There’s a map of the Philippines that hangs across my bed in a gilded bronze frame. It’s from a 1935 Rand McNally World Atlas. I paid $400 for it ten years ago at an antique shop in Toronto because the shopkeeper was friendly and I couldn’t resist it. I wanted that map on my wall.
Every time I look at it, I feel a little bit better.
Travel has always meant a lot to me and my family—not because we travelled a lot for vacations, but because it was an act of leaving the Philippines, moving to Canada, and enjoying a lifestyle that would allow us to save enough to go anywhere in the world except the country we were from.
“You could go to Europe!” my mom would proclaim, as she chatted with my dad over MSN messenger in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Manila.
My dad left for Vancouver in the early 2000s under Canada’s revised immigration policy for skilled workers. While he was away, I drank beer and cheap rum in corner stores, snuck into clubs with the rich kids from my high school and smoked weed at the local park while someone paid security guards to look the other way. I loved being 16 in my nearly lawless, chaotic, gritty Manila.
“You know, we came to Canada for you and your sisters,” my dad said, his voice tinny and unnaturally loud as it bounced around the walls of my apartment. I could tell he leaned forward when he spoke into his cellphone’s microphone. My mom shuffled around in the kitchen, putting away cutlery that clinked against each other in the drawer.
“I know, dad, I’ll be fine,” I assured them both. I stood over my hiking pack, deciding whether to toss one or two dry-fit shirts in for my excursion to Mt. Apo in Mindanao province—the Philippines’ highest mountain peak.
It was impossible to hide their worry for me flying off to a region known for armed conflict with Muslim militant groups. But no one was changing my mind; I had a narrow, pointy sticky note taped over Mt. Apo on my wall-mounted map for years. Climbing that mountain, for me, simply meant I could get past whatever challenges lay ahead. Twenty-six hours and three airline carriers later, I landed in Mindanao—my gateway to adventure.
I paid $400 for it ten years ago at an antique shop in Toronto because the shopkeeper was friendly and I couldn’t resist it. I wanted that map on my wall.
When a farmer named Henry came to pick me up in his van shortly before my hike, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew nothing about his agro-forestry farm except its name,. but I did know that at 28, I’d learned some of my life’s biggest lessons by blindly walking into things.
“So how did you hear about me again?” he asked.
“I searched for ‘farms in Mindanao’ on Google,” I admitted, over an AM radio talk show that played in the local dialect. “I’ve never been to Mindanao, so I decided to visit.”
Henry looked at me through the rear-view mirror and cracked a smile. His skin was taut and bore the colour and sheen of years spent under the sun. His gaze was warm and friendly. I guessed he was in his fifties.
“Well, it’s a great place to be.”
We passed through the farm’s wrought-iron gates , then unloaded my hiking pack and a pair of styrofoam coolers. Henry instructed Jon, his farmhand, to gut the fish in the coolers.
He handed me a ring of keys and led me up to my room, which turned out to be the entire second floor of a net-covered nipa palm and bamboo structure. The space could fit two pool tables with lots of room to walk around.
“Make yourself comfortable! I’ll be back for dinner.”
But dinner, as I knew from growing up in the Philippines, could be as early as five or as late as ten at night. Sometime before sunset, I walked to the lodge’s common area and settled myself in a chair. I noticed Jon in the outdoor kitchen behind me as I lit a cigarette.
“What are you making?” I asked. I could see a pot of rice resting on a ledge attached to the concrete sink, while there was Another large pot that held some type of broth, and one kawali (similar to a wok) propped over some concrete, hollow blocks that encircled a low, wood-fueled fire.
“Fish tonight if that’s okay po,” Jon said. “Nag-text po si sir Henry, traffic daw po,” he added.
I’d forgotten how casually the word “po” was used in the Philippines. Most Filipinos use the word “po” as a show of respect, not just in addressing someone who’s older than you, but also for those “higher up” along the social scale.
I mentioned only having had a late breakfast that day, but offered to wait.
“Ah ma’m, they might be later!” Jon stated. “Let’s eat na po when it’s ready. This is my specialty.”
I walked over to his spot on the table, where there were mounds of roughly chopped garlic, onions and ginger on a melamine plate. Two tight knots of lemongrass—I could smell its fragrance despite the cigarette and charcoal smoke—and coarse salt were nestled next to the ginger. The gutted, cleaned fish were waiting in a red plastic bag, next to bottles of soy sauce, fish sauce and some other cloudy liquid. Jon was rinsing a large handful of greens that resembled spinach in the sink.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know the English, but it’s that one over there.” He pointed to a little patch of trimmed greens that grew inside old car tires repurposed as garden planters along the path to the kitchen.
