Boarding my first of 3 flights in Queenstown, NZ, I had no idea what the Philippines 7,000+ islands had in store for me. Travelling solo, I had booked my flight in haste with the kind of "fuck it" attitude that I've become accustomed to using when you're a single gal in a big wide world.
Somewhat apprehensive at travelling to a third world country alone, but with a strong determination to be fiercely independent, I was leaving my beautiful life in New Zealand on a little expedition of self discovery. Now that sounds cliche, but no I don't mean searching for my soul, I simply mean discovering a place that's intrigued me and been on my radar for a few years now without the comfort of a crew. With endless worrying from family, and many shocked and surprised responses when telling friends I'd be travelling alone for a month, I was intrigued what this archipelago had to offer me.
As with a large majority of travellers bound for the Philippines, you could say I was just one of your average beach bums looking for pristine waters, white sands, chill and culture, and you'd be pretty accurate. But what I found on those islands was so much more.
Flying into capital Manila, I was greeted with as many smiles as run down buildings and piles of rubbish lining the streets. Manila is an interesting place, and to be honest, not one i'm keen to revisit in a hurry. Dirty, congested and genuinely quite scary given recent political issues (the Philippines Prime Minister had declared drug dealers, users and anyone with suspected ties, could be shot on sight and the country was in a state of civil turmoil), I decided I was best off out of there and boarded a domestic flight to the largest of the islands to the west, Palawan.
Making friends with both the sweetest and chattiest Philippine girl on the plane who proceeded to tell me about god for the entire flight and ask if she could bless me whilst holding my hand, we arrived into Puerto Princesa in a mere hour. The most low key airport i've ever seen. Casually retrieving my bag from the doorway of the one room arrivals building, I set out to find my ride to the hostel i'd booked one night at. Finding a small man who couldn't speak English but was most overjoyed when I spotted my name written carefully on his board amongst the masses., I was flashed a smile and then gestured politely to a van, where I sat and waited for 30 minutes as he paced around the makeshift carpark and chatting with other taxi drivers before finally deciding he could depart.
The first thing that strikes you on the west islands is the green. As inevitable as the rain here, the green of foliage overwhelms the landscape. Adding to the humidity that incases every part of your body, it's as if it's wrapping you in the Philippines and bringing you to presence in a midst of forests and foreign sounds. Hurtling towards the hostel everything is bright, colour pops in every direction. Horns sound, mopeds whizz past and onlookers peer curiously at our van from stall after stall selling fresh fruit that line the roadside.
Making it one piece (just), I find another of your typical Asian backpackers - dingy, humid bunk rooms with no locking spaces your valuables, and a strange collection of humans and their possessions draped from every surface, Dumping my 20L pack - I was travelling extremely light on this trip, I head to the make-shift bar for a bottle of water and spot some weirdly familiar faces sat at a table to far side of the open courtyard. We all make awkward eye contact for a few minutes, trying to suss out why each other are so familiar before striking up a conversation and realise we all used to live in the same halls at University. What are the odds?
After a few hours and a few local rums later, it’s decided that we will travel together and just like that, I accompany my new but old student pals, a kiwi boy and a feisty Israeli girl in adventures across the northern islands. Spending endless days on scooter adventures to secluded beaches through monsoon rain and gaping in awe at nation parks with water so green it might have been lined with emeralds, it’s safe to say I was becoming accustomed to the slower days and temperate climate.
Soon after arriving on yet another entrancing island by the name of Coron, we meet a local boy called Bamboo. With a flash of bright red dye through his sharp hair cut and deeply tanned skin, Bamboo’s cheeky smile beamed into your consciousness completely unrelenting until you couldn’t help but beam back. Over the following weeks, Bamboo became our best friend and went everywhere with us; organising boat trips, bbq’s with his crew of Philippine guys, showing us off to the locals at the pool club and culminating in a low key karaoke spot where he told me “Daisy, you have the nose of a painting”. Whilst we were all in fits of hysterics at his comment, I couldn’t help but feel the gracious undertones of his statement. Bamboo was genuine, he loved life and would do anything to make people happy. He was energised by spending time with foreigners to learn their cultures and was authentically caring.
So much like many of the adventures we go on - the unreal landscapes we see; the cultures we encounter; the traditions we familiarise ourselves with - ultimately travel is about the people we meet. What are their stories? What do they have to share with the world and what do they bring to us personally?
The white sandy beaches of the Philippines? Beautiful, sure. Bamboo and his band of merry men? Unforgettable.