Market Morning

By 2015, All Things Travel, Asia No Comments

We’re in Laoag city. Walking to the market this morning, the air’s warmth hugs my body. It’s eight a.m. and the sun’s rays are delicate but assuring. Getting anywhere requires the utmost alertness of the senses since the vehicular and pedestrian traffic are off the hook and sometimes indistinguishable one from the other.   People just hang off the sides of buses, bikes and jeepneys, jumping on and off as they please. To cross the street is to risk being run down by a swarm of tricycles or a big truck carrying boxes of fruit or cases of glass bottles of coca cola.

We miraculously manage to arrive at the market. All of us. In one piece. As soon as we go into the tent we are enthusiastically approached by several vendors with menus all boasting a number of dishes I have never heard of. These women are brilliant; all four of us buy an empanada and watch as one woman’s experienced hands roll out the bright orange dough and stuff it with fresh papaya, mango, local longanisa and then crack an egg into it.

As our empanadas sizzle in the deep fryer we fidget with a box-like machine that apparently produces coffee. I jam a five peso piece into the money slot and a small paper cup pops out of the bottom of the box which then fills the cup with a murky liquid that looks just like river water. I shyly ask the empanada lady if this is normal. She shyly tells me to “taste” as though if I liked it she would confirm its normality but if I didn’t she would do what she could to remedy the situation, obviously eager to please. After I awkwardly and apologetically reject the river water, she makes me a new coffee. It’s sticky and sweet.

By this time the empanadas are hot and crisp. We sit down at a table with a red gingham plastic tablecloth, which is promptly equipped with local vinegar and banana ketchup. I douse my empanada in vinegar and crunch into it; the egg is yokey, the fruit sweet and the longanisa spicy and rich. I’m in the Philippines and I’ve just bitten into the beginning of a two month long oriental adventure.


By 2015, All Things Travel, Asia No Comments

The sound of the tires reminds me of the speed and power around me. This bus is moving us towards our goal. Dimly it is lit, with red lights beckoning for attention. Headphones are in, and we are engaged with tones. Twenty-two of us. Sitting and waiting for movement.

This grey tube whining in the darkness, saying, ‘here I am, here I come.’ Screaming with energy and force, its hundreds of working parts are placed together to form a solid, automation of movement. Here I sit amongst it all. An impermeable membrane that tends to sweat in heat. A mass that has connections that make a consciousness that is aware; that it is aware.

Like the automobile the membrane is made up of hundreds ,if not thousands of parts. Working together to make movement. But is there a difference in the purpose, in the nature of the moment?

Both have destinations. The vehicle runs till it breaks down and cannot support the movement any longer. The membrane or the body, is the same. It goes till it cannot go anymore. It all depends on the make and model.

If we derive purpose from consciousness aren’t we just fooling ourselves. The body function is to carry the being that lives in infinity. Who lives in a world of pulses and chemicals; semi-connected to the rest of the world. The automobile carries people to their destinations. It takes people places, it kills people. But yet it is not conscious.

The bus keeps whining as we come around the turn. It is quiet. It’s 2:30 in the morning; darkness surrounds us. While the bus keeps moving my thoughts turn to my past travels. The warmth of the East, the people and its smells. The smell that gets into your senses. Rising up even in your thoughts. Words become the smell. Grimy,dirty, garbage and sometimes the subtle smell of the fragrance of the breeze from the mountains. At last the bus stops whining, but other voices are heard.

Excitement is impeded on the soul by careless people. They don’t know what’s ahead. The pain, the smells, the last memories of leaving a home that was so foreign, yet had become like home.

Mr. And Ms. University 2015

By 2015, All Things Travel, Asia No Comments

Never in my life have I known what attending a beauty pageant is like. After this experience I cannot say the same. Northwestern University put on a “Mr. And Ms. University” beauty pageant. Why? I will never know, but I can speculate!

Filipinos love to perform in the spotlight. Normally, they are modest and shy but they love to put on a show when given the correct outlet. Naturally they are attracted to the glitz and glamour of a beauty pageant. It allows them to dress-up in rolls of sparkly sequins and seven-inch heels. They have the confidence to strut their stuff on stage and show the crowd how good they are at entertaining.

So there I was, one of twenty white people on campus being ushered to sit well near the front (the 2nd row to be exact) in order to see best because we are guests. The sound booming from the speakers pulsated in my ears and palpitated against my heart. I sat back to experience the show for what it was. A college organized Filipino beauty pageant.

