It’s a cool, serene night, the landscape lit up by a nearly full moon. There’s a quiet and lonely calmness unique to such isolated, remote corners of the earth. The smell of fresh fish fills the air, reminding me of the hunger I had been suppressing for several hours. But the wait has been worth it. With the addition of large portions of squid and clams caught earlier that day, the lush assortment of seafood begins sizzling on the charcoal grill, harmonizing with the background melody of soft chatter on the tiny island.
A long wooden table is adorned with shells, flowers, coconuts and other natural decorations collected from the seaside. The backdrop of the moon-lit sea rests just beyond the edge of our hut. Sitting beside me is Paul, with Carla and Jordi across from us, Zach working his way to the table, and Julius, our gracious host, double checking every detail, making sure all is in order. And finally, Jay, Jaya and Zebay take a seat at the other end, completing our table. For a brief moment, right before we delve into what promises to be a delicious feast, I take a look at the faces around me. It’s an eclectic group, new friends from all over the world. Although the relationships are still fresh, there’s a curious intimacy, one born from embarking on this adventure together. Looking back a second time, I notice that everyone’s face is still new, each completely different from the next. Yet on each one resides the same look, the same expression of disbelief, the same wonder and excitement. And within each expression lies an identical set of questions. How did we end up here? Does anyone else know where we are? Do we even know where we are? Is this really happening? What’s going to happen next?
Looking back, the series of events that led to this dinner came out of the blue, and developed surprisingly quickly. Just 72 hours earlier, I was sitting in the living room of my Couchsurfing host’s flat in Shanghai, trying to figure out the easiest and most interesting route to Laos. With a freshly brewed milk tea to keep me warm, I stared out of the window into the murky, bleak mix of air pollution and water vapor resting over suburban Shanghai, patiently waiting for my slow VPN connection to kick in. None of the Chinese websites were giving me any luck, so I had to turn to the restricted Google.com and other forbidden Western resources for support. However, even those would be of no use, as I would soon find out that practically every train ticket I had in mind was sold out. To be honest, I knew that traveling in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year would be a struggle, but I wasn’t expecting this, especially one month before the beginning of the festival. I was even willing to take a 20 hour standing ticket to Kunming, but those were all gone too. And domestic flight prices had soared through the roof, leaving me in a bit of a pickle. It seemed that this whole method of traveling spontaneously had reached its first hurdle, leading up to the largest annual human migration on earth.
But, in the spirit of spontaneity, one must face the unknown and embrace whatever path consequently unfolds. So in that effort, I spun the figurative globe and waited to see where my finger would land. Alas, Skyscanner revealed the cheapest flight out of China … final destination – Manila.
It’s a peculiar feeling to have the rough plan mapped out in your head completely flip flop. There I was, almost a month into my stay in China, and I had barely even scratched the surface. My mind was tuned into China, from assimilating to the culture to attempting to understand how the gears of this country meshed. There was so much more to discover, and in many ways I was both consciously and subconsciously preparing for this. However, everything changed within the span of two hours. Just like that, my mind tuned out, and what filled the void was a strange, exhilarating, profound unknown. The Philippines.
That was the new theme, the next mindset. Yet I didn’t have the slightest idea what that meant. Within 24 hours, I would be arriving in this country, and I had practically no idea what to expect. Just like that, I would be swapping cultures, languages, religions, cuisines, city layouts, land masses, seasons, climates, topography… And not a single image popped into my head. What would it be like? What would I do? Where would I go? How long would I stay? Who would I meet? It was a unique unknown, one very different from that of traveling in China, or even going to a completely new country that was more or less on the radar. It was sudden and unexpected. And immediately, the adrenaline kicked in, and in the hours leading up to the flight, I fed off of that high and enjoyed the thrill of the unknown.
This would be a recurring theme throughout my stay in the Philippines. The unknown. I would constantly find myself not really knowing exactly where I was, where I was going, how I would get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, who would be there, and so on. My experiences would unfold similar to a cascade of dominoes in the dark, lighting up with each collision but concealing the next in line…and the chain reaction began with my Couchsurfing host, Jay.
As I sat in our rendezvous point, Giligan’s bar, knocking back my fourth Cerveza Negra and watching the staff close up shop, I wasn’t sure what I would do. It was almost midnight, and still no sign of Jay. There also happened to be no internet in the bar, or the Starbucks next door, or any other place within walking distance…which I would soon find out is another recurring theme in the Philippines. The manager kept eyeing me, probably wondering what I was doing, or if I would ever leave. In the meantime, I was peering out of the window, scoping the street for a nice place to hang out until the morning. I had already borrowed two phones in fruitless attempts to reach Jay, but I thought what the hell, and asked the manager. He didn’t seem too willing to hand me his phone, so instead he brought me a portable wifi hotspot device. That would have been very helpful a few hours ago.
