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Filipina Explorer is a travel blog that believes in the power of stories to connect us to the world, shape ideas, and move us to action. Read these stories from the archives.
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About Filipina Explorer
Hi! I'm Gretchen, a travel writer based in the Philippines. I created Filipina Explorer in 2009 to document my journeys through places, parenthood, and word weaving. This blog is a collection of those stories and everything in between.
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5 Tips for Traveling with an Emotional Support Animal

Emotional support animals are wonderful companions for people suffering from severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Though ESAs are not service animals, they do have some legal rights. For example, as long as you have a legitimate ESA letter, your animal can fly with you due to the Aircraft Carrier Access Act.

With this legislation, traveling with an ESA has become an easier process. However, your ESA is still a living, breathing animal with needs and feelings. Though an ESA is meant to provide comfort and security, it is also important to ensure their comfort as they fly.

So, if you’re getting ready to travel with your ESA, here are five tips to make the journey easier for both of you.

1 - Give the Airline Advanced Notice

You and your animal may be covered by the ACAA (with a valid letter), but you still need to give the airline a heads up well in advance. The crew needs to prep your seating area to give space for your animal, although most often they will have to stay in your lap if they’re small enough.

Most airlines have their own requirements as well and discussing these in advance will help you be more prepared.

2 – Bring a Comfortable Leash/Harness

Your ESA will need to be on a leash during your flight, so getting them a comfortable leash and collar - or better yet, a harness - should be a priority. Harnesses put less strain on their necks, but lighter collars and leashes are good, too. The strain shouldn’t be much of a problem if your ESA is well-trained.

Even if you aren’t traveling by plane, having a secure but comfortable harness will be the best for long rides. It’s easier to leave on the harness, even if you’re in your own car. Then you can clip on the leash and be ready to go any time.

3 - Eat, Play, Potty

No matter what method of travel you choose, you should make sure your pet has had the following beforehand:

  • A meal

  • Water

  • Playtime

  • Bathroom visits a couple of hours before you depart

It’s easier when traveling in your own car to stop for breaks, but for flights or train rides, your ESA will be stuck in one place for much longer. It’s almost impossible to give your animal food or water on a plane or train.

Most airports and likely train stations will have relief areas for ESAs and service animals, but it’s still best to try to take care of it before.

4 - Pack the Essentials

You absolutely need your ESA letter above all else, but what about for your animal? You have your leash and harness, but you should also bring a bed or blanket for their comfort. A travel carrier is also not a bad idea, especially for smaller pets. You should also bring clean up supplies, just in case.

5 - Arrive Early

This mainly applies to plane and train travel, but having your ESA usually means you have pre-boarding access. Arrive early so you can take advantage of that. You won’t have to fight through as many people to get to your seat with your animal, which is better for the both of you.


Traveling with your ESA is not too different from traveling with a pet. Your animal will have a few more “freedoms,” like the ability to remain with you in your seat, but it’s still a living creature in your care. Take care of their comfort so you can rest easy during your trip!

Quarantine Conversations: Nika

Trigger warning: Rape/ self-harm/ suicide

I met Nika while she was begging for alms at a local market. As usual, I asked curiously. How old are you? Are you still studying? Have you eaten? Where's your Mama? Like most street kids who are used to being shooed away by passersby, she is thirsty for interaction. I didn't have to ask more to know she's 8, she has 11 siblings including the dead ones, and that she lives with her mom's cousin, who beats her if she comes home with less than P40.

Her older brother, a barangay worker, doesn't like her begging, but she sneaks out anyway to avoid beating.

Her mom doesn't know, though it doesn't seem to matter. She used to beat her up too. "Sabi niya naman po magbabago siya paglipat namin. Mahal po 'ko ni Mama (She said she will change when we move homes. Mama loves me)."

Yet here she is, under the skin-braising noon sun, with not a drop of water in her stomach. Her brother doesn't want a reunion with their mother in Bataan. It was with their mom that her older sister had to sell her baby. It was with her mom that Nika was raped by one of her mom's boyfriends. He killed one of Nika's siblings - his own baby - too.

