MY FIRST TIME IN DA PHILIPPINES (AKA THE HOMELAND): Manila + Palawan

Nov 16, 2017

Being in the Philippines has been a very emotional, amazing, humbling, weird sensational journey that’s finally given me some sense of wholeness after what seems like a lifetime of wondering exactly who & what I am (I’ll get to that in a little bit). I sat at the window seat, overlooking the Manila as we began to descend. I’m not exaggerating when I say I had tears in my eyes as I had my first look at the city. Overwhelmed with excitement and the fact that I finally made it, after years of begging my mom, encouraging my Titas, hoping that one day I could visit my homeland.

I landed in Manila at around 10am, right on time. The day before I basically spent the entire day in the Bali airport–my dad and I took the taxi at the same time to the airport except his flight was at 4pm & mine was at 11pm. So I spent a good 9 hours in the same spot, blogging, watching YouTube, trying to kill time. Once I was finally on the plane, I ended up landing in Singapore at 1am in the morning, my flight to Manila wouldn’t leave until 6am. So I spent majority of my time trying to get comfortable on airport chairs and sleep, I probably got only an hour of sleep.

After I landed, immigration and baggage claim were really fast. I was out of the airport in like 30 mins and walked over to the pick up section. I walked towards “W” for my family name Wong. There I saw my Tita Pett & cousin August waiting for me. They left at 8am to pick me up at 11am, the traffic in Manila is freaking ridiculous. My Tito Teddy was getting us hotdogs from Jolliebee when I saw him, it’s been a while since I saw him last. I gave them all a bigggggg hug, it was the first time I was meeting them, afterall (I met my Tito only one other time when he came to stay with us after my Lola, his mom died, this was probably 15+ years ago).

Driving through Manila was crazy: the traffic, the busy-ness, how cramped everything seems. We stopped to get some chicharrones from Lapids, the best place according to my Tito. We finally arrived at the house: 22 Manhattan St. This was super special to me because this is where my mom & her siblings grew up. As I walked into the house, all these feelings rushed to me. I immediately saw my Tita’s portrait hanging on the wall, it looks like it’s been there for at least 30 years, untouched from when it was hung. Pictures of all of us sat on the mantle: a baby pic of my mom (who I look just like, chubbiness and all), a picture of my Lolo (grandpa, who died when I was 2) walking my mom down the isle during my parents’ wedding, pictures of my cousins and I. Even though I’d never met my family here, it seems as though they’ve always known us. I can’t stress enough how special this was to me. Being here, in person after speaking to my cousins only via Facebook, finally seeing their faces, finally stepping into the house I heard so much about.

This trip to the homeland was way overdue, I’d been wanting to come here ever since I was the age to understand that I had a significant culture I was ignoring. My mom came to the States when she was 9, and being different back then in an unforgiving city like Yuba City, California was especially difficult for a young, innocent girl. I mean they couldn’t even say her name right, Carolina (pronounced care • oh • lean • ah like the Spanish pronunciation), so she assimilated. She got rid of her accent, learned how to be “American”, married my Dad–the whitest Chinese guy you’ll ever meet (he’s 2nd generation, born in another farming town. Watsonville, who’s parents basically raised him during the civil rights era). She didn’t speak Tagalog in the house because my dad couldn’t speak it and cooked Filipino food every once in a while. Growing up in such a multi-cultural area like the Bay Area, I learned my culture through my peers. Even though it wasn’t really a thing at home, I wanted to know what & who I was, so I sought out all things Filipino: I had Filipino friends, joined the Filipino Club in high school, and even date a Filipino boy (becaues Filipinos are extremely attractive lol). I was so fascinated and attracted to my culture, but I just didn’t feel like I was truly a Filipino. Maybe because I felt like I was forcing it, or maybe because I was figuring this stuff out myself and not really taught it like how cultures should be (passed down from generation to generation). Something didn’t feel right, like my journey to understanding my true identity wasn’t complete…until now.

My family welcomed me with open arms and gave me the best hospitality you can get, from people I’d never even met! My little cousin, Therese, was waiting for me at the house. They were cooking all day for me, the Filipino dishes I told them previously that were my favorite. Tita had gotten me Sisig, cooked me Sinigang as we snacked on Chicharrones. I was so tired from traveling (and getting a total of 2 hours of sleep) so after I ate I was immediately sleepy. They gave me the only air conditioned room in the house (this is how amazingly sweet they are!!), and I passed out. I must’ve slept for 3 good hours when finally woke up. The rest of the day I just chilled in the living room with my family until my Uncle told me we were going to his friend’s house.

