Returning to a place is returning to your non-self too | Siargao, Philippines

One morning, on an island where nobody can’t keep track of what day of the week it is, rides are arranged, surfboards are picked up and hauled onto motorbikes, cameras and sunscreens and beach clothes tangle themselves inside drybags. We roar our way into a spot called Pacifico. A few minutes along the way, our hair tangle themselves too.

We stop by a plantation of palm trees, appearing to extend far beyond the mountain range.

The world spills of endless green.

Fields left and right are adorned with cows peacefully grazing or sauntering slowly about. Tall sprouts of cogon grass just right at the edge of the concrete road surprise amidst the monotony of blue and green. I swoon over them as if they’re flowers of the rarest kind. After about an hour of motorbike ride, I feel my legs stretch to the point of numbness and my hips open up. Yet, there was nothing really to complain about. If virgin pastures and fresh air sustains your breathing and satiates your aliveness, would you?

Our bodies find their way into the slowness of the day. We settle on cushions where a view of the infinite blue resides. We observe the waves. Are they good enough to surf? Some decide to go and paddle on the sea. The rest remain on the comfort of these soft spaces. We order variants of fruit shakes, panini, omelette, pizza – anything that could fill our stomachs throughout the day. I decide to break free from the immobile position and walk with camera in one hand. My feet lead me towards kids playing on the water. I sit near their presence and watch them.

There is something about children – their curious eyes always examining the world as if for the first time and their hands and feet dancing so carefree in the air. As an adult, those moves bring me to a familiar realm of my life. Yet at the same time, I am dislodged from this familiarity as if the dance of body parts is something bizarre, ridiculous, far away and long ago.

Their laughter suddenly echoes from nearby and I am transported back to the present.


There is a deep urge to be a child again. Freedom and rawness are so palpable it invites you to become that brave too. I want to mold shapes from sand and splash water and jump and laugh with the kids. I want to hug their little bones and smell their salty, smooth skin. I stop myself before their mothers think I’m crazy.

Instead, I express my desire and delight on the two snails I found on the stairs back to the covered patio. Before the bright afternoon light leaves, I find myself returning to the sun-baked stretch of white sand and swimming against the waves and sunbathing when the tire has kicked in.

Everything looks pure here. The palm leaves above me cover the sun’s light so I can stare into the sky without squinting my eyes. For seconds, I feel my identity (or identities) melt and being washed away.

On our way back to the hostel, we pass by clouds catching pink and orange from the setting sun. Golden light and white fog behind mountains and among trees hint us to hop off the motorbike again, this time longer and more frequent, and try to freeze the beauty through our lenses.

Earth smells so good. I can feel provincial life filling us up with joy, the kind that you don’t seek but merely arrives and makes the moment so right. Beauty around us exudes like breath, making us alive, making us come out alive. If we could stretch our hands a little bit more, everything is touchable.

Eyes open wide, head turns 180 degrees, palms turn a bit cold as night envelops the last illumination of dusk. The headlight of the motorbike is broken. And so our lives depended on the flashlight from a mobile phone. We drift into the dark. Despite how dangerous, I secretly enjoy everything. I imagine ourselves tunneling our way into a large, lush cave that is the planet.

My gaze settles on the two stars twinkling above the towering coconut trees. I keep locating them as the return route turns and twists. The blue background of the sky softens as it blends with pink hues. As my stare gets steadier and more penetrating, the two stars seem as if they’re merging.

Vision becomes clear. The two stars come across visibly as singular. All along, it is only one star.

Clarity ascends on that beautiful sky.

My mind wanders on how, amazingly, my second time in Siargao feels like the first. Some elements beat slightly familiar, some I grope in the dark as if they grow fresh like spring with the budding greens and collapsing blues.

Miles away from the destination, queuing at the airport, the situation hinted an apparent intimidation. Foreign passengers filled the plane. It felt like all of us switched roles and we ended up being the foreigners.

A new kind of strangeness.

There revealed a massive excitement and bravery. More so when we were approaching a wonderland and looked outside our windows. Down below was a majestic view of the crashing of the waves. 

As we made our landing and gathered our backpacks; as the sun shone eagerly right after a recent storm; as we settled into an adorable hut of our own; as we turned our gaze around patches of nature, we were one and the same. Familiarity slowly sunk in. Its simplicity is nothing but enchanting… That was maybe what made us amused during the journey, more so what made some families from other regions move and finally build homes in the island. Locals and foreigners alike, they will flash a smile, converse, and treat you like a member of an even bigger and friendlier family – a community. Homey warmth naturally radiates. There’s an instant closeness without judgment, yet respect for one another’s privacy is kept.

Who wouldn’t want to live and inhale in the relaxed vibes of Siargao?