The girls in the bleachers went crazy when their favorite male contestant gave them a twinkling shoulder, while the men waited for the swimsuit competition so they could gawk at the women they would never obtain.

When the swimsuit competition finally started I had no choice but to watch as fourteen 15 to 19 year olds strutted their stuff on stage. Luckily Ate Jonah, my host mother, sat next to me and used her uproarious laughter to help me see the humor in the displays of half-nude, half-legal collegiates. Together we chuckled at the young men and women who tastefully bared it all in hopes of winning the pageant crown. Several times we broke out laughing when the young men posed as if they were highly sought after hunky models.

Northwestern University used local celebrities as judges and gave away awards from sponsors. The pageant contestants received grants and prizes as round one of awards seemed never ending. The students who participate have the opportunity to receive grants and prizes from local and national businesses. Receiving such prestigious awards can be an enticing incentive for any student to join in the competition.

As the loud award ceremony came to an end my Ate told us it was time to leave. We would be unable to stay for the evening gown competition and second round of awards. It was only 9:15 and the crowns would not be awarded until midnight! Thankful to make it out of there with my eardrums still intact, I could not help but take the whole experience as a Filipino cultural event. That night I went to bed feeling like I understood Filipinos just a bit better.

The Ocean

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From the road that I stood on, I could see the ocean. With sweat beading on my forehead and rolling into my eyes, nothing could have stopped me from making the trek toward that break. I stepped off of the pavement and onto the faded dirt path that entered into the foliage. It zigzagged, mimicking the river that flowed to my right. I stepped over a decaying tree and took a sharp turn to my left where a skinny cow blocked my way. Shocked by the beast, I froze. Then I laughed. I scooted around her and found my way again. Ducking, dodging, weaving, walking. Sweat was pouring down my face at this point and my shirt was getting darker. I watched every step as I was wary of snakes (my greatest nemesis). The forest was thick with palm branches and bamboo shoots. The healthy dark green leaves were masked by shadows as the 2 o’clock sun shone from above.  A vine caught my foot and I stumbled, but only for a second. I felt embarrassed but I don’t know why.

I heard the ocean now. The waves crashing beckoned me toward them. The river’s current was growing stronger. Its banks had been a dark, rich brown and their solidity was maintained by the roots of the trees. Now the structured walls lost their form and turned to sand. I followed the now sandy path along a gradual bend to the left. Around the corner it emerged in all its vastness and glory. Rolling waves thundered when they hit the packed wet sandy shore.

I picked up my pace until I was running. I kicked off my shoes and waded through the knee high river that was now emptying into the ocean. On the other side I stripped down to my boxers, stumbling over my pants and throwing away my shirt. I ran in up to my waist and then dove into the first wave that hit me! Oh it was refreshing! I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect temperature. It was cold but not shocking, just enough to rejuvenate me instantly. The salt tasted like freedom. I was smiling ear to ear and let the ocean pull me out just a little. I lay on my back and felt the life of the ocean through my whole body. It heals. The ocean heals everything. It heals physical, mental, and spiritual injuries. I could feel it healing me. Healing my cuts. Healing my stress. Healing my longing for God.

I rode a wave to the shore and let it wash me up. I laid there for a moment, letting the waves that followed massage my legs. Finally I stood up and took four steps forward and sat down to study its ways. It’s simple. In that moment nothing mattered. Everything made sense. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in through my nose. The salty air gave me life. I wanted more. I kept breathing with my eyes closed. In through the nose. Out through the nose. In. Out. In. Out. I opened my eyes and looked out across the empty space that stretched to the horizon.

Two Extremes

By 2015, Asia No Comments

There are two sides to everything, two extremes to every situation. Coming to the Philippines was a great example of that. Before coming here we talked about how there is not much of a middle class in the Philippines. It is one extreme or the other. Rich or poor.

Driving through the Philippines, on the way to Laoag city, we would pass slum communities where houses were made out of plywood and tin roofs. In the middle of the slums there were huge beautiful palaces. They seemed so out of place. It made me realize just how huge the difference between the rich and the poor really was. I was able to see first hand how closely related the rich and the poor were as well. It is heartbreaking to see how some people can own such huge houses and live in such luxury while in their back yard there are people living in huts with no money at all.