At Tito Lito’s house, my uncle’s childhood friend and literally just down the street, we ate and drank. It was his birthday celebration and it was mostly their group of friends and family, a really small intimate dinner (with tequila). His friends were really fun and accommodating to me (because I can’t really understand Tagalog, Tito Lito helped translate for me during times where they wouldn’t speak in English). We spent a while there because his friend’s really like his company and we were having a good time. By the time we got back to the house it was 10:30pm. Tita had been up cooking for me, and I felt bad I was out so late. She had prepared Mongo & fried fish…man was it delish. All I’d been doing the whole day was eating, so I fell asleep with a full belly.

Nov 17, 2017

I woke up this morning around 9:30am, I was really tired from the day before & needed to catch up on my sleep (plus, by now you have to know that I like to sleep in). Tita Pett had an array of food for me in the morning, she was already cooking for my mom, who’d be arriving later that day. My Tito & cousin August already left early in the morning to make sure they made it on time to the airport because traffic is insane.

My mom arrived at the house around 1ish and man was I happy to see her. It was the first time I’d seen her in basically 2 1/2 months and I missed my mommy. This was her 2nd time in the Philippines since she left when she was 9, the other time was about 8 years ago when her Lola, my great grandma died. She brought with her a huge bag full of pasalubongs (souvenirs) and a balikbayan box, a custom in the Philippines to bring back goods if you’re from a fortunate place like the States (the Philippines is a very hard place to make money, it’s the haves and the have nots here). KC, my other cousin, also went with Tito and August to pick up my mom, so I finally met her since she wasn’t at the house when I was yesterday. Once my mom ate her Kare Kare, her fav Filipino dish that Tita Pett cooked, it was time to open their presents. Christmas for them came early, my mom and Titas had bought them a whole bunch of goodies! Seeing their faces when they opened up their gifts were of pure joy and gratefulness. It was so exciting to see them so happy.

Later on in the day, mom and I went with KC to the mall to get her a pair of sandals for the upcoming vacay. She showed us how to take a tricycle, a motorbike with a car attached to the side, and showed us their local mall. We got some San Miguel’s (beers) and got KC her shoes. Once back at the house we ate some more, hung out, and packed. We were leaving in the morning to Palawan and we had to wake up extra early (4am) to beat traffic.

Nov 18, 2017

We were up and ready by 4am when Tito Teddy’s friend came to pick us up. Mom had been awake since 1am, still jet-lagged and in California time. We got to the airport fairly quickly, aka no traffic. Once there we realized that our flight would get delayed because the first 2 flights to Puerto Princesa were delayed. So after we checked in and got our boarding passes, we sat by the gates and waited, and waited…and waited. We got to the airport really early in the first place (6am) and were supposed to board at 9:55am. But our flight was delayed a whole 2 hours later…so we waited for more than 5+ hrs.

We got to Puerto Pricessa around 3pm, where our hotel picked us up. We were staying at the Docle Vita Hotel, a really cute hotel with a restaurant and swimming pool. We were pretty hungry, so we all had a late lunch at the hotel restaurant. I got some delish pasta I was craving (I dunno what it is with me and pasta out here but I don’t eat this much pasta in the States…it’s probably how they prepare it, a lot of garlic and spicy, is the reason why I like it so much). We then went back to our hotel room and took a nap, we’d all been up since 3:30am.

Mom woke me up, we had a Firefly dinner that night. We all got ready and were picked up for Firefly watching. We opted to see the fireflies first, then eat because we were still a little full. The firefly watching was a boat tour in the mangroves of Palawan. They protected that area, since fireflies are very sensitive to pollution and noise and usually are the indicators of a healthy ecosystem. The fireflies were really cool to see, they looked like the capis (shell like things) that we’d seen earlier in the trees. It was the first time I’d ever seen fireflies and it was a really cool thing to witness. Our tour guide, Paul, was really informative as well, giving us a very comprehensive speech about the mangroves, the stars & constellations, and of course the fireflies.

After our boat tour we had a buffet dinner. Tito Teddy said he didn’t really like the boat tour because he was afraid of the dark (lol) and spent a lot of time wailing and being afraid haha (our guides paddled us through the dark, artificial light was only used briefly to have the fireflies show their light). It was a cool activity to have in the evening (especially because I’d never seen fireflies before). We went back to the hotel and passed out.

