People ask “What is it like to travel alone?”
Actually, no one asks. It’s more of a string of statements that grammatically require question marks. But why. Are you escaping something. Why now. Isn’t it lonely. I would never; aren’t you scared. Don’t you have a boyfriend. What did your mom say. Why don’t you go with friends. Why not just a vacation. Why would you quit. What’s the plan. What job will you find after.
Still, as in most situations, it’s the unspoken question that you want to answer.
I wrap up the fifth day of my Advanced Open Water certification with buoyancy training in Coron, a magical stretch of islands in the province of Palawan, Philippines famous for shipwreck diving. My instructor suspends a 3-rung ladder 12m down and handed me two ping pong balls and two spoons. I am to swim back and forth through the rungs while balancing the balls under downward-facing spoons to flex my buoyancy control. I swim through the top two rungs completely horizontal with spoons in each hand, gently turn 180, slowly exhale six counts to descend, and swim back through the lower rungs without losing either ball to physics. There’s no cheering underwater when in mask smiling creates water leakage, but I’m not really much of a smiler to begin with.
I am focused on hurry because my next host for the following week’s island adventure is picking me up at noon at this dive site. He’s sailing an hour from his island on a wooden floating spider the Filipinos call a bangka. Less boat and more testament that rope ties can indeed keep bamboo and wood together at high speeds and that captains sometimes are shoeless chainsmokers relying on mental navigation tools and only a line hook and sharp blade to make lunch. We surfaced right around noon, and as we waited for this stranger, the captain whips together freshly caught fish with red onion and potent chilis, cooked in the strong sour of tiny juicy calamondins. I squat to scarf down ceviche over rice unintentionally and nicely salted by sea water from my hair and hands.
It’s then I see storm clouds rolling in and remember that it’s September, which was the cheapest time to book a one way to the Philippines largely because it’s typhoon season. The captain motions for me, my instructor, and my large backpack to sit under the covered area. We huddle in the 3x3 space next to a rusty boat engine and the sky pours down, sudden and vicious. We could be waiting minutes or hours because there’s no knowing the tropical agenda. Well over an hour later, I realize my host has either gotten lost, turned back around at the weather, or worse. We have no means of contacting my ride so when the rain clears, we sail the long journey back towards the main island.
When I get on wifi, I find out my host indeed turned back around. The only way to get to him now is more complex — only five people live on his island so there’s no public boat route; cars can’t drive on water; and worse, there’s no app to help. He calls a friend who can pick me up later in the day and get me closer to the west end of the main island where he could sail in. A man who doesn’t speak scoops me up from the dive shop and together we silently journey an hour across the island on unpaved roads and shoddy bridges, alongside sunset peaking through small hills. I’m just about ill from the bumpy ride when we arrive in the dark at a dock. Backpack strapped on, I walk a long unlit pier by moonlight, where my host is waiting in his bangka.
We have a very long journey and I’m exhausted and hungry, drained from the wetness of the day. It’s nice that there’s no one to complain or complain to, because grumbling begets deeper misery. I look over into the water but there’s no sign of the marine life I love beyond the texture of rushing ocean; the empty black makes me a promise for tomorrow. No one’s voice to repeat today’s adventures so I review it on the widescreen of my mind, replaying and slowing down the best and worst parts to register my feelings. We speed on in quiet darkness, except when the captain slows and shines his flashlight to illuminate floating bobs indicating we’re near possibly illegal pearl farms.
No one to ask how far we have to go so the measure of time is the passing of my one silent thought to the next. In fact, there are no questions at all. When you have company, however much you enjoy the person, silence is eventually killed, usually victim of an inquiry. Sooner or later, people feel the need to break the nothingness and their verbal tentacles go out for validation. “Crazy day, right?” “Isn’t this beautiful?” “Wow, did you see that?” “Where do you think we are” “What should we do when we get there?” “Are you tired” We leave cars, houses, birds, people, words far behind and ride into infinite emptiness that makes the stars feel brighter. The moon highlights ripples and tiny islands, and everything is dark and light in shifting velvety beauty. Tonight, I’m chasing stillness.
The number of days it took me to realize I love traveling alone — 7
Currently listening to Island by Wet.