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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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Letter #20: Eight



Hello, Lia.

It's unbelievable to me that today, I am saying to you, “Happy 8th”. I don't even notice the years. Wasn't it just yesterday that you were swaddled in that newborn jumpsuit? That you walked your first steps? Sped off on your bike on your own? Wasn't it just yesterday that I let go of another year?

Today, I do so again. I bid goodbye to a girl in second grade go and welcome someone who will be in third grade. Each year I let go, knowing the clock doesn't tarry or rewind. Knowing I will never meet that same person again in my life. We simply march forward, meeting many different and constantly growing persons that we call our daughter.

How bittersweet, exciting, poignant, life-changing, and humbling experience that is all at once.

Lia, I don't think there is anything else I could tell you now that I haven't said in my other letters to you. But the thing I want you to remember the most is that no matter how many persons you become in your lifetime, no matter how the tide shifts and changes you, one thing remains constant: I will forever be your Mama, and you my daughter. I will always love the many new yous that are born each year. And all those yous will always have warm arms to come home to, no matter how cold and bleak the earth turns.

Here now and always,
Mama

7 Reasons Why You Must See Japan Before You Die


Life is short, and we have way too many restrictions. We are always worrying about minor things that won’t matter in a few days. Many of us don’t even understand the purpose of existence and simply keep following the circle of life as defined by society.

No matter who you are and no matter what your worries, traveling is a wonderful way to experience life. It will open your mind to new horizons, change your perspective of the world, and free you of all worries.

Every tour will have something unique to offer, but today we are focusing on the land of the rising sun, Japan.

Japan is a culturally rich island in East Asia that makes every single one of its visitors fall in love with it. Here are 7 reasons why you should not miss traveling to Japan.

Experience Both Eww and Aww

Foreigners find Japan very exciting for its mix of offerings. Japan is incredibly different in a sense. There is no doubt about it. There are things that may seem strange when experienced and seen for the first time. However, they also put cuteness in everything. One example is their food. Read Japan visa requirements now and book your tickets if you want to experience this unique mix too.

Experience Ancient History

Emperors ruled Japan for a long time. Now there is a democracy, but you still find the signs of their ancient history all around you. They celebrate many traditional festivals and wear traditional clothes. Many houses in rural areas are also built the way their ancestors used to build. Their houses are also very delicately designed. 

Countless Temples and Shrines


Shinto and Buddhism are the two biggest religions in Japan. You will find their temples everywhere. However, they are not like conventional churches. These temples and shrines are culturally rich. So much that they are one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. Be sure to see the shrines found deep in green forests. They are worth the visit.

The Most Modern Country

While Japan hasn’t forgotten its history, it always strives to lead the world, and so it has. Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world. You will find skyscrapers, fast trains, and the most advanced robots here.

See Colors All Around You


The Japanese don’t let anything stay boring. Anime shows are very popular in the country and all around the world. You will see many things including trains and planes painted with anime characters. They also organize many exhibitions and festivals to keep things more entertaining.

Most Disciplined and Cleanest Country


The entire world admires the discipline of the Japanese. Even their star players clean their changing room themselves on international matches. And there is no law forcing them to do so. They are meticulous at keeping their own country clean. In addition, Japan education system is considered the best in the world.

Unique, Delicious, and Sometimes Wild Cuisines


One can’t be sure what to do with Japanese food when visiting for the first time. They have a unique cuisine that are mostly delicious, but they also have foods that are pretty strange and wild. You can eat live octopus, snakes, and poisonous fishes here.

So what are you waiting for? Go visit Japan now!

4 Best Restos in Camiguin for Both Vegans and Non-vegans


Camiguin may be best known for its stunning white beaches, volcanoes, and the sweetest lanzones, but it is also becoming more well-known for versatile restaurants worth visiting. Whether you are vegan or a meat lover, this island province offers a wealth diversity of affordable food spots where you can enjoy Camiguin's signature chill atmosphere, fresh seafood and produce, and sumptuous dishes suited for both vegans and non-vegans that will give all similar restos in the country a run for their money.
Here are four of the most memorable ones we tried during our Camiguin trip.


