Winter Break Debrief: Palawan Again

On the whole, I’m still not sure how to process my winter break, even four months after the fact. In my defense, I jammed five countries (including the US) into three and a half weeks. To say it was an overload would be an understatement—once we could start to relax in one city, we’d be on the way to the airport for our next destination. Flitting in and out every few days was a whirlwind, and all the languages and sights blended together into a humid mix of temples, colors, flowers, and delicious food.

Was it all fun and new and exciting? Certainly. But I’ll spare you the sweaty, gritty details. You can read about incredible Angkor Wat or scooter-choked Hanoi in a guide book. And so the story I’ve decided to share is a more personal one, one that attaches itself to a previous adventure.


It was mid-February, and the second floor alcove of Manila’s NAIA Terminal 3 had been converted into some kind of storage unit for Christmas decorations. My first thought was, this is exactly why I love this country. Although someone had attempted to hide the decorations behind a line of concrete columns, they weren’t exactly hard to miss. Bunches of tall, deep green plastic trees stood with glittery wreaths scattered at their feet. But no one in the airport seemed to give them any mind—passerby were more focused on the bustling new Chow King a floor below. 

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NAIA T3, Floor 2

Besides the Chow King, the Christmas decorations were the only things that looked different from the last time I was at NAIA back in the summer of 2015, severely regretting that I had brought two suitcases from the states for a summer in Puerto Princesa. This time, I had packed more judiciously, though admittedly my trip this time would be much shorter: a quick three day trip to Cebu, followed by another three days back to Puerto. Cebu had been on my list ever since knowing its reputation for excellent lechon (the holiest of holy fried pork dishes), so I was excited for it all. My week in the Philippines would be a mix of something new and something familiar, and it was the start of my solo adventure during our three week winter break; I’d split up with friends after our blitzkrieg tours of Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh in the span of less than two weeks.

I took a quick nap on the grey metal benches in a section slightly removed from the main walkway of the multitude of Filipinos walking by, most of whom were already chatting animatedly at five in the morning. But the noise didn’t bother me. In fact, seeing them made me feel at ease. In the past few weeks, everywhere I turned were foreigners. In Hanoi, non-Vietnamese faces took up most of the seats on the buses, in the museums, at the airport. I admired the tolerant locals who would weave between tourists with great patience. In fact, the only hint of animosities towards foreigners were the jarring reminders at the heartbreaking history museums we’d visited. Looking around, it didn’t feel like a southeast Asian country at all. So, it was such a relief to see such a large gathering of Filipinos in the Philippines.

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NAIA T3, Gates 135-137

Even though I was dead tired from my red-eye flight from Ho Chi Minh, I woke up before my alarm, anxious I’d miss my flight. I shouldn’t have worried though, because my flight was delayed. Of course! I should have remembered this from last time. A nation of seven thousand plus islands means a lot of flights. Combined with infamous Filipino time, punctual departures didn’t stand a chance. Meanwhile, the seats had become even more crowded, so I took a stroll around the gate area. It was almost eerie how so much had stayed the same. I was twenty-one again, navigating NAIA for the first time with a fellow intern, both of us dazed and excited by the new sights. The small dingy stall selling brightly colored hopia was still there. The strangely anachronistic Jamba Juice was still there. Even the sounds were familiar. The overhead loudspeaker dinged every five seconds to announce flight delays in succession. The announcements competed with the voices of banana yellow uniformed flights attendants making last calls for long last departing flights. The attendants wove through a mix of feet, charging cords, and spilled coffee, holding cardboard signs: Caticlan, Bohol, Boracay. So many places I still hadn’t been to!

By the time we finally started boarding over an hour later, the gate area was sticky warm and bloated with people, and I was on the verge of exasperation. But my frustrations melted away as soon as we started to take off. I was reminded of my first flight out of Manila, looking out in awe at the expansive ocean dotted with hundreds of little islands visible from up high, the twinkling blue sea carefully cradling each one. Mist sprayed quietly from the AC vents above our seats, and the airline staff hosted a trivia game about famous pairs of literary lovers. What a sense of peace, warmth, and security! I slept soundly on the plane.