Nov 19, 2017

This morning I heard my uncle get in the pool at 6am. My mom and I shared a room right by the pool called the Bahay Kubo or a Filipino hut, usually made from bamboo. Since we were right by the pool (and my uncle is a little loud), I heard his excited screams in the pool at 6 in the freaking morning! Then mom woke me up at 8:30 because I guess everyone wanted to eat already. I ate delicious corn beef with garlic rice and egg.

We were picked up at 11am for our city tour of Puerto Princesa. Our first stop was a church and a place called Plaza Cuartel, a base used by the Japanese during WWII. Here, the Japanese took over the island and captured around 150 American prisoners of war. They burned the American POWs alive in the trenches only 12 survived after guerilla Filipinos took back control of the base and drove the Japanese out. It was really interesting to learn about that, I now want to read the book that one of the survivors wrote in hopes of remembering the tragedy that took place.

The next stop was lunch at a popular restaurant. This place has deaf staff working there, which is a pretty unique concept. They show you how to do basic commands in sign language and have the sign language alphabet on the menu. I had sinagang (of course), my favorite. After lunch it was pasalubong shopping (you know Filipinos love to get their pasalubongs) and finally, the Crocodile Farm. It was a really short tour but they basically rescue eggs and crocodiles from being poached and sold. They had huge crocodiles there, probably 50 years old or something.

The rest of the day consisted of pretty lame sites, nothing worth mentioning because it wasn’t that interesting of a tour. Nevertheless I had fun with my family, which is all that matters. Back at the hotel, my cousins and I went swimming and we had sushi for dinner.

Nov 20, 2017

Today we had to be ready and checked out by 8am. We were going to the Underground River, a UNSECO heritage site and making a 5 hr drive to the northern tip of Palawan, the beach town of El Nido. It took about 1.5 hrs to get to the harbor. Once there we had to take a boat taxi to the actual area where we’d catch the boat through the underground river. The underground river itself was really cool looking. It wasn’t THAT special, but it was definitely interesting hearing the backstory behind it. Apparently the natives believed this cave was spiritual and housed spirits, which is why they didn’t go inside or rarely touched it. During the tour they discourage you from touching the cave because the oils and chemicals on human skin can alter the ecosystem and preservation of the cave. Since it is a UNSECO heritage site, they’ve made it a pretty interesting and top notch tour, even if it is just a cave.

After the cave, we had another buffet lunch that was super delicious. I forgot to mention that on our way back in the boat I got soaked because the water was super rough. So on our way to El Nido I basically had no pants on (since they were wet) and just used my sarong to cover me. The drive was absolutely beautiful. Our driver said that 70% of Palawan is virgin forests. We passed water buffalo in rice paddies, kids on their way home from school in their little uniforms, more bahay kubos (the rural Filipino house), tons of greenery, coconut trees, and our driver tried his best to not hit any dogs or chickens that might have ran into the middle of the street. I thought I was going to hate the drive since it would take 4 hours, but it was such a rewarding drive. It’s not like the drive from SF to LA in California, yenno the one on I-5 that’s absolutely boring as hell. This drive actually has character, things to see, people to watch, nature to admire.

Our driver tried to race so we could see the sunset and although we didn’t really see it go down, we were able to catch the sky turn colors. We finally arrived at our Airbnb where Tita Pett made eggs and corn beef for dinner. We were all really tired, so we went to sleep,

Nov 21, 2017

Today we had to wake up a little earlier to catch our boat. We were doing tour “A”, I guess here in El Nido they have 4 different tours: A, B, C, D. Not really sure you can do any other tours, but we heard that tour A & C were the best. Our boat was called the “Northern Star” and our first stop was Commando Beach. It was a really beautiful beach equipped with white sand, blue water, and a cute little beach bar. I even got Buko Halo, Halo-Halo (a Filipino dessert) in a coconut which was so delicious and refreshing.

