That is what Justine (one of the woman on the sailing trip) said to me as we were kayaking back toward the boat after snorkeling in a lagoon that featured bright green water, black limestone cliffs speckled with trees, and pristine coral. It was true, the remote islands off the northern coast of Palawan are nothing if not truly magnificent. (Tomorrow from the office I promise I will post a series of pictures!)
As with any good adventure, ours started off with a few mishaps. First off, the van from Puerto Princesa to El Nido (the beach town from where we caught the sailboat) was crammed to its capacity with people and luggage, so some of the luggage ended up on top of the van. Luckily, the driver wrapped a tarp around the luggage that went on top; however, by the time we arrived in El Nido, after driving for at least 3 hours through pouring rain and wind, my backpack and its contents, which, unfortunately, rode on top of the van, were damp. I pulled everything out and hung my clothes on the shower rod in the bathroom, the curtain rod in the room, the chair in the corner, the door knobs, and blasted the oscillating fan. Luckily, when we returned from dinner, most the clothes had dried, but my towel smelled like a moldy rag, so I decided to invest in a new towel for the trip. Aside from my wet clothes, we also had an unwelcome visitor — a huge cockroach, which I was responsible for removing since Noelle really, really dislikes bugs! I finally captured it after scurrying around the room for several minutes and threw it off our little balcony. Phew! Other than dealing with those mishaps, our first night in El Nido was quite pleasant. It was overcast and drizzly, but we ate dinner on a lovely balcony overlooking the ocean and then ate freshly-made crepes from a vendor on the sidewalk. Delicious!
The next morning, we were up at dawn because we had to meet our crew at the Tao House at 7am. We arrived in the pouring rain (which luckily was not an omen for the rest of our trip — 2 out of the 3 days were actually sunny) and were greeted warmly with freshly brewed coffee and freshly baked breakfast rolls. At the Tao House, we met the rest of the people who would be on the expedition (I’ll introduce them in a minute) and then boarded a van to drive an hour to where the sailboat (the Paraw) was moored. Our fellow passengers were:
Lu: a journalist in her early 30’s from Manila
Robert and Flora: an adventurous Dutch couple from Amsterdam who were spending a month traveling through the Philippines (Robert works in TV and Flora is a nurse training to be a midwife)
Justine: a health educator from NYC and a Roots of Health board member
Chance and Tracy: Justine’s friends (Justine and Chance did Teach for America together in Hawaii), a couple from Kansas (Chance is a professor at a local university and is working toward his PhD, which will be on service-learning and Tracy is a lawyer)
Choc: a local and free-spirited woman in her late 20’s who has traveled the world as a flight attendant and is an amazing yoga instructor
Banksy and Datu: 6-month old puppies who love the water and the boat ride (these 2 island dogs have a “rough” life, all kinds of sarcasm intended)
And, of course, there were also 9 crew members, who cooked and navigated and set up base camp and told stories. Gener, the man who built the boat (which, by the way, was constructed just like it would have been long ago, so it has no nails, just sap to hold it together) is literally an incarnate of Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean — such a fascinating, easy-going, smart man! His fiancée is Ami’s good friend, which is how we were initially connected with this trip.
So, with all 17 people and 2 dogs we set sail on Friday morning and headed out into the beautiful ocean. For the next 3 days were we one with nature, snorkeling and soaking up the sunshine (I boarded the boat one color and when I returned to the mainland I was definitely a shade darker — it’s easy to underestimate the intensity of the sun as it reflects off the water) and camping on the remote islands. We didn’t really bathe or brush our hair (I joked I might come back to the States with dreadlocks) or check our phones. I was happy to return to the mainland and scrub the salt off my skin and run a comb through my gnarly hair, but it also felt so refreshing to feel salty and slightly dirty! We embraced the mosquito bites and the plankton bites (yes, plankton can bite!) and enjoyed the spectacular scenery. There was never a dull moment! Just when I would think that I was growing accustomed to the limestone cliffs, the light would change slightly and I would be awed all over again. I literally could have watched that scenery for weeks without feeling bored.
When we arrived back onto the mainland, it was hard to imagine a better trip. Sleeping in little huts on the beach with the wind blowing and the waves crashing, eating delicious food (homemade pasta, banana pancakes, fresh fish, squash soup, eggs, mango, pineapple), snorkeling through purple and orange and blue coral, sitting at the bow of the boat as it soared across the wide ocean — maybe my new occupation should be a sailor?! I am so thankful for this adventure, which occurred as my time in the Philippine islands is starting to truly dwindle. Fun people, good food, breathtaking scenery — island life is none too shabby!
Of course, it’s hard not to also feel the tug of heartache as I recognize that I am blessed to be adventuring here, that I am occupying two different worlds: that of a tourist and that of a volunteer for a maternal and reproductive health NGO. It’s a little strange to retain both identities simultaneously, but also separately. It’s been difficult for me to reconcile those identities at times, difficult to bear witness to the challenges of teenage pregnancy and malnourished kids and at the same time venture off on a carefree long weekend aboard a sailboat. So much of what I have seen here invokes a visceral reaction, a strong sense that this is not the way it should be. And that’s a good reminder to me to never become complacent. Just because an issue is not hitting you directly in the face everyday does not mean it does not exist. I think it’s too easy to starting talking about big issues like teenage pregnancy or mothers dying in childbirth in theoretical terms, to have discussions that remained separated from the actual people — because, in so many ways, once these issues move from the theoretical to the tangible, once you see the mother with 14 kids, it’s almost too much to handle. I have found I am slightly haunted by some of the life stories I have seen here. And so, I feel at once blessed and alarmed. This experience (in its entirety from sailboat trips to helping the nurses distribute contraceptives) has changed me in ways that I know I am not yet fully aware of. So hey, I say bring on the next three weeks!