Ironically, sometimes the hardest part about being a travel blogger is writing about the places you have visited. I’m not talking about the actual act of writing or the frustration of writer’s block—though that does indeed strike with exasperating regularity—but rather, sometimes you visit it a place and it is so completely perfect that you develop a fierce protectiveness for it, one that does battle with your mission to share your adventures with the world. Sometimes you find a place that’s not squarely on the tourist trail and you tumble so head over heels in love with it that you get a little bit selfish and don’t want to share.
Generally, Tony and I love writing about our adventures and sharing our stories with you, but we’re also travelers. I’d wager that 75% of travel blogs out there have at least one post about “getting off the beaten path”, and while neither of us takes issue with doing touristy things every so often or visiting popular places, nor are we immune to the siren song of undiscovered paradises that have somehow slipped under everyone else’s radar. I won’t lie, there is a special thrill you get when you discover something other people have foolishly ignored. When we have the good fortune to stumble upon one of these places, there’s very much a part of us that wants to keep it all to ourselves so that crowds don’t steal our paradise out from under us. But we want to be good bloggers and make sure that any of you intrepid souls out there who follow in our footsteps get the very most out of your own adventures, so part of us also very much wants to spill our guts and tell you all about the very best places we found so you can enjoy them too… and therein lies the dilemma!
The island in the Philippines where we learned to dive is one of those difficult places, because we loved it so much that our readers deserve to know about it, but we don’t really want the whole world in on our secret. So I came up with a compromise: I’ll write about this place and try to capture what it was that made it so special, but I won’t tell you its name. I know, I know, that’s a big “but” and the worst kind of tease, however, I’ll also add that if you read this post and find yourself desperate to visit this island, you can email me and I will privately send you the details.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the gushing!
This place that Tony & I love so much, it is the kind of place that travelers are always looking for: an island so pretty, it is the tropical equivalent of a solar eclipse—at times, you feel you can’t look at it straight on for too long because its beauty just might blind you. I’m sure that the fact that we arrived at the island on a mother-effing sailboat colored my impressions ever so slightly, but as I looked back over my shoulder towards the mainland, the mountainous peaks pierced the clouds in just such a way that it looked like they were ringed with fluffy halos, and I felt for certain it was a sign we were sailing straight to heaven on earth. Seeing our island (for in truth, I do think of this place as “ours”) for the first time, I was struck with the knowledge that I was gazing on one of the most beautiful sights I had ever had the good fortune to see. From afar, its hulking form of undulating rock capped with lush vegetation looked positively primordial, and Tony & I jokingly began to hum the theme to Jurassic Park. As we drew closer, I tore my eyes from the natural beauty of the island to gaze at the water, which took on a hue of turquoise so rich and vibrant, it scarcely seemed real. Though we had seen a healthy amount of picturesque beaches and oceanscapes in our time in the Philippines, this was clearly the crème de la crème. As glimpses of white sandy beaches secluded in rocky alcoves began to appear, I had one of those moments that strike you every so often on a trip of this scope where you feel both humbled and lucky to be living exactly your life.
It is easy to focus on the island’s natural beauty, and for many travelers its physical charms would certainly be enough to warrant a trip, but let’s face it: there are plenty of pretty islands in the Philippines. There has to be something more that made this place so special to us.
And yet as I look at all the things, all the tiny moments that still form bright bursts of happiness in my heart as I call them to mind, I realize that all the things that mean so much to me are likely things that would mean nothing to a stranger, to someone who wasn’t there. On paper, all the things that made that island so special, they actually sound kind of terrible:
- We had guests above us who clomped around and snored so loudly that Tony joked it was like trying to sleep in the Haunted Mansion.
- The roosters—oh the roosters! They were only supposed to crow once at 3:30 am and then again at 5:30 am as a signal to the fishermen that it was time to go out and throw their nets into the ocean, only we were plagued with a rooster that was clearly broken and seemed to love nothing more than to perch on our windowsill as it crowed all the goddamn time; we’d always thought that cock fighting was barbaric, but honestly, after a week with that dude, we were pretty disappointed when the island had their weekly fight and he emerged from the bloodbath only to live to crow another day.
- Tony got a haircut from the one barber on the island, something that became a village-wide event! After nixing the offer for an “Italian style” haircut (still don’t know what that means), he wound up with a buzz cut we affectionately dubbed “the Mario” due to its resembling our dive instructor’s own ‘do.
- There’s no wifi on the island, in part because electricity only ran for 3.5 hours per day, from 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm, the golden hours signaled by immense blazes of light as all the lights in every household in the village burst to life with the surge in power. And, this being the Philippines, there must always be music, and so the soundtrack to that time that is forever seared on my brain is the soulful caterwauling of Celine Dion songs from the one karaoke bar pitted against the pounding beats from the one dance club in the village and the loud cries of dismay when the electricity would die, always too soon, and always halfway through a song. We learned that the island has only had electricity for a few years now, and when it first got it, the plan was to have electricity from 6 pm until midnight. But the fishermen complained because the karaoke would go the entire time and they could not sleep, so the cutoff was pushed to 9 pm. But then the rest of the islanders complained because there is a popular soap opera that runs until 9:15 and so they kept missing the tail end of their show. So a compromise was struck and 9:30 pm is now when all the lights go out.
- Bedtime was always before the power-failed because the battery-powered fan in our room only lasted about 15 minutes and we swiftly discovered that no fan + a mosquito net = sweltering sweat box. I don’t think there was a single night we stayed on the island when I didn’t find myself gasping for breath at 2 or 3 in the morning feeling smothered by the heat and the only way I could get back to bed was by sluicing myself with buckets of cold water (the only temperature to be had, naturally) in the bathroom.
