I accepted the glass of mysterious liquid from his outstretched hand and took a sip. It was sweeter than I'd expected, and carried the familiar flavour of rum. Grinning from ear to ear, the grey-haired man tilted his blue plastic pitcher and topped up my drink. His smile not only enveloped his mouth and eyes, but his entire being exuded this smile of such a caliber that the receiver is left no choice but to involuntarily reciprocate. My face hurt from the joy of it all. The best part is, if you had asked me this morning where I would spend the day I would have honestly replied, "I don't have a clue!"
And that was the whole idea behind renting a scooter in Asia. You pay ten bucks for the bike, bring some cash and a camera and you're off! Eyes wide like a kid on the Fourth of July, heart soaring, free to explore every road's curve and alley's secret with nowhere to be but anywhere.
Dom and I sliced through the morning sun and basked in her glory as I scanned the ever-evolving scene around us. We rode through towns which became villages which turned into untouched nature, save for the pavement beneath our tires that kept us grounded. Waving children, stray dogs and indifferent cows met my eyes while palm trees, tropical fruit stands and the occasional sound of groups of smiling villagers squealing "HELLO!" rose and fell in our wake.
Sunshine suddenly gave way to clouds and my glistening skin welcomed the unexpected temperature drop. A rain drop or two fell down my cheek, followed by a drizzle and quickly - am absolute downpour. When the road became a river we realized our scooters were no longer a safe means of transportation and were forced to pull over and duck for cover. Luckily, shelter was readily available in the form of a small makeshift bamboo hut with a hole-riddled tin roof, leaning precariously on the side of the road. We joined five or six locals here, caught together in a game of 'waiting for the rain to stop' (an unpredictable and slow-moving game at best). When Dom lit up a cigarette, the group erupted in a gleeful chorus of "Marlboro, Marlboro!" and the pack was doled out equally and promptly. Raindrops fell through holes in the roof, threatening our Marlboros as we laughed, smoked, and waited. I watched miniature rivers fly down the leaves of banana trees and revelled in this unplanned moment of silence and kinship.
The rivers from the sky eased their aggression and soon enough we were off again, chasing down spontaneous adventures! While cruising along down the main road, I felt compelled to veer right, off the beaten path and up a steep and slender diversion. This brought us to a definitive fork - left or right? We were feelin' left.
The pavement eventually subsided and put our scooter tires (and driving skills) to the test with dirt, holes, loose gravel, a steep grade and sharp turns. But with this rugged terrain, there came a peaceful ambiance. An easy pace, small huts, a slow river. Silence. We came to a vantage point and stopped to take photos of the jaw-dropping view we had stumbled upon: rolling, jungle-covered hills to our left. The endlessly vast ocean and distant islands to our right.
What happened next is the type of thing that creates a distinction between memorable and remarkable.
With five kids in tow, a man with an infectious smile approached us, a little timidly. He walked slowly up the hill as the children yelled excitedly,
"Hello! How are you! What is your name! How old are you!"
"I'm Sonja!" I replied, matching their enthusiasm. Dom introduced himself, smiling.
The man introduced himself as Ben, and after a very brief chat he insisted that we come see where he lives. Feelings of excitement rippled through my chest as we followed him to his home, where we immediately met his entire family. Ben, his dad, his daughter and sons and all of their children were there to greet us like long-lost friends. All the generations gathered here in one communal space, living together in a smattering of small houses and huts. We were invited to sit in a shaded bamboo gazebo where rum and ice tea mix was promptly forced upon us. We explained that we can't drink because we are driving, but their smiles held strong as the outstretched hand that offered the drink. I'd like to know if anyone has ever been able to resist a Filipino smile.
We sat and talked for a while, Ben insisting that we help him eat his lunch - liver, of a pig they had raised, with vegetables unrecognizable to me and of course, rice.
"In Canada, we don't invite people we don't know into our homes," I shared with the family, their eyes so warm and curious.
Ben's nephew, about 20 years old, furrowed his brow in genuine confusion, processing my statement.
I didn't know the answer, but my best guess came to me on the spot - "I think we are fearful. And also too busy, perhaps. No time to open our door, or our hearts. We stay in our own walls."
