A 3-week backpacking trip in the Visayas at the most unfortunate time

Threats from a local terrorist group named Abu Sayyaf shook the sleepy town of Inabanga, Bohol early this week. There were death reports of soldiers, policemen, and even the leader of the group, and most residents of the town got rattled with the war. Well, who wouldn’t be? That’s Abu Sayyaf. They are known for bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, and all cruel things done in the name of money.

And here I am, traveling around the Visayas at the most unfortunate time not only because of the terrorist threats but also because of the earthquakes happening all over the Philippines. A 5.4-magnitude hit Batangas, Metro Manila, and other parts of Luzon, packed with a series of aftershocks; a 5.9-earthquake hit Luzon; another 5.4-magnitude hit Bicol and Eastern Visayas, and a 6.0-magnitude rattled central Mindanao—all happened in a week or two.

Of course, that didn’t stop there. A man from Cebu, who is under the influence of drugs, stabbed a teenager from Makati and a four-month pregnant woman from Dumaguete to death during a longboarding competition in Siquijor prior to my visit. (May their souls rest in peace.)

I have waited for this trip since 2017 came in, but the world keeps on throwing shades. Let’s jump into the bright side of things, yes?

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I was on Lakawon Island back in November 2016 and a lot has changed five months after
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Friends from Bacolod namely Caitlin, Febs, and Michael

Bacolod

I just finished my four-day trip to Bacolod on April 7 to 10. I got reunited with my local friend Michael who took me to El Ideal and Balay Negrense upon my arrival.

I went to Lakawon Island on my second day, where I revisited a local bartender friend, met three bubbly women, and met another woman who went back to her hometown Victorias City to reconcile with her then-boyfriend. Let’s just keep the latter’s identity under the name ‘Nakakaloka.’ I had a good talk with Nakakaloka when I was on Lakawon. We even planned to go to Bantayan Island the day after, but I convinced her to come with me to Siquijor instead. When I came back home to the hostel, I immediately went to my room and worked on two articles due next day, which made me decline Michael’s invite to go out that night, but viola: a short brownout came just when I needed electricity the most. I was alone in the four-bed room, so I came down the lobby in a heartbeat. I then had a good conversation with Febs, the front desk officer on duty that night, until the electricity went back on.

My supposed trip to Dumaguete on my third day came, but Nakakaloka ghosted and ditched me. And that’s okay because she reminded me not to trust anyone easily again. On the bright side of it, I was able to spend my last two days with Michael and Febs in Victory, Chikaan, and Balay Bintana. The two even offered the sincerest prayers over me before I leave from Dumaguete, the jump-off point to Siquijor.

Febs and I are still thankful up to this day that I declined Michael’s invite and that the brownout came. I’ll be back in Bacolod for the both of you!

Dumaguete

Guess what: I trusted someone easily again when I reached Dumaguete. He’s someone I met on Facebook, and I asked if I could couch surf for a night; he humbly accepted despite the short notice. Let’s keep him under the name ‘Bongga.’ I arrived in Dumaguete bus terminal at 12 MN where Bongga picked me up and had a quick catch-up along the way. Bongga is also from Paranaque and the thought of it instantly gave me a sigh of relief!

But I got a little bit worried when we reached a village filled with trees. I was alone with someone I just met on Facebook, and we were in a village filled with trees. Damn.

Nasaan tayo? [Where are we?]” I asked.

Ito yung village… Seminaryo kasi ‘to. [This is the village. It’s a seminary.]” he said.

I was surprised. As far as I know, women are prohibited to stay in seminaries, but they still welcomed and gave me a private room for free. I was so happy I landed in the right (but wrong) place after my trust issue with Nakakaloka and a 7-hour bus ride from Bacolod!

Thank you, Bongga! Til we meet again!

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Waiting sheds are more fun in the Philippines
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Boats made up of cans are a popular toy in Siquijor. Most kids like Hans rush by the beach to pull and race their toys under the heat of the sun

Siquijor

I’m on a week-long trip in Siquijor now, which is an hour and 30-minute ferry ride away from Bohol. The island-province is currently on a high alert. Policemen and soldiers are dotted around ports and destinations to keep both locals and tourists safe from terrorist threats.

I spent my time by the beach with the local kids on my first day and went back to Enchanted Balete Tree and Lazi Church yesterday.

Ate, paano ako pupunta sa balete? May tricycle ba dyan? [Ate, how do I go to balete? Is there a tricycle outside?]” I asked ate Cherry Mae, the niece of the owner of the inn I’m staying in.

“Nako, wala. Malayo yun. Ingat ka ngayon ha, delikado. Alam mo ba yung sa Bohol? [Oh no, there’s none. Balete is far from here. Take extra care today. Have you heard about what happened in Bohol?]”

We had a quick talk about the mishap until a tricycle came and I alighted in Enchanted Old Balete Tree. I was enjoying my fish spa when a group of soldiers came to check the welfare of everyone on the spot. We’re okay. I’m happy to know how prepared and vigilant the policemen and soldiers were. When they left, I continued my exploration on the tree. I learned that the water from the fish spa comes from an underground cave beneath the tree. Some say the cave is 24-feet deep, some say it is 60-feet deep, but the depth doesn’t make the tree less enchanting. Don’t you just love learning new things about the places you’ve been to? I do! It’s like rewatching an old movie for the tenth time and noticing something new for the first time!

I then spent my whole afternoon in Lazi Church where I met Duhaylungsod sisters named Fatima and Mikee. They kept me company the whole time and asked me a lot of questions.

May boyfriend ka na? [Do you have a boyfriend?] Mikee asked.

Wala [None],” I said.

Meron kasi dito wala pa siyang girlfriend… Yung pulis doon. [We know someone who doesn’t have a girlfriend. The policeman from there.]” she teased.

Ano ka ba, bata pa siya! [Stop it, she’s young!]” Fatima said.

We parted before sunset and I hope I could bring them to Salagdoong Beach or Cambugahay Falls while I’m here.

It’s 5 AM as of typing and I have two beach trips by 8 AM. My sound sleep got cut short earlier because of the power interruption at 1 AM, so I went out only to be deafened by the silence and be blinded by the darkness, which led me to write this piece. Brownouts make me hate alone times, but I’m thankful how it has been leading me to beautiful phases since I was in Bacolod.

The power got back at 2 AM and I can’t sleep anymore because there are two fat-ass rats running around my room and a cockroach decided to fly on my bed. I miss home, but I shall move to Bohol for a ferry ride to Camiguin next week if all is well in the province by then.

The sun is popping, the tide is rising, cocks are clucking, birds are chirping, dogs are running, motorcycles are racing, my stomach is grumbling, new chances are coming, and a new day is spinning. Hope you are enjoying yours, every day.

World in my words,

Mikee

Thriving through Tribes

It was raining hard while we were on our way to Yangil Village, Zambales. As we braved an hour-long trek, the sweltering heat of the sun came in between whips of rain, the loose lahar and volcanic ashes mixed with mud, the sudden darkness covered the morning sky, and the river current almost washed our weary bodies away. All of a sudden, the seemingly end-of-the-world scenario when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 1991 flashed before my eyes.

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The almost two-kilometer-stretch of lahar and volcanic ashes

The eruption painted the provinces of Tarlac, Pampanga, and Zambales black and white and took away belongings, livelihoods, bursting vegetation, and more than 800 lives, followed by series of earthquakes, a typhoon, and mudflows—making it the “second largest eruption in the twentieth century.”

