An Unexpected Invitation [Philippines #2]

Episode 2. Bohol.

Our ferry leaves at 8:15 a.m. Destination: Tagbilaran on the neighboring island Bohol. There’s not much to do on the boat except watch some pirated Chinese movie (with Chinese subtitles) or sleep, which I desperately need. Jetlag has kept me awake for most of last night.
When we step off the boat two hours later, we’re greeted by a hoard of taxi drivers offering their services: “Where you going? Come with me, I give you best price!” We choose Martin who doesn’t speak much English except “Chocolate Hills” – the famous attraction on this island. Once we hit the road, we communicate with hands and feet that we’d like to make two more stops and miraculously, we end up at the right places.

Our first stop is a national sanctuary for Tarpiers, small primates which look a little like monkeys. We carefully walk through the tropical forest of banana palms to spot the tiny animals. “Do you see any?” – “Yes, look out for their huge eyes.” The bodies are incredibly small in proportion to their eyes. Interesting creatures.

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We get back into the car and shortly after, we stop at what would be a real challenge for me. Across the Luboc River are two bridges made of banana leaves and a little bit of iron reinforcement. The only way across the river is across these bridges.

My knees begin to shake a little and I get nervous.
I’m afraid of heights, especially if there’s only water below me and very shaky ground underneath my feet.
Nevertheless, I step onto the bridge and slowly make it across the river. And I’m glad I did because the view and the sense of accomplishment are worth it.

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For lunch we find a local shop that displays pots filled with meat and cooked vegetables. And rice, there’s always rice. Filipino food mostly consists of meat and isn’t really spicy, but I must admit I really lusted for some fresh vegetables after a while.

When we walk past a stand with baked banana, I just can’t resist. As the soft consistency and sweet taste fill my mouth I am suddenly taken back to long bus rides from Uganda to Tanzania or Rwanda, where we visited friends a long time ago.
Five white people alone somewhere in the jungle.
Dozens of people shouting, “Mzungu, Mzungu (white person)” – oh, sweet sweet memories.

After lunch we walk around the streets and find the public market, a crowded place in the middle of town. Stalls offer everything – from fresh fruits to smelly fish to clothes to toys – and we buy some coconut juice. The lady picks two large nuts and slices the top part off, plucks a straw through the soft skin and hands it to us. Fresh juice, you just can’t get it any better than that.

We walk into one of the side streets and suddenly, the scene changes.
Colorful stalls become damp, dark shops.
Brick market buildings are replaced by rusty, instable shacks.
People sit in front of their tiny houses in dirty, torn clothes, kids are running around, often naked.
Wives cheer for their husbands as they play a board game and their wide-open mouths reveal several missing teeth.

As we walk through this chaos, people look up and stare at us. All of a sudden, I feel very uncomfortable in my own skin. Not because of them – because of me. I feel like I’m intruding into their streets, their lives, their world. My mere outer appearance doesn’t fit and I can do nothing to change that. No matter how hard I try to be different, I’ll never be the same. I don’t belong here and that is a rather strange experience. We turn around and make our way back to the main road.

 

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Tricycles – the cheapest way to get around locally in the Filipino. Definitely a ride to remember!

On we go with our taxis to our final destination, Carmen. The roads are winding up and down the hill, but Martin still takes them at 120km/h. Whenever a tricycle or pedestrian seems to slow him down, he honks and they hurry to get out of his way. This is the Filipino way of driving: drive fast or make way. I’m surprised that I’m not carsick yet, but I find myself reaching for the door handle a few times.

 

When we arrive in Carmen, Martin is surprised to hear that we’re not staying at the pricy hotel direct next to the Chocolate Hills and it takes him a while to find the Bed&Breakfast tucked away in a rubble street. “You must be Katharina”, a woman greets me at the door.

This warm welcome is the beginning of a unique Filipino experience.

