(Written on April 30, 2020. Author’s Note: This is a long read!)
One day I told myself I couldn’t take the city anymore. I was going crazy with the noise, dirt, and overpopulation. I dreamed of the days of my childhood when I was innocent and away from the rat race. I wish I can go back to when I was happily riding a bicycle; feeling the warm summer wind, and when I would go to the beach peddling and come home with my clothes wet, my hair dry and sticky from the salty sea.
I lived in the city for about 10-12 years, except for the times my family settled in the countryside when I was around 2-9 years old. From 5th grade elementary to college, I was juggling my way through crowded streets, traffic, and pollution. I can’t deny that I had to do my education in Manila since it was needed, but for a long time, I had been yearning for a simple life.
There were many moments where I would wait 3 hours in front of the City Hall of Manila, struggling to hop in a van. Beside me were fellow students, government workers, and other middle-class working people with tired sweaty faces, stinky armpits, and dry throats. A question arises from my mind saying, “What have we done to ourselves—as a society, as we created industrialization? and are these all worth it?”
I experienced walking from Intramuros, Manila to Vito Cruz just for the sake of riding a bus where I had to squeeze myself in and stand for 1-2 more agonizing hours before I hop off to a dusty bus stop full of garbage and cigarettes.
Before I can come home, I had to walk past the poor ragged vendors and up the overpass, where each step my eyes would lie upon dirty bottles, spit, plastic garbage, and a poor malnourished mother holding a sleeping and probably soulless child on her bosom.
Not only did the pressure of academic standards make me depressed, but it was also the milieu of the institution and the whole system of the city itself that sickened and made my mental health suffer. I had anxiety over going out and doing things, whether it was commuting, buying food, or anything at all because I knew I had to push through long lines and many people.
I felt weary and depressed of how people in the city beat their bodies into exhaustion with no sense of satisfaction, no sense of tranquility and spontaneity. So many tired and dirty faces I have seen in the city; faces I will not forget for they were empty of peace and happiness. I asked myself, would I also end up like them? Would I never be able to climb a tree or sleep under its shade? Quickly, my mental health deteriorated to the point that I had to ask for a therapist.
In university, I learned that true happiness comes from not giving a damn about anyone’s opinion. At the very least, I learned to know who I was and what I wanted to have in life. I quickly understood that overwhelming money was not something I desired, and I came to believe that happiness comes from the simplest moments of life. This was also the time I became more aware of the environment, of Buddhism and Daoism, vegetarians, the zero-waste movement, and eco-activists.
“I came to believe that happiness comes from the simplest moments of life.”
During my university life, I removed most of the unnecessary things. Although some are still hard and irresistible even until now. Like bacon, for example! But jewelry, clothes, shoes, beauty products, and other non-environmental stuff I once loved I tried to eradicate from my life.
This was no longer my identity. I rejected the fast fashion industry, meat industry, and the whole obsession towards possession. Although I was spoiled before, I told myself that this was not helping me find the true peace I wanted.
Luckily, my partner had the same vision as mine. We met online and fell in love very quickly. We started to talk about nature, of the memories we had of innocence, and of wishing we would be released from the wasteful life of the city.
Soon, we were dreaming of owning land; of planting trees and being a farmer; of producing our food; of seeing my dog run freely in a land of fresh air—no longer restricted by a chain. It was love that pushed us to pursue a more primitive life; a love for each other and an adoration for nature.
My mother at that time bought a small land for her retirement. She too missed the countryside life and is hoping that when she is old, she can come back to it. As if it was all coming into place, she encouraged me to live on that land with my partner so someone can take care of the land. Just after graduating, I moved to the countryside. My partner left the Netherlands and flew all the way to the Philippines.
My dog and I walking in the mud. Our second trip to visit the land just before my husband came to the Philippines.
The land was far away from the city, even from the town proper of the province. Mountains were beside it in every direction. A river, wild and free, laid beside the land. Green Mango trees stood at the edges and chirping birds hummed. Though the land wasn’t perfect, indeed it was bare and abused, my mom allowed us to live in it.
The first thing we did was to design our own house. It was one of the most satisfying feelings I felt. We watched it come to life from paper into a simple and pragmatic house that has wide windows which let the morning and afternoon sun seep through.
Our house, not even nearly done.
Inside our unfinished house. Photo taken by Stephanus.
While the house was being constructed, we lived with one of the local families here and the aunt of the owner that sold the land to us. We called her Nanay (mother) because she took us under her wings. They rented us a Bahay Kubo (bungalow) with no running water, no refrigerator, and electricity was scarce. The toilet was connected to a pig pen and was shared by the homes around us.
Every day when we need to go to the toilet, we would pass by a mother pig and her piglets. I would say hello, saying good morning or good evening to them. One day, Nanay decided to kill the mother pig and we were awoken by the sound of the mother pig screaming in the morning. “Would you like some meat in your food today?”, asked Nanay to me after slicing the mother pig. As I have basically said hello to the mother pig every single day, I denied her kind offer.
Inside the hut. My husband is cooking, beside him is the sink that’s only made up of a bamboo counter. No refrigerator and water is stored in a bucket. Our food is inside a box.
Every other day we would walk two to three kilometers from the bungalow to our land, seeing the progress of our house. We carried our Baon (packed food). We would sit under the mango tree all day and sometimes we were able to talk to the workers, asking them about their life. At 5:00 in the afternoon, when the workers are done for the day, we would walk back to the bungalow. Our diet then was mostly instant noodles, egg, and rice for that was the only food that did not get eaten by insects or did not rot.
