Spain. The land of tapas, flamenco and sunflower fields. And now one of my favourite countries in the world. I do not claim that lightly – those who know me well will understand how much weight that statement carries! I’m not quite sure how Spain had managed to stay under my radar for so long. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Europe, living in France and the UK, with quite a bit of travel within the region too. For some reason, I never had a strong calling to visit Spain and it’s only now that I realise how much of a missed opportunity this had been….
Why do you travel? Is it to seek the thrill of being in a new place, or to escape the stress and monotony of a routine you have back home? Do you leave in search of new friends, culinary delights, or just to step out of your comfort zone?…
For me, Morocco is a land of extremes. Even my journey to this beautiful country was rather extreme – I spent a gruelling 36 hours in transit (from Manila to Marrakech via Taipei and Frankfurt). It was, needless to say, worth the trek. In the second last week of February I attended a creative workshop in Marrakech hosted by Seek the Uniq, where a bunch of curious women from different corners of the world came together to learn, connect and to inspire one another. My friend Kim gave a great talk about reigniting passion, and my new friend Arriane challenged us to approach problems in a new way through the application of design theory (Creative Confidence is a great book/introduction to design thinking if you’re interested to know more). We also banded together to explore the ins and outs of a new city.
Step inside the medina of a big city such as Fes or Marrakech, and prepare to be immediately ambushed by a barrage of stimuli. I’d feel a whoosh of air on the back of my neck as bicycles swerved around me, avoiding a collision in just the nick of time. The clang of hammer hitting metal bounced off the walls as artisans huddled together, making silverware in the street. Merchants enticed me into their stalls, ready to haggle over a waterfall of textiles boasting every shade under the sun. I also made some pretty serious eye contact with a cow’s head, hanging at the open air butcher stall, only a few paces away from a boutique packed with leather goods and babouches (slippers) that still carried the fresh scent of goat. A rather rude awakening for us who avoid thinking about the process of making leather.
But venture past the chaos, through the winding labyrinth of high walls and minimum street signage, and you’ll quickly find yourself in an eerily quiet residential corner away from the madness of the markets. I always wondered what was on the other side of those walls. Was it a riad, a mosque or a restaurant? Are the people inside sleeping, laughing, praying, gossiping, or plotting something scandalous? For me, the beauty of the medina greatly lies in the mystery it imparts on the curious wanderer.
After our 5 days in Marrakech, Kim and I bid the rest of the group farewell as we went off to explore some roads less travelled. Enter Youssef – our tour guide, driver and companion for the rest of our Moroccan adventure. From the moment he picked us up from our riad in Marrakech, we knew that having him accompany us was the best idea. Not only did he enthusiastically cover more than 1300km of land with us, but he was incredibly informative, flexible with our requests and unwittingly funny. We spent hours in the car talking, joking, and learning about this beautiful country of extremes. Soon after leaving Marrakech, it became blatantly obvious to me that I had embarrassingly little knowledge about the country I was in. I’d always assumed that the rest of Morocco was just as dry, dusty and arid. After an hour or so in the car, I realised how wrong I was. As we approached the stunning Atlas mountain range, we were surrounded by dense forest (?!) and soon after, snow capped mountains! I’ll never forget the contrast of colours in the landscape – the red (earth), white (snow) and blue (sky).
As soon as we had Youssef talking, it was clear that he was overwhelmingly passionate about the desert. So much so that we decided to change our itinerary and spend a night camping out in the Sahara. Which was the best… idea… ever. I can’t tell you how profound this experience was – you must go to the desert if you visit Morocco. We packed our bags to take what we needed for the night and off we went. Leaving at sunset, led by two Berber guides and carried by our faithful camels, we crossed a stunning golden landscape for an hour to reach our camp site.
When we arrived, it was clear that the only purpose of being there was just to… be there. No signal for mobile phones, no distractions, life stripped back to the very basics. So imagine Kim and I sitting in a tent, in the middle of the Sahara dessert, with these two middle aged Berber men, wondering how we were going to pass the 12 hours ahead of us. After a brief period of awkwardness, we found ourselves exchanging terrible how-do-you-get-a-camel-into-a-refrigerator jokes in broken English, laughing so hard that we were snorting.
I had one of those OMG moments when I realised that good vibes and laughter transcend all cultural and linguistic boundaries. The worlds that we come from couldn’t be further apart, and we barely understood each other, but here we were still cracking up. I also decided there and then, that one of the best gifts you can give someone is your complete, undivided attention. Isn’t it so rare that we are fully present in any situation these days? When did spending a whole evening not distracted and fully in the moment become such a foreign concept?
