The Courageous Coward, The Cowardly Brave (Part 1 of 2)

8 11 2008

Last week was the school’s mid-year break – eagerly awaited by both students and teachers alike as a week away from school and each other (Ha!). I usually try to get out of the city during this time, if only for a few days. This time, I got out for the entire week.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were spent at a camp in Zambales held for public school teachers. Two years ago, it attracted maybe about 700 participants. This year, there were more than 1,500 people there. They were sleeping two to a bed in triple-deck beds (I blatantly refused to share a bad with a stranger, so I took a corner of the floor – way better than sharing a bed with a middle-aged man with compromised health and of questionable personal hygiene). During those days, I ended-up spending 5 hours straight in a muddy pond, making sure people who didn’t know how to swim didn’t drown, learned that I could extend the battery life of my phone by turning it off between text messages, and wondered what it would be like to live in a place with the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range as a backdrop.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday was spent in sunny Puerto Galera – my experiences there being the bulk of this post.

Right off the bat, I would like to declare that I’ve never been on a vacation that was so rich with experience – I don’t mean we had lots of varied experiences, but each one was meaningful. Every single one. So much so, that if it were not for the three bracelets I’ve taken to wearing on my left wrist (and a rich tan), it would seem like it had all been a dream.

Puerto Galera is on the island of Mindoro, about an hour-and-a half ride from Batangas pier. To get there, you take a ferry for about 250 pesos that will merrily ride the waves (with very wet results, if you sit too-far front) and deposit you right on the shores of White Beach, Puerto Galera’s main…uh…beach. True to its name, the sand is white and very powdery. But it’s also overrun with foodstalls, souvenir shops, boarding houses, hotels, and mobile vendors all lobbying for attention. Then there are the sunbathing foreigners, who look out of place trying to get a tan on such a crowded beach.

Fortunately for us, we billeted ourselves on a beach called Talipanan – far from the maddening crowd, if you will. The sea was practically ours, and I would gladly have traded all the white powdery sand on Earth in exchange for the peace and quiet that falls over Talipanan at night. Tal, a history teacher at school and our cashier/guide for the trip, is a master haggler – if your prices aren’t written down somewhere (and sometimes, even if they are!), she will haggle you out of house and home. Case in point, I found myself booked into a room with its own bath and AC…all to myself (although this was largely because I was the only male in the group and all attempts to convince other males at school to join us failed, I still have to credit her for making it possible for all of us to enjoy such amenities without busting the budget).

The next day, we walked to White Beach (about an hour’s journey, with many photo opportunities en route), with the ultimate goal of getting to a secluded strip of coast (which Tal calls “The Beach”, after the book) that lay just beyond White Beach’s borders.

Getting to The Beach requires a swim around several rock formations that separate it from White Beach. I thought one could just wade through the water a bit, whistling merrily, and suddenly find yourself on unspoiled coast.

Well imagine my shock when I discovered the water was close to fifteen feet in depth in some places! I have never, never swum in salt water that deep before – swimming pools with bright, tiled walls, yes, but ocean? With waves and currents and dark, shadowy crannies among the rocks where large, tentacled creatures lie in wait for hopelessly naive swimmers to swim by before reaching out and dragging them, whimpering pitifully, into their lairs? No.

I remember the feeling well: a mixture of fear and the thrill of adventure (it was a 60:40 ratio, really). I remember the moment where I pushed the fear back and just committed myself to swimming to the shallowest parts among the rocks while telling myself to relax, there’s no need to hurry (all while keeping an eye on those underwater shelves and any carelessly concealed tentacles – although if I had seen any of those, I’m not sure what I would have done).

“Why didn’t you cling to the rocks and just inch your way along?” you might be wondering. Well, I tried that – and was promptly stung by something in the finger. Those rocks were full of holes about the diameter of your finger, and there were things in them; things that moved. I figured I’d just hang it all and swim for it. Ms. Liza, our school librarian, chose to do the same thing. Tal chose to inch her way along, but suffered quite a few cuts from the rocks.

We never made it to The Beach – the tide was already coming in and the waves were picking up – not to mention the rocks seemed to be specifically designed to slice. We decided that while the journey would have been possible, we were woefully unprepared for the conditions presented to us. That, and somebody wisely pointed out that we would have to do the whole thing again on our way back. We decided to cut our losses (pride, mostly) and head back. And did I mention I almost had a very nasty run-in with a sea urchin?

There was one moment during the return swim that stands out: I was maybe about 20 or so meters away from where we started when my triceps started to twinge – a sure sign that I was tiring. If I had been in a pool, I would have quickly swum to the side and taken a break – but there, among currents and gentle yet unrelenting waves, in 15 feet of water, I quickly realized this was not possible. I remember panic gripping me for a moment –  it suddenly became very difficult to stay afloat – before I somehow summoned the resolve to ignore the fatigue and swim for dear life. Tal and Ms. Liza made it no easier by calling out to one another, as if in jest, “If I don’t make it, please tell so-and-so such-and-such.”

I can’t remember having been both so scared and yet so thrilled ever before in my life; the danger real enough to humble any boyish daydreams of bravado and derring-do, while at the same time awakening something else inside of me; something that dared me to step out of those boyish dreams and actually make them come true.

We made it safely back, needless to say – Tal took to nursing her cut fingers (mainly by sucking on them, before Nurse G handed out petroleum jelly) while Ms. Liza…well, I don’t remember what she took to doing. I went about observing the various hermit crabs crawling along the bottom in the nearby shallows (we’re talking 2 feet of water here) while at the same time contemplating how our little adventure had changed me – for indeed, I felt different; not overtly so, but significantly different nonetheless.

Little did I know that the whole affair was just a prelude for later that night.




4 responses

8 11 2008

that’s a foolhardy thing that you did. didn’t you ask around first before venturing to reach it?

9 11 2008

i decided i’ll go to school every friday or something nalang next sem. i also need my supply of life talks, as well as practice (need lots of that :|)

10 11 2008

Hi Mom 🙂

Yeah, it was foolish of me not to ask for details regarding the actual journey…I realized that when I found myself in fifteen feet of water…but it was also a little late to do anything other than steel oneself and swim forward.

Further reflections at the end of part 2 🙂

10 11 2008

we tried a different approach, we traversed rocks (since i cant swim). several cuts and bruises later we decided to return back to basecamp. but who wants to go to white beach anyway when i’m already at “the beach” hehehe!

no im not gloating… very beach in mindoro has its own unique beauty (and danger). love that island! 😀

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