It’s 4 A.M. in the morning and I’m woken up by the thunderous clatter of monsoon rain in the heart of Manila. It’s rainy season here in the Philippines, but this natural alarm clock is right on time – just 7 hours after landing in the capital for 2 weeks of vacation on my girlfriend Bea’s side. I re-pack my belongings into a smaller suitcase, preparing for another flight on a small propeller plane that’s about a quarter the size of the Boeing that got us overseas.
The first light of dawn shimmers through the wet palm trees as we pack the car, and the humidity is already sweltering even this early in the morning. Bea’s dad, Tito Ojie (“Tito” being a form of respect that precedes an elder man’s name), hadn’t driven stick in the 10 years since he was last here, so we all hop in with a sense of hesitation.
And sure enough, I had no idea that hour and a half drive would be one of the biggest rushes of my life. A literal “white knuckle ride” as cars and motorcycles zoomed in from all angles, where the only way to cross an intersection is to forcibly inch your way across traffic like a caterpillar, while every other car is doing the exact same thing. Talk about a traffic jam!
It was all worth it though, as we were heading off to the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Coron. It’s hard to imagine that the Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands, and we only saw a portion of the archipelago as our little plane chugged across the South China Sea from low altitude, passing over small lush islands and water that looked like a new Gatorade flavor (I was thirsty okay?). The monsoon rains were still coming down as we landed, so we feasted on local dishes like pancit (a classic Filipino noodle dish) and fresh seafood, while crossing our fingers for a promising forecast over the next two days.
The following morning we couldn’t wait to hop on the boat and get in the water. With our snorkel gear in hand and Drifties on myself and Anton (Bea’s brother), we met our tour guide Jerome and his mates. Their dark leather skin and island-happy nature was completely addictive, and by the end of his funny monologue about the island, we were all grinning from ear to ear. They grabbed our hands and led us onto their colorful, handmade boats – a rudimentary design crafted out of bamboo and tied together with fishing lines. I looked at Bea and gave a shout in delight as the boat kicked it up a few knots, streaking across the sea straight towards massive rock structures that you only ever see in magazines.
We were one of the first boats to get out that morning, so we were lucky to be the first visitors at the fabled Kayangan Lake. And boy oh boy, does this place put on a show. It’s an unbelievably picturesque freshwater lake, surrounded by endless forestry and jungle birds chirping in the distance. The water is so clear that I could see all the way to the bottom no matter what the depth, leaving me no choice but to dive right in and bask in the cool blue waters. Even with the water temperature in the 70s, Anton and I couldn’t believe how comfortable and soft the Drifties felt as we snorkeled around with the fish. A sense of carelessness and true freedom washed over me at that moment in the lake. It was paradise.
Other tourists started streaming in after 20 minutes of having the place to ourselves, so we set sail to our next stop which ended up being a dream come true – kayaking around Twin Lagoons. As a kayak tour guide in La Jolla during my free time, this was the ultimate experience for me. But instead of barking sea lions along the deep blue sea, we drifted aimlessly over turquoise blue water and passed over colorful coral reef systems. Every corner we turned dropped my jaw even further, up until Bea’s family in the other kayak started racing us to our next stop! I dug my rear into the seat of the kayak for leverage, and can’t help but believe that the neoprene padding of my Drifties helped us cross the finish line first.
The next thing I knew, I’m staring at the mouth of a small entrance into the next lagoon, only accessible because of the low tide at the time. Tourists can swim underneath the 12 inches of available headspace, but must be careful not to hit their head against the sharp rocks above. I took a deep breath and ducked underneath, watching in awe at the reefs below. But when I popped my head up on the other side, I felt a sudden chill in the water from my chest up to my neck, while my lower half was still in 75°. My face must have explained it all, as Jerome began to say that everyone pees in the water in the lagoon.
“This much pee?!” I exclaimed in disbelief. Jerome started cracking up, and told us the truth of how the coalition of both fresh & salt water creates this warming and cooling effect. So no, no one peed in the water...at least I hope...
It was midday at this point and we'd really worked up an appetite. We snorkeled some more in the Drifties around an old Japanese shipwreck from WWII, and came back to an unbelievable spread of food on an elevated cabana over the sea. A freshly grilled tuna, freshly caught crab, plenty of rice, and tropical mango that tasted like an entirely different fruit than in the U.S. Tita Lida (Bea’s mother, respectfully) was in Heaven. Oh, and did I say it was all fresh??
As the sun set over the sea and we cruised back towards land, that feeling of freedom washed back over me once again. There’s a great sense of positivity, gratitude, and hospitality that emanates throughout Filipino culture, which made the experience that much more rewarding. Travel isn’t just about tourism and photographs...it’s about fueling the human spirit, opening your mind, and embedding you in new cultures that give you a new perspective and understanding of the world. And above all, it’s about people – the ones that open themselves up to you and welcome you like family. The greatest thanks to both the Ruiz family & the Philippines for giving me this amazing experience!