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Redefining Happiness in a Manila Slum

Before Manila, I thought I was fully grown human. An “adult” as most of us millennials like to refer to ourselves as (even though I’m now realizing I’ve barely scraped the surface).

Before Manila, I thought I was the way I was going to be forever. I boarded my flight in Seoul thinking, “HERE I AM EVERYONE! Sarcastic, filterless, free spirited, selfish Emma! This is me. Take it or leave it, I really don’t care.”

But it turned out there was a part of me that was still just a little fetus. The part of me that was a little naive, unaware, shocked and very confused….more like Baby Emma.

I spent my weekend in The Philippines discovering this other part of myself that I magically found on a bike tour around Fort Santiago and roaming the streets of Manila’s “Red Light District”.

Let me first just start by saying, none of this would have happened if I wasn’t in The Philippines. Baby Emma had NO idea that in the Philippines, English is one of the country’s official languages – but Baby Emma took the “W” on that one.

The islands of the Philippines were ruled by Spaniards for over three centuries (so there are still many remnants of that Hispanic influence) but the Spanish-American War in 1898 meant that the Philippines were handed over to the United States – who ruled for the next fifty years and got everyone speaking English (classic America).

It means that nowadays pretty much everyone in the Philippines either speaks or understands English to some degree, which means you’re very much able to communicate with the locals.

This was the game changer of the entire trip.

My fellow travel partner and I had just began our day of exploring the grounds of Fort Santiago. We didn’t really have much of a plan or a clue on where to exactly go when a short, young, Filipino man came up to us with a map in his hand, pointing at his bike taxi, offering us a tour in English.

We had been turning down most of these people since we hit the streets, thinking they just wanted our money or that we didn’t need a tour when we could easily use our two feet. But he seemed like he actually knew what he was talking about, so I looked at my friend and said, “Well should we give it a shot? Where else do we have to be?” So we hopped right on into his buggie.

Our tour guide referred to his bike carriage as his Lamborgini, and told he had one three-year-old daughter who he would not stop talking about and he went by the name of Russell.

“Like Russell Wilson, ma’am!” he said, eager to make us laugh and show off his knowledge of the states.

Only this Russell had nothing in common with the former Wisconsin Badger star (except for the fact that he might have a three-year-old daughter somewhere that he doesn’t know about).

From what I could gather, this Russell lived very near to the area he was touring us through. He cracked jokes, gave us flowers and introduced us to each of his friends and family member on the streets as we pedaled past, each of them giving us the most infectious smile.

One of the biggest things I noticed about the Philippines was how welcomed I felt wherever I went. I’ve been to quite a few places where locals either didn’t seem to care about me being there or appeared downright annoyed that I was bothering them – but every Filipino I encountered was genuinely trying their best to make me feel comfortable and happy.

Especially Russell. Which I commend him for given what we were seeing….

Children no older than three walking around with no shoes on the hot pavement. Women breast-feeding curbside. Infants sleeping on cardboard boxes. Families bathing from dirty buckets of water, trash pilled up all around them. But still, there were people dancing and playing in the streets, laughing and waving as we passed by and sharing food with one another.

It was clear that this Russell had very little compared to THE Russell Wilson. His bike taxi tours was what he had to get by, and he had been doing it for eight years. But this Russell didn’t seem to care about money, fortune, fame or things. He only had his family, his friends and his bike but yet I raw happiness in his eyes.

I never witnessed so authentically the cliche saying that, “money doesn’t buy happiness” until that day with Russell. As he pedaled, I watched this impoverished culture open up before me, showing me in every way possible that you can be happy with VERY little.

There’s something magical about the Philippines, and the more I saw that day and experienced, the more I realized just how naive I am about the world and the way other’s lives unfold. I loved my Manila experience – but I don’t plan to return for I don’t want to ruin the magic of my first trip. I am eternally grateful for it’s lessons and literal eye-popping experiences and what’s incredible is I feel like this trip was just the stepping stone to more of that.

I am now even more inspired me to travel to other countries and meet more people like Russell who can teach Baby Emma a thing or two about gratuity, selflessness, appreciation and happiness.


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Emma is currently an English as a Second Language Teacher in Seoul, South Korea. Since she has started her journey she have found purpose, a voice, creativity, influence & patience. She dabbles in various areas of work while being abroad, such as, writing, creative projects, travel blogging, yoga, youth activism, and nutrition. Her ultimate goal is to produce noteworthy stories, photography, videos, articles, books, collaborations, etc. about travel and other cultures. From the natural disasters in unknown countries, to the wars, to the environmental issues, traditions, and education. Emma currently holds international experience in North America (U.S. Canada, Mexico), the UK & Asia.

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