It sounds dreadful, I know, and yet we can’t look back at all of those moments without breaking out into a smile. Even though it was about as far from glamorous as you can get, we were insanely happy on that island, and even during the moments that weren’t all that fun (like the roosters and the hot-boxed bedroom), we were somehow still having fun.
As much as I believe this island has nebulous, mystical charms of its very own, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the people we met there, who surely exerted a magnetic pull on us as strong as the island itself. We’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the people are the places, and simply put, the people on this island were awesome. Tony & I both had a serious case of hero worship regarding our dive instructor, Mario, as not only did he simply exude this calming aura of laid-back good humor, he also happened to be an immeasurably cool guy. Not only has he logged an impressive 8000+ dives in the surrounding waters alone, he was also elected island chief, a title he held for 10 years, though traditionally the position can only be held for eight. During that time he made strides that brought electricity and clean water to the island, and did much to rehabilitate the reefs around the island. Originally a fishing island, it was not all that long ago that the waters here were dangerously overfished, and many of the local fishermen had been turning to unsound fishing methods such as cyanide fishing. Mario made it his mission to educate the fishermen about sustainable practices and helped turn part of the island into a protected marine sanctuary. We were constantly in awe of the reefs here, full as they were with a healthy fish population and some truly excellent coral. For this, we have Mario to thank! As if that weren’t enough good mojo for one man in one lifetime, Mario has also done a lot of outreach with local children, teaching them about the importance of protecting the environment through fun dive sessions and sustainability workshops focusing on recycling and other green activities. Mario’s reach has also extended far beyond his home island, as he’s traveled to Indonesia to help with reef rehabilitation and conservancy efforts there. One of the best things about traveling is getting to meet locals, and it always feels good when you know your hard-saved travel fund is stimulating the local economy, but we felt especially amazing in this case. Mario’s activism and passion for what he does and his tiny slice of the world was just so inspiring and exhilarating, it made us both want to do more and be a little bit better, a little more selfless.
I am so glad that we eschewed a sterile resort environment and stayed with Mario and his family instead. They were so warm, so obviously good, we immediately felt like we had been reunited with the very cool family we never knew we had until that moment. It’s not hard to feel that way here, though, as the island’s core population sprouts from just three or four families. It’s an incredibly small but welcoming community where even the souvenir vendor by the beach (who also happened to be Mario’s second cousin) knows your name and always has a smile for you, regardless of whether you buy anything or not, and the kids are adorable and actually scream “Thank You!!!” when you take their pictures.
Perhaps it’s because it only gets a throwaway mention in the Lonely Planet (more of a footnote, really), but we found that a certain breed of traveler gravitated to this island, mostly people looking to do some diving in a very undeveloped, untouristy environment. The Philippines doesn’t get the droves of tourists that its Asian neighbors do, and yet, even so, you find people who are interested in trailblazing rather than following the predictable course set out for them by the guidebooks. The people we met at Mario’s homestay were definitely kindred spirits, from Romain & Fatouh—the French couple who joined in our Open Water diving course (lucky for them I could play translator at times!)—to Thomas—a German who was returning to the island so that his friend, Manuel, could learn to dive from Mario—and Eva, a Dutch girl who stopped in on her way to New Zealand. We spent many hours happily chatting away with them about diving and travel, our conversations more often punctuated with laughter than pauses. On our final night on the island, Romain, Fatouh, Tony & I had a big dinner to celebrate our newly minted Open Water certification. Pulling on his bartender boots, Romain created a potent concoction pumped full of the local rum, Tanduay; in honor of Fatouh who sinks like a stone, we christened it “One Kilo Punch”. And pack a punch it did! After a few of those, we were all ready to head out and do some dancing in a club that really was nothing more than a cobbled together shack with a disco ball hung from the ceiling. The photos from that night are far from elegant, but I think they actually give a fairly accurate reflection of the tone of the evening.
How can I explain what it was like to find proof everywhere we looked that we were as far from home as we had ever been, and yet simultaneously feel like we were, in fact, home? Life on that island was unlike any reality we had ever known with most of our days spent beneath the waves, and the rest of the time simply reveling in being still and slow, not many travelers’ forte. And yet we slid into this life, this world where all we had were the basics—the essentials?—effortlessly, like Cinderella and her glass slipper.
Maybe that’s the key to unlocking the mystery of this island: we didn’t have much there, but we had everything we needed. Every day we woke up to unspeakable beauty, whether it was diving the reefs or simply trying to lose ourselves amongst the village’s twisting laneways. And everywhere we looked, we saw people whose grins of utter contentment mirrored our own.
The only time we felt sadness during our time here was when it was finally time to leave. Our time was the perfect balance of doing a lot and not very much at all, and truly felt like a hedonistic vacation. As we prepared to move on, I realized how much happiness centers us and grounds us in the moment, and how hard it is to look forward when all you want is to be here now.
Just as sometimes the hardest part about travel blogging is the actual writing, so too is the hardest part of traveling the actual act of moving from one place to the next. For us, the next adventure was calling and our feet were carrying us onward, but even now, I know a bit of my heart will forever remain on that island. My only comfort is that this place—so special that I could not bare to share it with you, but also could not keep it from you either—was waiting for us when we needed it, and it will be there again. Parting is such sweet sorrow and all that, but I think this quote sums up the bittersweet aspect of travelers who find paradise:
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” – A. A. Milne