It’s More Fun in the Philippines

My #asianadventure continued to the Philippines to meet my handsome half-filipino beau. His grandparents, aunt, uncle & cousins all live outside of Manila and he’s been venturing to the Philippines his whole life. After three years of being together, I was finally going to meet the rest of the family that I had heard so much about. Upon arrival we landed at a buffet and I quickly learned that ten days in the Philippines would be filled with food, family love, and the combination of the two familial food pushing, that followed by naps. 

His Lolo & Lola (grandparents) were the most welcoming hosts and I instantly felt apart of the family. Anytime I walked past his Lola in the house she asked, “Are you hungry? You should eat,” regardless of whether or not we had just eaten 20 minutes prior. There is nothing as sacred as a grandmother’s love, that’s for sure. Their home was in a quiet gated community with lush green surrounding it and a backyard that felt like a secret garden. They had many different tables for eating meals and I giggled when I started to realize we ate each meal in a different outside eating location. His Lola’s homemade food was never-ending…pork, fish, rice, rice and more rice. Lechon (pig), chicken adobo,  prawns with their face on… I’m not a super adventurous eater by nature but I was trying it all. I even tried one “no thank you bite”, as my mom called it growing up, of balut, a duck embryo. The many filipinos that I met on the cruise ship had stressed the importance of trying this “delicacy” and with the pressure of Basti’s family…I figured I couldn’t miss a cultural opportunity. But one bite of that salty but strange hard boiled duck baby and I was DONE, thank goodness for San Miguel’s beer to chase away the taste. On a yummier note, I got to try Basti’s favorite breakfast…tocino which is a one of the most popular cured meats in the Philippines, reddish brown candied glazed pork paired with garlic fried rice and a runny Sunny-Side-Up egg. GAME OVER. The most delicious mango you’ve ever imagined after for dessert. You can start to see why the food commas inspired so many naps. 

We made our way out of the house and into the crazy Filipino streets aka the Wild Wild East. Pedicabs, Jeepneys, & motorbikes with four people to a seat crowded the streets lined with stalls, general stores, & automobile repair shops. Jeepneys, the most common mode of transportation in the Philippines, are very iconic to the country. Originally made from U.S. Military Jeeps leftover from WWII, they are known for their crowded seating and kitsch decorations. No two look the same varying from usually a bright red, yellow or turquoise paint job and some phrase like “Gift of God” with a picture of Mary painted somewhere on it. I started to realize the rules of the road is that there are NO rules. Cross whenever you “feel” it, whip a U-Turn here sure, pull over to pick something up. No signaling, no problem! Just glad I wasn’t driving! I think the most vivid memory I have of driving is when we passed a truck full of pigs in the back of a truck being transported to be our food…you can’t see that on the 405!

We had a cultural day in Manila starting at the National Art Gallery filled with historical works of art. We then went on the most entertaining walking tour with a one man show performed by Carlos Celdran. His tour called Walk This Way was filled with humor, drama, singing, hat changing, candy throwing and so much more. We explored Manila’s ancient walled city of Intramuros and learned so much about the fascinating history of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines. Conquered by the Spanish priests to spread Catholicism for 300 years, and then the US for 50 years, it is a hodge-podge culture. Back when the Spaniards came over, people still believed the Earth was flat so the Philippine Islands were the last chuck of land before phewwwww kerplunk….the drop off they imagined. The King only sent priests that he hated to the islands with the hope that they wouldn’t come back. One of the most interesting facts for me was about the language. Every word in their language that has to do with describing abstract things like nature, spirit, love are in Tagalog the native language, anything describing objects like paper (papel), ceiling (cielo) are in Spanish, and anything describing a brand like Coke, Kleenex, Kodak (it’s even a verb to kodak, take a photo) are from American products. Manila was bought along with Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands to the US for 1 million dollars at the turn of the century. It even fought to be the 50th state at one point. In the 1920s, during the American Occupation, Manila was “the Pearl of the East” with the first movie theater, the first Asian country to import Coca-Cola and the first Pan Asian Airline. Then everything changed when the Japanese invaded during WWII and were brutally massacring anyone and everyone until Douglas MacArthur the US General ruling the roost, made the decision to drop a bomb on his precious city of Manila to get Japan out. Since  then the US only repaired buildings that they had built, which were minimal in comparison to what was destroyed and the city has never recovered. Knowing what a glittering hub of cultural collision it once was and seeing the poverty stricken city it is now was very hard to believe. Our history lesson eventually led to a ride in a local’s pedicab with a genuine smile and calves of steel who managed to cross four lanes of traffic and safely get us to our final destination of the tour: St. Agustin church. Four hundred and forty four years old, it is the last remaining church built in Manila. There was a wedding going when we got there, the most romantic way to end a perfect day saturated with history and new sights. 

