Following the Plan through Southeast Asia, Part 2


This is a 2014 interview with a man who went to Southeast Asia looking for something. In the first part he’s on the road in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Here he returns to the Philippines. Thanks to Joe for the photo.

Joe’s story

In 2003, having just completed my round-the-world trip, I was newly back in the UK. I decided that rather than go back to work perhaps I should go back to the Philippines as I’d promised my girlfriend. She and I had been sending daily texts, but suddenly the contact just died. So whilst I was calling there was no answer. I started to worry that maybe something had happened to her. Sometimes it would ring and there would be no answer, and at other times it just wouldn’t ring. It never crossed my mind that for whatever reason she just didn’t want to talk to me. I’d been such a catch while I was there (or so I thought at the time), getting drunk every night, being an obnoxious SOB.

Not to be deterred, I thought, “Right. I’ll go anyway.”

On my first night in Manila I bought a new SIM card, giving me a new number, put it in my phone and called. She answered.

“It’s me, I’m back.” I didn’t quite get the happy reception I thought I might. “What’s going on?”

“I met somebody else after you left.”

At that point it would have been understating it to speak of my ego as a bursting balloon. So I did what any self-respecting man of the world would do, went out and got shit-faced. I went to probably one of the worst places in Malate, a joint infamous for foreigners and “hunting girls.”I sat at the bar. Whenever any girl came up to ask if I wanted some company, I’d tell my story, and she’d bugger off. Then I got this idea that rather than slink back to the UK with my tail between my legs, I’d stay and make a success of my trip (or at least try to). After a few months bumming around Manila and some other places, including Puerto Galera, I decided to fly down to a province in the south.

There I met another lady who seemed quite intelligent and had a job with a respectable organization for a regular salary. We got on, so I decided to open my own business down there. I’d get my own bar. My business plan was non-existent, my research on how to get a return on my investment was non-existent, and I hadn’t considered the fact, which is blindingly obvious now, that I really had quite a drinking problem. I thought with my own place I could drink with friends and close when I wanted to. A recipe for disaster in the making!

I was still traveling back and forth to do the odd contract in Europe or wherever else and earn a bit of real money. Having decided to settle down in the Philippines, I demolished the bar on the inside and rebuilt it. Afterwards people said, “Wow, this is such a nice place. It’s something we’d expect to see in Greenbelt in Makati.”[Greenbelt is an affluent urban mall with trim, pristine greenery, while Makati is the urban financial center.] This I took as a compliment, but what they were actually saying was it didn’t fit the environment. I was about five years too early with my grandiose scheme.

Finally the bar opened. It was a nightmare. Everybody who came in wanted to have a drink with me (or so I thought at the time). Everyone expected me to be there (or so I thought at the time). I was there trying to be the disc jockey at night, staying open until three or four for the late drinkers and then opening back up at seven for breakfast. Sometimes people driving home would see me asleep on the porch where I’d not managed to finish locking up.

One night a quiet, self-assured guy came in. I went over to talk with him and found out he was an active-duty soldier, an Englishman named Fletcher who was stationed in Iraq. He was on leave, and he’d come to the Philippines to meet a girl he’d gotten to know online. If it worked out the way he believed it would, he was going to marry her.

So I said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit rash? You’ve not even met her yet.”

“But I know her heart. She’s the same faith as me, and we talked a lot. I asked God to show me if this is meant to be.”

Over the course of the next year or so, when he came back on leave to see his fiancée he’d always come to have a drink with me. I got to know him really well. Fletcher was by no means a saint, but he had a real working version of the faith I’d known when I was younger. When it was time for him to go back, I’d drive him to the airport with my girlfriend and his fiancée. Before he left we’d pray together. I told him I’d kind of been searching. He always said, “Jesus hasn’t turned his back on you. Just petition him for help.”

I wasn’t ready.

Then, finally after two and a half years, my bar business was gone, along with yet another relationship. Looking back I can see I wouldn’t have wanted to stay with me either. But at the time all I could see were the wrongs everybody else had done to me.

One day in August I packed my remaining personal possessions into my car, said goodbye to my few friends in the province and drove onto the super-ferry bound for Manila. It was raining and gray and horrible. The ferry sailed along the coast, past the bar I’d once owned that was now no more, the place where I used to live, the place where my ex-girlfriend worked. I told myself to start looking to where the ship is going, not where it was coming from. Try to be positive. I wasn’t. In Manila I met a housing agent through some friends of mine. For five days she took me to look at different apartments in Makati. I was in a trance, saying no, no, no. In the province I’d been able to get a three-bedroom villa with two bathrooms and a garden for about 7,000 pesos a month, yet in Makati they wanted upwards of 20,000 for a shoebox. I just couldn’t see it. Late Friday afternoon the agent said, “I’m sorry, but my patience is gone. I’ve spent five days showing you everything in my portfolio. If you can’t pick one of the places we’ve looked at, I’m finished with you.”

