The Lessons That Find Us

An unexpected trip to the Philippines

Photo by: Anastasia Petrova/ Unsplash

Story by María García-Juanes📍Utrecht

Sometimes we choose a certain path and end up learning something different than we expected.

I don’t believe in destiny or think that the story of our lives is already written, which is why I tend to worry about decisions that I regard as having the capacity to alter my future. My mind projects two diverting paths in front of me, and each one leads to a completely different life. But I do think that some lessons are meant to find us, always at the right time, whether we thought we needed them or not.

There are things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know until they come to us. And we can’t be sure of who we will be until we finally know them.

The other night I dreamt of green, rugged hills, of lonely boats rocking with the tide, a curtain of ceaseless rain breaking the surface of the sea in a million different pores, and streets turning into rivers. When I woke up, I realized that it had been exactly two years since I graduated from university and left for a trip to the Philippines. Getting there involved months of obsessive saving by taking long shifts in clothing stores and teaching English on the weekends, plus attempting to get high grades, work on my thesis, get my driving license, find a job for the following year, and have a social life. Good old times.

My grandmother’s sister fell in love when she was very young with a Filipino man who was visiting Spain while traveling around the world, and she soon moved to the country with him. Now, many years later, she escapes the heat of the country’s dry season in her home in Madrid and spends the other half of the year in Manila. She and my uncle were heading back home around the time I was planning to travel, so I booked a ticket on the same flight. I had another flight bound for El Nido two days after my arrival in the country, so I got to spend those first days with them, getting to know them better and experiencing the capital from their perspective.

It wasn’t the best-planned trip of my life, but it ended up being an important one. The first mistake I made was to underestimate the physical effects that a period of sustained stress can have on a person. The body has a way of staying strong while in the eye of the storm, but it crumbles the minute it passes. I kept thinking that I could endure hours of extra work and demanding assignments as long as I could secure my trip and relax there, but in the moments I least expected it, I found myself crying in the middle of an airport hall or putting myself in risky situations because I couldn’t bear to give up on the plans that had cost me so much to achieve.

The second mistake was to assume that although the month of July is part of the rainy season in the Philippines I wouldn’t be affected by it, obsessed as I was to return to Southeast Asia at all costs. The days there became a blur of aggressive rain pouring against the ceiling of my empty hostel room during nights that seemed endless. I’d walk outside and sit on the steps of the front door, unable to sleep, watching as the water level rose up to my shins, making it almost impossible for vehicles to cross the street. I was the only guest at that hostel in El Nido, and the few tourists I encountered were mostly traveling in couples, so many times I felt lonely. In the mornings, I’d put back on the wet clothes that hung from my bed frame and walk a few blocks away to the nearest convenience store to get something for breakfast, water still flooding the streets.

I took a flight to Cebu City determined to continue with the schedule I had roughly planned, trying to convince myself that the weather would get better soon. My intention was to reach the island of Bohol by ferry. As it was less of a beach destination than El Nido, it would be better to visit it while the worst of the rain lasted. I couldn’t wait to see the Chocolate Hills and head back to Cebu to explore the island in depth. I reached the harbor directly from the airport, feeling sick in my stomach. When I got there, all the boats bound for Bohol had been canceled due to the unfavorable weather conditions. Some people gathered along the counters, demanding alternatives, and I stood there listening as while the staff explained that it was too risky for boats to embark on the journey, regardless of their size. Ignoring my growing discomfort and not wanting to lose any more time, I headed to the nearest bus station and booked a ticket to the town of Moalboal, in the south.

By the time I got there I was exhausted and dehydrated, and it hadn’t stopped raining for a single minute. I found a relatively cheap hostel and decided to treat myself to a room of my own. It felt like a safe space in the midst of the raging storm that was unfolding outside, ignoring the fact that I constantly had to use the lantern on my phone to avoid stepping on the frogs that covered the path on my way to it.