Driving through the city, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the poverty. Bamboo based huts with tin roofs, stuck together with some spit and hope were built on top of each other. We sat in traffic and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the street life out the window. Chickens and street dogs ran around the stores selling everything from roasted chicken and nuts to deodorant and SIM cards inside. Kids walked home from school, average people from work. Everyone in nice clean clothing, although they lived in a city that needed a power wash and a lot of love. I was surprised by how together people looked, dressed up nicely, while the appearance of houses and shops were so below the poverty line. Another example of how the third world can make enough to survive and feel good in their day to day clothing but not have enough to fix their leaky roofs or pay for their kids to go to college. I was so humbled by the smiling and laughing. I saw joy, not struggling, love, not fear or sadness. My favorite moment of the trip is captured below. I had my window rolled down taking the life in that I saw and this happy father, probably not much older than me, was over the moon excited to engage and show off his bundle of joy. 

Candi & Fish, Basti’s sister and her boyfriend flew from Australia to join in on the final few days of fun. They were the last puzzle piece of Basti’s family I had yet to meet and it was long overdue. They were welcomed with a home-cooked buffet as well and wined and dined until they passed out from a long day of traveling. The next day we hopped into the car for a little road trip to a couples retreat through the provincial Philippines to Laiya beach in the city of Batangas. We arrived to this fabulous bungalow haven with no other guests around. White sand beaches, lush mountains behind us, a beer in hand, it couldn’t get any better…until we realized we could get $8 massages (tip included) in the said bungalows listening to the waves crash. If I ever go missing, this is the ONLY clue I’m giving you to where you can potentially find me. The other guests were mainly filipinos and since they mainly try to avoid the sun at all costs, we were truly the only ones on the beach both days. We ate and drank and drank some more. Sharing sunsets and memories to last a lifetime. The next morning we woke up to the most gorgeous orange and pink sunrise and went for a perfect morning swim. What a way to start the day! One more massage couldn’t hurt before hopping back in the car to return home. (twist my arm….)

Back at la casa de Aguto’s, yet another filing buffet awaited us…but this time it was different. Banana leaves were laid down on the table and to truly enjoy this family style feast we got to do it the traditional Kamayan way, eating with our hands! Lola giggled when we said OF COURSE to that style of eating and we slid our food off our plates and chowed down. A night I will never forget!  

My whirlwind trip to Asia was winding down and I started to reflect on the incredible cultures I had been submerged in. Seeing this country as well as South Korea with locals (and transplants) was the most amazing way to experience a foreign country. After a year of traveling, the biggest difference I noticed in this continent was how cool I felt to be American. As a millennial, growing up with Bush in one nation under fear, I don’t feel the patriotism my parents and their parents have felt as an American. I am grateful for the first world education and endless opportunities that it has given me but through traveling I’ve noticed we don’t have the same international rapport we once had. After roaming through Europe and South Africa this year, I got so tired of the “what a joke your country is, Donald Trump for president?” comments that I was receiving, I started to be happy when people assumed I was Canadian rather than a stereotypical loud mouth, ignorant American. I only say that because I saw such an overwhelming amount, especially on the cruise ship. It was cool again to be from America and I was really taken back by that reception. Definitely inspired me to be a singing sensation in Asia…just saying. 

With a permanent food baby of rice in my belly, it was the first New Years that I didn’t focus on health & wellness but rather on gratitude. I saw too many ribcages from hunger to worry about the extra pounds of love I had gained on vacation. I am hyper sensitive to the fact that the culture I am accustomed to is worried about our waistlines while others are worried about starvation, fixated on the hottest diet while entire countries face malnutrition. If we took more time to focus on the unequal distribution of wealth and less time worrying about our abs, we could make a difference. Even if we just start by appreciating our own perfect bodies of any shape & size, appreciating the ability to be well fed to the point of wanting to make a change and exercise, that alone would make a tidal wave of difference. 

My time in the Philippines was priceless, filled with family love, eye opening experiences, and first, second, third (we aren’t judging you ever!) rounds of food. Someone described the filipino culture to be similar to a famous dessert of theirs called halo-halo. It translates to “mixed together” because it’s a little bit of everything: shaved ice & evaporated milk which are added to boiled sweet beans, jello and fruits. I will forever cherish the glimpses I saw of true filipino culture, mixed together with the ingredients of generosity and love.