Going Back To Zero: The Year Travel Broke Me Apart, Then Helped Me Start Over

Since I heeded the call of wanderlust and fulfilled my childhood dream of traveling solo long-term last 2012, I had experienced the magic and miracles of travel – the kindness of strangers, with some becoming my family, the moments when things turned out even better than what I had dreamed of, and the feeling of flow and effortlessness, with all my needs taken care of. The few mishaps I had experienced felt so insignificant compared with my everyday, almost moment-to-moment bliss. It came to a point where I felt like the richest woman in the world and I could not ask for more, even when given the chance to do so.

But then, 2013 surprised me and turned out even better. I discovered the joy of going off on adventures with people as passionate as I am about travel. I met people who not only became fellow travelers, but friends who I felt had my back the same way I had theirs – friends who I wanted to be my lifelong travel buddies, with our connection extending way beyond travel.

The magic only continued on the first half of 2014 – again, I was welcomed by strangers-turned-friends during the Ati-atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan, and when I went home, had a relaxing staycation in a nice hotel just beside the place where, ironically, I had worked long before I heeded the call to travel. It made me appreciate all the more the life I had built by then. A month later, I watched the fireworks I had always made a point of watching every year from a different and totally unexpected perspective – with fellow bloggers, and with the best, unobstructed views.

Black Beauty Boys, Champion, first place, Big Tribe category, Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival 2014

The happiest and most fun festival I had experienced so far – Ati-atihan is one big party!

During the summer, I had a dream vacation where I felt I was able to have my cake and eat it too, where I experienced luxury AND meaningful connection (because usually, I just experience one of these during my travels) in a beautiful resort built and fueled by love and the desire to give so much. I went to places even more perfect than their photos, like Palaui, El Nido, and Biri, witnessed a traveler friend as she made a commitment to the adventure of marriage in the city of her childhood (which was unexpectedly beautiful), and re-experienced Calaguas with friends old and new. I felt my friendships born from travel deepen as we got together outside travel and talked for hours on end.

Zambawood feature image agoho

Zambawood – the dream vacation I never expected

Siwangag Cove, white beach, view from the top near Cape Engano lighthouse, Palaui, best, one of the CNN top beaches in the world, Santa Ana, Cagayan, Philippines

An attempt to capture a piece of Palaui that is way better than its photos

Calaguas moment with friends old and new

With friends old and new in Calaguas (Photo courtesy of Pondering Paodaolei)

While I was not able to travel to Leyte and help in post-Yolanda (Haiyan) efforts this year (I had expressed this desire here on my blog last year), I had the opportunity to travel and document a peace camp in Nueva Ecija, which was attended by some Yolanda youth survivors. I was able to give and receive from these beautiful people, in ways unexpected – the universe working its magic again.

And, while the sudden passing of a traveler friend I had known since college saddened me for weeks prior, it just made me all the more determined to travel and live more passionately. Though he died young, I daresay he had lived a life fuller than many who have more years behind them.

Looking back, I see travel had somehow spoiled me in many ways – and, I am ashamed to admit now that I had expected that treatment to continue.

Which was why I had the biggest shock when, plans for the three-week Indochina trip I had been long looking forward to with the friends I had hoped to be my lifelong travel companions fell apart. One by one, they canceled on the trip, for reasons I fully understand and do not understand.

Back then, I was mystified by how hard I took it. It felt like a breakup, and one I did not see at all coming. I felt the tree and flowers felled by the typhoon then in the garden at home reflected my emotional state. With impending project deadlines, the unexpected logistics and planning needed for a solo trip, and the emotional turmoil that came with this sudden change, the trip that had excited me so much became an uphill struggle. Planning felt like a chore, and, as the date approached, I felt dread and helplessness, not excitement.

sunflowers after the storm (Typhoon Glenda)

The typhoon-ravaged sunflowers that reflected how I felt at that time

Just a little over a week before the trip, I finally decided to trust my feelings and canceled it, but with full intention to have a solo Indochina adventure in the future. It just did not feel right at that time. And, when I let go, magic happened. My flight back to Manila was canceled and I had the option to re-book it for free to within 30 days from my supposed flight date. I also chanced upon a good seat sale for Vietnam, my starting point, less than a month before my trip should I avail of the free re-booking for my flight back (I had never had a good price for a flight so close to the departure date).

