A missed opportunity, Lilay says. She’s explaining why her dream is to bring National Geographic to the Philippines. It’s the same reason she just spent her ten vacation days on the beach in her own country, instead of traveling abroad. “I feel like there’s so much beauty here, and it’s sayang to explore other countries when you haven’t even explored your own.”
I showed up to Moon Fools Hostel without a reservation, but with 3.5 months of gear on my sweaty back. It had been a chaotic day with wifi rarity and lodging confusion, and I’d said goodbye to the last round of hostel friends an hour prior–before I hopped in a tricycle and set sail solo, once again.
The dormitory is an icebox–a most welcome icebox in the thick, hot, humidity of the Filippino late May. The last thing I expect to hear when I ask the girl in the corner bunk where she’s from is “Manila.”
She just spent ten days in Bohol getting her open water diver certification and advanced diver certification. She works in video production for Triple Shot Media, where she can work on nature and environment-focused projects. Some day, she’s going to fulfill her dream of opening a National Geographic office in the Philippines, but right now my mother is texting me updates about Filipino president Duterte declaring martial law on Mindanao, just a short boat ride away from where Lilay and I sit on the sand, watching Russian tourists stroll along the beach at dusk.
We’d been walking back and forth along the classically touristic Alona, two nonfiction-storytelling-cultural-studying nerds in enthusiastic conversation about our world and our futures, a few minutes after meeting in the hostel.
(In Cebu, I had felt egregiously out of place, and in territory that did not belong to me. The very fabric of Alona Beach is the tourist, though, and I could have just as well been in the playpen at McDonald’s.)
“I was talking to these women from Mindanao, and they were showing me their weaving,” Lilay was explaining.
Mindanao—the region still today under martial law in the struggle with terrorist forces—is famous for its tradition of extremely intricate weaving. Lilay had engaged with the local women when volunteering through Paz y Desarrolo, a Spanish NGO with projects in development cooperation, education, and humanitarian aid across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They’d had a project in Mindanao to organize and implement gender-responsive communication and capacity-building programs in cooperation with local partners and universities.
The idea was to give women, frequently from more conservative Islamic backgrounds, increased options for their futures, so that if they desired further training, education, or work experience, they could have access to such opportunities—“not alternatives, because that denotes giving up something else that they might want,” Lilay clarified, “but just more options for things they can do that they couldn’t access before.”
“I was talking to these women from Mindanao, and they were showing me their weaving,” Lilay continued. “And they were saying that yes, Mindanao is a torn region, but there is so much more than that. There’s beauty that comes from here.”
It’s a sentiment that I hear often from people in politically unstable regions. Lilay’s story called to mind the dozens of Lebanese I spoke with in New York. Each one was thoroughly disenchanted with their home country’s struggles, and yet so deeply regretful that the world at large was only witness to the strife, and none of the culture, history, and innovation that the home country has to offer.
On the day I met Lilay, a homestay arrangement had fallen through at the last minute, leaving me disappointed to miss out on an opportunity to engage with the Bohol community. But as providence would have it, at the polished hostel in a tourist neighborhood, I would meet someone with a passion for photography, videography, and social impact storytelling, with a fellow interest in media and branding, who could share questions with no answers on the soft sand of Alona Beach, who did not need an extensive explanation of my creative and career goals in order to understand them, who not only could express herself and teach me about the Philippines, but had an active passion for doing just that. All that, tempered with a great, great kindness.
Scoff at the millennial self-importance if you will, but I did not set off traveling to find myself, or to have fun and relax. I set off traveling because it is currently the most immediate way for me to create valuable work, grow the skills I need for the career I desire, and move the world in the direction I want it. This is not time off, persay, but rather accelerated forward motion time.
And I set off traveling because I don’t need a reason. The benefit of travel is inherent in the act of demonstrating curiosity and a willingness to learn.
I did not come to laze around catamarans, gliding over glassy waters in a bikini; to casually breaststroke alongside sea turtles; to ogle grotesque, persimmon-colored Dr. Seuss coral formations deep under cerulean waters.
That’s what I did the next morning at Balicasag Island.
Sometimes you have to cut your losses and accept that the “local, authentic experience” is as embarrassingly patronizing as the tourist traps. Sometimes, I’m a white(ish) girl with nothing to do but add pictures of monkeys to my Instagram story, driving the Bohol countryside in an air-conditioned taxi with a Frenchman.
Traveling the Philippines as a solo woman at the precise moment of a notorious president’s crackdown on ISIS threats, I had to weigh my safety versus my adventure for the first time.
Because the Philippines has a dark history of martial law being used to strip citizens of their civil rights, an authoritarian regime crucifying a democracy for more than a decade, it was a huge deal for Duterte to declare martial law once again. Read more here.
(I don’t mean to gloss over this. I’ll be revisiting this in the future.)
The most common traveler I met was the solo woman. In her twenties, she carried her possessions on her back and decided where and how to go, one day at a time. On the hostel balcony in the evenings, five or six such women would lounge and discuss travel routes, recommendations, horror stories, why we were there, and how, even though our family and friends were terrified, none of us felt particularly unsafe. One had gone to Palawan, an island with questionable safety for tourists in the current situation. “I don’t know. It was fine. It was beautiful,” she said.
And the most exceptional characteristic of the Solo-Philippines-Traveling-Woman is that she doesn’t need the others of her kind, and she doesn’t hold tight to them.
There will be more French girls named Caroline/Geraldine/________ine who will let me join their trek to a new city, and then disappear into the ether, neither of us feigning interest in each other’s contact information, or in becoming Facebook friends eternally with someone who, granted, is very lovely and very kind—smart, brave, and all that—but with whom we only shared a few hours on the road (or rather, the water).
Even Vanessa, the 34-year-old Bostonian who doesn’t look a day over 18. Sure, we talked in depth about our thoughts, feelings, and pasts, but to be honest? These kinds of conversations are a dime a dozen on the road. Rapid intimacy seems to be quotidian for the kind of person who would elect to travel solo, anyway. We’ve got problems, but the bravery to be vulnerable and make new friends isn’t one of them.
And though they’re all awesome people, these travelers from Argentina, Sweden, the States, Germany, etc.—
And though, for the duration of a day, or an allotment of hours, we will defend each other and stand by each other, wait for the one who’s held up at security and watch each other’s packs—
Even though I have been so surprised and proud to encounter so many other brave and bold and solo travelers, the majority of whom have been women—
We all kind of get it.
We didn’t come all this way just to hang out with ourselves.
Out of context, these individuals are exceptional, and people who are worth great investment of time and friendship. But here? There’s just no reason.
So the pivotal ones stick. And the passersby remain only a record in my Venmo account.
And though I may know their greatest regret in life, or what their relationship with their parents is like,
And even their bowel activity,
And though they know who and what was on my mind all throughout my travels,
I’ll never see their faces again, or know their last names.
And coming from the most sentimental person ever:
It doesn’t feel like a loss.