“Lahat ng pag-aari namin napinsala [All of our possessions got swept away],” Yangil Tribe Chief Erise recalled as we trek. “Wala kaming nabitbit kahit isa. Pati mga palay, kalabaw at baboy, naiwan. Ang nadala lang namin ay iyong suot namin [We were not able to save anything. We lost our crops, our carabao, and our pig. All we had was the clothes we were wearing].”

It took the Aeta survivors in Zambales about five years to recover, but their resiliency still won over misery. “Inabutan kami ng limang taon bago kami nakabangon ulit [It took us five years to recover],” he said. “Hindi mo naman kaya mag-isa, kailangan gagawin niyo ang solution ng buong community, lahat kayo [You can’t recover alone. Everyone in the community has to work and find a solution hand in hand].” And they did. They strived hard to revive what they lost through agriculture and fishery.

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All ears on Raf Dionisio, center, as he explains the importance of planting trees

Twenty-four years later, The Circle Hostel and MAD Travel co-founder Raf Dionisio veered away from the norm and found the heart to help alleviate the poverty the Aeta community has been facing through “voluntourism” and refinement of their land. Since 2015, he has spearheaded a tribal tour called Tribes and Treks, where people go on a trek for an hour, cross four rivers, plant hundreds of seedlings, and live like a local in Yangil Village, Zambales.

“Our take on tourism is that it’s supposed to be fun. I like it to be inspiring and to be very educational to people. We have a culture of destructive tourism in the country and I would like to change that. We want to create a model that’s really good for the environment—where tourism grew it back [rather] than took it away. Our main goal is their [Aeta community] sustainability and the environment’s sustainability. It has to be both,” Dionisio firmly shared.

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Eyes (and feet) on the puddle
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One of the four adventure-packed river crossings

The Yangil tribe

The road to Yangil Village is no easy trail, but the stories along the way made everything light. An almost two-kilometer-stretch of lahar and volcanic ashes, and four rivers with mild to rough currents need to be crossed to reach the village, and Aetas endure these from and to Yangil every single day to bring and sell fruits and crops in town, come hell or high water. As voluntourists, we braved the same roads and held on for our purposes: to help and to not let anyone get left behind—“walang iwanan” as they call it. Even before the tour went in full swing, a lot of people who visited Yangil and the eight other tribal villages in Zambales promised to come back to help them, but only a few stayed true to their words. More than anything else, Aetas need help on reviving what the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo had taken away from them—not money-making monsters, otherwise known as illegal loggers and miners, who add more destruction to their already barren ancestral domain.

“Many times they [Aetas] would say ‘Basta magkaisa kami, may mangyayari [Our hardships will pay off as long as we work as one].’ They understand that cooperation works. The system prior to Pinatubo explosion is if they have a farm, they invite everyone to farm with them. Magbabayanihan sila [They will work under the collective spirit of labor]. When they harvest, lahat sila makikinabang [Everyone will be able to benefit]. It’s pretty amazing how community-centric and how helpful they are to each other. It’s an absolute no-no for someone old to be hungry because the young have to feed them whether they are blood-related or not,” Dionisio recalled with admiration.

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Aeta kid peeks as we discuss in the room

When we reached the village, an Aeta kid timidly smiled and said, “Masaya kami kasi nandito kayo [We’re happy because you’re here].” Most of the Aetas kept mum but their eyes were overflowing with happiness by our mere presence. They welcomed us with fresh sweet potatoes and lemongrass tea for breakfast, and adobo, fried fish, and tinola for lunch.  The Aetas were also eager to let us experience their way of life through traditional archery, courting in the form of song and dance, and healing in the form of herbal medicines found in the mountains. In the long run, able voluntourists are projected to do literacy classes in the village to help Aetas gain more knowledge, especially in agriculture.

“The biggest problem is our ability to understand where they are economically,” he said. “We want it to be more on agriculture lectures because they have 3,000 hectares [of land]. They should be the one doing something on it. If they become successful, they can lower the cost of living here.”

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Planting under the balete tree

Breath of life

The final part of the tour allows voluntourists to plant as many calliandra and bamboo seedlings as they can. With the climate change we have been experiencing not only in the country but also around the world, trees serve as our saving grace, our breath of life. With their absence, sudden forest fires happen, temperature increases, and rainfall decreases—this led Dionisio to reforest the 3,000-hectare barren ancestral domain of the Yangil tribe.

“After discovering the tour, I learned about the situation of the rainforest in the country where there’s only three percent left. Because we don’t have the forest, we lose the ability to regulate and insulate ourselves from climate change. Either raining too much or raining too little, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, then there’s crop failure all year round because of too much sun or too much water,” he shared.

Forest nurseries for food security and medicine have been planted in the forest to make the tribe self-sufficient when it flourishes at 10 feet high in two to three years’ time. Seedlings are kept under the balete tree and are planted in the wild after 120 days. Calliandra trees are “non-invasive, make the land fire-proof, can be used as charcoal, create shade to cool the area, create mulch that increases the soil nutrients, and nurses the main forest trees.”

Dionisio is hopeful to plant 3 million trees by 2018. Currently, Yangil Village has more than 4,000 trees planted, half of the nurseries, a healthy carabao, hundreds of helping hands, and a thriving tribe.

“If we can get the system to reforest this town, I want all of them to be self-sufficient farmers. All the food we need for the tourists will be bought from those communities, their surplus will be used as start-up seedlings for the eight other tribes in the other areas,” he anticipated. “[What] I want people to take home is that the poverty of the land is the poverty of the people, and vice versa. People who are connected to the land by gardening, farming, they are very stable people; it keeps them very calm, and gives them a special appreciation of the land.”

Now, are you willing to help plant the remaining 2,996,000 trees?

Tribes and Treks tour is a joint, innovative effort by The Circle Hostel and MAD Travel. Part of the proceeds will go to the reforestation for the 3,000-hectare rainforest project in Zambales. Make a difference by joining their upcoming tours. Visit and book through The Circle Hostel website or through MAD Travel website.

This article was originally published in the November 2016 to January 2017 issue of Explore Philippines Magazine with Rhian Ramos on the cover.

All photos by Ian Francisco and Jisa Atrero.

How Travel Changed My Life

Traveling, say mostly solo on a monthly basis, is not always as gratifying as it looks like on social media. The life from behind the scenes is tough, exhausting, and requires a lot of courage and strength.

I was 21 then—young, able, and free—when I started the life of travel. I braved the Philippines at my own pace. The universe even conspired and led me to the freelancing world. I had all the time and the world became my office, so I went to Bulacan, Batanes, Batangas, Banaue, Pangasinan, Cagayan Valley, Baguio, La Union, Zambales, Iloilo, Guimaras, Bacolod, Cebu, Bohol, Boracay, Dumaguete, Siquijor, Zamboanga, Ozamiz, and South Cotabato.

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Took a quick shower only to find out I’ll be catching all the dust. South Cotabato, August 2016

I went out of the comforts of my home, I laid off my fashion vices, I endured sunburns and pimple breakouts, I got scarred under the sea, I got helplessly sick, I walked through steep rice terraces to reach a waterfall, I stayed on a remote island in time for my monthly period, I encountered rude people, I fell and broke for every man I met on the road, I slept in bus rides and in the airport when I ran out of funds along the way, I experienced a 5.2-magnitude earthquake at 2 AM while everyone else was asleep, I mentally transported myself to the places I’ve been to because I can’t come back yet, I lost sleep over articles that I had to submit the next day even when I was tucked in the middle of a coastal town, and I battled word wars with my parents when they disagreed on the day hike I paid for two months ago.