Cebu was bright, sunny, and unbelievably hot. Though it was my first time on the island, I experienced some of the same things I had on Palawan, first of which was unintentionally disappointing others. People still thought I was Filipina because I was tan and addressed people as kuya and ate. They tried to speak to me in Tagalog, and had to awkwardly had to break it to them that I could only speak English. (“Metiza?” “Hindi, po.”) But I’d gone through these motions before. Though these interactions were sometimes awkward, they were still predictable, and thus comforting in a strange way. But when I didn’t feel slightly smug for being able to blend in, I felt slightly guilty that I could pass, without having experienced for myself the legacy of Spanish colonization or the terrifying martial law of the eighties or the infamous corruption—that’s a separate story that deserves its own focus.

I was also still bowled over by how breathtaking the country was. I nearly cried into my snorkel mask during an afternoon exploring the beaches in Moalboal, utterly floored by the wildly colorful assortment of coral and fish. My field of vision turned into an optical illusion as I swam through a sardine run, the thousands of little silver slivers moving effortlessly in unison to avoid my toes. For the first time on my trip, I was deeply moved. It may have been a combination of magnificent beauty and simple familiarity, knowing that this warm ocean had cradled me in its waves before. Towards the end of the afternoon, I found a sea turtle and followed it quietly for an hour, watching it peacefully submerge for food among the rocks. I spent my last day in Cebu river trekking to Kawasan Falls, following rambunctious tour guides as we traversed through the canyon, clambering over rocks and jumping off cliffs into pools of crystalline water. Everything was gorgeous and nothing looked real.

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Sunset on Moalboal

But I realized that I’d also made some assumptions about being back. Reconciling the nostalgic excitement of the past with expectations of the present didn’t always match up. For one, the initial thrill, so to speak, had faded. When I first squinted across the objectively pristine waters of Moalboal beach, my first thought was: beautiful—but the beaches in Palawan are nicer. More pressingly, I fiercely missed my trusty band of colleagues whom I worked, ate, traveled, and laughed with. My van ride from Cebu City to the beach town of Moalboal with a handful of Filipinos was peaceful, but I couldn’t help but think back to the van three other interns and I took from Puerto Princesa to the Underground River in Sabang. How we chatted with our eyes closed to avoid seeing how violently our van swerved around the sharply winding roads (that way, we laughed later, we wouldn’t have to view our potential impending deaths). While trekking to Kawasan, I was in awe of how the turquoise waters had expertly carved a smooth path through a dense jungle forest, but I also wished I had done this with my friends three years ago.

Ironically, I never made it to any Palawan beaches on this trip. The closest I got was peering down at Honda Bay from the plane through a blur of emotional tears as I flew into Puerto Princesa (ninety minutes delayed) on a beautiful, clear Sunday morning. But my plans to spend a day at the crystalline, picture-perfect Sabang beach were foiled by a scratchy throat and a fever, so I decided to stay in the city. This actually turned out to be a blessing; I had time to see more people.

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View of Palawan from the plane

I was graciously invited to dinner at the recently retired NGO’s founder’s home, where I had lived during my internship. I hailed a colorful multi cab from downtown and passed my thirteen pesos up to the driver, who was driving with one hand and holding wilting bills with the other. I was grateful that I blended in with the other Palaweños, and we watched an orange dusk gently light up the sky as we rattled (Puerto’s roads were still exactly the same) up the Sicsican Highway, passing the same fruit stalls, vulcanizing shops, and abandoned buildings overrun with stray dogs. I walked the familiar dirt road to the house, listening to the sounds of frogs and the crickets in the bush, and I had the strange feeling that I was inhabiting a past version of myself. When I reached the house gate, I braced myself for the loud barks that used to wake me up at five in the morning, but all was quiet. Miraculously, the dogs had remembered me. The house also looked and smelled exactly the same. My hosts and I exchanged conversation and gossip and updates on our lives, and if the kids hadn’t grown so much, I couldn’t have distinguished it from any Sunday night dinner in the summer of 2015.

