Adjusting to Reality

So our four months of travelling through South East Asia came to an end…and our New Zealand adventures are only just beginning. But, as is life, before we can continue on our wanders through the world, first of all we need to stop and collect ourselves again..surrender to routine, get saving up those pennies and accept the slower pace of life for a while.

For anyone who has ever travelled anywhere for a substantial amount of time, you’ll know how I feel right now. It is simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable to return to ‘real life’ – as humans, we instinctively look for security of some nature and for some of us the feeling of being secure is enough. As you may have guessed, I am not one of those people. Naturally, it is difficult to settle back into a strict routine after travelling, but the difficulty stretches further than that, for your mind is forever altered from all that you have encountered and experienced, which is near impossible to explain to those who have been on an alternative journey to yourself. This is what makes it incredibly difficult to simply settle back in to real life.

In saying that, like slipping on an old favourite pair of slippers, I immediately feel at home in this world where supermarkets have replaced the authentic street markets full of unrecognisable fruits, and where I simply blend into every day life rather than my white skin morphing me into a walking attraction. Before too long I am conscious of my mind slipping back into the Western way of life, and yet there remains a quiet voice who – just when I think she has disappeared – whispers to me every morning as I get up for work, ‘this isn’t what it’s all about.’ I have to remind myself everyday to stay true to that simplistic way of life I so admired in Asia.

It is so easy to get caught up in superficial wants and needs in Western society but when I drag my mind back to days spent surrounded by large Asian families, I try to embody their genuine happiness. In my opinion, it comes down to materialistic desires – the people I met didn’t own many material goods but they were content, for what they lacked in materialistic goods, they more than made up for in spiritual contentment. Stepping back into a world where our definitions of success and happiness are morphed by our consumerist attitudes, I am trying to embody the values and outlook of the local people we met on our travels who continue to inspire me. I have to remember the things that matter – the minimalist life so many families in South East Asia live by.

After living and breathing South East Asian culture for 4 months, I reveled in such small, minuscule details of western life – things you would never think about in day to day life, but which alter when you immerse yourself in another culture. I was ready to walk down the street and not be hassled; not be shouted at ‘TAXI, MISS, TAXI TAXI’, to be able to buy a bottle of water from a shop and not have to barter for it. But by god I miss it. I miss the way of life. I miss learning something every single day just by watching how individuals go about their lives. I miss the people, and their good-natured souls. During my 4 months in Asia, my idea of the ‘norm’ was reassessed, and then reassessed again and although I have always questioned this concept of a decisive ‘norm’ even in Western culture, I now have no set answer to what I trust to be a normative way of travelling through life.

I’m fortunate that I haven’t hit complete post-travel depression because I’m not home. Although New Zealand is yet another new adventure and there is so much we have yet to explore, western societies have a much closer overlap than developing countries and thus those notions of culture shock I experienced – and loved – in Asia don’t apply. I don’t walk down the street and stop and start and stop and start while I gaze at women of all ages carrying long sticks balanced on their heads, or baskets of fruits, or children shrieking as they run down the street bare footed with large, gaping grins taking over their sun kissed faces.

The quiet here is strange. Typically, S.E.Asians have large families and obviously because of the beautiful weather, they spend a lot of time outdoors so we always heard them. Big family dinners – shouting across the streets at each other, the general hustle and bustle of day to day life which to me, is so enchanting to witness. The families we met and witnessed didn’t hide away, they weren’t private – that is one of the many things I adore about their culture. We tend to hide away in our houses and are often all too concerned with what we should look like or should do. In comparison, the culture we experienced was open and loud, and unapologetic in every form.

It’s strange now – stopping – being in one place for more than a few days and being inside for at least 8 hours a day. They say sunshine and nature is good for the soul and by god do I believe that – who would’ve thought that sitting at a desk is difficult? After basking in the world’s beauty for 4 months and spending everyday outdoors, being inside for that long every day pretty much feels like I’m crushing my soul. I have to remember to engage my mind and not just sink back into the routine which so easily numbs. It’s peaceful to settle, it’s good to have a base but those feet are getting itchy again and so for now I have to remind myself to breathe – to get outside and experience all that I can – before I lovingly haul that rucksack onto my back once more.

