I’ll be honest, I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post for a couple of weeks now. I often get this crippling fear that I can never do experiences justice in a blog post, or even a conversation. It’s times like these (when I feel so overwhelmed by my thoughts) that I question why I’ve chosen writing as my profession…and then I remember that stories are meant to be told.
On September 18th I came back from a ten day trip to the Philippines, my first ever time to any country in Asia, or that part of the world. It was a jam-packed excursion coordinated by Hannah Theisen, social entrepreneur and ethical fashion advocate. Hannah’s blog Life+Style+Justice and small business A Beautiful Refuge brought her to move, with her husband, to the Philippines more than a year ago. Since then, she’s fallen in love with the complex and exciting country. Her aim with this trip was to give a holistic view of a collection of islands that has often been written off as a third world country. She did just that, and more, when she took a group of six women, and one very patient husband, to her new home.
I had very little expectations of the Philippines beforehand and what I came away with is hard to describe. The country has a complicated, and often dark, history full of colonization, corruption, and conformity. On our first day in Manila we were taken on a tour of the Philippines’ history. We were each quickly able to understand why the country is hard to explain to others. The Philippines is one of the most westernized Asian countries, yet obviously still in influenced by the East. It has it’s own unique language, food, and social rules, yet it constantly looks to others as examples. The nation was only made independent (by the USA) in 1946, and their identity crisis hasn’t been solved since. After getting a crash course in Filipino culture and history, we explored its largest island, as well as part of a nearby one. The eight-plus of us piled into a van together each day to visit a rural farm, a small beach town, extreme opposite ends of Manila, a breathtaking volcano, and the exciting Cebu City. Our tour guide, Dustin, told us on that first day that people say the Philippines is a poor country, yet it is actually quite rich. The islands have fertile land to grow a myriad of crops, skilled artisans, oil, and great medical training. However, because of it’s difficult history, it has been unable to reach its full potential.
While the country at large may be having an identity crisis, there is no doubt that passion is infused into everything Filipino people do. The main reason for this trip was to experience the makers that are often overlooked by the rest of the world. We were so lucky to be guided by someone who has done her research and is well connected in the Filipino ethical fashion scene. Each visit to an artisan, brand, or social enterprise was inspiring and encouraging to witness. Our second day of the trip led us to the Rags2Riches headquarters. This brand was founded on the desire to elevate woven goods and provide stable employment opportunities. Their brightly colored bags, pillows, and more are a beautiful way to bring Filipino culture to the rest of the world. Later that day, we had the pleasure of touring Enchanted Farms. The farm and it’s surrounding land serves as a social enterprise incubator which employs and houses low income families. The next day we ventured to a traditional weavers co-op which uses handlooms to make intricate pieces. The art of weaving is unfortunately dying out in the Philippines. Most of the makers we met at the co-op were in their 50’s and 60’s at least. They explained to us that younger generations are forgoing this tradition for more lucrative office jobs in the cities. It sadly makes sense because these artisans work hard, yet receive little pay for their exquisite work. A light at the end of this tunnel is ANTHILL, an ethical brand striving to keep weaving alive. The visit to the ANTHILL headquarters, shop, and small workshop was arguably the most memorable to me. This company is full of young people fighting to put pride back into Filipino culture and clothing. It connects the past with the present, and future of textile manufacturing. Each piece that this brand creates is more or less one of a kind, and includes traditional woven elements from communities around the islands. ANTHILL is also dedicated to paying fair wages to all of their partners and employees throughout the supply chain. I feel so fortunate to have experienced this fantastic example of ethical fashion. Our social enterprise tour came to a close on one of our last nights. Rochelle and Mark, of Precious Trading Co. made us a delicious meal made out of local and ethically sourced ingredients. The food was amazing, but the conversation was even better.
Filipinos are extremely hospitable, so much so that it can be very offensive if you don’t take them up on an offer of food, gifts, or help. The people of the country are friendly, welcoming, and definitely well mannered. I’m so grateful for every single person who helped us enjoy our journey; from our killer driver Billy, to the friendly grocery store clerks. I appreciated everyone’s willingness to teach us more about their culture. Although it was fantastic to meet each local we did, a specific group stands out among the rest. On one of our last days Hannah took us to Tagaytay, a town on a hill a little over an hour North of Manila. Hannah works with women who are being housed by the nonprofit Safe Refuge. The organization helps women transition out of sex trafficking and into school, work, or just a stable life. Hannah’s company A Beautiful Refuge works with women within this organization who wish to learn some new skills, earn some extra cash, or be part of a small business. This home, of about twenty or so, has become family to Hannah and she was kind enough to let us take a peak into their world for a day. Many of the children we met at the Safe Refuge house were born there, to mother’s who are trying to find a different way of life. I’m already a sucker for kids but these ones in particular were so witty, so curious, and so full of life. They taught us K-Pop dances, played board games, and took a million selfies on all our phones haha! To top it all off we had a massive meal in “boodle fight” style, which consists of everyone eating off of a bed of banana leaves with your hands- beyond fun. It was wonderful to get out of our heads for a day and have fun with these women and children. It was definitely what we all needed.
About a week before the trip I almost cancelled (this tends to be a pattern for me.) I got so nervous about going to such a far away place all by myself and started to question why I ever signed up in the first place. Going into the “Discovery Tip” I expected to meet and be impacted by locals, though I never expected to be changed by the westerners traveling with me. I went into the trip thinking that I would get in, learn, and get out. When you are real with people you give them room to hurt you and I really didn’t have the energy for that. However, we were always moving and squeezed together in the same car, room, or plane. I thought I would get so sick of everyone and have little in common besides our passion for ethical fashion. I was so wrong. These women and men, that went on the adventure alongside me, pushed me to open up, to be vulnerable, and to be honest about the phase of life I’m in. Ellie, Jill, Akilah, Hazel, Jordyn, Josh, Lorraine, Lucy, and Hannah have impacted me in many ways which I will carry into my daily life. I’ve made friends near and far that I can cheer on over the internet until we plan to meet again. This world is small and beautiful when we let it be.
If you’re not already, follow me on Instagram as I continue to share things I purchased and lessons I learned on this trip!