Our home stay in Laoag was another example. I stayed with the vice president of North Western University. They had an amazing house. Complete with a spiral staircase, and a bathroom in every room. The kitchen was huge, and there was a beautiful balcony that overlooked the university. There were only three people living in this mansion. These people were rich even by American standards. While we were living in luxury there where others whose home stays didn’t even have running water, some where families slept on the floor. Some  had huge extended families all living in the same tiny house.

Laoag had this mix of rich and poor everywhere you went but nothing compares to what I saw when we got to Manila. Driving through town, my heart broke for the people on the street and the state they live in. As we drove we saw families whose whole life was in bags and scattered along the side of the road. They slept on pavement and begged for money during the day. Every time we passed a person living on the street it made me sick to my stomach. No one should have to live like this. Street children are common here. They walk around trying to get money any way they can, even by stealing and pick pocketing.

I felt even worst when we got to where we were having a museum tour. This was in the rich part of Manila. There were rich people everywhere you looked, Filipinos, Americans, and many others. There were highend restaurants and brand name stores like Hugo Boss, Gucci, Mark Jacobs, etc. I couldn’t believe these lush gardens and beautiful patios were here. There were no street people anywhere.  Only the rich. I couldn’t believe this place was here when such a sort distance away there are families with no money for food or money to put a roof of any kind over their heads. The people in this district walked around with not a care in the world, completely oblivious to what  is happening in their city.

The Philippines is an amazing place but there is such heartbreak everywhere you look. I could not believe the contrast between the rich and the poor. I had read, and people had told me about it.  But it is so different when you see it for yourself, when it is you that a street woman holding a baby is crying out to for help, and, when you live in the huge beautiful houses surrounded by the poor. It is different when you see first hand the smiles as well as the sad faces of the street children just trying to survive, when you see for yourself the two extremes.

Reflections on the Philippines

By 2015, Asia No Comments

It’s hard to believe that two weeks have passed already and that our time in the Philippines is drawing to a close. We end our time in the capital, Manila, where we began. My first impression was that, aside from the heat it wasn’t all that different from back home, from Calgary. The streets were plastered with huge ads (and to my surprise, most of them were in English too), and filled with Filipinos. My high school experience consisted largely in building relationships with Filipinos, the majority ethnicity of my school.

On the long drive to Laoag my impression began gradually to change. For the first two days there things were comfortable. We stayed in a Westernized hotel where there were hot showers, toilet paper and Western toilets, where squatting was optional.

In our home stay family things began to change. The people were absolutely lovely, but they had a very different way of living. Showers consisted of pumping water into a bucket and then throwing that over my head. But I didn’t mind at all; it saved water and to forced me to shower quickly.

Religion here was also an interesting experience. With the Philippines being the third largest Catholic country in the world, I had set my hopes very highly. At mass in downtown Laoag, the church was so full I had to stand at the back, one of probably over 500 people. Our host mother told us that mass is said hourly at St. Williams on Sundays, and that all of them were this busy.  People leaving mass were bombarded by street children trying to sell  flowers, balloons, rosaries and many other things.

At North Western University, the school we were attending, I encountered more non-Catholic Filipinos than Catholic. My roommate and I had an interesting experience when we took public transit to Pagudpud, two hours away, with our host mother and her sister. As they were loading the bus, a woman began speaking in a loud voice in a language I did not understand. She stood at the front, facing everyone, closing her eyes and swaying as if reciting something; she then opened a book and said in a thick accent a Gospel name and a verse and then continued speaking. She was preaching!  The bus crew worked around her without even batting an eye. She then went around asking for what she pegged in English a “love offering” and then left.
I don’t doubt that the conversation about religion will continue, but in a completely different way, since Malaysia is filled mostly with Muslims.  As sad as I am to leave the Philippines, I am looking forward to the next leg of my journey, as I’m sure I will continue to grow and learn in ways what I could never anticipate!

The City

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I came into this world of small alleys and busy streets. The ways are littered with tricycles and jeepneys. The hustle and bustle of this strange world seems like a reflection of myself. Laoag city is very confusing at the first glance, but it becomes a system of confusion and a strange order within itself. For such a small town boy, realizing all of this so soon was weird. Overwhelming. There is a strange phenomenon that happens when one enters the city. The crazy buzzing and humming of the motorcycles becomes something you count on, and becomes quiet, just as the feeling of being overwhelmed becomes ‘normal’?.   You get used to weaving through crowds of people and being the center of attention, and the struggles and challenges of everyday life become as smooth as dealing with the masses. Being the center of attention becomes an intentional humbler: realizing that you don’t deserve this special godly initiation that is presented upon you. The power of being white is strong, but not taking advantage of this weakens it, and I am humbled to do so. The dark smog that overcomes the city is lifted. I realize that in all of the commotion, there is an order, just like in my dull mind.

