2016, it’s been real ✌️

Typing this lying on a white sandy beach looking out into the turquoise sea on a tiny island in the Philippines, with pretty much not a care in the world, I’m having another ‘pinch myself’ moment – of which I’ve had many recently. Could it get any better?

Travelling gives you a lot of time to sit with your thoughts, whether welcome or not, and these last few months have allowed me to reflect on the past year and over life in general.

But among the shit-storm of BREXIT and Trump etcetera I have happily managed to escape from reality, chasing the summer and having a fucking blast. The good times have been rolling, for sure, in blissful unawareness of any bigger issue that doesn’t concern my immediate situation. Perhaps it’s a head-in-the-sand thing to do, but for now it works, and I am surrounded by pretty amazing sand in which to do so.

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This time last year I was in Byron Bay celebrating new year and it was about to become the pivotal moment towards my decision to move away by the end of 2016. So at least that was one resolution I managed to keep.

During my quest to move away, I’ve already been to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Bali and Lombok – and I’m back in the Philippines happily delaying my return to ‘real life’ having postponed my flight to Sydney to ‘sometime before June’. I’m not quite ready to give up travelling, or moreover, take on any form of commitment or responsibility just yet. Sorry, not sorry.

As my my life these days is inspired by Instagram and Pinterest, which pretty much forms the basis of my next destination, thinking about going back to a 9-5 desk job where my view doesn’t change now gives me the fear.

Since Vietnam – and my last post (a fair while back) – I stopped over in the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, before going to the Philippines (for the first time) and then Bali (which was meant to be my last destination before Sydney).

Both Bali and the Philippines have had a huge impact on me for different reasons, heightened by their complete contrast to one another, in the people – both locals and tourists/travellers – their behaviours and the culture. I was spoilt by the Philippines, which gave Bali a lot to live up to.

I arrived in the Philippines with barely any knowledge of the country. I didn’t even appreciate its size – over 7000 islands?! I’d only really heard of Palawan because of a travel blog, which was my first stop, but it was here that I felt that I started over or rather turned a corner, with a new mindset, arriving on my own again with a new sense of freedom.

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Palawan is most famous for El Nido and ask any Filipino about it and they will coo over how beautiful it is. It’s pretty much paradise. Not only were there islands to hop with the greenest, bluest and clearest waters I’d seen, the whole vibe of the place was what I needed – especially when battling a savage bout of tonsillitis in a coffin sized hot box of a room with no windows. It was only £6 a night….

Already my first unwavering impressions of Filipino people were that they were so friendly and unassuming, the culture was relaxed, albeit very Catholic, and I was happy being on my own there. It was the first time I’d felt like that in Asia.

After a week in the sunshine of El Nido, into the jungle I went to experience a different side to the Philippines, where I lived, with a new travel mate, in bamboo huts for the following six days, deep in the lush flora. Resident geckos echoed from every corner and a river ran down the bottom of the valley. I was happy to be holed away in this new jungle paradise, carefree and wifi free, exploring the Chocolate Hills, finding some nocturnal tarsiers and getting pissed on red wine after a torrential rainstorm, putting the world to rights with my impressive opponent.

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After two intense weeks I had a lot to think about – and I decided Bali wouldn’t be my last stop. I wanted to see more, not only of the Philippines, but my mind had been broadened. Sydney could wait.

Landing in Bali from the Philippines was an immediate culture shock. The clean airport, Hindi statues and pushy aggressive taxi men made for an impactful welcome upon arrival. Little did I know how much of a culture shock I would find the following few days.

I went straight to Canggu, another Instagram led decision based on a nice sunset I saw – call me fickle. Canggu was a hipster-surfer town, full of shaggy long haired Aussies with cracking tans and impressive tattoos. So impressive they inspired me to get my second. YOLO.

Aside from, or to add to, the cardboard-cut-out Canggu surfer clichés, were vegan cafes, detox shops, wheatgrass shots and yoga studios. It was enough to give anyone a complex, especially a traveller who drinks at least a beer a day and has barely seen a fruit or veg in a week.

On first impressions, Bali was a strange, very ‘made’ place. The vibe was try hard, or at least people tried hard to not look like they did. One night out was to the local skate park-come-bar, which, among the glistening men throwing themselves into the drained pool on a four-wheeled board, were three velvet sofas pushed together by the toilets and a crew of five tattoo artists decorating willing clients. Only in Canggu. And no that’s not where mine came from.

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It was almost exhausting to keep up with the coolness of Canggu, and not to mention the money I was spending… I was ready to get out and try Ubud next. I’d heard good things and was ready to chill.

But Ubud was more of the same. I felt a pretense in all of the people walking down the streets, as if everyone was a caricature of their location. In Ubud, they were the faux spiritual yoga types. Less in-your-face as those in Canggu, but it was still there. And what surprised me the most was how many shops there were everywhere. Everything was geared towards looking a certain way, the Bali way. It didn’t sit well with me and I got a bit aggy. Why the need for showiness and greed in a supposedly spiritual and grounding place?  I craved the simpleness of the rest of Asia I’d become accustomed too – especially in the Philippines where you really are back to basics in most cases.

Although I saw some incredible scenery in Bali and met some amazing people I was ready to take it back down a notch, so off I went to Kuta in Lombok for the last four days in Indonesia. It was a decision well made and I loved it. It was completely different to Bali, its economically poorer sister, but its richer in unspoilt scenery and beaches.

One of the beaches in Kuta was good for beginner surfers, a challenge I tried one day, yet which left me with more of the ocean in my lungs and sunburn on my arse than having developed any real skill.

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Despite its beauty, Kuta was another ‘pinch myself’ place but for a humbling reason as I watched the ‘bracelet kids’ be paraded through bars and restaurants night after night making money for a behind-the-scenes boss. Their drooping eyes after a long day at school would tug on your heart strings as they held up their brightly coloured boards, willing the hours to go by until they could go home at 10pm. It was heartbreaking – but sadly you never knew the full story. Something that definitely made me think about the pot luck distribution of fortune.

So now, having crossed into 2017, a thought that is reoccurring – and I can’t claim it as my own entirely – is how can you (I, you, he, she, we, they) do more while travelling? It’s definitely going to be something to think about for the new year, especially as I’ll be on the road for a good few months more. All this time to think and reflect; yes 2016 was a fucking epic year, it’s blown my mind on more than one occasion, but how will 2017 better – and not just on a personal level?

Right now the plan is to spend the next few weeks in the Philippines but who knows where after. All this time to think is almost daunting… anything is possible. At least that was what 2016 showed me.

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