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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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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. (Photo by Martin San Diego)
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Letter #19: I was not really okay

Hello, Lia.

We promised each other we would always tell the truth, so I thought I’d share with you something I’ve kept for months from everyone but four people in the world: I was not really okay all this time.

I laughed and I was highly functional, but the bearings have been far from aligned for quite some time. My mind is fatigued, my heart gaping. I have this nasty, dull feeling that's been scraping away the joy and light inside me. It’s called “the ugly side effect of attempting to achieve long-lasting stability”.

Stability thrives on monotony and consistency. It’s boring, drab, and dominated by tedious work – at least at the onset. And for the longest time, I purposely refrained from taking on any endeavor that required such rigorous structure and restriction in freedom or movement. You see, I don't do well in that kind of environment.

I have not had the time to deal with and process this feeling properly. By the end of 2019, while everyone was cozy at home or elsewhere - reminiscing the year, curating their best trips, and gathering thoughts for a final year-end essay - I was in front of my laptop, madly working like I have every day for the past four months.

And last Christmas? Same. While you were at your lolo and lola’s, I worked until 4 am on the 26th. Between Christmas and New Year, I would wake up at ungodly hours to cater to urgent requests, sometimes finishing and going to bed at 7 am. Work ranged from 18 to 21 hours daily – weekends included. In my eagerness to prevent the prospect of losing all work again – as what happened in the first half of 2019 – and secure a more promising life for you, I accepted more work than I can handle. I never said no or set boundaries. 

I set a goal for December. I called it #RoadToSixFigures. And we did it, Lia. We made it happen. Yet often I found myself asking, “At what expense?”

It’s been so long since I've had straight days of sleeping a good five hours that each one was basically the same: a ghost. Days arrived and fleeted unnoticed. I wake up not knowing what day it is – or the point of waking up anymore. Deadlines occupy about 90 percent of my day. I haven’t done any form of creative writing for quite some time that our blog, our home online, may even be considered dead now. Travel, along with good rest and conversations with others, became few and far in between. 

Sleep became an unattainable obsession. I know it sounds silly to be this dramatic about sleep, but you gotta believe it: Happiness is also directly proportional to quality sleep.

Like clockwork, flu or cough and colds pester me every two weeks. I am often anxious and prone to self-doubt. Whenever I receive a Facebook message or an SMS, my chest would pound. My first thought would always be, “What did I f*ck up again? How many hours of sleep will I have to finish it?” There have been quite a number of times I was close to breaking down. The last time I was this constantly agitated and stressed was when I worked in a call center. That was in 2006.

I pictured stability to be quite different from what we have now. Now I am too occupied with work to feel and experience things. Worse, I am too occupied to have time for you. There have been a couple of times – and I am not proud of this – that I served you dinner at 10 pm, so I can appease clients. Once you told me, “Sana di ka na lang naging editor. Kasi dati naglalaro at nagwa-walk tayo ‘ pag hapon. Ngayon palagi ka na lang busy.” It left a f*cking gash because I do all this hustling for you and your future, and you end up being a casualty.

As it is, it seems what I do is not enough. I am not enough. I don’t mean just work. I mean all relationships and friendships that I tried to fit in my life, loving with all my best intentions, only to have the loving and my intentions backfire.


After months of being cooped up at home, you asked me to pinkie swear that we'll spend time off before school resumes. So, yesterday we hiked a couple of spots in DRT and San Miguel, then waited until sundown in your favorite river. As we watched the current create beautiful, tiny waves and the yellows dimmed to violets, the bearings were silently realigning themselves. My heart was still and at peace. To be in the water and in the mountains with you is to be alive once again.

A lot of times, mothers are given all the credit for their hard work. What is oft-unseen are the little people inspiring and pushing them to create the best work possible. If you’ve got a kid, you have an army. I am grateful to have an army like you, Lia. 

Being your usual appreciative self, on the bus home you said, “Mama, thank you for all that you do for me.”  

