in between islands Travel

IN BETWEEN ISLANDS: A sense of awe in Panay Island, Philippines

I wished I had that woman's eyes: the ability to find awe in ordinary things.

Every time I go to Nancy’s store, DJ is there, too, on lunch break or coffee break from his job as a sous chef at a five-star hotel in Iloilo, capital city of Panay Island.

Every time I see him, he has some other suggestion for a place to go. Yesterday he looked at some photos I posted on Instagram from the Kasadyahan competition. The Kasadyahan is a mardi gras: colorful, choreographed sequences by groups from the region, performed on the streets of Iloilo.

DJ smiles. He gets busy on his cellphone and clicks on Facebook, scrolls through, and shows me a page. “See this,” he says, “There’s a regatta here in June. You should take photographs.”

And he smiles.

It is DJ’s smile that I envy. He smiles with his whole face.


I’ve had a lot to smile about on this trip.

Touching down Cebu’s Mactan airport on the way to Kalibo, I had a long layover and because I didn’t have checked in baggage was out of the airport in less than twenty minutes.

I headed for a breakfast buffet I knew about at the Waterfront Hotel, literally across from the Mactan arrivals gate.  

A woman, who was part of a local group having breakfast at the Waterfront, takes photos of the mounds of bacon that’s replenished every time it runs low. There’s soft bacon and crispy bacon, and it’s popular. Every half hour, the buffet is replenished.

I watch the woman take photos of the six kinds of cheeses, the four kinds of juices, the mounds of bacon that never run out.

I’m crunching on the daing, crisp fried fish, when I notice her taking photos of everything on the buffet, her eyes wide and exclaiming to her friend about the variety of what’s available, the bacon and the four kinds of fresh juice, the eleven kinds of bread and the six kinds of cheeses.

That woman who took photos of the abundance, who was exclaiming at every aspect of that buffet breakfast–she has something I’ve lost.

I’ve lost the capacity to feel awe at the simple pleasure of having choice.

The woman at the buffet breakfast had the capacity to find joy in every opportunity to have a choice. She has the openness to feel a sense of awe at encountering choice in her breakfast.

I think the search for the capacity to feel awe again is why I am traveling. I’ve spent 25 years pursuing something that over the years has only made me feel unimpressed. I have been taught with restraint, unable to find the joy in simple things.

Yet, I want to celebrate all the things that might be good about the world.

And, I wish I had that woman’s eyes.

Suddenly, I remember the things we take for granted. In my world, there has always been bacon, fresh juices, and 6 kinds of cheese. In my world, olives have always come soaked in good olive oil and appeared in fresh, blemish-free salad.

Hasn’t it always?

What I seek is the capacity to find awe in ordinary things.

In Kalibo, it rains intermittently for 24 hours. In the evening, I want to go to Lorraine’s Tapsi, a café that’s recommended by Lonely Planet, so in the evening I arrive, I take off my shoes and don flip flops, and come down from Arranas-Carrillos hostel while the rain starts to pound on the town.

Downstairs, the hostel owner listens to where I want to go and says, “You need an umbrella,” gesturing at the umbrellas on the stand near the entrance to the property. She adds, “And he will accompany you to Lorraine’s Tapsi,” gesturing to the boy who is waiting for me and the exchange to conclude, before we spring to action. He unfurls a yellow umbrella, ready to take me to where I want to go.

I take a blue umbrella from the selection and the boy guides me, even though he himself didn’t know where Lorraine’s Tapsi was. Eventually by asking several people, we get there. He delivers me to the bistro, and proudly says goodbye, adding, “I’m a trainee.”

I say thanks to him, and add, “You’re doing fine as trainee.”

What I want to say is, thanks for taking time to show me where this place is. What I really wanted to say was, Thanks for going beyond your job description. I didn’t say that. I also didn’t add, Thanks for being so kind.

Kalibo is perpetually under a rain shower in the 24 hours I was there, and soon I tire of the splashing in puddles and the fact that in flip flops, one has to grip toes tightly while walking, so as not to slip.

