Cargo Literary has long been my inspiration to write my own travel stories. Here is an excerpt from my recently published memoir, Unpacked: from PEI to Palawan.
Chapter One: Buffalo Taxi
If we loved it, we could stay forever. We’d been on the road for six months. Maybe there were no straight answers, no straight roads. Maybe that was the point. Grief had left its mark on me, confused me, broken me apart, and left me lost, a seeker.
I almost died once.
I nearly got washed out to sea. It was January, 2009. I was on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, surrounded by lush tropical trees and vividness and vast chunking mountains that got smaller and smaller when I got carried out towards the ocean break. The panic that rose in me was unmatched by anything I’d ever felt in my life, and I wondered how I’d gotten here, miles and miles from anywhere, from anyone.
Were we meant to find this place? Was I meant to die here, in these Filipino waters? To the place I could barely find? I thrashed against the wave that carried me out to sea, the tides rushing through me.
Some retrospect. At first, we couldn’t even find El Nido. We were two men, two women, three toddlers, four guidebooks, and eight suitcases. Outside the airport of Puerto Princesa, I could taste the dust.
“Excuse me, how do we get to El Nido?” I had begged a passerby. Just a hotel and a mango and the kids would be pacified. Confusion was tolerated on travel days, chased only by the setting sun.
“No road,” said the first man, his peering dark eyes kind but apologetic. “Rains.” The road was regularly washed out at certain times of the year.
“Boat, but not today, for wind,” another man said, toothless, pointing to the bending palms. “You must go by boat.”
“Jeepney of course,” a third man chirped, which was the name of the short Filipino bus, but which didn’t give credit to its lavishly decorated exterior. They should have been called jezebels.
“You can fly, no?” a dark-haired woman said, overhearing the conversation.
We weren’t flying. My husband Mitch asked someone else a question and our two-year-old daughter, Leila, ran for the road with her new airplane friend and kindred spirit, Enzo. People were piling out of the airport. We had to get out of this area.
“Moving on.” I shepherded our crew towards the exit. If we couldn’t get anywhere, we would just have to stay in Puerto Princesa until we could get our lives figured out. If we loved it, we could stay forever. We’d been on the road in Asia for six months, and this scenario was nothing new. Maybe there were no straight answers, no straight roads. Maybe that was the point. Grief had left its mark on me, confused me, broken me apart, and left me lost, a seeker.
What did the signs say now? Hazard: Confusion and Madness Ahead, or maybe Merge: Despair. Could I not just see a rainbow, get a break this time? We could drive but not on the road, take the jeepney but not this time of year, or go by boat but not in this wind. Conditions, conditions, conditions.
I had read that Komodo Dragons still roamed Indonesia and parts of the Philippines, including the island of Palawan, the chunky monitor lizard a kickback from the Triassic period almost forty million years ago. Once, we spent a little time with one, cautiously. I wondered if I listened to the lessons of the Komodo Dragon, of this ancient animal, what would it say to me?
“I take you,” said a fourth man, enterprising, seeing us pile out of the airport with suitcases, babies, and my new friend Ms. California with her wide-brimmed hat. He motioned to his van, parked on the periphery. We had met a family from San Francisco on the plane with two young sons, one of whom had wildly entertained Leila on the flight from Manila. We were both heading to El Nido, and the other mom and I had agreed that it was too soon to part.
“Can you take all of us?” I motioned to the bourgeoning crew and offered an energetic circling finger sweep as further clarification.
We wouldn’t get to El Nido, but we would make it about halfway.
The five-hour ride was full of bumps and jerks and potholes and puddles, but not the imminent despair I had visualized: my family deeply entrenched in Filipino mud, car tires spinning, farmers stopped to watch under green long lines of pineapple plantations and the beating Filipino sun, smiles rising from the corners of their mouths. We would be cheap entertainment.
The other mom and I sat in the back, chattering away. She was older, with a well- established career in finance or something reasonable. Not broke. Not shoestring travelling, not grief-stricken at the loss of a baby.
“My husband and I came here on our honeymoon six years ago, and really wanted to go back before baby number three,” she said, rubbing her six-month pregnant belly. “Twenty-five weeks.” Both of her boys were home births. No complications, no emergencies, no deaths. Just giving life to a baby in a birthing pool, the way things were supposed to be, au naturel. I thought I was going to be carsick.
We were dropped in a small parking area that opened into an enormous shimmering bay. It was the end of the line. “No more continue,” the driver said, and I of course thought he was joking, until he pointed to a great buffalo who came down a grass path, shifting his weight from side to side as he walked, slowly, a cart attached around his neck and pulling what looked like a Bangkok tuktuk. “Buffalo taxi,” he said. Wherever we were going from here, we were going by buffalo.
