It was a concrete A-frame bungalow covered with a corrugated metal roof. A well-manicured, yet small lawn bloomed with aloe vera and potted flowers – their luscious, red petals open to the sky.  Despite its modest scale, it was still pleasing to the eye.  The wooden gate buckled under the pressure of my fingers as I worked the latch to gain entrance.  Sun warmed my back –I could hear roosters clucking and the buzzing of insects.

Two wonderstruck children hovered by the fence, clad in tees, shorts and flip flops cataloguing my every movement.  This small, Asian woman – saddled down with a burgundy pack – it’s length dwarfing her from head to hip stepped at the front door and knocked.

It opened with a creak.

A stout woman in a flowery shirt and knee-length madras shorts smiled widely.

“Jeannie!  So glad you here.. Come in, come in!”

A flood of welcome warmed my cheeks.

My hostess’s name is Efrena.  She pulled back the door to allow room for my pack to fit through the frame.

I stepped into a room with a concrete floor that looked stained by charcoal.  The walls were of the same material. Paint hadn’t been applied to mask the state of an unfinished house.

A glass table with plastic chairs was flanked by a television heaped with trinkets found in markets.  It was playful and childlike. A shelving unit held a tuner, a disc player for a karaoke setup and a DVD player.  Her center of worship was evident where a lone, glass case stood.  Inside it were ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus – a picture of the adult Jesus was tacked to the outside.

A variety of things hung from the wall, a framed set of ribbons that her son won during school, hats of different styles, a family crest announcing who lives here and photographs.  Black and white photographs of a man and woman gazed upon us from a dividing wall to the kitchen.  I pondered who they might be. Honoring ancestors is significant in the Philippines.  A lovely woman with a square jaw smiled serenely in a photograph at the west wall.  Efrena’s sister from Manila. The last two photos were of her son in a convocation gown, which correlated to the final picture.  A distinctly younger Efrena holding a baby.

Christmas was near and Efrena marked this upcoming occasion with a tree wrapped in colorful, shiny garland and ornaments that tugged at memory – of home.

The room was clean and orderly.

This was not a standard hostel where rock music blared from strategically placed speakers and young, pouty staff served me, but Efrena’s home.

It had been decided that I would be spending the night.

Anda, a municipality of Bohol in the Philippines is known for its beaches of white, fine sand and Lamanok Point, a site where travelers can gawk at red hermatite paintings on rock dating back to the Paleolithic era.

The barangay of Casica is also known for Anda Falls, a waterfall that rushes into a pool and in turn run-off is used for water supply to saturate the rice fields that feed a few hundred.

What is not always easily discovered is how people live on a daily basis.  This is what I came to find out.

Efrena and I shook hands, and then I must have uttered a joke.  Her laugh spilled out.  It was hearty, causing her whole body to jiggle.

With a sweep of her sturdy arms she lifted my pack, leading the way to my room.

My sleeping chamber consisted of a partitioned wall of wood paneling.  A curtain flung over the entryway served as my door.  A yellow mosquito net draped over a simple, single bed.

A hastily ripped poster of Batman hung near the door.  Her son’s room.  The only other wall decoration was the main reason I was invited here: a welcome sign from Anna.

Something about Anna’s passion drew me to her.  The New Zealand native could easily be lumped as an interloper, but she gained a respectful place in Bohol, feels intense affection and tender protection of the residents.

I got swept up in the gale with her.

Efrena cheerily asked if I was hungry.  My stomach growled at the question.

We made our way to the rear of the house.  The kitchen was a swirl of pattern from the orange flower curtains to the poinsettia tablecloth.  A fridge stood on a wooden platform to the left and a counter was built at the back wall.  A pleasant window overlooking the kitchen table bathed the room with sunlight.  I immediately liked the homey feel.  Her fridge held little food, for the custom is to keep leftovers out, but covered.

The counter was covered with dishes and other foodstuffs, yet I couldn’t place a cooking implement anywhere.

Efrena had cut some vegetables already and was ready to heat them. A set of four fish were cleaned as well, seeing them only fueled my hunger pains.  She beckoned me outside and I followed obediently.

“That is where you go to toilet.”

To the left of the yard was a collaged shack, a mix of wood boards and corrugated metal.  Inside was a low lying toilet without a lid and a series of buckets placed side by side for various purposes.  Cleaning, washing or flushing.

In the center of the yard stood another structure.  It was taller and lean, open to the elements.  The interior reminded me of a puppet stage, an image plucked from childhood, but this stage was unusual. Where puppets might stand was a pile of ash.  Above that were two metal rods.  A heavy-duty wok and a kettle balanced on top.