My husband and I at our first day living in the bungalow. The first of many adventures.
My husband is a foreigner—born and raised in one of the top 10 richest countries in the world. Meanwhile, I was not a local in this part of my country. I had no idea what kind of culture they had apart from understanding a bit of their language. So, we struggled to understand their culture and gain camaraderie with the people.
At the same time, they struggled to understand why two young educated millennials want to live in hard life in the countryside. We could have married and stayed in the city. I could have lived with my partner in his country, but we chose a life here where water isn’t available all the time and ants eat everything. It was extremely difficult for us to switch to a primitive lifestyle.
Our house, just when it was done being constructed. Lots of extra house materials left over.
But alas, our house was built! We moved in and started our next journey living in our house. After many frustrating days and hard work, we felt that we have settled in the area. The land has accepted us as well; the birds and other species used to our presence.
It must seem weird for a lot of people here to see two young “kids” as they call us, make a life here. The locals believe that living here is difficult and they too feel trapped in poverty just as any Filipino feels. However, one thing I noticed more than they do is how healthy and happy they are compared to the people in the city.
Nanay, the kind old lady that took care of us, was already 70 years old yet she only looked like she was 50-60 years old. She can walk perfectly, and she still farms, takes care of the animals and cleans her household.
At one time I talked to a local and he said, “It’s better to be poor here than in Manila because here many people will help you and you can ask for money from them, but there you are on your own.”
Kids here have so much freedom to make adventurous walks. I would hear them scream their hearts out, communicating to one another, standing on opposite mountains.
People here smile a lot. They try to help each other even if sometimes it can feel overbearing and intrusive. We hear parties every other week, and laughter and how are you? all the time. Everybody knows everybody here, and this might feel weird for the city folks, but in here people want to know who you are.
Of course, people here can be shallow and pathetic as well, but I have seen more smiling relaxed faces than in the city. I have seen kinder people here who truly help others, unlike in the city where you feel you are all by yourself.
However, some people might have envied us for they think that we only wish to lavish our (nonexistent) money and make the land a rest house. They suggested we make a pool area, a veranda, or simply a resort. We were not farmers for them. We were simply tourists that took a liking to their place and their life. They probably thought we would move out after a few months.
Yet we stayed and we dared prove them wrong. We learned the ways of the mountains here. These mountains that they told us not to go to, wherein lies the danger; where itchy and spikey bushes, snakes, and monkeys exist. Thanks to my brave husband, we hiked in different directions, even only with tsinelas (slippers).
One of our hikes in the mountains.
We dared to learn the motorcycle only through YouTube videos. One day they just saw my husband driving with me and the look on their faces was both shock and amazement.
Me on the motorcycle. At that time, I still struggled against the weight of the motorcycle.
We dared to pump our post (manual water pump) every day so we can have water and to drink the same mountain water they drink as well. A few times my husband drank beer with a few men here, forming another alliance.
We are not going away from here and I think they are starting to understand that. Moving into a house in the middle of the mountains was the best thing my partner and I have ever done. I can list down so many benefits of moving in here, but I would want to say that the most satisfying thing I have experienced here is nature itself.
I have never had a close relationship with nature, except when I was a kid. Almost all of us have forgotten how our souls and bodies are very close to nature. We have forgotten the silence of the sea, the beauty of the rustling leaves of the trees. We have forgotten how sitting down on the damp morning grass (not cement nor tiles) and looking up at the lazy moving clouds bring peace and pluck even the smallest tendrils of our senses.
In the city, we pour our thirst for happiness over material things: a new branded shoe, bags, make-up, clothes, a watch, or a car. We distract ourselves with television and the internet to relax by the noise of it. In here, you only need yourself to be happy.
No need for extravagantly boasting your new cellphone and no need to say you have finished three master’s degrees—no need for anything at all! For the mountain doesn’t measure you with all of these trivial things. The sun shines brightly on every face, whether you are rich or poor.
I love how raw and unapologetic nature is. I love that I do not have to ask for nature’s approval because I am already a part of it. I am okay as I am.
“The sun shines brightly in every face, whether you are rich or poor.”
Here, I learned that hard work is not rewarded with money, fame, or power. Hard work is simply for the sake of being free, wild, and at peace with the being that you are. It is repaid with nothing more than what we need because nature is fair to all. Without a doubt, nature is there to provide us with lessons we forgot or have been too distracted to learn. It doesn’t involve math, proper grammar, or deadlines—it just involves us.
Me carrying cassava cuts for planting.
Given these lessons, I must say that I am a lucky person. Most of the hard-working people that deserve a peaceful life can’t buy land and don’t have enough money for everyday living. I wish we could have been the same in the old days where people would just produce their food, and venture around the forest looking for natural resources and nature was glad to give.
Sadly, a combination of overpopulation, capitalism, war, and many other factors, including a greedy human mindset, barricaded us into living a free life. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
But I would like to end this story with a reminder: Nature grows everywhere, we are nature as well. We do not have to live in a cave to know what it is. We just have to remove unnecessary distractions and stop living a materialistic life. Recognizing nature is inherent in everybody.
“Recognizing nature is inherent in everybody.”
People are flabbergasted and afraid when my partner and I tell them how we live away from the city, but the truth is everyone can be close to nature and everyone can actually live a simple selfless life. When it comes down to it, a cellphone, gold, and an expensive watch won’t help you survive.
With my own story, I urge people to see what matters most: to reflect on the things that bring true peace, to live minimally, and to respect the last bit of nature we have.
Choose nature, and you shall be rewarded with freedom.