By Verena von Pfetten
Two years ago, freshly unemployed and acutely exhausted from the slow dissolution of the publication at which I’d been working, I impulsively bought myself a three-week round trip ticket to the Philippines. A tiny mention on the 14th page of search results of “Where to surf in October?” had led me to Siargao, a teardrop-shaped island floating loosely on the country’s easternmost edge, and I was eager to go somewhere new. I mentally allotted myself 10 days to explore its breaks, which left me with at least another full week (not including travel days) of time to fill.
Googling “What to do in the Philippines?” ended up overwhelmingly fruitful: I could go snorkeling with whale sharks in Cebu, head north to Boroqay’s plentiful resorts, or hike the Chocolate Hills of Bohol. Instead, I signed up for something called Tao Philippines: a “group expedition” through Palawan, starting in the fishing village of El Nido and ending in Coron, a wreck-diving mecca in the north.
What leads someone to sign up, sight-unseen and solo, for a five-day, four-night boat-camping trip through a string of largely uninhabited islands with a group of total strangers? In my case, it was a combination of decision fatigue (see: aforementioned exhaustion), a brief NYT review of the trip from 2011 (“Eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.”), and a loose secondhand recommendation from a friend from high school’s husband. (“My buddy went and loved it.”)
Tao’s website is peppered with dire warnings (rough waves, limited privacy, and jellyfish stings top the list) and makes four things abundantly clear: there is no set itinerary, no activities list, no running water, and no electricity. I committed to packing my things in a five or ten-liter dry bag, to no air conditioning and, in most instances, to no walls. I committed to no cell service and, mostly, no cell phone — I failed to invest in a waterproof case or portable battery before embarking — which meant, in turn, to not knowing what time of day it was, in addition to not knowing where we were going, when we’d stop next (or what we’d do when we did.)
It was the best trip I’ve ever taken. And as a result of the packing restrictions and risk of water damage, I have but a handful of photos to show for it. (And fewer still that do it any justice.) Instead, I have memories.
Of swimming 200 feet to shore to our first night’s campsite, dry bags piled in a solitary plastic kayak piloted by a guide, the tented, bone-like bamboo structures of our sleeping quarters coming into view as my feet hit the sand.
Of sitting cross-legged on the bow of the boat, eyes closed, the faint prickles of a potential sunburn tickling my shoulders.
Of one white flash of an island, a spaghetti-thin sandbar we had completely to ourselves. Unplanned and yet entirely coordinated, my group wandered its shores in silence. At one point, I lay down across it, the small of my back cradled by dry sand, two competing and yet complementary sets of waves lapping in syncopation at both my feet and my hair. I remember wishing I could take a photo.
There’s an interesting thing that happens when you realize you can’t capture the visuals of a particular experience on your screen. Excitement mixes with irritation: how beautiful! How thrilling! I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to share this with people when I get back! And yet lying there on that sandbar, the realization that followed had been as clear as the peal of a bell across an empty concrete courtyard: “This moment is uncapturable.”
While it’s hard to compare one recollection to another — memories are fickle, solitary endeavors — this last one stands out from the others jostling for space in my mind. It is firm and dense, with a crystalline resolution and soft, weighty colors. It’s textured, too: like the corner of a silk-edged blanket rubbed upon itself between the pad of your thumb and the fleshy side of your index finger.
I can’t point to this island on a map, and googling “sandbar palawan” turns up several results, none of the photos of which look even remotely right. I doubt I’ll ever make it back there again, or know for certain that anyone else ever will. I couldn’t even tell you what day on the trip this happened. Only that it did.
If adventure is setting out without knowing what might come next, then there are plenty of things one can do to find it: go on an itinerary-free road trip, take a meandering walk through an unknown corner of your favorite city, read a book. What made this particular trip so special was, instead, having no record of what came before.
Verena von Pfetten is the co-founder of Gossamer, a lifestyle publication for the modern cannabis consumer. She lives in Brooklyn and is long overdue for a vacation.