But why do I still travel? What do I get from it?

Because though uneasy, traveling allows me to grow and learn. Who would ignore that chance? Definitely not me.

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A 400-peso trip to Bohol with my beautiful mother. Virgin Island, February 2017

I learned to let go of my fashion vices when I started traveling. I used to save up for new clothes and shoes when I was younger just so I could don what’s on my favorite fashion blogger’s new outfit post, but my lavishness eventually faded when I found out on AirAsia, Skyjet Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, and Traveloka that a 400-peso blouse could take two persons to Bohol, an 800-peso sandals could take me to Cebu, and a 1,300-peso skirt could take me to Zamboanga. Every money I wanted to spend led me to the thought, “This amount could take me to this place.” Traveling made me realize that I could live with wearing the same set of clothes in a month or a year, that it’s okay to not always look well-put together, and that needs should always win over wants. The next time you say you can’t afford to travel, count all the money you spent on the clothes, shoes, and gadgets that you don’t even need, and think of where it could have taken you instead.

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5-star hotel? I’d rather sleep to the whip of the wind in a hammock by the sea. Bolubadiang Island, September 2016

I learned to drench under the fiery sun. I won’t forget Tita Dita’s face when she saw how red I was after my high-noon swim on Sta. Cruz Island. I also won’t forget how happy I was when I swung the wrecking ball out of the hammock on Bolubadiang Island. So much awaits, and I won’t discover them if I stayed in the hostel just because I was afraid to get five times darker. Remember: tan lines don’t last forever, but memories do.

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Asking for photo ops just so I could rest and breathe. Batad, January 2017

I learned how petty my problems were through the mountains. Whenever I hike, I always ask, “Kuya, malapit na ba? [Kuya, are we there yet?]” and kuya would be quick to answer, “Five minutes nalang [Just five more minutes].” It happens to everyone who hikes. We catch our breaths, get impatient on the distance, get toasted under the sun, and even good-humoredly curse who initiated the climb. But come to think of it: the locals who live in the mountains hike every waking day just to bring and sell crops in town, children brave heights and depths just to attend classes, and here we are being impatient and petty on the tolerable challenges ahead of us.

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During our Baguio weekend getaway, the man I met in Ozamiz posted this spot on an Instagram story saying, “I could get used to this [view].” So I went back, recreated it, and laughed the longing away because I, too, could get used to this [life without you]. Baguio, December 2016
I learned that traveling won’t resolve my heartbreaks. In fact, it caused me more pain. When my dearest grandfather died in March 2016, I thought that running away from our home was the key to getting over his death. But I found more pain as I went around places. I fell for every man I met along the way. I met someone in Zambales, in Banaue, in Ozamiz, in La Union, and in Baguio, to name a few. Every place gave me fleeting moments in its full isolation of time, and leaving them meant moving on not only from the place but also from the person who caught my fragile heart. And the cycle won’t end, the baggage gets heavier, but I become stronger.

I learned that it doesn’t matter if I get to explore all the 81 provinces of the Philippines or not. The challenge for me now is to build a good relationship with the locals, to linger longer, to understand by immersing, to grow through the heartbreaks and breakthroughs, and to revisit all the places I’ve felt a connection with such as Batanes, Zamboanga, Baguio, and Cebu.

Above all, we must live in the world to know the world.

World in my words,

Mikee

#TravelokaPH #WhyITravel #TravelokaStories

Places and traces

A new year has come, but memories of the past are still haunting me—memories of places that left traces, showing access to the state of trances. Every waking day mentally transports me to the places I’ve been to, places I’ve fallen in love with, and places I can’t get over with. Remembering is painful, but these chances are saving graces.

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La Union, December 2016

I was thinking about La Union yesterday. Its community, its energy, the grilled cheese sandwich in El Union, the family I adore so much, the sound of the wild waves, the reggae songs in Sandbar, 3D’s eargasmic voices on their year-end concert, Rico Blanco’s face, all the sunset I can’t chase, the forest trail to Tangadan Falls, the toned body and long brown hair of the surfers, the way surfers ride waves, the sea foam, how different walks of life found home in the surf town of San Juan, how people walk around in bikini, and how time slows down every time I sit by the beach. These chances are saving graces.

“But that is what islands are for; they are places where different destinies can meet and intersect in the full isolation of time.” -Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

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Zamboanga, October 2016

I woke up missing Zamboanga today. I saw a film of it on Facebook, and I lost count on how many times I clicked the play button. You should’ve seen the excitement on my face when I saw the stretch of Cawa-cawa Boulevard on the film. That spot hits close to home and I don’t even know why. The crystal-clear bodies of water, the vibe in Sta. Cruz Island, the fear I felt when I saw walo-walo snakes, the colorful vintas, the way we sang American Pie in the car, the sauce of Alavar’s curacha, the smell of the sea in Vista del Mar, the blurry sighting of Basilan as we chatted over ice box chocolate cake, all the stomach pain I had because of too much laughter, and all the tears I shed in Fort Pilar and in the airport because I don’t want to leave Zamboanga. Later on, I was asked when I am going back to the city. It made me sad because no matter how much I want to, I can’t go back just yet. “Ewan ko ha, pero parang iba talaga yung Zamboanga,” said Jisa as we recalled our moments back in the day. Zamboanga is really different. The city that I thought would kill me made me feel most alive. What a beautiful irony. These chances are saving graces.

“Places that seem lovely at first glance may actually be sinister, but places that feel sinister seldom turn out to be lovely.” -Andrew Solomon, Far & Away: Places on the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years

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Batanes, June 2016

I was dreaming about Batanes before and as I write this piece. I even booked a one-way and a roundtrip flight the other day, but I wasn’t able to pay for both because I am the poorest of the poor at the moment. The mix of emotions I had when I was about to deplane, the first breath of fresh air as I set foot on Batanes, its authenticity, the bursting flora and fauna on its thoroughfares, the impressive strength of the elderlies, the honesty of the locals, the sweet lobsters, the rolling hills, the church I want to get married in, the earthquake I felt while everyone else was asleep, the first motorcycle ride I’ve ever had, the scenic roadtrips, the spring water I drank in Spring of Youth, the towering pacific waves en route to Sabtang Island, the century-old stone houses, the notes I scribbled in the Blank Book Archive, the liberating feeling I had when I stood in Motchong Viewpoint, the way my new found friends and I laughed and waited for the sunset in Chawa Viewing Deck, and how I wanted to live there. These chances are saving graces.

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Baguio, December 2016

I kept having Baguio conversations with my friends for the past weeks. I stayed there for four consecutive weekends in December 2016, and for some reasons, I just can’t ignore the call of the mountains. Its spine-chilling breeze, the intense leg works I did, the affordable cost of living, the reasonable excuse it gives to wear a denim jacket in a tropical country, the smell of pine trees, the refreshing sight of wild sunflowers, the freezing bath time moments, all the meals I devoured in Darlyn’s Transient House, every cover-up I thrifted in the night market, the kilig I felt when my crush unexpectedly sat beside our table in KFC, the moment I descended the mountain via horseback ride, how it made me appreciate the sun even more, and how it made me love cities and mountains. These chances are saving graces.

Ahhhh places. You see, like people, places have a character of their own. Like people, places cast magical moments that they alone can give. Like people, places make you overthink. Like people, places make you fall in love. Like people, places break your heart. Like people, places give you intense separation anxieties.