The transition back into real life is never an easy one and with it comes questions which many of us aren’t ready to answer – what will you do for the rest of your life? How will you make money? These are questions which we manage to avoid when we’re hauling our backpacks around Asia, sipping on 20p rum and cokes. The silent assumptions that you’re ready to settle down – now that you’ve got that out of your system – come hard and fast. Smile and nod at these people…the ones who are too comfortable in their routines to even dare to dream to do as you have done, for they will never know the wonders and delights of the world which you have experienced.

For now, my soul remains with those beautiful people in those beautiful countries. But I think the thing I’ll try to focus on for now is to continue to integrate the practices and ways of life I learned and loved in Asia into my day to day life…because isn’t that what’s important? In a world where we are constantly being pressured to divide and to shut out others in need, it is so important to spend time exploring these countries and fall in love with ways of life so amazingly different to your own.

It is a good life. It is a damn good life.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

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East Coast; Cebu, Apo & Malapascua

Across on the East Cost on the island of Cebu, we ventured south down the Filipino archipelago to catch the ferry across to Negros and then a further ferry South East to the island of Siquijor.

At first suspicious of Siquijor as an island, we soon fell in love with it. There is a certain charm to this unsuspecting island which we couldn’t quite put our finger on. The island was dotted with – what we might call – pop up restaurants. During the day the shoreline was quiet and empty, but as night fell multiple small trailers and wagons appeared on the roadside with a variety of home cooked meals to choose from. Our personal favourite came in the form of a beautiful vegetarian buffet style wagon – vegetarian food being extremely uncommon in the Philippines, I was pretty damn excited – which had a delicious variety and romantic yet simplistic setting as each table was lit only by a candle by the shores.

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Old tales of witchcraft and healing potions swarmed the island and the locals welcomed us as old friends, sharing their precious corner of paradise with us – inviting us night after night to share a bottle or three of rum with them, to scream karaoke until first light with them and to revel in the beautifully peaceful overlap of our cultures, our worlds – even just for those few days in which we shared their way of life.

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After a few wonderful – and mostly drunken – days immersed in Siquijor’s unassuming and infectious vibe, we carried on south to Apo Island. Apo Island, unfortunately, was a bit of a disappointment after coming from somewhere so full of being and life such as Siquijor. Apo truly did pale in comparison and, for me, had been converted into such a tourist hub that it had lost much of its culture and local charm sadly. However, it is host to a healthy population of turtles who reside just metres from the shore. If, for nothing else, it is worth a visit to swim along side dozens of these majestic creatures.

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Conscious of the small amount of time we had left, we got on a 6 hour bus/2 hour ferry to take us back to Cebu city which is situated in the centre of Cebu Island. From here we travelled north still and across the waters to Malapascua; home of the thresher shark. My memories of Malapascua are somewhat contradictory to one another. On one hand I loved the vibe, yet on the other hand the heat by this stage had become stifling and was reaching 45 degrees daily.

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Until you acquired your bearings, the island was an unforgiving maze, but it was incredibly beautiful. The sandy lanes of the island intertwined with each other, bearing both tourist hostels and locals’ homes in such close proximity. We stumbled across a few yummy eateries which again, in classic island style, were scattered along the beach.

However, our experience diving with the thresher sharks was an experience which cannot be underplayed or undervalued. I could write for pages about the diving company who were incredible, our dive instructor who was inspiring, or my tendency to replay the events of that morning when I now sit at a desk every day – to remind myself that one day soon, I will feel that rush again. But what I really want to do here is use this as some form of platform, because surely that’s what writing is? A creative form in which to express ourselves yes, but more so to communicate the beautiful and heartbreaking things of the world – to desperately try to encourage others to feel what we have felt through our words in order to somehow make a difference.

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In this case, I cannot begin to hope to communicate to you the immensely grounding feeling of witnessing a creature so incredible, but I hope to try. Immensely grounding. Why? Because if and when you see something of that beauty in its own environment, you will realise that we – as human beings – are so small. We are minuscule beings who have somehow gained control and power over this poor world, and we are ruining it, and there are issues and creatures and whole worlds which are so much bigger than us.

So I urge you please – dive in that ocean, go on safari, jump out of a plane. Make yourself feel small because when you do you’ll realise that what we’re doing to this world is not OK, and it is not so easily fixable. These creatures, these beautiful amazing animals are suffering because of what we’re doing. So please next time you think you’re too far removed, next time you think your day to day habits and routines don’t matter – that they don’t impact the world – go and witness these animals in their natural habitats and see that we must bare the weight of their future generations too. We have a responsibility for those who can’t speak up.

