digestive system was feeling a bit out of sync from an apparent Christmas day stomach bug. However, I didn’t have the heart to tell the kind Sir Nick and his wife Jurgenne about my issue. We sat down to a beautiful Christmas dinner and I barely took a bite. “Still full from all my snacking today!” I lied cheerfully, before dismissing myself to the restroom and an early night’s sleep. The sweet couple arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 5:00 the next morning, and I bid them goodbye with hands full of sweets and snacks they prepared for my day’s travel. I was taken to a bus station a few kilometers from their home where I boarded a seven hour ride to a port city at the top of the island.
On the bus, I met a Filipino family taking a post-Christmas vacation to an island called Boracay, famous for its white sand beaches. “Must be a nice spot for local Filipinos,” I thought to myself, before wishing them a happy trip and heading toward the ticket counter for my boat to the island on the way to Semirara. Lo and behold, a post sign read, NO BOAT UNTIL 3PM TODAY. Given as the only boat to Semirara would leave no later than 5PM, I had no way to get there in time. What made the timing even worse was that the only boat to Semirara departed every two days, so I was stranded for more than 48 hours with no way to reach Vida. I glanced at an enormous sign on the entrance to the port. “FERRY TO BORACAY: ONLY 25 PESOS.” Less than 50 US cents to the supposed most beautiful beach on the planet? Since I had over 48 hours to kill, I headed to the ticket counter and boarded the ferry shortly thereafter.
As our ferry chugged away from the port, I noticed a strange phenomenon: foreigners of all colors and kinds pouring out of the very same port to board the very same ferries as me. Groups of Korean, French, Canadian and even Russian tourists clutched umbrellas and beach bags while sporting backpacking packs just like mine. Who were these people? How had they found this place? And, most importantly, how could the beautiful beach of Boracay possibly hold all of them? My last question was made clear the moment we arrived. A gleaming tourism office awaited us with lines of organized tricycles whisking people away to various groups of restaurants, hotels and resorts. My eyes widened as I felt my wallet deflate by the second. After asking around at a couple Sari-Sari stores (street convenience stores found in communities all over the Philippines) close by, I found out that with holiday crowds, my best chance at finding a place to crash for two nights would be heading to one of the four tourist/resort areas. I picked a station recommended by my Sari-Sari friends and boarded a tricycle. The hilly streets of Boracay, maybe once quaint and green, were congested with hoardes of high-rise buildings, motorbikes, tricycles, and groups of foreign travelers, some of whom rode rented road ATVs which drove so slowly that it was infuriating to be stuck behind them. It took over a two hours of walking through crowded sandy streets to find a hostel with an opening for one, and sellers of toys, foods, and tourist attractions waved flyers at me at every storefront. “Ma’am! We’ll go island hopping ma’am! Where you want to go?” “Like to windsurf ma’am? How about paddleboard?” “Fresh fruit shake ma’am! Mango, pineapple, whatever you like!” I was overwhelmed. In four months of the Philippines, I had never seen this many tourists or felt this much like a tourist. And I was alone, and way short on money.
I found a place to stay that was close-ish to my price range and hid there for the night and next morning. I found a quiet enough place to eat breakfast and a spot on the beach that wasn’t yet taken up by groups of selfie-stick holding tourists (this is way more common than I expected, particularly among the Korean and Chinese). In the afternoon I found a local driver to take me on a cheap tour around the island, and I spoke Bisaya even when only a few words were similar to Aklanan, the local language, to barter for a decent price. I found a beach that was a bit quieter to the one where I was staying and listened to a podcast.
Oh, and did I mention there was a typhoon coming? The above pictures are taken in one of the only moments of sunshine from the two days I spent in Boracay. For the most part, it poured rain and was super cloudy. I was glad to get a boat back to Ilo Ilo the next morning at 7, and, you can guess what the sign on the window when I arrived back at my friendly ticket office. Actually, I arrived at the office so early that I was able to watch a guy come up and post this sign on the window, as if in slow motion. AM BOAT CANCELLED. NEXT BOAT AT 4PM. I would never make it to Vida’s island in time. The next boat wasn’t for two more days, and I had nowhere to go until then.
