Philippines: The end and beginning of a new life


It’s been five days since I boarded a plane back to California, said goodbye to Asia and ended my 3.5 month long journey. Now back at home, sitting in the same chair on the same computer where I booked that one way ticket to Bangkok, it feels as if it was all just a dream—gone in the blink of an eye. But a dream that changed everything, because a new person flew home five days ago—one with a new life and future filled with possibility. It’s a very exciting time, and I’m looking forward to sharing more with you in the coming weeks.

For now, I’m ready to share the final days of my trip. I couldn’t think of a more serendipitous grand finale than The Philippines. From my time in Balanga to the most surreal scenery in the world—it was, in a word, perfect.

If you caught my last post, you may remember the story of the families who have been living without electricity due to not being able to afford their $60 bill. And my cousin who decided to bring awareness by starting a gofundme campaign.

Because of your generosity, we’ve managed to raise $2000 which will be used to help other local families in need. Incredible—so far beyond what we expected.

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This is truly the most meaningful Thanksgiving in my life, and now it will be for many in the Philippines.

Austin posted an update with a video letting the families know of their supporters from around the world—be sure to check that out! He’ll also be updating to show everyone where the funds are going, and the donation page will stay active so it’s not too late to contribute if you are touched by this story as well. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

Now… back to the most amazing place in the world: The Philippines.

From Manila I flew to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. I made new friends at a hostel upon arrival and we took a tricycle down to a beach festival, where we danced the night away at a silent disco, watched fire performances and saw a live band.

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The next morning I caught a van to El Nido, which is high on my list of Worst Travel Experiences. What was supposed to be a six hour drive turned into an all day mess of waiting and confusion, getting shuffled between vans, dropped off at waiting areas with no explanation, driving around town for three hours collecting passengers, starving and squished in the backseat with strangers alternating between sweating and freezing cold. This is why very few tourists make it to El Nido, apparently.

But…. it was worth it. It always is.

 

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Pristine beaches almost all to myself, tropical air, incredible sunsets and food and friendly locals.

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Check out the zipliner!
Check out the tiny zipliner!

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There are many island hopping tours available for incredibly cheap (~$15 for the day) so the second day was spent exploring off the coast. It was breathtaking.

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We cruised through vibrant blue waters and warm winds, weaved between towering limestone cliffs, swam through hidden caves and snorkeled amongst tropical fish in colorful coral reefs.

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The boats have grills on the back, and our captain cooked up some fresh caught fish and veggies as we pulled up to a private island.

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There we refueled with a buffet of seafood, rice, veggies and fruit before moving on to the next destination.

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On the way back into port, we were all on such a high—you could feel it in the air around us and see it on everyones faces. There’s something about this part of the world that grips you and transports you to a dream-like existence where negativity can’t survive. We all felt it, and little did I know I would remain in this state of bliss the entire time I was in the Philippines.

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My time in El Nido was short, because we heard there was even more to discover on an island to the north by the name of Coron.

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This was another interesting travel experience. Currently the only way to reach this island is via an expensive flight to the tiny airstrip on the island, or 7 hour ferry. Our hostel told us the ferry had comfortable reclining seats and wifi, and only cost around $15, so we booked it for the next morning.

This was on a Sunday, and it wasn’t until we boarded did we discover that the main ferry doesn’t run on Sundays, so we hitched a ride on an old wooden cargo boat that was heading that direction.

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By the time everyone and all our luggage piled in, we could barely move. There were bags of rice and cloth and random plastic parts, and even a live chicken tied to a pole. We retreated to the roof to escape the chaos and passed out on the bamboo slatted deck while the boat meandered through the Philippine Sea at 10mph.

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At one point we made a turn and ended up in a port. We were hot and hungry and had to use the restroom and thought they were going to let us off to explore… but sadly, that was not the case.

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Instead, we watched while they exchanged groups of locals and bags of random supplies (like rusty metal gates) for 90 minutes. There was no use in asking them why we were there or for how long or when would we make it to Coron or if we were even going there anymore, because you’ll never get a clear answer. We’re all just bystanders in Asia, completely at their mercy. You’ve just gotta roll with it.

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The now nine hour ferry ride ended up being quite calming, actually. You have to think of it as inexpensive, leisurely tour of the Philippines—all about perspective.

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At sunset, we finally began to approach Coron, grateful to make it to our destination and fall in love with somewhere new.

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Coron is a sleepy little island, and it’s not hard to see why considering the commitment it takes to get there.

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There’s not much in the way of activities on the island itself, aside from hiking and the hot springs…

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But just beyond this land lies the most amazing lakes, lagoons and islands you’ll ever see.

