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El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

How to Be as Happy as a Woman Dying from Cancer…

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Let me paint the picture for you. 

We just arrived at the first destination of our long-awaited trip around the world. We arrived at a place that has been on my bucket list for a really long time – El Nido in Palawan.

It landed on my bucket list a few years ago when I had a conversation with a billionaire who loves to travel. He had been to over 80 countries around the world, and when I asked him what place was his favorite, he said without hesitation, “El Nido.”

That was good enough for me.

The journey to get there was not an easy one. We had to fly from Manila to Puerto Princessa and then take a 7-hour van ride to El Nido. 

 Once we arrived, we got settled into our “villa.”

I use that word very loosely. It was more of a cardboard box with a tin roof. No air conditioning, non-working shower, and filthy. But it was right on the beach with spectacular views which made up for all of that.

One of the cool things about the villa was it was part of a local “baranggay,” or community, so we got to interact a lot with the locals.

One such local had a major impact on my life. 

We decided we wanted to explore the surrounding islands, pristine beaches, and hidden lagoons so we were directed across the dirt road from our villa to a lady named Ezra. She was a really sweet middle aged lady who ran a small business out of her very modest home. Think a whole family in one room, a tiny kitchen, and doubled as an office.

She owned a small boat and had a guy that operated the boat to bring guests for tours around the islands. We walked over to her house and inquired about the different options for the tours and then told her we would discuss it over dinner. We asked if she had a small scooter for us to rent so we could get around town.

Her reply, “You can take mine. It is free for friends.” Friends, I thought? We just met two minutes ago. I was speechless, which doesn’t happen often and graciously accepted.

I was moved that this woman who barely has enough money to take care of her family was offering and trusting a stranger with her only mode of transportation. 

That was lesson number one. Find ways to give with no expectation in return. 

The next lesson after dinner I learned from her was even more powerful.

We arrive back at her home to confirm the tour we were going to take with her. She was no longer on the porch so I called for her from outside, and she asked us to come in.

As we entered her home, she apologized for not being able to come out to meet us, but she has difficulty walking due to bone cancer. This lady is raising 3 young kids with stage 4 bone cancer and she was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.

The whole experience was wonderful with her and her generosity continued throughout our stay in El Nido.

She was more concerned about everyone else rather than herself. And under the circumstances, she would have been more than justified in focusing on herself. 

She never made anything about her. She was present. She was peaceful. She was loving. She was compassionate. 

She immediately became a role model for me.

When interacting with her, I realized I need to be kinder. I need to be more present. I need to be more loving.

Because if she can do it, I can do it.

- Matt

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao, Philippines

Their Highlight Reel to Your Blooper Reel

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao, Philippines

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao, Philippines

If you just looked at the pictures I have been posting, you would think this around-the-world trip has been all sunshine and rainbows.

This assumption could NOT be further from the truth.

Yes, the trip has been an amazing experience, but for every beautiful photo I post on Facebook, there is an equal and opposite experience that I can’t post or would be inappropriate to post.

I remember reading a great message a while back: “The problem with social media is that it isn’t real. Everyone just posts their highlight reel. We get depressed or feel bad because we compare our blooper reel with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

A powerful message that I need to remind myself of often.

While we have done amazing things like paddle boarding in secret lagoons on pristine islands in Siargao and had a breathtaking scuba diving experience in El Nido, we have also had many challenges that we couldn’t or would be inappropriate to take pictures of.

I couldn’t take a picture of 2 weeks of cold and barely usable showers. For a week, I had to bath using just a “tabo,” which is basically using a small bucket to dump water over yourself because our shower was not working.

I couldn’t take a picture of the heat we had to combat for a whole week because our villa had no air-conditioning and the screens for the windows were so dirty, they would barely let any air through.

I couldn’t take a picture of the fact that I have not had a good night sleep in over 2 weeks due to the heat, pillows that felt like they were stuffed with a handful of cotton balls, scratchy sheets, barking dogs, and loud motorbikes and honking cars, and many times a combination of the above.

I couldn’t take pictures of the re-arranged flights and nasty weather that kept us from surfing which was the main reason we went to Siargao. On the plus side, we did get to do SUP in the Sugba Lagoon which was amazing.

I couldn’t take pictures (or I guess I could but that would be gross) of the dirty clothes I have had to re-wear because I ran out of clothes and couldn’t find any place to wash them.

As we all go through life, we have choices we get to make.

Do we run our own race or do we run some else’s race?

