Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Outside Looking In

I saw the beauty of the Philippines. And beauty became familiarity. And familiarity became boredom. And that boredom ignited a feeling—a quest to see something new.
So I wandered far to see what’s out there.

'The last step!' I celebrate in my tense quietness. But the last step happens to be the most dreadful. So I keep fumbling with my travel documents and as I hand them to the immigration officer my hands feel cold. She engages in a tense talk with me, her gaze transiting from my face to my documents and again to my face. Then she goes into a room with my papers. After five minutes she comes out and tells me “Okay na!” (You’re clear!).

Those two words were the overture to my first international trip in February 2014.

I have seen the loveliest beaches in the Philippines and set foot on its highest mountains. But when the plane landed in Bangkok, I was filled with the excitement and joy of having come to a new place—a sense of anticipation reserved for the first-time traveler. This overwhelming ardor was my only companion during my six days in Thailand. It got me through the 50-km trail race in Khao Yai. And it lingered on in Ayutthaya as I marveled at the ancient temples that testify how rich Thailand’s history is. Finally when I visited the Grand Palace and Wat Pho complexes in Bangkok, I knew what ‘grand’ means.

After seeing all the greatness of Siam, I felt ashamed for my country. It cannot match the tourism industry of its neighbors.

And this lamentation intensified when I chanced upon an American blogger’s open letter to the Filipinos. The blogger asks “What has the Philippines contributed to the world?” It was as scornfully simple as it was hurtfully honest. But as I pondered over it, I realized that the Philippines has nothing to envy about its neighbors. If I remember well, I never really enjoyed my visit to the Grand Palace. I was awed; I’m not going to lie. But as soon as I laid eyes on the temples, the excitement vanished. It was not something that I would want to go back to. And if I may add, I was particularly annoyed, to say the least, at the chaos of the crowd cluttered with tour guides speaking different languages. I just wished I could have the place all to myself.

the crowd at the Grand Palace complex 

In my travels around the Philippines, on the other hand, I can often enjoy the country’s natural wonders in peace. It may be hard to get to some of these places but once you’ve gotten there you’ll know that your effort is all worth it! There are more than 7000 islands in the Philippines to choose from. You will never run out of a quiet cove or lake in this country.

alone with my climb buddy somewhere in Benguet

alone with my guide at a crater lake in Ormoc

But more than the natural beauty of the Philippines, it is the friendship I make in these places that I keep in my heart. It is this ingredient of travelling that makes me want to savor each moment again and again. The Philippines is rich in people who will make your visit more than just an escape from work or the city. With them, travelling becomes more of a return to home.

And these people may speak a different language but they always find a way to communicate their friendship. I remember my Benguet-La Union cross-country. In the midst of the forest, I came upon a solitary house where an old couple lived. I was asking for directions when the old man, who spoke no Tagalog, told me ‘By and by, you see [sic] bamboo forest …” And I was just like “Wow! That was World War II English!” It turns out the farmer fought the war alongside the Americans. Y’see, anywhere in this country, people will go beyond linguistic barriers in order to reach out and help the weary traveler. And when the language of the tongue fails, we speak the language of the heart—a language expressed through a smile that says “Everything’s gonna be all right!” And this smile ushers in the Filipino hospitality.

The Ballagans of Kabayan, Benguet, who have become family to me
This is the answer to the blogger’s question! It is the Pinoy Smile that we have contributed to civilization. It is this smile that sets the Philippines apart from the rest of the tourist destinations in the world. You see this smile in every corner of the country—from the receptionist in your hotel to the street vendors around it. You see this smile among the farmers that till the terraces of Banaue and on the face of the boatman who will take you to the lagoons and secluded beaches of El Nido.

And this same smile gets us through any storm or tremor.

It touches.

It inspires.

So maybe the reason why we don’t have those grand historic landmarks is that our ancestors were not willing to contribute to the world a temple like the Pyramids, which were built upon slavery. Neither did our ancestors wish to stain history books with bloodshed from great conquests like Alexander’s. Instead our ancestors chose to busy themselves perfecting the Pinoy Smile and seeing to it that the Pinoy hospitality lives until today.

So if you want something more than just sights, choose the Philippines. Because when you do, you choose the Pinoy Smile! It is not a history frozen in ruins. It is not a sight whose beauty disappears as soon as you've seen it. It is a living history, well-crafted by our ancestors for you to experience now, and to keep in your heart for years to come.

And so I saw the beauty of the Philippines. And beauty became familiarity. And familiarity became boredom. And that boredom ignited a feeling—a quest to see something new. So I wandered far to see what’s out there. But, alas, I saw not what’s out there. Instead, I saw the gem that had always been inside—the incomparable Pinoy Smile!


  1. :) < pinoy smile!

  2. Incredibly beautiful piece you have here, sir! This is also why we're not really adamant to discover other countries yet. We start here in our own motherland.


YOU deserve a holiday!
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