Finding Friends, Family and Fulfillment in the Philippines
What makes us interested in international travel? For some it might be the lure of an exotic country, a recommendation from a friend or the need to flee the rain in the summer (as is often the case in the UK). For me, it was disillusionment with my degree and the need to get out of London, so I looked to travel and in particular to volunteering as a form of escapism. I had the idea that I could go somewhere and impart some of my knowledge, some of my time, and hopefully give back to someone along the way. I had the vision that I could the world, albeit in a very small way.
Altruistic? In part, but I also wanted to get out of my situation and this seemed like a way of feeling better about it, as well as making 11-month orphans in the Philippines smile. This trip was my first solo experience, and to say that I was nervous is an understatement! Arriving into Tacloban Airport though, opened my eyes to another world. The air was light and fresh and there were luscious green palm trees and banana plantations everywhere. I was stunned at the beauty but also confronted by the fact that the reality of life here was not as I knew it. The Filipino standard of living in this area is incredibly low and I finally realized that I was about to experience an extremely different way of life.
As a Westerner, my co-workers at the orphanage saw me as a gateway to the south for their sons or daughters, and many thought that I may be able to find them a husband or wife back home!
Throughout my time in the Philippines, I was pointed at, stared and laughed at (especially when I attempted to go for a run round the block, but I have since learned that Filipinos rarely walk long distances, let alone run). But the longer I was there, the more I enjoyed my freedom. The pointing, staring and laughing happened because the people weren’t use to me, and in the beginning I wasn’t used to them either and although this was really hard at one point, it soon became easier to handle. Over time, I learned to love the smells, the sounds, and the hustle and bustle of a city that wasn’t London. I loved commuting on pedicabs and jeepneys (Google them—they are like old school American school buses, painted and decorated to the nines!) and started to get a real flavor for the country and more importantly, the people.
Never in my life have I received such hospitality, and such unusual reactions! As a Westerner, my co-workers at the orphanage saw me as a gateway to the south for their sons or daughters, and many thought that I may be able to find them a husband or wife back home!
At the orphanage I was poked, squeezed and pinched and I soon realized that this was their expression of acceptance and interest. I learned that ‘joking only’ was part of the Filipino alphabet (nothing is to be taken seriously, that’s for sure) and that to be English automatically equated me with ‘cups of tea’ and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter (though I look absolutely nothing like her), and that at 1m 75 (about 5’9), I am actually head and shoulders above the rest of the population!
I remember at the end of my time there when I was complaining about going back home to London, the older brother of the family said to me, “You have to go back, Nicci. Your life isn’t here. This isn’t your reality.”
My days were spent working in the orphanage and providing caregivers with help and support. Outside of the orphanage, my life was filled with exploring the surrounding islands with fellow volunteers but it was also enriched by the love and support of my home stay family. I was truly welcomed in as one of them, and was introduced to their extended and extended-extended family throughout my five weeks in the country.
I remember at the end of my time there when I was complaining about going back home to London, the older brother of the family said to me, “You have to go back, Nicci. Your life isn’t here. This isn’t your reality.” As hard as it was to hear, he was right. I had had the most incredible time traveling and volunteering, making new international friends and bonding with the most beautiful and giving family but my life was still back in London and I still hadn’t figured out who the ‘real’ me was.
Finding Friends, Family and Fulfillment in the Philippines.
Four years later, and I’m now working for the same volunteering abroad organization that I volunteered with – Kaya Responsible Travel, and I am heading out to live in the Philippines in November for a year. I won’t lie and say that heading off by oneself, especially as a lone female traveler, is easy, but it was certainly the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I experienced so much on my own, and I saw and learned more than a regular ‘tourist,’ who just scratches a country’s surface.
My advice to fellow travelers seeking a challenge and a change is to just do it. Forget about where you’ve come from, and truly embrace the country that you are visiting. Get to know the local people, learn the language and embrace change. As soon as I returned to London, I started planning my next trip, and I’ve had itchy feet ever since. Now instead of bawling my eyes out when I get to the airport, I get that nervous, excited feeling in my stomach: of adventure and the unknown. We have been given the gift of living in ‘the era of easy travel’ so it would just be rude not to take up the offer!
Finding Friends, Family and Fulfillment in the Philippines top photo by Unsplash.