The Earth Vagabonds slow travel pause during the pandemic has come full circle. Literally. Theo and I have lived in Motag, Malay, Aklan, Philippines for one full year.
On March 16, 2020, we arrived in the port town of Caticlan in Malay Municipality with Theo’s mom Diane. She came to island hop with us in late 2019. Our next destination was supposed to be Boracay Island.
But that day, the ferries stopped running. Lockdowns started. We were stranded on the mainland. Foreigners in a new world.
In those early days of the pandemic, people were scared of us. It didn’t matter that we’d been in the Philippines since before the pandemic in late 2019. We were foreigners, period. No hotel would take us. Mom Diane joked she could sleep anywhere – even on a nearby bench.
Theo whipped out the iPad and expanded his search for accommodations outside Caticlan. He found one place that still had its booking feature activated. It was just a few miles away. He booked it. A two-bedroom apartment at a place called the Hangout Beach Resort.
We took a trike ride (local taxi) through the rural area with rice fields and mountains. It’s a beautiful place.
When we arrived at the Hangout, the owner Yolly said there had been a mistake – that the booking feature should have been deactivated and that she wasn’t allowed to take us in.
I will never forget our exchange as long as I live. “We have nowhere else to go,” I said. Our eyes locked. She sized me up, took a breath, and said ‘let’s go inside and talk about it’.
Yolly arranged for the barangay (local government) to quarantine us for two weeks. We never left the apartment for that time. We had our temperature checked by health officials twice a day.
After quarantine, we got our health certificates. We decided to stay.
Yolly’s place is managed by Edenia. Our friends made us feel at home – a feeling we hadn’t known since 2015 because we always move on.
We got local ID cards, eligible because we stayed six months. Mom Diane left in month seven. We had never planned to be here a year; she had only planned to be in the Philippines for three months. People frequently ask me how she is – and when she might come back.
One full trip around the sun is how long we’ve been here. I think it’s safe to say Earth Vagabonds are slow travel experts for Malay.
I’ve watched children get taller, people get thinner. Businesses close, and businesses open. I’ve seen rice grow, get harvested, and grow again.
Mom Diane, Theo and I came to know and help the Ati tribe – an indigenous people. We reached out to our overseas friends who made generous contributions to help us rebuild a henhouse with new egg-laying hens, and to bring electricity up a mountainside to where people had no power.
Our next and last project to help the Ati is a water pump system, so people don’t have to carry water up the mountainside.
We have helped other Filipino friends try to stay afloat and navigate these crazy times.
I know people who’ve put college on hold for themselves or their children. There are people here who garden and fish for the first time in their lives so they don’t starve.
Families have split up as each member tries to find work. I know people who’ve been out of work since this whole mess started because so much here is dependent on Boracay tourism.
I’ve seen Boracay open up to domestic tourism, and I see the hope on locals’ faces. Maybe, one day, they say, things can get back to pre-pandemic ‘normal’ — a time when there were jobs to be had, money to be made.
A recent news article in Time Magazine put the Philippines in a less-than-flattering light. It was hyper-critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Indeed, the Philippines has one of the longest lockdowns in the world.
As a former American journalist, I understand the why there was a slant for a Western audience. Still, don’t believe everything you read. That’s not the whole story – and it’s not wholly objective.
We are far from Manila. We have come to know many kind families. They’ve befriended us, taught us about this culture, invited us to their tables, laughed with us. These are intelligent, humane, friendly people.
No matter the country or the culture, human spirits are the same the world over. We’re all trying to figure out the best way to live.
For me, this last year has been unforgettable. I think of all the adventures we’ve had — climbing volcanoes in Guatemala, swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, catching the Pope’s wave in Italy, exploring Mayan ruins, Greek ruins, Khmer ruins, watching Komodo dragons fight in Indonesia, and so much more.
And then I think about what Theo’s friend Jerry from Wales, also living in this area, said one night at dinner many months ago: for him it wasn’t so much about the places as it was about the people.
The Earth Vagabonds slow travel pause for one full year is not something I ever would have guessed we’d do. Not even breast cancer stopped us from our quest to slow travel the world. After my operation, we took a two-month break so I could heal and then we kept traveling.
We will one day travel again. I’m not sure when, however. And honestly, at times that uncertainty makes me antsy and cranky.
As I dream of traveling again eventually, I keep looking for the lesson in front of me right now. We know we landed here because it’s where we were supposed to be.
I’ve learned (yet again) in the last year, sometimes God laughs at my plans — only to show me something better.