Tips and musings from Pinay touring ASEAN for the first time
“Timan-i, stranger ka didto.” Remember, you’re a stranger down there.
The first lesson arrived in a text message from Mama who had no other choice but to accept that I am not settling down just yet, and that I'd rather spend my money travelling than buying my own lot to build a little hut I could share with my 5 cats.
Out of utter sturbborness, I didn't heed advice to make my first trip abroad easy for myself. I booked to travel 5 ASEAN countries in 5 weeks. Its start reeked of fear, insecurity, and intimidation. What if I lose my passport? My ATM? My luggage? What if I chance across a moody immigration officer who would not let me go through borders or, worse, would not even allow me to leave the Philippines?
When I lined up for the immigration at Mactan-Cebu International Airport, I saw two women talking to separate immigration officers (IOs) inside a small glass-walled office. On the verge of crying, a long-haired lady covered her mouth with her right hand in a gesture of disbelief.
Wild animals rippled through my chest when it was my turn to meet an IO. I handed him my ticket and passport. “Unang beses mong mag-abroad?,” he asked and repeated the question thrice before I could answer. "Yes," I said.
He asked for a company ID. Wearing the freelance writer hat, I handed him some printed works as advised by my blogger friends. It should be easy, they told me, because I am a published writer after all. His indignant flipping through the papers proved otherwise. He pushed them back to me, stood up with my passport on his hand, and then gestured that I should follow him. The wild animals in my chest sent earthquakes to my nerves.
I tried to focus on the smiling and friendly IO assigned to me, but I could not help but eavesdrop on the conversation between the long-haired woman and the other IO. She asked if she could get a travel tax refund. The IO assigned to her answered in a hushed yet powerful voice.
Mine was friendly. What was the purpose of my trip? Why am I going to 5 countries on my first trip abroad? How would I fund my trip?
I came overprepared. I asked for a bank certificate for this trip. I made a dummy itinerary, booked hotels, and printed all the tickets. I disclosed all my financial sources: my credit cards and my ATMs. I printed my foreign client’s certificate of employment. I mentioned my writing jobs in the Philippines. I even went as far as getting a soft copy of my boyfriend’s passport and a letter signifying that he'd be joining the most part of my trip. I was paranoid.
“Nag-ba-blog ka di ba? Paki-inform 'yung readers mo na hindi naman kami nakakatakot. As long as kumpleto 'yung documents, gaya nitong sayo.”
I gave her a spent smile—the kind you'd give when you're dealing with government officials you know you could not win over.
I saw the 2 women from the glass room again, crying on each other's shoulder. The long-haired lady made it through after a long scrutiny on her purpose for traveling to Kuala Lumpur. Her friend had to trace her way back out of the airport. After disclosing all information and after filling up the form, I headed towards the departure area. The wild animals in me were relieved but exhausted.
The scene inside the immigration office is a big lesson for me: I felt that our Filipino passport is not trusted. It is not trustworthy enough.
No matter how you perceive yourself, the color of your passport is the ultimate definition of what you are once you face an immigration officer.
Toilets and racism
I can't forget my conversations with a young American backpacker in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, who was amused by the toilets on trains and in hostels in Asia.
She said she could not understand at first why there is a huge bucket in front of an Asian toilet. Once, suffering from food poisoning, she spent a good amount of time facing down toward the so-called Asian toilet and grabbing the huge bucket’s rim while emptying her bowels. The bucket, she philosophized, is there to support you literally in moments of crisis. The toilet train from Myanmar's Yangon to Old Bagan disgusted her the most. I had not experienced the train ride itself, but I could imagine how dirty and sh*tty it was, pun intended.
Asian toilets amused her so much. I found her as fascinating as the so-called Asian toilets.
It was in Malaysia's Taiping that I first encountered such an interesting facet of the “Asian” culture. What is vaguely referred to by foreign travelers as the "Asian toilet" is actually the squat toilet. They're used not only in Asia but also in northern Africa and other parts of southern and eastern Europe.
I can go as far as problematizing the term Asian toilet. Do western travelers have Japan or Korea in mind when they loosely use such term? Or they merely have developing Asian countries in mind?
I am Asian too, but it is next to impossible to find a squat toilet anywhere in the Philippines. We called a toilet toilet regardless of its state. Be it the automatic type found in posh malls, the type that needs a good tabo, or the type that makes you go for the frog position and hold your breath for as long as you can.
My 5-week trip provided me different perspectives on things that are supposed to be ordinary among us Filipinos; it provided me lessons on racial stereotypes; it provided me truths and realities that are supposed to be “Asian” but the Filipina in me rebelled in vehemence.
'We look like locals'
In one bus ride, my seatmate kept talking to me in Thai despite my animated gestures crossing my hands to say that I don't speak the language. But she would not have it that I am not one of her people. I look like her: tanned, dark-haired, and tiny-nosed. Plus, we were on a bus to Maesot (Thailand)-Mwaddy (Myanmar) border, an unlikely destination for a farang—their local word for a foreigner (but mostly refers to white ones). Plus, I was traveling alone. I did not look like a traveler at all—just an ordinary local in her late twenties on her way back to her hometown.
In most instances, I laughed and felt welcome to be mistaken as one of them. A good mask, my face, built, and skin color allowed me to blend in, to look around, and observe how things work.
From experience, locals feel uncomfortable around tourists. They sometimes change their ways to accommodate a stranger, to some extent molding and exoticizing themselves to meet a foreigner’s expectations of them. I have seen and experienced this cringing scenario so many times inside and outside the country.