The common thresher shark is considered at high to very high vulnerability of extinction from over fishing. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they don’t ever have the opportunity to see a thresher shark, or a manta ray, or an elephant in their natural habitat because I promise you, if people could just see how beautiful these creatures are that they are destroying, they would stop. They would have to stop.

This is the way I see it – the more each individual encounters the beauty of these many wonderful creatures, the more they will see them as treasures of the Earth, rather than a humans plaything.

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We spent our last day in Malapascua in a little bar by the beach where a triple rum was cheaper than a single and drank the day away on large cushioned seats. Bliss. The Philippines is insanely beautiful and their culture is enchanting and inclusive – they want you to drink bottles of rum and sing karaoke with them.

An endless playground for avid divers and equally so a haven for those sun worshippers. For us, we spent a lot of time under the sea taking in the beautiful creatures which call those islands home. I was ready to leave the Philippines but that was more so due to those Western comforts – like a needy friend – pulling me back, and possibly something to do with the unbearable heat. So much left still to discover in the magnificent Philippines, but isn’t that part of the joy of travelling? To leave some rocks unturned in a wanderers hope that it gives us an excuse to one day return.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

 

West Coast; Busuanga & Palawan

From Manila we boarded a 14 hour ferry to Coron town on Busuanga Island. Unlike the Indonesian ferries – wooden benches crammed full of people, chain smoking throughout the journey and a lack of air conditioning – our first experience of a Filipino ferry was surprisingly comfortable in comparison. Primarily due to the strong American influence in the Philippines, we found over the next month that many western practices had been incorporated into day to day life there.

What greeted us on our departure from the ferry was a town which, had it been western society, would still very much have been asleep. Yet as we arrived at 4am, the hustle and bustle of the day ahead had already begun – numerous tuk tuks (taxis) met us at the ferry port and local families were rising to commence their daily routines before sunrise. Coron predominantly consists of one main street laden with restaurants, shops and a few scattered dive shops. The charm of Coron lies in the fact that – although it is an ever developing tourist hub – it retains much of its local atmosphere. We spent almost a week here getting acquainted with Filipino life and diving some of the 8 magnificent wrecks which are sunk there.

Outwith Coron town, Busuanga Island is a maze of differentiating terrain which changes from steep inclines over dirt tracks to sandy beach paths in a matter of minutes. We ventured through this maze of terrain one day in the hopes of finding a deserted beach much spoken about by our hostel owners. The journey was magical – away from the main touristy town of Coron, local life plods along at a happily relaxed pace.We passed through many communities on our way, each consisting of 10 to 12 houses aside the road. Children ran after one another as the intense sun bore down on their skins in the stifling midday heat. Children, families and whole communities gazed in our direction as we rode over the bumps and waved in passing. Outside one particular small, rickety shack, locals of all ages were gathered and roared with laughter as a bottle of rum, followed quickly by another bottle of rum made its way round. As we drove past them, they shouted in our direction in Filipino, while waving rum bottles and sending large gaping smiles towards us.

The beach was deserted – bar a few local kids splashing in the sea – we had 4km of white sanded, blue watered paradise to ourselves and yes, it was as blissful as it sounds.

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After a week spent reveling in the beauty of Coron and the surrounding Busuanga, we got on a boat to Palawan. The boat was lined on either side with wooden benches and white, plastic chairs lined the middle providing multiple rows of seating for the journey. Locals and tourists alike piled onto this boat which looked like it could hold 10 rather than 50 passengers (always reassessing those western normative ideals). Both hanging pretty badly, we folded our limbs on top of each other and closed our eyes, all the while wishing the wild waters below away from our churning stomachs. Thankfully, the 6 hour journey passed without much sickness from either of us!

El Nido was a picturesque town to welcome us to Palawan. Narrow lanes are laden with western delights – anything from burritos to crepes. The shops – instead of holding small, intricate gems from surrounding areas – were stocked with western attire and prices to match. We wandered to the beach for dinner where many BBQ’s were roasting the local catches of the day and the sand was laden with plastic white chairs and tables – the beach alive with the buzz of a true tourist hub. Naturally, sitting in the midst of dozens of tourists, we decided to hire a moped the next day and escape to Nacpan beach to camp out in a beach hut.