Hayahay Cafe

Bug-ong, Mambajao, Camiguin 0916 529 0283 facebook.com/hayahaycafesacamiguin/ Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 8 am to 7:30 pm; Closed on Mondays

Modest and compact, Hayahay Cafe might not seem too distinguishable in its location along the road in Mambajao, but step in and you will find a small Boho-chic space with the best pancakes this side of the island. Hayahay Cafe also serves amazing vegan items like Black China, a bowl of soy rice with sauteed vegetables.
The pancakes are quite excellent, too, and come in servings that are good for sharing. We also had the chicken schnitzel - chicken fillet with a side of crispy fries - which were tender, crisp, and surprisingly light and not greasy.
Sandwiches such as Fisherman's friend – a grilled sandwich with smoked salmon and mozzarella cheese - are favorites too. Shakes are quite refreshing as well, and definitely a must for those who like shakes with less sugar and more fruit pulp.

La Dolce Vita Camiguin

Camiguin Circumferential Rd, Mambajao, Camiguin (right across the airport) 0936 100 4733 https://www.facebook.com/La-DOLCE-VITA-Camiguin-573897679382025/ Open Wednesdays to Mondays from 7 am to 10 pm

Italian cuisine lovers often troop to La Dolce Vita, an al fresco restaurant known for its thin, brick-oven pizzas. Pizzas come in a wide variety, all inspired by the hometown of Italian owner Alessandro, who also serves as the head chef and occasionally, a server too.


The pastas are also a hit, as well as their Italian desserts and caffeinated brews. Whichever you prefer, you can be sure the ingredients are up to par, as Allesandro imports the main ingredients. You can request dishes to be prepared without meats, butter, or cheese if you're vegan.

Guerrera


Pearl Street, Rocky Village, Brgy. Yumbing, Mambajao, Camiguin 0917 311 9859 https://www.facebook.com/guerreraricepaddyvillasandrestaurant/ Open daily from 12 pm –2:30 pm and 5 pm to 9 pm

Love Asian cuisine? Make your way to Guerrera and enjoy choosing from Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Oriental dishes – all prepared the farm-to-table way. The resto is owned and run by a naturalist couple, one-half of which is Pinay chef who specializes in Asian street food and trained in the Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok. Must-tries include the banh xeo - a shrimp and pork roll served with yummy dips – pad thai, banh mi, and char siu.
The Vietnamese coffee is a standout too – close enough or even at par with authentic ones you will in Vietnam. If you want vegan items, there's plenty to choose from too, or simply ask and they will happily oblige.
The Asian menu is complemented by a beautiful view of expansive rice paddies and majestic Mt. Hibok Hibok. Guerrera also has beautiful rice paddy villas for those who would like to stay the night.

Kurma Eco Beach Lodge

Brgy. Yumbing, Mambajao, Camiguin 0917 104 0610 https://www.facebook.com/Kurmafreedivecamiguin/


There's probably no seaside sunset view more enchanting than the one you will have at Kurma while enjoying ice cold beer. This eco beach lodge slash dive resort also operates a vegan-friendly restaurant with both indoor and outdoor dining by the sea. You will find more vegan dishes on the menu than non-vegan meals, but rest assured that even meat lovers will not regret ordering it.

There's vegetarian steak, grilled pumpkin on a bed of mung beans; vegetarian kare-kare for starters. We'd also recommend the coconut burger, whose patty is made purely from grated coconut then drizzled with teriyaki sauce. If you're looking for meat-based dishes, you can start off with Kurmadobo - which comes with three pieces of chicken, vegetables, and rice – or pork ragu.

On Moving Away From Home


Banderitas hung and flapped from electrical wires at the poblacion – or in Santa Maria speak, bayan - fresh from this year's fiesta. Sunday is specially hectic in this part of Bulacan, with families and couples taking advantage of thrifty Sunday-exclusive sidewalk goods. “Suki!”, the vendors would beckon as if every face was familiar, waving colorful merchandise bared from plastic wrappers.

The air in our subdivision, located 30 minutes to an hour from bayan, is not quite as frenzied. Locals here live in 45-square meter rowhouse-style homes attached wall to wall and painted in the same colors that make them indistinguishable from one another. Our neighborhood spans three subdivisions, ours being the farthest from the main road.

Days prove to be quiet and uneventful, punctuated by the barking of dogs when a courier or water delivery man stops by. Most of the men work in offices in Manila on weekdays, while the women tend to the children, not to be seen except when they are bathing their babies in the golden rays of the early morning sun or at sundown when they would congregate for small talk.