For the last four years, Grace has been running the B&B together with her Canadian husband Steve, who had just returned from a work assignment in Saudi-Arabia the night of our arrival. In his honor, the family – who all live on the property – prepare a feast for him and invite us along. Together with an elderly American missionary couple we get to taste Lechon – fire roasted piglet stuffed with vegetables. Interestingly, it is the same piglet we had seen running around early that afternoon…

Sharing a meal with our hosts is very special. We aren’t just guests in their home – we are invited to their table and share a bit of their lives. So we sit together, taste Filipino rum and ask questions about each other’s lives. They tell us how much Filipinos love Karaoke, they sing along whenever they know (or don’t know) a song on the radio. Their favorites are – of course – soft pop ballads.

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The next morning we get up at 5 a.m. and ask a tricycle driver to take us to the Chocolate Hills. Tricycles are another great Filipino invention: buy a motorcycle and attach an iron cabin to it. It’s not really fast, but the easiest and cheapest way to get around locally. With three passengers, the tricycle driver struggles quite a bit to get us all the way up there, but we make it and are rewarded with a spectacular view: more than one hundred hills lie in front of us, their tops still hidden in the fog slowly rising up from the ground. A legend says the hills resemble giant tears shed for a lost love and they received their name from looking chocolate-brown during dry season. There’s no one on the platform except the three of us and we just take in the peaceful atmosphere of the morning. And finally, for once, the temperature is somewhat comfortable.

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After a good breakfast at Grace&Steve’s, we say goodbye and head back to the ferry. In just two days we have seen and learned a lot. The only regret we have is that we couldn’t stay longer to experience more of Filipino hospitality.


This is part 2 of the series. Read more stories here, there or over here.

Four Short Flights and a Whole New World Later [Philippines #1]

My blog has the ambiguous subtitle: thoughts of a traveling mind.
My mind often wanders off into strange thoughts and dreams or just ideas about the world. Some of these ideas you can read on this blog.
But sometimes I actually get to travel, and there is so much new input that I can’t make sense of it just yet. So I write. And sometimes, on some days, I allow others to read along.
Today is one of those days.


Four flights, twenty hours on nine different buses and two boat rides in fourteen days.
A sensual overload in smell, taste and emotions.
A lot of pictures and the inability to put into words what I have seen – these were the Philippines.

After three days, I sit down with my notebook and a pen.
I have to, I just have to write. I need to process all of this somehow.

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These shoes have gone through mud and rain.
They have taken me to foreign terrain and new experiences.
They invite you to come along.
So tie your laces and let’s begin, shall we?


Episode 1. Cebu.

Busy.
I guess that’s the word you’d most likely use to describe Cebu City.
We land around four in the afternoon and get a cab into the city. The streets are crowded with many vans and Jeepneys – remnants of US colonial history now used as taxis, which can take about 15 passengers. They stop whenever you tell them to, so traffic is a constant stop and go. In between there are hundreds of motorbikes, the preferred method of transport for the Filipinos. Technically, there are lanes, but everyone just goes back and forth wherever traffic seems to be moving along. The outside temperature is around 35°C with 70% humidity and I’m glad our cab has got air conditioning.

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The colorful and honking Jeepneys are omnipresent in Filipino cities

After we have reached our hotel in uptown, we explore the streets to find some dinner and end up at a really nice restaurant with a garden terrace. To the background music of soft pop ballads we order green mango juice and seafood – the perfect start to an extraordinary vacation. With seven hours of time difference, jetlag hits us quickly and we drift off into sleep very soon.

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first meal: mussles and green mango juice

The next day we walk downtown to explore historical Cebu. The Philippines have been a Spanish, then an American colony and you can see traces of both if you take the time to find them. This proves to be more difficult than expected and a casual stroll through the city center resembles more a fight against masses of people on the streets, crazy traffic and a thick cloud of smog.

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Electricity in the Philippines – overground and very (ahem) orderly…

The constant honking and the yells of people, combined with an excruciating heat, are nearly unbearable. I can feel sweat running from every pore of my body and my nose picks up the smell of burning trash and urine. We walk by men sitting in front of their shops, gawking at us who don’t fit in here at all. Past naked children playing in the dirt with toys made from trash. I had heard of the country’s poverty – now I see it and it breaks my heart.

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Provisional huts made of iron sheets, the rivers become dumpsters, the streets living rooms for the poor
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Due to the bad, or rather non-existant, sewage system, you’re not allowed to throw anything down the toilet.