“Places, like people, are complex, and loving them isn’t simple.” -Kate Milford, Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal

But unlike people, places stay even if you go on another journey. They patiently wait for you no matter the season, and not knowing when to come back or if you will ever have the chance to come back to a place is one of the saddest and electrifying things in the world. Sure, I live in the moment, but there are inevitable times when I find myself completely lost in my reveries, thinking about the exact moments I was seizing when I was in La Union, Zamboanga, Batanes, and Baguio. Remembering is beautiful and painful at the same time—even more painful than forgetting because you can’t forget without remembering. It has a strong power that makes you forget how to forget. Memories are the traces that lead us back to places, and these are saving graces.

May we all get back to the places we have fallen in love with, physically and mentally. I’ll never forget.

World in my words,
Mikee

Where my courage took me: 2016 travel recap

Like any other year, 2016 threw a lot of breakthroughs and breakdowns on me. I welcomed one of my best friend’s first born that felt like my own. Another best friend got engaged. I met beautiful souls from different walks of life. I embraced the life in North Metro Manila, which is an achievement for a south kid like me. I learned to write poems in Filipino. I started writing my book. I got reunited with my grandmother. I lost a lot when my grandfather died.

You see, like you, I gain and lose a lot of wonderful things and people every year. It happens. That’s how life teaches and shapes us. We just have to figure out how to turn our miseries—and curiosities—to great discoveries. In my case, I decided to see the world—or our motherland, the Philippines, at least. I didn’t let misery win over resiliency. I didn’t let the lack of time and money to hinder me from exploring. I went to Batanes, Cebu, South Cotabato, Zamboanga, Bacolod, Guimaras, Iloilo, Zambales, La Union, and Baguio, to name some, and I’ve never felt this alive and enlightened. I felt totally connected with Batanes, Zamboanga, and Baguio, but all the places I’ve been to marked different intensities of learning experiences in my life. I learned to trade the comforts of my sedentary life to a nomadic one. I learned to let go of my material vices. I learned to score cheap airfare tickets. I learned basic Bisaya. I learned that Mindanao is not all about chaos. I learned to be independent. I learned to endure long bus rides. I learned to entrust my life to habal-habal drivers. I learned to appreciate cities and mountains. I learned to battle with the imaginary anaconda on my mind every time I swim. I learned that locals are the best element in every destination. I learned to trust my poor ability on remembering road directions to lead me to the right places. I learned that I’m stronger than my grievances. I learned (okay, still learning) to be patient. I learned that there are two types of homes: people and places, and that both have to house joy and pain. Otherwise, you’ll be left homeless. I learned, relearned, perceived, and shared a lot.

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountains and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.” –John Lubbock

Here, allow me to reshare with all of you where my courage took me this year. Know that you’ll be reading a lot of my memories with places, phases, and faces AKA emotional breakdowns, post-travel depressions, and how I see life in general. Enjoy the ride.

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Friends from GK Enchanted Farm

JANUARY
Angat, Bulacan

My business trip to Bulacan is the first trip I had this year, and it led me to the magical world of Gawad Kalinga (GK) Enchanted Farm. I spent three days there and learned from the different social entrepreneurs around the world, listened and acquired wisdom from GK founder Tito Tony, spent time with the kids and the GK community, ate lots of farm-to-table meals, and well okay, gushed over western men who traded their fab life for the farm life to do good business and to be of help with GK’s mission to end poverty by 2024.

Starting off my journey this year at the GK Enchanted Farm shed a different kind of light to my perspective. It even gave me a three-month long separation anxiety, and you won’t understand why until you experience the farm for yourself. It’s a different world in there, I tell you.

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We luckily witnessed the sun set as we walked by the beach

MARCH
Matabungkay, Batangas

March is the most miserable month of my year because of my grandfather’s death. I was unprepared for his eternal rest. I cried myself to sleep. I almost lived in his wake and in the cemetery. I lost the heart to do anything, but my college best friends were quick to lift my spirit up by pulling off a Batangas trip.

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Shoot outtake

APRIL
Nagsasa Cove and Capones Island, Zambales

This Zambales trip with my workmates is the first and hopefully not the last getaway we will ever have. We went to Nagasasa Cove and Capones Island, and no matter how much we wanted to make it as leisurely as possible, work always win whenever we’re together. Thus, we decided to include the shoot we did in the glossies of the magazine, which I whole-heartedly wrote about!

Nagsasa Cove’s water is impressively crystal-clear, clean, and has lesser crowd than of Anawangin Cove. Meanwhile, Capones Island is dotted around with garbage! It’s disheartening to see a small island brimming with limestones like that.

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Keepsakes from Calle Crisologo

MAY
Ilocos

I went to Ilocos for the first time with my mommy, my sister and her boyfriend, and their workmates. Ilocos had a sentimental effect on me because it was the last getaway my deceased grandfather had with his friends before his sickness came. Nonetheless, I just chose to relish what he saw and experienced on his last few days in our world while I was there. I had an exhilarating sand dune ride. We went to Paoay Church. We were left in awe with the beauty of the gigantic windmills. We got to swim in Pagudpud right before the rain pour. The trip turned out pretty well except that Calle Crisologo was jam-packed with tourists!

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Few minutes before I got lost in Marcos Island

Hundred Islands, Pangasinan

My trip to Hundred Islands is probably one of the most productive trips I’ve ever had with one of my best friends this year. With just a span of a day and a half, we were able to squeeze in a lot of activities without having to compromise time. We went to five islands, snorkelled, cliff dived, camped out, saw a giant clam, and I got embarrassingly lost on Marcos Island.

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My legs were shaking from the heights, hence the awkward stance

JUNE
Batanes

Ahhh Batanes, the most beautiful place I have ever been to in the Philippines! I explored the province alone, and went back home with more than 10 new friends! The locals are very obedient, honest and trustworthy. They have the sweetest lobsters. Their meals are generously served, and by that, I mean three viands in one meal for one person. Damn. Each place has the best of both worlds. Their thoroughfares are surrounded with trees, hills, or sea. I even found the heart to live and hold my future wedding there. Every part of it will just make you feel alive. The cost of it may take you to Japan, Singapore, or Korea, but this is Batanes. Its beauty is one and only. See it for yourself. I can’t wait to be Batanes-alive again!

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Got Pescador all to myself

JULY
South Cebu

I was terribly sick when I went to South Cebu alone, but the doze of Vitamin Sea I got relieved me for a while. I went to Pescador Island, Sumilon, Moalboal, and Oslob. I swam with the sardines, turtles, and whale sharks, which I openly regretted. I got the funniest tour guide and lived in a cozy transient house.

I’m coming back next year for Osmeña Peak, Kawasan Falls, and other parts of North Cebu and the city itself!

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Willy’s Rock in Station 1

Boracay

I went back to Boracay alone with no plans and accommodation at all, but hey, I survived! I was able to swim, paddle board, paraw sail for free, and spend the night listening to that eargasmic reggae band along Station 2.

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All smiles after successfully braving the wilderness

AUGUST
Liwliwa, Zambales

Our business trip to Liwliwa brought us to Yangil Village, the eye-opening side of Zambales. The road to Yangil Village is no easy trail, but the stories along the way made everything light. An almost two-kilometre stretch of lahar and volcanic ashes, and four rivers with mild to rough currents need to be crossed to reach the village, and Aetas endure these from and to Yangil every single day to bring and sell fruits and crops in town, come hell or high water. As voluntourists, we braved the same roads and held on to our purposes: to help and to not let anyone get left behind—‘walang iwanan’ as they call it.

This trip is definitely one of the most adventurous trips I have ever had this year, and the photo above perfectly shows how relieved we were after braving the wilderness.