There are only a couple of stores within a three-kilometer radius that are open until 1 am. The rest close at 9 to 10 pm. If you required food in the wee hours, you'd have to take a P30 tricycle ride to the nearest 7-11. There were times we paid P400 to make an emergency trip to bayan that should cost P80 at most. Tricycles are also rare after 9 pm. Buses to Manila stop serving the route at 10 pm.

Waltermart and Mi, both compact, two story, and located eight kilometers away, are the only “malls” we have, and they have limited selections, mostly local. If I need specialty items like a camera battery, reef-friendly sunscreen, heat pads – once, even a can of blueberries – I'd have to travel all the way to Marilao, Pampanga, or Quezon City to get them. When visiting, my sister often complains that there's no food stall here within walking distance post-normal store hours. She's wrong. There is nothing here within walking distance - at least by ManileƱa standards.

Everything where Lia and I live is the opposite of where I grew up in Malate. It's inconvenient, dead-silent, and distinctly provincial – characteristics that I once resented. Not the neighborhood necessarily, but the entire decision of moving away from familiarity. From somewhere I didn't want to leave at the onset.

***

A dark, middle-aged hawker smiled at me, flashing jewelry made from old coins. “Suki, singkwenta lang,” he coaxed, the few short strands on his scalp swaying back and forth in the wind. His demeanor reminded me of curious mothers in my hometown in Manila, women who saw me from my first wails until I left at 25 for a friend's house in Makati, clothes haphazardly stuffed in boxes and tote bags.

In hometowns, conversations with neighbors, especially the older ones, turn into somewhat of a book reading experience, only backwards, with them leafing through each phase of your life.

“Your mother said you were...”
“You know when you were five...”
“You seem to be putting on weight. You were skinny before.”
“I remember when you were just 10...”
“You and that girl, whatshername, were bestfriends, weren't you?”

My mother considered herself an "open book" and that extended to the offspring she bore. She routinely shared insider information, even those that we, children, weren't comfortable discussing with neighbors.

In Malate, everybody knew everyone. They could dissect your history. Drive a scalpel into scar tissue and reopen wounds again and again.

Every hello extended to 30 minutes. If you're lucky they would, out of politeness, take out the ugly parts. But some also liked to pick on your wounds to flaunt a false sense of concern. I hurried these talks, so I can retreat to my room, smoke cigarettes, and play Tori Amos' From The Choirgirl Hotel on loop. The days bobbed swiftly when I was alone. They were long and uneasy when I was outside.

Ironically, when I was offered marriage, I felt conflicted about taking my boxes permanently outside of the city. The first few years were quite difficult. I knew nothing about Bulacan, from roads to friendly acquaintances, to local slang. At times, doubt would peek into my door, my mind wandering to a  wooden bungalow on the beach, a log cabin in a dense forest, a small hut in a yolk-colored meadow. Anywhere but here.

But 10 years on, here I am, still a resident of Santa Maria. Somewhere between defiance and getting the hang of it, living here became the preferred normal. Movement became crucial to stillness. If I wanted to grow and see wider and further into the horizon, I have to plant my feet somewhere else and live life on my terms.

The time I spent on my own, away from Malate, added a layer of bravado. Out here, nobody here knows about me, about my life more than I allow them to. I enjoy as much peace as I want inside the house, typing away and making new memories with Lia. We leave for bike rides and hikes and return without unwarranted questions hounding us. We carve our own rules according to what fits our dynamics. There's infinite space for everything: work, silence, thoughts, new possibilities, walks, the sight of Rizal's mountains, a bright full moon without annoying wires obstructing its perfect shape.

Moving away from home is like writing a book. You leaf through new pages forwards, not backwards, placing new characters inside them and assigning whether they play minor or major parts. You leave the old wounds in previous pages where they belong and create space for new ones - crying, loving, laughing, and drinking in lessons that fortify your spirit. You start afresh and forge a new past; a future away from the only life you've known. It's scary. But also beautiful. Empowering. Liberating.

Moving out of Manila may be impractical, but goddamn, did it give new meaning to my life. In movement, I learned that familiarity is precious, but the growing that occurs after goodbyes is priceless.

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