Kay Green, from Huddersfield, who started a new life as a single woman at the age of 50 and embarked on an adventurous year touring the world, tells about her latest exploits in the Philippines in her continuing series Shoulders Back, Deep Breaths.
If I were to share everything I wanted to about the trip I had with Andrea and her Aunty Anni, I would be writing about it for the next six magazine editions, at the very least. So much happened, not in a frantic, busy way. Things unfolded slowly. There was a gentleness to the days we had together. We travelled for hours by bus, boat and trike on our visit to the islands, we achieved a great deal while we were away and at the end of each day I was deeply content and I knew I’d experienced something completely unique.
The journey to our first destination, Alibijaban took us over 15 hours by bus. We left Manila at 4am, and even at that time of day it was bustling with activity. As we got further away from the capital the changes in the scenery and the way people live completely absorbed me. Despite the fact that I’d been awake for over 24 hours I couldn’t close my eyes for fear of missing something – well, it was that and the fact that the bus wasn’t built for comfort or speed: it stops regularly and the hard seats become incredibly uncomfortable when you’ve sat on them for that length of time!
The Philippines is still classed as a third world country; having the chance to appreciate what that actually means to the people who live there fascinated me. I saw houses made from corrugated iron and planks of wood, paddy fields knee deep in water and at one point as we passed homes built by the side of a river, I saw the locals in the water washing themselves and their laundry; less than a mile away there was a sign for a 24-hour McDonalds, the dichotomy was stunning.
When we eventually got to the end of our bus ride we were collected by a tiny boat and taken to the island where Andrea and Graham have a small house on the beach. It’s close to where Andrea’s sister Nilda lives with her husband Tani and their family. They make their living by going out to sea every night to fish, then sailing to the mainland in the morning to sell their catch. The hours are long, and of course the unpredictability of the sea makes it dangerous. There are few opportunities for work on the island so the catch needs to support the whole family and while Tani and Nilda sleep during the day their older children mend the fishing nets.
While we were there we did some work on Andrea’s house, cleaned and painted it inside and out. When we needed to get clean we either swam in the sea or drew water from the communal well. We had our staple fish and rice meal together every evening. I wanted to fit in so I studied the way my companions ate with their fingers and managed to do the same. Anni mentioned to Andrea
that she appreciated my efforts, but it didn’t stop them laughing at me when I flatly refused to eat chickens’ feet (I have my limits!). The island life I experienced is simple and basic; no one thinks twice about sleeping on the floor if they have to, and very few homes on the island have plumbing of any kind, but on the other hand anyone wealthy enough to own a solar panel generally has a mobile phone!
When we’d finished the work on the house we travelled to Bernabi San Pasqual, an even smaller island about two and a half hours sail away. We were going to collect Andrea’s 92-year-old grandma so Anni could take her back to Manila for the cataract operation she needed. The boat we hired for the trip collected us long before dawn and wading through the sea to get onto the boat in the pitch black had a surreal feeling about it.
The water was perfectly still, only the noise of the boat engine broke the silence, and as we watched the sun rise there was an atmosphere of tranquility I’ve never experienced before. The sky was the most spectacular colour of pinks and reds and highlighted a volcano on the horizon, it was the only thing we could see for miles. Even now, months later, describing the beauty of the morning brings a lump to my throat.
It was only on the way there when Andrea explained that Anni hadn’t seen her mum for over five years that the enormity of the trip hit me, the time, distance and lack of money made the journey difficult to do very often. Consequently the emotions that weaved their way through that day were huge, I’m so grateful to have been part of it and to have seen it firsthand. Watching Anni say hello to her mum after being apart for so long reduced me to tears. Andrea had spent most of her childhood living on the island and had her own catching up to do, despite the fact that she hadn’t been
back for over decade a couple of the local women came to meet her from the boat. Later in the morning a few of us took a walk to the other side of the island so I could see the house she’d grown up in and she could reconnect with more people from her past. There had been heavy rain in the days before we arrived and the only way to walk through the thick mud was barefoot, as we did we
passed an ox in a field and Andrea explained that was the only means of transport on the island. It was a Wednesday morning but it wasn’t like a Wednesday morning I’d ever had before, and it delighted me.
We were invited into one home for coffee and I was welcomed with warmth and curiosity in equal measure. Andrea translated for us all. The main questions the women had for me was about my marital status, they were fascinated by my being single and travelling alone. Part way through this conversation I realised I was the first white woman ever on the island. How can I ever beat an experience like that? An utterly unique day that amazed and inspired me, meeting Lola – Tagalog for Grandma – who is in her 90’s and her thanking me for coming to her island to visit her, when the honour to be welcomed there was all mine.
Later that day we sailed to San Pasqual, a much larger island where Andrea’s dad lives on a farm in the mountains. The others dropped us off at the port and then carried on with their journey back to visit Nilda, and the day after Anni took Lola on the long trip back to Manila, to this day I have no idea how she coped with the bus ride. Andrea and I had another few days’ adventure ahead of us so we booked ourselves into a small hotel on the port, hoping for a shower under running water – we didn’t get one, there was an inside toilet though so we were one up on the week!
When I started to write this article it was with the intention of encapsulating the entire time we were away on our trip, but I can’t do it. I honestly can’t do this incredible episode in my travels justice in the small amount of space I have. It would mean leaving out so many details that I wanted to share with you to express just how important and life changing such a short period of time was for me. I hope you don’t mind if I complete this anecdote in the next edition of Northern Life.