Once we got off the bus, touts and drivers alike talked to me in their language. At times, in the mood to play, I would pretend that I understood them. But I could not hold the pretension for long, especially in places I traveled with Tobi.
What would come next was a guessing game. In Malaysia, after disclosing, that I am not one of them, locals started enumerating the neighboring countries. A version of this conversation was repeated in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar.
The Philippines was the last country they had in mind. They would then start jabbing the air and drop Manny Pacquiao’s name. This was before Duterte became the president.
To find other Southeast Asians traveling around Southeast Asia is already rare, yet it is much rarer to find fellow Filipinos treading the same path. For its relative affordability, Southeast Asia is the starting point for many budget travelers, but most of them are westerners. Budget travel, from the perspective of a developing country traveler is no budget at all. A budget three-dollar meal is already P130 to P150, almost half of the daily salary of a typical Filipino worker.
“You’re not a typical Filipino. You’re traveling” is a comment I often received. I would say yes and often get into an economical and political discussion on race and travel.
Coming from an economically “poor” family in a “poor” country, I knew the sentiments of my fellow Filipinos all too well.
Finding fellow Filipinos in Southeast Asia is easy; yet our circumstances of being abroad differ. Unlike me, they left our homecountry not to “travel” but to work, whether legally or illegally is a different matter.
On a train, bus, or in a mini-mart, I would hear different languages of and from home: Tagalog, Bisaya, Ilonggo. Some even worked in budget hostels I stayed in. These selfless beings worked hard and often sent their earnings back home to feed a whole family or send a sibling to school. Such selflessness I could not afford to place myself in to.
To some extent it is a privilege to be able to travel abroad at least twice a year, (and now I’m off for my year-long trip), but then again, I juggled several jobs so I could maintain this “extravagant” lifestyle.
Do not travel abroad unless you have covered most parts of the Philippines. This was a pact I made with myself and I was loyal to this manifesto for 7 years. While most traveler friends buzzed about our neighboring countries, their modern transportation system, and their affordable food, I hopped from one island to another, noting down the differences in our languages, landscapes, and tricycle and boat shapes.
“Filipino food is too oily and all meat and expensive” is a comment I often get from foreign travelers. And I would often say a hesitant yes before defending our food. Archipelagic, the Philippines has rather a wide range of vegetable and meat-based dishes. If you are only traveling to touristy places, do not expect to find the common Filipino food served in a Filipino home.
Now, during my 5-week trip, I was fascinated and bewildered how a 60-peso meal could not only taste awesome but also look delicious.
A street food connoisseur (if there is such a thing) myself, I spent at least 3 hours a week, walking around downtown Cebu and sampling all the delights I could find along the street, and normally I would spend around P60 on saang (spider conch) alone. To millennialize it, our street food lacked the instagrammable look. Our cheap food found in holes-in-the-walls admittedly could not rival with the presentation of freshly cooked dishes in our neighboring countries.
But a Bisdak through and through, dehoming my palate is next to impossible. I look for my uninstagrammable utan bisaya, paksiw, and buwad wherever I am.
Before flying to Bangkok to travel with Tobi, I found myself traveling solo for a week in Malaysia. I spent a good time walking around Kuala Lumpur, cycling around Taiping, and trekking around Cameron Highlands.
After 3 weeks of traveling together, Tobi headed back to Austria while I traveled solo to Myanmar [Yangon-Bagan-Inle Lake] for a week before flying back to Cebu. We just started going out then, so he could not grasp this whole romance of traveling solo his girlfriend got into.
But what I have learned from traveling with a man is that a different facet of a place surfaces before the eyes of a traveling couple, interracial at that.
So all I wanted really is to know how the self and a foreign place interact with each other. How would a place interact with a solo woman traveler from a developing country? How would I carry and ferry myself with a place that is similar to my own country yet different in so many ways? Would I find myself vulnerable to its shortcomings such as scams and accidents?
I would not find the answer if I did not spare some time alone. And the answers themselves were not all that surprising. Used to traveling solo in the Philippines, the narratives—the failures and triumphs—of a Filipina woman traveling solo abroad are—to use an Indochina phrase—“same same but different.” Same same in a way I could still smell a tout. I know when to haggle and when to give in. I know the language of smile when English fails.
The challenges I found myself battling against can be summarized into race and gender: No good track of travel record could really prepare you for the most experienced tout. Most things found along the tourist trail are priced in dollars. Double standards are everywhere, and they are more imposed when you are a Southeast Asian traveling in a place filled with white travelers; say, it is expected of white girls to wear provocative clothes in Luang Prabang, for example, but a Southeast Asian woman wearing short shorts can be viewed as betrayal to one’s roots.
Traveling, for many of us, is a form of escapism; and that is all right. What we have failed to notice at times though is how the politics of race and travel come into play in most things we do. When you are out there, other travelers and locals instinctively have you as a representative of the entire nation you are from. Ironically, when you are a Filipino traveling abroad you often get the “You’re not a typical Filipino.” Acknowledge it. Own it. Be the voice of your fellowmen’s plight, if you have to. But always remember that your passport might be the definition of what you are, but it does not dictate of what you can be. – Rappler.com
Jona Branzuela Bering is currently traveling around, fending off for herself through online jobs. Follow her travels on Instagram @backpackingwithabook and her blog Backpacking with a Book. For partnerships and collaborations, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.