Olango, Philippines: "The Most Beautiful Place in the World"
|Security at Cebu’s airport.|
The Philippines are composed of 7,000 islands, so planning my trip was no easy feat. It was hard to get started. After careful research, and a lot of blog-reading, I chose a tiny “resort” on the lesser-known island of Olango, near Cebu City. “Resort” in this case meant there was a restaurant on site. Getting to the island from Cebu’s tiny airport required a quick taxi ride through the city and then a private 30-minute boat ride from the dock.
|I was greeted with a fresh coconut.|
The Wi-Fi extended only about three feet from the kitchen, so it felt good to disconnect and spend some time in solitude for a few days. The five other guests at the resort were all on their own schedules, so the only people I really saw were the welcoming staff. They were friendly and laid back, but still professional. I never got used to being called, “ma’am” during my stay, but I didn’t mind hearing each morning, “What time would you like your massage?”
|Left: Talima’s restaurant and lounging huts; Right: the resort pool and bar.|
|My humble room complete with a mosquito-netted bed, and my personal patio on the right.|
Upon arriving on the island, I had expected to be able to buy sunscreen at the resort, but their humble amenities didn’t allow a place for a convenience store. My options: avoid the sun (during my tropical vacation!?) or ride into town on the back of a stranger’s motorbike. You’re familiar with the expression, “When in Rome…” In this case, “When on Olango….”
|A local restaurant where sitting at a table costs extra.|
I hopped on and held on for dear life as I caught my first glimpses of life in a third world country. When you zoom past emaciated dogs, watch shoeless children play in the dirt, and buy sunscreen from a teenager balancing a newborn on her hip, all before heading back to your vacation resort, you can’t help but feel a little guilty. However, something that kept the guilt at bay was noticing how content the people of Olango seemed to be. Everyone wore a small smile, locals joked and laughed with each other (regardless of their relationship) and contrary to people in Seoul, no one was in a rush to get the day over with. For me, it was the epitome of an escape from the daily grind I was used to.
|Talima’s “Filipino Breakfast”: two eggs, tocina (sweet pork),
coffee and toast. (Notice how they brought the toaster to my
table? I could toast the bread at my convenience. Brilliant!)
My first day on Olango, I felt a little anxiety with the amount of free time I had to spend alone; I actually asked the resort manager what I should do to which she responded with a chuckle, “Whatever you want.” It didn’t take long, though, for me to relax and get comfortable with doing nothing. My first day was spent being massaged, eating home-cooked meals, snorkeling, and alternating my book-reading/napping between the pool and an ocean-side lounge chair. The staff of Talima had this way of making me feel like I held the power as a guest in their resort. It was a little intimidating since being a boss is not in my nature. At the end of each meal, I was asked what time I wanted my next meal, and what they should prepare. At one point, they even showed me the most expensive room at the resort where an employee told me to sit on the couch, fluffed my pillow, aimed a fan at me, pointed out the book shelf, and then left me to myself. They had deemed me a temporary princess: “Bibbidi bobbidi boo!”
|My choice of views for book-reading and lounging.|
|The boat crew from left to right: stowaway Jordan,
co-captains Armand and Keven.
Back to the boat tour: the co-captains were Keven and Armand (18 and 25 years old respectively). Also joining the crew was 10-year-old stowaway, Jordan. Jordan was a stranger to Keven and Armand; just a kid skipping school en lieu of a boat ride. Armand and Jordan were both the silent types, speaking very little English and occasionally conversing in their native language of Tagalog, which sounds a lot like Spanish (Spanish was the official language of the Philippines for centuries until the 1900s). Keven, however, spoke enough English to have simple conversations with.
|Keven peeling a whole lobster for lunch.|
Keven and I shared one of those rare immediate bonds, where I felt inexplicably comfortable being at the mercy of a complete stranger in the middle of the ocean. I thought of him as a brotherly friend right away. While many Filipino people perceived my tourist status to mean I was privileged and filthy rich (I got asked my yearly salary more than once), Keven saw me as a portal to the world outside of Olango. He was so curious about my life and more than happy to teach me about his.
|The colors of the water were breathtaking.|
What surprised me during our boat tour were the “pirates.” Not the sword-wielding, eye patch-wearing kind, the kind who boards your boat and engages in awkward small talk until you realize they’re waiting for money. Sometimes they’re selling seashells or jewelry and sometimes they’re offering to take you for a ride in their makeshift paddleboat. It only took two pirates before Keven and Armand started fending them off from afar, for my benefit. I say “fending”, but they were probably just warning them not to waste their time. Either way, I was grateful.