The next stop was a snorkeling area where we snorkeled in between two islands as the boat crew cooked our lunch on their boat (on a coal stove). We had lunch on the beach, which was just so picturesque and amazing. Our next stop was the little lagoon which was my favorite. They call it small lagoon because the entrance to the lagoon is really small, but inside there’s nothing really small about it. Therese and I shared a kayak, which is the better way to see the lagoon (the other way is swimming in, but there are jellyfish so it’s better if you’re not in the water). Here we really just enjoyed being in this beautiful lagoon. The boat crew also kayaked in to make sure we were all ok. They convinced us and another kayak to swim in a small cave which was absolutely amazing. The small cave had holes at the top which let light in and so inside the cave was actually really bright. It felt like we were in the Little Mermaid movie, that’s how unbelievable it was, it felt like we were in a Disney movie.

The next 2 stops were the Secret Lagoon and the Big Lagoon. The Secret Lagoon wasn’t really secret, but in order to get inside you had to step through a little hole and inside was this enclosed lagoon. This reminded me of Peter Pam (I’m telling you, it’s so beautiful I’ve only seen things like this in fairytales and fiction movies, yet I’m seeing this site in real life it’s unreal). Uncle Teddy had to get taxied by one of the boat crew members to the lagoon from the boat (meaning he was pulled by them in his life jacket). It was such a funny site, I should have gotten a picture of it.

Our last stop was the Big Lagoon and they call it this because the mouth to the lagoon is well big enough to fit boats through it. Here you could just swim and enjoy your surroundings. Therese and I snorkeled with the little snorkeling that was there. We saw some huge sea urchins (I’m pretty surprised I didn’t step on any) and this one really territorial fish that freaked me the fuck out. I was just watching this little fish stare at me and all of a sudden he starts to swim really fast towards my face which scared me LOL. As we were walking back to the boat I was looking with my snorkel in the water to see if I could see anything cool then I saw it. It was a freaking sea snake. I freaked the fuck out when I saw that too because I’ve never seen an actual sea snake in the wild. Therese asked one of the locals if it was poisonous and he said yes so we made a huge circle around it to make sure it wasn’t gonna come at our heels.

Then it was back to shore. We were all really tired and hungry because the boat tour was basically from 9-5, an all day event. Once we got back to the town we were ready to eat, so we went to this place called Art’s Cafe. Apparently they have really good pizza made in a stove oven so that’s what we got along with some pesto pasta. Once we got back to the AirBnB, I immediately took a shower and got ready. KC and I were going out that night (Therese can’t come because she’s not old enough yet). We ended up at this fancy bar called Sava. There were a lot of foreigners here, something that I’m pretty used to being a backpacker, but KC wasn’t used to seeing so many Westerners. We met people from Czech Slovakia, Australia and Sweden. The bar was also right by the beach which was cool. Over all it was a nice night out with my cousin.

Nov 22, 2017

I got to finally sleep in today and ended up waking up at 9ish. Tita was making lunch for us with fresh ingredients her and mom got from the market. She made a delicious array of dishes like fried fresh fish, adobo, pinakbet, and garlic rice. The fried fish was so delicious because it was freshly caught that morning along with the good sauce my uncle made. After lunch we all just relaxed because it was pretty hot.

KC, Therese and I went out around 3:30 to find a place that would do henna. We walked around the town, went into different shops, enjoyed fruit shakes on the beach (and petted the cutest beach dog), and finally found a place that does henna on the beach. I wasn’t picky I just told the guy I want a henna on my hand/arm for 500 pesos, he said he would just freestyle, which is nice that’s how I like it. Therese got some flowers on her thigh because she’s still in school, Catholic school to be exact, and they’re pretty strict on body ink, even though henna is temporary, so she picked an area that would be covered.

We then walked back home where Tita Pett made dinner. It was all our leftovers since it was our last night in Palawan. Mom and I got some pasalubongs then watched a movie in our bed before bedtime. We had to wake up really early the next morning since we had to make another long drive from El Nido back to Puerto Princesa.

Nov 23, 2017

I was woken up 2 minutes before 3am. Our driver came at 3am and we loaded the car and were off. I mostly slept in the car this time because I was tired af. We stopped a few times for potty breaks and pasalubongs. There was this really cool place we stopped for pasalubongs where we saw people using natural materials to weave and make products called Binuatan. It was neat to see a native product being produced right before your eyes. We stopped at Jolliebee before getting to the airport, this is my first time going to Jolliebee since I’ve been in the Philippines and I was craving a good chickenjoy.

