Before she was a world explorer, Tet Toralba was a photographer who, with her trusty camera, would run off to Sagada every month to capture nature’s beauty. Some weekends, she’d find herself on a diving trip to Batangas or flying an ultralight plane in Pampanga as she tried to destress from her then corporate job in Manila. Other times, she’d be off riding a surfboard in Baler or La Union or pulling an overnighter in Davao with her friends.
This was Tet’s travel life then. Having travelled to 60 of 81 Philippine provinces and 38 United Nations countries and territories, the Makati-based Filipina explorer and travel entrepreneur is now a master of slow travel, or seeing the world in a much more relaxed way. In this interview with TripZilla, Tet also talks about experiencing the underrated gems of Central Asia and being her own girl boss in the travel industry.
On slow travel and self-pacing
From Sagada, which Tet loves not just for its nature, but also the people and culture, Tet’s budding love for travel brought her to other destinations outside the Philippines. She also soon realised that her manic sightseeing and de-stressing would take a toll on her physically. Not to mention, she had very little experiences of the culture of the places she’d go to. This changed after she resigned from a long-time office job.
“When I resigned and I had all the time to travel, that is when I started or adapted to slow travel,” she told TripZilla. “Rather than attempting to squeeze as many sights or cities as possible into my trips, I make sure that I have time to explore each destination thoroughly and to experience the local culture.”
According to Tet, slow travel is adapting to a balanced itinerary. This allows her to pace herself better and eliminate the stress often brought about by rushing activities. “It is a mindset where I can go deeper on the things that matter most to me while travelling,” Tet explained. “For me, it is not about counting the number of countries or places I have been to, but looking more closely on the influence they had on my life.”
To manage this pace, Tet shared that she would often spend several days to months in a particular destination so she could understand the local culture better. She would also make it a point to shop in local markets or even spend ‘me time’ in local coffee shops. By doing so, she is able to form stronger and more meaningful bonds with the places she visits.
It also helps to revisit the same destinations she’s been to because they always have something new to offer. Aside from the Cordillera Region, Tet fell in love with Philippine provinces like Camiguin, Palawan, Bohol, and Surigao del Norte. “I have visited those places more than once, and every visit I had was different. Every province has its own charm that one needs more time to discover. The nature, activities, and food, those are the things I love about them.”
As for packing for slow travel, Tet is extra mindful of the things she places in her luggage. “I make sure I have at least one jacket, pair of pants, thermal shirt, scarf, swimwear, and pair of socks. While a lot of people may always say to pack light, I agree with that — but only to some extent.”
She also puts a priority on her space-saving hygiene kits that include shampoo and conditioner bars, which is her way of helping reduce plastic waste while on the road. Over time, Tet has learned to prepare separate toiletry sets, one for her check-in luggage and another for her carry-on, which she uses for long airport layovers.
With her newfound pace and appreciation for travel, Tet has developed an interest in collecting atypical souvenirs from her trips. “I collect gems and crystals from the countries I have been to,” she shared. She also enjoys reading, especially the works of Paolo Coehlo and John Grisham.
On exploring Central Asia and off-the-beaten-path destinations
Aside from slow travel, Tet takes pride in exploring off-the-beaten-path places, or those that aren’t frequented by tourists. Unlike Hong Kong and Thailand, which are among her first international destinations, they give her a more authentic local experience. Seeing the potential of Central Asia, Tet, along with a friend, went on an epic month-long trip around Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in 2019.
“With Central Asia, there’s not much has been said about this region,” Tet said. “If you would search it online, almost all information comes from Western travel bloggers who may have a different experience from each other. The lack of information online merited my curiosity.”
Tet was further inspired by a documentary called Expedition Happiness. “A couple had an epic road trip across North America. I wanted to do the same and go on an epic road trip from one country to the next,” she recalled. “I drew inspiration from Pinterest pictures and read blogs about Central Asia. It took me about eight months to prepare, including visa applications, creating the itinerary, and ticket purchase.”
As a Philippine passport holder, Tet shared that the visa application was the most tedious part of it all. “We did thorough research per country. We even visited the Consulate of Kazakhstan in Bonifacio Global City just to inquire about the process. Sadly, we were not able to get helpful information,” she said, adding how the Consulate even advised her to fly to Indonesia and apply from there instead.
Eventually, Tet started reaching out to people from Central Asia. One of them, a tour operator who had extensive local government connections, ended up sharing Tet’s predicament on social media, which changed everything. “Because of his Facebook post, he got invited for a meeting by the Head of their Ministry of Tourism,” she shared. “He specifically mentioned the concerns of his clients (pertaining to us) who are Philippine passport holders.”