Jon scooped the fish with its greens and broth into a bowl and laid it in front of me. I leaned into the bowl, unzipped the hood of my jacket and engulfed myself in its steam.
It was the best fish stew I ever remembered having. The greens were peppery, the broth piquant and soothing. The skin on my portion of fish, blistered from having been doused repeatedly with hot oil, carried a strong scent of lemongrass and ginger, despite the tiny amount of each I saw Jon toss into the pot.
The other farmhands nodded politely after helping themselves to several spoonfuls of soup and a tiny portion of fish on the table. “Thank you po,” they all said, before walking off into the darkness to eat elsewhere. I bribed them to stay by sharing my pack of Marlboroughs and asking about other places I needed to see in the area.
I learned about their families, how long they’d been working at the farm, that the karaoke music from the store down the road would probably go on until 3:00 a.m., and that posting selfies on Facebook was something they still loved to do. After Jon bought a pint of brandy—he refused to let me chip in—someone brought out a guitar and we drank and burned through two more packs of cigarettes.
I could never have imagined making friends with a bunch of farmhands in the heart of Mindanao over a single pint of booze.
Amid crickets that never stopped chirping and a sky as dark and pierced with brilliant stars as I’d ever seen, I realized how pointless it was to let generalizations of people and places stand in the way of traveling to experience something you never have before. I’d have to mark this spot on my gilded map of the Philippines with a little sticky note.
Two tight knots of lemongrass—I could smell its fragrance despite the cigarette and charcoal smoke—and coarse salt were nestled next to the ginger.
As a teenager, I imagined I would someday host parties in a brick-walled loft that overlooked a dazzling cityscape. I’d invite friends over for wine, cheese and charcuterie nights and play folk rock records that were as far away from the sizzling pigs’ ears, Pilsen beer and karaoke machines in someone’s garage that made up the parties I knew from high school.
Eight weeks before graduating, I got kicked out of school and lost the academic honours I’d earned over the last four years. Marijuana was not something my conservative high school condoned, even beyond school premises. I was crushed like a spent cigarette and disappointed my parents like never before. That summer, I wished I was anywhere but the Philippines. I couldn’t wait to lose myself in the markets, farms and vineyards that Anthony Bourdain’s TV crew experienced. Someday, I would visit those places and write about what I ate there.
The desire to travel consumed me. There was so much I didn’t know about how the foods I loved (and had yet to try) were grown; and I knew even less about how they made their way to my plate and cup. Coffee—my earliest love and confidant—was one of these things and I knew I wanted to explore what a Filipino kitchen meant further through coffee. Why did I ignore what my grandmother’s hometown was famous for?
Along the foothills of a mountain range, I met Neil, who picked me up from an inn where I awoke to see rows of golden pineapples as far as the eye could see.
Neil picked me up in a jeep that always needed to have the key in the ignition, unless you wanted to spend an hour starting the engine. As we drove through the pineapple fields, which seemed plentiful from afar, but patchy and parched up close, I knew I had to tell stories about the food that grows in the Philippines, however I could, because no one else was telling them in the spaces that many Filipinos my age lived in. Through winding paths where water buffalo and tire tracks forged ahead, we made our way to a coffee farm, nestled at the foot of the mossy, mystical Kitanglad mountains.
Neil was a wildlife photographer, mountaineer, fifth generation IP (as indigenous people in the region like to be called), farm manager, and father of two.
Through Neil, I began to understand the importance of seeing ourselves as caretakers of the land we stood on. Though the fields around us were depleted of healthy soil from decades of growing pineapples as a monoculture (producing over half of the world’s canned pineapple products), locals here felt that stewardship over the land was still their responsibility. These valleys have supported them for generations and could support a relatively new coffee-growing industry.
Neil had bandages on his right arm, from elbow to wrist, remnants of fighting a forest fire the week before. He waved this off as a job hazard. “Of course, we had to do it,” he said. “But it was hard, we’ve had the drought this year. We had to pump water from the streams and carry it uphill with a lot of buckets.”
As part of managing their natural resources, he told me about working with local communities who have a history of hunting endangered Philippine eagles—majestic creatures with a wingspan that can reach over three feet—that swoop into their cottages looking for food. Up in the mountains, locals have taken to shooting them for dinner.
Hunting eagles in response to hunger was a cycle that would take time to address, Neil said, but there were some things that could be done now. Changing peoples’ mindsets of “what’s good to eat” was one way, he said. “I mean, back then, we used to eat lots of vegetables.”
