Filipina Trailblazers: Camille Pilar, Surfer And Writer

For some, life is all about chasing your passion and doing what makes you happy. Meet one Filipina surfer and barista who packed her bags and chased after that dream.

As women continue to be a driving force for change in the Philippines, this series aims to highlight those who demonstrate an exceptional commitment to creating an impact.

They are the leaders, activists, innovators and visionaries - whether in the public eye or behind the scenes - who are revolutionising the way we think and live.

In our newest interview for the #FilipinaTrailblazers series, Executive Lifestyle talked to Camille Pilar, a writer, surfer and barista who is not afraid to live a life counter to the expectations of society. She took the courageous step to leave a life of material comfort to find herself, and has never felt so free.

She is blazing trails for women of all ages who seek to be themselves, find more of themselves, explore the world and live a life worth telling. She shares her journey, her writing project, and what it’s like to live and work unconventionally in the surf town of La Union.

Can you share with us your professional background? Did you always dream about doing what you’re doing now? 

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Major in Communication and Minor in Literature, from Ateneo De Manila University. Back then, I thought I was going to lead a life in the academe. I was going to attend graduate school, get a doctorate, and teach. I didn’t want to leave the familiar comfort of the classroom and the library, so I had decided early on that it was a teacher’s life for me.

Looking back, I realise now that what I wanted to do depended so much on what I knew of the world. Outside of academics, I really didn’t know much.

So I decided to get to know the world a bit more. I followed where most people went: the corporate world. I worked as a product manager for a telco for a year, and it didn’t take longer than that for me to admit that I wasn’t cut out for corporate life.

I then worked as a freelance writer for different clients from various industries. One day, as I was reviewing content for a client, I chanced upon an ad looking for communication teachers at an international college. It was my dream job beckoning! Without hesitation, I applied.

I then taught Communication Theory and Media Studies for three years. Teaching was as fulfilling as I had dreamed it would be, and I would have stayed on to teach had I not felt oppressed by living in the city. I had a job I loved in a city I despised. Eventually, I just had to move out.

When was that moment when you made up your mind to create a new path for yourself?

On the night of the New Year (January 1, 2013), I decided that I wasn’t going to live through another year unhappy. I owed it to myself to change my life. So on a whim, I packed my bags and looked for a destination that could be reached by just one bus ride. After all, it was going to be my first spontaneous trip alone. In the blur of choices, La Union stood out. I got on a Partas bus from Cubao, and six hours later, I found myself in surf town.

That’s when surfing changed everything.

What was it like to give up your career for your passion to surf, and how did you come to the decision to follow your heart?

As much as I loved teaching, it felt like I was throwing my life away in Manila. Every week, I’d yearn to be elsewhere surfing. It only made sense to take out the constant back-and-forth and just stay somewhere with surf.

There were consequences to quitting my job, but the greatest consequence was wasting my life. So we charged the great unknown and let life happen.

Why did you decide to permanently move to La Union, and why that particular place?

It was never a conscious decision to move to La Union. I had surfed there a couple of times and that was it. But the urge to move out of Manila had gotten so strong that I considered relocating to just about any province with a surf break: from Zambales to Daet, from the west coast to the east.

And then came a stroke of luck! My friend who had started a small specialty coffee shop in La Union was looking for people interested in relocating to learn about making really good coffee. I knew nothing about coffee except that I loved drinking it and, somehow, that was enough!

My partner, Harold, and I applied as baristas at El Union Coffee. We moved to La Union a month later. We quit our jobs (we were both college teachers), we gave up our cosy Kapitolyo apartment, and then we drove to start a new life up north.

Can you tell us more about your role at El Union Coffee?

On top of being a barista, I also manage data and reports for El Union Coffee. I handle internal communications and have some HR roles as well. I do a lot of office work for the shop, but my favourite part of my job is still being behind the bar, taking and making orders, and making someone’s day brighter with a lovely cup of coffee.

What do you love the most about your ‘freedom-based’ lifestyle? 

I’ve learned the real value of time. I will gladly take more free time over more pay. Having a lot of money but no time to do things you enjoy and get to know your own self is hardly an achievement.

However, like everything in life, you have to strike not just a balance but also a harmony between leisure and savings. I believe that this harmony is what creates sustainability. If either leisure or savings is missing, you cannot be sustainable.

As an outsider coming into a new community, how did you gain people’s trust and find a sense of belonging?

Firstly, we just stayed. When they saw that we were really serious about living here, new opportunities opened up. We shared our skills and extended our time to whoever came around. Eventually, we built new friendships and fostered new relationships with different people in the community.