"Welcome," I replied. In retrospect, I should be the one thanking you. Despite all that I lack and all of my motherly inadequacies, you forgive and love me all the same. You inspire me to create and pursue everything with my breath, spirit, and thoughts.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible”. Although my ambition has taken me far from being the best version of myself, it led me to knowing the extent of what I can do for love. I don’t regret the sleeplessness nights, tears, anxiety, and excessive labor because I tread them in the service of dreams and motherhood. In the service of you.

Thank you for reminding me that it's a privilege to be responsible for another human being and that to do a better job at it, one has to take care of herself too. Thank you for being the ledge that stands between me and giving up. Thank you for being the machinery that keeps all bearings running and aligned.

I hope and will try to become a more balanced mother this year, so I can show you - as you’ve shown me - that the sun is not some lofty celestial body we reach for, but one that shines beside us in our darkest days.

With all my love this year and all years moving forward,

Getting Cultural in Yogyakarta

Words and images by Nikki Ferriols

On planning a visit to Indonesia, the first destination that comes to mind is always Bali. Its beaches and coastal town vibe mixed with the island's distinct history has attracted tourists around the globe for decades. But Bali is just one in Indonesia's 17,000+ islands. Dig a little deeper into the country's attractions and you might just surprise yourself.

One city that seems to be creeping up the radar among visitors is the city of Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta, sometimes referred to as Jogja (also, how it is pronounced), is the last monarch-ruled city in Indonesia. It is located on the island of Java and is accessible via flights from either Jakarta or Bali. Dubbed as the cultural hub of Java, the city is a blend of  youthful modern energy that brings traditional culture to the forefront. 

Sometimes deemed as a gateway to other sites around the Javanese island, the city itself has much to offer. Take a trip back in time and visit historical monuments and delve deeper into their culture by participating in decades old activities. 

Taman Sari

Learn more about Indonesian monarchy by making your way to Taman Sari Water Castle. A short distance from the Kraton or Royal Palace, the monument functioned as a defense fortress, religious site, and resting place when it was first built in the 17th century. Today, some of the castle's buildings have either been demolished or used as housing by locals, but some remain in tact and stand as monuments of Indonesia's royal history. Around and inside the compound, a town called Cyber Village can be explored. Known for their colorfully painted houses, the town is an Instagram hit where you just have to snap a photo or two.

A walk through the pools, village, and down a staircase will lead you to Sumur Gumuling, mosque used for Muslim cleansing rituals years ago. Its architecture is composed of five staircases to symbolize the five pilars of Islam: profession of faith, praying fives time a day daily, alms giving, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Taman Sari Water Castle, Wisata Taman Sari Jalan Tamanan, Patehan, Kecamatan Kraton, Kota Yogyakarta, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55133, Indonesia


Connect with your spirituality by visiting Borobudur Temple.  Built in the 9th century, the monument is considered the largest Buddhist temple in the world, consisting of nine stacked platforms and topped by a central dome.  The structure is decorated with 504 Buddha statues and 2,672 bas relief panels that depict the teachings of Buddhism. Across the storeys of Borobudur are 72 stupas and one mother stupa at the very top. Its role in history and Buddhism is widely revered, considered as a shrine to learn more about the religion and a place of pilgrimage.

Situated right outside of Yogyakarta in the town of Magelang, Borobudur Temple can be reached either by bus or car. It only  takes around 1-2 hours to get there. If you’d much rather spend more time in town, there are a few hotels and homestays around the area. 

For a more enlightening experience, book a sunrise or sunset tour. Climb the 100 steps to the top and take in the view of the mountains as the sky's colors gradually change. Before heading back down, don't forget to circle the mother stupa clockwise three times. In Buddhist belief, if you do this, your wishes will be granted.

Borobudur Temple Compound, Jl. Badrawati, Kw. Candi Borobudur, Borobudur, Kec. Borobudur, Magelang, Jawa Tengah, Indonesia

Batik Making

The Javanese  batik is a decorated piece of cloth made using the processes of waxing and dying and is revered as a national treasure in Indonesia. There are three types of batik, differentiated by the process in which they are made: printing, stamping, and handwritten. The handwritten batik is regarded as the most meticulous, time consuming, and expensive of all.

