We left one of the biggest and most progressive cities in the world behind in exchange for small town life in a developing country, and the transition was not an easy one to make by any means. Once we got used to the endless stream of shouts from people around us, however - the never ending queries of our names and destinations, the declarations of love from strangers and the endless cries of "Hey Jo!" and "Americano!" (despite our being British) - things began to feel normal. In almost no time at all, this world of rice, sweat, chick foetus delicacies, palm trees and pedicabs soon became our much loved home.
Not a lot of westerners know much about the Philippines. Most people don't know that the country is home to more than 7,000 islands, and many people are never really sure even how to spell it (that's one L and three Ps, by the way). In fact, when we mentioned our plan to our friends back home, few knew where it was exactly, with one even thinking that we were off to Africa! As a result of its anonymity, the Philippines is not your typical South Asian mass tourist holiday destination. One of the greatest things about this incredible country is that once you scratch the surface, you are rewarded with a magical land where only the intrepid and brave spend the time and make the effort to explore.
While my girlfriend had been to Tacloban City before, the move marked my first time in the country. I was caught completely off guard by the drastic change in lifestyle. The inescapable heat was oppressive, the obvious poverty was shocking and the number of toddlers wondering around everywhere was staggering. The hardest part for me was the attention that we attracted wherever we went and our lack of anonymity despite being surrounded by a population of over 100 million strong, and us not knowing a single soul. To say I suffered from culture shock was an understatement, but our decision had been made and I had to battle on.
One of the first things to puzzle me was upon arrival at our new, albeit temporary accommodation and getting a tour of our digs, which - it turned out - were pretty much what Filipino digs were like in general. Our wonderful hostess Nani Soli had greeted us with such warmth and enthusiasm we immediately felt a part of her family although a little alien to parts of her home. We had been shown our bedroom, followed by her pointing out our bathroom with a summary, "And here is your shower." I scanned the small concrete cube, but couldn’t spot it. "I'm sorry, where are we looking?" She laughed and pointed to a dustbin full of water, with a large plastic ladle floating on top. Well, this may have been obvious to her, but I'd never even heard of a bucket shower, let alone been propositioned the use of one. Sure enough, this large black tub sat on the floor in the corner of the room, brimming with ice cold water, but I couldn't possibly see how it would get me clean.
I looked for clues. Do I hang it up and allow the water to sprinkle down on me? Do I have to enlist a shower partner? Is the whole family involved in this ceremony? Do I have to get in it? Surely not! Filipinos are generally petite people but I would definitely have trouble with that. Nani Soli was a great host for a reason, however, and was not fooled by my troubled brow.
Bucket showers are rather common in homes and lodging around the Philippines. To use a bucket shower, you stand beside the tub wearing only your birthday suit, filling the ladle and pouring it over your head with one hand, while you wash yourself with the other. It all sounds very simple, but it is quite easy to find after a few goes that the wall behind you is sodden while you are nearly bone dry, still dirty and looking pretty daft.
Don’t be alarmed! You do get used to the bucket shower in the same way you soon get used to Asian toilets: slowly but surely. It all adds to the experience and, personally speaking, setting out to face these challenges and overcoming them is the true secret to great travel.
We soon found ourselves guests at the beautiful wedding of Nani Soli’s daughter, and a few days later I began volunteering at the local community centre, entertaining and feeding infants. Fast forward two months and life was looking more stable. By then we were living in our own flat, each with paid jobs. We'd even managed to make some great friends and pick up some interesting hobbies.
Filipinos are a very inquisitive bunch, and with still so few visitors, you will become the target of a lot of stares, laughs, questions and photos. When you ride around the country, you invariably have to take one of the most intriguing and exciting forms of public transport: the jeepney. It is not uncommon to be asked a load of questions about your name, your age and your church - among others - while you struggle through the door and clamber over everyone for a seat. Many a time in our experience have these initial questions led to engaging discussions, where everyone on the bus will propose new suggestions on how to reach your destination before collectively assigning you a fellow passenger as a guide, and a stop off for lunch. This doesn’t always involve the quickest route from A to B but, like many places in Asia, you just have to relax and embrace 'Filipino time'!
It was a tough year in the Philippines, but also a very memorable one. While it continually demanded a lot of us both and of our relationship, it ultimately made us thicker skinned and brought us closer together. And let’s not forget the experiences! Where else in the world can you host an open casket gambling tournament at a cemetery to raise money for the funeral? Where else is text messaging so popular that it has to be banned by the church as a tool for confessional? Where else do crime levels plummet when the national hero, Manny Pacquiao, is boxing? Where else is it so common for grown men to spend their Saturday night in a karaoke bar singing love songs and enjoying some beer? And where else can you have access to thousands of tropical islands, lined with pure white sand, a warm and sparkling green sea and palm trees as your only companions? Where else, indeed, but the beautiful, friendly and rewarding Philippines.