Tag Archive | Palawan

Daring to desire

I’m back in Dumaguete, back on the path that I took a detour from when I went to Cuyo. When I re-enrolled in the university, one of the teachers that I trusted enough  to talk to about my bipolar disorder kept reminding me to go slow, to not take on more than I can handle. Sensible advice, I know. I understand myself and this disease well enough by now to realize that what’s easy and effortless in the hypomanic stage can become insurmountable when the depression hits, as it inevitably will, eventually.

But I can sense restlessness building inside me, an impatient tension. There is so much more that I want to do, so many things that I want to be other than a student struggling for a diploma. I want to backpack around my country, and to work abroad as a humanitarian volunteer. I want to dance again. I want to listen to the stories in my head and put them on paper. I want to go kite surfing. I want to take pictures. I want to learn bird watching and use it to raise environmental awareness. I want to plant a garden. I want to return to Cuyo and build a life there. I want.

Instead, here I am, having to take it slow.

But somewhere in this frustration is a glowing center of delight in all these desires. It feels wonderful to want something again, to have dreams that go beyond next week or next month. Before my get-away to Cuyo, all I could see were the goals I had failed to reach, the disappointments, the defeats. Exhausted and disillusioned, I could barely find the courage necessary for hope. Just getting by took all the energy I had.

Now, I have all these exquisite longings inside me, bold and insistent, pulling me toward tomorrow, daring me to do more than exist. And I’m clinging to them with both hands, clinging fast to hope and desire, because with my courage and faith restored, anything is possible. Right now, I may be taking it slow, but I’ll get there. Eventually, I’ll get there, because I dare.


Island time

An old man sets his traps among the mangroves, praying for a good catch. It is an ancient craft, the weaving of baskets, the luring of crabs with expertly baited traps. He does this in a siran, a salt bed, unused and flooded with sea water during the rainy season.  During the summer, the siran is a busy place, bustling with people making salt the same way their parents and grandparents did before them. Today, it is quiet, serene, with nothing to scare away the myriads of crustaceans that make their home in the mud among the roots of the bakhaw. The old man is hopeful.

Such is the rhythm of life in the siran: in the summer, they make salt, in the monsoon, they harvest the abundant marine bounty flourishing in the shallow waters. Year after year, season after season, the sea, land, and sky support and nourish life in a finely tuned cadence that the islanders have learned how to dance, generation after generation.

In the cities, skyscrapers are being built higher than ever, information is transmitted at lightning speed, and whatever natural rhythms are being played are drowned out by blaring noise and bright lights. It is exciting for some, I suppose. Certainly convenient, and these days convenience is the holy grail. You pick up a cup of coffee from a convenient drive-through window, check traffic reports from your car for the most convenient route to work, and off you go to the office, where you offer a product or service that you promote as the most convenient in the market. The city does have its own rhythm, and it’s fast and ever-changing. There’s a wild adrenalin rush to be found in keeping pace.

But I find it soothing here. I love the sense of continuity, the feeling that some things do stay the same. Yes, Cuyo is gradually moving forward into the 21st century, and that’s also a good thing. There is, after all, nothing romantic about stagnation. But for the most part, the years turn more slowly on this island than anywhere else.

There’s comfort in that. Heaven knows there’s enough instability in my own life, with bipolar disorder drastically changing my world from vivid to gray several times a year. I wake up from my depressive slumber to find myself left behind, scrambling to catch up with people and things that have moved on without me. It’s disorienting, and more than a little lonely.

So while I’m here, I’m soaking up the rhythm of the island, letting it permeate my skin and settle into the center of my body. When I leave, when I have to keep pace with a more frenetic beat, I can pause for a while and remember that somewhere else, in my somewhere else, the world is moving to the slow and steady beat of a peaceful heart.

Story of a boy

“Manang, anuno imong ingbubuat?”

I pulled myself away from my thoughts and looked up at the kid, around 12 years old, who appeared in front of me as I sat on my usual spot at the beach, writing and listening to music. It took a bit of effort, with my limited Cuyonon, to figure out that he wanted to know what I was doing.

