beached: indonesia, singapore & the philippines

It was a strange feeling, alone for the first time in months, in a cab, hurtling down the freeway away from Bangkok, no seatbelt on. That feeling of imminent change was pooling inside me, coupled with a distinct taste of desertion, because I’d left an Aussie back at the hostel. I’ve decided it kind of tastes like licking metal. See ya when I see ya. I carried everything onto the plane and when I woke up we’d just bumped down in Indonesia. Another unfamiliar runway. It felt routine. It was raining. And so began a three-country escapade: 

I managed to get stuck on Gili Air for the better part of three weeks (that little island on the north end of Lombok). Island life is like that, and it’s very simple: wake up when you want, eat when you’re hungry, jump in the water when you overheat, read books, play with kittens, hang in hammocks. Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas. There was no buildup, no “We might get flurries today!”, no VanCity buses skidding on icy streets, no exams to sweat over, no fog, no nippy nights at the Cypress lookout, no “I’m just going to buy this present for myself” binges and no Starbucks Christmas cups. Instead there was warm water, bare feet and spaghetti. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything because my brain hadn’t been triggered into Christmas mode. 

Ubud embodies most of what people think of when you say, “Bali”. Monkeys, temples, yoga, fancy stores, tons of tours, overpriced food and rice fields. At the Monkey Forest I saw monkeys doing it in front of a sea of smartphones -they’ll all have the same monkey porn footage-, a monkey guzzling water out of a stolen water bottle, and my friend slipping on a banana peel, which I’m convinced they carefully placed in her way. Monkeys are not unlike us: kind of evil. 

The highlight of my time in Indonesia was one I was dragged into, because no one really wants to be woken up at 1:30AM and told to hike up a mountain in the pitch black. Especially when the last physical exercise you did was over 4 months ago. I hadn’t seen a legitimate mountain in months, and while I tried to ignore it, beaches were slowly sucking my soul away. I’m not a beach girl. I’m a mountain lady. We were picked up at 2AM and proceeded to fill the car, which included two wasted Lithuanians who  had no idea where we were going or why. They said they’d asked their hotel receptionist for some girls (classy), and they ended up in a car with two American girls, a Canadian girl and a German girl, and none of us were what I think they had in mind. They definitely didn’t have hiking in mind. 

Mount Bratur isn’t like the mountains I know and love. It thrust itself out of the plains around it by exploding every so often and it was evident by the steam emitting from small holes up the trail that it hadn’t decided to sleep yet. I joined the line of endless people, armed likewise with a flashlight, and we all plodded like zombies toward the summit to catch the sunrise. But then I woke up. That little piece of me that the beaches had beaten to bits (I know, you all have absolutely no sympathy for my plight) seemed to calmly collect itself. I could actually feel it putting itself together again inside my chest, which was burning. Why are we stopping so much? Please go faster. Hi, can I pass you? And four months of doing nothing but running to the next sight just melted away -it wasn’t a hard hike and it felt like I bounced up it. We ate eggs cooked in volcano steam and banana sandwiches at the summit while I ran around like a kid that just discovered Christmas in the summer, and the rest of my tour group sat there watching me, slightly amused and probably a little concerned. 

These days, I’m usually the “senior” backpacker at hostels. When someone’s been traveling for longer, it’s usually because they’re at the end of a gap year, or they’ve categorized, “I worked in Oz for a year, and then I taught english in Thailand for 6 months” as non-stop travel (that’s called working or living abroad and I’m going to be a snob and say that’s not really the same thing. It’s not better or worse -it’s just a different mindset). Long bus rides don’t terrify me, planes don’t terrify me and it doesn’t really matter to me how long it takes to get somewhere because all I have is time. So the fact that it was going to take me 48 hours to reach El Nido in the Philippines had no importance. To me, that’s just saving two nights’ accommodation fees. A 2-hour shuttle to Denpasar airport, a 2-hour wait for boarding and a 2-hour flight landed me in Singapore. The Changi Airport was mind blowing. You could live in the Singapore airport. The signage was impeccable. I saw a drinking fountain for the first time in months and rejoiced in the fact that it delivered freezing cold water pumping out of a silvery metal spout that looked clean enough to lick. I could flush toilet paper down the toilet again -a novelty. I hopped on the MRT and held on, just like the SkyTrain! I thought. Probably had one of those I’m-new-here-everything-is-amazing-wow-wow-wow idiot grins on my face the whole time. I left my checked bag to get transferred to a plane bound for Manila, and in the meantime I hurtled toward the city. Stations blinked past, doors chimed, everyone was quiet and calm and announcements were made in a robotic women’s voice -she had a British accent that wouldn’t have sounded out of place at a spa. And it was all in English. 

