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The International Writers Magazine:Manila Travel

Journey To Palawan
A.T. Allan

Manila, Philippines. I wanted to get out of this big, noisy city. The personable young woman at the travel agency in Ermita gave me some important and practical advice. "If you want to take the overnight ship to Palawan," she said, "pay a little more for a cabin, which will have its own separate bathroom." She reassured me she was speaking from experience: that only 6-8 people in a private cabin would have access to the separate CR (comfort room), whereas common deck passengers (often more than 100), when they felt the urge, would have to stand in a long line leading to their deck's single CR.

After many years of backpacking through Asia, I had already learned that: 1) A clean, private toilet was one of the fundamental keys to happiness, and 2) You should always take seriously any advice from fellow travelers--especially advice from locals.

Arriving an hour before departure, I carried my pack over the gangplank of the 200', rusty-hulled, interisland vessel and made my way up to the cabin and my assigned bunk: the mosquito-net-enshrouded lower bed of a simple two-person bunkbed. Three other identical bunkbeds presented themselves as neighbors, but all the beds were now empty. The yellow tiles of the cabin floor splintered the light of the afternoon sun, and the enclosed private bathroom, as promoted, sparkled with its promise of separate-from-the masses hygiene and cold shower euphoria. Currently the only person in the cabin, I lay down on my stiff bottom bunk, closed up the mosquito netting, and tried to rest.
I must have drifted briefly off to sleep, amidst haunting motifs and refrains from the previous night's fitful sleep: what was I doing here, why was I doing this, where was I going, and what was the point of it all? The usual traveler's angst--at least for me, a single, white American male with a lust for traveling solo to out-of-the-way places. This time I had chosen Palawan--the remote westernmost island of the Philippines--known for its natural beauty, unspoiled beaches, progressive leadership, and exotic mix of peoples.

Next, two full-color visions came to me in a dream: a lovely woman in a red dress and another beauty in blue jeans and a yellow halter top, both sitting on the lower bunk adjacent to mine. The sweet scent of jasmine permeated the air. A rapturous smile spread across my face as I stretched, yawned, and opened my eyes. But this was no dream.

Two beautiful women, both Filipinas, were chattering away just across from me, and a younger woman was propping up her luggage in the corner of the cabin. Sweeping aside the mosquito net, I leapt up and apologized for coming to the wrong cabin--the women's cabin--whereupon they all burst out laughing. The two women then told me to relax because this cabin, like all the other cabins, was co-ed. Sure enough, an older couple filed in next, as did the marine cadet boyfriend of the young woman standing in the corner.

After the initial shock wore off, it occurred to me that this overnight throwing together of the sexes was a fine idea, a triumph of creative voyaging. Congratulations were in order to whoever thought up this one: it was even better than the private comfort room!

Thanking the two princesses who had miraculously materialized as my cabin mates, I stepped outside to stand at the rail. Below me, a line of passengers snaked aboard just in front of the shanty-lined outskirts of the city; the hazy skyline of downtown Manila rose ghost-like in the distance. Layers of my loneliness seemed to peel off and dissipate, in the heat of the late afternoon, as I contemplated the intriguing prospects of the night ahead. Then, suddenly, the ship shot a warning blast into the air: we were ready to sail.

Over dinner, and afterwards, I got to know my cabin mates much better--we developed that special intimacy which strangers often experience on a shared journey. Vanessa in the red dress, a singer returning home to Puerto Princesa to see her family, offered to show me around that city. Moustaffa, a businesswoman in blue jeans, had a long talk with me about growing up in southern Palawan and about her Muslim heritage. In a few hours, that evening, they gave me an orientation to Palawan which far outclassed anything in my guidebook. That night, despite midnight rustlings and murmurings, my erotic fantasies remained, well, fantasies. A cold shower in the luxurious private bathroom helped.
Together, as dawn broke, we watched as the lush green island of Palawan emerged out of the mist. On the deck I danced with Vanessa, in the morning sunshine, to her favorite Filipino pop songs. During our stopover at Coron, I ventured off the ship with Moustaffa to visit with her relatives; we had such a great time that we almost missed the boat. And together, we three marveled as the spotless city of Puerto Princesa invited our ship into her harbor--with its red and green channel buoys, black-hulled cargo ships, and wooden, canvas-sailed schooners. On shore, a motley group of stevedores stood at dress attention; when someone blew a whistle, they broke into a wild, joyous welcome dance.

Then, as we all disembarked, Vanessa disappeared in one direction and Moustaffa in another--flinging me kisses. Later, I attempted to call them, but both phone numbers were non-working. Perhaps they had been visions after all. I had lost my two guides, but their angelic ways stayed with me throughout my further travels. And I felt forever indebted to my third guide, the young woman at the travel agency, who had made it all happen.

© A.T. Allan September 2007
rakuallan at  

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