Year for the Planet Week 15: When Eating Makes Me Feel Complicit

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.


This week, I was in Boracay in the Philippines. It is one of the best islands in the world to many a listicle reader, but it is neoliberal hell for me. This is exactly the kind of place I hate going to—trendy, touristy, without a care for the environment. My mother, a devout Catholic, wouldn’t speak to me before I left because my flight was on a Good Friday and Jesus wouldn’t like it. Trust me, the way Holy Week holidays go in a country that is more Catholic than the Pope, mine started off pretty vile.

Okay, I was a little excited to be there, as a dear friend was visiting and there was no way I would let her go by herself because of a tourist kidnapping threat—the double whammy of my decision to go. I rarely leave the house during the holidays, as it’s usually my break from residencies and speaking gigs and these are the times when it’s glorious to just stay in bed.

The first and only time I was in Boracay was more than ten years ago. I remembered that it was a pleasant experience. But now, half the shoreline no longer boasted of white sand beaches—instead, the building of hotels and chain restaurants in a rush to squeeze the last peso, dollar, euro, won, and RMB from an unwitting piece of land that figured well on Tripadvisor had mixed gravel into the sand, leaving many parts gray and brown.

Boracay is one of those beautiful jewels that you would eventually wish fewer people had heard of. Walking the shoreline, my path was eventually dictated by swarms of tourists and 3D hashtags of companies advertising sugary drinks, sun block, or phones. I didn’t even go into the water, because poor waste sanitation created too much green algae that made it preferably to just sit on deck chairs. When the swarm of vendors, tourists, and consumer goods hauled on bikes became too much, I preferred to look up. I liked playing my star game where we invent our own constellations. A recent corporate gimmick is Laboracay, a party during Labor Day Weekend. A tourist produces about 1 kilo of garbage, and as many as 80,000 participated in 2015. On that weekend, the island becomes the tenth Circle of Hell.

Did I mention I do not like it here?

But the tropics are still the tropics, and I was relieved that amidst the endless walk of stores and hotels that started to blur together in the heat—how similar greed looks as architecture!—there were some healthy things I could eat. I love coconut smoothies, and a restaurant thankfully served some that weren’t too sweet. I had lots of omelettes and tofu, as well as Thai and Indian food which are some of my favorite cuisines. I’m happy to report that it was so easy to say no to lots of things. Even a popular smoothie place became unpalatable because they served their shakes in plastic bottles, and we trudged disappointingly back to our first smoothie place which became the one we would go to repeatedly because they served drinks in glasses. I had also brought my reusable water bottle and asked restaurants to fill it with their service water, which was tap water that was filtered. (I feel fine.) This saved me from buying mineral water that was twice the usual price since we were on an island.

Of course, there were mistakes. It took two days for me to remember to order drinks without a straw. When I finally did, I ended up using a stainless spoon to stir the smoothies and make them easier to sip. I ordered a dessert to go and to my dismay, I opened up the paper bag to find plastic utensils. Sheesh, I can’t win here.

I can’t win here. There is something about being in a place that opposes your values with such multiplicity and depth that it made me feel powerless and depressed. (That, and the slight rain on our last night made me sick and I now have the flu as I write this.) I felt complicit being there, sharing in the hollowness of watching an island waste away. I was able to influence my friend to not use straws as well, though I warned her that we weren’t changing anything; it would just make us feel less crappy. People around me were either waving their selfie sticks, staring drunkenly into the Pacific blue of the ocean, or engaged in all levels of hustle. I can’t even imagine how it is for the locals who suffer from low wages and were left behind in the White Sand Rush that is Boracay. Unless it’s for one of my projects or a writing assignments, I hope never to go back there ever again.

I’m back home hugging my omelette pan and preparing for more projects. I hope next week will be better.


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