El Nido, The Nest

In Palawan, the province in the southwest of the Philippines, a small town called El Nido rests on the coast of the South China sea. The ramshackle buildings crouch in the sun, surrounded by a dense jungle of palm trees and lowland evergreens. The ocean spends all day gathering the strength to kiss the sand at the feet of restaurants, bars, and guest houses facing the shore.

Tourists–French, Danish, Dutch, American–shuffle through the streets, taking in the sights through sunglasses. Their skin is sunscreen, sea water, and sweat.

The local Filipinos stand on the sides of the narrow streets and call out destinations to tourists, advertising their transportation services. They drive tricycles: a motorbike attached to a carriage, which whole Filipino families will cram themselves inside or a tourist or two will sit in cautiously. The tricycle drivers compete for the road with motorbikes, people, and dogs.

The roads are paved, but rough and frayed. On the right and left, restaurants serve fresh fruit shakes, stores sell brightly-colored clothing, dive shops promise an introduction to a hidden world, and boat tour offices offer island-hopping adventures, and if you walk far enough out of the town to the east, when the road turns into dirt, you can see children pretending to be monkeys in the palm trees and dogs trotting like they have business of their own and homes behind fences shaded by sky-soaring palm trees. Behind the fences, the Filipinos know they’re on display, but they watch you, too, like the strange, sunburnt creature that you are.

El Nido swarms with tourists, but if you walk far enough away from the town, you’re bound to find a beach where the water stretches out with a soft, sandy floor and the waves toss gently and there is maybe no one else around. If you’re lucky, you can find fresh coconuts and a Filipino man with a machete who will slice open its deep green shell. And you can sip the coconut juice and gnaw it into sweet, white shavings with your teeth, like the strange, out-of-place foreigner you are.

Eventually you’ll make your way back into town, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other foreigners on a boat tour. The boats for island hopping are called bangkas, or pump-boats. Long and narrow, they have bamboo outriggers on each side for balance. They tote you from island to island, the motor humming through your skin. When the boat stops, there is snorkeling in crystal-clear water, fish flitting back and forth. Nemo hides in his anemone, a Surgeon nips calves and ankles to protect her nest, a pastel rainbow fish swims carefree.

There are beaches with resorts where people paid more than you ever could to stay, only to have you stomp through the sand and hog their cozy, sun-warmed hammock for a half hour. And there are beaches where you would be happy to spend your life, eating fish you caught in a hut you built from dried palm leaves. And beaches where you can buy ice cream cones for 50 pesos and play with the sand between your toes and fingers. Feeling like flour or cookie dough, the sand molds together like crisp snow.

There are lagoons, where the water is turquoise and milky and still. When you break the surface, you can hear your own sighs of wonder echo off the walls of rock that rise up like a cathedral on either side.

Sometimes the ocean shows you everything, an open book of fish and coral reefs, and other times it covers everything in shadow, hiding the life it protects beneath you and your embarrassing life jacket.

When the sun begins to fall towards the edge of the sea, the water turns from teal to navy blue.

El Nido. Where the young Filipino men lay shirtless and barefoot at the helm of the boat, soaking sun into their dark skin as the boat takes them home. Where the older men sit in the shade with their shirts pulled up to their chests, stomachs relaxing toward the ground. Where the young FIlipino women sit behind counters and give smiles that reach their eyes when they greet you. Where the older women offer open cases of handmade jewelry and squint into the sun. Where children sing “Feliz Navidad” for a tip and climb and play on boats beached on the shore. Where dogs keep watch outside of businesses and lean into your hand when you pet their ears.

El Nido. A town whose people are like a big, extended family, and the tourists are tolerated and necessary house guests. “Nido” means “nest”, and you are blessed to be welcomed, as a traveler, to the place these Filipinos call home.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Avischious.

It’s difficult to know just what to expect when visiting a foreign country. No amount of reading about sights to see or cultural practices are a replacement for the real thing. When I was preparing to go to Russia, this process was made even more difficult as I knew very few people outside of my Russian professors at school who had actually been there. Most of my friends had no experience there, and what they did know was usually based off some joke or Russian stereotype. Needless to say I was nervous and excited to venture off into a completely new part of the world in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Stepping of the plane, I realized just how different learning a language in a classroom was compared to actually being surrounded by native speakers. At college the speakers I talked to were just learning the language, and apart from my professor, no one spoke quickly or with great pronunciation. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby to see if I could pick up anything they said, while only sometimes being able to pick up the gist of what they were saying. What really forced me to get comfortable with speaking Russian was living with a host family that spoke no English. It took getting used to, but eventually we were able to understand each other,  and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the language.