I notice that many times when I am unhappy, frustrated, or depressed, I am comparing myself to someone else; I am focusing on what I don’t have rather than what I do have; I am focusing on what is missing rather than what is present.

Run your own race. Be present. Practice gratitude. Meditate. Continue to refine your core values and live congruently with them more and more each day.

And please stop comparing your blooper reel with everyone else’s highlight reel.

– Matt

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The Highs and Lows of My Philippines Adventure

I extended my arm overhead with Bluetooth head phones in hand and flung them across the room smashing them into the wall. I immediately regretted my decision, but the damage was already done.

As with everything in my life, I always self-reflect and self-evaluate. I think it is a really important trait if you want to continue to grow.

Let me paint the picture for you to bring this scenario into better context.

I am here in Siargao, Philippines, a beautiful island known for its seclusion, crystal clear water, and world-class surfing. It has been on my bucket list for the past few years when I saw pictures of a good friend of mine who had come here to surf. I am staying at a beautiful villa with a great view of the ocean.

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Getting read for my first surf lesson

Do you want to know why I whipped my headphones across the room as if I was a pitcher for the New York Yankees?

It was because I was all set for a stand-up paddle boarding session behind my villa, but first I couldn’t get the headphones to sync with my computer so I could upload an audiobook and then I couldn’t get them to even turn on. Combine that with a WiFi connection that was taunting me with full signal yet a complete inability to work as if the full signal was a vestigial monument of the room and my patience had enough.

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SUP behind the villa. The water was like glass.

I know this is not painting a great picture about myself and my ability to remain patient in the face of chaos, but I had a complete alternate to this response in the beginning of the trip.

Due to a bit of a scheduling snafu, instead of flying directly from Cebu to Siargao, I was flying from Cebu to Surigao then having to drive to the port and take a 3 hour boat ride from Surigao to Siargao. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but I made peace with the situation.

The challenges began at the airport in Cebu. The domestic terminal at Mactan Airport in Cebu is certainly nothing to write home about. There are a couple of stalls selling really basic local food and that’s about the extent of the airport.

The airline I was taking was notorious for being late. I think every flight I have ever taken with them over the years was delayed. My first leg of the trip from Singapore to Cebu continued their perfect track record of being late.

Island hopping

Island hopping

When I arrived in Cebu the first thing I did was find the Cebu Pacific desk to make sure my flight was on time because it was already cutting it really close with making it for my connecting boat. I was relieved when they told me the flight was on time, yet I wasn’t going to hold my breath yet.

To my non-surprise, an announcement came over loud speaker about an hour later that said the flight would be delayed. I started doing all of the calculations in my head about the reality of whether I would make the boat or have to spend the night in Surigao and miss my reservation at the villa.

Fortunately, the flight was still going to make it in time to Surigao for me to connect with the ferry.

The plan was to land in Surigao and then take a motorbike taxi with an extra carriage attached to it called a tricycle. I needed to stop off at a money changer to exchange my Singapore Dollars for Philippine Pesos. With money in hand, we head across town to the port to catch the ferry to Siargao. It was the last boat of the day leaving for Siargao, but we were going to make it right on time.

Things looked ominous as we approached the ticket counter. There was a sea of people all crowding around with outstretched hands waving their money back and forth. I immediately knew this could only mean one thing. There were limited tickets and everyone was vying for the last ones.

I took a breath knowing there was nothing I could do at this point but hope I was one of the chosen ones. If not, I had no idea when the next boat would be. I patiently waited yet firmly held my ground as we all were aware that every ticket that was handed out that wasn’t ours could mean us losing our seat.

Fortunately, luck was on my side and I got a ticket. I raced to the boat, found the last seat I could find on a crowded bench. With luggage between my legs and backpack on my lap, we were off.

The whole trip was a cycle of extreme highs as well as big frustrations. Looking back on it, it was a total gift because the challenges added a new dimension to my character and the highs in comparison were extraordinary.

The trip to get to the villa in Siargao was no joke. It began with a 12:30 am wake up for a flight leaving Singapore at 3:30 am and I didn’t arrive to my villa until 4:30 pm. If you are doing the math, that is a 16 hour journey on 2 hours of sleep. I arrived exhausted and wet from the boat ride.

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Then things did a total 180 the next morning with my first day of surfing. My villa connected me with a wonderful instructor, Lohloy. When we arrived to the beach, I was blown away. I had never seen water for surfing so clean and crystal clear. It was amazing. If I knew the water wasn’t full of salt, I would’ve wanted to drink it. The moment I caught my first wave and rode it all the way in, I realized the journey was worth it.