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Sadly our days of lazing in hammocks and escaping the tourist buzz were cut short as my sinus infection – which had been slowly creeping in on my mind – was now having a wild party in my head. We headed back to El Nido so I could get some painkillers and lie in a fanned room rather than a stifling beach hut. After a few days of my head constantly feeling like I was smacking it against a wall, I ventured to El Nido Doctors – this being a ram-shackled house with a broken, handmade sign saying ‘drop-ins’ and pointing to a back door. Thankfully the doctor knew what was going on and, prescribing me some antibiotics, sent me on my way.

In my opinion, travelling through different countries one after the other provides you – or it definitely did for me – with a forever altering mentality. Just as you think you’re getting the hang of it – and by this I mean that you’ve learned enough words to barter at food markets, you know what is and how to get the local public transport, you’ve spoken to enough locals to know how to have a joke with them – you’re thrown into another culture completely. Yes, there is a certain overlap within South East Asian countries in terms of culture but if you really come to terms with the ways in which their society functions, they are all so widely different. That is the beauty of travelling – just when you are starting to feel comfortable, you voluntarily through yourself into another awkward, uncomfortable ball of fire which you’ve got to figure out all over again.

Our time spent on the West coast of the Philippines was us trying to experience the true nature of the country. To desperately try to wriggle free of the tourist hubs which are all too easy to comfortably slip into, and instead search for those hidden gems.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

Manila; A Baptism of Fire

Manila is a hypocritical baptism of fire to the Philippines. Hypocritical because momentarily I feared that the next month of my travels would be spent in places which mirrored this reckless, harrowing capital city; it was not. A baptism of fire as there is no respite in Manila – mocking gazes clung to our skin wherever we walked and sneering faces appeared around the corners of mysterious lanes.

As we wandered the filthy streets, a 3 year old child attached himself to my loose trousers, chasing my gaze while holding his tiny hand out in front of me. My mind fought against itself, silently questioning my morals as I held my gaze straight ahead, focused on some imaginary attraction in the distance, all the while praying the boy who was clung to my leg would lose interest and search for another victim. I despised myself for being so heartless; so detached.

The concept of detachment is something which I really mulled over during our months in South East Asia. I think that Western society makes it so incredibly easy for us to be detached; detached from issues of poverty – because I personally have never had a young child cling to my leg and beg me for money at home, detached from issues of meat consumption – because the majority of our population buy our meat packaged and ready for consumption, rather than choosing the chicken/duck/pig straight from our gardens and butchering it ourselves, and detached from third world development because we are already too comfy curled up on our cosy sofas with a glass of wine in hand. It becomes increasingly difficult to be detached when these people, these animals, these issues are standing right in front of you…screaming at you to listen, to pay attention, to take action. The issue with this is that the moment I stepped back into the comfort and ease of Western society, I started to feel that detachment creep back in and cloud the corners of my mind – to cloud my decisions once more and I have to fight everyday to disentangle what is right from what is simply easy.

Back in the dark streets of Manila, mothers with newborn babies nestled in their arms hovered next to our table with hands outstretched towards us as we absentmindedly munched through another meal. Mothers lie at the side of busy roads, inhaling the nicotine rush from their cigarettes with blanket scraps surrounding them as their daughters run between cars banging violently on the windows, pleading yet another far away gaze to be caught by their empty one. It broke my heart. Their faces haunt me now as I become immersed once again in the consumerist nature of Western society. In a culture which is constantly plaguing us with adverts insisting we buy more materialist items, convincing us daily that we won’t look, feel or be right without the latest item. Meaningless consumerism is something I feel pretty strongly about – especially after spending so much time with those who live such a minimalist lifestyle. It’s an issue which is deeply rooted in Western society and something that I want to write a full blog post on so I will leave it there for now.

Manila is a dark city, infested with crooks who take solace in your naivety of the winding lanes of the city and lurk in shadowy corners. Beggars meet your gaze at every turn, every shop corner and a breath stifling level of pollution attacks your lungs as vehicles jam together trickling along roads at a snails pace. We spent a few days in Manila on both our arrival and our departure from the Philippines and I can say with certainty that I would try to avoid it at all costs if I ever ventured back to the Philippines. As is with all travel destinations, this was simply my experience of Manila and I have no doubt there are many individuals who revel in its manic streets and have the ability to confront the suspicious, sneering faces.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)