When I visited Islas de Gigantes (Islands of the Giants) in the town of Carles in the province of Iloilo in 2013, I was instantly astounded by the natural and unspoiled beauty of the secluded islands scattered in the Visayan sea. Everywhere I looked, my eyes feasted on pristine, white sand beaches, other-worldly rock formations, and abundance of seafood. But despite these never-ending beautiful seascapes, the poverty that the islanders continue to live in is a sore to the eyes. Before I left the island, I asked a local boatman how much he usually earns from taking the tourists to a tour of the islands. I was very shocked by his response. He said that the tour organizer usually gives him and other boatmen 500 (10 USD) to 1,000 pesos (20 USD) out of the thousands of pesos guests pay for the tour. Until now, I want to believe that it was only an isolated case and that everything is now done in the spirit of fairness among service providers in that beautiful island.
In 2015, I visited the island of Panglao in the province of Bohol. One of the popular activities that resorts offer their guests is a snorkeling and diving experience in a small island off the coast of Panglao, the Balicasag Island. It is a marine sanctuary blessed with fish-filled waters and breathtaking coral formations, both in shallow and deep waters. Again, I came to know that boatmen were given only a small portion of the payment we paid the resort for the often-risky services they provide. Arriving at the island, we were welcomed by a local fisherman who would guide us in our diving experience. We later found out that that day was his birthday, but because he needed to earn a living, he said he would rather take guests to diving rather than spend his time at home without earning a cent. So as he pulled the boat going to the diving spots, we sang him a Happy Birthday song, both with glee and pity at the same time.
Declared by Travel+Leisure Magazine as 2016’s World’s Best Island, the islands in the town of El Nido in the province of Palawan is home to world-class white sand beaches, crystal clear waters filled with fish and coral reefs, lagoons, and mystifying karst cliffs. When I visited it last year, the place was crowded by tourists, both local and foreigners. Pump boats came and went almost every minute of every day, taking tourists to the most breathtaking seascapes they would ever see in their lives. One thing I couldn’t help but notice, however, was the underdevelopment of the locale. I did not expect to see towering mansions and private yacht abound the area. But with the ever-increasing number of people visiting the island from all over the world every year (which also translates to ever-increasing flow of income), I still did not see and feel the ease of living among the locals.
Last year too, I traveled abroad for the first time to visit a some friends in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. One of the first thoughts that came into my mind was that Vietnamese people are estranged to foreigners, that they are not good in speaking English, and that they are serious and strict. All these stereotypes often spread by the media can be discouraging if one believes them blindly. However, when I set foot in that beautiful land and be immersed in a culture so alien from where I am from, all these stereotypes went down the drain altogether. In my experience, Vietnamese people are very friendly, accommodating, and respectful, far from the grumpy and hateful-people image infused by the media.
Looking back from my own experiences while on the road, I came to realize that on top of all the breathtaking sceneries, wild parties, and exotic festivals I saw and be part of, it is the people I met and knew better along the way that made those experiences meaningful and unforgettable.
The humble boatmen of Islas de Gigantes, the local fisherman in Balicasag Island who chose to spend his birthday with us, the helpful folks of El Nido in Palawan, and the Vietnamese people I came to know and became friends have taught me, in their own way, a very life-changing lesson that I will be always thankful for.
It is the truth that I, as a person, is no different from them, from other people in every corner of the world regardless of race, color, gender, and whatever form of preference. I and them, you and I, share the same humanity and are all citizens of the same world. In other words, traveling made me less and less ethnocentric, a belief or attitude that one’s culture is superior than others.
It will always be my belief and which I also vow to uphold and defend if necessary that there is so much goodness in the world despite how wretched and hopeless some people or group of people will continue to preach and propagate.
While it is true that it is in my travel where I came face to face with some appalling realities of the world, it is also in that same roads where I have experienced the sublime beauty and goodness of the human spirit.
So if you also wish to learn the lessons of the road, pack up your things, open wide your map, your eyes, your mind, and your heart, and let’s face it your wallet too, and let the road take you to places you’ve never been before and teach you lessons that only traveling can make you realize.
#TravelokaPH, #WhyITravel, #TravelokaStories.