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Hikong Bente or Immeasurable Falls, the second of the 7 Waterfalls

Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

South Cotabato is the first place I booked when 2016 came in, and also my first Mindanao trip ever. I was scared at first, but the woman I met in the airport turned my fear the other way around. I went to Lake Sebu. I rode on what is said to be the longest zipline in Asia and saw the majestic 7 Waterfalls from above.

Everything about South Cotabato is what you are missing out in Mindanao.

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Cabugao Gamay, the only island on Islas de Gigantes that can acquire cellphone signal

SEPTEMBER
Islas de Gigantes, Iloilo

“Nako, ingat kayo doon. Mari-it doon,” said the man we met in the van on our way to Estancia Port, the jump-off point to Islas de Gigantes.

Islas de Gigantes or islands of the giants, collectively known as Higantes Group of Islands, has two major islands Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur, and 11 islets Balbagon, Bantigue, Bolubadiang, Cabugao Daku, Cabugao Gamay, Gakit-Gakit, Gigantillo, Gigantito, Gigantona, Pulupandan, and Uay Dahon.

It is often tagged as ‘mari-it’ or enchanted because of the age-old mythical stories that go with its chain of islands. One of the many is that Islas de Gigantes is believed to be inhabited with giants years ago, which remains were found in Bakwitan Cave. For one, two of the three giant wooden coffins found in the cave were well-kept in Hideaway Tourist Inn, our home in the island for four days. When we were there, the most enchanting thing that happened to us is when we walked over the water to reach one island to another. The sea is at its highest tide on day time and it almost evaporates on night time! We also explored Bakwitan Cave, and managed to travel for a few hours to reach Panay Church in Capiz.

Islas de Gigantes is one of the most beautiful islands in our country, and I hope it remains unobstructed as it is in the next few years!

“We live on a blue planet that circles around a ball of fire next to a moon that moves the sea, and you don’t believe in miracles?”

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The colorful vintas along R.T. Lim Boulevard

OCTOBER
Zamboanga

I welcomed my birth month in Zamboanga or “Asia’s Latin City.” Apparently, the city welcomed me with bombs, and I knew right then and there that I was celebrating life in the right place. As mentioned above, one of the three places I felt totally connected with is Zamboanga. Its extraordinary vibe left a huge impact in my heart, and I’ve been meaning to come back since then. Here’s a secret: I’m planning to live in Zamboanga for a month in 2017. Don’t tell my mommy about it yet!

“You don’t choose the location; the location chooses you.”

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The Batanes-like view from Cape Engano Lighthouse

Palaui Island, Cagayan Valley

I spent my birthday weekend on the far-flung island of Palaui. I originally booked a flight alone, and one of my best friends decided to celebrate with me. The best part of it is that she and her boyfriend endured a 15-hour long bus ride just to be with me on my birthday! Her sweetness deserves a kiss…using my fist.

When we were there, occasional downpours welcomed us as we island hopped to Anguib Beach, Punta Verde, and Nangaramoan Beach, and trekked to Cape Engaño Lighthouse, but that added to our already fun and adventurous trip! When we were about to leave the island, a storm came in and my flight back to Manila got cancelled. Guess what happened next? I joined their 15-hour long bus ride in time for my 22nd birthday! It was my first time to spend my birthday in a bus, away from home. I felt a bit blue because I could’ve been with my family if the storm didn’t come in, but looking on the bright side; we were able to come out of the island safely, and I was also able to start writing my book when I was there. And this is how I learned to endure long bus rides. Cheers!

“We are only here briefly, and in this moment, I want to allow myself joy.” – Elise de Woolfe

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One of the oldest houses in Ozamiz

Ozamiz

Ozamiz is honestly a city that still needs to be developed more, tourism-wise. It doesn’t have much destination to visit, but if you are looking for a new city to live in, Ozamiz is a good choice. The average cost of living in Ozamiz is quite impressive and easy to live up. For instance, a stick of grilled barbecue is only PHP 2, a three-roll of bite sized rice is only PHP 5, and a cup of coffee in an elusive hotel is only PHP 80. The most common mode of public transportation used to go around the city is a tricycle, which price ranges from PHP 5 to 20, depending on the distance. The estimated cost of tuition fees in universities like La Salle University (LSU) Ozamiz, formerly known as Immaculate Conception College-La Salle, is only PHP 15,000, maximum. Weekdays in Ozamiz could get jam-packed as most students from the neighboring provinces opt to study in Ozamiz, no matter the distance.

Though my Ozamiz trip was typical, the city is special to me because it led me to one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met.

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Langit, Iloilo’s heaven on earth

NOVEMBER
Bacolod-Guimaras-Iloilo

This trip is the first tri-city tour I did on a whim, alone. I originally planned to go around Bacolod only, but I ended up crossing overseas to reach its neighboring provinces, Guimaras and Iloilo.

When I was in Bacolod, I learned that not much destination is in the city, and are otherwise located in its neighboring cities. For instance, Balay Negrense, alongside with 29 other heritage houses, is in Silay City, Lakawon Island is in Cadiz City, The Ruins is in Talisay City, and the Manokan Country and Masskara Festival happens in Bacolod City. Though these may sound far, going around Negros Occidental is easy and pretty accessible. Just learn how to ask and memorize basic Bisaya by heart! Lakawon Island is the best thing that happened to me in Negros Occidental. I spent my day lounging in its Tawhai Floating Bar, which was brilliantly built with huge beds on the rim of the ship! Ahhh.

As I was about to put an end to my Negros Occidental trip, I spontaneously thought of going to Guimaras the following day. Luckily, I found a tour guide right there and then. I rode a RoRo (Roll-on/Roll-off vessel) for the first time to reach Guimaras. Destinations in Guimaras are quite far from each other, but my guide managed to bring me to Guisi Lighthouse, Raymen Beach, Trappist Monastery, windmills in San Lorenzo, mango plantation, and the humble home of Kuya Cherrald and his family who taught me basic Bisaya, accommodated and fed me with their fresh catch of squid for a night! Sadly, mangoes were off season when I came. I shall come back for it and its primed beaches!

After Guimaras, I had another boat ride to Iloilo. I had no idea where to go when I was there, but fate brought me to the heavenly Molo Church and to ‘Langit’ in Garin Farm. It is a one-stop destination for pilgrimage, leisure, and agricultural purposes. Here, you can swim, kayak, ride a zipline, horseback ride, goat cart ride, and play billiards. But the most challenging activity to do here is to take the 456-step stairs towards the Divine Mercy Cross and the famous ‘Langit.’ Langit or heaven has a blinding-white infrastructure of angels, which will somehow give you a gist of what heaven on Earth looks like!

This tri-city tour is one of the most tiring and fulfilling trips I did, but I’m definitely doing more of this in 2017!

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Sea of clouds in Mt. Yangbew

DECEMBER
Baguio-La Union

Baguio has been a childhood home-break spot for our family. We used to spend the dog days of summer there, and I’m happy to be back in the City of Pines after six-long years. Meanwhile, it was my first time to visit La Union, or Elyu, in October for work. Since then, I spent all of my December weekends in both Baguio and Elyu with different set of friends. I kept coming back to these places just because tito Ernest Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong in the broken places.”

