6 days couch surfing in Palawan

 

18 lia and earl

Our incredible couch surfing hosts Earl (the only dude in the picture) and Lia (middle).

I am now a huge advocate for couch surfing (CS) and definitely plan to be a host to travelers whenever I get my own place. My experiences surfing in Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines have been nothing less than incredible. Couch surfing is the best way to connect with local people if you’re in a city for a short period of time.

While my friend and I were in Manila, we were messaging a bunch of CS hosts to see if we could stay with someone and also hang out with people. To my surprise, a young girl named Lia who lives in Palawan messaged me first when she saw a post that we were couch surfing in her city. She said she didn’t have a place to host us but she could give us a tour around the city. This was impressive considering 9.8 times out of 10, I’m the one who messages people first.

Pristine beach. It’s not as nice as Nagtabon beach.

What impressed me even more was the day before we arrived in Palawan, she called me to ask if we wanted her to make a reservation for us for an underground river tour, which was said to be one of the must-see sights on the island. So we were told anyway.

Meeting Lia

Lia painted this in high school. Wow.

Before we actually met Lia, who quickly became our wonderful friend, she was so considerate to call and ask us if it was ok if two other couch surfers joined the city tour she was going go give us. To do an actual paid tour of the places we went would have been 600 pesos (about $13 US).

We first met her at a coffee shop and got to know each other. I could tell right away she was very friendly and wanted to make sure we had a good time. We had no idea how long she would have stayed with us for the day, but our day was open and we appreciated any time she gave to show us around.

A beautiful sunset at Nagtabon beach.

The more I got to know her the more I was fascinated with her many skills and interests. She is a petroleum engineering student and also runs her own business, R&L Customized Shop, selling custom-made products and crafts.

I asked her how many girls there are in her engineering field and she said, “One out of every 10 students are girls. But I’m close to my friends and they don’t treat me any different. I don’t get any special treatment because I’m a girl.”

We were only the second group of people she was providing full day city tour for by herself and I couldn’t believe she was giving four full day tours in one week with other travelers! She is an incredibly generous, intelligent and very mature person. On top of all of these great qualities, she is a wicked pool player.

Lia’s City Tour

I clearly took too long to get ready.

Lia spent 10 hours with us the first day, I was surprised. She took us to the a vegetarian restaurant, Cathedral, war memorial, Baker’s Hill, a viewpoint, bay walk and finally a restaurant until 10 p.m. I couldn’t believe she was going to give this tour to a few more groups in a week spending the whole day with people. She has her own business so her time was flexible. But to give so much of her time and energy is so generous. We felt so lucky to be on her city tour with Lia on a sunny day. One of our friends went on the paid city tour and it was quite boring and they were sitting in a van on a rainy day.

We found our Shrek family.

I wanted to eat vat a vegetarian restaurant so she took us to one place and met Danius and Roman, two CS guys from Lithuania. After we ate, Lia took us to a few places around the city and stayed with us right until dinner. During dinner Lia was adorable and told us that she was a bit nervous meeting us for the first time because we have a different culture. I told her it’s admirable that she pushed herself to give a city tour to travelers on her own. She told us, “If I had time, I would have picked you up at the airport.” She went to pick up another couch surfer another day. Top notch hospitality. 

Needless to say, we bought some baked goodies.

Non-stop fun

Venga Boys ladyboy show. Great value: buy a drink and enjoy the entire show.

Since we met Lia, we met other fantastic couch surfers. Every day was an unplanned adventure. We cooked together, went to a few beaches, saw a ladyboy show, went out dancing at a local club and went for local karaoke together. This was such an easy group to hang out with and we also hung out with two guys who were staying at another Couchsurfing host’s home.

Earl, Lia’s Filipino friend, was also very kind to spend time with us every day since we met. He helped us whenever we had questions and is a very good help and cook in the kitchen. Compared to many 23-year-olds in Canada, he is extremely mature, considerate and articulate.

Beautiful burning sky.

On one of the nights, Lia and Earl took us to a local karaoke place and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. I have never been to a karaoke place with only one microphone and you have to sing in front of everyone. Thankfully it was mostly our friends and just four other Filipina girls. But of course, after you listen to an incredible Filipina girl singing, you pretty much don’t want to follow that up!

We hung out here after a full day tour with Lia before we went to dinner.