“Nagsusulat lang,” I replied with a smile, recognizing him to be one of the two boys who had shyly hovered around the other day until one of them got up the courage to come up and ask my name. Apparently content to discover that the newcomer who was always sitting alone by the sea was named Abigail, they’d both drifted off eventually.

But  this afternoon, there were more of them, and they huddled in a group at some distance behind me, animatedly conversing in rapid Cuyonon as the representative returned and reported that I said I was “just writing”. After a while, he reappeared.

“Anong sinusulat mo?” He was switching to Tagalog now to make it easier for me.

They wanted to know what I was writing. I discarded the idea of trying to explain the concept of blogging, so I stuck with, “Yung mga naiisip ko lang”. Just my thoughts.

His forehead creased at this reply, and he went back to the others. I waited to see what the next question would be. After some time, and some laughter and teasing (boys’ mischief sounds the same in any language), he was back.

“May gusto raw makipagkilala.” Someone wants to meet you.

Ah. Apparently, the issue of my literary endeavor has been abandoned for something more interesting.

“Okay.” This answer earned a grin, and he was off again like a shot.

A little later:

“Pwede raw ba ngayon?” Could he do it now?

I laughed. I couldn’t help it, this was too cute. “Sure,” I smiled.

He returned, sooner than I expected, and alone. “Pwede raw ba siyang lumapit?” Can he come up and approach you?

Adorable. I tried my very best not to laugh again. “Oo naman,” I assured him. Of course he could come close. The ridiculous image of Queen Esther and the king in reverse popped into my head.

While I was waiting for whoever it was to get his fill of encouragement from his buddies, MYMP’s Torpe Song #5 came up on my phone’s playlist. I looked at it in disbelief, then hurriedly set it to mute. The poor kid might think I was mocking him.

The footsteps that came up behind me were heavier than I expected, and I turned to see a teenaged boy older than the others. He sat on the grass with me and extended his hand.

“Ako nga pala si Manuel San Diego*,” he said, blushing furiously. His hand was cold and more than a little damp.

Tall, dark, and lanky, Manuel so strongly reminded me of my 14-year-old brother Joshua that I wanted to give him a hug and ruffle his hair. I wanted to lend him my handkerchief for his perspiration. I wanted to give him pointers on how to talk to girls. Instead, I settled for smiling and telling him my name, though I’m sure he already knew.

Manuel floundered about for a while, trying to make awkward conversation that I gamely joined in. His resemblance to my little brother was giving me a funny sort of tenderness, and I didn’t want him to be embarrassed. However, when his supporters behind us started calling out the words “cellphone number”, I decided it was time to make a graceful exit.

Taking my leave as nicely as I could, I told him I had somewhere to go. “It was nice to meet you, Manuel,” I said sincerely, hoping he could take a sense of confidence from the encounter.

Heading towards the sea, I remembered being that age, not too long ago, when attraction was awkward and embarrassing, but also simple and fun. The games that grown ups played, the games that I could never master, seemed needlessly difficult and complicated.  I was sorry to leave my spot on the beach, and sorry to feel disappointed eyes on me as I walked away, but I was the wrong age for Manuel. I’m the wrong age, I think, for anyone right now.

 * name changed

Wildflower chains and the things people forget

Some things you forget. Like how to make a chain of wildflowers, how to twist and tie the stems so that you don’t break them or crush the petals, until you have a long enough string of blooms to loop into a necklace or a crown.

FOUND: yellow and white pieces my of childhood

You can always go back and learn it again. Remembering how much fun it used to be, you gather flowers on a handkerchief, already relishing the childlike, uncomplicated pleasure of the task. You try to be careful, but it’s trickier than you expected, and the stems keep breaking in your hands. But so what? There’s a whole field of wildflowers around you, and there are hundreds to spare.  You lose nothing by letting yourself fail until you get it right.

These poor things had to bear my clumsiness.

Sometimes, though, you forget bigger stuff, things that are more complex and so much more important. Things like how to let yourself be loved.

