I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning in bed. Bowing down to insomnia, I made my way out of the cabins and found the open deck in the wee hours of the morning, after the live music had tapered off into the sleepy night, with few people finding it worthy to stay up to find a starry evening sky reflected on an endless silken sea.
I settled down into a lounge chair beside a passed-out pair of friendly blonde Scots who had somehow lost their shoes, my mind turning quiet after having been caged in a cabin of too many people and too many thoughts. As I listened to the low thrum of the engine, the gentle parting of the sea, and the hushed dreams of the souls onboard, I saw the great beyond. The ship eventually turned into a patch of islands leading to the port of Coron, and just then daylight started breaking over the horizon.
The vantage point afforded by the open deck atop the MV St. Augustine of Hippo, quaintly the patron saint for sore eyes, in the approach to the Port of Coron is peerless, priceless. You will not be able to fathom Palawan and its immensity from the lofty point of a chartered flight, its expanse from a motorcycle locked by unimaginative land. You will understand Palawan best from a seafaring vessel, the hand-fashioned, careworn, seafaring outrigger of its simple fisherfolk as you wend your way through the province’s archipelagic maze, a myriad of splendid islands.
And this is precisely how the expedition I was about to take was conceived, upon a tiny fishing boat, under an endless blue sky and with the sea’s treasures writhing in the holding tanks and frolicking just beyond the hull. Or, you could set sail on the Aurora Dos, the second incarnation of the expedition’s primary vessel and so named after Jack’s beautiful and well-loved mother.
What’s funny about Jack, the Filipino half of a wildly and internationally popular (his fellow countrymen find absolutely nothing novel about getting lost among a hundred different desert islands) island-hopping expedition, is that he hails from the hinterlands of the Philippine north, a region of mountains and fearsome headhunters.
But then I realized a true explorer has no real regard for neither the terrain nor the waters that tightly hold their secrets from him, and that he can find kindred spirits in a faraway land of warm pigs and the birthplace of Industry.
The horizon exists, and his spirit has but a simple, base desire: to see the other end of it.
Towards the end of last year, I had the chance to take off from everything for two weeks. The game plan was to get my feet wet at Coron, take a lux-camping island cruise through the Calamianes, and chill out at the end of the trip in El Nido. It almost didn’t happen but three days before I took off, everything fell into place. Now that I’m in the thickest of things, I know that that was the best trip I possibly could have ever taken. Not because the outdoors were splendid – this is the Philippines, after all, where splendid is the outdoors – nor because I had found the answers to a few big snowballing things that are now coming to fore, but because I had found why I had to respond to them and, as is wont with people my age, to find a way to my own little place in the world.
Looking for a place to stay overnight at Coron, I came upon a bare-bones, no-frills webpage, the kind I assiduously coded in college Computer Basics 101, only to find the letters horrifyingly turn upside-down, Exorcist-style, during the proving presentation. Mila was a self-described tourism professional with years of training abroad in best practices in hospitality, but when I tried to reach her both her posted phone numbers were down. So much for international experience.
Not that Filipinos have much need for training in the way of hospitality. The mother who dropped out of high school to raise her growing brood has it, and you know this because no ocean breaks out wider than her smile in spite of the fact that she’s weighed down with the stuff she’ll be selling at the market the next morning. It was my fortune to have sat alongside her on the jeep, and she cheerfully walked me two blocks out of her way from the stop to point out to me with her puckers (her loading arms finding it impossible to raise) and a heartbreakingly beautiful, gap-toothed smile, the right direction.
It’s the jeepney driver who decided to take me, a passenger of fate and wheeling across the old part of Manila with but thirty minutes left before disembarkation, the extra mile out of his way, after all his passengers had already gone down. Until that moment before I alighted from the jeepney, I had been unsure if I were going to make the trip happen.
But after my feet had touched the ground, and as I started walking across the golden pavement on the way to the port on a fair Friday afternoon, and as I noticed how everyone I passed seemed to be giving me smiles all around, I realized the day was reflecting how my mood was turning quickly, the biggest worries of the past few months and even the year, melting slowly into the buttery daylight. What travel and the unknown can do for you. I made it onboard with a snappy salute to the crew and the happiest disposition ever known to campers, just in time.
The MV St. Augustine of Hippo sounded its horn, a picturesque white against a famous yellow sunset, and I was on my way that bright Friday afternoon.
For some reason, that particular stretch just before the end of a full cycle around the sun, when the awesome storms have abated, the somber sins of summer are finally resting quietly, and the bright and twinkling lights of the future are slowly spreading across the evening, has always given me something to worry about and to cherish. Nothing really lasts forever but you know in your heart some things will always be there, just like a poem that you can’t quite remember, but that you’ve long committed to heart.
I was told that to keep something from being the focus, you integrate it into your life. It is no longer the center, and it merely becomes a part of how you approach things. How beautiful, but how difficult.
I thought I would have had the time to put up the happier things here. But for the sake of posterity, the words are out there. They belong in a long-forgotten corner where double rainbows, white islands and hundred-storey waterfalls live, in the air, in memories. They are not mine because I gave them away. But they existed, like we exist now, and that is enough to say they mattered for a moment in time, no matter how brief. I am thankful for the past, and I am thankful for the future.
Being in an unfamiliar place forces you to go out of yourself a little bit more. You know no one and the places are unfamiliar, few things are certain, and all are equal seekers in paradise, therefore, how it should be…. It gives you perspective to sort things out, place them where you never thought possible or fitting, but when you see it nestled there you wonder how it could have been found anywhere else in the world.
Freedom and the open road. I will be their aptest pupil.