My trip to the Philippines couldn’t have come at a better time. Beijing is currently experiencing its coldest winter in 30 years. The chill has been made even worse by a stretch of “crazy bad” air pollution.
On mornings when the smog blocked the sun and pulled a curtain on the horizon, I’d close my eyes and imagine a paradise of blue: blue skies, blue water, a blue frozen drink with sliced mango hanging off the rim.
Just as books are often better than the movies they inspire, the places I visited in the Philippines were far more beautiful than I had envisioned. In Tagaytay, two hours by car south of Manila, I stayed at a hotel overlooking Taal Volcano, an active volcano surrounded by a lake. In El Nido, Palawan, I took a group tour of several uninhabited islands, snorkeled over corals and schools of fish and explored a cave.
One of the islands I visited is called Snake Island. It gets its name from a shallow sandbar that winds through the water like a serpent. While there, our tour guide, doubling as a chef, made a delicious lunch of fresh shrimp, fish, fruit and other Philippine specialties.
As we ate, a pack of dogs crowded around our feet. I couldn’t tell whether they belonged to someone or had been left on the island, but they looked horrible. Their rib cages protruded from their bodies, and a few had sores and bloodshot eyes. Whenever someone would drop food on the sand, the dogs would pounce on it, snarling and yelping as they lunged for a shrimp head or a bony piece of meat.
Life isn’t all leisure for everyone in El Nido. The children walk to school because there are no buses to pick them up, and they walk on the road because there are no sidewalks. Some of them wear only flip-flops because their families can’t afford shoes.
At night, the roads around the town are dark because there are no street lights. When there are “brown outs” – electricity outages in the city – it’s gets even darker for families who don’t own generators.
On one my second evening in El Nido, my girlfriend and I went to a beach near our resort to watch the sun set. Tourists stood at the edge of the water gawking at the streaks of orange, pink and purple filling the sky.
As I reached for my camera, four children in their school uniforms came walking toward us. I snapped a few pictures of them and then turned my attention back to the sunset. My girlfriend asked them why they were walking along the beach, and they said it was the quickest way home from school.
The same paradise I had been daydreaming about was, for these children, just a shortcut home.