It takes a different kind of courage, you see, than simply loving someone. Accepting love comes with the risk of relying on someone else’s heart, someone else’s understanding of who you are and what you’re worth. They might be mistaken, or  they might change their minds, but if you’re brave  you’ll believe them anyway and let them love you. You’ll let them love you on the good days, when you know how to love them back. And you’ll even let them love you on the bad days, when you feel unworthy or empty or self-destructive, because you trust that it won’t scare them away.

It used to be so effortless for you before, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget something even as essential as that. All it takes is one too many mistakes, one too many times when you realize that vulnerability isn’t safe. Heartbreak happens, and you learn the devastating lessons of fear, which crowd out everything you knew about being brave. Self-protection is an easy habit to fall into, and a difficult one to break.

I wonder how you can go about relearning courage. There are no hearts to spare, no infinite number of breaks that you can endure without consequence. Too much that is fragile and precious is at stake. So how can you do it, then? How can you learn how to let yourself be loved all over again?

I think I might be slowly starting to get this right.

At the edge of the earth…or of the island, at least

“Capusan” is a Cuyonon word which means “endpoint”.  There is a place here in Cuyo called Capusan Beach, on the western tip of the island, so named because it is where the last long, graceful stretch of sand extends to the sea before finally surrendering to the waves. It has captured my imagination.

The name fits. Geographical location aside, Capusan Beach, it seems to me, is where old boats come to the end of the line. One big outrigger fishing boat lies stranded on the intertidal zone day after day. The high tide gives it the appearance of still being in use, but when the waters recede, it tilts drunkenly to the side, unmistakably abandoned. Closer to the shore, the skeleton of a banca lies half-submerged in the shallow waters, and farther ahead the bare ribs of another stick out of the sand, reminiscent of an elephant graveyard. The places of honor, however, belong to two old wooden ferries, stranded on the beach, slowly succumbing to the elements. With their chipped paint and rotting wood, they look like decrepit old royalty — obsolete, but somehow still regal.


It should have been tragic, seeing these sea craft that once mastered the waves now beached and forgotten. Yet somehow, they seem to me hauntingly beautiful, like old men contentedly sitting on a park bench, lost in reminiscence. What we call their “decline” is actually an evolution into another kind of beauty — nostalgic, wise, and incredibly poignant.

While the presence of these dilapidated boats evokes mortality and endings, it does nothing to negate the incredible vitality of Capusan Beach. Birds of all kinds abound, foraging in the shallows, wheeling across the sky, or sweeping low over the waves. Their calls blend with the crashing of the waves, some loud and shrill and harsh, others high, sweet, and melodic. In tidal pools,  fish dart around in clear water, while crabs scurry across the shore. Where the sand ends and grass takes over, there are grasshoppers, ladybugs, and butterflies playing peek-a-boo among the wildflowers. This place is undeniably, vibrantly, gloriously alive.

I come here every morning, to watch the sun rise and the world wake up. There’s poetry  in starting my day here, amidst the contrast of nature’s vitality and the strangely beautiful decay of these boats. And as my time on the island goes on, I find that it isn’t such a contrast after all, but perhaps a continuity, a connection. In Capusan Beach, endings and beginnings are two old friends nestled against each other in comfortable intimacy.

Perhaps it is here in Capusan Beach where I will finally learn to let go of the girl I was and claim the woman I have become. I know now that that is what I have come here on the island to do. There is no moving forward until I shed the safe but ill-fitting shell of my younger self’s idea of who I should have been, and start growing into the skin I have — flawed, vulnerable, but not without redemption, and not without strength. The change, if it comes, will not happen in one day, and may not even be completed in Cuyo, but hopefully it can start here. This seems to be a place where a girl can bury old hurts and disappointments in the sand, then rise up to greet the sun.

I’m on my way

Maybe sometimes all it takes is the courage to express a desire, the courage to admit that something is vital and significant and precious to your happiness. By giving voice to a need, a wish, a prayer, you forfeit the face-saving option of saying “It didn’t matter anyway” when it goes unfulfilled.


The risk is that if it does go unfulfilled, then your vulnerability is exposed. The deeper the desire, the more painful the disappointment.