Neil helped address this problem by encouraging locals to grow food that used to be consumed predominantly here, such as leafy backyard vegetables and grains like millet, which is found in caves dating back to centuries before the Spanish conquest.
“Land here is rich, we need people to realize that. Even if it starts with something like turmeric that just grows around,” he said, pulling out a stubby root from the soil. He brushed off some ladybugs, snapped it in half and handed me the richest, brightest shade of orange I’d ever seen on a vegetable, with an earthy, cumin-like scent. “So, we’re trying to grow coffee now, along with this, to show people that it’s something they can care for and make a living from. Basically, so they won’t go hungry.”
We walked to a neighbouring plot of land with rows of twisty vines that crawled up trellises and last year’s coffee trees, pruned as high as my shoulders. It took three to five years for one coffee tree to bear fruit, which meant that the trees around us were in various stages of maturity. This year’s harvest, while enough to cover expenses for the families who farmed here, was not enough to make a significant profit.
I picked a ripe red coffee berry, scratched away the skin, and marvelled at how this sweet, tiny fruit—after being dried, sorted and roasted—transformed into something that literally fueled the world.
We hopped back into Neil’s jeep and drove to the farm’s main lodge to have a cup of coffee. I told him about how a quote from Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, was fitting for the experience; I’d seen it posted on Instagram a few days before.
“The one about how you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?” Neil asked.
I nodded, sipping my coffee. Though we passed the roasting room at least an hour ago, I could still smell it on my clothes. I inhaled deeply into my cup. The coffee tasted sweet, by far the freshest I’ve enjoyed, with a hint of bitterness and definite notes of hazelnut.
Neil excused himself and turned to someone behind us. They shook hands then spoke in a rapid stream of the local dialect; I made out the words “Manila” and “Fedex” from their exchange.
I savoured my coffee, slowly, while people around me continued on with their day. I’d need another sticky note on my map at home, pointing to this coffee farm. Here, like in many other parts of the world, people were simply doing what they could to save something that mattered to them.
“Land here is rich, we need people to realize that. Even if it starts with something like turmeric that just grows around.”
When I wake up in the morning in Toronto, I see the sun peek through the curtains and fall onto the map in my bedroom. The plants that hang from my ceiling cast little twinkly shadows over my sticky notes. That map is a prized possession and something I would save in a fire—an event I have also lived through. Though I can now travel anywhere, I am drawn more than ever to the Philippines, beyond the country I’ve known, where there is much to discover.
Travelling to Mindanao was important because I knew it would help me “unlearn” things, such as the general distrust many Filipinos have towards others from their country. Even within our community, racism exists in many forms. This particular view of those from southern Mindanao as a wholly dangerous people has, subconsciously, passed from my parents’ generation into my own.
I realized that becoming “Canadianized” in this way—to view and treat everyone with respect and openness, to let go of ingrained misconceptions and judgment—helped me appreciate the true riches of my parents’ land: its people. I began to recognize my cultural heritage for what it contains; to celebrate instead of shun and abandon it.
And while travelling to the Philippines has helped me grow in many ways, I feel guilty—a sense of shame, part of a complex behaviour called “hiya” in Filipino culture—over being able to make these kinds of visits to the motherland.
I often think about my parents (and many others) who’ve uprooted their families and started life in a new country. Saving every dollar, relying on no one else but themselves. I admire that. It takes an incredible strength of character that’s hard not to emulate. Would I have done the same?
Though going home fills a void, I know it’s a temporary respite. Many Filipinos, like me, still find it hard to talk about the psychological impact that immigration creates. After all, we’ve been doing it in large numbers for decades. What place did my search for identity have amidst an everyday struggle to survive?
For years, all I wanted was to run to the people and places I loved in the Philippines. There, I thought, I would be understood. I could heal from the loneliness of day to day living in a big city and be myself. In Canada, how I felt was always pushed aside by immediate needs like my next work shift, groceries and rent.
Until I stuck those sticky notes, I couldn’t say “Hey, let’s talk” or “I feel alone” because I thought that asking for help was a burden to the people around me who worked hard to get to where they were.
It took a pair of long dead mapmakers to convince me it was okay to feel vulnerable and lost. That sometimes, travelling to the other side of the world could, indeed, point you in the right direction, even if you take alternative paths. Providing guidance, after all, is the purpose of a map.
Nastasha Alli is a writer, recipe developer and food tour guide based in Toronto. She was born and raised in the Philippines and came to Canada in 2007. She has worked in the hospitality, publishing and technology industries and considers herself a lifelong learner. She publishes recipes and food writing on her blog, and hosts/produces a podcast about Filipino food culture.