To finish out our adventure in the Philippines, we are currently on a 4-week stay in Boracay. Hard to imagine a place more beautiful than this with its mountains, crystal waters, karst formations, and spectacular sunsets. Even during low season, there are a lot of people here–the privacy of the Perhentian Islands nonexistent. Here, every other step is a vendor or commissioner asking if you want a massage, a souvenir, or an island hopping trip. Thankfully, we are in Station 3, which is the quieter side.
We’ve sampled a variety of cuisine, which is a welcome change from San Jose, but vegetarian and healthier, gluten-free options are still hard to come by. Prana–the only vegetarian restaurant, located in Mandala Resort–is closed for the season. Too bad because it was rather tricky to find (through back roads in the mountains and through some private property or through the busy town, up a steep hill). We do like a number of places: True Indian (a bit pricey), Yellow Cab Pizza (not gluten-free), Casa Pilar Restaurant (mostly Filipino cuisine), Arwana’s Restaurant (good salads, fish burritos), Epic (a little more pricey), 888 (some veg), El Centro (best mango shakes), Treehouse Da Mario (salads), etc.
Island hopping and snorkeling trips can get pricey, but a group trip through Allan B costs only P700/pax, including a decent buffet lunch. Nightlife includes fire dancing, beachfront bars, live music, etc. We’ll definitely return to this place.
Prior to leaving the States, we planned a 10-month itinerary to stay abroad–longer if we could find suitable jobs to further fund our travels. Mostly, we wanted to get a lot of writing done with bouts of traveling in between. The first month was easy–lots of beach bumming, spending time with family, acclimating. We got very little writing done.
In June, due to trouble finding the immigration official in San Jose, we decided to take a visa run–a 3-week trip to Singapore and Malaysia. July was more productive, as monsoon rains prevented us from enjoying the beach. I finished my second poetry manuscript and began an exercise regimen using p90x. But, as busy-minded, young Americans, we needed more activity. One can only be a beach bum for so long. The most activity we had were day trips to nearby islands, a night of bar-hopping with my cousins/aunt, or a stroll through the plaza on a Saturday night.
We considered traveling by train in Vietnam, volunteering for two months in Cambodia (where our housing was secured), then, upon finishing, more train traveling through Thailand. It worked out that returning to the States in September would be the most feasible option, as international job searching is a bit of a hassle. Even finding teaching jobs required documents with apostilles, which is not easy to coordinate remotely.
I considered staying abroad until November to continue writing and job searching, but we heard news that several islands in the region would have no electricity by Aug. 25th. How is this possible? We cannot fathom such an administrative failure in the US (maybe sarcasm, here–as it is exactly possible). The details were murky, but it has something to do with contracts and region-wide debts. How exactly politics work in developing countries is not any more depressing than developed countries. They just have fewer resources or banks to borrow money from.
My father decided to prepare for the worse: not replacing the 25-year-old water pump/generator after it began to emit smoke. We would now have to use the outside pump to bathe. While I appreciate and admire his motto of “back to basics” (I promote the romantic, Thoreauan ideal of simplifying one’s life), I had grown accustomed to running water and electricity. I do not write longhand, so I need my laptop to write. I deemed the place no longer habitable, so I decided that I would return to the US as well. If I’m going to stay abroad, I would do so employed with my own housing, in a more developed country. I did hear back from a recruiter in Thailand and Korea, but I’d like to prepare a little longer for such a commitment.
I appreciated this time to rediscover my hometown and see how it’s morphed. The changes are moving in the direction of more unsustainability–overpopulation, Western-obsessed and capitalistic drive. Every other store is an internet cafe. Favorite TV shows/radio channels mimick Western celebrities. It was hard not to sentimentalize simpler times. One afternoon, we took a walk along the beach near the estuary, which was recently opened to accommodate the monsoon season, and found examples of this in young kids who happily played in the water, a couple carrying a load of caught fish, an older man smiling in his hut, a grandmother collecting clams with her grandchildren:
Perhaps simplicity is still here.
While waiting on Train 27-Senandang Timuran in Wakaf Bharu, Malaysia I said aloud, “I’m getting a little tired of Southeast Asia.” I was attempting to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything under the fluorescent light, but various species of bugs kept dropping unto the page, buzzing by my ear, crawling in my hair and neck. We were heading back through the Malaysian jungle to Singapore where we would catch a flight back to Manila—well, 2 hours north of Manila, at Clark in Angeles City.