In the midst of traffic and crowds of people we find the Cathedral St. Nino and head inside. The Filipinos are mostly Catholic and you can find golden ornaments and figurines of saints everywhere. Since they have fans, we sit down and watch the service taking place at the moment.

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People kneel or stand.
They kiss the Jesus figurine.
They seem very devoted.
God is all around the globe, in all his different facets.

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When we move on, we cross the Plaza Independencia and reach Fort de San Pedro, a former military base right at the waterfront. Its old stonewalls tell the stories of Portuguese conquest, Filipino tribal chiefs, friendship and war, strength and defeat. As we walk along one of the balconies, I feel a raindrop on my cheek.
This drop quickly turns into a midday downpour. This is quite typical in tropical countries during rain season and it’s a welcome relief for us sweaty and exhausted travelers. We sit down on a bench and watch the skies open, pouring down heavy, warm rain drops.

For about an hour, the noise of the city is drowned in the sounds of nature.
We pause, we slow down, we reflect.

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At night we stop at a supermarket to buy bottled water and some soap. From the loudspeakers they play an entire One Direction album. Soft pop really seems to be THE choice of music here. When I ask a Filipino later why that is he tells me, “We are just emotional and sentimental people.” Maybe we shouldn’t tell them then that the band doesn’t exist anymore…


This is part 1 of the series. Stay tuned for more stories! 

What We Miss in the Rush of Life

You might have noticed that it’s been awfully quiet around here for a few weeks.
The reason is that I have been traveling for the last five weeks.

One week of a TCK conference.
Oh, it was so comforting to talk to new and old friends and ponder the deep questions in life.

One week in Brno/ Czech Republic with the school choir.
It was really interesting engaging with my students and colleagues outside of the classroom.

Two weeks in the Philippines.
No work, just rest. Sleep, beach, crystal clear water, friendly people, culture shock. This break was so desperately needed and I have seen some of the most breathtaking places on earth.

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One week in Wales with a student exchange.
The girls were very open and easy to handle, so my colleague and I could also enjoy ourselves and get to know each other a little better.

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Five weeks of travel.
Five weeks of meeting inspiring people, admiring creation’s beauty, sharing deep connections, making new friends.
Five weeks of blessings.

This sounds great, right?
Well, yes.

But while I still smile at the memory of a conversation or a funny experience, I realize that I’m not grateful.

I can’t be.
Not yet.

The new inputs have been too many in the last few weeks, my mind and soul are too over stimulated to feel much of anything.
After every trip I got home and unpacked my suitcase. I did a load of laundry. I repacked the suitcase for the next trip. I didn’t even bother going shopping, so I just stare into an empty fridge or just buy take-out.

In the midst of all this, I have no time to unpack my heart.
To let memories flash past my inner eye and marvel at what I saw, heard, felt.
All I want is to sit by the window for a bit and daydream of  what I experienced.
To write, to reflect, to process.

Can you relate?

Life dictates us around so often – faster, faster.
But the more I travel, the more I realize – slower, slower.
Only when we stop for a moment, we discover the richness of our experiences, the depth of connection, the value of home.
Only then will we be truly grateful for all these blessings and how they will shape us.

P.S.: I hope to find some time to write and share about my time in the Philippines very soon!


Writing for Five Minute Friday today.

Inside the Mess

On Wednesday I had visitors come over who wanted to stay the night.
I was looking forward to their visit, but I was also a little nervous.
My schedule was completely packed because I had been in and out of the city for the most part of the last two weeks. There were clothes lying around on the floor, unpacked bags on the chairs, piles of paper on the table. A fine layer of dust covered the surfaces. My apartment was a mess.
How could I invite people into this place?
So I started cleaning on Tuesday night, frantically getting rid of the chaos and presenting the best version of me and my place.

Why do I do this?
Why do I care so much about what others think?
Why do we polish our lives online and offline?

Sometimes I wonder if we do similar things with God.
If our lives were like an apartment, we would only show him the living room where everything is neat and tidy.
We would clean up and present the best version of ourselves.
We would keep him away from the dusty corners and the dark sub-basement.

