What makes your favorite place special?
Is it the variety of activities? Historical relevance? Richness of culture? Breathtaking views? Or delicious food?
I think as much as the visual treats or any tangible aspects of traveling, the intangibles play a more important role in making travels extraordinary. For me, it will be the connections I’ve made with the locals and fellow travelers that will always stand out. And this is why I say that the Philippines will always be #1 for me. I might sound biased being a Filipina, but I will say it again and again that nothing compares to Filipino hospitality.
A great example of a place that exudes this warm hospitality is one of my all-time favorites: Apo Island. I always tell my relatives and friends to go here. Why?
Picture an island so small that everybody knows everybody.
With just a population of around 1,000, they say that everyone here comes from one family tree. I’ve already been here thrice and during my course of stay here, I was invited to a handaan (christening party) by someone who does not even know me, enjoyed a night of inuman and music with locals, got free unlimited tuyam and lato, and caught stunning sunsets with friendly kids.
One of the best lessons I learned from traveling is that the best way to know the place is to get to know the locals. There are plenty of things that you will never learn by just reading travel books or online guides. And no matter how beautiful the place is, without interaction with the people living in it, there will always be this certain detachment and lack of better understanding of the place.
In Apo Island, I was blessed to actually get to know fantastic locals. Locals with names. With faces. With real incredible stories.
I was lucky to have met Ian, the master diver who patiently guided me around the island and shared my excitement every time I spotted a pawikan, even if it was probably his billionth time to see that giant creature.
He made me appreciate nature even more with his memory and sharp eyes for soft corals, sea snakes, Nemos, colorful schools of fish, hard corals, pawikans, and other underwater heavens.
He was also the one who made sure that we got to have the freshest seafood after an entire afternoon of literally swimming around the island.
I also got to know Mang Dionisio, my new friend who harvested a basket full of salawakis and tuyoms (sea urchins), when he learned that it’s my favorite.
And he would grin every time my friends and I were able to consume his basket of harvest, like we're the only human beings who are capable of achieving this tremendous feat.
There’s also Mang Jimmy, who shared too many stories about barang and his telenovela-like life in between our fish grilling sessions and Gold Eagle beer chit chats. He even gave me a little souvenir in the form of a bottle of native tuba.
Locals, fellow travelers, and a guitar also made my stay even more colorful with shared music of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eraserheads.
Meals were also more memorable because it's prepared right in front of me. No frills. No fancy ingredients. But it's the freshest and most delicious seafood you could imagine.
Kinilaw. Lato. Grilled Fish. Adobong pusit. Octopus. Ahhhh, everything's so good here!
Sometimes, my friends would even prepare food straight from the shore!
Food truly becomes more special when it's shared with more people.
Then there's also my masahista (masseuse), an old woman named Maria Magdalena. The morning after she massaged me, she walked more than one kilometer just to hand me her massage oil (for my lamig sa katawan) and to bid me her goodbye.
I will also never forget the laughter in between jump shots and photographs with these happy teens and kids of Apo Island. It surely made those sunsets more colorful.
These moments, when you witness pure joy from kids, will make you enjoy your travels in a more profound way. With this spectacular backdrop.
And of course, it's automatic to remember Apo Island's superstars.
Apo Island will always be the refuge of pawikans. You can always spot several of them here.
Who wouldn’t love this type of creature? They have robust shells but seemingly fragile flippers, huge expressive eyes and cute mouth! Plus they can gracefully flap their limbs with turbo speed.
I will never get tired of swimming with pawikans. It's as if they're humans too with feelings. Some will look at you eye to eye (maybe with the same fascination?). While some are just too busy gnawing their yummy lato (sea weeds).
Each pawikan has a certain character. Some are shy while some will not bother having a human as their swimming partner.
The pawikans and incredible locals surely made my stays in Apo Island memorable. Sure, it is nothing compared to your typical luxurious island destinations.
You will neither enjoy airconditioned rooms with 1000 thread count sheets nor revel in bathtubs with hot water. The lodge I stayed in here is too basic yet everything still feels like a dream.
It has the perfect view of the sea.
And the perfect alarm clock of chirping birds every morning.
Yet, it gave me taste of my country's warm hospitality that is most of the time forgotten when you're living in a city.
An island without frills, without parties, without luxuries, yet it gave me a feeling of paradise. A paradise bare of materialistic traps but overflowing with kindness and sincerity.
Usual travels will either make you feel like a pampered queen or a typical tourist. Apo Island taught me that travels become more outstanding when you feel at home, and when you meet incredible people who will treat you as if you’re part of their family.
Belongingness that will be harder to match than any kind of fancy amenities. Belongingness that will unconsciously make you feel attached to this place, long for this place, and take pride of this place like it is your home.
I will surely see you again and again, my dear Apo Island <3
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