We had just spent a glorious, relaxing week in the Perhentian Islands, which first required a 14-hour train ride, an hour taxi ride to the coast where the jetty is located, an overnight stay in Kuala Besut, and a 30-minute speedboat ride in the morning. Before that, we spent a few days in Singapore, which I would not group under the same context as quoted above and actually entices me enough to find a job there. Before that, we were in Manila, which does qualify, and before that, my hometown of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, which is its own category.
Of course, it was merely exhaustion talking, but I was reflecting on the obvious sense of displacement that one experiences as a tourist. Our motivations for traveling—experience, expanding perspectives, adventures, stories—requires that we first withstand being stared and pointed at, hustling fair cab/tricycle/boat fares, getting bit by tenacious insects, having snail-slow internet, feeling altogether drained by cultural differences, etc.
The exhaustion continued as we took a late-night bus from Angeles City to Pasay in Manila and a 20 minute taxi cab ride, as well as walked through flash-flooded streets. From there, we must somehow manage another few days to acquire a visa waiver at the Bureau of Immigration. After several issues in the last month dealing with the satellite Bureau of Immigration office in San Jose, we decided to apply for the waiver/extension directly in Manila. Online sources indicated that there was a satellite office in Paranaque, near Neo Chinatown (why is it is “neo” and not simply, “new”?) but upon arriving there, a security guard tells us that the office has closed and that all satellite offices have been re-directed to the main building in Intramuros, about 30 minutes by taxi.
We balance out these aforementioned events at tourist destinations such as the Mall of Asia and Manila Ocean Park. The latter was quite enthralling, minus a couple of notes: a jellyfish exhibition that turns into a bar/club; pools for the lion show that also become a night lounge, complete with a light show; a dentist office that doubles as an all-in-one vaccination place. (In their defense, Ocean Park also has a hotel/mall, so such things could be convenient for tourists.) After Ocean Park, we took a bumpy hour cab ride through Manila—from one that could not drive a stick shift—being blamed for his misunderstanding where our destination was: in Pasay, near the “domestic” terminal (2). He took us to a street that sounded like ours but was obviously not. He insisted that our actual destination was near terminal 4, which does not exist, according to my aunt, who lives here AND works for the airport. In any case, several other taxi drivers got us there previously without a problem. Of course, what was I expecting?
My frustration, which can morph into anger, was building up, but on the morning we are set to return to San Jose, it turned to laughter. In Pasay, Manila, as we were getting ready for a 6:30a flight, we heard a man on an amplified microphone or a PA system emitting a noise—somewhere between mermaids from the Pirates of the Caribbean and videoke. Perhaps there was a mosque or a prayer hall nearby? Perhaps a drunken man was pouring out his broken heart over a love song? We couldn’t decipher.
The morning continued with more laughs: There are 3 gates to enter the airport, but only one is open. The express check-in line for those without baggage is the longest. We are told that we cannot bring our umbrella as a carry-on, except we’ve already taken this umbrella on three flights (SJI > MNL > SIN > MNL). A lady brings a box of pizza as a carry-on. (It’s a pasalubong; perhaps pizza is unavailable in her province.) A P120 cup of orange “juice” is really orange powder (only P2 at the nearest sari-sari). The smoking lounge vent blows air into the terminal, not out of the window. Our gate number indicates AirPhil, but our flight is with Cebu Pacific.
This is just a short litany of silly things that we all encounter while traveling. In the West, perhaps some of these things have been ironed out so that we function in relative comfort. Being from this region, I was familiar with the pace of life here, so I wasn’t expecting the same luxuries, but I didn’t realize before how much I value efficiency, that comfort itself is somewhat of a handicap in terms of expectations.
Finally sitting down at our gate terminal, after passing 25 rows of chairs, which were occupied by sleeping passengers—one in each row—I said, “Nothing is what it’s supposed to be.” Again, my spoiled American self was talking, but there are patterns that emerge: “good enough” seems to suffice for “what is supposed to be.”
There are so many instances I’ve encountered that fit this description, such as hailing a taxi from the train in Tanah Merah (Malaysia): After agreeing to pay RM60 (USD20) for an hour ride to Kuala Besut (bargaining started at RM80, since it was late in the evening), we are surprised to find that the “taxi” was a rusty white car without any signs indicating such. We trust that we were heading toward the direction of the sea, but the road signs do not indicate that either. It seems that surrendering to trust is a necessary component in surviving travel here, that “what is supposed to be” is really the same as “what is.”
Over the years during my infrequent visits back to my hometown of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, I have noticed that waste management seems to be an ongoing battle. As a child, I remember trash being dumped in empty lots in our subdivision; thick smoke consumed the air when the trash was set on fire. We knew of no alternative ways to dispose of our trash, nor of the environmental impact of burning residual waste.