 

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Homecoming with this lovely family

I spent the next morning catching up with a trike driver who used to drive us around town. He had upgraded his ride to a black sedan with AC, and we listened to Bob Marley songs as we drove around, talking about what people we knew were doing now and our old stomping grounds.

“Remember Rob’s?” he asked as we passed a large mall to our right. Years ago, Robinson’s was the only mall in town and one of the only places in that had its own generator when the inevitable power brownouts came. I can still recall the uniquely strange buttered-baking-sheet smell that wafted through the building.

“Oh, yes!” I said. And then I added with relief, “It looks the same.”

I also met up with my old Tagalog teacher and her new baby at a foreigner-filled Seattle’s Best Coffee shop in the sparkling, cavernous new SM mall downtown. We talked about our jobs, lives, and Puerto. I mentioned how many more tourists were here now, and she agreed. The mark of tourism was less obvious in the Philippines than in Cambodia or Vietnam, but it had definitely spiked. Three years ago, my fellow interns and I would be hard pressed to find a foreigner on Puerto Princesa North Road. But on my ride from the Puerto Princesa airport to my hotel this time, they were everywhere; I spotted multiple groups of tourists people walking down the street. I wanted bang on the metal wall of my trike and yell, leave Palawan alone! Though of course, it was absolutely hypocritical of me to feel this way. For one, I was here too. I also like to travel for the same reasons these other travelers do—to see, do, feel something new. But now I felt fiercely protective of Palawan—partly because I had associated tourism with exploitation throughout the rest of my trip, but also because selfishly, I felt a weird obligation to protect Palawan as an ex-temporary resident on the island.

 

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Scenes from SM Puerto Princesa: The New Mall in Town

 

I took breaks in between seeing people to visit my other favorite places around the city; alas, I didn’t have time to visit them all. But I did really spoil myself at Plumberry Spa, indulged myself with a few massages, and ate my body weight in food. My first stop after the airport was La Terrasse, a French-Filipino fusion restaurant that I adored. But some of the echoing, aching feelings I had initially felt in Cebu came back. Though my meal was fantastic (I cannot over-recommend their Adobo Overload dish), I was very aware that I was enjoying it alone. That is, I just felt a fraction of the emotions I’d felt the first time I ate at La Terrasse, celebrating a friend’s birthday, laughing and chatting with my friends so animatedly the hours had slipped away. The old boxing gym where I spent my afternoons was gone, too; the original spacious gym next to a large supermarket had moved into a dingy and cramped one-story building downtown. All the boxing coaches I knew had left.

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La Terrasse’s Adobo Overload. Incredible.

Thankfully, the HIIT coach was still there, and I did my first real workout of my trip to an Ariana Grande music video reel blasting from the TV, sweat pouring out of every pore of my body. Ah yes, this was the Puerto life I remembered. I met up with the coach later that evening at an outdoor cluster of shops downtown, where he had recently acquired a bar. He poured us two strong Jack and Cokes, popped in half a calamansi fruit in each glass, and we caught up as we enjoyed the live music. The cover band’s almost too-faithful rendition of Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” was the highlight of the rainy evening. Coach gave me a ride back to my hotel afterwards, and I was enthralled by the contrast of the small city lights against the darkness, the wet streets, and the deep smell of rain. Incidentally enough, this was exactly what my last night here in August 2015 looked like—a friend had given me a ride through town on a rainy night. As we whizzed down Rizal Street this time, it really felt like I was leaving. Again.

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Coach Coy’s Aloeha Bar feat. the man himself!

On my last morning in Puerto, I visited the NGO where I used to work. I walked up the four flights of stairs, turned left at the top landing and found myself looking into the office that still holds so many of my memories. I found myself overjoyed seeing my old colleagues again as we caught each other up on our lives and our work. There were still a lot of old faces, and I was touched by how many remembered me.

