Before I set out on my travels, I read numerous travel blogs and filled a Pinterest board with pretty pictures of places I wanted to visit. I thought travelling would give me that sense of freedom, openness and excitement that the images and stories seemed to convey. At the same time, I thought I would learn from it. Open up to people, get over my insecurities little by little and feel more confident about setting out in the world on my own. To be very honest, I thought I would confront my demons on a white sanded beach, right in front of the dirt-cheap bungalow I’d be renting, because that’s where everyone stays when they go to Southeast Asia, don’t they?
What I didn’t know, is that it doesn’t come so easy. First, I came to Coron unprepared and found myself lodging over a slum with the smell of sewer seeping into my room at 5AM every morning. A few days later I arrive in Dumaguete. In a spur of adventurousness I booked a dorm just a bit outside of town, in a place called Harold’s EcoLodge. When I arrive at the airport I don’t want to pay the 700PHP fee for the van, but the place is too far and I am too inexperienced to figure out how to get there by public transportation on my own. I make a deal with a driver: he drives me to the bus station further into town in his van for PHP200, and from there I can take a PHP12 jeepney to Valencia and continue on walking. So we set off. I am happy it takes a while to drive, it would have killed me if I’d found out that I could have walked it easily. Once we get to the jeepney I give him a 1000 note and he gives me 700 back. I thought he said 200? No, 300 he says. Sigh. I am reminded that a lot of Filipinos’ ‘three’s’, sound exactly like their ‘two’s’. I let it go. I step into a jeepney for the first time and I’d been wondering what it’d be like, but it’s not the local, thrilling experience I imagined it would be. We are packed so full that I can’t even look out of the window. Fortunately, my phone’s maps work just well enough to remind me where to get off, and according to the directions I looked at earlier, the hostel isn’t too far. I begin to walk. It shouldn’t be as far as the 40 minutes I walked in the scalding sun in Puerto Princesa, and luckily it’s a bit later in the day so it’s not as hot. I walk. Not long after, I find myself out of cellphone range and I’m getting a little worried. There are no signs for this place and I still haven’t reached it. It really wasn’t that far. I ask a few people and they all tell me to continue ahead, saying it’s a few kilometres away, but I’m afraid they don’t actually know what I’m asking them and they are just being polite in telling me to keep on going. I even get paranoid and dread that they may all be playing a joke on me and send me way too far into the sticks, just for fun. I mean, what do I know? I have been walking for over an hour, uphill and without water, and I thought it was no more than a twenty minute walk away.
I don’t know how long I walked for. Maybe and hour, maybe an hour and a half. Maybe more. I think about how I wanted to go into town for food and visit Apo Island for a day trip. There are no tricycles here. How do I possibly get back? I am covered in sweat and hallucinating of water when I finally reach Harold’s EcoLodge. In my desperate state I imagine a grand entry, with the host welcoming me and overwhelming me with information on what I can do for the next few days. Instead, a woman with two small children sit on the floor picking beans out of bits of greenery. She doesn’t appear too excited about welcoming me, and I initially (wrongly) think she is the help. I tell her I’m here to check in, and slowly we go through the motions of making this happen. Her English isn’t very good, so I decide not to ask about island trips and transport into town. I stick to buying some water, which is problematic enough. She does point me up the road, where apparently I can buy some noodles. I realise there is nothing here. No food, no other guests, no wifi, no phone signal. There appears to be no way of getting into town. And possibly no way of doing the things I wanted to do. I made a mistake.
And this is when I find myself sitting in an empty dorm. I just took a shower in an outside shack, which was actually merely a cold water tap hovering just over the floor, in front of which I squatted down to pour some water and soap over my sweaty limbs. And this is it. I travelled halfway across the globe in search of some answers, and I am on the verge of tears on the edge of someone else’s bed, eating a Philippine Airlines ‘Sky Treats’ packaged beef bun and listening to a deafening choir of nighttime animal song. I have no idea what I am doing here.
But perhaps this is what it’s all about. Maybe that excitement for the unknown doesn’t actually happen until you lose your expectations and find the beauty in the situation at hand. Or perhaps it’s not supposed to be a smooth, beautiful venture if you want to learn something from it. I’m not here for a prolonged party holiday. If that was the case, I’d be in Boracay right now. I remember going to a talk on the hidden lands in Tibet, places that Buddhist pilgims travel to for practice, places that are extremely difficult to find but are great for advancing in meditation. A few Western pilgrims so far have made it, but they were shocked by the adverse conditions they went through in order to reach it. Initially they thought that it must be like a pure land if it’s so great for meditational practice. But then they realised that the adverse circumstances are probably exactly the reason why it’s considered such a special place. You cannot learn anything if everything is perfect. Only in difficult circumstances do you grow. This is the practice. So maybe I need to adjust my expectations and throw myself into each and every difficult circumstance as they inevitably will arise, day after day. And make new mistakes every single day. Maybe this is the lesson for now: learn to confront my demons and work with circumstance.