‘Authentic travel’ revelation during pandemic

A man checks his bamboo fishing trap in Malay, Philippines, in an authentic travel shot.

Newly vaccinated Americans ready to travel after more than a year of pandemic sacrifices don’t seem to realize how desperate people are for income in developing nations that relied on tourism.

I’m in several Facebook travel groups and members seem to have this general idea that everything will be the same as it was before the pandemic. They might be the same. But people in places like the Philippines are down spirited.

Travelers, wanna-be travelers, and travel bloggers in these groups use the now-popular term “authentic travel.” It means having deeper cultural experiences instead of waiting on lines to get the perfect Instagram shot.

I’ve used the term a lot, too – on this blog and in social media posts.

Travelers look for “authentic experiences” away from traditional tourist zones. I’ve done that for years myself.

But I’ve come to understand cultural experiences in a different way during our slow travel break.

First let me share what it’s really like to live in a former tourist hot spot in a developing nation for more than a year during the pandemic.

Here in Malay, Aklan, Philippines, which includes famous Boracay Island, spouse Theo and I know people who need food, money for utility payments and hospital bills.

There are so many unemployed and underemployed people of all ages. Before the pandemic, tourism was the economic engine of this entire region.

Young people put off college. Mothers wrestle with overseas contract options as nurses or nannies or maids — their families desperately need money, but moms don’t really want to leave their kids.

Out-of-work, white-collar professionals lived off family and friends a year ago – until there was nothing left to go around. Can you imagine? You lose your office job and now you have to fish to eat? Could you do it?

People try to sell food they make in their kitchens. And you should know: a kitchen here can be a coconut shell as a pan on an open fire, often with charcoal because it’s cheaper than wood.

We know people who make charcoal. It’s a long, dirty process that nets few pesos for huge effort over many days. But, it’s something, and something is better than nothing.

These people are desperate for jobs and income as they hold on to dignity.

Trike drivers politely fight for my fare. People lament how they miss the booming business days, how they can’t afford to pay for big things like loans, or small things, like birthday cakes for kids.

The Philippines is in a recession, the fiscal deficit is growing. As one official put it recently: “It’s really getting to be very concerning.”

The national government’s official news agency finally acknowledged suicides. An article on travel and tourism quotes an official as saying local governments must “restore economies to prevent further incidents of hunger, crime and suicide(,) which are among the negative social effects of the pandemic.”

I never wrote about the suicides on this blog before now. But we’ve known for a long time. Suicides became an issue in these parts a year ago.

The other day, I saw a long of people stretched for half a mile on Boracay on my way back to the mainland. They waited for food packages from Barangay (neighborhood) Manoc-Manoc. There wasn’t nearly enough: a little rice, a few dried fish, a juice box.

Honestly, most people I meet don’t want hand outs. But what other choice do they have?

These people relied on income from Chinese, Korean, Australian, European, American, and wealthy Philippine visitors.

Sometimes, I feel like this is a test of my faith. Or maybe it’s a bad dream.

Or maybe: it’s not about me, or you, or fashionable labels we privileged travelers get to toss around.

Maybe it’s humanity’s test.

While all developing nations struggle — not only the Philippines — Americans are booking trips to Europe. They are vaccinated, lucky travelers who want to go somewhere. They all miss traveling.

Me, too.

But life here over the last 14 months has affected my view on global inequities.

I used to think of developing countries as our ‘playgrounds’ for retired budget travel. The costs were so much lower than places like Europe, and we could afford to retire early and “live” in other countries.

Also, I used to seek out destinations with fewer tourists. I thought those places would give me a more ‘authentic’ travel experience.

Now I see I was wrong.

Boracay is the “crown jewel” of Philippine tourism. Its White Beach beats most others on Earth for many reasons. I love it there. But I love where we temporarily live, too.

I ride the ferry from Boracay to the mainland with workers from posh hotels. They go to modest homes and struggling families. I watch unemployed men on the ‘mainland’ build toy sailboats with their children to pass the time, and maybe make a friendly little bet.

Local children are so much taller than 14 months ago! Sometimes I buy bunches of some type of greens from little boys with dirty clothing and bare feet.

Not everything is hard. Life is good for me, for Theo, and even for many of the people who struggle. They have their families, their faith, the sun and the sea. And maybe some cheap rum or moonshine.

On any given day, there could be cows, carabao, goats, pigs, roosters, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, frogs, and more, steps from our door.

Sunrises and sunsets in this island-nation are breathtaking and the stars fill me with wonder and gratitude.

