My life is a lot of accidentally doing things the hardest way possible. With an all-star cast of strange characters. A sprinkling of mishap. A lot of “well, at least this will all be a very funny story in a few days.”
There were definitely moments of that on this trip to Palawan, the most beautiful island in the world. For example, I never thought I’d meet a single rude Canadian, let alone three of them at one time. I also did not anticipate being stuck on a broke down boat in the middle of the ocean with three rude, drunk, obnoxious Canadians in the hot sun for nine hours. But that happened. That happened hard.
Fortunately, by this point in the week, I had mostly recovered from my illness – barfing every hour on the hour for about a day – but Amie was now battling hers like a brave little soldier. Unfortunately, she had also gotten a brutal sunburn, so spent a lot of time wrapped up in a really cool rash guard, shorts, water shoes, and was being mommed by me to put on more sunscreen.
And absolutely hating these terrible boys we had to be on a boat with. Seriously. There’s nowhere to go on a boat! Don’t be an a$%hat on a boat! These boys. These childrens. The only way to escape them was to be underwater. They talked loudly about everything from their qtip routines to how that one mountain over there reminded them of male genitalia, and at every stop would say things like “bro, this would make such a sweet Tinder pic.” “Yeah, like, new Facebook prof, for sure, dude.” And went into explicit detail about how their swim trunks made their special parts feel.
Despite the constant stream of inappropriate comments from them and concern for my poor bestie, it was easy to get lost in the beauty of the islands and secret beaches and the fishies. Palawan had colors I’d never seen before. The blues met the greens and the water was refreshing but warm enough to slip right in and the sun hot enough that you never felt cold when you got out to do that super graceful climb that is getting back onto a boat via mossy ladder. (I have a lot of unedited GoPro footage about that).
We visited places with names like Hidden Lagoon and Helicopter Island, Secret Beach and Seven Commandos, kayaking through small holes in massive volcanic rock to peaceful waters (peaceful except for the drunk Spanish girls determined to get the perfect selfie and the occasional warning cry from a kayak getting too close. I was taking a lot of GoPro footage and not great at steering). We wandered around Mantiloc Island shrine, which claims to be a gateway to a version of heaven I’m verra interested in. It’s pretty.
So the boat breaking down in the middle of the ocean, unleashing fears I didn’t know I had, happened for a while. We had to skip a few scheduled stops but then found a ride to shore. After getting towed to shore, we spent a panicky few hours of searching and bargaining but we managed to score the last two tickets in town for a ride out to our next destination, Coron.
We woke up at the crack of dawn to wait for a fast ferry to take us to the next beautiful island. We had the pleasure of watching some Vin Diesel movie THREE TIMES (and honestly, it grew on me. But I am worried about Toni Collette and why she took a role in it.) before we arrived, hot and sweaty and slightly uneasy about just how much rocking there was on that ferry. The middle of the ocean, on the bottom level of a ferry boat in the Philippines, is not a great time to realize you actually don’t like boat rides. And that there are several more in your very near future.
There was also the most interesting couple in the world in front of us – they could have been (male) twins; they both wore sleeping masks with furry googly eyes on them, and a snuggie, and they spent the entire ride sleeping on top of each other, biting each other’s faces, and arguing. So they could bite again. It was a train wreck I couldn’t look away from. Lots of good mutual eye rolls with strangers over the bizarre behavior.
We landed and were quickly scammed onto a tricycle (DANGIT) for the drive to our hotel. And here’s a tip – don’t ever book something that hasn’t been open for a few years. We were told the room wasn’t ready, and to have some lunch. Fine. We were hungry. An hour and a half later, they revealed under questioning that they didn’t have our reservation. Brilliant. After a brief standoff between Amie and the manager, they actually removed someone’s belongings from a room and moved us in there! It was wild. Possibly unhygienic.
Because they knew they had really messed up, most of the staff then went out of their way to make sure the rest of our stay was as good as it could be.* I had done quite a bit of research before the trip, but an advert at the bottom of a flyer for a firefly tour and dinner at a floating restaurant I hadn’t heard anything about caught my eye at the ferry pier, and we managed to score a booking for that night upon arrival. We were picked up and whisked off to the dock, waiting on the boat and making sweetly awkward conversation with our very young but very nice tour guide, Harvey, until the rest of the group arrived and we took off at a slow pace in the dark.
We had no idea what to expect, and I wish a camera could come anywhere close to capturing the moments, but it can’t. Our boat glided silently through the waters, the boys using long bamboo sticks to steer us through the invisible shallow passages only they could navigate, as we tilted our heads back and looked at more stars than I thought were possible. It made you dizzy to try and understand how many were in the sky, and what a very small part of this very big universe we are.
We floated on the edges of huge mangroves until our guide told us to look into the darkness and start clapping, because it helped the fireflies feel more appreciated. I’m not sure it made a difference or not, but you couldn’t help but applaud the magic that is a hundred or so lightning bugs sparkling together like some kind of fairy party.
But it got even better, because Harvey handed us each a stick and told us to wave it through the waters – lo and behold, the water sparkled, too! It hadn’t been advertised anywhere, but the place we were at is one of the very few places in the world where there is bioluminescence, which I had always dreamed of seeing! The phosphorescent plankton lit up when the water was disturbed, and we could lean over the side of the boat and twirl our wands through the waves, casting light spells below the surface. Between the stars, the fireflies, and the sparkling waters, it felt like we were floating through the exact place God had first invented glitter.
The tour concluded at the floating restaurant, where we realized that the reason no one was trying to chat and make friends with us because they were all coupled off and on romantic holiday. Ah. Okay. Well. Good thing we’ve yet to run out of things to talk about. But it highlighted what a romantic place we were in, and how little romance is in my life. I think I gave my poor swiping thumb a cramp that night, scrolling hard on Tinder after this quarter-life crisis. More to come on that later.
One of the best parts was Harvey asking where we were from. Amie answered “New Zealand” and I threw out “California” (which I’d rather claim than the whole of the United States at the moment). He nodded wisely and then asked if we were sisters.
Mate, we just said we were from different countries. But, yeah. Sisters.
My favorite memory of that day would be feeling like I made magic and saw magic between the water and the skies, the fireflies and the plankton and the stars, and knowing that there’s no good reason for such beautiful things to exist except for God wanting me to enjoy it.
I won’t pretend to know a lot about Stephen Hawking, but I’ve seen a lot of quotes and memories floating around since his passing and I keep coming back to how great this one is, especially as a teacher and a traveler:
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
If you haven’t heard it yet today and you need to – look up at the stars. There’s wishes up there.
*except for that one at the front who had zero reaction to anything we said. We’ll call her Deborah. She was the WORST.