After a couple hours on the boat, we all started lowering our
|Taking a swimming break with Jordan.|
guards. It took some convincing, but I got them to stop calling me “ma’am” and call me by name. By the second island, I persuaded them to join me in the water. Even little Jordan was surprised at my offer and looked to the captains for permission. Based on their hesitations, I’m going to guess they’ve never before socialized with guests of the resort. We all tried something new that day: I fearlessly swam in the clearest ocean water I’ve ever seen, among hundreds of tropical fish that somehow never touched me despite their proximity. Keven dove deep for starfish and Jordan did cannonballs off the boat. Armand watched in amused silence while smoking cigarettes. In a weird way, it all felt so normal.
|Keven diving and Jordan retrieving starfish.|
On the way back to Olango, the boat got stranded at low tide. All three boys jumped out to push the boat through the sand back to deep water. Without thinking, I joined them in the water to help. The sea was up to my knees, but you would have thought I was drowning with the amount of yelling that followed. They were mortified at my attempt to help push. Keven explained the risk of stepping on sea urchins and insisted I sit in the cockpit while they push the boat free, otherwise we’d have to wait an hour for high tide. If you know me, you won’t be surprised to hear I followed his advice for about five minutes before sneaking off the back and pushing from behind. Growing up with brothers has ingrained a need for keeping up with the boys. When they noticed, we all laughed a bit and I stubbornly said, “If I can’t push, then no one can.” So no one pushed. We relaxed on the boat until high tide, drinking water, listening to music, Jordan showing off his Tagalog rapping skills. It’s hard to explain the feeling I had in that moment, stuck at low tide, on a boat with people I’d met only hours prior, but I can tell you this: it’s the reason I travel.
That evening I dined on traditional Filipino Chicken Adobo while I thought about the quick glimpses into Filipino culture I’d perceived that day on the boat. My entire life I’ve only thought of a place like Olango as a vacation destination, never a place where people are born and grow up. It somewhat baffled me that in a place like Olango, where even fresh water is scarce, no one really seemed worried or upset about their meager (to me) living conditions. When I asked a few of the locals how they liked living on Olango, they answered with a slight indifferent “sure”, but no one ever answered in the negative. I asked one man why he liked it, and he said, “It’s the most beautiful place in the world.” A bold statement from someone who’s never left the island.
|Olango locals see this view every day.|
|Jordan’s makeshift aquarium.|
I was a little envious of Keven’s and Armand’s indifference of uncertainty, but then again, I don’t think they really have much choice due to poor currency, lack of resources, etc. I wondered if all those things changed and they suddenly had more opportunities, would they choose to take them? That got me thinking about Jordan, our 10-year-old stowaway. He skipped school to spend a day on a boat, playing with fish in the water, catching one as a pet. He’s probably never heard of video games or the Disney channel, but if it was available, would he still choose the boat?
|A young Olango boy searching for shells and food.|
In my eyes, the people of Olango envelop the idea we (in the first worlds) all strive to achieve which is being happy with what you already have. Instead, we focus on the things we don’t have. We’re either constantly working to obtain our next goal, or accepting what we’re “stuck with.” Within less than three days on the island, I felt ashamed at the amount of material possessions I owned, and how many of them had taken priority in my life over the intangible. In fact, right there at my finished plate of Chicken Adobo, I began to scheme a way to stay on the island long-term. I considered working at the resort, tutoring English, joining the pirates. Part of me was terrified I’d never figure out how to live an unhurried, worry-free, non-materialistic, satisfied life unless I lived on Olango. Another part wanted to stay and discover in what ways the people of Olango were unsatisfied, worrisome, or materialistic. Are these traits simply human-nature, or products of our cultures?
|Talima’s view at sunset; the lights of Cebu City in the distance.|
My last day on the island was spent much like the first: book reading, pool dipping, fish eating. A company from Cebu City was having a staff gathering at Talima, so for the first time during my stay, the resort was pretty busy. By busy I mean loud and entertaining; the staff still carried their laid back, content demeanor. To get a break from the noise, I decided to explore the ocean at low tide with Keven and Armand. Since it was winter, the water was already at a lower level than usual, so at low tide, the whole ocean floor about three feet from shore was visible for a couple hours a day. There is so much to see! Growing up far away from the ocean, I assumed touching anything would result in a sting or a trip to the hospital. Keven and Armand, however, were experts in ocean floor dwellers. They fearlessly scooped up everything to give me a closer look while pointing out the few things I shouldn’t touch.
|Can you spot the starfish?|
While most of what Keven showed me in the ocean was deemed “good for grill”, I took the whole low tide expedition as a much more meaningful metaphor. (Surprised?) When the ocean is at high tide, it’s easy to forget all the life, giant and miniscule, that exists because I can’t see it. Even at low tide, it’s easy to miss the motionless creatures, but I start to realize they’re there. Sometimes it takes someone else, like Keven, to point it out and show it up close. It hit me that staying on Olango wouldn’t magically give me the key to a satisfied life. As an outsider, I had been looking at Olango locals the way I looked at the ocean at high tide: on the surface. To me, they seemed completely satisfied with their lives, but if I scratched the ocean floor, I would most likely learn of their worries or discontent. Even if I didn’t, I could never achieve satisfaction by trying to live someone else’s way of life. One person’s dream life could be another’s nightmare.