I enjoy my life in the tropical paradise of Camotes Islands located in Cebu, Philippines Camotes Islands are also called the Lost Horizon and the name Camotes actually means sweet potato. These small group of four little Islands are a gem. The Islands are a very rural province of Cebu and there is little to offer those wanting all the modern conveniences of a city. Until I met my Filipina wife I had never heard of Camotes Islands or Cebu. I’m sure this is true for many westerners. Camotes offers a lifestyle very unique for any foreigner, but the Islands may not be everyone’s cup of tea. One has to adjust to the Island lifestyle as the Islands will not adjust to you. I often wonder how my family and friends back home would view my new lifestyle if they came to visit me. I think most of them would just raise an eyebrow and ask, why? I would just reply, Why not! Explaining my love for these Islands and the lifestyle may prove difficult and even more difficult for my family and friends to accept why I love it so much.
In 2003 I was actively chatting and emailing and even making some phone calls to a girl (Judith) in Cebu, Philippines. Judith’s sister and husband lived just a few hours from me in Florida. They came to visit me before I took my trip to the Philippines. Once I met the sister and her American husband I knew I wanted to go to the Philippines. Even if my long distance friend in the Philippines and I didn’t mesh once we met, I still wanted to go. The sister and her husband told me so many great stories about Cebu and Camotes Islands I had to see the place. That was in December 2003; by February 2004 I was in Cebu for a two week vacation. The round trip flight cost about $1,000.00 and the hotel was just $20.00 a night. I hoped my long distance friend and I would hit things off, we did.
Once in Cebu City, Judith and some of her family met me at the airport and took me to my hotel. My first trip to the Philippines and I was not totally ready for all the culture shock. Cebu City is the second largest city in the Philippines and has many beautiful places to visit. However, upon my first arrival I only saw a lot of poverty, old buildings and over crowding mixed in with just a very few modern neighborhoods. My first thoughts were this is a very backwards place and how can people live like this? I now know that Cebu City is indeed a mix of the very old and the very new. This is a third world country trying and struggling to become a first world country. There is terrible poverty, but there is also new and great wealth coming into the country. Cebu City has wonderful facilities for any foreigner and is an up and coming major city.
After spending a few days in Cebu City Judith had shown me many of the sites in the city to include the markets and the two big malls in the city. We had done a lot of shopping and with the help of Judith I got some really great deals. We took Taxi cabs to get around the City and the fare was never more than one dollar. We ate at several different restaurants and I never spent more than $10.00 for both of us to eat. Judith and I had pretty much decided that we made a great couple and wanted to continue our relationship. I was amazed that this beautiful young woman wanted to be with me and after almost four years she is still with me. Anyway, we took a trip to Camotes Islands to meet her family. We left Cebu early in the morning on a pamboat, sometimes called a banca boat, from Danao.
This was a three hour boat ride. This was an open boat with just a roof and a rather small boat, holding maybe 70 passengers. The boat was also carrying several large bags of rice and chicken feed, as well as the chickens and a few pigs. This smell combined with the diesel exhaust fumes and the rocking of three foot wave was more than difficult to tolerate for my weak American sense of smell. I am proud to say that I was able to keep my breakfast. Although, Judith was worried when I starting turning various shades of green. I learned a lesson that was my last pamboat ride; I now take the fast craft boat or the ferry boat to and from Camotes Islands. I didn’t know it at that time, but we could have taken another boat, the ferry boat. However, Judith had always used the pamboat as did her family because it is cheaper. She thought it wise we spend (I think) just P120.00 instead of P180.00 for the ferry boat, a savings of just about one dollar for each ticket at that time. Just goes to show that Filipinas are thrifty.
By 9:00 AM we were approaching Camotes Islands. The waves had stopped and there was just a very gentle and sweet breeze coming from the islands. The sun was shinning and reflecting off the blue water. I could see a few palm trees and one nipa hut (bamboo hut) on a hillside just down from the rolling mountains and the white sand of the beach. It really looked like a painting from Norman Rockwell. I feel in love with Camotes Islands at that very moment and I hadn’t even stepped unto the Islands. I knew I was going to liver here someday. A family friend met us at the pier and took us to her parent’s house. As we were traveling the Camotes roads I was amazed at all the beautiful sites and dumbstruck that the locals all seemed too busy to notice they lived in paradise. The Islands are almost untouched and the natural beauty remains. There are no big buildings or malls, no big commercial business exist on the Islands. It’s just all natural with thousands of palm trees, mountains and beautiful beaches. The locals all smiled and waved as we past by on the way to Judith’s family home. Many locals gave me a second look and I heard many say, Hey Joe as we went by, a term left over from the American GI’s in WWII.
As we traveled to the family home we past through several small neighborhoods called barangays. The houses are a mix of traditional small Nipa Huts, small wood framed houses and both small and large concrete built houses. It was easy to judge which families had money and which didn’t by looking at the homes. Yet, rich or poor, all the people were smiling as we traveled. Many of the homes were still under construction, but the families were occupying the unfinished home. Seems once the walls and roof are up the family will move in and in time, months and sometimes years, complete the construction. As we got closer to the family home the road became less of a road and more of a dirt pathway winding around and up the mountain to our destination. A passenger car would not be ideal in Camotes. We were traveling by two motorcycles with the driver, Judith and me on one and our bags and two others on the second bike.