I learned to surrender, unencumbered. The process is not bad, in fact it’s terrific, it’s rewarding. I learned to conquer some familiar and unfamiliar fears – surfing amidst sharp and huge rocks and strong currents; jumping to the open sea from an elevated cave despite not knowing how to swim; assuming responsibility of taking photos using DSLR camera (nerve-wrecking). Still terrific, still rewarding. I learned to love even more the power of subtlety. Thanks to the book I brought with me. Such a delicate beauty you are, Piano Tuner. I learned how to paint and blend a thousand colors in a single canvas. The blues, the greens, the pinks, the oranges, the whites are before our eyes… I learned to understand what they usually say of how the early bird catches the worm. It felt glorious overall to start the day and end the night early. I learned to foster appreciation for simple things, simple moments – stopping by a small island, drinking fresh coconut juice, lying down on white hot sand, taking in the freshness of it all, or submitting oneself to the sea breeze and the mellow movement of the hammock while reading, or doing slack lining and falling multiple times with great abandon. I learned to love the concept of community, how its reality can ultimately change lives for the best. I learned to love waves. They are powerful. Motion, sound, and shape combined swell with authority. Yet there is an undeniable gentleness as the waves break, as the white foam spreads. It might as well be one of the priceless sights to see.

We are blessed.

I continually admire this place. It’s not just a place really, it was home for a few days, and still maybe a home awaiting for when I return.

That, I know, is absolute. (February, 2014)

The next day begins at 5AM. It is always harder to wake up at 5AM coldness but a sweet voice stirs me from the bed. I feel an uncertainty. It always commences with uncertainty.

Before sunrise, we walk barefoot on a bed of seaweed and corals and sea urchins. The heavy and huge purple surfboard is forcefully snuggled under my right armpit and supported by my overused right hand. My instructor tells some secrets of the island and stories about surfing some 20 years ago. This shore-to-the-sea pilgrimage and the morning story telling condition my nerves and I finally relax into beginner mode.

It is my first time all over again. There is no way but to face the uncertainty as calmly as possible. We paddle into the vastness. The encounter with the waves has come.

Water blobs when there is no swell, but when the great tide comes, it buzzes its force towards your board and your body. And you have no choice but to let it. I laugh and stand and fall and burst into the surface and repeat. I am, for real, surfing again.

These repeated actions have gone on for I don’t know how long. But all is white and bright now. The break of the light somewhat assures me here in the middle of the vastness and uncertainty. Too vast scares me sometimes. Perhaps no one can tell the hour and people don’t even bother to ask. Time truly becomes time. Being in the water at dawn until sunrise replaces exhaustion and lack of sleep with a full and fluid energy. Surfers gather (or scatter) where waves arrive. Some wait, rest on the board, and feel the sun’s glow. Others fearlessly aim to ride the big waves in perfection and pride and bliss as if there’s no tomorrow. We come out clean with time’s passing. An existence grander than our own silences our sense of self – perhaps a reason for why surfers love to surf. I don’t know how else to describe it, but this must be what freedom of becoming liquid feels like.

I have no self.

Months ago, these wishes repeat themselves in my head. Weeks roll quick, like waves you don’t see coming, you think you would drown but you keep your head above the water and swim anyway. Then the body arrives at the shore.

I wish I had no self.

After the slow days spent in the island, I am back in the city and I don’t feel so good. There’s a certain repulsiveness to my surroundings and this mood doesn’t help in getting myself grounded.

From the airport, I head straight to work and something is undeniably weird. Why am I here again? I see people in formal suits and dresses with make-up on faces and pomade on heads and hear the clanking of high heels and they all appear artificial to me. I try to write but whenever I do, I ask myself: Why am I doing this again? I talk to friends and I hear my voice which sounded too strange I doubt if it’s my own. Words spoken float away from my mouth; those unspoken cloud my head. Too many questions. Showing up is rigid and I get irritated with people. The shadow of guilt looms after.

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. -Pema Chödrön, Cool Loneliness

Along with this uneasiness for the external, there is also the unnerving inner perception of knowing nothing. I don’t know anything. And in fact, this is so true. I know nothing and even if I claim to know something, everything seems an illusion anyway. And if all is an illusion, I doubted my wishes. I didn’t doubt if they will come true, but more on the verity of my dreams. None of them are mine, or are they? Why do I pursue them? Surely, my writing is not me. The lands and seas I’ve awed at and those I wanted, for so long, to visit in the near future are not me. My family who share the same blood nor my friends who desire the same hopes are not me.

I have no self.

We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. –Pema Chödrön, Cool Loneliness

Who am I three years ago? Am I the star shining the same color? Or have I transformed from yellow to blue? From orange to purple? Have I given birth to other stars? What evolutions have I undergone? Did I explode like a supernova? Have I expanded or contracted? Have my whole shone brighter or have my parts darkened their shade?

Remind me where I am again three days from now. If after three years, you find me on this island, on a space that feels familiar and fluid as a child’s giggle and twirls, whisper to my ears, “You have been, all along, that unique, luminous star.”

One last thought though, if and then, on the return there is no self, do you think it’s possible to be the countless stars in this lifetime?

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