The cost of living in Baguio is perfectly low and no matter how crowded it is up there, the City of Pines is still tolerable and liveable than in Manila. A minimal cost of PHP 800 can feed three people with whole crispy pata, two slices of cake, half serving of buttered chicken, pork sinigang, three full cups of rice, and three refreshing juices in one sitting! Locals and tourists alike utilize taxis to go around the city because of its affordability with a flat rate of PHP 35, plus most, if not all, taxi drivers are accommodating enough and will let you in no matter the distance! When I was there, I spent most of my time eating, climbing mountains, walking, curling up myself in blankets, photoshooting, and enjoying the rest of the city. I can honestly tour anyone around the next time I’m heading up north again!

Meanwhile, La Union has a higher cost of living than in Baguio, and even in Manila. Tricycle fares can go up to PHP 60 to PHP 100. Some ice creams are for PHP 150 above. Every time I go there, people I’m with never fail to ask if I have tried surfing already. Well, I haven’t. I don’t have the courage to ride and battle with the wild waves yet. So what does a non-surfer like me do in the surf town of San Juan? I eat along its food strip, beach bum, people watch, and get to know locals! Recently, I watched a free concert by the sea staged by Johnoy Danao, Ebe Dancel, and Bullet Dumas. I also trekked in the forest en route to Tangadan Falls in San Gabriel. Its trail is flourishing with wild vegetation, has rivers and beautiful scenery, which make all the intense leg work worth it! Elyu has an explainable magic. No wonder why some Manileños chose to settle down there.

And that’s a wrap! All of these shall not stop in 2016. Traveling shall go on ‘should oceans rise and mountains fall.’ And by traveling, I mean not only going to places, but also seeing with new eyes, sharing raw stories, and touching people’s lives. There’s more to life than just by surviving. We deserve to breathe and live in His creations. Above all, we get better with age, experiences, mistakes, and this is how we acquire wisdom. Life is beautiful. Leave to live—with money or none, alone or not, mother-approved or not.

As we all welcome 2017, may we all let our courage thrive and take us to old and new places, phases, and faces. May we live the life we’d always feel damn excited to wake up to. May we seize each day. May we allow ourselves to take every journey, chance, and challenge. Life is happening now, keep up and live up. Go and do.

In 2017, I’ll be going to Baguio, Cebu, Siargao, Bohol, Dumaguete, and my most awaited Visayas escapade. I’m still waiting for a miracle for another Batanes trip. Explore with me, yes?

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” -Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

World in my words,
Mikee

Zamboanga welcomed me with bombs, and this is what happened

Last August 2016, I went to South Cotabato and discovered what we are missing out in Mindanao, and when I went to Zamboanga or “Asia’s Latin City” last October, I realized that it is one of the many in that developing list. To tell you frankly, I was one of the many people who feared with the thought of Zamboanga, but I gave the city a chance and spent two days in it to kick off my birth month. It’s true; I was welcomed with bombs when I set foot in Zamboanga. I was bombarded with vibrant streets, with protected islands, with happiness, with tears of joy, with belongingness, and with peace. In that moment, I knew I was celebrating life in the right place.

What made me fall in love with the city

Growing up in a city with no tourist spots at all made me choose islands and mountains over city tours every time I travel. But Zamboanga changed the game. It made me love city tours. Everything in the city didn’t disappoint.

We ate the famous Satti dish, feasted on curacha crabs, cooled down with Zamboanga’s special Knickerbocker, stayed in Vista del Mar, went to Yakan Village, bird-watched at the bird sanctuary, strolled in Pasonanca Park, shopped at the Canelar Barter Trade, had tea time with renowned Zamboanga painter Rameer Tawasil, offered thanks and praise, and cried a river in Fort Pilar Shrine, vinta-watched at Cawa-cawa Boulevard, and my most favorite thing: people and sunset-watched at Paseo del Mar.

 

After the city tour, here are some of the many random things I have learned, observed, and made me fall in love with Zamboanga:

  1. Zamboanga has multifold banks. Meaning, it is a well-off city.
  2. Though it is a well-off city, most people live their life simply. Some locals I’ve conversed with are happy just by watching the sun rise and set by the sea. Some still wants to see the beauty of nature in person than in their cellphone’s screen. Some choose to spend time with family and friends in parks and boulevards rather than in malls. Some are happy just by eating a glass of Knickerbocker. In this time and age, the Yakan tribe still weaves and makes use of their art for a living. Just by looking at all of them, you’ll know and feel peace.
  3. I relearned the healing capability of art through Rameer. Meditation and inspiration only act once. When it comes, create. Produce. Execute. Do something. Do your thing. Live in that moment.
  4. It has lots of Jollibee franchises, and every branch is insanely full.
  5. It is dotted around with lots of acacia trees. 50 of which are found in Vista del Mar, where the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tagged six trees as century-old. Meaning, they should be well taken care of and kept untouched. While you’re in Vista del Mar, be sure to chat with its owner Tita Ditas over chocolate ice box cake or aromatic buko juice. You’ll learn so much from her, and she might even introduce you to good looking men! (Hi tita, we miss you and your casitas!)
  6. It holds one of the largest golf courses in the country, and a lot of enthusiasts actually head down south for this.
  7. Their native tongue is Chavacano, a mix of bisaya and Spanish language, which is such a music to my ears. I can’t help but gush over just by listening to them converse. Every spoken word is just regal. I even went over my Spanish handouts to relearn the language when I came home.
  8. For one, Zamboanga City is different and far from Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, and Zamboanga Sibugay. Zamboanga City is the safest one, while the last three are most likely where unfortunate events happen.
  9. Almost every body of water in Zamboanga is just crystal-clear. Their Cawa-cawa Boulevard, which is equivalent to our Manila Bay, is nothing short of clean. Locals even swim there, and they look so adorable and nostalgic!
    Zamboanga’s tourism is alive, competitive enough, striving, and well-organized. That’s something I would really, really commend. If you were their during their Vinta Regatta Festival, you’d know why. If not, it’s never too early or too late to book flights for October 2017. That’s the best time to go, by the way. You won’t regret that trip, I promise.
  10. In relation to that, Tita Mila is one of the popular tour guides in Zamboanga. One point of time in her career, she almost gave up on being a tour guide because of lack of tourists back then, but she and the people behind Zamboanga tourism strived hard and became who they are today. Also, this woman right here speaks fluent German, and will treat you like her own child when you’re with her. We love her so dearly. Make sure to book her and Kuya JM when you visit! (Hi tita and kuya, we miss laughing with you both!)
  11. There are more Christians than Muslims in Zamboanga, but there is no religion barrier in the city. When the clock struck 6 that Sunday evening, the other side of the road led to Fort Shrine Pilar where devotees lit their candles and offered thanks and praise to our Lord, while on the other side is where Muslims thoroughly prayed and held their ceremony. I once read online that all religions teach and pray for peace, but we all hardly achieve and practice that peace in this world. Fortunately, I was able to see and feel that rare peace in Zamboanga, and it’s one of the most wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life.

Truly, ya deha io mi corazon na ciuded de Zamboanga [I left my heart in Zamboanga].

The pink island with a golden vibe

“Bakit po sinasabi ng ibang locals na nakakatakot dito? Eh hindi naman pala,” I asked Richard Aliangan, senior tourism operations manager of Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands Protected Landscape & Seascape, as we rest our weary selves by the beach. “Ang reason, kasi ako mismong tiga dito, hindi ko alam ang about sa Sta. Cruz Island,” he said. “Kaya ang isa sa mga projects namin dito for the information campaign, we will go to schools. We will go to young professionals’ areas like workplaces. We will go there and we will give them presentations about the island para kapag may nagtanong, alam na nila. So it will now be replaced with knowledge, not hesitation kasi hindi nila alam. These are the knowledge that you should know para matanggal sa isip natin yung takot.”