The kids ran past the great swaying palms to the water of the South China Sea, liberated from the long car ride. The sand was white and as pure as any I had seen since we left Prince Edward Island, and I stopped to stare, dropping my backpack and sweater and purse. I kicked my shoes off and wiggled the sand through my toes, breathing in the salt air and peering into the thrashing winds. Palawan felt like the end of the earth.
Later, when we were settled, I waded into the water, first quickly then slowing as the deeper water swam up around me. The kids on the beach became further and further away, and I felt the sudden consciousness of being swallowed. I had been carried out too far, too suddenly.
People would think I died of grief. She lost her baby and she died from complications. I had Googled it once, shortly after we lost Tya. Can you die from grief? I asked the search engine, staring into the box for answers, like it might have a new angle for me, a new revelation, something I could use, could meditate on, could trust. What did that look like, dying from grief?
They’d have a whole story about it. But I couldn’t get washed out to sea, not with my little girl waving furiously to me, blonde ponytail bobbing, and Mitch calling to me, arms overhead and shouting, come in, come in, before jumping into the water himself. And I struggled against the waves, struggled for my life, my heart, for redemption and all the things I was so desperate to find. But the current had pulled me out and tossed me around, and my strokes were useless now.
And Mitch, so far away now, looked deliriously just like he did the first day I met him, the blue-eyed wonder with golden hair and fat hemp necklaces. It was 2001 and he had finished his degree in International Development, and he was a week away from leaving for Costa Rica.
“Take me with you,” I said. I barely knew him, but I loved him immediately. He was the type of man who could save me from drowning. A surf guard on P.E.I’s north shore, he had strong arms.
“Sure.” He must have smiled coyly and become quiet, like he does when he gets nervous. I was the opposite. When I got nervous, I talked and talked and talked. “But don’t you think maybe we should have a drink first?”
“We’ll have our first in San José,” I ventured. Drink, have babies, whatever.
“You need to finish teacher’s college, Mo. Aren’t you doing your practicum this semester?” He was right, I was. He was often right, and he left me to go to New Brunswick with a gang of googly-eyed teens, to teach them about love and poetry and all the elements of a short story: rising action, plot, metaphor, and symbolism.
But I thought about him all winter.
People would think I died of grief. She lost her baby and she died from complications. I had Googled it once, shortly after we lost Tya. Can you die from grief?
It would be a different kind of life, unorthodox, but a rich jungle for young travellers like us desperate to show their baby girl the world.
And the next summer, when we met again, there was a 1960s lime green Volkswagen microbus for sale for a whole month in the parking lot of the Canadian Tire in Charlottetown. And we weren’t dating – but we were taking long drives together. He rented an old bungalow with a friend and started a small garden, planting a few onions and some herbs from seed. I made curtains for his kitchen, and we started to dream together, of the possibilities that this world had for us.
“We could take that little bus out west,” I suggested. “Camp through the forests of Quebec and stretch into the grain fields of the Prairies, bump into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.” And I looked at the sky, envisioned our lives together, the timing being right, things being different. I had applied for teaching jobs in Nelson, British Columbia, and on Salt Spring Island, a place I had dreamed about, and he was continuing on his student line of credit to Perth, Western Australia, to complete his degree in Education.
“Two thousand dollars is a lot of money, Mo,” and it was a fortune to us – new college grads – plus Mitch had hefty loans to pay off from his undergrad. “Where would we get the cash?”
And I didn’t know, never cared about money or had any sense about it. I had opened a GIC at the Royal Bank that collected so much per month to scrounge up enough for a Chilean Andes trek. I still haven’t gone.
And again that summer we parted, his road for Perth and mine for British Columbia, where I would sit in the middle of my Salt Spring Island kitchen on the phone between lesson plans, under piles of papers and pens and in the mix of roommates and yerba mattes and lesbians, so interested in the motions of love I finally confessed, “He is the boy I am going to marry.”
But it was another year before I went home to Prince Edward Island and to him, and we danced around Christmas trees with rum and eggnogs, strings of coloured lights around mantels and breathing deeply into one another, trying to figure out our next moves.
When I got pregnant with Leila, it was sooner than both of us had planned.
He was twenty-four, en route to teach English in Korea and pay down his student loan, and I’d taken a teaching gig that wasn’t going that well, an overcrowded classroom of thirty-six hormonal adolescents. There were discipline issues and frequent bouts of tears, until one morning I actually threw up from the nerves.
Except, you see, it wasn’t nerves. It was Leila. The cosmos had sent us a beautiful baby girl instead, and it was time to greet her, to be steered gently towards the conventions of family life. Blueberries and applesauce, colouring, daycare drop-offs, full time jobs, a house with a large kitchen window full of plants and olive oils where the sun peacefully streamed in. I was teaching high school English then, Shakespeare, and had traded in my old hippie threads for wool skirts and leotards, shirts with collars and silver earrings, changed my day old braids for a tousled bun.