I just picked one of the last two we’d seen. For a few months I stayed in that apartment and didn’t want to do anything. In the province I’d been given a medication to help with my depression. Combined with the alcohol it took me on a roller coaster ride, up and down. Every time I went out and walked around Greenbelt, I only saw happy couples everywhere I looked.

Standing on my seventeenth-story balcony, I’d have very negative thoughts. Then at a quarter to ten on the morning of Friday, on September 1, 2006, I felt the overwhelming need to ask for help. I got on my knees and asked Jesus to help me. It wasn’t like suddenly something lifted, but I did feel able to go out, and that evening I went to get something to eat. On Sunday I went to the same church that I’d been to two weeks before, the same denomination Fletcher belonged to. He’d said, “If you want to go to church, choose carefully. Try to find one that really does teach from the Bible and practices what they teach.”

The first time I went, a loving, warm, engaging pastor greeted me, shook my hand and gave me his phone number and said to call if I had any questions and wanted to get together. That was Pastor J.

So on Sunday I went to evening service. Afterwards when Pastor J asked how I was, I admitted to being a bit down. He took me home to have supper with him and his wife. I told him I’d really been struggling and that on Friday morning I’d gotten on my knees and prayed for help. He asked me to reiterate what I’d said, and when I told him a beaming smile came across his face. He said, “On Friday morning my wife and I were praying for you.” We worked it out, and he and his wife had been praying for me before I got on my knees. “I can promise you now that God will help you.” He told me about a loving God who cares about me and will always love me.

Within a few weeks I asked to be baptized. We went to a condominium belonging to some people in the church, and I was baptized in their swimming pool. That was September 17, 2006. With my new-found fire and passion, I went north in the Philippines, sharing the good news with as many people as I could. I found myself in kubos in the north, sharing passages of scripture that had given me hope. For a while I was alive and felt reborn.

I brought a friend down from the north to visit their friend in Hospital in Manila. That’s when I met Celina, a young lady I quite liked. She was helping to look after my friend’s friend in hospital. I left my phone number pretending it was for the patient, her uncle. She picked it up, we communicated a few times and even went out on a date, but it really didn’t work very well, partly because I was still an obnoxious, self-centered, selfish, very mixed-up person. We did get in touch occasionally.

It was wonderful for a few months. I stopped drinking. I stopped womanizing. But little by little I started struggling, and then started going back to bars that I’d been avoiding. Basically, over a period of four years, things declined. Sometimes I still tried to go to church, but the closeness I’d felt before with God was missing. I was spinning out of control again. At the time of the 2010 World Cup, I was at my lowest ever, just going from blackout to blackout, not knowing what day of the week it was or being able to distinguish one day from the next. Then one afternoon I was sitting on a bar stool outside my local bar, not knowing why I was taking another drink when it was the last thing I wanted.

A guy walked into the bar. The guys I was sitting with made a joke. “Oh, that’s Clem. He doesn’t drink.”

My ears pricked up.

Then one of them said, “Yeah, he’s something to do with AA.” They were joking and laughing.

I followed Clem into the bar, and I said, “Excuse me, are you with AA? I might have a bit of a problem.”

“Well, do you want to stop drinking?” When I said yes, he said, “That’s the only requirement if you want to give it a go.”

He gave me a phone number, but I think it was another two weeks before I called. I went to my first meeting on August 5, 2010. That morning I took my last drink. Since that day, I’ve been learning to live my life a different way. I now have what I believe is a real relationship with my higher power whom I chose to call God. I have a conscience now.

After I had been in my recovery program for a few years, Celina and I met for coffee and had a real heart-to-heart. I told her that I wasn’t really the godly person I had pretended to be when I was going around trying to share the Bible. I said that although I’d liked her when I met her in the hospital, I’d thought I could never have a relationship with someone like her. I’d thought she was better than me and that I wasn’t worthy of anybody decent. I told her that I was now in recovery and was different to what I was like before. Something changed in our friendship. She told me she struggled to live up to the image other people had of her as a pastor’s daughter.

I saw her again just before I had to leave the Philippines–my mom was really sick and I had to look after her. Then on the Christmas of 2012 I asked Celina if she’d be my girlfriend. For a year we had a long-distance relationship, communicating every day. In 2013, I came back, and before I left I asked her to marry me. We recently married and are expecting our first child together.

I can’t believe how blessed I am. Being able to love somebody I know loves me as well, that’s a gift of recovery. I know I would never have gotten into recovery had my higher power not heard me when I asked for help. This is a new beginning. So now I know, I went around the world trying to find the answer. The answer, that the whole time was hidden deep within me. I just had to ask God for it.

A reader writes:

What a beautiful story of Joe. Inspiration, trials, courage, inner strength, faith, success. Found his way to Celina.