1 year in the Philippines (and other numbers)

1 year in the philippines

Last Updated on June 8, 2023 by Ellen

Numbers. Let’s talk numbers.

Today, we have been in the Philippines one year.

As I write this, the sun is coming up on Saturday, November 14, 2020. On this day one year ago, we flew into this country, set to explore many islands and towns and beaches. We were ready to welcome mom Diane to stay with us and slow travel with us for about three months.

In those first few months a year ago, I went to prison.

You read that right — I went to a Philippine prison.

I volunteered to visit alcoholics and addicts who were interested to learn how I had been able to stay sober nearly 10 years. (My 10th anniversary was April 13, 2020.)

In late 2019, and early 2020, before the ‘Rona virus rocked the world, I sat for about an hour with men prisoners, and then for about an hour with women prisoners, along with my friend and fellow expat friend. We did this once every week — even on Christmas Day!

I don’t care if you’re American or Filipino, or if you’re from Mars. If you want to stay sober and want to know how I do it, I will share my story with you. It’s a gift for me to be able to share how I do it, since so many people have shared with me how they do it. I simply pay it forward, and it’s rewarding.

Phones and cameras aren’t allowed inside the prison. But here is a photo outside the main gate. (My friend is anonymous.)

My prison visits never made it onto this blog before now.

I could share about how the legal system in the Philippines has many similarities to the U.S.A.

But I don’t really feel like it.

So let’s go back to numbers.

In 3 days, we will have lived at the Hangout Beach Resort for 8 months.

We arrived on March 16, the day the ferries to Boracay Island shut down thanks to the ‘Rona virus. Boracay had been our planned destination. God laughed at our plans, yet gave us something better.

The only place that would take us on mainland Malay — the Hangout, and its owner Yolly.

Her generosity in accepting us here was so comforting in a frightening situation: it was the start of lockdowns and border closings; we have no home as world travelers; flights were canceled; this part of the Philippines was unknown to us; we were with mom Diane – healthy and strong — and 81 years old.

I’ve never published the below picture anywhere. Mom Diane actually said: ‘That bench can be comfortable.’

Theo would have none of that – he found this place, or, if you like, God guided us here.

Thank heavens Yolly worked it out with the Motag Barangay captain to make us feel welcome – and safe. (The full story is here. Expats: I recommend this place!)

The longer we stayed, the more welcoming Filipinos we met in the mainland Malay community. So, we have kept on staying. (Mom Diane would have stayed, too, but she had to make a visit ‘home’.)

Special delivery: 9 pizzas for 24 kids and a few adult friends.

Why not? Every week my friends Aira and Belen stop what they are doing to cook a meal for the kids at my request. (The back story is here.) The women also help supervise games and activities with about two dozen neighborhood kids.

So this week, no cooking – the ladies have Saturday off. At the same time, the kids can eat, and I’ll help support a local business. The food is coming from a great restaurant named Balay Tadyaw. (Expats: I recommend this place!)

Their ages range from 14 to toddler. Jay-N is the oldest. She makes the most beautiful greeting cards, which cannot be found in any stores – not even on Boracay. (Expats: let me know if you need an occasion card!)

In the time I have been sponsoring the gatherings with the kids (roughly four months), I have come to know something special about each child or teen. Seeing them laugh and smile is the highlight of my week.

The youngest ones sometimes cry if they don’t win a game or a prize, so Aunt Ellen slips them a piece of condolence candy.

It’s been 49 weeks since I’ve seen an oncologist — 3 weeks shy of 1 year.

As a breast cancer warrior, I’m supposed to see an oncologist twice a year.

But ‘2020’ is the strangest number of all, no?

I decided to skip the summer visit. There are no oncologists here, and, as a resident foreigner, it’s a pain in the ass to travel outside of Aklan.

I am going to have to do something soon. Or not. I feel fine. Literally. I feel my chest where my breasts were amputated, looking for any other odd lumps or bumps.

My chest swells in humidity. The scar tissue is looser but more spread out. When I’m in an air-conditioned room, I do my checks after my chest contracts a bit. It’s easier for me to feel changes when it’s ‘tighter’. However, I should probably think about getting a second opinion… since I’m no doctor.


Back to the numbers.

Boracay had 866 tourists in the first 9 days of November.

That’s according to the Malay Tourism Office.

While this is great news (!), it’s hardly a return to pre-pandemic levels. Accordingly, people are still desperate for income.

I still see children selling fruit on White Beach; men climb trees on White Beach for coconuts; men who’ve never fished before cast nets from shore looking for something to eat, former white-collar workers dig for snails in sand because they are hungry.

People are thinner. Dogs are thinner. Sometimes dogs are so thin they don’t even stand up.

It’s been nearly 3 months since I wrote about the ‘catastrophic new normal.’

That blog post talked about the pervasive hunger people face, and the staggering unemployment rate for the Visaya region, once fueled by tourism.

Things are worse now.

Sure, 866 tourists to Boracay helps. But it’s not nearly enough.

I asked a local friend out of work for 9 months: How are you doing?

Without a beat of hesitation, his immediate response: Stressed.

It’s not only this local friend in Malay. It’s every friend we have here. Everyone needs money, needs income, needs hope.

How desperate will it get? What desperate things will people do?

I could share examples.

But I don’t really feel like it.

So let’s go back to numbers.

There are 2 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from Malay Municipality.

The hope is contact tracing and quarantines around these two cases work to stop any spread. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in Malay to four. Still low. For now.

The local government put the slogan on the bottom of its news release about the new cases: “Stay home. Stay safe.”

Not exactly what this world traveler wants to hear.

The best number of all: I have 3,868 days of sobriety.

This is my favorite number in this post. Every day I stay sober, is a glorious day. My worst day now is immensely better than my best day when I was drinking. When I relentlessly searched for black oblivion in a bottle every day.

I see people all around drinking more alcohol. That ‘escape’ route for me will lead to insanity or death.

Instead, I get to live in the sunlight of the Spirit, and serve others when I can, one day at a time.

Thanks for reading, “1 year in the Philippines (and other numbers).”


2 thoughts on “1 year in the Philippines (and other numbers)”

  1. Ellen, this is an amazing post! Thank you so much for sharing. I am so happy for you that you’ve been able to stay sober for so long! You are an amazing person! Your “pay it forward” attitude as a substitute for drinking is truly inspiring! I am so proud of you, and I wish you much success with your own journey and your tremendous help and support you’re giving others. What a blessing this life is! It’s powerful to think about how we wouldn’t be who we are today had we not made the selfish and self-destructive choices of our past. Maybe the poor choices we made in the past were necessary for our realizing we can make better choices–that will bring us closer to the joy and peace we all ultimately seek. God bless!

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