And the reward? The reward is that sometimes, God takes that fragile bit of faith that made you dare to ask, and he says, “Yes”.


I longed to go to Cuyo, to take a huge chunk of time from my normal life and live on an island where I’d be a complete stranger. For several months, I’d breathe easier, fulfill a lifelong dream of learning Cuyonon, and maybe even figure out why I keep taking one hesitant step forward and staggering backwards for ten miles.


It would be completely self-indulgent. Irresponsible. Impractical.


So I didn’t say anything, and when hints of the longing would sometimes escape, I’d play it off as an idle daydream, a distant “someday” that may happen only when things are finally stable.


They were a long way from being stable. I had more practical goals to chase, and even though they seemed to recede farther and farther away until they had no more substance than a desert mirage, I was still supposed to stay on track. A commission that would have given me enough money for one month in Cuyo fell through. Then there was the constant reality of my bipolar disorder, which had lately become less predictable than usual.


All these were good reasons why Cuyo would have to remain my secret, imaginary escape for now.


Then I remembered that I once wore a red dress for a walk in the woods, and that I had never felt more alive while doing it. This was another red dress. Did I dare put it on?


I started slowly, writing it down in not-to-be-published notes.


I told three of my friends, using as many “maybes” and “mights” as possible to impress on them that I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen.


I talked to my university about taking some more time off.


I fumbled about with my family, trying to explain the complex, almost spiritual yearning that I myself did not completely understand. Why is it that those who matter the most are often the most difficult to face?


Then I posted it on my blog, announcing to anyone who cared to listen that one desire which could hurt me if denied.  Yet it was more than desire, it was a hunger, as if my spirit were starving and could only be replenished in Cuyo. I did not fully understand why, and I didn’t know if anyone else would.


But nobody tried to dissuade me. My reasons were abstract, and my need, as urgent and real as it felt to me, was difficult to express. Yet all I received was encouragement, generosity, support.  It could not have been a clearer “I love you” than if God’s booming voice had come out of the heavens.


So I’m going to Cuyo. It’s going to happen. It’s really going to happen. I won’t even let myself take the coward’s way of not believing it until I’m actually on the shore.


Whatever’s waiting for me there, I’ll find it. I want to find it. I believe that I will.




My somewhere else

I feel like the part of me that’s missing is in a place where I’ve never been. Does that make sense? Have you ever had somewhere else that you wanted to be, without knowing why?

For more than a year now, whenever things got particularly bad, I’d go away in my head to Cuyo. It’s this little island municipality in Palawan, where my father’s father grew up. I don’t know anyone there; I can’t even speak the local language. But whenever I wish I could be “anywhere else but here”, the picture in my mind is a small town by the sea where I can sit on the sand and just…be.

I know enough of myself to realize that part of the reason is a desire to escape. To be some  place where I can breathe, and hear myself think, and let my soul expand. There’s also the lifelong goal of studying Cuyonon, my father’s native language which his children never learned. But it’s more complex than that, a deeper and more urgent pull than simple wanderlust or a rediscovery of roots. It’s not even the call of adventure, but more of a search…for what, exactly, I do not know. I only know that I need to find it with an intense longing that borders on pain.

But at the same time, I am paralyzed. The complicated nature of the desire makes it difficult to explain to those who love me and need to understand my going away. But other than that, have you ever wanted something so badly that you were scared to get it? Because what if it’s not all that you thought it would be? It’s a coward’s excuse, and I suspect that a part of me has fallen into the terrible habit of being afraid. Fear, in a sense, is a way of staying safe.

But the good part of me, the brave part, is yearning for my somewhere else. The hunger is almost spiritual, a whisper in the heart compelling me to take that leap of faith. It’s telling me that this might be about something more profound than just a place, a physical place with boundaries and solid earth. It could be, perhaps, about discovering the landscape of my soul. Maybe the act of leaving behind everything that is familiar is necessary to find whatever it is that I’m being called to find.

I want to go to Cuyo. Why? Maybe I’ll find out if — no, when — I get there.