I was amazed and appalled at the same time when I felt that I had lost so much of what means to be truly human. Why does it have to be awkward when you don’t have the excuse to escape through a gadget in your hands? It’s the ultimate paradox of which I think we’re all aware – the more connected we are on our devices, the less connected we are in real life. How difficult it is to give someone your full attention when you are only one notification away from something else. I try hard to fight this in my life back home but I somehow always get sucked in to regular programming. It’s moments like these that remind me of what it really means to be human.
Somewhere in between devouring some delicious smokey tagine and too many non sequitur jokes, I was coerced into singing Waltzing Matilda to the beat of the tam tams (their local drums). I hope to god that none of this footage ever appears on the internet. Isn’t it funny that music and dance have become a form of entertainment reserved only for those with ‘skill’? I was initially mortified when asked to sing a song from my country. I’m hesitant when encouraged to dance. Why have we become so self conscious?
However, by the end of the night I had loosened up and even acquired a new nickname, Itren, which means ‘star’ in Berber. It must have been the quality of my singing. I was pretty stoked with my new title, especially since Kim somehow ended up with the name “Africa” (emphasis on the aaaah). I’ll take Itren. So there we were, in the middle of the Sahara desert, surrounded by nothing but the Milky Way and the occasional desert fox. I think one of our guides Mohammed summed up my feelings about this experience in a catchphrase that he kept repeating that night: tomorrow is tomorrow, and today is today.
Leaving the desert with a new found appreciation for nothingness and humanity, we made our way to our last stop – the blue city of Chefchaouen. Nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, this incredibly photogenic town is an obvious choice for tourists. Indigo paint transforms the streets into a beautifully dizzying maze of blue. Whilst there are many that sell locally made souvenirs, my most exciting purchase was a kilo of strawberries for one euro! After maxing out our SD cards with photos of all things blue, we capped off our stay with a glass of wine followed by a hammam (a Moroccan tradition where a lady scrubs you raw at a local bath). Recommended only for those ready to take their friendship to the next level.
Photos taken with my Fujifilm XT2 and XT20.
Life moves fast. Especially, if like me, you live in a big bad city that never sleeps. I find that even within the confines of our homes, we don’t usually allow ourselves to truly rest. We’re constantly bombarded with stimulation from the very moment we wake up. What’s the first thing you look at in the morning? Is it your phone? Do you use it as your alarm? I do. I wake up, make some breakfast, grab a cup of coffee, maybe turn on the TV to catch up with the news I missed overnight. By this time, my phone is already buzzing with incoming emails, texts, group chats. Don’t even get me started on social media.
A little later, I might hop into an uber to get to my first meeting of the day, and usually the radio is playing and someone is trying to sell me a product. Maybe I’ll stick some headphones in and listen to a podcast. More information. Drive down any major highway in Manila and you have dozens on billboards vying for your attention. Some have upgraded to video. I swear EDSA could be a tourist attraction, I’ve never seen anything that resembles it! When my family came to visit me they were just fascinated by the sheer size and volume of ads.
Anyway, you get my drift. The overwhelming amount of stimulation we absorb on a daily basis has to have some sort of effect on us. In fact, our brains weren’t built to handle this much information. Contrary to what seems to be championed as a highly sought after trait, multi-tasking is not only impossible, but can be detrimental to creativity and productivity. No wonder so many of us are stressed, we never get a break! Especially when our smartphones are so closely integrated to our everyday life. We’re literally on-call 24/7. So whilst I’m an avid supporter of getting sh*t done, I think it’s equally as important to ‘peace out’ once in a while, to truly disconnect from all the noise around us and reconnect with ourselves.
I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in a quiet, leafy suburb, or if it’s because with each year my brain seems to outdo itself by over thinking everything, but I truly struggle if I spend too much time in a city without giving myself a break. Perhaps it’s also because my work is so tied up with social media. On top of that, I’m a one woman show – I book most of my jobs, fix my own schedule, chase after my cheques, create content and manage my online accounts. Probably, it’s all of the above.
Ducking out to a quiet spot for a few days (even if it’s just overnight) has such a profound and immediate impact on my mental and physical wellbeing. I’m less stressed and I’m able to appreciate the simple things that I take for granted every day. Like properly enjoying my meals, or taking the time to do things rather than rushing everything. It’s funny how ordinary tasks can be special when you’re in the right mindset.
My latest trip outside of Manila was to the Farm San Benito in Batangas. I’d heard of this wellness resort years ago, and had been meaning to go for a while. I finally had the chance to visit with my friend Liz, when I was sent on a #LifeMovesFast challenge by Butterfly Twists. We spent our time disconnected from our phones (for the most part – I will plead guilty to the occasional Instagram post) and reconnected with nature, making friends with the peacocks and frogs roaming around our garden.
