By Raelena Wanderlust
My first thought when I disembarked from the plane was, everyone is so pretty. I verbalized this thought to the flawless woman walking next to me. She responded, “Is this your first time in the Philippines?” It was and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know much about the country or the culture and I still have a ton to learn. I only knew I wanted to spend as little time as possible in Manila or any other congested concrete jungle. I wanted or perhaps needed only Mother Nature, blues, greens, wholesome foods and fresh air.
This solo trip was not only an early birthday present to myself but also a time to research my next move after my current teaching contract expires in the spring. I was seeking a connection with community members and to also clear my mind of cluttering thoughts and emotions that had been lingering for some time. The plan for my first few days in country was to relax in the island paradise of Palawan. I reserved a bungalow in the small bayside fishing village of Buena Vista. In Buena Vista I bathed in the beauty of doing nothing. When I told locals where I was staying they asked me why. They expected a tourist to opt out for the more pristine and well-known areas of the island such as El Nido. I preferred my homestay like feeling with the family where I was able to enjoy intimate conversation, delicious home cooked meals and coconuts straight from the tree each day. I was invited to the church fiesta and feast, an organized basketball game played in the mud and I was able to borrow the neighbor’s tiny fishing canoe equipped with handmade wooden oars and bamboo outriggers. This was my type of place for sure. The feelings I experienced during my short stay in this tight knit community were rejuvenating.
My next stop was Quezon City where I would meet up with a visual artist I was connected to through a previous boss of mine in the states. The flight from Palawan to Manila was delayed (like every other flight I took in the Philippines). I noticed a sign that read “Vibes Massage – 150 pesos for 30 minutes.” Ahh why not? I sat down in a plastic chair behind a curtain in the airport terminal and was thoroughly massaged by a blind masseuse. Despite not being in the most tranquil environment and hearing the chatter and cell phones of the other masseuses, what this person did to my muscles was so skillfully executed that I requested another 30 minutes of pure pleasure.
After finally making it back to Manila I waited in a taxi queue for an hour with the intention to reach Quezon City in the next hour. We were 45 minutes into the journey (stuck in some of the most insane traffic I have ever been in) and not yet halfway to my destination when I decided I needed out of the car. I headed to Pink Manila Hostel where a friend and fellow Nomadness Travel Tribe member was working. She hooked me up with a bed for the night and I would head off to Quezon City in the morning.
The ride to Quezon City which should normally only take 30 minutes ended up taking a few hours. I walked through the hectic streets of Malate, I rode 2 different city busses, I walked some more and eventually gave in and ended up taking a 3 minute taxi ride the rest of the way to my final destination. I had finally arrived at Ling’s house. Her brother owns the bed and breakfast where I stayed just next to her intricately constructed artist’s labyrinth. It was my first hot shower in a week. I felt so clean.
Next destination was Ling’s country house in Alfonso, Cavite. Here I was surrounded by art and nature. Ling built the house as well as the two other structures on her property out of up-cycled wood and glass. Her artistic creativity and passion shined through in every aspect of the home. I felt I could stay there forever. For dinner her cook prepared a perfectly grilled lemon grass chicken and we ventured out for a sweet corn milkshake for dessert. I met other artists and first responder rescue mountaineer volunteers who have traveled all over the world. The next morning I departed for Lake Taal. The father of one of the mountaineers was heading in the same direction and offered me a ride. Along the way we stopped at a rooster farm. Cock fighting roosters were bred here and there was even a legit ring and an organized online gambling website. I needed to get out of here. The driver dropped me off at my next destination on their way back to Cavite. They even asked me if I would come back to Cavite for Christmas which I honestly might.
At Lake Taal I met up with my friend from the hostel.
We slept in a rustic tree house next to a nature preserve that had a stunning view of Taal Volcano. On the first night it was impossible to sleep. The constant croak of the bullfrogs kept me up most of the night. I started to imagine they were talking to me. During the day we swam and kayaked in the lake. The water was utterly refreshing and made my skin and hair feel soft. I didn’t need to shower here. I could tell my friend was happy to get out of Manila.
Now to touch on the main reason I am contributing this article to my dear friend’s new magazine. Over the years I have managed to learn how to avoid the overly touristy areas and use my travel time as time for myself to explore truths within. During this trip I was able to do just that exceptionally well. I was able to connect with truly inspiring and talented individuals. People from the Philippines as well as other parts of the world, young and old, rich and poor, the wandering and the settled. My journey to northern Luzon to an area called Rosario, La Union and the final part of my trip is when I knew for sure I would be returning to this gorgeous country in the next few months.
Before my trip I started researching organic farming opportunities. Not only am I on a serious budget when I travel but I don’t mind manual labor and am eager to learn all I can about sustainability. When I came across Happy House Farm I really vibed with what I read on their website. They didn’t promote any religious faiths, label their diets any specific ____tarian and overall seemed like people I would be able to work well with. I immediately emailed David the man in charge of the farm. I knew I had to meet him and his family and contribute to their project. I sweat buckets during the day and created sweet memories with the community members and fellow volunteers after sunset. We ate exquisitely nutritious meals every day and despite the occasional king cobra sighting and painful fire ant bites I felt I was in my element and undeniably comfortable.
Each leg of my trip was quite unique and enriching but the time I spent in the north was the most fulfilling. Volunteering and learning through experience while being included in the daily life of a wonderful family and community provided the type of stimulation I needed. After spending the past four years in one of the most homogenous, safest, cleanest and most polite nations in the world known as Japan the adrenaline rush of the unknown is invigorating. Life in the Philippines is quite the opposite of what I am used to in Japan. Actually there is no comparison. This could possibly be a topic for a future article after spending more time in the Philippines.
By the last night of my stay on the farm I was brainstorming ways I could give back not only by volunteering my time and labor but more. In the past week I have organized an event at a local café to teach Okinawans the ancient method of brewing kombucha. I usually host this event for free because I enjoy meeting likeminded people and I am strong believer in the idea of sharing knowledge and creating community. For this upcoming event I am requesting participants contribute a one-coin/500yen donation which will go to the Happy House BILLY Program. The BILLY program enables community members to purchase a goat for a family in need which will help earn money for education costs in the future. Details can be found at www.happyhousefarm.com/billy
I am not a person who lives a lavish life nor earns a lot of money but knowing what families get by on each day and the enormous gap between the rich and poor in countries like the Philippines encourages me to give what I can. If that means giving my time to raise money by teaching others how to brew a healthy drink or inspire a new hobby so be it. It feels right to me and is parallel to a more mindful way of life in which I am in pursuit of.
I would like to encourage anyone who is interested in giving back to local communities while traveling at the same time to explore websites such as workaway, helpex and wwoof. Even if you don’t sign up for a membership (I never have) there are ways to find information in order to volunteer around the world and experience a culture totally different than your own.