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It didn’t even feel real. It was as if we were transported to a fantasy land, with each new location more magical than the next.

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One of my favorite places was Kayangan Lake. We hiked between a cliff and dropped down into pristine blue waters surrounded by cavernous cliffs and lush forest. The sunlight illuminated the rocks in the distance and cast a neon glow on the lake, making us feel like we were in Avatar.

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My favorite part of the day was floating in this lake in solitude, relaxed and moving with the water, following needlefish around as I aimlessly wandered. Time stopped for me here—my mind was clear of any thoughts and I simply existed in that moment.

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As a chronic overthinker, it’s not easy getting to that clear place in my head. But here in the Philippines… it just happens. Every day.

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One day we hired a private boat to take us out all day (still only $15/pp) and continued to explore the never ending wonders. Our captain cooked us lunch on a private island, we went cliff jumping in Barracuda Lake and snorkeled inside Twin Lagoon.

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The coral and sea life is incredible here. So clear and pristine, I could be in the water for hours. Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip happened at Twin Lagoon. I was snorkeling on my own, slowly moving above the sea bed, completely lost in time. The water was so warm it felt like an extension of my body, and so clear that it seemed as if I were floating through space, suspended in air. Beams of sunlight rippled beneath the surface as I swam through them, staring up at the light in the silent vacuum of the sea. Without even trying, I was in a state of meditation—the most intense I’ve ever experienced, and felt as one with the universe. I realize this sounds a bit crazy, but it was my moment and mine alone, a memory I’ll never forget and so very healing. Exactly what I wanted and needed and hoped for during this trip.

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The next day we said goodbye to Coron and made our way to Boracay. We had planned a long travel day which included another 9 hour ferry ride back to Palawan, a 7 hour van ride to Puerto Princesa, a flight to Manila with a 1.5 day layover, then another flight to Boracay. The APEC Summit was held in Manila that week and our flights got canceled, forcing us to find an option B.

By a random stroke of luck, someone in our group found a private jet directly from Coron island to Boracay, and after several confusing phone calls we were able to charter it for just $97/ea. Insane.

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The “airport” was interesting… it was more or less an outdoor bus terminal and our check-in counter was an empty wooden platform. The one rep for the airline was MIA for hours and showed up just in time. There were no tickets, she recorded our info with her cell phone, only took cash and she pulled money out of her own purse to give us change.

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My confidence level wasn’t very high going into this, but what I’ve learned is that sometimes the most unfamiliar and uncertain situations lead to the greatest memories.

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And this flight? Hands down the best transportation experience on this trip. It easily made up for the Palawan Van Ride and Coron Ferry Stowaway misadventures.

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Forty beautiful minutes later, I landed in Boracay, my last and final destination. And upon debarking I promptly noticed my Jenna Sue font. Glad to see it’s being put to good use around the world…

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In an effort to focus purely on enjoying my last week in Asia, I put my camera away and chose to keep this time for myself, recorded only from memory.

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It was a wonderful four days… filled with sunshine and swimming and dancing and amazing people.

I sat on the beach my last night, watching the sun as it fell below the horizon, staring out over the sea as the last sliver of light disappeared.

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So many emotions ran through me but I’ve developed a new filter for them—a calm and deeper understanding. I acknowledged the weight of the present moment, observed the millions of thoughts and memories running through my mind, processed it all and felt an overwhelming sense of peace. This is what I’ve been searching for.

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While waiting to board my last flight in Manila I posted this on Facebook:

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“Three and a half months ago I caught a one way flight to Bangkok with nothing planned, leaving everything familiar behind to live in the moment and see where it took me. I’ve seen places that have left me breathless—from miles of rice terraces to thousands of limestone cliffs, ancient temples to hidden lagoons and everything in between. But I’ve learned it’s all meaningless without people to share it with. Only through forming relationships and connections with others can your soul be truly transformed and life enriched.

To everyone who crossed my path—some for weeks, others just a brief moment in time, some I’ll never see again, others whom I can’t imagine life without—you’ve changed me in ways you’ll never know.

With new friends all over the world, it’s now a much smaller place. My Facebook feed has been replaced with new languages and travel photos and confusing messages from old Vietnamese men. I’m fluent in German phrases and British humour and Thai bargaining. I can navigate my way through any airport and bus station and jungle like a pro.

Today I leave Asia with laugh lines, brown skin, scars, bruises and bites, dirty nails and unruly hair. My wallet is empty and backpack filled with souvenirs, mind filled with memories and heart full of love. My mental and physical limits have been pushed to new levels and I’ve grown in ways I never thought possible. But anything is possible when you have a hunger for new experiences and thirst for adventure that must be fed to feel alive. I’ll never lose that appetite for life—even if it means living off rice and bananas to see the world.

