The Philippines

Posted on November 10, 2019

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The last time I was in The Philippines was 2017 where I happened to get my diagnosis. It’s a bitter sweet memory. The island hopping and diving really helped me process and handle what was a cataclysmic shift in my life as I went through all the tests. I was alone, scared and pretty spaced out about the whole thing. That time is a bit of a blur to be honest.

Bohol is an island I am familiar with as I had freedive trained in Panglao for a few days. I had made friends with my wonderful instructor, The Norwegian. We have stayed in touch, so I was happy to know someone close by.

My new job was in the village of Anda. It’s remote. And not easy to get anywhere fast from there. Being in a remote village is not a problem for me. Christ, I lived in the rainforest of west Uganda where the nearest town was three hours away on pot-holed covered dirt roads with no WiFi and limited access to the outside world. But in East Africa I had a community that welcomed me in and supported me emotionally. I was also surrounded by breathtaking beauty.

Community is sadly lacking in Anda. It might be filled with small catholic shrines but I felt zero christian spirit there. Give me the Buddhists any day of the week.

There was no chance to build genuine friendship circles. You can socialise with people if you want to drink your body weight in cheap rum and get hammered until you decide to pick up a microphone and howl at the karaoke machine. That’s not me. Used to be, but not now.

Anda is not like other places in The Philippines which has a large and functioning ex pat community. An influx of foreigners changes the vibe of a place and locals somehow behave differently. It will be a long time before that happens. It’s a fabulous place to visit and dive for two weeks but you wouldn’t want to live there.

I met one local in Panglao who was a masseuse. He asked me where I was living and his reaction was, “Wow Anda. Our spa is gonna open a branch there – but not for another five years. It’s not ready for it yet. My brother-in-law lives there. It’s so boring. There’s nothing there.” And that’s from a Filipino.

If you’re an ex pat male and land in The Philippines you’ll never feel alone. Filipino women are queuing up to meet you. The attention you get is unbelievable and you don’t need to be attractive either. It’s definitely a man’s world. It’s also how women pull themselves out of poverty. In some cases there’s genuine love but in the majority it’s an unspoken contract, financial security for them and their entire family in exchange for companionship.

The Norwegian’s wife, told me one night at dinner, “Filipinas are like goddesses. If one doesn’t take care of a man the way he wants, he can move onto another.” That explains a lot.

From what I gleaned in my two months, Filipinos (especially in remote villages with no hub) generally view their family as their friends too. They don’t feel the urge to make social ties outside of this tight knit circle like Europeans. Even Filipinos from other islands run home the first opportunity they get because they don’t feel embraced. So I was already on the back foot.

I met some good people at work. I’m grateful to the friends I made. But the truth is despite the absolutely phenomenal diving, it wasn’t enough. I battled everyday to find reasons to stay and I just couldn’t. I was miserable and frustrated. And just shy of two months I quit.

Doing basic tasks were impossible. Everything shuts at 6pm in the village. You can buy just five staple vegetables in the market – pumpkin, aubergine, pak choi, green beans and cabbage. My nutrition suffered. The 5km walk into work lifted my endorphins for the day ahead. But the walk home in the dark inhaling burning plastic and firewood was horrendous. The never ending packs of barking dogs also made it uncomfortable.

My home space wasn’t easy to find. It also took a lot of haggling to negotiate my rent which was more than it should have been. The villagers see a foreigner and immediately the price of anything is trebled. I get it, but it’s exhausting and on some days after having numerous people trying to rip you off, I felt so low.

I had use of an outdoor kitchen. This was therapy for me to come “home” and cook. My landlady had one small puppy who would bite my ankles and run through my legs like an obstacle course. He was adorable. Morning and evening he would greet me with his yelps and yaps. Some nights i would chop up my veg while fighting off beetles the size of my fist or flick away cockroaches trying to climb the tiles. Field work prepared me well. I know so many girlfriends who’d run screaming.

The job itself wasn’t difficult it needed organisation and the ability to be one step ahead to anticipate problems. It took some time for the dive team to warm to me. All local men. On the whole I liked them individually but as a team sometimes their antics were comedic. It felt like herding children.

When I arrived it was low season but we still had guests and a typhoon blowing winds our way to contend with. The first two weeks were a baptism of fire. My manager was away for a month so I was literally thrown into the deep end. Trying to organise and schedule safe dive logistics around the sites, on boats that can flip was worrying.

The local marine biologist gave me incredible support and we made a good team communicating with the dive staff.

My days off were two every fortnight so that I could travel to see The Norwegian and his wife who has a wonderful acerbic sense of humour. I would catch a mini van at 6am and travel 4 hours to Panglao to freedive train, drink coffee, walk along the beach and take in the tourist vibe. Dinners were spent eating great food with them in cute eateries; but my last day off was always cut short by the epic schlep back. And the journey back to Anda always filled with me dread.

When my manager returned I was so happy. We bonded well – I loved working with him and felt terrible leaving him! I could have stayed longer if the living conditions were better. But they were doing the paper work for the work permit and I didn’t want the company to waste time and money paying for a lawyer when I knew deep down this was only gonna be short lived.

I am 43 (soon to be 44, aaaagghhhhh) and switching to a second career was done to be happy. What’s the bloody point otherwise? I woke up one day and decided enough.

After working out my notice period I decided to take a month off and head back to Thailand – my spiritual home. I had been toying with the idea of training as a yoga instructor for a while. I am not massively confident about my asana practise but I know I have dedication and determination. Two ingredients that can usually help overcome most hurdles if you put the work in. I also know that outside of India, Thailand is one country where I know the quality of training will be fantastic if not challenging.

So after messaging lots of Thai instructors that I practised with, I took the plunge, wired money across to a shala in Chiang Rai and arrived Nov 3.