29 June 2014

El Nido, The Happy Little Town of Limestone Reveries

Everyone else was leaving, but I wanted a few more minutes by myself to take everything in. I pushed my head back and floated, there, in the middle of the lagoon. The view towering over the waters was a surreal beauty you'd usually only see in films. The limestone cliffs of the small lagoon circled above me, clusters of green sprouted here and there through the rocks, the cloudy sky fixed at the center. Sunlight peeked every now and then into my face. “This is the life,” I said to myself. But I must have said it out loud because just as I did, a kayak passed by. A white guy was sitting on it, and he looked down at me with a smile and said: “Yes. It is.”

I laughed at my surprise and gave him a smile before I laid my head back on the waters again; back to my ruminations. I was right—even he knew that. Only a fool wouldn't realize this one palpable truth: this is the life.

In this sojourn, I found myself talking to a lot of people. I tried to ask a lot of questions because I learned that it is in asking that you get to know a place, its people, and if you’re lucky, sometimes even yourself. And apart from learning about the history of the islands in El Nido and how this expansive growth in tourism has affected the local living, I learned, above all, how the locals treat their visitors with such warm hospitality. They were very generous in answering my many questions. Through those conversations between long rides over unpaved roads and open seas, I learned that these people know their history, and they will gladly tell you about it. They are proud of this beach town that is their home and the very simple life they lead. I could hear the pleasure in their voices as they tell me how the islands got their peculiar names, and see in their faces the excitement as they narrate the amusing tales of discoveries of the precious islands that make up El Nido. Their eyes, when they tell you these stories, were always brighter than the day.

I’d always hear foreign travelers saying how nice Filipinos are. How warm, friendly and seemingly always smiling we are. As a Filipino myself, I couldn’t really tell. It’s always easier from the outside looking in, after all. But in El Nido, I have come to understand it all.

“You are like a foreigner,” I was told.

Was it because I asked too much? The way I speak? Because I went ahead and did stuff on the boat which was not supposed to be my job? Or because at that moment I was perched at the tip of the boat, life jacket off, and not settled on the seats like I was supposed to? I don’t know what our guide meant when he said that, but I’d like to think it was because I was doing well as a curious traveler. I really am just another stranger to this country, after all. Which is exactly why I travel.

It has been five days since I got on a flight returning to Manila, yet still I feel like I'm not here. My own bed feels funny. I step outside and I see no familiar faces of travelers I’ve been seeing for days. No sea side meals. No live reggae music at night—only the sound of cars hurriedly passing by. All day.

I can’t help but bring myself back to our second floor balcony in El Nido. Every morning we would go out simply to stand there, soaking in the morning, barefoot on the shiny wooden parquet floor. The view is amazing. The town is surrounded by towering limestone cliffs which not only makes for a beautiful backdrop to this small town, but doubles as a protection from strong storms as well, a local tells me. I’d take a deep breath. Savor it. The air always seems so fresh. A bougainvillea tree blooms an arms length away, and if you look closely you’d spot a bird’s nest somewhere between the thin branches and pink flowers. We’d check the clothes we hung out to dry the night before. A small wooden table rests by the corner, smoke dispersing from the cup of scorching morning coffee and half lit cigarettes waiting for consumption. We’d sit there talking about anything. The jobs we left, why religion isn’t necessary to live a good life, the people we miss, decisions waiting to be made, and this wayfaring life that’s ostensibly becoming our only reality.

People travel to seek, and we weren’t any different.

I sit here and my heart aches for those mornings. And those nights before bed when somewhere between that limbo of drunkenness and deep slumber, I found myself opening up about the ties in my life that have withered. Relationships I have been ready to let go of but wouldn’t admit.

I wouldn’t say that I went home with all my doubts confirmed. Or that all the things that have been clouding my mind have magically disappeared. Things aren’t always that easy. But in El Nido, despite the heavy rains and thick grey clouds that on some days would conceal mountains, the truth is, inside, it has never been sunnier.

Aside from the new friends I made, I saw my old ones in a way that was new to me. All that rendezvous under the sun—or in the absence of it, stuck for hours in a restaurant by the beach—have only made me see them all the better. All the more. The ones who have always been there. The constants.

On the boat, going back to town after a long day of island hopping, I take a last look around at the breathtaking beauty of El Nido from afar—the towering cliffs rising like thorns from the sea, the mystifying marine life, the clear cool waters, the fine white sand, the kind hearted locals. I marvel at these sights and I wonder where I have been all my life. Why I have been in this country all along, yet it took me 24 years to discover this paradise. And just a couple of hours away from Manila. So close.

I see my friends sitting on that boat with me, eating liempo with their bare hands, drinking beer out of cans, singing to loud music. I try to remember why I sometimes still feel alone. They have always been around. I look at them, so happy and carefree, living up to the words in foreign languages inked permanently on their skins: to love, to live well, to dream. Basic truths about life that we all too often forget.

I do not want to forget. I ponder on all these amazing things that life has graciously handed to me and I realize how easy it is to overlook the good things that have just always been there.

El Nido, I do not want to forget.

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