One of the days we went out, we checked out a ladyboy show and it was the very firs time the Lithuanian guys had seen a show like this. And just their luck, of the 150 people in the room, the ladyboys chose to pick on them. In front of everyone, the ladyboy said, “You are so cute like a lollipop. Do you like boys or girls?” Our friend was so caught off guard he didn’t even answer and was laughing uncomfortably.

Our awesome couch surfing group.

After the ladyboy show, we all went to the local dance place that Yunis and I checked out earlier. It looked kind of shady from the outside but Yunis and I wanted to see what it was like. There weren’t many people but we enjoyed the music enough to have fun on our own.

The highlight of the night though was when we met this very flamboyant 20-year-old gay boy on the dance floor. He was absolutely fun and hilarious. He kept saying to us, “I am miss Philippines 2014” and kept looking at our friends and said, “dannnnnnce!”  with a strong Filipino accent. When my friend told him, “You must do yoga you are so flexible,” he replied, “No, it’s all natural.”

Our energetic and hilarious Filipino gay friend we met on the dance floor. Totally highlight of our night.

Trying duck embryo for the first time

Yes, that’s right, duck embryo is a very popular food in the Philippines as well as Cambodia. It’s called, “balut” in Tagalog. Because Lia was kind to us, we couldn’t’ say no to her when she insisted that we try balut. She purposely waited until it was night so we wouldn’t have to look at what we were eating, and that was definitely for the best.

Pristine Beach

The kids who were so friendly to chat and play with my friend and I. They live close to the beach and returned back to their families after spending some time with us.

One day we were at the beach for the day and there were a few young kids between 9 and 12 began talking to my friend and I. They asked what our names were, laughed and played with us for some time until they had to go back home.

Our Couchsurfing friend Roman started chatting with a 20-year-old boy who was an elementary school teacher. He said very wisely, “Anyone can be a teacher by profession but not by heart.” He because a teacher at first because his mom wanted him to follow that profession then he grew to love it. 21 teacher meesa

While we were in the shade, we met a fun Finnish girl named Ira who was very adventurous. She traveled to India alone and was going around Asia for a few months. She said many Finnish people are shy at first and aren’t so adventurous. She is not a typical Finnish person. She came back to town for lunch with us and hung out with us every day until she had to leave. We would later discover what an amazing singer she is.

Nagtabon beach

Nagtabon beach is considered the best beach in Palawan by the locals.

We were told Nagtabon is one of the nicest beaches in Palawan so we decided to spend our day there. We had a hard time finding enough scooters for everyone to get to Nagtabon, about an hour away, so Earl and Lia arranged to share a van to take 11 of us to the beach. She got a discount price for us. Locals are always have the best hookups.

Oliver is building a small resort and uses solar power.

Nagtabon was nice and quiet and we shared food for lunch. It was a perfect way to spend the day with the group. Earl had a friend who was building a resort on the beach that was five stories high. The top of the building had a beautiful view of the beach and surrounding areas. His friend was nice to offer us as many shots as we wanted when we were visiting his place. He also gave two of us a short boat ride. You could rarely have an experience like this if you come on your own with a group of backpackers.

Calm waters.

While most of us were in our happy place, we ended our time at the beach by watching Ira, riding the resort owner’s white horse on the beach during sunset. What an incredible way to ride a horse for the very first time!

Ira’s new horse friend.

Cooking at Lia’s

Eggplant, spaghetti, fish, mashed potatoes and other yummies.

Lia was nice to open up her home to us so we could cook a meal for her and Earl who have been doing so much for us. Earl helped Zu, my friend, and I shop at the local market. Zu noticed that the vendors were staring at Earl and Lia because they were hanging out with us Westerners. I guess not many foreign people spend much time shopping at the local markets.

Zu noticed that vendors were quite confused trying to figure me out because I looked like a local Filipina girl but was wearing Western backpacker clothes like the white people they are used to seeing.

Earl: wannabe musician, cook, weightlifter and couch surfing assistant host.

We just needed Lia and Earl to help us shop for the ingredients and just wanted them to relax once we got home. But because they have high standards of hosting in their blood, they helped us with most of the cooking and also contributed a soup dish and grilled eggplant.

In all, we ate spaghetti, mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and soup. It was a fantastic meal. In all it cost about $4 US for a few of us to make all of that food. After that massive meal, Lia let me take a hot shower and sleep on her bed to take a rest during the afternoon.