After a design is placed on the fabric, melted wax is drawn over the design. Once dry, a batik undergoes several stages of dying and/or painting until it becomes a colorful piece of work. These steps may be repeated several times and, depending on the design, can even take months to finish.

Visit Batik Plentong to see firsthand how this artwork is made. Once you've learned the basics, try your hand at making your own handwritten batik piece to bring back home.

Batik Plentong, Tirtodipuran St No.48, Mantrijeron, Yogyakarta City, Special Region of Yogyakarta 55143, Indonesia

Silversmithing Workshop

Years ago, the town of Kotagede established itself as the home of Yogyakarta's silversmiths. Until today, the neighborhood is speckled with silver craft stores. Take time to visit at least one to learn more about their products.

At HS Silver, one can get a firsthand experience as to how their silver pieces are made. Take a quick tour around their workshop, meet the silversmiths, and witness how their most famous product, filigree jewellery, is crafted. In this method, wire is bent and coiled to produce elaborately designed artworks that are nothing short of elegant. 

After the tour, participate in a workshop and you can get to take home your very own filigree piece. It might take a while to complete, but it will all be worth it.

HS Silver, Jl. Mondorakan No.1, Prenggan, Kec. Kotagede, Kota Yogyakarta, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55172, Indonesia

Unwind at an Angkringan

As the sun sets, you'll notice mats being set up outside stalls along the sidewalks. These are roadside establishments known as angkringans, ready to welcome customers.  An angkringan is essentially a cart or stall that sells food and drinks and exchanges tables and chairs for mats.

Munch on satay (grilled meat) aplenty and wash it all down with a plethora of Indonesian beverages. Don't miss a chance to drink Kopi Joss, a Jogja classic of black coffee dunked with a burning piece of coal. Watch the coffee sizzle and listen to that 'ssss' sound, which is said to be the onomatopoeia that gave the drink's name. The coal adds a dark, smokey taste and is believed by locals to neutralize the coffee's acidity. Angkringans are found all over Yogyakarta and is enjoyed by everyone in the city. So kick back, relax, and do as the locals do.

Shop at Malioboro

Before heading home, don't forget to pass by Malioboro Street so you can bring home pieces of Yogyakarta with you. The major shopping street of the city, the area is populated with stalls that sell batik, clothing, leather goods, food, and many more. If you kmp

9 Awesome Things to Do in Coron

Image by jahcordova 

Most Filipinos and tourists light up at the mention of Coron. After all, this limestone-studded island is the most beautiful place in the Philippines, and boasts of seven lakes. It is home to some of the loveliest white sand beaches in the world with clear blue waters. 

You are making a big mistake if you still haven’t placed Coron in your bucket list. It looks like a smaller and quieter version of El Nido. This sleepy fishing town is fast becoming a tourist magnet, and most travelers prefer to book Jetstar air tickets for their flights to Coron.

Coron and its natural wonders simply defy logic and force you to question if you are truly in paradise or if it;s a dream. Get ready for nonstop adventures that take you to hidden lagoons, underwater mountains, and otherworldly reefs! So, go ahead and book cheapest flights to Coron and plan a wonderful trip to paradise.