I cannot blame them. People are scared of the unknown, of what they don’t understand, which results to false conclusions, unresolved fear, and missed chances. When we went to the Great Sta. Cruz Island, two armed men and a group of coast guards escorted us, which is a normal thing in Zamboanga and might be alarming to some, but it’s not. The island is a normal and peaceful one. There lies a beautiful stretch of pink coastline, crystal-clear waters, island vendors, and a few visitors who are having the times of their life like us. We spent our high noon here swimming with the strong but tolerable currents of the sea, laughing our lungs out under the trees, and eating fresh catch of grilled fish by the sea.

A few-minute boat ride away from the island is the Sta. Cruz Island Lagoon filled with mangrove trees, stingless upside-down jellyfishes, walo-walo snakes, and flying foxes. The best part in the lagoon is the Sama Bangingi tribe, the friendliest tribe in the south who somehow takes care of the lagoon. Everyone, especially the kids were very welcoming to the guests. They are all even all smiles to the cameras!

“So merong treasure dito, sir?” one of the visitors asked Kuya Richard. “Merong treasure dito. The island itself is a treasure,” Kuya Richard was quick to answer. We all laughed to concur.

And this is what people are scared of. Golden.

The good in goodbye

When we were about to head back to Vista del Mar, American Pie played on the car’s radio. Everyone sang along in time for our fast approaching departure that night. It was tear-jerking. Leaving a place and not knowing when to come back is probably the saddest and most electrifying moment there is. Leaving makes me feel alive. Leaving makes me seize and cherish every remaining point in time: the breath of fresh air in the place, the strangers turned friends, the last look in the place, and the send-off hugs and kisses are all real. There’s the good in goodbye. I didn’t expect for Zamboanga to give me such energy.

And do you know which bomb hit the strongest impact on me? The city’s beautiful locals. They all long for the day when people could finally have the ‘courage’ to visit Zamboanga, because for one, it is a peaceful place to wander in.

Give Zamboanga a chance. Salam.

Zamboanga in my words,
Mikee

All photos by Jisa Atrero

What you are missing out in Mindanao: South Cotabato, the land of the dreamweavers

My fascination for South Cotabato deepened when I watched the award-winning indie film “K’na The Dreamweaver” starred by Mara Lopez in Cinemalaya Film Festival two years ago. The film’s depiction on the T’boli’s culture, the sacred process and weaving of T’nalak cloth, the ethereal harmony of opal and jade lotus foliage in Lake Sebu, and the well-kept wonders of the place itself made me want to personally experience it. Come January 2016, I finally booked a flight to General Santos, the nearest jump-off point to South Cotabato.

It was only a week before my flight and I still have no idea how I’d get around South Cotabato, until I found Kuya Jun, one of the most recommended tour guides in Lake Sebu. I originally planned to go to Pink Mosque, Grand Mosque, and Blue Lagoon in Maguindanao, and trek up to Lake Holon and explore South Cotabato, but the accessibility of the places are quite hard to squeeze in for my three-day stay. Thus, I opted focus on what I saw in the film and spend time in what the people of Mindanao hail as “The Land of the Dreamweavers” that is South Cotabato last August 25 to 27. Interestingly, the province is also known as the “Summer Capital of Southern Mindanao” because of its Baguio-cold temperature.

The people and their culture

While I was waiting at the boarding gate in the airport, I met a General Santos-native woman and her family, who immediately changed the negative connotations of Mindanao that’s been filling in my head. During our conversation, I learned that how I feel towards Mindanao is almost the same as how she feels towards Manila—both of us were a bit skeptical. Here’s why:

Mindanao has always been tagged as a warzone in the Philippines with all the bombings, beheadings, hostages, and massacres from terrorists because these are what the Internet and media show us. But have you ever considered knowing what it is really like in the eyes of the locals? Let me tell you what: Mindanao is their safe haven, Mindanao is beyond blessed with most of the natural resources and breath-taking destinations in the Philippines that are fortunately unobstructed because of lesser tourist influx, and here’s a secret: the people of Mindanao are humans, just like you and anyone else. Sure, our country has been experiencing bombings in parts of Mindanao, which recently happened in Davao, but that doesn’t make it less safe than in Manila or in other parts of the Philippines.

When the woman I met told me about her experience during her short visit in Manila, I got terribly ashamed on how stressed she was with all the time she lost due to heavy traffic we got here, and we can all attest to that. “Ayaw mo sa Manila?” I asked. “Ayaw ko. Doon nalang ako sa amin [General Santos], masaya ako doon,” she smiled.

I was normally scared but I saw safety in her eyes. “Safe ba diyan?” a friend asked. “Oo safe. Mas safe pa nga dito kaysa sa Manila,” I said. Til then, I knew that where I’m heading is going to be a wonderful place.

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Lang Dulay’s house and weaving school

The most interesting people I met in Lake Sebu were the T’boli tribe. To be honest, meeting the great Lang Dulay was my primary reason for visiting the province. She was hailed as the last dreamweaver of the T’boli tribe and received the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA, or National Folk Artist Award) from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 1998 with the hundreds of T’nalak cloth she designed and weaved. In the T’boli culture, the spirit of abaca named Fu Dalu comes into the dreams of the chosen ones like Lang Dulay. Fu Dalu taught Lang Dulay the patterns and designs to be weaved, which subjects are usually environmental-based such as eagles, clouds, waves, rivers, and leaves of palm trees.

She started dreaming and weaving patterns after her first born until she held her last breath at the age of 91 on April 30, 2015. Now, the designs were passed on to her students, who eagerly weave and live on her legacy in Lake Sebu and in the country.

“Malungkot kami. ‘Di na namin makakasama yung ugat ng aming culture. Siya ang nag-umpisa ng ginagawa namin [weaving]. Masakit man sa amin, wala kaming magawa,” Josephine Malanao recalled with a shaky voice. “Palagi kaming masaya [noong buhay pa siya]. Mabait talaga si lola,” she added. Josephine is one of Lang Dulay’s 16 students, who I chanced upon, together with her daughter-in-law Sibulan Dulay and her granddaughter Noemi Dulay, when I visited her home and weaving school.

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Each T’nalak cloth takes about three to four months to finish and costs from PHP 700 to PHP 4,000 depending on the size. The T’nalak cloth is a sacred entity to the T’boli tribe because it serves as their intricate cultural attire, dory, source of income, and it introduced them and their culture to the world.

Sites for your sight

Three of the most important sites for your sight to behold in South Cotabato are Lake Sebu, Seven Falls, and Trankini Spring. Lake Sebu is a 356-hectare body of water, which depth is immeasurable. Within Lake Sebu are two more lakes called Lake Seloton and Lake Lahit. It is composed of 12 islands such as the Crocodile Island, which has no crocodiles but is rather shaped like one, and an island where they used to hang up dead bodies on trees. The lake is rich in Tilapia, one of the most important watersheds in the country, and supplies water irrigation to South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.

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The most captivating thing you’ll ever see in Lake Sebu is the lotus. It’s best to row around the lake from sunrise to 9 AM as it only blooms at the coldest time of the day. Kuya Jun can rent and row an owong, the traditional boat of the T’bolis, for you for only PHP 200.

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Meanwhile, the Seven Falls are Hikong Alo or Passage Falls, Hikong Bente or Immeasurable Falls, Hikong B’Lebel or Zigzag Falls, Hikong Lowig or Booth Falls, Hikong Ukol or Short Falls, Hikong K’Fo-I or Wildflower Falls, and Hikong Tonok or Soil Falls. You can opt to trek your way up to some of these falls, but the best way to see all of these is via zipline. After all, it’s the highest of its kind in Southeast Asia that’s suspended 600 feet above the ground with 700 and 400 meter distance.