By September 2019, Tet embarked on her most memorable road trip yet. “The drive took about 6,500 kilometres. We literally lived like nomads, stayed in hotels, guesthouses, yurts, and if we did not get to the next town or where there was no accommodation available, we pitched our tents,” she fondly told TripZilla.
“We’d buy our food whenever we’d see a local market or small grocery store in the towns we passed by. Our guide cooked and a picnic was always set up beside a river, beach, lake, and mountain. Our itinerary was very flexible, and we were aware that everything is subject to change because most sights and activities were dependent on the weather and road conditions.”
By choosing to do a road trip, Tet and her company of three other guys (including their driver and guide) were better able to manage their time and pace. But even then, some things were beyond their control. “On some days we went fast, and some days we went slow. There was even a time when our car broke down in the middle of no man’s land,” she shared. “There were no people around, no other cars passing by. Just snow-capped mountains, horses, goats, and huge eagles flying above us.”
Needless to say, the experience was unlike anything Tet has gone through in her past trips. “It felt very different to be there — no phone signal and we tried not to use up the batteries of our cameras because we did not know how soon we could get to the next town,” she added. “Whenever we felt like answering the call of nature, we had to hide somewhere and do our thing. It was a challenge especially when we were on the Pamir Highway. There were no trees or bushes to cover us. It was just a huge unforested mountain and lakes.”
When asked what her biggest takeaway from the trip was, Tet answered that the experience of living the locals’ way of life humbled her. She was also especially moved when they had met people from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan who would go out of their way to help them.
“A family opened their yurt and invited us for snacks in Karakol Gorge in Kyrgyzstan. A group of people whom we met in a yurt camp also invited us to drink horse milk with them in a ceremony. We later found out that they were famous politicians in Kyrgyzstan,” she also shared. Once locals found out that they travelled all the way from the Philippines, some of them would ask for a picture with them because, according to Tet, they had never met Filipinos in their lifetime.
Sleeping near the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan also inspired her to reflect on where she was. “I had a hard time sleeping that time knowing that part of Afghanistan was taken over by the Talibans a few years back,” Tet added. “I seemed to be anxious as there were military exercises going on at that time. Helicopters were flying above us and we would see soldiers in full battle gear.”
On being her own girl boss and inspiring travel
Around the same time she planned her Central Asia trip, Tet came back from a sabbatical in the Americas, where she contemplated pursuing entrepreneurship, and living abroad in Qatar for a year. Having been exposed to the travel industry since college, the University of Santo Tomas Tourism Management graduate decided to start her own travel company called Journey Crafter Travel and Tours, where she would promote slow travel and travelling to underrated destinations.
“I did not want to jump into the market where there is a lot of competition already,” Tet shared. “While I have clients who would still ask the usual destinations like Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore, what I would want to focus on and bring my clients to are places where many have not heard of. Examples of these destinations are Central Asia, countries in the Caucasus Region, and countries in Oceania.”
To make her services more grounded, Tet does her own research by travelling to her tours’ destinations herself. “I invest in it, because I want to see and experience it firsthand before recommending it to my clients,” she explained. Her travel expertise from previously working in the industry also helped her with the technicalities of the job. She was a travel agent for a Japanese company, has worked with a Malaysian company doing Asian tours, and handled the corporate travel department of a BPO company.
But like most agencies, Tet’s company was put on hold when the world was hit by the pandemic. Although, she has been busy attending to online transactions such as refunding tickets to her clients. But no way did these stop her from staying travel-inspired and passing on travel inspiration to fellow Filpinos who need it the most.
“I am looking for other ways now, like partnering with brands such as Daydream Republic, in which I am one of the ambassadors. It’s a community that helps mindful travellers pin their bucket list with less carbon footprint. It also aims to keep the spirit of wanderlust in every traveller. Some of its merchandise promotes mindful travels and environmental awareness.”
As for those who plan on putting up their own travel company in the future, Tet advises travellers to first make sure that travel is really one’s passion. “Make sure that you can take all the good and bad sides of it,” the Filipina explorer shared, as she recalled comments from fellow travellers saying how they wanted to be in her shoes.
“People would always tell me that they want my life because I get to travel a lot. However, they do not see the things behind those travel pictures. They do not see the fatigue, the feeling of being out of your comfort zone all the time, and the feeling of not meeting your client’s expectations. If they are ready for all of those, then maybe the travel profession is for them,” Tet said. “Like Anthony Bourdain would say, ‘Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But the journey changes you.’”
The quotes above have been edited for grammar, clarify, and flow. All images courtesy of Tet Toralba.