We are invited to parties, dinners, beach days, hikes, and, sadly, funerals.

Friends with gardens bring us coconuts, bananas, papaya, and more; they share fish, squid, chicken, and more with us. We tell them to stop – to save what they have for themselves and their families.

As I write this, our neighbor came with an offering of fish. Almost too beautiful to eat.

A colorful tropical fish offered as a gift by a neighbor.

We’ve seen many rice harvests: flooding, turning, planting, picking, burning. We’ve lived through every season – dry, wet, summer, winter, habagat, amihan.

Now we are here for another cycle. We are starting Month #15.

Time and Earth rhythms fuse into a three dimensional experience we call life. Our shared humanity. And that’s authentic, no matter where it is.

Our humanity is the ‘authenticity’ I had long looked for outside ‘heavily touristed’ places.

It’s ironic to me that the Universe used a tourist hot spot to teach me this lesson – that even ‘slow travel’ was too fast for me to see this, and I couldn’t learn it until I’d been stopped.

Thank you, God.

Now, is there an ‘authentic travel’ difference between an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, and a Mayan family weaving hammocks in Coba? You betcha.

Is a five-star resort on Boracay that caters to your every whim different from a small family-run hotel where you can use a communal kitchen? Absolutely.

But if you take the time to talk – really talk – to people serving your food, making your bed, checking you in, selling you sailing tours, or driving you around, you will be an authentic traveler no matter where you go.

So maybe don’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to Boracay because it’s too touristy.’ Maybe instead say, ‘I will find authenticity wherever I am.’

Because this former tourist destination has so many people – so many of our friends – hoping and praying you will come.

Note: Coronavirus vaccinations recently started for health care workers and senior citizens in the Western Visaya region, but there is a long way to go and not enough supply. Also, as of this writing, only spouses of citizens and foreigners with residency status are allowed into the Philippines – tourist visas are not permitted.

Read the story of how the Hangout Beach Resort on mainland Malay became our ‘pandemic bunker’ in March 2020. Theo’s mom Diane stayed with us until late October 2020, and then returned to the U.S.

Earth Vagabonds will resume a slow travel lifestyle as soon as it makes sense in this new crazy world.

10 thoughts on “‘Authentic travel’ revelation during pandemic

  1. Wow, this : So maybe don’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to Boracay because it’s too touristy.’ Maybe instead say, ‘I will find authenticity wherever I am.’

    100% resonated with what I’m feeling inside right now. Thanks for sharing. ❤️

  2. I found your blog through Go With Less FB group. This post brought a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I love what you wrote!!!

  3. I love this, Ellen. Brought a tear to my eye and really made me think. It’s so easy for me to fall back to old ways of thinking. I needed this reminder of the desperation out there in “tourist spots” and how we can find “authenticity” anywhere. It usually does happen when we connect with locals, incl as you say, service providers. They have taught me so much about their countries, way of life, local culture and customs, etc. Beautifully said and thank you for sharing this powerful message!

  4. For a while now, your blog has been a source of inspiration for our own ‘slow travel’ plans 45 pay cheques from now.
    Of all your articles, this has been the most inspiring, the apparent contradictions only showcasing the real beauty. Your comments about playgrounds and authenticity are truly inspirational.
    The tales you tell from Boracay properly illustrate what so many of us hope to find …. perhaps we will also need 6 years and a global crisis to actually realise when we find it.

    Never met you, but love you guys

  5. David, your comment lifts me up. Thank you for reading, and for sharing how it makes you feel. It means more to me than you know. ??✌️

  6. Wow, I really loved this. I have always cringed when I hear travelers shaming others for “not having the authentic experience” or for “being a tourist”, etc, etc, but this truly sums it up. You can be a traveler and find the authenticity wherever you go… you just need to look for it.

  7. a good read, wish more who have lost much less from this debacle could think beyond to the broader situations in our world that the covid measures affect….the immeasurable rise in domestic violence, depression, hardship, missed medical consultations and care and deaths- yes lockdowns cause many deaths besides much more damage which in many cases will never be recovered. I recently learned that then pres Bush wanted lock downs for Sars, but a top researcher-scientist won the day pressing the point that very serious studies show that lockdowns by very far are more damaging than loss of life from a disease. Covid is worldwide but not rightly called pandemic affecting mostly those with pre-existing conditions and over 60, a survival rate over 99%…. people in very small homes, who need to work to eat and live, do not deserve lockdowns, its inhumane for them. We are made for at least some social life and contact, shutting people up at home is a military tactic from their handbooks to demoralise your enemy more than a health measure, its inhumane for everyone.

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