She didn't even blink or flinch. She spoke matter of factly, in between pauses to ask strangers for alms. There were no tears shed. But you don't really need tears to realize how much poverty, loss, violence, and rape change you forever.

I know children who slice their skin open to bleed the pain dry. Who down pills and hang one foot over a ledge to soothe the wounds. I know adult survivors who remain lost today. Because I have been there too. I am one of the luckier ones who healed.

I've heard similar stories many times over the years. There's a 10-year old boy in Intramuros who cut his arms because he likes "how it feels". There's Justin, a polite 8-year old orphan in Lucena who hopes to save enough for new clothes when he leaves the streets, away from the bigger kids who bully and beat him. I don't have grandiose delusions of being a savior. God knows, when I leave, those kids would have to go back to their shitty lives. But just like us, they are in pain. And it makes a difference that out of a thousand nameless faces, someone stopped to listen. Don't we all want that? To know something, someone is out there. To matter enough to be heard.

Hiking with a kid: Mt. Bagang X Liwliwa - San Marcelino, Zambales

One bustling Friday in January, fueled by a celebratory, hello-2020 mood, we set out for Mt. Pimmayong in San Marcelino, Zambales with a few friends. Upon arrival at Barangay Sta. Fe, however, we encountered some local regulatory challenges and were instead directed by officials to Mt. Bagang - a little-known mountain a few minutes away.

Mt. Bagang in reality, looks more like a lone, triangular hill lost in the midst of lahar. Little is known about its origins, but what we eventually knew was 1) The heat in Zambales is unforgiving at 7 am and 2) The hike to the summit is quite chill and easy, with summit views that prove to be as rewarding as the journey to the mountain's base.

To reach the base, we took a midnight bus to Olongapo, a UV express van, and a trike to the lahar crossing in Sta. Fe. Because there wasn't any kuliglig - a slow-moving, three-wheeled tractor-type vehicle that serves these areas - we asked to hitch a carabao cart ride with some locals en route to the barangay hall in Sta. Fe.

Taking 30 to 40 minutes, the ride passes through ankle to mid-calf-high streams, with mountains and dwarfed structures buried in lahar in sight. Finally, in Barangay Sta. Fe, we negotiated a return trip aboard a bad ass 8-seater jeepney with tires that could take on any rough terrain that 4x4 vehicles can.

View of Mt. Pimmayong while crossing the stream aboard a carabao cart

The "4x4" ride takes you through a rugged expanse of lahar-filled valleys and plains; grazing cows, and a smattering of grass and agoho trees. There are a few local Aeta kids too, whose families consider the surrounding mountain ranges their home.

The trail is nothing spectacular. Banana and local shrubs abound. Sitting on an arid land with little vegetation, one should expect the soil to be dry and loose. Wear shoes with good traction for this.

The summit, however, is a different story. Towering at 302 meters, it overlooks the ashen plains and valleys that remain among Zambales signature features post-1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Glistening like snow against sunlight, ash covers all 360 degrees of the land below. Its extent, with only a monolithic rock punctuating its expanse - proof of Mama Nature's destructive powers - is stunning and overwhelming at once. Nature truly is frightening and beautiful at the same time, and we're but a speck of dust in this wild, wild world.

Our trip culminates in Liwliwa Beach in neighboring San Felipe, where we enjoyed tapsi lunch and later, beer and a sundown swim. For something that wasn't planned, this hike turned out to be one of the best in recent memory. We'd come back in a heartbeat.

Check out our video of the hike on YouTube!