The visit was great and it was really nice to meet all these new people.
For those who know me a little also know that I love hosting people.
But the next morning I woke up with the worst headache.
Suddenly I felt really uncomfortable.
Me, the hostess, couldn’t host anymore.
I had to drop my facade and allow others to see inside my mess. They looked into cupboards and drawers, they moved around in my house.
They saw a little bit more of me.

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And somehow they didn’t seem to mind at all.
What if we stopped worrying for a second and decide to let go?
What if the moments of seemingly “losing it” lead to greater depth and connection?
What if God wanted to see it all?
What if he was more interested in our darkness than  our superficial perpection?
What if this mess actually leads to true healing?


Writing for Five Minute Friday today.

Everyday Heroes

Three years ago, my mom and I started a tradition.
One weekend per year, we do a ladies’ getaway. Two days of hiking, relaxing, stuffing ourselves with delicious food and talking through the night.

My mom is no longer the woman who cooks my food or does everything for me, she is a friend I can talk and laugh with.
She is a great cheerleader who texts early in the morning to wish you a nice day.
She somehow manages to stay up to date with all of our crazy lives.
She advises or just listens.
She encourages to take a risk and say No sometimes.

On Sunday, we celebrate Mother’s Day here in Germany.
When I went to the post office in Wednesday to mail something for my mom, the guy behind the counter freaked: “Oh, is it this Sunday? Thanks for the reminder, I need to get something then!”

I can relate. But it also made me think.
Moms invest their entire lives, love and soul – so why do we only give them one day a year to truly appreciate them?

I am not a mom and I don’t know if I’ll ever be.
But luckily I’m surrounded by friends who are great moms.
They model the depths and challenges, but they also allow me to partake in the love and joy children being to your life.
They are the everyday heroes.

Motherhood comes in different forms and shapes.
So what makes a woman a mother?

My friend Sophie, a brilliant mother herself, explores this question in her new photography series define: mother.
Read touching stories and intimate images on her blog.
The cover image is from her beautiful series as well.


Writing for Five Minute Friday today.

Shut Up, Narrative!

You should do more exercise.
You should finish that project at work like…yesterday.
You should make more time for your friends.
You should go to bed earlier.
You should read the Bible more.

Should, must, have to.
Isn’t that the narrative constantly playing in our minds?
It pushes us to impossible heights sometimes, but mostly it drives us crazy.
It eats us away.
It kills the life we are supposed to live.

So let’s stop for a moment and dig a little deeper.
Why should we do all these things? And why do we give in to the “shoulds” so often?
Because we think we need more money.
Because we think the world will stop turning the moment we lay our hands down.
Because we think that we can rest later.
Because we think that we are what we do.
Because we think that God expects a special routine.

We think and think, and slowly by slowly these thoughts become beliefs.
Beliefs about ourselves, God and the world.

If we give ourselves permission and rest for a while, we might hear a different narrative, softly whispered into our hearts.

Hey, I’m so glad you’re here.
Why don’t you sit down and relax?
The world will continue turning, I got this in my hands. Literally.
You won’t be able to just drop everything, but you are free to choose.
Do the things that are beneficial to you. In body, mind and spirit.
Or do nothing at all sometimes because you are who you are.
And that’s enough.


Writing for Five Minute Friday today.

More, Please!

I did not expect this.
After keeping it a secret for a few weeks I finally spilled the beans on Wednesday: I signed a book contract! (Insane, right? Here’s the full story.)
The entire day my phone went crazy with feedback. Some long lost friends sent me messages, people liked and shared the news, others left the most thoughtful and touching comments.

I did hope for some sort of feedback, but I never imagined… this. So much love, support, interest, excitement… I can only say THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

Reading all these lovely messages totally made my day, I felt like I was flying. My insides were all excited and I couldn’t help but walk around with a big smile all day.
Encouragement is like water for a withered flower, like a breath of fresh air, like a firm rock you can stand on as you continue your journey.

So why don’t we give it more often?
More laughter.
More kindness.
More time.
More encouragement.

It doesn’t take much to encourage others.
We don’t have to wait for something extraordinary to come along to encourage someone.
A smile, an uplifting comment or a hug can make a difference already.
A sign that says, “I’m glad you’re here. You don’t have to do anything, just be. That’s enough.”


Writing for Five Minute Friday today.