Here are some to the top things to do and enjoy while in Coron.
  • Admire sunset at Lualhati Park. Make your way to Lualhati Park for an amazing sunset experience.  Do not miss this chance as it is indeed one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have in Coron. Do not forget to bring your camera!
  • Enjoy Coron Bay. Coron Bay is made of a breathtaking mix of tall limestone cliffs. It boasts multiple shipwrecks and natural reefs. This is what makes it a perfect spot for divers and snorkelers. Just locate the best spots for diving and swimming to enjoy the bay.
  • Visit Kingfisher Park for natural life. Get ready to investigate tons of natural life, and countless species of birds in the mangroves of Kingfisher. The flora and fauna species found here are endemic to Palawan, which means you can only see them here. Take a local tour guide with you to get a closer look at the wildlife.
  • Explore Twin Lagoon. Do not miss the opportunity to see Twin Lagoon during your island hopping tours. You are sure to get blown away by the towering cliffs surroundingyou  and the abundance of fish below. You can swim in the two lagoons during low tide.
  • Dive in Barracuda Lake. Get a chance to see mysterious underwater rock formations by diving in the famous Barracuda Lake. This is indeed an incredible dive spot where you can dive deep down to see those underwater rocks.
  • Soak in Maquinit Hotspring. Maquinit Hotspring is one of the few saltwater hot springs in the world. Sitting in those natural hot waters amid a mangrove forest is a soothing experience. As the pools produce therapeutic waters, the experience leaves you feeling relaxed.
  • Wreck diving in Sangat and Lusong. Wreck diving destinations are very popular in Palawan. In Sangat and Lusong Islands, you can spot submarine chasers and a number of ships and gunboats that sank during World War II. As those ships are well-scattered, you get a different experience every time you dive in a different spot.
  • Experience Coral Garden. Dive in Coral Garden at depths of 40 meters or more.What Coral Garden offers you is a crystal-clear dive and the chance to see the protected reefs. It is home to rich biodiversity. Note that this activity is meant only for the experienced divers, but for non-divers, you can snorkel and still have a good glimpse of the corals.
  • Stay in Sanctuaria Treehouse – If you want a unique experience in Coron, why not stay in a treehouse? Well, all you need to do is head towards the Sanctuaria Treehouse and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Enjoy the sweeping view over the mangroves, and spend some laid-back time in your treehouse.

Sexual abuse destroyed me. Motherhood saved me.

As a child, I was shy but did well in school. I played and hung out with friends regularly. On the outside, I was pretty much your average kid. But what many people didn't know - and don't know until now - was I was raped when I was five and molested by different men on separate occasions: between the ages of 4 and 8, twice as a teen, and once as an adult. Eleven out of the 13 perpetrators were people I know and trusted. These happened in places deemed safe and non-threatening. 

I subconsciously compartmentalized these memories. They festered inside me. The effects of sexual abuse did not manifest until I was around 15. I never even remembered anything about the rape until one night in bed, when I was 17, the details suddenly surfaced. They were sharp, vibrant, and stinging.

I lied awake for hours - confused, crushed, and crying helplessly. 

I didn't tell anyone until I was already 22. I lived day in and day out carrying shame, guilt, and a misplaced burden of responsibility. When I was 7, someone caught a man grabbing my vagina and commented, "Siguro gusto mo kaya di ka sumigaw (Maybe you liked it that's why you didn't scream)." I thought maybe if I called for help, pleaded, or resisted enough in any other occasion, I would not have been sexually assaulted. I had a hand in my own circumstance. 

It was a lonely path to tread. I learned that it hurt to smile. Every time I went home from school - and later on, work - I locked the door behind me and didn't look back.

In an attempt to gain control of my life, I dove into a sea of destructive habits: binge drinking, eating disorders, underperforming in school. I began inflicting harm to myself using any object I could get my hands on: rulers, blades, shards of glass, pens. To let the pain bleed.  Initially, it did. The sight of crimson blood on my skin rendered instant relief and adrenaline. "Now the pain is symmetrical inside and out," read one of my journal entries. 

But the following day or two, the pain would swim right back into my bed. So I hurt myself some more until I had to wear jackets and pants at home in the sweltering summer heat to hide the wounds on my arms and legs.

During the semester I was about to graduate from college, I found out I flunked two major subjects. That meant I wasn't going to graduate.  My family expected me to be a doctor. I was supposed to take care of them after pre-med. 

I wanted to move on, but I was tired taking on what seemed like a pointless fight. I had a world purposely built for me, and now that world is no longer possible.

The last thing I wanted was to disappoint or hurt anyone. They deserve better lives without a fuckup like me. I texted a friend, saying, "Please tell him I love him, but I can't do this anymore. I'm so sorry."

