i miss the airport
As a young child, and again as a teenager, my parents made it a habit to gush about their honeymoon in Palawan with every chance they get, even if the 16th anniversary passed months ago. With each regale, their grinning faces brighten the room with the sunlight streaming from their memories; they drown out the drone of the TV with the gentleness of approaching, receding waves; they gesture in awe at the impossible rock structures hanging in front of their wide eyes. Then, the conversation ends before it starts, leaving my sisters and I to grimace a bit, longing for an experience oceans away.
I am not the type of person to outwardly show her affection to her overbearing parents, the ones who had weighed me with a jealousy that manifested during my metamorphic years, sheltered in her own cocoon of New Jersey, North Carolina. Yes, the beaches, the car exhaust recalled back warm thoughts of the contrasting but familiar places maps dub Manila, Bohol. But my map is yet to be pinned in a place called Palawan.
Fortunately, this summer, we were finally able to visit the place rumored by our parents. Despite my best efforts to seem dampened and snuffed out, my insides were set alight, buzzing like an aliptaptap, or a firefly. Flashbacks resumed in my head as I eyed the darkened horizon past streetlamps… all my peaks in interest were brushed off; all my translations of conversations in the car were fragments. All these frustrating memories returned to me, grinding my teeth, and yet I remember where I’m going. This time, the lightness returned to my heart, not my head, as I climbed into the Uber van with my parents, setting off for the airport terminal.
It was seven in the morning when we left for Palawan. On the plane ride to the remote island, I glanced around at all my family members’ faces, blinking at their vacant expressions. My own thoughts were numbed as we flew off mainland Philippines; the hour-long flight was filled with bouts of minute naps and frenzied stares out the shuttered window overlooking an endless blue. We landed at around nine in the morning, making a pit stop at some walkable cafes beside the airport before calling a ride.
After unloading with some coffee and boarding our spacious rented minivans, my extended family and I passed out as the ride to the beach absorbed most of our waking moments, consuming hours upon hours of daylight until we finally reached the resort smelling of leather and fragrant chip bags under the cover of night. We all collectively stumble out of the vans that hauled our asses over winding roads and gritty pavement, stole whatever luggage we had from the back, politely smiled at the management as they handed us our individual keys, then made a dash for the rooms upstairs, made a dash for the bathroom, made a dash for the one-room nipa huts bordering the beach, reclining between the resort and ocean.
The building itself was open to the street below as we stepped across second-story platforms. My sisters and I, first to be upstairs, gazed up at little seashell chandeliers hanging from wooden beams crossing the ceiling above, with wooden banisters fencing us in as we stood eye-to-eye with a neon street sign]. The paint lining the cement blocks was chipped and faded, but enough for us to make out the painted room numbers. The boards beneath our feet were smooth but not shined. My feeling of this meager place roiled my stomach, all those golden daydreams washed away like sand. I had imagined tiled floors, a wide reception desk, a polished key that lead up to a carpeted floor, then finally we’ll be greeted by oceanic wallpaper, seashells imprinted into the wooden bedframe. But I had swallowed those daydreams as soon as they rose, feeling happy to at least have a place to lay my head. I unlocked our respective door, and Margeaux, Marion and I all flocked inside.
My sisters and I shared a room, arranging two to the bed and the eldest to the floor on a mattress. The next morning, Margeaux had set an alarm for 6:30 in order to eat breakfast by eight sharp; we made the bed, washed our collective faces, and played a knocking game with our cousins next door, knocking in threes until they rapped back. After flying downstairs, we woke our parents up next, waiting by some wooden tables in a spot shaded by palm trees on the beach. My sisters and I then ate a fifteen minute breakfast, taunting our late parents, until at last the wafting fragrance of freshly-brewed coffee, again, brought the rest of our family back to the waking world, where they joined us outside. As we exchanged seats with our older cousins, my sisters and I went back up to our room and changed into our bathing suits. Throwing on loose-fitting clothes and grabbing our water shoes, we slammed the door to our apartment a bit too harshly, only to check if we had everything a few more times before an agreeable, “yes”.
We all stumbled down the stairs, two at a time, pining to be the first ones done and ready. We then scurried through the back door and slipped into our parents’ nipa hut, the first on the right, with its roof of thatched hay and splintered wooden porch. As we slid the door shut, we messed with our littlest sister under a mosquito netting draped over the bed. Our parents then ushered us outside, putting in our hands some refilled water bottles from the cooler in the lobby, some spray-on cans of sunscreen, and a life jacket for Marlene.
In hindsight, I may have been a bit too eager, flopping down the stairs with a pair of loud slippers, but that was really because the rest of our family took such a long time to pack and be ready! Kuya Cheeno had insisted on sunscreen before getting on the boat, and his girlfriend, Ate Mei-Ann, had obliged, resulting in some horseplay. Tita Avic had misplaced her sunglasses, and in doing so delayed for 10 minutes as she searched her waterproof, trench-like bag. Not to mention the desperation for bottled water, resulting in a change in water jugs, postponing the boarding for another 15 minutes. And yet, they are still my family, so I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the subtle smile I had, or my pulse in my ears reminding me that we will set sail soon.