I miss home. I miss the quiet ignorance of the everyday, the dulling silence that we think sharpens us in our slow, uneventful, and unchallenging lives. The quietness that we are comfortable in, of not having to be aware of anyone else’s comfort, is a soothing thing.  Being a guest in the busy streets creates a lean edge on psyche. Thinking that I am separate from this world back at home destroys our humility; it heightens our sense of self. That aura radiates from us. As we roam through the madness and get lost, we get treated like gods, but we realize that this is our wrong. This makes us humble, heightened in the world, sharp, stronger, harder. It helps lift the chaos of the city, and makes us one with our mind. Because the city is made by us, just like the clouds in our head.


Finding Balance

By 2015, Asia No Comments

Journeys: you either have too much time on your hands or not enough. But what do we do in those periods of waiting? The way I see it, there are only a couple of options: 1) converse with others, 2) mindlessly look at a screen of some sort, 3) adventure of any kind, or, 4) take the opportunity of silence and just sit with your thoughts. (Most times I choose the 4th option).

As an introvert I have always understood the value of being alone. It not only recharges me, it gives me time to collect myself and my thoughts. Though, the funny thing is, on group trips you go in with the assumption, or at least I did, that alone time is scarce, that you have to snatch any opportunity you can to be alone.  I have discovered that that is not necessarily the case. No one truly realizes all the time you spend traveling from place to place. As well as the amount of time travel gives you to be alone with your thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wondrous opportunity when needed. But what I am noticing is that it can be a very dangerous thing too.

It can be dangerous when you are in a place of wonder and questioning. Or, when you can feel yourself slowly changing and wanting to change, I think spending too much time in your head can cause you to be sucked into a whirlwind, a chaos that is created by your own thoughts. This is when old things can start to resurface. This is when we get caught up in our own problems. But what we need to learn is to be in the present moment, and, to voice the things we are having trouble with.  Especially on a trip like this.

One of the things I am starting to learn is: there is such a thing as too much alone time. (And all the introverts in the world gasped and said, “Too much alone time?! I have never heard such absurd statement.”) Yes, I said it. But it’s true. Balance is needed in everything we do. As well, you can take the time to be alone, even when people surround you.  It sounds like an oxymoron, but if you think about it, you’ll realize it’s true.

This isn’t a new revelation; this train of thought has probably been expressed time and time again. But we need to discover things of this nature on our own. Alone time is precious, but make sure you don’t miss what this world has to offer.


Lizard Diary

By 2015, Asia One Comment

Something you may not know about me is that I am an avid lizard watcher. I love the way they scurry around from place to place, displaying their impressive dexterity and agility. Throughout our stay here in Laoag, I have had ample time to pursue this obsession.

One hot afternoon I found myself down by the river, underneath the bridge, drinking a less than cold beer and chewing on some dried mangoes when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was motionless, about four inches long, blended in with the pillar it was sitting on. In the background some children and tattooed teenagers were swimming in the river as a man washed his dishes in the muddied water. I sat and watched this magnificent lizard for a moment, but  when I moved in for a closer inspection, it took off. With lightening speed it raced down the pillar and headed over to where a half-naked man was cooking a couple of fish that he  had recently caught with his spear gun.

As I moved closer, the man with his old portable stove-top offered me some of the fish that he had put the effort into catching, presumably for his family, who were also gathered around. I gladly accepted his generosity and proceeded to eat with them, all the while keeping an eye on my lizard friend.

The lizard slowly made its way toward a pregnant girl, who happened to be 18 years old, and holding a child that looked to be around the age of two. She told me she worked at the carnival nearby, in one of the booths, and that her husband also worked there. They were from Manila, and only in Laoag temporarily. She was very pretty, and made me promise to visit her at her booth later when she would be working. When she noticed the stealthy lizard by her leg, she shooed it away, causing it to dart past where a feral cat was lazily walking along, and, into a crack and out of sight. That was the end of that lizard adventure.

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