Hike specifications: Mt. Bagang, San Marcelino, Zambales

Difficulty: 2/10 Height: 302 meters (991 feet) Hike duration: 1 to 1.25 hours to summit; 2.5 hours backtrail max
Jumpoff point: Barangay Sta. Fe, San Marcelino, Zambales Features: Banana and local trees and foliage; open grassland and encompassing views of lahar, Mt. Pimmmayong, and Zambales mountain range at the summit. Rattan: None Limatik: None Poison ivy: None

View from the summit

How to get to Mt. Bagang in San Marcelino from Manila

From Pasay, Cubao, or Monumento terminal, board a Victory Liner bus bound to Iba. Alight in front of the San Marcelino City Hall. Alternatively, you can take a bus to Olongapo. From Olongapo, take a UV Express to San Marcelino. From San Marcelino, you can either rent a kuliglig (P1,200 for up to 10 pax) to Barangay Sta. Fe or take a trike to the lahar crossing in Sta. Fe (P100 for 3 pax), then ask locals around to bring you to the barangay hall in Sta. Fe using a carabao cart (Yes, it's a real carabao at the helm. P600 for 5 pax)
From Brgy. Sta. Fe, you will need to take a jeepney to the base of the mountain. The jeepney ride takes around 30 minutes or so. It costs P1,200, good for 8-10 persons. The rental covers the trip to the base and from the base to a tricycle terminal where you hire a trike to take you to the highway where Manila-bound buses are found.

How to get to Liwliwa Beach from Mt. Bagang

Take a bus (both A/C and non-AC buses are available) going to Iba or San Felipe at the San Marcelino tricycle terminal. Fare shouldn't go beyond P50. At San Felipe, take a tricycle to Liwliwa Beach.

At Liwliwa, we had lunch and beer at QUVOH and just parked our bags on the sand. They also have shared bathrooms for showering after swimming.

Fees and expenses

If you plan to do a Mt. Bagang hike, I'd recommend going with at least a friend or more to split the costs. Note that there are no public transport from the lahar crossing in Sta. Fe to the base of the mountain where the hike begins, and it's all lahar all the way there. The only way to reach it with your guide is to rent a local jeepney. Barangay officials can help set you up with a driver. No prior arrangements are necessary.

P250+ - bus from Pasay to San Marcelino/ P500+ RT P100 - trike for 3 to crossing P600 - kariton to Barangay Sta.Fe P1,200 - jeepney ride to and from jumpoff point P300 to P500 - guideship fee for a group of 5 (no fixed rate, it seems)

TOTAL: P2,700 to P2,900, if solo hiker (not including Liwliwa Beach trip)

Looking after others, looking after the future

Thrilled at the idea of boarding a bus or jeep again after four months, I waited patiently at the bus stop during a "faraway" errand run. Though scant, public buses and jeepneys are now allowed on major thoroughfares, passing by every 30 minutes to one hour. I heaved excited breaths in and out of my face mask. As a working class citizen, public commutes are close to my heart, and I longed to feel some sense of normalcy.

I missed reaching places and being taken somewhere other than here. How, between leaving and reaching destinations, you can peer through large glass windows, observe trees and buildings getting smaller. The humming noise of buses and jeepneys as they speed off roads and highways. Telenovelas playing on the bus' TV; the static when the vehicle hits a bump. Hawkers coming in to sell fish crackers, corn, turon, and beans. Having to say “bayad po” to drivers and “makikiabot po ng bayad” to other passengers. That is an experience that is unique to the Philippines.

Bayad po used to be mere everyday language we utter. But before the virus; before the Philippines became this polarized, that language represented a beautiful tradition that used to exist in our culture: bayanihan. We served as a bridge so that others can reach their destination. We were an extension of their lives.

Today, true bayanihan is a dying tradition. All you have to do is go online to see how vile, egotistic, and rage-filled most Filipinos have turned out toward their own kind. We are no longer the same today. Everything is no longer the way it was.


It has been over 30 minutes. The skies have been glum and heavy all afternoon. It was starting to rain again. Waiting passengers, many of whom uniformed and just came off their work shift, went from two to 15. Between me and those passengers, I know well who needs the cheaper bus seats. 

I placed my bags inside a tricycle and looked out into the empty road. Still no buses or jeepneys in sight. I gazed at my kababayan - still waiting, as we all have since the pandemic started in February - and felt a sense of hopelessness. 

