It was Christmas Eve 2014. I was one month into my 34th year, and I was stuck in the middle of the Sulu Sea. The boat - some sort of loosely motorized outrigger - attempting to take us back to the village where we were staying had broken down shortly after the molten, Filipino sun disappeared behind the turquoise waves.
I looked to see if Sablayan, the small Filipino village I had fallen for with for its over the top grimy authenticity and for the fact that a long blonde-haired woman on the back of a motorcycle tended to insight a mob of curious children, even appeared as a pin point on the horizon. It did not. I shrugged, leaned against the rail of the boat in my tribal print bikini and handed my beer to a handsome young Swedish man who opened it for me.
I never know where I actually am in geographic space, but the people around me do. We were somewhere between 20 and 10 kilometers off the eastern coast of the Occidental Mindoro Providence - one of the larger of the 7,000 plus islands that made up the archipelago that is the Philippines.
Observing the Tagalog dialogue between the men manning the boat, the crew I was traveling with - four men ranging in age from 24 to 37 - discerned that the boat’s propeller had been damaged when hitting the tail end of Apo Reef, where we had spent the day in scuba diving heaven. Apo Reef is the world's second-largest contiguous coral reef system, and the dive master I was traveling with said it was just as, if not more, beautiful than the famous Great Barrier Reef. We had the joint to ourselves that day.
The only light we had left shone from the small sliver of a moon that glinted through the fog, and a short, young Filipino man holding a flash light. Another had gotten into the water with mask and snorkel while the first flashed the light down on him in the clear water that now appeared a deep black except for the slightly golden edges appearing on the crest of the wave.
He was taking the bent propeller off, the Swedish beer opener reported. The tiny boat, not meant for such journeys, rocked wildly in the wind and waves. Once the propeller was off, the Filipino men were beating it with some sort of metal object - definitely not a hammer - which was par for the course for this country or any third world country for that matter. In my far flung adventures, I was always amazed at how people made do with whatever was available.
The shortest of the men dove back in the water to reattach the freshly flattened propeller. During this whole process, which maybe took an hour yet seemed longer, no one seemed outwardly concerned - not the 24-year-old Swedish students, not my travel partner Nate - a 37-year-old Jewish American lawyer, not me - except the German professional in his early 30s who had a girlfriend waiting for him back on land, wherever that was.
He paced the tiny deck in the rain gear he packed - typical, extremely prepared German. His behavior served as a reminder of why we should all worry. I turned my back to him and sat with the others chatting idle while sipping my beer - San Miguel Pale Pilsen - one of two beer choices in the country. All of us had learned quickly and separately before we met one day before - if you received a cold one, it was going to be a good day. These had been chilled on ice. Fancy AF.
The two young Swedish men who were studying marine managemet and had come to the Philippines for two reasons - to learn about Filipino culture on their country’s dime since most of the men working on Swedish ships were from there and, most importantly, to scuba dive, get wasted, and ponder truths as 20-something year olds do. They were a joy to be around. We all had our stories, and they couldn’t remain hidden in these travel conditions - wounds and scars are always more visible “on the road” where the conditions greased the wheels of conversation. Instead, we allowed for them. It’s no coincidence that the German’s girlfriend happened to hold a degree in Psychology.
Nate and I were here because we had no where else to be. The United States shut down at Christmas time. We didn’t celebrate the holiday. Although one step off the plane in Manila was all we needed to realize that Filipinos were madly obsessed with Christmas. There may not be enough to eat, but there were Christmas decorations covering every square millimeter of space in the country. Filipino children knew every English word to every Christmas carol and they sang them while holding their hands out for change. Nate and I both loved adventure and to dive. He had picked the destination. I agreed. The German engineer and his girlfriend were on vacation, and although they ended up the butt of many jokes, once they got to know us, they really let loose.
Then I saw something in the water. Then another something. And another. Large, slick, black creatures approached the boat. It took my eyes a second to adjust to the dark waters that surrounded us in every direction.
“Dolphins!” I yelled.
On cue, we heard the boat engine start up and felt the kick back as the boat began to move forward. The man holding the flashlight moved to the bow of the boat, serving as a human headlight as we bumped and shifted toward the village.
Simultaneously, the dolphin pod began traveling with us, putting on a show of grand proportions. They where leaping and arching and spinning on both sides of the boat. The pod followed us until the water got shallow.
It took me a minute to realize that I was involuntarily clapping furiously and yelling “Bravo” in my Texas accent, which came out when I was tired or tipsy. Bouncing up and down, I realized I was the only female on the boat, which didn’t matter until emotions were involved. I could tell the travelers and the natives alike were as amused as me yet contained their excitement in acceptable forms of masculine behavior.
This is how my life tended to operate. Close calls, lots of stumbling, followed by a grand performance. Just when I thought we might be swallowed up by the black waters, we weren’t just saved. We weren’t just relieved the boat started again. We were fucking escorted by a dolphin pod to the village where we were staying - where we were about to be invited into a politician’s home for Christmas eve dinner, which included a 30-day old chicken (Filipinos always told you the age at which the chicken was killed) and later to his cock fighting operation for cocktails served in paper cups.
That night, the travel family - formed during a shared van ride the day before and sealed through the utter frustration of trying to find a diving operation and place to sleep in the village - sat down with our maps travel guides and made a plan. We had to pool money because there was no working ATM anywhere in the village. We decided to make our way to Coron, another dive spot, for the next adventure.
The bus to San Jose left on Christmas morning, and we would all get on it. The following day we would take a ferry to Coron. We had quickly learned that nothing - absolutely nothing - was easy in the Philippines. As a group we could fill up boats and our bargaining power rose. Plus, we all kind of liked each other. I played the role of the storyteller. The tall Swedish guy with bright blue eyes and abs of steel decided to be my starry eyed audience - I love an audience. Nate was in charge of telling wildly inappropriate jokes that you couldn’t not laugh at, and would help the Swedish dive master with the dive plans. The Germans would organize things, take thousands of photos, and make sure we showed up on time.
When I laid down on the damp, mosquito-net covered cot that night, I pinched myself. This was my life. The one I created. The one I finally owned. For the first time. I couldn’t help but think of the majority of my friends who were nestled in their pajamas with their families and many, their children, stuffed full of Christmas Eve dinner. The presents they had saved all year to buy only to be opened, enjoyed briefly and eventually discarded into closets, garages and junk rooms sat wrapped under the tree. They were totally and completely obligated to the people around them. To their jobs. To fulfilling some sort of imaginary quota of success. Most of them enjoyed it. Others simply went through the motions, like I had previously done.
I was on the adventure of a lifetime, completely untethered. No obligations. Nothing to lose. It’s not everyone’s dream. But it was mine. I existed, and it was stunning. I fell in love with myself all over again in that moment.
Robert Pinsky, 1940
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.
When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.
When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.
When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.
Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.