I swigged a bottle of beer, along with a handful of pills: six paracetamol, two anti-anxiety medications, a sleeping pill, and others that I no longer remember. At six in the evening, I passed out in my bedroom. 

Sunlight seeped through window cracks. I squinted, lightheaded and dazed. Was I in a dream? Am I finally home? 

I turned and saw an empty beer bottle. Pills and cigarette ashes on the floor. A chipped cherub figurine. Tens of unread messages and missed calls. It's been 12 hours and apparently, I am still alive. 

I shivered with anger. All I wanted was to find peace. Instead, the Universe threw me back into chaos. I violently chucked books in the air and gave the heavens the dirty finger. "Why do you have to keep me alive? You are a sick sadist."

My phone rang. On the other end of the line was a familiar voice. "Napakababaw ng dahilan mo para magpakamatay. Para hindi ka lang naman ga-graduate (Your reason for attempting suicide is so shallow. You're not graduating, that's all)," it said. 

Maybe it seems silly and irrational to take one's life for things that can still be rectified. But it was the only rational way for me to find comfort. It was not just one thing that drove me to the edge. It's a series of small burdens, with school problems as the tipping point. Back then, I wasn't aware that everything - the band-aid solutions, the misery, the rebellion - pointed back to sexual violation. That to take back my life, I have to address the root cause. 

Every over-the-counter medication and tool I used for self-harm were confiscated. "You will live."

So lived I did, day after day until they turned into years. I nursed wounds, ill-equipped for the battle - without medications, a shrink, an ear. I got married and became more preoccupied with work and house duties. Yet, some days remained terrible that I wanted to sleep through them and never wake up. No kind of relationship could fix me. Maybe you can be happy, but not really. Maybe happiness is a fish, and it's like a lottery on who gets to bait the fattest one. Maybe everyone's fish is supposed to be mediocre. 

I was on a plateau until I gave birth to my daughter at 28.

As I watched her grow, the darkness dissipated inch by inch. I didn't understand how or when or why, but the world became sunny again. I started looking forward to waking up. I can breathe easy. Everything felt lighter. Whenever I walk roads, it is no longer aimless and hazy because she is walking beside me. I can charge into the world with might and courage.

Suddenly, taking care of someone did not feel like a conundrum. It is a joy. A privilege. A purpose. A legacy. To know something so pristine can be birthed by a soul that's been tainted black; that my time with her is fleeting made me appreciate mortality.

With her, I found a reason to live. Not just survive, but truly live with hope, love, freedom, and trust in humanity - things that were so elusive before. And all it takes is a smile, a hug; a tiny voice uttering, "Mama", "I love you", and "You are the best gift God gave to me". 

My daughter and I have bad days when money is so tight that we share a couple of fried eggs or instant noodles for a meal. There are rare occasions when I don't want to talk to people for days to a week. But I go through them knowing I will still come out alive and stronger not because as a mother I need to, but because I want to. Because I now possess the certainty that after those brooding days, I have her to come back to and a life whose every second is worth living.  

Some find redemption in career success, friendships, intimate relationships, or religion. I found mine in the purest and most unconditional love. It turns out that sometimes, it's the children who save their parents, not the other way around. When I look back at the morning I questioned why I had to be kept alive, I am relieved that I now know the answer. And I am eternally grateful for this second shot at life. There are parents who, despite their great love for their kids, succumb to mental illness - sometimes with grim outcomes.

I want to tell you that if you suffered or are suffering from abuse, depression, or both, you have the right to be happy. But more than anything, you have the right to forgive yourself. You should not account for a fault that is not yours. Your abuser does not deserve to steal one more second of your life. They have stolen enough. They have scarred you, but your scars do not define you. 

Know that it will be a long, dark, and seemingly endless road. But if you fight and hang on a little more, even though it won't be easy, it will get easier. Things will not turn out to be the best, but they will be better. I hope you find your light and hold on to it, no matter how faint its rays are. You deserve to see that the world isn't as fucked up as we think it is. As I can attest, happiness and redemption are possible at the end of that road, if only we hold on just one more day.

All photos taken by Martin San Diego

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