Palawan, Philippines. Wish You Were Here Wednesday.

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On the way to the ferry, we stopped at a snorkel shop where we rented water shoes, fins, goggles, breathing tube thingy. Everything bright orange. At the shop, I still wasn’t sure if I actually would snorkel, but I figured, if I decided to do it, I’d need the equipment. And a bag of fresh pandesal, soft, semi-sweet bread rolls, to feed the fishies, too.

This is Pandan Island, Honda Bay, Palawan, Philippines. This is where I first tried to snorkel. That’s a big deal for me because I can’t swim. It’s sad to be a Filipino who can’t swim. But, snorkeling is different, right? 

We waited in the van for our guides to make final arrangements with local officials for our island hopping day. By this third day in Palawan, our guide knew we were the wandering types and he was better off telling us to stay put.

Pearl hawkers came to the window to tempt our companion pearl-phile. Unfortunately for the young hawker, a deal could not be struck.

A street vendor with sago balanced wares on his shoulders. Street food temptations! I still did not move.

And then, we were off.

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A little nipa hut. Just in case walking on the sandbar became too sunny.IMG_7332

I’m truly in love with mountains.

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Other than the noise pollution from the catamaran’s motor, the slight overcast went away as we pulled to shore, and suddenly it was perfect. Welcome to Pandan Island.

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I suited up with a life vest, fins, goggles and breathing tube for a test drive. How tight should I make my goggles so water doesn’t go up my nose? I put half of my face in the water. I emptied the slightly snotty saltwater from the nostril well, then tugged at the notched rubber straps on the sides. How well does this breathing tube fit in my teeth? Ok, it doesn’t make me gag. How do I use these fins? Kick? Just kick. And it’s easier to walk into the water backwards with these. Is this vest really going to make me float? Check.

Yes, this is how neurotic I am. The Doubting Thomasina in me was sated and I decided to go for the snorkel. A dive guide swam out with us, myself and the pearl bargainer, the three of us holding on to the life ring.

I’ve just got to kick my legs, hold on to the life ring, enjoy the view downward and REMAIN CALM.

As we swam out into deeper and deeper water, the temperature dropped bit by bit. Sea grasses billowing softly in the undercurrent slowly slipped away. We approached the fringes of the world of fish.

Despite this serenity and the promise of what lay ahead, my heart rate began to quicken. My breath became erratic. I looked for the seafloor. I noticed that it was cold. How is it cold? My death grip on the life ring became even tighter.

Oh, what power this fear has. We were still swimming, and I had no idea how far out we were and how far yet we had to go. FOCUS! CALM DOWN! ENJOY YOURSELF!

I can only chalk this up to animal instincts because I’m not anybody’s momma, but I started Lamaze breathing. Or maybe it comes from yoga. Cool! It sounds kinda like scuba. Or Jacques Cousteau! And after about 30 seconds of it, I was calm.

Our guide handed me a roll of pandesal. Pinching off little bits of bread, I watched them float like stars in the diffracted light just before a brave little fish scurried over to snatch it up. Then another, and another.

A few flashes of pink, shocks of yellow splotches against a radiant blue, elegant black arches, fish whose names I did not know. These creatures are so beautiful.

Feeling more adventurous, I shook pandesal in a very loose grip, agitating the water as a cloud of teeny bits of bread billowed out between my fingers. Schools of fish swooped in for the food, and it was the underwater equivalent of being run over by litters of bounding puppies. Exhilarating.

We swam back to shore. I was so happy that I didn’t turn back when I got scared. Still having the life vest on, I floated on my back. A giant rainbow encircled the sun. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I don’t imagine I’ll see one again soon.

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Back on land, the locals ply the cabanas, tempting island hoppers with sea foods, which they will also cook for you on the spot. I’ve never seen crabs this pretty, or urchins right out of the sea, or slipper lobster ever in my life.

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Though I don’t feel that bad that we didn’t try any. We brought out own lunch: lechon, whole roasted pig; grilled unicorn fish.

Practical Information on Visiting Palawan.

Puerto Princesa, the capital of the Palawan region of the Philippines, is located roughly in the middle of the main island. It’s an hour and one-half direct flight southwest of Manila.

If you fly to Puerto Princesa from Manila, you’re likely at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Its four terminals manage domestic and international flights (some terminals handle both).  Double-check which NAIA terminal your flight is scheduled to leave from. There is a free bus service between the terminals if you end up at the incorrect one, but they’re far apart, so try to get it right on the first pass!

Island hopping in Honda Bay is really fun. Ferry service is regulated by the local port authority. As I’ve only been there once and never got out of the van to see the port authority, I can’t say how easy or difficult coordinating ferry service yourself may be for travelers. I can recommend working with local tour guides. Some hotels, like the Legend Palawan, have a tour desk.

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