Believe me, Seven Falls Zipline is the best! I was emotionally screaming out of fear, happiness, and amazement throughout my two-ride experience! Just imagine yourself flying in the midst of forestry surrounded with not just one, but seven waterfalls! I felt like a human drone for a moment!

Rates range from PHP 250 on weekdays to PHP 300 on weekends, while picture packages range from PHP 150 to PHP 300.

After the liberating ride, I did a tolerable trek up to Trankini Spring. It has a small falls that cascades down a spine-chilling-cold catch basin where I spent my afternoon. “Sa lahat ng dinala ko dito, ikaw lang umabot ng 30 minutes diyan,” Kuya Jun laughed.

Beyond blessed land

Lake Sebu is beyond blessed with natural resources. They are rich in Tilapia, crops like corn and tomatoes, and soil that surprisingly have gold powder. Tilapia dishes can be bought all around the town from a meal for only PHP 35 to a lunch buffet for only PHP 250. Crops are also all around the town and have blossoming flowers and plants. “Blessed kami dito. Kung masipag ka lang talaga, ‘di ka magugutom sa dami ng pananim,” Kuya Jun said. What’s more impressive is that even if there are gold sightings in their land, no one dares to land-mine in the town.

If there’s one thing I love about South Cotabato, it’s there responsible stewardship on our environment. There are even environmental signs along the roads telling people to plant trees and to protect Mother Nature.

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Bong salamat, South Cotabato! Bong salamat, Lake Sebu! Bungnawa hukon!

Should you wish to book Kuya Jun, reach him at 0906 758 6256 or at his Facebook account.

South Cotabato in my words,
Mikee

PH First: Starting the life of travel

When 2016 came in, I promised myself that I’m going to travel in my motherland, the Philippines. I want to bloom where I am planted. I want to know my roots. I want to let this seedling of curiosity grow like a forest vesting through the wild. I want my vines to crawl and cling on to places. I want to be watered and be drenched in the sun.

I was firm, eager, and impulsive. I booked flights to General Santos, Batanes, Boracay, and Cebu; joined trips to Bulacan, Ilocos, Pangasinan, Batangas, and Zambales with my family and my friends; and booked more flights to Antique, Tuguegarao, Bacolod, Zamboanga, Bohol, and Dumaguete.

I told myself that I’m going to trace all of the Philippines’ curves and edges. I’m going to have a passionate relationship with its wonders. I’m going to learn its cultures and traditions that I only used to hear in classes and search in Google. I’m going to know its people—no matter which tribe, religion, gender, belief, language, political view, and status they swear by. I’m going to experience all of these for myself, with money or none, alone or not, and mother-approved or not.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” -Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

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Ilocos, April 2016

And I did. I’m starting the life of travel.

Am I scared? Of course, I will always be. Fear is a natural feeling that we all endure. Fear of being alone, fear of heights, fear of motorcycles, fear of waves, fear of depth, fear of breakouts, fear of the maddening crowd, and fear of getting lost, among others, are all normal. We are just people. Fear is the benchmark of what we think we cannot do, and know that fear is also the gateway to the greatness that’s long been waiting for us. Once you surpass this moment of fear, the breath of fulfillment will come out in to you and you will get the high of doing it all over again. You will get scared again, and you will overcome this again. You can overcome this. Trust that you can. Believe me. Believe in yourself. Every time I overcome my fears, I always close my eyes and say, “Wala na akong hindi kayang gawin.”

“Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage.” -Paulo Coelho

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South Cotabato, August 2016

Before and during my recent trip to South Cotabato, my family and friends were freaking out: “Mag-ingat ka please,” “Mag-isa ka lang? Abnoy ka talaga,” “Sana buhay kang makauwi,” “Wag mo nang ituloy yan,” “Bilib na ako sayo pag nakauwi ka ng Manila,” “Ha? Bakit ka pupunta doon?” and “Huling gala mo na yan ha. Wala kang katakot-takot,” are some of the many eye-rolling messages I got from my family and my friends. To be honest, I worry for my mother’s welfare more than mine whenever I leave. Like any other mothers or women out there, my mother overthinks a lot. She is always afraid for my safety, for my things, for my skin. I am too, but I don’t want to let fear win over me. I don’t want to get limited because of my fears. I don’t want to regret not doing something just because I’m scared. I have prepared for this. I have been persistently filling in my courage bank for this. You, mommy, raised me well. Your strength runs strong in my blood. I can do this because your greatness taught me how.

Do I have enough money? I don’t, but I earn and save up hard for it. I used to live the life of shopping where clothes, shoes, and bags rule my life. I don’t eat that much to save up for something I’d only wear once. I buy the same kind in different colors. I sell old stuff to buy new ones. I don’t repeat outfits because I’m on that ‘artista’ level when I was younger. But as I get older, I realized that I have had enough of these blinding glitz and glamour. I have to invest on something that doesn’t die, that lives on until my last breath, that makes my senses grow, that widens my horizon, and that changes my perspective for the better: travel and experience. Material things won’t fill in your wisdom bank. Invest on what will make your soul richer. When I was saving up for my Batanes trip, I told myself, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” and I made it in Batanes. Now, I’m off to anywhere my guts take me to.

“Material things won’t fill in your wisdom bank. Invest on what will make your soul richer.”

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Batanes, June 2016

Am I ready for this? I’m not, but the best time to start is now—now that you are young, able, and free. Unlike money, time and energy lost cannot be redeemed. Remember when we were kids and rushing to adulthood like hell? Don’t do it again in your youth. We are only young once. While you still have the time and energy to do things at your own pace, please do yourself a favor and do it now. We have so much beauty to see, things to learn and relearn, people to connect and reconnect with, food to devour in, and happenings to let our blood rush. Don’t wait until you are ready. Don’t wait until you have kids. Don’t wait until you have enough money. Don’t wait until you find your better half. Don’t wait until you are older and less invigorated. Don’t let your work eat up your time and space. Don’t let the lack of having a travel buddy hinder your dire need to explore. Don’t just exist, live your life now. Now is always the perfect time to book that flight, to plant trees in places you visit, to adopt that dog by the beach, to turn a stranger to a best friend, to eat that one thing you hate, to take that leap of faith, and to allow what God has prepared for you. When I was in General Santos, a family I met at the airport offered me a ride and hunted an accommodation for me to spend the night in. We were all happily exchanging stories on our way until the father asked how young I am, “21 po,” I said. “Oh grabe, ang galing mo! Nung 21 ako di ko kaya yung ganyan tapos magisa ka pa!” he laughed while nodding his head. Til then, I realized that I am on right track. I knew that this is what I want to do, the life I want to live in, the world I love to wake up to every day.

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.” -Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook

Zambales
Zambales, August 2016

I want to start the life of travel in the Philippines first. It holds so much beauty and uniqueness that would make you sing “These are the moments, I thank God that I’m alive,” or “What a wonderful world.”

It wouldn’t be easy. I’m not good in handling post-travel depression. I easily get separation anxiety. I always want to linger longer. I’m not an expert, but I know that this is what I want. When I have established a stronghold relationship with my country, I can then confidently brave the rest of the world. For now, let me be in a love-hate relationship with Pilipinas kong mahal.

“Ang buhay ay isang mahabang kumusta at paalam.” -Ebe Dancel

World in my words,
Mikee