Last day

We were so comfortable in Palawan that we lost track of what day we were leaving and we realized the day before our flight that we only had one more full day when we told our friends we had a few more days on the island. So we invited people at our Couchsurfing host Jon’s place to cook together one last time.

Jon was so nice to open up his home for us. I really appreciate our friends making time to cook and eat with us one last time before we left. I always believe that the best gift you can give to someone is your timeAnd the friends we have made in the Philippines spend time with us from their hearts.

We had an amazing last night with our wonderful friends at Jonathan’s bamboo house.

Me and two other friends split the cost of cooking for 10 people, including our friends where we were staying. Earl and Lia helped us shop at the market one more time and we all went to Jon’s house together. As usual, Lia and Earl helped us with most of the cooking and we shared a delicious meal.

After dinner, we had a memorable jam session and Jon and Ira also sang a beautiful duet. It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end our night there.

Flexing with Earl at Nagtabon beach.

It was still early in the night so a few of uswent to the café to check the internet for a bit. We told Earl and Lia they didn’t have to stay, especially if they had school or work the next day. But they said, “No it’s ok. It’s your last night.”

So while we were checking our email at Magnut café, we had one more karaoke session and Lia and Ira shared their beautiful voices one more time. Lia was so sweet and gave each of us a customized gift from her company. On our last nightI texted her, “I wasn’t sure if we should come to the Philippines because I was tired of moving around. But you’ve mad our trip very worthwhile I will keep your gift forever.”

Our last sunset in Palawan.

           

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More fundraisers should have ladyboys like this one

I’ve been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia for seven months now and there are still nights that are unpredictable. You can never know what to expect in this small town.

One of my friends brought my attention to a Cambodian-founded organization called Self Help Community Centre (S.H.C.C.). With about 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia (yes, incredible isn’t it?), the organization already stands out by being started and run by a Cambodian man named Choan Sambat. People can easily get NGO-nauseum living here, and when you meet organizations that are doing the same thing, they often blur together. But Sambat’s story of struggle, relentless persistence and passion for community is really inspiring.

Sambat’s story

This is the very short version of his story, I really encourage you to read his full story here.

He was born in 1985, just four years after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ended. Hunger and financial poverty caused many problems while he was growing up. He worked long hours in the rice field to earn $0.75 US per day, among other labour jobs while he was a young boy.

Even though he knew education was key for a better future for him, school was very challenging because he lacked supplies and proper transport, so he dropped out for a period of time. He ended up hanging out with people who were a negative influence and he knew if he didn’t change his life, he would end up in jail or dead.

At 16 years old, he moved to Siem Reap and offered to work for free at a pagoda. While he was there, he taught himself English by listening to the stories of tourists who were around. He also heard of an organization called Sala Bai who takes disadvantaged youth and train them in hospitality skills. He got one of the 50 sought-after spots out of over 5,000 applicants.

He found a job right away after training and after five years of hard work, he saved up $700 to start a village school, which classes include English, Organic Farming, Education on Hygiene, Nutrition and Environmental Issues. The school began with 250 students and thanks to international funding, they now accommodate 1,500 students. Every Sunday, the school goes and helps the local community, whether it is building houses for families or roads.

Even more incredible, the school’s budget allocates him a salary but he never takes it. He lives with his family and rides his motorbike that doesn’t work most of the time because he believes that all the money should go to the kids.

The fundraiser
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The event was held at The Station Wine Bar, the gay-friendly bar in the centre of town. First of all, I love that this community event was held at a gay bar. Second, the feature show of the fundraiser were ladyboys. Third, Sambat said that people think he is gay if they don’t know he has a girlfriend and he really doesn’t care. Awesome.

When I arrived, one of the teachers told me about the beautiful artwork of some of their students. I was very impressed with the detail and quality of their work, I could never produce what they did with all the training in the world. Then I walked in the bar with a diversity of people in the crowd, ladyboys and the lovely staff of SSHC.

People were brought to tears when the SSHC staff sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is one of the most adorable things I have seen in the seven months I’ve been here.

Fortunately, there are many success stories like Sambat’s around Cambodia and they deserve to be shared.
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It’s not about gay rights, it’s about human rights

I’m very happy that the Supreme Court decided to allow same-sex couples to marry by ruling against California’s same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8.

All I want to say is that we should take time to celebrate this great victory forward. There is also much more work to be done around the world with this issue.

Here are some great videos:

NYS Senator Diane J. Savino makes a compelling and funny case for same-sex marriage

 

The myth of the gay agenda