After about an hour of traveling we reached the family home and I was greeted by the parents and some of Judith’s siblings, there are seven children in her family. The neighbors and a few Aunts and Uncles and Cousins were also there to greet me. In all I think the entire barangay was present to say, Hi Patrick. After a quick greeting I was rushed into the parent’s Nipa Hut, being rebuilt at the time into a concrete home and given a large lunch of rice, fish, and chicken. While I ate (alone) the rest of my greeters were busy outside talking and making plans as to where I would sleep. Just as I finished eating in came Judith and her mother came in to tell me I needed to rest after the trip and my lunch, so off to a siblings bed I went. I felt like a child, but at the same time knew they were trying to make me feel comfortable. Judith brought me into the bedroom and removed my shoes. I guess she thought I needed the help or she was afraid I would put my dirty shoes on the bed. I now know this is a sign of respect in the Philippines. When I awoke from my short nap Judith was right there to put my shoes back on. By the way, she doesn’t do this anymore, unless we are at her parent’s home. I prefer she didn’t anyway.
Once I was awake and shoes on my feet, off we went to meet some of the other people in the barangay. There was just a couple that didn’t make it to the parent’s house when I first arrived. None of the people I met had much money to include the parents and most had very modest homes, even for Filipinos. What they all had was a wonderful and kind smile and none seemed to be in want for anything except for me to say, hello. I was welcomed by all and made to feel as family in every situation.
The barangay is situated on a mountain top covered with palm trees and the road leading into and out of the barangay is nothing more than a dirt path with Nipa Huts built along the sides. It truly makes for a beautiful picture. There is no running water in the barangay. People use a community well and fill buckets to bring to their homes and then fill big barrels making several trips to finish the task. The barangay is a farming area for palm trees (coconut), rice, pigs and chickens. Many of the people have just a small farm to support a large family. Electric power has been available to the barangay since the year 2000, however, many can’t afford the cost and the ones that do have power may not use it much. The strange thing is almost everyone has a TV and a stereo and many also have a karaoke machine. Filipino men love to do two things drink and sing. The drink of choice is rum and it is really cheap, just pennies a bottle. Beer is available and it too is just a few pennies a bottle. Filipina women just sing and tolerate the men’s drinking.
The sun sets at about 6:00 on the Camotes Islands Hill top barangay and it is easy to see which households have electric and which uses candles or kerosene lamps. The only noise is the occasional passing motorcycle and of course the clucking of chickens. Almost every family in the barangay has a few chickens and roosters. Cock fighting is legal in the Philippines. It’s rare to hear anyone talking much after 9:00 PM unless there is a drinking party in progress. In that case you will hear all the men talking and laughing and singing on the karaoke machines. Nights are a welcome time as the temperature is pleasant and there is always a breeze in the mountains. I must say that I slept like a baby my first night in Camotes. By 5:00 AM the sun is up and so are all the barangay residents. You can hear the sounds of many more motorcycles, the chickens are louder and many people have a radio blaring loudly as they ready for the day. By 5:30 most of the men are already working the farm and the women are busy getting water or washing clothes at the community well. This is a social function for the women and I think some go to the well to wash clean clothes just so they can talk with all the women at the well. Others go to the well to bath and this is a wonderful site to see some of the young Filipina women washing at the well. Although they don’t take their clothes off, many come wearing just a T-shirt and shorts. I’m amazed at how much a wet cotton T-shirt can look like shrink wrap on a young Filipina woman. I was wide awake by 5:00AM my first morning in Camotes and happy that I decided to visit the well.
This is a simple life. Not about material possessions or big houses and cars, but about family and friends. That’s the true wealth of the rural Philippine Provinces like Camotes Islands.
Later that day we went to tour some of the sites in Camotes Islands. I was taken to a Resort that was nothing less than beautiful. White sand beaches, Nipa Huts and the water was a bright blue. I was surprised that there were no guest at the resort as this was peek tourist season (February). I also noticed that the room rates were only about $20.00 to stay at this fantastic place. I later learned that most resorts in Camotes just don’t advertise. That is now changing, but the $20.00 room is still available. We then went to a cave resort and had a simple lunch. I was amazed of how little tourist activity was on the Islands, none that I saw on my first trip to Camotes. The more I saw of Camotes the more I wanted to live in Camotes. After just two days in Camotes it was time to go back to Cebu. Once I left the Island I told Judith this was where I was going to live when I retired. At the time I don’t think she believed me.
Soon after our return to Cebu City it was time for me to go back home to Florida. Before leaving I did ask Judith to marry me and she agreed. Our plan was to bring her to Florida after processing a fiancée visa. The process at that time took from six to twelve months. Once I returned to Florida I never felt like I was home. Camotes Islands in just the two days I spent there became the home I wanted. I started processing Judith’s visa and within a month was notified by US Immigration that it would be completed within a few months. Still I missed Camotes and just didn’t feel like I was home while living in Florida. After being home for just over a month I called Judith and asked her if she wanted to live in Camotes instead of Florida, without hesitation she said yes. That set the stage and within weeks of the call I was back in Cebu. We married within a few weeks after I returned and have been happy ever since. I have never looked back at what I left in Florida. I sold my home, car and left my upper management job to live in a rural Philippine province. Some may call it foolish or even crazy. I call it Paradise.