In 2002, returning home after almost a decade of being away, I noticed an increase in population and, of course, trash. Our once gray-sand/dark pebble beach in Bubog was littered with plastic bags and disposable cups. Last year, when I visited briefly, nipa huts/cottages with videoke machines lined the shoreline. The trash was still not managed enough. Upon returning last month, I found more dilapidated cottages (now with inhabitants and their animals) but also new buildings were being developed: a 24-hour café, some bigger cottages that will be turned into giftshops. Still, trash seemed to have increased.
On this rainy morning, the day after we snorkeled the mostly pristine White Island, off the coast from San Jose, we drove some 30 minutes away from town to visit the municipal landfill, where the Global Village Association (GVA) education/feeding program was being implemented. The municipal officer who spearheaded the waste management program (under my uncle who was the mayor some years ago) drove us to the site.
The misty green mountains stood in contrast with red clay mud and flattened mounds of colored cellophane bags, hard plastics, broken bottles. There were a few human scavengers, as well as some pigs and goats.
We were told by the municipal officer that prior to their efforts to decrease the amount of residual waste (and subsequently, scavenger families who search through the rubbish for resalable materials), the mounds of trash and the flies that hovered were insurmountable, so much so that you couldn’t stand on it (like we were doing) or have a conversation without flies going into your mouth.
It was difficult to ignore the culmination of our globalized economy. Here I am in the middle of a beautiful, tropical mountain/farming area, but on the ground by my foot, there is a brightly imprinted plastic SIM card container, complete with the barcode and cellphone number. It’s hard to not think of our dismal future, when our current solutions have minimal impact and the negative influence of globalization continues to snowball.
I turned to my partner and said, “The only thing different about the U.S. is that we are able to pay enough money to get our trash shipped to developing countries.” (In some of these developing countries, scavengers must pay to rummage, exploiting the already exploited, the most impoverished.) It’s true. Our cozy lives are not affected by trash on the beach or on the sidewalks because our municipal taxes pay for trash collection.
After seeing the dump site, we went back to the GVA hut where a couple dozen children were awaiting their Saturday meal of rice, tomatoes, and dried fish after brief exercise to a popular dance song. (A bit ridiculous/sad from my perspective, but some enjoyed it.) Some of the younger kids looked somewhat malnourished, but there was still fire in their eyes. Some wore tattered clothes, while others had nicer ones. (We were told that the year before, there were many more children/elders who would come for these Saturday meals. The reason for the decrease, again, is the decrease in trash available for rummaging.)
During their meal, we discussed solutions: what alternative livelihood or trade can be offered for these families? The idea of using the trash to somehow make products was thrown around. Somehow connecting these people with nearby farms who hire part-time help during harvest season was another option. Emphasizing education seems to help, but the municipal officer said that most of these children were unable to finish high school because they would be forced to work in order to live.
It’s hard not to want to help improve the situations these children find themselves in. The municipal officer remarked on how he feels obligated to help develop San Jose because he grew up here. He could simply leave and find himself a comfortable job elsewhere, like Puerto Princesa in Palawan, where things are more developed. I’m glad to see that there are people with good intentions and the will to try to improve San Jose.
After the dump site, we visited the eco-center/waste management center where they are making compost from the biodegradable waste. As I feel hopeful that these efforts are being implemented, that despite the money/power-hungry politicians that seem to run rampant in this country of my birth, there are sprinkles of good-hearted, optimistic, resilient Pinoys who are not afraid to be agents of change.
Yesterday, I found myself reciting this poem out loud in front of my bathroom mirror:
My upcoming trip home is helping me revisit some of the cultural issues I’d focused on in my first manuscript. My contributor’s note for this poem read:
Being a Filipino immigrant, I wrote “an ounce” to highlight my insecurities with both my native language and American English, how I inadvertently neglected the former during my adolescent years in the U.S. so that when I returned home at the age of 19, even a simple word, paa, was erroneous. I wanted to see my guilt on paper for still fearing an exposed cover (in America), an identifiable accent—mainly the f/p and v/b sounds.
Reciting this yesterday, randomly, felt powerful. I’ve read this poem numerous times–at readings, to myself–and I appreciate the sound from my lungs every time. This was written fairly early on in my MFA program, and I can definitely feel the influence of my performance poetry days. I miss my genuine, simple sentimentality.
My current manuscript feels more cerebral, but it’s far from non-sentimental. I’m still calibrating my voice, in these languages, in these poems.