Magical and colorful paper lanterns, Hoi An, Vietnam

The first night of my solo Indochina trip was a bittersweet yet magical moment.

The decision to step up and plan my own trip almost instantly made my dread and helplessness disappear. I was excited again. And, I finally began to make sense of the intense emotions that had so puzzled me when my friends canceled on our trip.

It felt like a breakup because I had unconsciously treated it like a romantic relationship with the promise of forever. Prior to this friendship, the people I traveled with and the people I had long-lasting friendships with were a different set. I saw myself as an independent traveler, contented to travel alone or with almost anyone. So, when I unexpectedly met travelers who I not only traveled with but also became good friends I could talk to everyday, it felt almost too good to be true. It was one of the best feelings in the world…and, I wanted to keep feeling it, much like the buzz of a romance. Through no fault of my friends, I developed an unhealthy attachment and held idealized notions of our friendship.

For the first time, I did not do what I had learned and since then tried to do as a traveler – to treat each beautiful and meaningful encounter as a gift, with no expectation of the future. To meet people where they are, and to give fully and receive humbly. And to be pleasantly surprised and grateful when that moment is repeated.

And so, when my friends understandably had to deal with the troubles and circumstances that had caused them to forgo the trip, I felt abandoned.

Now, I try to see our friendship more clearly and appreciate each moment as it comes. We each went on our own journeys this year and came back changed – and somehow, we met again. And for that I am already grateful.

It helped that I re-discovered the joy of solo travel in my Indochina trip and in a work-related trip before that. Again, there was the kindness of strangers, coincidences that seemed like magic, and meaningful encounters.

Meaningful encounters - Sipaway Island, San Carlos, Negros Occidental

I met this lady (right on the photo) en route to an island in Negros for my fieldwork. She gave me tips, and, when we got to the island, she pointed to this guy with a motorbike (left on the photo) to help me go around. Turned out he was her former student. We made a stop at the school where she teaches and took this photo.

But something was off with my experience in Vietnam – I was not experiencing the usual continuous flow and ease I had in my previous travels. The kindness of strangers and the meaningful encounters felt like tiny oases in a desert of land mines. I finally admitted that to myself when I reached my breaking point on the bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang supposedly. I found out only at the border between Vietnam and Laos that the tour organizer had put me on the wrong bus, and the bus staff spoke little English – not enough for them to understand my situation. A series of unfortunate events followed, culminating in a rape scare in Laos. My fatigue, the little sleep I had for the over past 24 hours on the bus, and the toll of navigating Vietnam’s land mines beforehand, did not help in the decisions I made when the bus arrived in Vientiane. I felt so scared, so alone – and I badly wanted to go home.



nightmare bus hanoi to vientiane, (vietnam to laos) lao sign only, no destination signage


Where I had the unforgettable ride that would change the way I look at travel

It took days later before I got into a flow state again, but something had irrevocably changed. Yes, there was magic for the rest of my trip. But my Indochina trip abruptly ended my extended honeymoon with travel, since I had decided to make travel a part of my life two years ago. It felt like travel was asking me: “This is all of me. Will you take the bad with the good?” After my grueling experience, I was able to give a deeper and more meaningful yes.

Kuang Si waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos

Weary in body, mind, and spirit, I was reinvigorated by the force and beauty of Kuang Si Waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos. I almost skipped this destination. I’m glad I didn’t.

I was first overwhelmed with travel’s magic two years ago; the next year was made even more magical with friendships born from travel. The magic began to wear off, though, when I started taking these things for granted – I took them as norm rather than treating them as the gifts they rightly are.

And so, the second half of 2014 broke me and my expectations apart. After that, I found myself back where I started two years ago – humble with no expectations, yet willing to receive and be amazed. I was back to zero, but it did not feel like such a bad thing. From zero is where everything begins; in tennis scoring, it also means love. And I was indeed starting again from pure feeling, pure intention.

Then travel surprised me. Just when I had committed to it more deeply, it showed me something else, something beyond it.

On the day I got back from my Indochina trip, I received an invitation to speak at the Alternative Classroom Learning Experience (ACLE) program in my college, UP Diliman. The theme was “You change places and places change you.”