I decide to take the Ceres Liner bus to Iloilo the next day.

And the Ceres schedule not being available online, I take a tricycle to the Ceres Bus terminal in Kalibo, arriving there just under 12.00 noon, able to get a seat on the 12.00 to Iloilo just under 2 minutes after I arrive at the station. I take the seat, and a woman helps me translate to the conductor. In five minutes I am on the bus, sitting beside the kind woman who translated for me. I watch the towns roll by the window on the 3.5 hour ride.

In Iloilo after the Ceres bus trip, I am not so brave and decide to stay at the Courtyard Marriot, where the familiar service and the centrality of the location help me cope with the uncertainty from unfamiliarity with the island.

I am an unrehearsed traveler, used to holidays with itineraries, but not with the organic unfolding of budget travel. On the bus, I am comforted by the woman with the sleeping child beside me and the fact I will arrive with a room I can predict in my imagination. A double bed, reading lamps, warm water shower and 24-hour room service. It’s always the same at these hotels.

I think it is part of the predictability that our lives cultivate when we assume that everything will always be the way we want it to be. There will be breakfast buffets at 6.30 to 10.00am, and it will offer eggs and bacon as well as the porridge and anchovies- pickled ginger and Chinese sausage or Spanish style corned beef that Asian breakfasts usually offer. The service personnel will be trained to get us whatever it is we want. There will be a variety of pillow types so we enjoy a seamless sleep.

I am in Iloilo for Dinagyang, a festival celebrated with street dances, a mardi gras, and other numerous events. The Marriot receptionists give me a map, a route, and advice on which street to go to so I can see the festival unfold over my two days in Iloilo.

But it’s that evening when I chance upon the sous-chef at the Marriot who tells me he is going to Nancy’s store, when I meet the people I will remember in Iloilo. I go with him to Nancy’s store and have a beer with the other kitchen staff at the Marriot. They tell me about the way Dinagyang is celebrated, the way they celebrate it. They tell me the names of streets that I should go to see the way the local people celebrate the festival.

And Nancy tells me to stop by in the morning at 5.00am so I can have coffee with her before the day begins. I go to Nancy’s store to have a couple cups of coffee before setting out to capture the Kasadyahan festival.

On the second day, I stop by Nancy’s before starting the day at the Tribes competition, the final day of Dinagyang. I make two cups of coffee from Nancy’s own jar of grounds. As I finish the second cup, I ask her how much I owed her and she pats my shoulder and says, No, I don’t owe her anything. I leave some money on the counter of her store and say, “Business is business, please take this.” And I go off to photograph the tribes parade.

At the end of the day I am back in Nancy’s store, partly to unwind after a long day standing and chasing light, and partly to say a sort of Goodbye and Thank you for her kindness, for being my friend in Iloilo.

Nancy is busy on the phone. Her granddaughter Sukaina is with her, and Sukaina shows me her box of toys. “My spoon. My grapes. Pizza. Play dough,” Sukaina lifts each item from her toy box and shows them to me.

Soon we have progressed to songs we know, and the four-year old sings “Let it Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and nursery rhymes with me. We run through “Happy Birthday Cha Cha Cha” three times, but that’s because we had so much fun singing it.

This trip has taught me the word awe. A sense of awe in the opportunities we have, whether it is the choices at a breakfast buffet or the choices we have of what type of pillow we sleep on.

We are taught that a sense of awe comes to people when we behold a majestic thing like a photograph of the Milky Way; a blood red full moon over a canyon or city scape; a fantastic building being used for vertical gardening in a metropolis. These are the things we have been conditioned to admire.

What I learned this week is a sense of awe at the generosity of the people I’ve met. In the few days I’ve spent in Panay Island, I have begun to believe that it is possible to be someone who owns less materially, to possess a generosity of spirit that transcends material wealth.

The people I’ve met this week certainly teach me that.

Today I noticed, I’ve begun to smile like DJ.

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