My words made my heart ache as they fell from my lips. I would like to believe that these beautiful, kind people gathered around me would receive the same hospitality in my country as they were showing us in that moment, but I doubted that would be the case.
This family was so happy, welcoming, loving and abundant in not money but true wealth. The company of one another, pigs chickens and rice to eat, the biggest smiles I have ever seen, and of course their local Tanduay Rhum and ice tea. A peaceful world tucked away on a mountain, overlooking the ocean, suspended in time inside a country of islands.
It was time for us to go. Feeling elated beyond measure, we started up our engines. The entire family followed to see us off. All the generations before our eyes, their smiles penetrating our spirits. We had driven up this rocky dirt-holed path not long ago following curiosity as our compass, and drove back down now, changed in some way. Inside me, a piece of the pain that comes with living in a world that is often cruel, unjust and plain crazy - was healed here. And that is more valuable than anything.
near Badian, Cebu Island, Philippines
VANCOUVER - SHANGHAI - MANILA - BUSUANGA ISLAND
The Journey to the Philippines was long. Thirty-something hours of airport queues and holding rooms, security-checks and air time, baggage-drops and immigration lines; floating through the motions with no real grip on time or space. And even longer was the journey before all that. Seemingly endless months of late-night drink slinging, weaving through restaurants in Calgary ever-balancing my tray of pints and shot glasses (with only minor spillage).
“Would you like to add bacon to your burger?”
“.... and another round of shots, right?”
Be an Order-Maker, not an Order-Taker, the managers would tell us.
I was created for more than this, my inner voice insisted. Meanwhile in my daydreams, I already inhabited foreign, warmer lands.
“Your beer is flat? I'm so sorry, let me get you a new one,”
I smile sweetly.
I wasn’t sorry.
And finally the time came to cash in my tip jar and subsequently explode in the infinite possibilities that travel offers! LIFE!!
It didn’t begin to sink in until the third and final plane, a 100-seater propellor aircraft that whisked us from the Philippine capital of Manila to a small paradise island called Busuanga. The staff on the aircraft wore smiles as bright as their sunflower-yellow shirts, rivalled only by the morning sun which began to illumnate the dreamy view below. In that short flight, my eyes soaked in at least thirty small, jungle covered islands which grew sleepily from the unbelievably turquoise water. I carefully selected a song to complement our landing, and couldn’t help but cry with happiness as palm trees greeted us to the ground, waving their windswept welcome dance.
I made it back to Asia! My other home, my happy place. And this country that's entirely new to me.
Seven thousand one-hundred and seven islands.
A lot of people have reached out and messaged me to ask about my experiences in Myanmar, curious (as I was) about this unique country seemingly shrouded in mystery. It's been exactly two years since I spent a month exploring the country and its people, and it's about time that I finally tell the stories I've been eager to share!
an awesome little interactive map showing where I went:
I have so much to say about my time in this magical country, so my Myanmar posts will be split up into portions so that each post doesn't get too ridiculously long!
Anyways, here it is - Myanmar through my eyes. My best friend Morgan and I, with no idea what we were getting into.
Our first stop: Yangon, to experience life alongside monks in a Buddhist Monastery.
10 Day Vipassana - Silent Meditation
Morgan and I landed in the capital city of Yangon after a quick flight from Bangkok, and hopped into a taxi headed to Chanmyay Myaing Meditation Center, where we planned to deeply practise meditation for 10 days and take a vow of silence.
Upon arrival at the Center, we handed over all of our electronics. We traded in our street clothes for traditional monk-in-training attire and had a vaguely embarrassing time with a resident nun as she tried to teach us the proper way to wear the skirt they call a lyongi (pronounced long-ee). It’s a long and giant piece of cloth in the shape of a tube that is intricately tied in a knot at your hip. The people of Myanmar wear these lyongis every day because they're comfy, breathable and you can do that classic Asian squatting/sitting position without exposing anything. It felt alien and overbearing on me. Orientation took place right away - a tour of the area and an introduction to how things work there. We were then given a brown sash to always be worn across the shoulder, and shown to our separate rooms.