“Wenbo,” a woman on the financial literacy team said to me after giving me a tight hug. “We missed you.” My heart ached and soared simultaneously.

The NGO’s reach had expanded—not only to new communities in the metro area, but regionally as well; the education team was hard at work preparing for a weeklong workshop at a new location down south. Their shared desks were full of papers, notes, addresses, and sticky notes. The staff had also expanded; I introduced myself to some of the new faces. Some had started working right after I’d left; others were newbies. But everyone was so nice, and everyone was still doing excellent working empowering women and children in Palawan. Satisfied (though not surprised) that the NGO was still in good hands, I took advantage of an education team discussion to walk out to the balcony, which opened to a view of the mountains. It looked exactly the same. One of the buildings below still had the same green rusted tin roof. I took a few deep breaths, remembering all the hot, dry mornings and languid, rainy afternoons spent looking out at this view. I smiled to myself remembering some funny things that had happened there, then walked back inside. 

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This. View.

When it was time to go, I reluctantly bid adieu to the NGO crew, but not before they gifted me pasalubong—a newly designed canvas tote with the NGOs motto printed on the front, Magandang Kinabukasan. The morning is beautiful and bright.

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Reunited with these lovelies!

Later that afternoon, I sat in the airport waiting for my flight to Manila, about to leave Palawan for the second time. I had to reel my mind back from thinking about when I’d next set foot on this island. I almost hoped my flight would be canceled so I could stay for another day, but most ironically, this was the only flight on my trip that wasn’t delayed. I was glad I was the only passenger in my row, since I dissolved into tears as we took off. Oh, it was painful to leave. In some ways, it had also been painful to come back. I think I expected that visiting all my old stomping grounds would give me the same blasts of excitement and happiness I experienced the first time. Instead, I experienced a combination of nostalgia, gratitude, and happiness, overall tinted with a feeling of loneliness. In retrospect, this was not surprising. But coming back did render Palawan less like a nebulous memory and more like an irrefutable fact; it become all the more special not because I went back, but because I realize now more than ever how precious my time was there. Ultimately, that’s why I cried—not because I was struck down by the mini disappointments, but because it dawned on me how immensely humbled and grateful I’ll always be for that experience, every time I go back. 

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Kalui Restaurant: another old stomping ground

I revisited an old journal entry from August 2015, where I wrote: “I hate saying goodbyes because everything inevitably crystallizes into your memory as things that were there, things that were always there, things that will always be there. Selfish as it is, I always hate to think of places moving on and changing after I have left.” And now I know more deeply than ever, of course they do. Even though objectively, a lot had stayed the same, everything felt so different—and of course, it had to. Palawan will always be the place I spent a blessed summer with some great people, but I have no right to lament its changes, nor can I expect to have the same experience twice. All I can do is love it when I’m there and wish it my best when I go, treating and loving each trip separately. Next time, I’ve decided, I’m going to bring others with me and introduce them to bask in the Palaweño humor, kindness, and warmth.

And as I prepare to leave Taiwan within the next month, I’m keeping these thoughts close. It’s about that time where I have to reconcile the fact that the good-byes are coming soon. Even after June, I’ll always be seeking out the next adventure, the pleasures of bouncing somewhere else in the world, seeing new things and meeting new people—and inevitably, creating even more things to miss. It might be painful, but in my experiences it’s a good indication that you’ve lived life to the fullest: if it hurts this much to leave. I’ve done it before (Copenhagen, Palawan, and soon Taiwan), and I’ll do it again (on to the next adventure!).

Leaving the Philippines meant flying through NAIA’s Terminal 3 again. It would be the last time I would be surrounded by chattering groups of Filipinos in a while. After paying my own visit to Chow King, I took the escalator up to the departure area and instinctively looked to the alcove on my left. The Christmas decorations? They were still there. They still might be there now. I’d like to think they are biding their time until they’re hauled out of the shadows come next holiday season.

 

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