To date, we have nearly 53,000 COVID-positive cases in the Philippines. Fifty three fucking thousand. The Department of Health said it can no longer trace the links of current infections to positive cases. That means infections can come from virtually anywhere. Plenty of cases are community transmissions. Amid all this, our government says everything is now up to us, citizens. It seems, they too, have thrown in the towel. There is nothing more to be done and that can be done by them.

Despite our government procuring trillions in COVID-19 debt, we don’t have money as a country, the President says. So it is up to us to create Facebook groups and non-profit initiatives to raise funds in order for our public transport drivers, tour guides, and other suddenly-made-jobless citizens and their families to survive.

As we speak, our beloved jeepney - a cornerstone of Filipino culture, identity, and way of life that has been in existence since World War II - are being phased out by the government. And we don't have enough public transport to ferry employees, so it is up to us to give way to those who need cheaper seats more than we do. It is up to private businesses to provide transportation to their own employees.

It is up to us to still show up to work every day despite the lack of access to basic necessities like public transportation; the lack of direction, and the uncertainties we face in the next years as we struggle to recover any semblance of the life we had and pay off over 8 trillion in national debt.

We don’t have sufficient testing kits and contact tracing measures, and it is up to our discretion to avoid all places and activities that can render us as carriers, even if the government has allowed them to open and encourage everyone to "travel locally". It is up to business owners to conduct contact tracing and testing no matter how small their business are.


I consider myself well-keeled most times. But yesterday on the road -  a road that once symbolized dreams and new possibilities - I knew how it felt like to be a headless chicken among a sea of other headless chickens. I can keep donating to groups, giving up my seat for others, and socially distancing myself and family from others, but for how long will these temporary reliefs substitute for a sound and concrete answer to our country's ailment? 

When my daughter expresses cabin fever-induced sadness, I tell her, “I understand. Patience, anak. We will get there - someday.” Am I being wise when I tell her to be patient amid this clusterfuck? Am I being truthful when I tell her we will get there? When is someday, even?

Answers seem so far and vague when even the highest officials that are responsible for upholding laws and implementing solutions that vastly affect your life and future are not even sure of what to do next - much less seem to care about what will happen next.

We can't merely soothe symptoms. Our collective pains are the result of deeper wounds. Wounds require sound, well-founded treatment, not band-aid solutions. I wish I could keep telling my daughter that if we are patient, if we continue believing, everything will be alright. Sadly, in these times, simply waiting and being patient are no longer sufficient.

In the last couple of days, I've made the conscious decision to be more open on my social media pages about the Philippines' current state of fairs. To utilize my "brand" platforms to talk about the inefficiencies of our country's political and healthcare system, and hopefully, encourage in-depth discussions. I am breaking rule #1 of social media marketing: Don't talk about religion and politics on your Facebook and business pages.

But COVID-19 isn't about politics.

It's not about religion.

It's not about self-service.

It is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis. Addressing the roadblocks to COVID-19 solutions is about protecting this world's future. It is simply abhorrent that there are some people who are using the crisis to further political and self-serving agenda.

If in my decision to be more vocal and forward about things that matter to me as a Filipino, I get to people's ire and lose their engagement, I will accept it. I know how it's like to go online and be overwhelmed with opinions and unwillingly informed of other people's rage. I understand that people need to protect their juju. That they need and want to invest their time on family and self-care. I understand all those, and it's okay.

But I will not be a bystander. I refuse to believe this is how it all ends up. That this is how we are defeated.


In her poem, What to Tell the Children, Rachel Kann wrote:

Tell them they are not free

While another suffers under enslavement.

Teach them that we are all limbs on one body
And we cannot chop off our own arm without deep suffering.

As a mother, as a human being, I have always tried to live by the same credo. It matters to me that I can write, and write with purpose. That our words, no matter how small, can serve as a voice of a collective. It matters that I can use words to look after others.

It's important to remember that however different we are, we are all interconnected. We exist because others do. We are not just where we are because of what we do and what we did. We are also here because those before us made sure that we had a promising future to reap in the first place. Looking after others is looking after our future. Looking after the future is, ultimately, looking after our children. And in the end, don't we all just want the same thing? 

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