Efrena proceeded to root beneath a curtain built into the unit and grabbed sticks of wood.  Under the metal rods she arranged the wood and lit a fire. Soon, the fishes were sizzling, a wonderful aroma wafting across the yard.  Efrena’s compact dog paced, excited at the prospect of a morsel.

After cooking, we sat in the kitchen and ate.  Room temperature rice and stir-fried vegetables accompanied the crispy fish.

Efrena talked of her husband who worked in Taglibaran, a few hours drive from Casica.  The rarity in seeing him left her lonely sometimes.  Her son was attending accounting college in Manila, tucked safely with her sister.  Her house sat unfinished because any spare earnings went to their son’s education.  An education that can cost 20,000 to 36,000 pesos.

Sacrificing for a child’s future is a necessary burden, because that child will take care of the family when the time comes.

As I attempted to help her clean up with resistance (hospitality is not just a word in Anda, but action), it was then I noticed she did have a propane stove, hidden away.  I cautiously asked why she didn’t use it.

“930 pesos for propane.  Can’t buy.”  That was the equivalent of my plane ticket from Taipei to Manila.  The price of a cheap airline ticket meant an essential household item to Efrena.

With that somber realization, Efrena invited me to go dancing.  A rehearsal for the entire barangay was being held at the basketball courts.  Several barangays were preparing for a winter festival the following month –  where games, feasting and a dancing competition took place.

Efrena proclaimed her fondness for dancing by showing me pictures of past festivals.  In one she was dressed as a matador, a fake moustache affixed above her upper lip.

At the basketball courts, residents gathered for the rehearsal.  The barangay blazed with touches of the holiday season, each house resplendent with a parol.  A nativity scene gleamed  - the  popular draw in front of the courts.

I sat on benches and watched rows of teenagers and adults taking their positions, one of them Efrena.

Traditional music blasted from a set of speakers and the group broke out in a native dance.  The moves seemed complicated, but a joy to watch.

Children swarmed around me, fascinated with my existence, but especially my camera.  I made them laugh or squeal by taking their photos – they would scatter like mice, still laughing.

The elderly or younger families hauled plastic chairs out to sit and watch, giving silent support.  Babies danced and mothers gossiped.  The men smoked or leaned against their motorbikes to take in the show.

After rehearsal, Efrena and I visited with some of her neighbors on the way back to her house.  In the barangay, one cannot walk far without a conversation or a greeting.

As we entered the house, something had been nagging me the entire evening.  I finally had the courage to ask.

“Efrena, I am confused.  Where do you sleep?”

There seemed to lack another room.  I had peeked around, finding nothing.  This disturbed me.  She clutched her belly and giggled, patting my shoulder and steered me towards the kitchen.

To the right of the kitchen she flipped up a curtain to reveal a room – one that reminded me of a half-den, the type of space that wasn’t even granted full status.  Where you might put junk or storage.

This was the room she shared with her husband, had relations with him here or discussed the day’s activities, maybe even enduring the occasional lovers disagreement, in close proximity to her son.

Though it was early, exhaustion had sapped me.  It was time for a rest. And I had been looking forward to a possible session on the karaoke machine.

As my eyes gave way to sleep, a humbleness settled in.  I hadn’t climbed a spectacular mountain or snapped photos of 2,000 year old rice terraces, but I had learned something deeper. More.  That, in struggle, what we call ‘having less’ is immaterial.  And what Efrena has is friends that cut soul deep and a community to worship with and watch over her.

I wondered how my next night might unfold, because I was going to experience Maris’s house the following day.

Finally, my eyes closed.

I woke to a sunny morning and breakfast with Efrena.

The small gifts, how they make me smile.

International homestays is not a new invention.  According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO) over one billion tourists will step foot on foreign soil by 2012.  In the developing world, tourism is described as small enterprises, what travel aficionados refer to as the ‘local touch’, those flavors that charm us.  People of Anna Cleal’s caliber are doing more – by trying to uplift their standard of living in Bohol. For a private operation such as hers, it’s an admirable fight. 

Cost of the homestay:  Each night of the homestay is 600 pesos, well below what you would pay at a hotel.  300 pesos goes directly into the pockets of the host and the other 300 is retained by Philippines Homestay for administration costs.  Food is priced according to meals, anywhere from 50 to 60 pesos.  The object is for you to experience what the local food is like thus the cooking is done by your host.

 To book a homestay with Anna Cleal, you can email her, visit her website or follow on Facebook and Twitter.