It wasn’t always easy; there are cultural differences that needed to be accepted. There was even a language difference. However, if you just stay true with your intentions and stay open, connections will be made, and bonds will be formed. It’s just how we deal with life! Remember that being good is always enough.

How do you see your role within the local community and your work within it?

What you can give back to a community also depends on your resources. We don’t have a lot of money to jumpstart businesses and create jobs, but we can create meaningful relationships.

For the local community in La Union, we hope for them to see that we are not just outsiders or visitors who only see the place as a vacation spot. Our intentions are genuine and our energies are fresh; so we hope to be able to give something sincere back.

Most of the people we’ve met here just need someone to talk to and share their own ideas with. The people here will appreciate your presence the most. Listen to them. Attend the local meetings. Participate in the beach clean-ups. Just show them that you care because living with them is valuable to you.

Also, I like to think that we can help people from the city see that a life in the province is feasible and, most of all, fun! We like talking to those who have expressed the same interest as us, and we answer their questions to the best that our own experiences can provide.

What has living in La Union taught you so far?

Many people think that moving to a vacation spot means a life of recreation and relaxation. While life does become a whole lot simpler, it also becomes more challenging in its own way.

For one, it teaches you to be less selfish. I love how La Union has challenged me to understand life from a different perspective. I love how being part of a community is the key to survival. In my two years here, I’ve learned how to be more open, more giving, more patient and kind. If those are the lessons I pick up, I must be doing something right.

You seem to love body art. Can you tell us more about your tattoos and which one is your favourite?

I have blue-red-blue notebook lines wrapped around my left wrist. This is my favourite tattoo because it reminds me that before we learned how to write stories, we first learned how to write.

As a Filipina, do you think there’s a stigma attached to women who look unconventional and if so, how do you deal with it?

I personally don’t have a bad experience with having all these tattoos. I think it’s also important not to let your tattoos speak for you.

I work hard and I listen well. I let my identity shine through beyond how I look. I think that our society today is more accepting of the many changes that are rapidly combing the world and how we live. While these new mindsets are not yet perfectly in place, I have hope that the necessary steps to change the old and traditional stigma have already been laid out.

Yet, I know there are women who still suffer from double standards. It might take another lifetime for new conventions and new ways of seeing women to form and manifest. But today, we can continue calling out those who judge and act unfairly toward all women, regardless of how they look.

Can you share with us your writing project, #100DaysOfWritingTrue?

I started #100DaysOfWritingTrue on Instagram to document the impact of our move to La Union. In line with this, I wrote about what it was like to finally own a dog, build a house, and fully love someone every day. Of course, there was also coffee and surf. Moving to a new place gave me new eyes. I wanted to save these realisations in writing so I could share them and so I wouldn’t forget them.

When I started #100DaysOfWritingTrue, I told myself: I will write about 100 beautiful things that unfold in my life, as they happen daily, or if by some random act of memory, I remember: a delightful thing, a moment of truth, some simple triumph, or a reason to love.

It turned out to be exactly that and more. Although 100 days are up, I continue to write about these moments when they come. I post my newest entries under the hashtag #WritingTrue.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

I hope to be able to go around the different surf spots in the Philippines. I want to create a lasting keepsake of all these travels. Perhaps a book. And after more travels and writing, I hope to be able to teach again. Right now, I’m just biding my time. I’m learning everything I can about life, so when I return to the classroom, I have new stories to tell and new light to share.

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I definitely regret not starting sooner! If I had been less apprehensive and worried about my future, I would have discovered surfing and the simple joys of provincial life sooner. So timing is really everything. If you don’t do it early enough, you might miss your chance altogether.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going?

It’s easy to get frustrated when nothing seems to go your way. After moving to La Union, we welcomed new struggles and hardships into our life. We came to a new place where nobody knew us. Every day, we knew we had to gain people’s trust until we could feel that we belonged in this community. What got us through was just being good to ourselves and to others — because being good was always enough.

What words of encouragement can you give to Filipinas who are too afraid to step out of their comfort zone and live the life they want?

The first thing you need to remember is that you already have everything you need to make your move. At this moment, you could already change your life. All you have to do is believe it.

Blazing trails for other women doesn't have to be entrepreneurial, or business-related. Forging your own path doesn't have to be about anything else but finding yourself, seeking that place where you are comfortable with yourself and happy with a life lived well.

Edited by Jenny Austria
Image credit: 
Camille Pilar Photo by Aidx Paredes, 
Camille Pilar Tattoo Shot by James Lontoc, 
Camille Surfing by Surfing San Juan