The lobby buzzed as we double-checked everything, but my parents, sisters and I were the first through the gate opening up to the beach. We expected for the sand to be warm under our feet, but little did we know salespeople lurked there too. They leaped out at us! insisting we buy some pearl necklaces and bracelets, or convenient waterproof phone cases! Our mother negotiated for the former, getting my sisters and I one each, all in variable colors. Mine was the darkest, red and black, while my littlest sister’s was the brightest pink in varying wave-like patterns. For the last time, my sisters and I dashed upstairs to leave our new items to flaunt in our room, greeting some late cousins on the way back to the beach.
It was time to board, and the sky couldn’t have been brighter, nor the water any dirtier. The rumble of people and far-off boats resulted in sharp waves washing ashore, so the 30 yard walk to the boat was quite difficult, but manageable with long legs. Lifting Marlene’s life jacket over my head, I spotted the procession of my family further out as they boarded a banca boat, with rods running parallel to the wide boat in an attempt to stabilize it. I smiled wider than I had eating a hearty breakfast that morning, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Soon afterward, I flinched as a drone whirred overhead, surprised to see it land in Kuya Mikko’s outstretched hand, the spitting image of a victorious fisher beholding his catch! His brother Cheeno slapped him on the back, causing him to wobble in his stance before stepping down from the edge of the boat, where he shoved his brother back. Tita Purits, with her glistening hair, had to board next, encouraged by Tito Ronald from behind her; he kept a steady hand on her hips until she found her footing. I stood in the water, flicking my eyes up to each person getting on board, my heart thrumming so deep it rivaled the waves in the water. This is it...!
As the rest of my family boarded, accepting hands from the help on the boat, we pushed off and blinked in the glaring sunlight before taking the initiative to put on reflective sunglasses and sunscreen. The tour guide must’ve been funny, but I couldn’t hear him over the guttural boat engine towards the back; I only nodded back as his hands formed motions similar to the waves. We backed out of the mass entanglement of boats closest to shore, and soon we were on our way to our first island-hopping destination.
One memory that still gives me goosebumps to this day were the strong winds and rain slicing between our origin and our next destination. The rain was subtle at first, barely whispered above the roaring of the engine. Then the clouds began to settle over our traced path until they released their bellies with a deafening downpour, with sounds similar to the heads of needles being spilled all at once. Our father called Margeaux and I to sit at the front of the boat, with no protection like the plastic canopy covering the rest of our family. Shedding our towels in the puffs of wind, we waddled barefoot over slippers and bulging plastic bags until we stood facing the rain, our eyes closed to the water dripping down our faces. He yelled for us to sit down, to enjoy taking a free shower. I laughed at the wind while Margeaux smiled at it; Marion and Marlene were busy keeping our mom warm. The raindrops stung my skin in a pleasant way that made me want to raise my eyelids and stare into the sky, but that wasn’t possible until ten minutes later when the clouds cleared as we caught sight of our next beach.
I don’t remember much of the first or second beaches, as any beach at this point becomes blurred with rain like the last. What I do remember is our lunch at sea, tethered to a remote band of sand on Helicopter Island (a clever name given for the vague shape it resembles while floating on the sealine). After playing once more in a salty ocean, warm after the short onslaught of rain, our cousins called us aboard to partake in lunch. I haven’t seen the help set up the table nor cook the food, so let’s just say I was a little more surprised than hungry. The food was what you’d expect, coming from the ocean; fish fillet, fresh coconuts and pineapples, stewed shrimp, fried rice, sauteed eggplant with vegetables and shrimp paste, among other things that are too delicious to remember without tasting again. After crowding around the table and spilling onto the benches, our cousins and I worked together to share the platters of food the best we can, where they often teach my sisters and I how to debone a fish properly, with many sharp gasps involved. After eating lunch, the fresh coconuts were hacked down to a manageable size and hammered by a screwdriver to poke a straw through, properly handled by the help, who gave it to me with a toothy grin. I licked my lips and drowned my food with the salty-sweetness of the coconut juice. Soon afterwards I was taught by my father again to eat the sipon, or the soft coconut meat of the coconut once it’s split open. I recoiled at the word, as its definition means snot. My uncles laughed hard at this and insisted I spoon the silky yet negatively branded food into my mouth, where I had to taste it at this point, out of pure curiosity. I took the spoon and clinked it into my mouth, swishing the piece around my mouth before chewing and swallowing the grisly texture. I reluctantly held out my spoon again for another scoop, and my dad grinned at me, instead handing me the split coconut.
For the rest of our time on the island, I stayed out of the water, instead exploring the rock formations east of the boat with my curious mother and sisters in tow. After snapping some pictures and taking in the scenery for thirty minutes, it was back to swimming and snorkeling around the boat, at least until our tour guide called time.
Despite the experience not being in the same painted place as our parents’ honeymoon, the time we spent with our family, or within our own bubbles sometimes, was searing enough to remember even in the fall of school. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as it allowed for me to finally relax without the need for forced gadgets, TV, or movies in order to take a breather. I could just delve into the nature of sandy beaches and the company of my own family to indulge myself in the most earnest way possible. I’ll always long for the sun on my skin, my goosebumps smoothing down as the memory shines with the same intensity as the rays from my own parents’ memories.