If it’s not obvious from the recipes I’ve uploaded on my blog, I love making and eating vegan food. Finding decent plant-based food can be a bit of a challenge in the Philippines, although it’s exciting to see more and more of these restaurants and small business popping up around Manila. The vegan meals I had at The Farm were by far the best I’ve tried in the Philippines! The menu was far more comprehensive than your typical veggie restaurant, and by that I mean they didn’t just serve salads (but when they did, they were freaking delicious – baby greens with shaved pears, marinated figs, herbed oven tomatoes, almond feta cheese with creamy lime dressing anyone?). I honestly can’t remember the last time I consumed such a wide variety of fruits, veggies, legumes and grains in the span of 2 days.
The Farm is perfect for those who are looking for a wellness focussed getaway . Although we only stayed overnight, they have 5-7 day programs with activities should you decide to take them (acupuncture, yoga, meditation classes, colon hydrotherapy, flower arrangement classes, walks in greenery… the list goes on).
The highlight of my stay was a treatment I had in their spa. It started off with a full body scrub made from cacao, coconut oil and sea salt, followed by an outdoor bath filled with coconut milk and rose petals. I looked up, only to see the brightest moon and a star-studded sky, listening to the sound on birds and… frogs? That was when I noticed that the bath was surrounded by a pond filled with water lilies and fish… and yep two dozen frogs. I feel like this wouldn’t go down well with everyone (I’ll admit to having a moment of panic too) but actually found them to be rather cute. I also felt like at any moment a crab named Sebastian was going to hop out and start serenade me (yes he’s a crab not a lobster, you’ve been deceived all this time).
Liz and I also attended a yoga class in the most beautiful setting I’ve ever practised in! This is when I discovered that when you are surrounded by a beautiful garden lined with coconut trees, with just the right amount of breeze flowing in, it is dangerously easy to fall asleep.
After a day and a half of a semi digital detox, luxurious spa treatments, acupuncture, yoga and filling my body with all the nutrients it craves for, I walked away from The Farm feeling grounded, re-energised, and at peace. Fully prepared to tackle life, in however form, and at whatever speed it may come at me. So here’s to living with all the zest and enthusiasm we have, and remembering that we can live our fullest when we take care of ourselves too.
As a lover of music, I’ve been strangely absent from many of the big music festivals around the world. That finally changed last year, when my friends and I embarked on an unforgettable road trip to experience Coachella 2016. Our journey began in none other than Las Vegas.
Ah, Vegas… what a place. Does it not blow your mind thinking about how this city, full of neon lights and aircon-blazing casinos, is in the middle of a DESERT!? At the risk of sounding like a major killjoy, think of the carbon footprint for a quick second! Totally mental. Honestly, it’s not the sort of place I would usually spend my time in, as I’m not a big (or successful) gambler, and nightlife isn’t really my ‘thang’. (Why do I feel like it’s appropriate to talk/write like that?!) However, as with any kind of travel, it’s all about the company you’re with, and I had some of the best….
If there were one word I’d use to describe this city it would be hustle. To truly understand the essence of this word, you should try to navigate the malls in Hong Kong during the days leading up to Christmas. This, my friend, is character-building. But (I think) I mastered it like a pro, learning how to weave in and out of excited (crazed?), bargain-hunting shoppers, squeezing myself into the crevasses of the tightly packed MTR, dodging vendors selling fake gadgets and watches, eating myself through Hong Kong one dumpling at a time, all whilst having a laugh and enjoying the craziness of the vibrant city….
As of now, Siargao is officially my favourite place in the Philippines. I spent an incredible 5 days there this August with a bunch of my friends, and decided chronicle this trip in my first travel ‘vlog’. Like most of the creative projects I embark on, editing the video was an interesting process with loads of highs and lows. I’d go on a 3 day editing binge where I’d be so immersed and excited to edit, then hit a proverbial wall where I’d lose all interest and completely dry up creatively. I always knew that putting this video together was going to be a challenge – as with anything you try for the first time! Whilst it’s not perfect, it was great to learn something new, and I think I managed to capture the essence of my trip the way I intended….
Do go chasing waterfalls
This year I told myself that I would travel more, both abroad and within the Philippines, and I’m happy to say that in the last 11 months, I have met and even exceeded my expectations on the quest to discover more corners of this world. What I didn’t expect was to find this much beauty so close to the madness of Manila. Usually when I want to get away from the city I’ll take a short trip to Tagaytay or Batangas, and until now I hadn’t really given Laguna a chance. Well, turns out that I was missing somewhere special!
Here are a few photos from the adventure that my Fujifilm family and I embarked on last week, where we trekked through Jurrasic Park-esque rainforests to swim in crystal clear waters.