The Puerto Princesa airport was really nice compared to the Manila airport. When we were boarding our flight we were given umbrellas to use to protect us from the sun, which I found really strange. The walk itself was less than a minute (maybe 15 feet at most from the doors to the plane) and I just found it hilarious and excessive haha. The flight itself was really fast. It was so funny my Tito Teddy is sometimes a little helpless without his wife. When we were boarding she was helping her daughters and Tito Teddy was floating by himself. He ended up sitting in the wrong seat, not even looking at his boarding pass. The flight attendant then had to kick him out of the seat he was sitting at and escort him to the assigned seat on his actual boarding pass LOL. He’s a character I tell you.

Once at the airport Tita Pett’s brother-in-law picked us up. We sat like 2 hours in traffic because traffic in Manila is ridiculous. Mom wanted a draft beer and Tito Ted said that Shakey’s Pizza has San Miguel on draft, so that’s where we went. However, once we got there we realized they didn’t sell draft beer because their restaurant was right next to and under a church, so they had a contract with the mall that they wouldn’t sell alcohol there (so stupid). We ate there anyways and mom told me that it was apparently an American chain that’s been phased out of American (I’d never heard of Shakey’s ever but they’re everywhere around here). Then we finally made our way back home where we chilled and fell asleep.

Nov 24, 2017

I woke up to my Uncle’s yelling, which is usually what I’ve been waking up to since I’ve been in the Philippines. Most of the day I just hung out. I need days like this, especially after a lot of activities, sometimes I need to recharge. Since it was Thanksgiving in the States, we FaceTimed my brother and dad along with my mom’s side of the family. I didn’t end up doing anything all day except blogging and admiring clothes online (not buying though, that’s pretty impressive for me). At around 6pm I left in an Uber to meet up with my friend, Marco, who lives in here in Manila. It took me 2 hours to get to Makati, where I was meeting up with him because traffic is ridiculous here.

I finally got to the mall where I met Marco. We were friends at USF when he came to study abroad in one of my last semesters in college. We’ve kept in touch ever since and when he heard I’d be coming to Manila he immediately hit me and we agreed to meet at Rockwell in the up-and-coming part of Manila. The Powerplant mall in Rockwell was really stunning compared to the other mall, Gateway, that I’d been in earlier that week. Everything was decorated beautifully in Christmas decorations. We ended up eating at this Korean place at the food court because I was craving Korean food that day.

Later, we went to this stretch of street that had a lot of hip, cool bars. There were more Western people here then I’d seen in any other part of Manila. We first went to this bar called Alamat, a Filipino-fusion bar where they had craft beers from all over the Philippines as well as Filipino cocktails. After we went to a small bar called The Workshop that was basically a leather goods shop during the day then a really hip bar at night. We got rum and mango cocktails and I met a whole bunch of cool people who were expats and locals living in Manila. Marco was such a lovely host. He brought me around and made me feel at home. It’s so cool to reconnect with people you’ve met around the world. That’s what I’m so excited about for my future travels. I can’t wait to visit everyone I’ve met during my travels in their native country. Social media and the internet make it really easy to reconnect with people and it’s not like you need to talk to them all the time to maintain friendship. Marco and I basically picked up where we left off, and it’s a really good feeling to have these abroad friendships. Everyone has the same mentality, and they’re all open-minded who just want to enjoy life.

The Philippines has been such a special leg of my journey. I’ve had a great time making memories with my family and friends and just absorbing my culture and how it feels to be apart of a community. This trip was long-overdue but I’m so glad I was able to experience it with my mom. I didn’t know how she was going to feel here, but she seems to love it as much as I do if not more. I can see the joy in her eyes when she sees nostalgic things like a tabo bath (bucket bath), or going to the market and picking fresh fruit, or even getting home-cooked meals everyday. We loved our time with our family and they did everything they could to make us comfortable here. That’s another thing I admire about Filipinos is that their hospitality goes unmeasured. They sacrifice and work so hard, it’s just an amazing vibe to be around.

I definitely cherish this short but sweet holiday I’ve had in the Philippines. I just can’t wait to come back and make more memories with my family and friends here. Now I’m headed to the South of Thailand, where I’ll be finishing the last leg of my trip. It’s so crazy that this backpacking journey is coming to an end. While I’m excited to go back and see friends and family, I really don’t want this adventure to end. I get to look forward to seeing my Liv, Josh, Hannah, and Charlie in Koh Phangan for the full moon party! So stay tuned for the next episode of MELISSA’S SOUTHEAST ASIA BACKPACKING ADVENTURE!

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