When I first traveled by myself in London, I thought I unlocked an achievement. At that time, I probably had. But on hindsight, London was easy (and a really good starting point). The Tube connects everything, everyone speaks good English, and crime rate is low (though I did stay in one of the shadier neighbourhoods).
The Philippines is a different ball game. Pickpockets are rife, transportation is a mess, and wifi connection is sporadic. But at least the locals still speak good English.
Traveling alone is an experience in extremes. There is so much to worry about; there is so much to learn about. Before I set off, I had 5 fears that overtook my wanderlust. Some of these fears were unjustified; all of them were unrealised.
1) I was scared of being a victim of crime.
My greatest fear was being robbed of my passport, my phone, or my money. The situation I imagined was that someone would confront me with a knife and ask me for my valuables. The solution I imagined was to take out my rosary, close my eyes, and kneel and pray, hoping that the criminal would think twice about robbing a fellow Catholic. The other solution I imagined was to use 咏春拳 on the criminal.
I set my phone to require unlocking every time I waked it. I locked my bag. I split my money. I put half of it in my money belt and half of it in my locked bag, and carried a little in my wallet. I put my rosary in an accessible side pocket.
As the days passed, I gradually took more risks. Although such risks materialising even once is one time too many, I had to abandon certain precautions in favour of the disproportionate convenience gains. After all, it’s not like I could have carried my passport while diving or jumping into a waterfall.
2) I was scared of getting lost.
First world cities have the luxury of a railway system. Cities like London and Tokyo are thus a breeze to navigate. The Philippines, however, is a scattering of islands connected by flights that are perpetually delayed and ferries with unupdated or nonexistent websites.
On land, the transport system consists of a plethora of motor-tricycles that takes you on short distances anywhere. It costs S$0.30 if you are a local and S$3 if you are a tourist. Taxi drivers camp outside ferry terminals and begin touting anyone who has luggage. Jeepneys and buses have no safety limits. On one occasion, the taxi I rode in swerved in and out of a bi-directional two-laned road with heavy traffic. It was expertly, wild, and drunken. I promptly plugged in and decided to sleep off the 2-hour ride to calm my heart palpitations.
I did not get lost. But I probably ended up getting scammed multiple times, even after being aware of how scammable I was and trying my best not to be scammed. As I said, this trip was enriching. My only consolation is that the amounts are relatively small.
3) I was scared of being lonely.
Being alone is different from being lonely; I do not fear the former. But the loneliness of my first night in London left a lasting impression. It might have contributed to my prophetic glimpse of my emptiness in Philippines. Or it might not.
I do not remember struggling very much at all. Sure, there were moments I felt restless. And I was on social media more than ever.
But during one 2-hour ferry trip, the seats were crowded, so I went to the back of the ship’s top deck. I sat on the floor with a cup of maggi mee, away from the groggy mass of locals. I looked out into the dark, felt the wind billow around me, and teetered on the edge between solitude and loneliness. Then I thought to myself: this is just fine.
Perhaps hindsight is a rosy lens to reminisce through.
Regardless, I was beaming when I met Mum in Caticlan.
4) I was scared of drowning.
The fear of drowning was my most theoretical fear. On one hand, it sounds epic and extreme. On the other, I was securely confident that I was a strong swimmer, and that I would not over-push my limits. In the end, freediving turned out rather underwhelming. It was also more difficult than what I thought it would be. And it was pretty exhausting.
There are many limiting factors to freediving – lung capacity, diaphragm strength, breathing technique, psychosomatic state (i.e. how relaxed you are and how low your heart rate can go), cardiovascular efficiency, endurance of carbon dioxide buildup etc. My biggest difficulty was equalisation. Around the 10m mark, I would have to turn around and surface, lest my eardrums burst from the pressure if I went deeper without unblocking my ears. (One of our guides demonstrated how he could blow bubbles out of his left ear because he had burst his eardrum when he freedived without proper technique when he was young.) I only reached my required 16m once. Though I did learn how to make bubble rings.
I am not sure where to go with this. I learnt freediving so I could better explore the marine world, but there is little opportunity for recreational freediving because it has not gained mainstream popularity. And the only other person I know who freedives studies in Australia. In the meantime, I guess I will just train my static and dynamic apnea whenever I swim.
5) I was scared of being spiritually attacked.
Long associated with tales of shamans, witchcraft and black magic, Siquijor is often tagged with the moniker ‘the Mystique Island’. It’s not a reputation that sits well with the governor of Siquijor, who is concerned that such an image deters Filipinos from visiting. So much so that a sign greets newly arrived visitors with the message: ‘Siquijor is just perfect for relaxing and recuperating. Sorcery and black magic do not exist in this island – anyone who offer services for occult practices are fakes. Report immediately to Provincial Tourism Office.’
The catch 22 is that it’s this mysterious aspect of Siquijor that attracts many foreign visitors to the island.
– Lonely Planet Philippines (2012)
I admit I decided to go to Siquijor because of its mystery. I would not have asked to be healed, but I did want to see the healers in action. And I would not have minded if they healed or not, or performed some other hocus-pocus. It was culture, I told myself.
But when I met Fr D days before I left for Philippines, he counselled against curiosity. Initially, I had an instinctive aversion to such a Dark Aged idea. But I quickly realised that my aversion stemmed more from rebellious pride than from any scholarly or halcyon pursuit. After that, Fr D’s wisdom swiftly rebutted any presumption in favour of exploration.
Some things are better not to mess with. Especially when you are alone in a foreign land.
So I erred on the side of caution and went on an island tour instead. The chat I had with my tricycle driver Alan more than compensated for any local experience that I missed in deciding not to tempt the occult.
So that sums up my Philippines trip. It was nowhere near as epic as Norway or Tonga. But I learnt so many intangible things about talking to locals and not booking last minute flights and more. The worth of such life lessons cannot be easily quantified.
I am so ready for call break and my next (hopefully not my last) big trip :D