I begged the young guy who posted the sign to help me find another way to get to the island. He waved me toward another ticket office, directing me to take a different boat north, then take a van south, to get to where I needed to go. I did the math in my head, and if the boat and van left on time, I would arrive with about ninety minutes to spare in time for the 5PM boat to Vida’s island. This gave just enough room for Filipino time, normally about 30 minutes to an hour behind schedule. I crossed my fingers, waited 90 minutes in line for my option two boat, and boarded. It stormed and rained on the six-hour open air ferry (the ferry I was supposed to take would have been only around three), and the few Filipinos on the boat huddled together to stay warm and dry. I was adopted by a motorcycle group of husbands, wives and teenage kids from Manila. They spoke some English and shared cookies, hot noodles and instant coffee during the ride. When we arrived, I persuaded a janitor who persuaded the driver to let me off before the cars and trucks. I literally ran to the nearest form of transportation, which was a minivan with a sign taped to the front window- BULOLACAO. This was my last chance. I explained to the driver my situation; that I only had two hours to get to the boat, that it was my only way to get there, that I had been stranded for the past two days, etc. He was unimpressed, but he took my money, and we drove. On the tops of tall mountain roads I could glimpse Vida’s island on the horizon- I was so close! We also stopped every ten or so minutes to pick up more and more people on the side of the road. Strangers packed in the van like sardines, which was normal for the Philippines, but I was anxious to get to the port in time. The last passenger we picked up was a man with no arm holding a rooster. The driver instructed him to hop in the front seat beside me. So there I was, in the middle of a minivan front seat between an indifferent driver and an armless man and a chicken. At that moment, a panicked Vida called me to inform me that the boat for her island was leaving due to the coast guard response to the incoming storm. We were an hour away from the port. Stranded again.
Some kind people in the van noticed my distress and assured me that there was one other way to get to Semirara, early the next morning. The weather would have to be good, and to get there would require two more hours travel south, then a four hour boat ride to the island (now tripling the amount of time the trip was supposed to take). Vida recommended a hotel I stay the night in, where I was given a room literally in the lobby, where people blasted music and laughed for most of the night. I left at the crack of dawn the next day and was about three hours early for the last option ferry. When we boarded and left the port an hour after scheduled departure, I thought it was too good to be true. I nearly fainted when Vida pulled up in a Jeep to the port at Semirara. She fed me, I slept the entire afternoon, and I attended a show put on by her work that evening. The next day, she informed me that we would have to leave the island ASAP due to another approaching storm. Stranded again…almost! We had time for an afternoon tour of Semirara, in which we were able to observe the ways in which a Filipino-Chinese mining company has changed the landscape and nature of the island in drastic ways. The coral, mangroves and sandy beaches of the island will be difficult to restore, and the water and air quality is visibly disturbed. However, I only had a glimpse of these unsettling changes, as the next day, Vida’s generous coworker, Denise, paid for our transit by land and ferry to Manila. We happily spent the New Year in Vida’s aunt’s home in a province outside the city, relaxing, laughing, and eating a whole lot.
When it came time to go back to Dumaguete, I could barely stand the thought of four more days of waits and cancellations. I counted my Christmas money from extended family members and bought a flight back to Dumaguete with barely a second thought. Back in site now, and with a dent in my bank account larger than I’d like to admit, I can’t help but smile at the ten days of uncertainty I experienced on this journey. I was unsure of my next step or where I would stay that night in almost every day of the trip, yet surprisingly, overall, I found I was okay with that. Coming from a person who really likes to be in control, this was a big moment for me. I’m realizing that outside of our own thoughts and actions, there’s really not a whole lot we can control in our lives. I think God wants us to embrace a kind of uncertainty as we go about finding our places to find harmony and do justice in the world. I hope that this experience brought me a little bit closer to this place.
Thank you always for reading, and sending love, Emma