I met up with Bhuvan, who I met in Hanoi, and she showed me around the city. And this city is one that looks just like the postcards. It does not disappoint. The yuppy that was hibernating in me blinked sleepily and realized, oh boy, this is my cue. Wake up, we’ve got work to do! Skyscrapers, clean roads, cars driving on the right side, chain stores, name brands, bubble tea that costs $5 a pop. Starbucks at twice the regular price. I could pay with credit cards. Women in stilettos on cell phones, using that I’m-so-professional-and-I-understand-your-concerns business voice. Suits and ties, stop lights and walk signs that were being obeyed. No honking, no hollering, no catcalls, no one giving me the twice-over. We went up to floor 56 of the Marina Bay Sands, hair whipping in our faces, to see the sun go down and the city wake up. 

I wandered around with my camera on a fully extended tripod levered over one shoulder and no one even gave me a second glance. I was just another one of those kids with a camera and too much time on her hands. Bliss. 

The Gardens by the Bay could have been the inspiration for the set of Avatar. Spotlights searched the sky and light shows began and meanwhile I’m sure CBD was still full of thousands of people working overtime at tiny little desks, ignoring the spectacular view outside their window because progress and production. I explored alone in the dark with my equipment in tow and felt entirely at ease. I basked in it. At 10:00PM I made my way back to the nearest MRT station, sore feet and happy camera, proceeded to transfer lines three times and arrived back at the Changi Airport for a 3.5 hour flight to Manila. I felt nomadic. No stopping, no bed, keep going. I used my hammock as a pillow on the airport floor. It’s all good. 

The transition to the Manila Airport from Singapore was harsh. That’s because Singapore Airport is ranked as the best in the world and Manila Airport is ranked as the worst. No signage, confusion, sub-par English, back to people trying to rip me off, no drinking fountains, no paper in the toilet. The yuppy shrugged sadly and immediately knocked herself unconscious and the cheapo backpacker switched back into gear 5 alert. 6 hours later I was on a flight to Puerto Princesa. 4 hours after that I was on a shuttle to El Nido, enduring a winding road that regularly turned into gravel and potholes. 6 hours after that I was on a trike to a hostel. And yes, 48 hours later, I finally made it to El Nido. 

You’ve heard of the The Beach by Alex Garland, or perhaps seen the movie with Leo in it? That book and movie is based in Thailand on islands that are huge tourist destinations now, but Alex Garland’s inspiration for The Beach was, apparently, El Nido, and it’s clear why. There really is a “Secret Beach” that you can only access by swimming into it through a little hole in the rocks. Although… it’s no kind of secret anymore. It’s full of people in lifejackets. El Nido can be described as a less-dense Ha Long Bay with better water. Towering cliffs that end in spikes jut out of crystal clear turquoise waves. 

I got my bearings quickly. I got dragged out a few nights -all it takes is sitting in the common room of a hostel and all of a sudden you have a free drink in your hand because you’re coming out with us! People forget your name almost immediately. Instead, I usually end up answering to, “Hey, Canada!” Works for me, I guess. The tide comes right up to the inns and the bars in the evening, lapping near dancefloors. El Nido was pretty enough. Everyone raves about it. But my brain was still hurting from the transition from Singapore to Manila. I felt like something had been robbed from me. Maybe it made me unappreciative, maybe it gave me a bad attitude, but I couldn’t see the beauty in El Nido like I’d hoped I would. Maybe it as the fact that it was high season with way too many people, but my conclusive theory is that all it took was a few locals to taint the entire experience.

