My Not-so-Little Tale from the Philippines
The Philippines has been on my radar for quite a while. Not surprisingly, as it has three of my most favorite things in this world: ripe mangoes, raw nature, and uncomfortably sticky hot weather. When I moved to Taiwan last July, I knew that the first chance I got I would b-line it to the Philippines, as it’s merely a two hour flight. Chinese New Year turned out to be the first chance I got, so off I went.
I’ve been back home in Taipei for nearly two weeks, and have reminisced fondly on my time in the Philippines every day without skipping a beat- and it’s not just for the mangoes, raw nature, and uncomfortably sticky hot weather. Sure, that part rocked, but It was my entire experience there that made it such a winner.
For one, I traveled with the right person. So often I’ve gone traveling on my own, and for the most part I’ve generally enjoyed that. I tend to be a bit of a free independent spirit anyway (if you haven’t noticed 😉 ), but part of that has been amplified because I haven’t often had the right person in my life to hit the road with. So, I’ve happily done it solo like the independent champ that I am. But this time, it made a world of difference being with someone who I truly enjoyed being with- someone I could laugh with, enjoy mangoes and rum with, embrace the good times with, struggle through sunburns and the painful ferry ride moments with, and generally adventure together with. As you can imagine, massive rockstar points in my book!
The journey both started and ended a little rocky, as all the best journeys do. Spending most of the first day in a tiny airport in Manila that resembled more of a refugee camp as opposed to an airport (advice: if you must go to Terminal 3, spend as little time there as possible), a delayed flight to Puerto Princessa followed by some boat ticketing issues and a 5+ hour wait to board an overnight ferry bound for Coron. At moments we teetered on the edge of sanity, but luckily neither of us crossed that dangerously fine line.
Once we boarded the ferry, I drugged myself with motion sickness meds and heavy-duty muscle relaxers, perhaps unnecessarily, but I still slightly suffer some trauma from my motion sickness issue as a child- thanks to my Dad’s stellar driving skills and that trusty ol’ family station wagon with the backwards-facing seats. Anyway, thank God for the healing power of good old fashioned medication!
We ended up meeting a friendly British-turned-expat couple on the roofdeck who we knocked back a couple of beers with, exchanged the quintessential comical and annoyed Life-in-Asia rants with, and then retreated to our “tourist” part of the boat to pass out soundly to the gentle snores of 200 other people we shared the massive bunk bed room with.
13 hours later… We made it to Coron. The first few days in Coron were good, but admittedly too easy. As soon as we showed up at our “dive resort” on a private island, and the sweet local girl handed us some welcome drinks and broke into her canned shpeel on island hopping tours and what not, we immediately realized this just wasn’t rugged enough- everything was too organized, too EASY. We were craving a THRILL, more of an adventure. But, we made the best out of the situation we had locked ourselves into for a few days. We hired a boat to take us around to the neighboring islands and fresh water lagoons, swam, snorkeled, and climbed and jumped off whatever we could. We went scuba diving in some shipwrecks, where I dodged a couple potential disasters after sticking my foot into a booty with a massive centipede in it, and also smashing my head on the edge of the actual shipwreck and drawing some blood. More scars to add to my thriving collection!
It was great, beautiful, lovely, all the jazz.. but after a few days we were ready to move on. We ended up jumping in the back of a jeepney to ride up the bumpy coast to a small part of Busuanga Island called Concepcion. And that, my friends, is when shit got real good: The moment we crammed into that ghetto, run-down open aired jeepney crammed with smiling locals transporting bags of fruit and boxes of Oreos that were actually tied to the roof! These jeepneys are all over the Philippines, and they are awesome. They stop for anyone and everyone, irrelevant of how hazardously crammed the vehicle becomes. Rather than passengers getting angry and annoyed with how crowded it was getting, everyone laughed, sat on each other, and playfully elbowed one another. It was admirable.
In the town of Concepcion, we met some solid locals and expats, the kinds of people I love to meet… the ones with cheeky smiles, shocking suntans, and a slow, relaxed approach to life that lets you know they’ve been on the island for ages and don’t have the slightest intention of leaving. “Seriously, what more could you want?” Mike, the tattooed owner of the bungalow asked us, as he leaned back, flashed us his charming smile and lit his third cigarette in ten minutes. Him and his posse passionately told us about the best empty islands to visit, and then prepared for us a cooler full of goodies and sent us on our way.
We jumped in the boat he organized for us and visited a couple islands before heading to the one we planned to camp out on. We stopped at a small island called Black Island which was arguably the most beautiful island I had ever seen. It had such a stark contrast of scenery, from massive caves we could walk through, to jagged cliffs, to soft white sand and turquoise waters. As we snorkeled around, exploring little coves and even stumbling upon a hidden white-sand beach, I had to stop, remove my goggles, and take a moment to soak it in. As I floated on my back in the clear water gazing up at the sharp rock formations, the sun warming my skin, it dawned on me that this may actually be the most beautiful island I have ever seen.. and who knows, maybe the most beautiful island I will ever see. Whether this is actually true or not is pretty irrelevant, but it elicited a nostalgic, bittersweet sensation within me, making me pause and smile at the rarity and completeness of the moment.
