Text by Paige Whitney, ETA 2017–19
Photos by Melissa Kukowski, ETA 2017–19

This past winter marked the first of my ventures into Southeast Asia. I chowed down on delicious food from many nationalities in Singapore, and was happily blinded by pastel buildings and neon lights in Hong Kong—but the biggest surprises came in the Philippines.

Melissa (a fellow ETA) and I spent most of our time in the Philippines in Manila, the country’s capital. We drifted around to huge shopping malls, and traipsed through Intramuros (the old Spanish quarters), Rizal Park, and Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown. While our Airbnb was a beautiful condominium with multiple pools in Makati, Binondo was my first real in-person glimpse of the poverty segregated to districts of Metro Manila. Through a back alley, crates of crowing chickens stacked precariously close to a bridge over a small river’s edge decorated the whimsical scene as we walked past throngs of children playing and little puppies teetering beside them. The children’s eyes smiled as one young boy innocently called out to me, calling me “beautiful,” as his friends laughed in embarrassment. On the main roads, the feeling was different. The air felt thicker and heavier on the sidewalks as we walked by men welding and soldering car parts. Later, while sitting in an air-conditioned cafe with an iced coffee to recharge, I could feel and even see the black layer of grease that had collected on my arms as I walked by.

While these distinctions showed in every area of Philippines we visited (despite our small sample size of only two places of the many islands), Boracay—which was the most highly anticipated portion of our week-long travel plan in the Philippines—was where the class divide became starkly clear. The island did not disappoint (because it was the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life) but it did surprise me.

Boracay is a very small island—you have to take a ferry from the larger island that houses the airport to reach it—of under four square miles. It had been closed for six months in 2018 to recover from environmental damage sustained from massive over-tourism. The effects of that consciousness and the seriousness of the cleanup job were clear in the paper bags used at the convenience store, the paper straws used in buko (Filipino coconut) and shakes alike, the “environmental tax” being most of the ferry fee, and the crystal clear blue water. To even enter Boracay, you must show proof of your hotel booking on the island or be sponsored by a resident of the island. We stayed at a “local home” through Airbnb (which is technically a workaround of the entry to the island), a humble little apartment accompanied by curious pet kittens and water warmed only by the rays of the sun. We truly were in the thick of an authentic neighborhood – roosters crowing at any hour of the day or night, babies crying, fires burning in barrels in the plaza where teenage boys played basketball late at night, and the scent of dinner lingering in the air.

Yet a five-minute walk brought us to almost a different world—the beachfront. The number of suntanned foreigners was staggering, the countless restaurants selling overpriced food catered to a westerner’s palate, the luxury hotels and spa advertisements rampant—was I really still on the same island? How did the line get drawn so harshly and quickly between the wealthy foreigner-centric beach and the borderline impoverished neighborhood we were staying in?

The next day, we ventured further into town in hopes of finding beach towels. The remaining efforts to redo the infrastructure of the island were all about—power lines leeching energy and hanging dangerously low, large portions of sidewalks just dug up, and new sewer piping laying exposed in the sun. The taxi drivers of the island—mainly motorbikes—continually called to us: “Hi ma’am! Beach? Only 30 pisos [about $0.60]! Yes quick ride, beautiful beach!” They seemed just as confused to see us within their neighborhood as we were in trying to find the towels.

It’s difficult to talk about these topics without spreading caucasian pity on the situation or without sounding emotionless, but my experience in Boracay was eye-opening. Of course, it was the “tropical vacation” that I always wanted to have, but it showed me more than just beauty in delving into those streets beyond the beachfront. I learned to be aware of my privilege, needing to consider how lucky I am with my opportunities and economic faculty, but also hoping that some of that wealth that Boracay gains through tourism will be given back to their local communities, and not just go toward making the beachfront fancier. Seeing that divide up close really hit home, as well as left me hoping that the larger powers will check themselves and distribute their successes to all those on this tropical paradise.