How The Philippines Transformed One Man's Life

14 March 2015
Read Time: 2.5 mins

Chris Emch was on a group scuba trip to the Philippines in October 2013 when it happened. About 11 metres down off Apo Island, he removed a borrowed earplug that was chafing him, creating a suction that yanked his ear drum outward. The resulting injury forced Emch out of the water for days.

By his own admission, he was a pretty unhappy guy. He’d spent years working as a police officer and, as he put it, had seen “what awful things people do to each other over petty things”. After a career-ending injury, he’d opened a scuba shop in Thousand Oaks, California, but the business was struggling. And only months before the scuba trip, he’d been diagnosed with skin cancer and had endured a painful divorce.

 Stunning sea life off Apo Island in the Philippines. Picture: Getty Images


Emch liked the isolation of diving. After all, you can’t exactly have a conversation 15 metres  underwater. There on Apo Island, suddenly sidelined, he could have packed up and gone home.  Instead, the 41-year-old decided to have a look around the surrounding islands.

“I rented a scooter and set out to see what Dumaguete had to offer,” Emch said. “I went to a bar with one of the managers from the resort I was staying at, and he introduced me to some friends of his.”

 Lush forests around Dumaguete in the Philippines. Picture: Getty Images

Those friends became his tour guides, and Emch realised this was the first time in a long while that he’d enjoyed making connections with new people. Perhaps something inside him was shifting.

The scuba group continued on to Manado and Bitung, Indonesia, where Emch hired a guide name Fritz to show him around. They took in the local sights, but Emch was most affected by his conversations with Fritz.

New perspective

From Emch’s perspective, Fritz lived a modest life. He’d worked at Kungkungan Bay Resort, where Emch was staying, for 16 years. He made about $140 a month, lived in a small boarding house and took on odd jobs to provide for his wife and son. But, most importantly, Emch realised, Fritz was happy.

Emch told Fritz that he wanted to see his family, so off they went to Fritz’s home. Emch met Fritz’s wife, son, cousins, parents, aunt and uncle. He sipped sweet tea and chatted with them. The experience deeply affected Emch.

“I had everything I could ever want and still complained all the time,” he said. “I realised how blessed my life was and how truly lucky I was to have the life I had been given.”

From that point on, Emch said he had a new perspective.

“After that day, things tasted better, things smelled better, the glass went from half empty to half full,” he said. “It was like someone put me into a machine and reprogrammed my brain. It was an amazing feeling.”

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Changed man

Emch returned home and got rid of many of his possessions. He sold the scuba business. These days, he lives in Bangkok – a move he made after visiting a couple he’d met on the same life-altering trip.

At 42, Emch said he continues to learn new things about himself and others. He always tries to see the good in people and to make the best of every situation. He still uses the lessons he gleaned from Fritz.

 A new life in a new city - Bangkok. Picture: Getty Images

But most importantly, he said, he’s taking time to get to know himself better.

“Travel truly changed my life, changed my outlook, changed my perception, changed how I acted and changed me as a person,” he said. “Compared to who I was a year ago, some of my closest friends and family don’t recognise who I am anymore.”

He used to be too materialistic, he said. And he thinks he should have treated his family better. But now, he’s striving to become the person he wants to be.

“Everything happens for a reason," he said, “and you can’t control where life takes you or what lessons it wants to give you.”


This article was originally published by BBC Travel.

This article was written by Mia Simon from BBC and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Mia Simon

Mia Simon is a Travel Editor Intern at BBC.