We hopped back on the boat and told our boatmen we were ready, who each lit a cigarette and started the engine. They took us to a small fishing village on another island, one we immediately realized didn’t get much foot traffic. Men sat outside the few little shops that existed, drinking cheap rum, smoking cigarettes, and eyeing us suspiciously. Women looked rough and weathered, wrapped up in headscarfs, hovering over kitchen stoves. Word must have spread quickly that there were white people on the island, as small children seemed to suddenly appear from all sorts of nooks and cranies, trailing after us and giggling. At one point we turned to them and engaged with them by kicking their ball back and forth with the youngest looking dusty-haired girl.
We wandered barefoot along the scorching hot dirt path in search of a fresh fish we could grill up. We asked a woman if she could help us; she led us into a small bamboo hut, where another woman emerged from the kitchen with a big ol’ fish in hand that we bought for 40 pesos. Score! Fish in tow, we began walking back to the boat, until we were side-tracked by some stumbling rum-drinking men who kindly offered us some of their bottle. It’s not nice to decline a drink, right? ‘Shots, everyboddddddy shots shots shots..’ played through my head for an instant. But I kept my cool.
Rum warming our already sunburned bellies, we walked a bit further and sat outside a house with the friend of our boatman, who prepared for us some coconuts and fresh guava juice. We watched his two young sons play with each other in a bucket, as the father enthusiastically invited us back to stay with them in that village whenever we wanted to come back. As I sipped my fresh coconut and gazed out at the remaining few fishing boats bobbing gently in the water, I caught eyes with Bas who looked equally as content as I felt.. and I couldn’t help but think, Now these are the moments that remind me why I love to travel so much. I felt grateful, I felt complete, and I felt a renewed spark of compassion for this world.
We ended up camping out on two tiny islands- to say it was beautiful and amazing isn’t doing it justice. It was blissful, enchanting.. a disbelieving voice in the back of my mind kept probing, “How did this happen?” Aside from the distant echoes of boat engines, and the admitted clanking of our beer bottles, there was stillness.
The kind of deep peace and stillness that brings even the noisiest of minds to a stand-still.
The kind of deep peace and stillness that calms down any incongruities between the heart and mind, bringing the soul home again.
And so we had to cheers to the moment of course, swigging from the bottle of rum like pirates. Balance, right?
Our hearts were full and our cooler was packed. We swung on hammocks, napped in the sun, and naturally slowed our own pace down as well. We spent the days snorkeling, swimming, collecting corals and seashells, finding little nooks and cranies in the island, and spent the evening watching the sunset, sipping beer, and collecting firewood. We BBQ’d fish, gazed up at the stars for hours, and warmed ourselves by the fire when the nights grew a little cooler and the wind picked up.
We slept in sleeping bags and cushions atop raised wooden slabs with a bamboo thatched roof. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of the crashing waves, and awoke to the sunrise.
It simply doesn’t get much better than this.
And then… Well, remember I mentioned that rocky beginning and rocky ending part? Yeah. We braved another overnight ferry ride back to Manila, but this time conditions were rougher. We ran into our British-turned-expat friends- the girl had very unfortunately broken her foot and was feeling quite miserable in a wheelchair. Bas was sick. The boat ride was rough- rough waters and stormy weather. I stood outside on the deck for some fresh air but all I could smell was gasoline fumes, as I watched two weathered-looking locals proudly showing off their cocks, preparing for what I assumed was an upcoming cockfight in Manila. It made me laugh.
And to add icing to the cake, there was horrible “entertainment” on the deck of the ferry in the form of horrendous karaoke. The performers had to hold on to wooden beams to avoid being thrown around from the rocking boat. I fidgeted through my bag, popped another muscle relaxer, zoned out to the depressing music and the flashing disco lights for an hour or so, and then retreated to my bunk bed, where I shoved in my earphones and fell asleep to the soothing sounds of Lana del Rey.
It’s only fair, I thought. Life isn’t about trying to fill up the space with only peaceful moments and avoid the chaotic moments. It’s about accepting and loving it all. I’ve learned to love the rugged mixed with the gentle, the sun breaking through the clouds, intense passion cut with some calm down-time. Like this boat journey, it all comes in waves, and the art is to roll with it as gracefully and appreciatively as possible.
And even though I was on the verge of puking from the aggressively rocking boat, I couldn’t help but smile at how full I felt from my trip to the Philippines, knowing damn well I would be coming back here again soon.
And I couldn’t wait.