People ask me all the age-old questions about traveling alone and 99% of the time, the answer is yes, I feel safe and people are nice enough to me. But 1% of the time can really kill my entire view of a place. A girl strung up in a hammock at waist height in a quiet spot by the beach with no one around might as well have a DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging off of her in 6 different languages, am I right? Why would someone walk 2km out of town and hang a hammock up in the middle of nowhere when their aim is to socialize? They wouldn’t. That person in the hammock is clearly content being alone for the time being, and that’s the way she wants it to be. She probably wouldn’t appreciate some Philippino kid, borderline 19 years old, flipping long unwashed hair from his face, creeping up beside her, standing over her with his crotch 2ft from her face and inquiring, “Where’s your husband?” It’s the line. It’s the classic early warning. Sirens go off. Red lights blink behind your eyes. Strobes. “At my hotel.” You become aware you’re holding your Kobo, which you were so happily reading a moment prior to this disturbance, with your left hand, bare ring finger practically on display. You would think the guy would understand my reply was a blatant declination of his implied offer. Maybe he thought I didn’t understand the offer though, because the next thing out of his mouth was, “Do you want me?” and I nearly started crying. My skin started crawling. “No. Go away.” He did, but that was the breaking point. The hammock came down. Don’t get me wrong, most local people mean very well. It’s the 1%, and by that point I was willing to sacrifice the other 99% to avoid them, which is a bad attitude. I didn’t have the energy to discern between the two. I had little girls touching me on their way by like I was some kind of good luck charm. I had little boys making wildly inappropriate gestures toward me. I’m talking an 8 year old boy thrusting enthusiastically into the air, fingers inserting into the loop of his index and thumb of his other dirty hand, giggling madly with all his other little buddies. I could see the gap where his two front teeth hadn’t grown in yet. 

I was over it. Maybe they were just having fun (isn’t that the usual excuse?). But the evidence was there all in one day: that 8 year old boy was going to grow into that 19 year old that thrusts his pelvic area into some girl’s personal space, surprise, no invitation. And I don’t approve. I don’t care if it’s “normal” for the Philippines. I don’t care if that’s “acceptable” anywhere. It will never be acceptable to me. And I know the classic idealistic traveler retort to my attitude on this one as well: if you can’t handle the customs and the norms of a country, you might as well not go. And I agree with that. 

So maybe that’s why leaving Southeast Asia didn’t evoke a single sad feeling from me. The 19 year old was the nail in the coffin, perhaps. I knew it wasn’t really my place the second that humid air hit me at the open cabin door in Hanoi. There is charm here. Brutal history. Poverty, but pretty places. Streets of garbage, complete disorder. Temples, jungles, raging waterfalls and, I’d like to argue, a richer culture than we have. According to most-liked Facebook statuses, I suppose I’m expected to preach how amazing every single waking second was. People expect that from someone who’s traveling all the time. They want to hear all the good, without any of the bad. They don’t want to hear a single complaint because you have the “privilege” of seeing all these gorgeous faraway places. That’s fair enough, but unfortunately I’m an honest person. I find those cheesy Facebook statuses phoney. They’ve got a new type of filter applied. It’s the “everything’s perfect” filter. It’s like posting a #nomakeup #iwokeuplikethis selfie after 15 takes and some heavy contrast. It’s posting the highlight reel, which I understand as well. All my photos are the highlight reel. I’m not immune to this phenomenon. According to mass media, I’m supposed to leave third world countries with some kind of hyper-positive drive to fix all their problems. I’m supposed to filter out that 1%, feed all my friends the 99% and imply these people only have good feelings and good intentions for people like me. But I’m not going to do that. These countries are not as developed in every sense: infrastructure, water, electricity, gender equality. It’s far from perfect. So while I really do love seeing that all these kids still occupy themselves with forts, tag, running around chasing chickens and puppies instead of sitting in front of iPhones, I’m not going to encourage the Facebook statuses claiming that traveling is some new level of perfection. After these months in this part of the world, I fully comprehend the extent of what it means when people say I’ve won life’s lottery being born where I was. Cliche as that is, it’s true. Drinking tap water in Singapore felt like a gift, because it is a gift. After 5 months in 6 countries, I know that people in third world countries aren’t any more perfect than we are. I don’t like the strange way we tend to generalize about them. It’s like we somehow vault them onto a pedestal because we feel their position warrants a mega Facebook-positive-bump. I’m going to speak about them like who they are: human beings, just like me. They’re all different, they all have opinions, they all have values and ideas and just like Canada, or Europe, or the States or wherever you are reading this from: they won’t all agree with you, some of them you will pass right on by, some you’ll admire and some you could come to love, if only you had been born in a different place, at a different time. 

And that is human nature. No filter. 

Written in the Singapore Airport. 

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