Sometimes we don’t appreciate challenges until we experience the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, this was different. I chose to exercise extreme gratitude and patience on this trip. Other than my head phone incident I described earlier of course (LOL).

From the extremely temperamental weather to the wrongly scheduled travel plans to the loss of my GoPro on the first wave of the third day of surfing to the last experience of the trip which I will describe in a moment, I chose to see the gift, the lesson, and the gratitude in every challenge. I chose to focus on my breath rather than frustration. I chose to see what I could be grateful for rather than to see what was missing.

Feast on Guyam Island

Feast on Guyam Island

I really got to meet some extraordinary people on this trip. From a wonderful Iranian man I met on the flight from Surigao to Siargao who I became really good friends with to people from Holland, Russia, Australia, Spain, and Philippines, I learned a lot and got to connect with a lot of people from different religions, cultures, and backgrounds.

On the third day of the trip, I guess Lohloy thought I was good enough to take my surfing game to the next level so he organized a small boat to pick us up at the beach of my villa and take us out to Guyam Island for some bigger waves.

Guyam Island is a really cool island off the coast of Siargao. There is actually nothing on the island except for a couple of barbeques and sheltered tables. There is no electricity but there are still about 200 people who live on the island. It is certainly a different quality of life than I am used to.

Boat ride out to the surf spot

Boat ride out to the surf spot

Anyway, back to the surfing.

The boat dropped us off in the water and we paddled out to the surf spot. These waves were much bigger than I had experienced the previous two days. At one point, I was the only beginner with an instructor left. Everyone else was much more experienced than me.

The surfing was extraordinary. Some of the waves I caught were as tall as myself and continued for 150+ meters. I have a bunch of friends who are surfers and are totally addicted to the sport. I now can see why.

I continued surfing for a few more hours on the fourth day and on the fifth it was time to leave.

The journey back to Singapore began at 4:30 am with my suitcase and I piled on to the back of a habal habal, which is a motorbike with a slightly longer seat and a rudimentary roof.

Boat ride back to Surigao

Boat ride back to Surigao

As we arrived at the port, I was optimistic. The weather was beautiful and I bought a ticket for the faster boat that was only supposed to take about 2 hours. I stepped on board and the boat was packed. There was only one seat that was available but a gentleman was lying down on it. I was going to ask him to move and make room for me when upon closer examination, I realized this guy was in serious condition. He must’ve been in some horrific accident because he was bloodied and looked badly beaten and had an IV with saline hanging above his head. I knew at that moment I would gladly give up my seat if it meant him being a bit more comfortable.

With absolutely no space left inside, I realized I would have to find a space outside on uncovered walkway of the boat.

I used the power of ingenuity and found a plastic chair and parked myself on the side of the walkway with a beautiful view of the clear water, untouched jungle islands, and sunrise starting to appear in the sky.

Remember earlier when I said there was one more challenge I needed to face.

About 30 minutes into what turned into a 3-hour boat ride (so much for the ‘faster” boat), the seas began to get much rougher. Nothing that bothered me until a massive wave came over the side of the boat and soaked my sneakers, clothes, and bag. I managed to preserve a small portion of dryness to my stuff until about 15 minutes later when an even bigger wave came over and hit me again. This time even my socks were soaking wet. As if things weren’t bad enough, it started pouring rain and I tried to huddle myself under the tarp that was draped over the railing to attempt to provide some shelter from the rain. It just so happened the portion of the tarp I huddled myself under had a tear in it and provided little protection to the down pour.

Here is the thing. Every time I found myself wet, cold, uncomfortable, and frustrated, I looked over at the suffering man sitting inside and it immediately put things in perspective. I actually smiled at one point and just enjoyed the adventure realizing it would be a great story to tell someday.

Remember when I told you earlier how I lost my GoPro on the first wave of the day. What I didn’t mention was it was a really bad wipeout. When I fell into the water I was tumbling under the extreme force of the wave, I felt my body brush up against the underlying reef. Luckily, I came up with only a tiny mark on my arm. I was just so grateful to be unharmed. I knew at that moment my GoPro could be replaced. A broken arm or worse could not.

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Cafe at Surigao Airport

As I sit here at a local outdoor café in Surigao awaiting my flight back to Manila and then Singapore, I am really grateful for such a great experience. I am grateful for the highs and the lows. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about myself and challenge myself in new ways.

Until next time Siargao. I will most definitely be back.

Sincerely,

Matt Westheimer