What happens when the 'island life' becomes routine

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Entrepreneur Camille Pilar left Metro Manila to live by the sea. She finds that trading the city for the 'island life' did not promise a life without struggle. Photo by BEA VEGA

La Union (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2014, I moved out of Manila to live in San Juan, La Union — the Surfing Capital of the north. In the five years since I’ve left the city, I’ve learned that getting out was the easy part. Quitting jobs, saying goodbye, and packing your entire life into boxes so you could change addresses — these belonged to the honeymoon stage of moving. The real work began much later.

On the first year, my days were filled with the rosy tinge of seaside living. I could wake up and walk to the beach. I enjoyed the flexibility of freelance work while learning new skills like brewing specialty coffee. The best part was that eight months out of 12, I got to surf my heart out.

The skills that I honed in the city — copywriting, social media management, and a bit of design — proved to be useful in a place that was still developing its creative workforce. The more my ‘Manila skills’ were utilized here, the more I realized just how necessary it was for Manila to disperse its talent pool. If more city-trained individuals could make the progressive move to the province, we could raise the competitive quality of work in our country’s less populated places.

In 2017, an opportunity to run a business arose for Pilar. But the business demanded daily attention, and before she knew it, her entire routine revolved around nothing but work. Photo courtesy of CAMILLE PILAR

If you looked at Urbiztondo Beach on a map, you would see that it was but a short stretch in the entire La Union region. Yet the bulk of development gravitated to the surf town’s creative energy and cool coastal lifestyle. In two years, we felt an upswing in tourism. More houses were turned into hostels and homestays. Residential areas gave way to roadside shops and beachfront cafes. It was the beginning of a new era. Little did I know that the city life that I had left behind was slowly catching up to me.

In 2017, during my third year in La Union, the opportunity to put up a business arose. My parents had always urged me to take up an MBA, and there I was, learning the ropes of entrepreneurship straight from experience and not from a classroom. But I didn’t want to do just business. I also wanted to address the sad reality that more tourists in La Union also meant more trash on the beach.

Together with my business partners, we turned our beachside coffee shop into a platform for upholding beach cleanliness. We worked to show guests and other businesses that progress could be balanced with preservation. For example, we took a risk when we decided that Clean Beach Coffee would not carry single-use takeout cups. Today, our reward is seeing our guests bring their own tumblers and mugs.

Pilar started Clean Beach Coffee, a coffee and food shop that advocates for reducing waste in La Union. Photo by EM CELERA

When Pilar was running her business, she barely had time for friends or for her hobbies. She burnt out. "Did I want to leave La Union now that it wasn’t the sun-kissed story I was sharing on Instagram on my first year here?" Photo by MIKKI EDUARDO

Running the business demanded daily attention, and before I knew it, my entire routine revolved around nothing but work. It turned out that I didn’t leave my workaholic tendencies back in Manila after all; I had carried them over to La Union. I missed surf sessions and sunset strolls because I couldn’t pry myself off of a spreadsheet. On most days, I would be too tired from work to join my friends for drinks. I had no time for my hobbies, no energy to just spend time with myself, and I even lost the willpower to clean my house.

Working for bigger causes — such as fighting plastic pollution and protesting the proposal of a coal-powered plant in a neighboring town — drained my energy faster than I could recharge. I also contracted an airway disease that jolted me awake in coughing fits every night. Literally, I had forgotten how to breathe. I wasn’t getting any sleep.

Did I circle right back to the same point that compelled me to leave Manila in the first place? Did I want to leave La Union now that it wasn’t the sun-kissed story I was sharing on Instagram on my first year here?

Many reverse-migrants like me have sought to build a new life in the bustling tourist town in the last five years. However, only a handful have decided to stay for good. If anything was now evident to me, it was that leaving Manila did not promise a life without struggle.

So why move at all?

"When things don’t go as scheduled, and even when the waves don’t come as forecasted, the only thing to do is walk on the beach and enjoy the sun," writes Pilar. Photo courtesy of CAMILLE PILAR

Beyond living by the beach, learning how to run a business, and garnering a better understanding of myself, I was building a new support system, a second family, here in La Union.

At the peak of my burnout phase, moral support from other people poured in. A friend offered to help me clean my house while another expressed her concern by baking muffins. Other friends sent me poems and playlists to help uplift my heavy heart while others made me laugh until I forgot why I was sad in the first place. All along I thought I was losing control of my life that I failed to see all these people pushing me back up.

Today, I can finally admit that I’ve been a control freak my entire life. My anxiety was self-induced because I was so used to thinking I could do everything on my own. I trusted nobody but me. I was never a good team player until now.

We change when we move to new places. We change even when we think we don’t have to change. And those times that we least expect it are when we need to change the most.

Manila conditioned me to have everything so figured out but La Union taught me to be vulnerable again. I’ve learned to trust the world’s inherent timing and it isn’t something I should be adjusting according to my plans. When things don’t go as scheduled, and even when the waves don’t come as forecasted, the only thing to do is walk on the beach and enjoy the sun.