Soon enough, I had an address in my hand and was speeding away from Giligan’s in a cab. I had no idea where we were going, and apparently neither did the cab driver. He knew the general neighborhood, and that was about it. So I sat back and watched the streets of Manila glide by, wondering how Jay could have forgotten about our meeting. The concrete jungle of the financial center of Manila gradually evolved into narrow, dark streets lined with ramshackle houses. As we stopped to ask for directions, I looked around and realized this was exactly the sort of place a foreigner with a backpack wouldn’t want to end up in the middle of the night, especially during his first few hours in the country. This feeling was heightened twenty minutes later, as I watched the only lights coming from my cab disappear around the corner, leaving me in the middle of a desolate street. There was no sign of life coming from the building that matched the address in my hand, save the barking dog tied out front who didn’t seem too pleased with my presence. Wary of the worst yet hoping for the best, I knocked on the door. When a young boy and his middle aged father peered through the open window, with a perplexed look on their faces, I thought to myself “Great…what now.” I half heartedly asked for Jay, expecting to just add to the confusion. They went back inside, and I wasn’t sure if they would even come back. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the clinking of the bolt, and the door opened up.
Walking inside, I was surprised to see three people who were evidently not Filipino. Jordi and Carla, a Spanish couple traveling with their New Zealander friend, Paul, were seated around a clear plastic bottle of local coconut wine, which I would soon find out is not for the faint of heart. Chatting over some sips and getting brought up to date, I slowly started piecing the events of the day together. It seemed I wasn’t the only couchsurfer staying with Jay. Neither were Jordi, Carla and Paul. In total, Jay was hosting about 10 travelers. And after putting up a few of his guests in his own house, he ran out of space. The man who greeted me at the door wasn’t part of Jay’s family…his name was Roger, who happened to rent one of Jay’s friend’s houses, the very house we found ourselves in at that moment, and the very house we would be guests in for the night. And during those few hours of frantic arrangements, I was understandably forgotten in the mix. Wow.
Filipinos are renowned for their friendliness, something that became strikingly evident from the moment I got off the plane. Everyone I passed gave me a smile. Some waved, others said “hello friend.” The two guys who lent me their phones in Giligan’s gave me their contact information, in case I couldn’t find a place to stay and needed help. The manager who lent me his wifi added me on Facebook and messaged me the license plate of the cab I got into. And this was all just in the span of my first three hours in the country. It was a noticeable change from China, and everywhere else for that matter. But as we slept that night on the floor of Roger’s bedroom, with his teenage son Willard beside us on the cold tile floor, I realized that our hosts were unlike any other. Jay had dedicated his time and even missed a day of work to make sure each and every person that needed his help had a place to stay, even if that meant giving up the bed in his own house to sleep on the floor in another. And both Roger and Willard opened up their homes, shared their space, their food, their time and their patience, to help us out as well.
After waking up in the morning to a cacophony of rooster crows, motorcycle horns, train whistles and some other sounds I couldn’t quite make out, I was very surprised to see where I was. The previous night had been too dark to make anything out, so stepping outside felt like unveiling a portrait for the very first time. First, I walked out back to discover that about three meters from the door, there was a railway, which explained the deafening shrills and violent tremors from the earlier hours of the morning. Just on the other side of the track, there was a continuation of a similar line of buildings, all cut off jaggedly, as if once connected to our side but then carelessly torn down to make way for the railway. The sporadically appearing trains pierced through the narrow lane with tremendous force, fiercely shaking the rear iron doors and drying laundry that hung just meters away.
The rest of the day was spent lounging with a few beers in the middle of the street surrounding a makeshift table, chatting with the residents of Algeciras Street and appreciating the overflowing energy all around us that overwhelmed our senses in the form of laughter, smiles, kind words, warm interactions, pickup basketball games, and most memorably, the inexhaustible, contagious vivacity of the local children.
However, that unforgettable day in the neighborhood would be the extent of our Manila experience, for the time being. Jay had invited us on a trip to visit his friend on an island for the weekend. That was pretty much the extent of the information we were given, and seeing as the Philippines consists of approximately 7,107 islands, it wasn’t the most specific description. But I had no plans, and an island sounded more appealing than metro Manila, so I jumped on board. As for the others, some had other plans, others adjusted their itineraries to come along, and with the addition of two Malaysian couchsurfers we would be meeting at the bus station the following morning, our crew was eight strong.
Soon after sunrise the next day, we were on a bus. Three hours later, we arrived at a port. After some lunch and a two hour wait, we were slowly working our way away from the main island, enjoying the afternoon sun on the front deck of a ferry. Just as the sun was setting, we made it to the island of Marinduque, where we squeezed into a minivan and began circling the island. Two more hours brought us to another port, where we met Julius. With a welcoming smile, he invited us onto a tiny wooden pump boat, and before we knew it, we were silently gliding through the vast darkness of the Philippine Sea, with the warm water slipping by underneath. After what seemed like a few hours, but was more on the scale of 45 minutes, we found ourselves on the shores of Maniwaya island.
As I looked back around the table, I reflected briefly on that moment. Everyone was still under the charm of a blissful shock. If we were given a map at that very moment, none of us would have been able to point out where we were. Yet that didn’t matter. We were in good company, a unique company unlike any other any of us had ever been a part of, one fit to share the experience of this tiny, exceptional slice of paradise and delving together into that beautiful unknown.
And who could have guessed that this was only the beginning…