by Isabella Gabrielle
I spent two weeks in the Philippines and at first it was rough. The roads overflowed with trucks, tricycles and cars that drove recklessly. And while parts of Manila mirrored America with luxury apartments, hotels, skyscrapers and restaurant cafés, other parts resembled a third world country with shacks made out of rusted sheet metal and laundry hung up outside. Some Filipinos lived in hardship, but always had a smile—which made me wonder, what keeps them going?
After staying in the city for a few days, my family and I left Manila to Donsol and sat in a van for 12 hours. There’s no major highway to reach other provinces of the Philippines, so we drove through small villages on dirt roads and the tops of mountains through tiny roadways. It was terrifying to look out the window at times. By the time we reached to the resort, I was relieved to have a room with a calm ocean view.
You visit Donsol to swim with the Butantings, or Whale Sharks, in their natural habitat. No live feeding to lure them in. My family and I went to the nearest interaction facility. The spotter stood on top of the sail pole for an hour and kept an eye out for the sharks to swim back up for air. I felt like I was on an episode of the National Geographic channel. After an hour of searching, we finally received the signal from our lead diver and quickly put on our snorkeling gear to jump out of the boat. Within seconds after the bubbles cleared, I saw a whale shark swimming towards me. Oh you know, just a sea creature with an enormous mouth, small eyes, gigantic blue body with white dots heading my way. I quickly swam away to make sure we did not bump heads. My adrenaline kicked in through that surreal experience. Later on, I jumped out of the boat three more times.
Staying in Donsol made me notice the little things. The slight movement of the waves, high and low tides, small fish and the way of the Filipino people. They were respectful, friendly—and always wore flip flops. Technology felt unnecessary here. When I walked down to the Sari-Sari store, to load data onto a cell phone brick, the process made me realize that I was better off without it. I learned how to listen to my senses without having a device telling me what to do. Even the stray dogs were friendly and smiling. Maybe they too were happy living a simple life and blessed to view the sunset by the ocean everyday.
The next stop was Coron, Palawan. We flew on a small plane where the flight was only an hour and a half. From the window seat you can see the scattered islands and the brightest blue of crystal water. It was breathtaking from above and below. We stayed at a resort outside of town, but later hopped on my first tricycle ride to grab some last minute snorkeling gear. On the way there, I saw some stray dogs and little kids playing with sticks. The next day we went on a Coron Island Tour and had a great host to show us around. We visited iconic spots and beautiful viewpoints. Swam in the reefs with fish and corals. Even touched a WWII shipwreck underwater (kinda creepy). My favorite part was sailing through a path surrounded by ancient rock formations. Some were covered with greenery, others looked pointy. I was sure those rocks held magical secrets.
Palawan was another part of the Philippines that revealed something to me. It was the lifestyle of the Filipinos intertwined with the sea. Knowing how to sail through the islands with no Google Maps, using pure instincts, free diving to catch fish for dinner, was all incredible. I felt my inner island girl coming out in Coron. My heart was telling and showing me the beauty of my motherland.
My final days in the Philippines was spent in Manila. We met a a few of my mom’s childhoods friends, which brought her so much joy. I was able to comprehend them speaking in Tagalog, but wasn’t so great at holding a conversation. We visited the neighborhood where my mom grew up and first met my dad. Paid respect to my grandparents. Rode in terrifying traffic. Visited malls and went through the natural routine of bomb checking. Honestly, it all became normal.
Experiencing the provinces of the Philippines and coming back to the city, changed me. My mind became open to a new culture and the various different lifestyles. During the beginning of this trip, I was confused on what Manila could offer. I found out that there was actually something. How do the Filipinos smile and laugh through their hardships? All of the Filipinos I met in Manila, Coron and Palawan all had big hearts filled with hope. Not having much, is having more. Something I want to hold on to forever.
Now back in New York, daydreaming of my island adventure. I was just in the restroom, washing my hands, and gave a smile to an elder Filipino woman. She asked “Filipino ka ba?” I replied “Opo.”