Sunsets in Moalboal and a fear of taking pictures

July 31, 2016

A year has passed and I haven’t written about our trip to the Philippines last August. To be honest, I haven’t figured out the Philippines, nor my feelings about our time there. My summer break is limited and thus was our trip. We spent four days in country, surely not long enough to impress upon us the intricacies of any nation. I admit that before our trip, I knew next to nothing about the Philippines. And so it goes as we continue to explore the Asian continent, learning the basics - more, if we're lucky - of countries so vaguely covered in the history books of our youth.

Here is one thing I can say with certainty: I have yet to see a sunset so beautiful as the ones we watched from a cafe on Panagsama Beach in Moalboal. Moalboal is not the kind of place I would typically visit. It’s a tourist trap, a town where locals and foreign business owners co-exist in an ambivalent sort of way. We stayed for two nights in a decent dive shop bungalow and I snorkeled for the first time, three days in a row! The snorkeling was better than I could have imagined. The reef at Panagsama is breathtaking and famous for sea turtles - we swam with them for hours! - and a particularly gigantic school of sardines. How I wish I could describe to you the feeling of hovering over a mass of shimmering fish as they ripple and change formation. I yearn to experience that feeling of wonder again.

Our trip to the Philippines reminded me of how novice a traveler - and photographer - I am. We started our trip in Manila, then hopped a quick flight to Cebu, where we met a young, female couchsurfer named Jerry and wandered the city together for a day. Without our new friend, I’m not sure we could have navigated the jeepneys, open-air jeeps used for public transportation in the city. You hop on through the open back, take a seat, pay your fare, hop off. It was chaotic and fun. But in Cebu, I noticed that I never felt comfortable taking out my camera. I was uncomfortable, partly because I haven’t fully navigated what it means to be a privileged, White traveler in a developing country; partly because I haven’t yet conquered my fear of taking photos of strangers on the street. Later, in Moalboal, I made the tired mistake of overpaying for a massage on the beach and was thereafter solicited all day, every day along the main boardwalk in town. My guilt then led me to buy some cheaply-made jewelry I will never cherish. 
What we ate was okay, though some of it I'm certain altered to fit foreign palates, and sadly, our one taste of the famous Cebu lechón (whole roasted pig) was perfunctorily swallowed down in a mall food court with our local guide because we did not have the tenacity to insist on visiting a restaurant instead. A few meals stand out, like a huge, fried salmon steak served with fresh vegetables inside an ocean-view shanty in Moalboal and fish cakes pulled from a hot broth and dipped in spicy, sweet sauce at a corner street stall in Cebu's business district. I think we got a true look into the average night out with friends, sitting in an open-air bar drinking beer and having some snacks while talking politics with Jerry.

I'm thinking about this trip at a time when I'm also reflecting deeply on my priorities as a photographer. I recently discovered the work and words of L.A.-based street photographer John Free and, as often happens when I'm sitting in front of my computer, watched three videos in a row - of John walking the streets of L.A., chatting about photography, and occasionally taking photos. His words struck me, not just his simple advice about composition but also his no-nonsense attitude about taking pictures of strangers (and the value of doing so). It hurled back memories of this trip, me standing in sheer terror in Cebu, unable to take any shots.

 "Don't photograph flamingos and palm trees," insists John, "there's too many important things to do with the human animal." 

I couldn't agree more. I'd like to start documenting those things. But, in the meantime, here are some pretty sunsets.

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