You ever get that sixth sense feeling that says ‘you’re in the right place at the right time’? I feel it in my heart, but I’m gonna be honest: my head trips me up.
Most of you know Tedly (Theo) and I traveled the world in early retirement before the pandemic. Since March 16, 2020, we’ve stayed in one spot on Earth: Motag, Malay, Aklan, Philippines. It happened to be where we were when borders closed and the world shut down.
We started helping the indigenous Ati tribe, and some Filipinos who lost all income in this tourist-driven economy that has totally stalled out — again.
Right now, we are on a lockdown because the Delta variant threatens to run amok on the health care system. It’s worse in Manila, and thankfully we are far from Manila. But domestic tourists who came to Malay’s Boracay Island mostly came from Manila, and they are no longer allowed.
So, if there was desperation before, now it can only be described as utter desperation.
- Parents eat less so their kids have more. Practically everyone has lost weight.
- People cannot pay their utility bills – water service and electricity has been turned off.
- Families cannot travel to see each other.
- Filipinos contracted to work abroad for a year or two in places like Saudi Arabia or Singapore cannot afford $2,500 airfare to fly home now that their contracts are up.
- Women sell whatever they can make in the kitchen, like rice cakes or cassava wrapped in banana leaves.
- Men try to catch fish every day.
- Kids dig under rocks at low tide for small mollusks.
- Families have to choose between online learning modules or food. Many families don’t even have devices to connect to online learning.
- People are growing gardens — if they can afford seeds it’s easier.
Now, my confession. It’s about my selfish thoughts.
Despite all of this suffering, I sometimes have fantasies about renting a Boracay luxury hotel room on White Beach with cable, fast WiFi, a king-sized bed, blasting the AC all damn day, with maid and laundry service.
Sometimes I dream about cocooning myself for a week in luxurious surroundings to block out the poverty and daily fight to survive that’s all around me and sometimes seeps into my soul and makes me so sad, and also angry.
But, I know this fantasy vision won’t really protect my psyche from the fact that people are hurting on Boracay, too. I have visited the tourist hot spot enough over the past 17 months to know people are starving and have no money.
Selfishness vs. selflessness
I feel as if I’m adrift sometimes between two worlds — my former Western life and this new, more simple life with a front row seat to primal living.
We don’t have cable or Netflix because it’s an unneeded expense and we can use the money for other things, like helping people. We don’t have fast WiFi, but we don’t bother to upgrade either, because of the expense, which is minimal by Western prices.
I don’t blast the AC all day, because fans are good enough to dry sweat and ground mosquitoes that love to feast on my blood. And do I want to pay a huge electric bill (bigger than it already is) to stay cool and dry, or do I want to give Filipino families sacks of rice, or buy seeds for Ati, or pay for a life-saving prescription for someone?
We have an iPhone 4s that doesn’t work on the networks here (bad antenna? Too old?), and we have an iPhone 6 that is really getting finicky because I’ve used the damn thing every single day since September 2014. Our iPad is so old it doesn’t display sites correctly and some sites won’t even load on the old iOS. They still work, though frustrating at times.
But as I said – some kids don’t even have these old devices, which would help them with online learning. So how can I complain? How can I even think of complaining? I try not to. I daydream more often these days, instead. Hey – I’m no saint.
Why do I want more? Bigger? Better? Newer? Underneath this general desire for ‘new’ is a sense of some entitlement, I’m afraid. It’s true. Why should I go without?
The most extreme example of people ‘going without’ material comforts in Malay is the Ati tribe. Especially the tribe members who live atop a mountain trail in a village called Kurong. Now, there’s a head trip for a selfish Westerner!
More than a year ago, when we met with the Ati Chieftain and council members, I asked the Chief what was the biggest, most important way we could help the tribe. Without a second’s hesitation he said, “Water.” He closed his eyes and said it again and again. “Water, water, water.”
Back then, I didn’t fully understand what it’s like to live without running water. Sure, I’ve been in places with bucket flushes and baths – but it was always for a short time. To ‘live’ without this luxury in the long term is only something I can now imagine, having suffered through water outages over the past 1.5 years here. Thankfully, for us, the water service always comes back on.
The power often goes out in Malay. More often than the water. Just last weekend we had an entire day without electricity on a planned outage so the power company could work on the grid. That kind of outage is in addition to frequent brownouts and outages in heavy wind. Thankfully for us, the power always comes back on.
Some Ati families in Kurong Village are waiting to be hooked up to electric meters. Since Theo brought electricity and running water to Kurong, more families have moved up the mountain. More families are asking to be connected to electric meters. And we will help them, as we’ve helped other tribe members. It just takes time. There’s a process that needs to play out in order to hook up.
We’ve had the time to help the Ati and also many other people. We’ve helped with hospital and doctor bills, prescription drugs, funerals, food, utility bills, and more. And here is where my sixth sense kicks in.
My intuitive voice says we are here to help. It feels great to help. I wish we could help everyone.
I often thank my lucky stars that of all the places on Earth we could have ended up — we got ‘stuck’ here. It really is a great place. We have friends here and feel welcome. It feels natural to help friends.
Yet, the selfish fantasies continue…
Our apartment rental is entirely comfortable and has luxuries Ati and Filipino do not have. I am happy and comfortable and grateful from this rental we’ve called ‘home’ longer than any other place on the planet.
The Hangout Beach Resort is a place billed as a ‘budget’ resort, back when tourists came to mainland Malay before pandemic poverty. The Hangout is exactly the type of place Theo and I would have rented for a month or two in our former travel lives. We never rented anything on the ‘luxury’ level, so these ‘luxury cocoon’ fantasies I have are all the more mysterious.
Maybe my ego sometimes dreams of ‘luxury’ because it has been a long, long time since I felt … Western. Even poor westerners have it easier than people here. Or maybe it’s my alcoholism – the disease that makes me crave “more” of everything and leads me to selfish thoughts by default.
A few weeks ago a friend gave us a ride in her car. It felt so foreign, so luxurious. Cars are relatively rare here. To get around, we ride bikes and trikes (motorcycle cart taxis), take bancas (small fishing boats), ferries and buses, and we walk. It’s been like this for us for years – since late 2018 when we came to Southeast Asia.
In my former American life, I drove a car every day and never thought twice about it. Back in Europe, we took subways and trains. In pre-pandemic life, I used to fly in airplanes. I could go back to all of that. I know so many people who are traveling again. Instead, we have decided to stay here longer.
There is no way a car would be able to drive up to Kurong Village. It’s a narrow footpath that includes a hand-made footbridge up a mountainside. In many ways, the Ati way is better. I understand why Theo enjoys spending so much time up and down that trail.
At the moment, I cannot go there – to Kurong Village, because of that lockdown I mentioned earlier. I have to stay in Motag – our barangay, or neighborhood – unless I have an essential reason to travel beyond its borders. World travel – down to one single neighborhood.
But today, I do have two essential reasons to ‘travel’, and so I have a travel pass that gives me permission to leave Motag. I’ll still be in Malay Municipality, but I’ll go over to Boracay Island. I need to pick up our passports at the Bureau of Immigration because we have extended our tourist visas another two months. Then I will meet with a friend who ‘gets it’, and I will talk about how my spirituality and my ego are getting on with current events.
These in-person talks are essential to my overall health. For some reason, my head is wired in a way that requires me to have constant gratitude reminders, so that I might keep my heart more selflessness than selfishness.
In this way, my pandemic life is a head trip all its own.
Thanks for reading, “Selfish thoughts amid pandemic poverty.”