It was easy to come up with examples to illustrate and expound on the theme; it was hard to distill the most important insights and the ones which rang truest for me. And so, I spoke about things I had never shared before, as I was only able to articulate those thoughts only then. Inspired by the Ginhawa (well-being) facilitation training workshop I finished that same month, I facilitated a few brief activities in addition to my sharing.

Alternative Classroom Learning Experience (ACLE), University of the Philippines Diliman - places change you and you change places

Sharing things I had never shared before at the Alternative Classroom Learning Experience in UP

And it was magic again. It was different from what I felt when traveling, yet it was essentially the same.

I could not contain my joy while sharing, and I could not believe the students’ openness and enthusiasm in receiving. Speaking from my deepest truth, at that moment I understood what my teacher in our facilitation workshop said on our last session: giving from your skills or what you know is one thing, giving from your gifts is entirely different.

I had given before – in my work, and in my travels, but not like this. Not from the core of my being.

I had been thinking about it this year, but it was only after the ACLE that I felt a distinct shift – while I heeded the call to travel two years ago and even structured my life around it, now, the call is to give and to build something lasting. And the ways that resonate with me most are writing and facilitating.

Travel, of course, will still be a part of my life. In fact, a few days after the ACLE, I had a quiet beach weekend in Cagbalete with friends. The month after, I went back to Danjugan, my favorite island in the Philippines, and facilitated an activity inspired by my ACLE experience among the students in one of the island’s environmental awareness camps. The combination of travel with volunteer work I find meaningful, as well as meeting old and new friends, made that trip one of my sweetest.

Danjugan Island, Negros Occidental - volunteer work, facilitating well-being with kidsFacilitating a nature appreciation activity at one of the country’s most beautiful islands

I capped the year’s travels with Christmas magic, followed by an adventure fitting for a year-ender. I made an unexpected detour to the festival at the Christmas symbols capital of the Philippines, and felt like a child again with all its lights and colors. And then my friend and I had a quick beach trip in Basilan before heading over to Tawi-Tawi, where we roughed it to the farthest island at the south of the Philippines.

Christmas Symbols Festival, Tangub, Misamis Occidental

Christmas around the world at Tangub City, Misamis Occidental

Saluag (Sikulan), Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost island of the Philippines (farthest south)

At Saluag (locally known as Sikulan), the island at the farthest south of the Philippines. And yes, there’s white beach all around! Photo by Glen Santillan

While 2014 had been challenging, I would not change a thing. And, whatever 2015 brings, I am sure it will be full of adventure, whether it be by travel or by creating and building something new that will hopefully last.

Cagbalete, Quezon, white beach

Starting afresh and looking forward to a brand-new year of and beyond travel

13 thoughts on “Going Back To Zero: The Year Travel Broke Me Apart, Then Helped Me Start Over

    • Yep. 🙂 Ginhawa is a rich name – very apt for the workshop training and the NGO that gave it. Thanks for dropping by, Kin!

  1. Claire bear.. somehow, I still feel sad for making you feel abandoned, despite my reasons. But I guess things had to happen for us separately, to be able to see the good and bad things that awaited us. However, one thing is certain — your achievements definitely surpassed your struggles! Life and travel have certainly rewarded you ten-fold. And I am proud of you for all that you’ve accomplished! 🙂 You are my travel idol, as you’ve done so many things already that only I can dream of doing. You are also an inspiration, and a true friend. I wish nothing but to have a continued and lifelong friendship with you. Here’s to an #EPIC2015 Clarita! 🙂

    • Don’t feel sad, Mai. 🙂 I am the one responsible what I felt then. And, like I said, I wouldn’t change a thing about this year. Yes, we all had to go through our own journeys (and I am happy for and proud of you on your Lakhambini journey!), but we met again, and I believe that’s what’s important. 🙂 Feels like a fresh start for me. 🙂

  2. What a full year, Claire. Love it that you got to speak in ACLE. It’s a different experience, I agree. I gave one as well in the Institute of Tourism, and it was a memorable time indeed, no matter how brief the talk was. Here’s to a better 2015 for both of us. See you on the road sometime!

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