After about a week of being in St. Petersburg, I began exploring the city with friends to see the sights. When most people think of Russian architecture, they think of Red Square or giant Soviet apartment complexes. However, St. Petersburg is a very different type of Russian city.  Since the city was originally founded by Russian czar and Europhile, Peter the Great, there is a distinct European style in much of the city. Many of the buildings are pastel colored and feature arches and pillars like in classical French design. That is not to say there is not Russian style, though. As one heads out from the center of the city towards the additions added during the Soviet times, there are towering grey apartment buildings where many of the city’s residents live.

The city not only has unique architecture, but also has its fair share of art. There are many museums in St. Petersburg, but none are more famous than the Hermitage. It’s one of the most famous art museums in the world, and after visiting several times while I was there, it’s easy to understand why. There are pieces from ancient Egyptian art all the way to modern galleries from around the world. While it is an amazing place to visit, I preferred another nearby art museum called the Russian Museum. What makes it special is that it contains only the works of artists from Russia. This helps to give a distinctly Russian perspective of art and the world. It features early Russian icons which show the deep connections with Russian Orthodoxy, portraits of Russian aristocrats during Imperial Russia, and paintings of modern Soviet ideals.

To better understand Russian culture, I then had to travel outside of the city to explore some of the vast parks and gardens. Russians traditionally have emotional and spiritual ties to nature, and getting out of the city is a great way for them to unwind. To get to the parks, my friends and I traveled in old soviet style train cars out from the city, and despite the cold weather, large groups of Russians were out enjoying the scenery. Many of the parks are on the land from former imperial palace grounds, and the amount of space they take up is absolutely gigantic. One could easily spend a day or two just walking around a single park. Through the thick forest and rolling hills, there are often small buildings scattered throughout the parks. These buildings range from green houses to mausoleums built for royal family members.

Of course, it is impossible to really know a culture without actually talking to the people who live there. Walking down the street or riding the metro, people always have a serious look on their face, which can be quite off-putting for foreigners. However I learned to not be fooled by the stern outward appearances of the Russian people. Once you get to know Russians, they are very kind and welcoming. From the friends I made while playing soccer matches in the park, to the old Russian grandmothers who simply wanted someone with whom they could practice their English, they are the ones that truly made Russia feel like an amazing place.

Adventures in Singapore

Today’s guest blogger is Hannah Hendrix.

Hello, world! My name is Hannah. Last spring break I went to Singapore for the second time (the first being the summer before), and I absolutely loved it both times. My father frequents Singapore on business trips and I, wanting adventure, decided to tag along the two times I could. The first time I went, I did numerous activities, like going to the Singapore Zoo (so cool!), an island called Sentosa, the aquarium, as well as doing random site-seeing, like the Merlion and the light show down near the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (done every night for free). The coolest thing about Singapore to me was that you could get anywhere (walking or taking the MRT) underground. And it wasn’t just a tunnel underground; it was a tunnel that led to the lower level of a mall and a food court. Singapore doesn’t have much land mass, and so they’ve built everything up and down. There are malls everywhere! Literally. They also have a variety of price ranges, so if you want to spend the big bucks, you can, or if you’re feeling more on the frugal side, there are things for that as well.

Both times I went to Chinatown. Chinatown, no matter where in the world it is, is always my favorite. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere because I’ve always had a love for Asian culture, and there’s always so much packed into a few streets of town! It’s exciting and wonderful to visit all the booths with their different products to offer (especially food!). It’s just all around a fun time.

One of the weirdest but easiest (as a traveler) parts of Singapore was that while the majority of the people living there are Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese, everyone speaks English. Not when they’re on the streets talking to each other, but if you need directions or are wanting to shop anywhere, there is no language barrier. The signs are also all in English and Chinese, so no need to be confused when someone tells you what street something is on.

Singapore is kind of like a hub of different ethnicities and cultures colliding but all working and meshing well together all at once. The British had taken over Singapore for a while before it became its own nation, and so there are many places (old hotels, site specific monuments, and more) that are British in nature. The plugs in the wall are even European!

The temperature there, since it’s near the equator, is basically the same year round. It’s humid, but not horribly humid. And it’s a delightful kind of warm. All of the buildings are air conditioned and even the tunnels underground are, so there’s no need to be in the heat if you don’t want to. But if you feel like walking around, then it’s bearable. Just bring water!

The last thing I’ll mention is their rules. They have very strict laws about jaywalking, chewing gum (You absolutely can’t do it. They don’t even sell gum there. If you chew it, you can be arrested.) and vandalism. But because of their strictness, it’s a very clean and well organized city. You probably won’t feel like the minority if you go there, because even though the majority of people you see are Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, there are so many white business men and women walking around that you somehow blend in with the crowd even though you should stick out.

I would recommend going if you can.