From eating snakes, worms and scorpions to sleeping with bed bugs to living with no water and electricity to full moon island parties to accidental karaoke performances to scooter crashes and helicopter rides and private jets and 10 hour bus rides to early morning ER visits and motorbike robberies and stabbings to war vet stories to dancing in the rain and swimming in waterfalls and snorkeling with sharks and feeling so alive that I must be dreaming… but I’m really just living my dreams.

Not deeply and madly in love with your life? Nothing will change until you release the grip of control you cling so tightly to, do what scares you most, take blind leap of faith and trust that life will unfold in a much richer and more beautiful way—the way it was designed to. Your life is worth risking it all for.

Goodbye, amazing Asia. Thank you for changing me forever. Until we meet again…”

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I thought I’d be miserable returning home. How do you come back down after such an incredible high? How can life ever compare? Maybe it’s still too early for reality to set in, but something has stuck with me and kept me afloat these past five days. A feeling of excitement and possibility and a knowing that my future is entirely in my hands and anything is possible. It’s an incredible, indescribable state of mind and I don’t want to waste it. Bring it on, life.

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Thank you to those who’ve been following along, witnessing this transformation while I’ve been doing my best to figure it all out. I have no idea what’s to come, but I hope you’ll stick with me as it unfolds. My journey is not over—it’s just beginning.

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17 thoughts on “Philippines: The end and beginning of a new life

  1. Jenna,
    So many amazing things about this post, but to be honest, it’s what is to come that is the most exciting part to me! I’ve been following along with you for years, and I have to say, you are truly an inspiring person in every aspect! Your fearlessness guides you, and I can say that it is what I strive for in my life too! Lead on, sensei!
    😉 Christine

  2. THANK YOU for sharing your journey with us. You’ve been so honest about every experience, I absolutely love your writing (I think that you should definitively write a book about it AND make a photo book as I’m also amazed by how talented you are as a photographer). Can’t wait to see where you’re solar personality will bring you. Too bad you’re living so far from Europe, you’re the kind of person I would love to have as a friend 🙂 All the best for the new journey, I’m sure it will be awesome. THANK YOU AGAIN. Claire, from Brussels, Belgium

  3. I have truly enjoyed being on this journey with you. To me you are so brave, so strong in mind, body and spirit, and blessed to have this experience resonates so deeply in you. Thanks to you we have seen and learned about parts of the world I for certain will never see. You’ve shown that no matter where you go, people for the most part, are us…wives and husbands, children and grandparents, just loving and living their lives and trying to make the best of what ever they have. Homes and food, and certainly bathroom situations are not what we are used to, but you treated all that as part of the journey. Between your gorgeous photos and your skill of writing as if we were right there with you, we have been around the world also…..

  4. Welcome back! What an amazing journey…thank you for sharing. The photos are beautiful and the way you express yourself is so inspiring.

  5. I enjoy all your posts. I look at the beautiful pictures and day dream. Maybe in my second life I will have more opportunities. I think most of us dream as we have limited abilities of taking on these adventures due to having family responsibilities and 9 to 5 jobs. I will definitely teach my children to be adventurous and explore life as it has so much to offer.

  6. What a great read…..followed you the entire way. I was actually worried about you for the long delay between the magazine release write-up and the next adventure post. 🙂
    Take care!

  7. Welcome home!! Thanks so much for sharing your adventure and letting me see a little of the other side of this world.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing! Hoping your next post includes your plans for publishing your book!! I will preorder! ?

  9. Such an amazing experience, Jenna Sue ! A beautiful personal journey for you, I hope you will continue to enjoy all that life has to offer at home aswell with more new beginnings. Wishing you all the best. Looking forward to enjoying more of your great blog.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing, beautiful Jenna. I will continue to follow on your next adventures. Isn’t it amazing, how new perspectives change us and yet help us see what is worth keeping too…I hope your next steps are happy ones.

  11. Jenna – I do not have adequate words for how I felt reading your posts and following you on this life changing journey. I cannot wait to see where life leads you next. Thank you (again) for taking us along. And welcome home.

  12. Your blog on the Philippines caught my attention while looking at the AD decorating ideas. I truly enjoyed your post as I am from the Philippines but have been living in the US for 40 years. The way you described your adventure is so accurate. I have been to those places and so grateful that I had the chance to experience them . Palawan is just the most beautiful place on earth and you are right , you get this peace and serenity and such oneness with nature when you are between the sea and sky.

  13. I wish you all the best, Jenna! I’ve been a sporadic reader over the years and can’t wait to follow along on your new adventure.

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