A lot of people ask me about my adventure in the Philippines. Besides writing the first draft of a bestseller, they wonder what my day-to-day life was like on that island.
To me, thinking about training in martial arts on a remote island immediately brings back to life memories of Goku training with Master Roshi, or Karate Kid waxing on and off.
It wasn’t exactly like that, although it did involve hundreds of thousands of repetitions, broken sticks, and semi-permanent blisters in my hands.
But let’s start with my daily routine.
My jetlag lasted way too long when I got there. For some people, jetlag produces insomnia but it had me waking up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I would wake up at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep for hours. Other times I simply couldn’t get back to sleep at all.
Once I got over the jetlag, I usually went to bed soon after sunset because I was exhausted by the end of my day and, besides, there was nothing better to do at night but sleep. Because my cabin didn’t have any blinds or curtains, I woke up as soon as the sun rose, between 5 and 6am.
At eight in the morning, they brought me breakfast: a bowl of white rice with an egg and fried sausages. My diet was basically white rice paired with something (usually fish or meat) for every single meal.
I was worried I’d get tired of eating rice at every meal (including breakfast), a valid concern if you consider that it accounted for 80% of my diet. But, surprisingly, I got used to it very quickly and it sort of became a substitute for the Spanish custom of eating bread with just about anything.
I realize now that my calorie intake was too low for the amount of training I was doing, which was mostly cardio based. I lost seven pounds because of that, but I had no way to weigh myself out there so it was impossible to make adjustments on the go.
My rustic cabin was right on the beach, so I spent most of my mornings eating breakfast while looking out at the sea, writing and reading, and watching the fishermen and the children on their way to school. The fishermen usually went out at midnight and came back at sunrise to prepare themselves to sell their catch right on the beach.
After breakfast, I prepared myself for morning training. I think the voice of my instructors, Joseph and Jeff, calling me each day will forever be ingrained in my mind: “Vic! Training time!”
Training lasted until it was time to eat lunch, about 3-4 hours depending on the day. The morning training sessions were usually harder, very repetitious, and focused on laying the foundations right: a lot of footwork, sinawalis (different patterns of striking with the Kalis) and memorizing all the different systems of striking.
That’s when we did most of the training with the Kali–two rattan sticks made from a special Philippine wood that doesn’t splinter. On the third or fourth day, I started getting blisters on my hands from holding the Kali for hours on end.
But the blisters weren’t the real problem.
The real problem was having to hold them again the next day.
That’s when it really hurt. My hands became tougher and new calluses kept forming until my last day there. Basically, I learned to live with it.
After the training session, I would take a relaxing bath in the sea and use this time to disconnect a little bit.
Sometimes there were jellyfish that I could play with (I used to avoid them until the kids in the area taught me how to safely grab and throw them for fun), other times I would just let my body rest, bobbing along with the waves.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t one of those tourist beaches–not by a long shot. In fact, I was the only foreigner for miles around (which made me, of course, the main attraction any time I went into town).
It was a real fishermen’s beach: ungroomed and scattered with broken equipment. I once found a dead cat in the sand that eventually got dragged by the water.
I stopped having my daily bath for a week.
The sea wasn’t a leisure activity for the islanders. It was their way of life.
Then I would eat lunch, featuring the omnipresent rice bowl, and take a nap to recover as well as I could before getting back to training in the afternoon (“Vic! Training time!”) until sunset.
Those afternoon sessions were more fun.
We practiced things like disarms, chokeholds, takedowns, and locks. We might train with the Kali or a knife, but we also trained with our bare hands.
Kali is a very interesting martial art from the martial artist’s perspective since it is taught the opposite way as other martial arts.
While in Kung Fu or Aikido for example you start learning punches and kicks and eventually progress to the use of weapons, in Kali you start with weapons (the two Rattan wood sticks named Kalis) and eventually progress to one stick, then one stick and a knife, then only one knife, and then finally empty handed.
The beauty of the system is that all those combinations–with and without weapons–are based in the same pattern of circular movements.
So once you get them ingrained in you, you’re as good with a weapon in your hands as you are without one.
I remember the first day I walked in, how strange I felt with a stick in my hands doing a drill. I just wanted to drop it and use my fists like I was used to in Krav Maga, which is stupid considering the advantage having a weapon gives you, right?
At the end of the three months, the Kalis were truly an extension of my arms (and blisters!)
I trained for a total of six to eight hours a day.
Wednesdays and Sundays were my rest days.
You might think I would take advantage of these days to do some tourism since I was in an exotic Asian country seven thousand miles away from home.
Those rest days were the oxygen tank that let me keep up with the training pace.
I spent those days mostly sleeping, resting, and doing nothing whatsoever.
This was my time to take a breather. Their only purpose was to allow me to recover enough energy and motivation to start training again the next day.
These three months were by far the most physically demanding experience I have ever had in my life.
To tell the truth, the simple fact of completing such a long and intense training process without giving up on myself completely transformed so many of my old self-identities.
The last day of training I did my belt exam, which I feared since day one, and it was intensely grueling.
At one point, I was about to puke hard and void my bowels. At the same time.
I have never had that feeling again (and I’m not interested in repeating it!). It was like having a drop in blood pressure mixed with low blood sugar, but taken to a very weird extreme during a very non-stop, intense, high-stress, “I can’t stop” scenario.
I honestly don’t know how I could hold that and keep going. I still don’t get it today.
But I did.
And I got through it.
And I laid in the sea afterwards and cried tears of joy.
For the curious out there, apparently I did well in my belt exam because I ended up getting a 1st Dan Black Belt (that’s one belt above black level). I was aiming for the black belt, but the 1st Dan was unexpected.
I think they probably feel relieved that they didn’t have to watch the terrible spectacle my body wanted to put on.
But, of course, the whole belt thing doesn’t really mean anything and only served to tick off a box in my bucket list (I always wanted to be a black belt in anything as a kid).
The only “belt degree” that matters are the things you keep practicing every single day.
But hey, my ego gets to remember from time to time that I have a black belt.
Which feels good.
And it’s a cool reward for three months of blisters.
If you want to know something specific about my life there, leave me a comment below.
- The cover picture for this article is one of the amazing sunsets I enjoyed during my stay in the island of Negros, Philippines.