I handed the woman my ticket. She looked at it, looked at me, looked down the pier, and burst into laughter. Hearty laughter, straight from the belly, that of your grandfather after telling a joke no one really gets. The boat was gone she said, wiping the mirth from her eyes while pointing towards a little speck in the distance, it left at 8. Impossible, I rebuked, even though looking down the pier myself I could clearly see the ferry wasn’t docked, it leaves at 9am. 8 she repeated, 8, while handing me back my now useless ticket. After a few choice expletives, and keeping in mind that this was Saturday, I asked when the next ferry was. Tuesday, came the response.
This had been my first adventure longer than two days since arriving in the Philippines, travelling to a remote island to attempt one of the country’s most challenging climbs, Mount Guiting-Guiting (which means ‘jagged’ in the local language – doubling a word adds emphasis). The first day was an exhausting, oppressively hot slog through the humid forest up to the fourth camp, and that night I was so severely dehydrated and miserable I contemplated abandoning my goal of finishing in two days as opposed to the usual three that most climbers take. However, the second day brought incredible views, a stiff breeze, and a renewed sense of motivation, which propelled me to finish the 3-hour summit and subsequent 9-hour descent in a single day, as planned. Everything up until this point had gone as well as I could have hoped including the myriad modes of transportation I had used to get to the mountain in the first place. Local jeepney, long-distance van, tricycle, Roro ferry, motorbike, and, of course, the shoelace express. Now I’d be forced to make a rather significant detour if I was to make it back to work for Monday morning. (Pictured: Above the clouds on Mount Guiting-Guiting, courtesy of man’s most reliable means of moving about – his own two feet.)
Attaining a level of comfort in any living situation is a rather complex puzzle that contains a unique set of pieces for each individual. Can they readily access activities that are important for their physical and mental well-being? Are they able to get to work or school easily and without spending too much time doing so? Can they obtain their favourite foods? Are there appropriate recreational opportunities within reach? The common thread? You can’t fit any of these pieces into the puzzle that is a healthy lifestyle unless you can get to them. Enter the transportation network.
Familiarizing yourself with the local modes of transportation goes a significant way in creating a sense of calm about a new living situation. It both helps you limit sources of stress, such as being late for an engagement, and aids in increasing your wellness, allowing access to whatever it is that benefits your health. Being able to efficiently transport yourself from one place to another increases the size of the sphere within which you feel comfortable operating, allowing greater exposure to all the experiences that make a work placement abroad worth it. In short, transportation offers freedom.
This argument applies equally when you’re not living abroad. Freedom is the reason many households in Canada own more cars than they have family members. Winnipeg, my hometown, is beset by urban sprawl and lacks any transportation infrastructure beyond buses. This makes it incredibly inefficient to take public transportation anywhere outside the major thoroughfares. I was ecstatic when I was able to put my car in storage after moving to Halifax – a city contained mainly on a peninsula that doesn’t have the luxury of expanding horizontally ad infinitum. I bought a bike, learned the transit routes (along with their limitations), and walked a lot. Quickly becoming comfortable with this set of ways of moving around was instrumental in the peace of mind and enjoyment I derived from my time on the east coast. My brother, a transplant to Toronto for much of the last decade and ardent supporter of the TTC, has never owned a car in Ontario. He navigates the network of subways, street cars, and buses like a pro, and by his own admission easy transportation is one facet of his infatuation with The 6ix.
It was a good thing I gave myself an extra day to make it back to Iloilo City – I’ll generously describe my new route as convoluted. Departing Sibuyan Island, the home of Guiting-Guiting, I took a ferry to the port of San Augustin on Tablas, which made a stop at the island of Romblon on the way. From there, a two-hour ride on a habal-habal (think motorcycle taxi) to the village of Santa Fe. Ferries connecting Santa Fe to the main island only depart in the early morning, so I spent a night in the only accommodations in town (my ‘mattress’ was a sleeping bag) and went to the port early enough to get the only boat back to Iloilo’s island of Panay. After liberal use of my larger-than-usual stature to secure a seat on the pumpboat (or bangka, a traditional outrigger canoe) with 39 other passengers and half a dozen screaming hogs my odyssey still wasn’t over. The original ferry would have deposited me in Roxas City, in the northeast corner of Panay and culminated in a simple 2-hour drive down the coast to Iloilo. Instead I was in the northwest corner and, due to the mountain range that splits Panay on its north-south axis, I was in for a 5-hour ride in a van unsuited for anyone over 5’6”.
Although my climb up Guiting-Guiting was, in isolation, an outstanding experience, my travails in returning from Sibuyan Island jaded my entire outlook. Because of an incorrect printed schedule, my own carelessness, and a lack of online information, I was forced into a 36-hour detour. It amplified some of the other negative thoughts I had about the lifestyle differences in a country half-way around the world and I began to question whether I truly was enjoying this experience.
This episode illustrates how being comfortable in getting around is integral to having a favourable experience, wherever you may be. It’s arguably the most important facet, as it is the master key that opens the variety of doors you need to access to enjoy yourself. With this in mind, take the time to get comfortable with however people move from place to place. Subway? Carry a map. Buses? Look up schedules (and double check!). Less formal means? Learn the language of riding and ask locals. One of the first phrases our Filipino friends made sure we had learned was bayad, for payment aboard jeepneys, and sa lugar lang, for disembarking said jeepney. If you can spare the time, hop on a random bus or jeepney and see where it takes you. Beyond learning where that route goes, you might even have fun.
My brother once got on the wrong train and ended up in a different country. I probably won’t do that (if only because those routes don’t exist in the Philippines), but chances are I’ll miss another bus or ferry in the second half of my internship as I ride, walk, and sail my way around this beautiful country. However, I take solace in the fact that I already learned one important lesson:
In a situation where there are countless other things that make you uncomfortable, getting to know the local ways of moving from one place to another will help you integrate, experience, and live.