That night I walked in complete darkness to the nearest restaurant, which was twenty minutes away. Along the way, I could make out the silhouette of locals sitting under corrugated iron roofs, smoking, and I could feel their eyes on me while I strode by myself under the ceaseless rain. Back in the hostel I headed to the reception, where a French guy about my age was working in exchange for a free stay. He pointed to my loose pants, now soaking wet and stuck to my thighs, and we both laughed. My hair fell straight down my back dripping water, creating a small puddle near my feet, where his dog sat calmly. We chatted for a while about our respective traveling experiences while I played with the dog. It was nice to have a longer conversation with someone, and I found him very attractive, but as soon as I resolved to invite him for a drink, the pain in my stomach got worse. I was so frustrated. I hadn’t even had much to eat during the last two days, so what was my body rejecting?

The next few days in Moalboal I rented a motorbike and rode from one spot to the next without a clear destination. All the cool places that were a part of my Philippines’ bucket list were hard to access under the storm, with the possibility of floods and landslides looming. The sky was too cloudy and the sea too troubled.

Eventually, I made the decision to go back to Manila to rest in the comfort of my family’s spacious flat, with their delicious meals and interesting conversations. The flight had such strong turbulence that it made people scream, and I got off the plane pale and shaken. I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport with mud on my legs, shorts that were too short, a backpack that was half my size over my reddened shoulders, and a disheveled braid. My uncle came to pick me up and announced that he was taking me to dinner at the Mandarin Oriental, probably the last place I wanted to be in looking like that, though I was grateful for the gesture. His driver, Nel, quickly took the backpack from my shoulders despite my insistence to carry it myself and put it in the trunk of the car. The hall of the hotel was sparkly. I couldn’t make a bigger contrast there, walking over those impeccably clean floors, while my uncle walked beside me, undisturbed. We had an amazing dinner and then he led me to an elegant, dark bar hidden behind velvet curtains. I don’t remember if it was in the same building or if we moved somewhere else. I was dizzy from the lack of food I’d had and the situation felt surreal. There was live jazz, cigarette smoke, big velvet couches with elegant couples in the corners, and cocktails with fancy names. I picked one of the cheapest from the menu. He lit my cigarette and we sat there listening to the music in silence.

On the way back to their flat in Makati, sitting next to each other in the backseat of the car, we chatted about the books we were each reading at the time, and he offered me another cigarette. The traffic was particularly heavy and the night so humid that it felt like glue on my skin. All the car windows were rolled down. Every time there was silence, I’d look out the window at the palm trees silhouetted by the city lights, close my eyes to take in the particular smell of street food. Manila was full of contrasts as striking as my presence in the Mandarin Oriental had been a few hours before.

The holidays in the Philippines were not what I had expected they would be. There are many different decisions I tell myself I could have made differently, like staying in Cebu, trying harder, moving somewhere else. I could have done many things that I didn’t do because it was hard for me to see clearly back then, in the midst of the chaos that my life was at that moment. And that’s fine. Things don’t have to go as expected to end up being good.

In the end, the mornings in bed with my grandma’s sister, eating halo-halo with extra ube ice cream, the afternoons tasting delicacies from small shops in Manila’s Chinatown on our way to nearby volcanoes, the nights driving around the city and going to elegant bars, being accompanied by stray dogs from one beach to the next, the sound of heavy rain hitting the surface of the ocean while the wind made our wooden bangka rock from side to side, ended up being the moments I remembered most about my trip. Humbling moments where all I could do was be a spectator of one after another of my plans go wrong; new plans replacing them.

It wasn’t the perfect retreat I had been planning, not relaxed or blissful, but it taught me humility and acceptance. It taught me that there are many things we cannot control, and that we learn as much from bad decisions as we do from good ones. There is power in mistakes. And this realization helped me be less scared of making a “wrong” move or choosing the “wrong” path.

Because there is simply no wrong path: only the path we end up taking.

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