But I was never totally happy with that, never comfortable with being the authority. I was youthfully immature; I wanted to get away with things, to sneak in through locked back doors. To be out late, to get lost in foreign city streets.
“Remember that lime green van?” Mitch said, choosing a record for six-month-old Leila. “Think it’s still around?”
“Someday it will be around, my sweets,” I confirmed. We loved being parents. But still we felt a little lost, cheated by the unexpected jump to a sedentary lifestyle. Our nightly conversations around maps and politics became old fodder for the newer discussions of bedtimes and timeouts.
There would be glimpses of hope for us. Once when Leila was a baby, Mitch and I talked about moving to Belize to be tutors for an American family who lived in the middle of the rainforest there.
“And you could teach math!” I said.
“And you could teach English,” Mitch said.
Plan, plan, sort, sort. Mountain skies and volcanoes and babies’ bums somehow now to add up to a complete picture. It would be a different kind of life, unorthodox, but a rich jungle for young travellers like us desperate to show their baby girl the world.
“But what about malaria? The length of time from the farm in Belize to the nearest village is,” he calculated the route in his head, “boat and then car and then … two hours.”
But all that made me want to go even more, that it all seemed so unreasonable.
When I got pregnant with our second baby, a girl, the talk of travel continued. Mitch interviewed for a teaching post in Nigeria but by this time, the baby craze had hit again and I was all whirled up in tiny pink dresses and fitted sheets, nestling my face into flannelette receiving blankets and lining up the bum creams on the change table.
Still, we yearned for possibilities. We were in our late twenties, feeling boldly portable, and unwilling to succumb to voices that beckoned in their all-knowing tones, mothers and experienced people, and other parents who somehow knew better.
“Well you can’t take a baby to Indonesia.”
“Isn’t that a little dangerous?”
“Travelling with a toddler and a baby is impossible.”
Of course I was scared to hit the road with the family, but more so, I was scared to get stuck on Prince Edward Island, in my little Canadian province, scared to have a second baby and realize that the best years of my youth were behind me, scared to become so wrapped up in family life that I’d forget who I was.
Like I was ever that important.
After we lost her, I wept that it had been my fault somehow, that I had willed her not to come by discussing the options that barely included her, international schools in Brazil, private schools in Dubai. How could I not have made time for Ty, for the vital psychic space that she required?
When the doctor told me that Tya’s heart had stopped beating, and just eight days before her due date of March 20th 2008, I believed that mine might stop too. Our baby, who we had read to, belly coddled, planned for, sung to, and lived for, was in a glimpse – just gone.
The doctor said he had never seen a fatal knot in his career as an obstetrician. “It’s called a true knot,” he said. “It gets so tight that it cuts off all oxygen to the growing babe.”
And we had her delivery. And we gave her the grace of our blessings.
And we had the hardest day of our lives, but there was one more crushing event ahead. We had to tell her sister, expectant, awaiting Leila.
“Leila, your little sister –” Mitch wiped his tears as I held her on my lap, too choked to talk. “Well, honey, she’s not coming back.”
“You forgot her at the hospital?” Leila asked. It was a question we were all struggling with. Why didn’t I bring her home?
“No, sweetie, she’s not there, she’s gone.” My words, barely audible, like I didn’t even believe them myself.
“Find her, Mommy. Forgot her, Mommy. Back for her, Mommy.”
For weeks, I was frozen, left wondering how or if I could ever recover. Betrayed by my own body, which strangled my baby to death then made the milk to sustain her, I couldn’t help but feel utterly and totally responsible. I killed her. Somehow I had killed her.
Mitch carried me through it by mothering me through my breakdowns, listening and lying with me, talking with me and reassuring me that things would be okay again –that we would be okay. We would get through this, and we would have more babies, if that’s what I wanted, or we would never have to, or we could adopt ten children, or we would move to Rome if I wanted to do that too. He held me gently and nursed my shattered spirit back to a slight shadow of its former self.
The trip planning came after two excruciating months of wondering how we would ever heal from this: the loss of our eight-pound girl, who was born perfectly toed, perfectly present, and perfectly hushed. For Mitch and I, the trip planning was the only thing that came naturally and it turned out to be enough of a distraction that finally, slowly, our minds began to ease.
I wanted to go to Thailand, sit in front of a giant Buddha, in the blazing hot sun, and forget. Forget everything. And Mitch, who usually plans and organizes, disrupting my irrational tendencies with questions and case studies, well, this time, he just said, Okay.
We sold our house, said goodbye, and that was the beginning.
Mitch, my darling, the love of my life, has saved me twice, once in the waters of the Philippines, and once in letting me override logic and determine the jagged course of our future.
So the waters of Palawan wouldn’t keep me after all, although there would be tears of fright and the shake of exhaustion that would follow me into the evening. And in our small cabin with the broken porch step, that night there would be lovemaking, stimulated somehow through a thick salty coating of South China Sea.