Friday, May 25, 2012

The Anomaly That Is the Filipino Backpacker

Filipinos are known for a lot of things. We export, not our products, but ourselves as laborers abroad. Our heritage produces talent like no other. I need only cite boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, or Jessica Sanchez on the latest season of American Idol as example. Yes? Yes? Then, finally, we have some of the most beautiful tropical virgin beaches in the world. Here's proof.

Being backpackers or long-term travelers, however, now that is something we are definitely NOT known for. Filipino backpackers? Nah. Never heard. For one, the Philippines is a third-world country. And those of us who have the means to travel long-term rather use our resources on more tangible investments: house, car, higher education. Completely understandable.

Of course, there is the select few, the few who choose to abandon all conventions and choose a travel-filled lifestyle, the few who said, "Heck yes! I want to be in the Filipino backpackers club!" So what's it like backpacking as a Filipino and backpacking as a Filipino in Asia at that? Here's my experience.

1. Singapore

Little India, Singapore
United Colors of Little India, Singapore

First of all, Singapore is a true melting pot of many Asian cultures. Indian, Malay, Chinese, they're all here. Then, with the influx of immigrant laborers to this tiny economic powerhouse, Filipinos now comprise a considerable percentage of the local population. Needless to say, I never felt like a backpacker here, much less a Filipino backpacker. But let's face it. With all of Singapore's ritzy malls and high prices, can you really backpack through Singapore?

2. Malaysia

Red Square, Malacca, Malaysia
Blending in at Red Square, Malacca, Malaysia

The very first time I set foot on this country I was only catching a flight to India. I stepped on the bus to get to the airport and what do you know? The conductor cracks a joke to me in Bahasa Melayu. I speak a Malay language, yes, but the Filipino and Malay languages are very distant relatives. I smiled and pretended I understood. In the beautiful old town of Malacca, I have had to stay in a place that specifically caters to backpackers to be identified as a backpacker in this country. All in good fun though.

3. India

Angelica really blending in at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Alright, so nobody ever mistook me for an Indian. My skin isn't as fair as the Hindu's from the north, nor as dark as the Tamil's from the south. Plus, I have slightly Chinese eyes. It was an entirely different story, however, for my fellow Filipino backpacker buddy, Angelica, who is also from the Philippines (explains the picture above). She was often mistaken for a Hindu, something which I never quite understood. I had known her for quite a few years and it never occurred to me how Indian her features were. It still doesn't. However, the staff at our guesthouse in Agra, home of the majestic Taj Mahal, thought she was and spoke to her in Hindi. Yeah, she doesn't understand you, bro.

4. Nepal

Waiting for our flight to Lukla, Kathmandu Airport, Nepal
Adopted Gurung? Magar? Sherpa?

In many ways, Nepal and the Philippines are alike. They are both small, developing countries in a fast-developing region. They lack large-scale industries, so they send a huge part of their labor force abroad, most of which to Arab countries. During our 10-day trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary in the Nepal Himalaya, conversations with locals always went like this:

Them: *stares at my face strangely* Are you Nepali?
Me: *smiling* No, Filipino.
Them: I thought you are Nepali. Nepalis and Filipinos look alike.

Then a light bulb turns on. They begin to tell me about their Filipino friends whom they met in the Middle East while they were working there. At the very least, it makes for great local interaction. I like to think my being Filipino endeared me to them. It helps that Filipinos, including myself, do look like Nepalis, especially those ethnic groups originating in the Himalayas.

5. Thailand

Cooking School, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Learning the local foodie ways in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Of all the places I visited, I blend in with Thais the best. Never in this country was I ever mistaken for a backpacker or a traveler, even more so when I based myself for a few months in Chiang Mai, the country's northern capital. Many I met here haven't even heard of the notion of a Filipino backpacker. Here, I was always a local first, until I open my farang mouth, of course. Which is unfortunate because many of my counterparts from the west pass through this country. It takes some more effort for me to be "included in the backpacker subculture," so to speak. I was always the one who has to start the conversation with fellow travelers. On the plus side, I rarely get ripped off. They think I'm a local so they give me local prices! (I think.) It helps that I've memorized counting in Thai. Neung, sawng, saam, see...

6. China

Shanghai, China
Chinese enough for you?

As I said, I have slightly Chinese eyes (really? just slightly?). Then, when I put my glasses on, I become your regular Chinese university student. So yes, I was always a "local" in this country. It makes for a good laugh really. I make it a point to say "I don't speak Chinese" or "I don't understand" in Chinese with a really good Chinese accent. I think the accent was so believable at one point that there was this one lady at the bus station of the beautiful spring city of Kunming that laughed at me in disbelief when I told her in Chinese that I don't speak Chinese! Ting bu dong. Ting bu dong!

7. Vietnam

Lanterns of Hoi An, Vietnam
Too burly to be Vietnamese?

Vietnam is the closest country to the Philippines I traveled through. Yet, weirdly enough, I was never mistaken for a local here. They always knew I was a backpacker traveling through. Some of them even figured out I was a Filipino backpacker. Why? I don't really know. I always suspected it was because the Vietnamese are more slender and skinnier than most of us Filipinos. But then, as I went north through most of Vietnam all the way to the famous limestone karst islands of Halong Bay, that didn't really proved true. Maybe they were just really perceptive. At any rate, it didn't really matter. I had a great time in Vietnam, meeting both locals and fellow travelers.

That wraps up my experience traveling through my own backyard as a Filipino backpacker. It's very interesting, to say the least. When people assume my nationality, Filipino is never one of their answers. At one point, I even became Japanese, Korean, Latino, and Canadian (yes, Canadian!). Whether you're a local or a traveler though, if you see this mug on the road looking all confused. Do say hello. I'd love to meet you.

Are you a traveler backpacking through countries in your own backyard? What's your experience like?

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