Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea

It feels like ages since I’ve done a post and China is already starting to recede – a dream fading to the bright light reality of a sunny morning here in the Philippines. I’m determined to pick up though where I left off – with all we did and saw after leaving Xinjiang – but first I want to share where we are now.

We arrived in the Philippines nearly a week ago. After what felt like endless grey, cold, foggy and smoggy weather in China, we were ready for a change – and so far the Philippines has definitely been delivering!

We spent a couple of days in Manila before traveling to our current destination: a small, simple, secluded beach resort on a tiny island called Popototan, part of the Calamian Group of Islands, which clusters to the northeast of long, slender Palawan Island, the “most sparsely populated region” of the Philippines. (Lonely Planet)

The resort is simple but lovely. Power is on from 6pm to 6am every day. There’s no music, no traffic, no TV. Not much to listen to besides the gentle slap of the surf on the beach, the wind through the palms, the twitter of birds and whir of insects, the evening communications of a thriving community of geckos.

The beach is small but spotless. The real treasures lie under the water though, with plenty of reefs and wrecks providing a home to some amazing sea life. Kayaking, snorkeling, diving; it’s all possible here and the resort makes it easy to get into the water, how ever you prefer to do so, at a moment’s notice.

Basically, it’s paradise.

That is, if you happen to be an ocean person. Looking back at China I’ve been noticing how totally excited I get about mountains. The frosty landscapes of Xinjiang. The rural, Swiss-like peace of the rice terraces around Dazhai. The hike through the steep ridges of Tiger Leaping Gorge. These are the places that make my pulse quicken and my heart leap.

Beaches, I’m beginning to realize, are not my natural habitat.

Perhaps it’s down to exposure over a lifetime to apparently effective marketing which has led me to believe that upon arrival at a tropical beach, I should instantly transform into some tan, sleek, gorgeous and totally relaxed sort of island goddess.

Thanks to my dad’s mix of northern blood (Irish, English, Scottish, German), deeply tan is something I will never be. My options are limited to pasty white, bright pink or increasingly, disturbingly freckled.

Salt and wind do not agree with my hair or skin; the boat ride here for example left me feeling not unlike a greasy French fry.

Beaches don’t make me any more pretty than I already am or am not.

And, apparently, with all these expectations riding around in my head, they don’t instantly relax me either.

Oh, and I also have some small but irrationally lingering phobia of the vast unknown-ness of the ocean and the possibility of drowning or getting sucked down into it by something with sharp teeth, tentacles, or sharp teeth and tentacles. I am deeply impressed, fascinated even, by the mystery and power of the ocean, but towards the core of those feelings, there is also fear, which potentially also doesn’t help with the whole relaxation thing.

I’m working through it though. With the help of the ocean no less.

The diving we did back in Thailand was such a wonderful experience, and a chance to dive again was one of the main reasons we decided to come to the Philippines after China. We went snorkeling our first day here; we went diving yesterday. I’ve forgotten some of equipment details since our course in Thailand, but the general technique, feeling and lessons of diving are coming back quickly and they’re helping me a lot.

  • Don’t panic.
  • Remember to breathe. And make it as deep and slow and calm as you can.
  • If your mind can master your blind and frantic instinct to want to shoot desperately to the surface, then a whole miraculous and amazing world will open before your eyes.
  • And as soon as it does, you will be fully present – breathe and awareness and intention melding into one as you find yourself effortlessly floating in a wonderland – and any fear and panic that seemed so huge and important will melt away without you even noticing it.

Roman, unlike me, has always loved the ocean. His eyes are the color of a warm sea lit up by golden sunlight, and they started to sparkle as soon as we got into the tropical heat in Manila. He is also a master relaxer. (Oh, and he tans easily and looks darn good when he does.)

We’ve been talking about, among other things, my difficulty in relaxing. He’s been encouraging me to surrender – surrender more to the “what is”. Of being here on the beach, of the realities of the trip, of the fact that I can’t predict, let alone control the future (along with expectations about transforming into that incredible beach goddess comes all sorts of stuff like shouldn’t I have figured out X,Y and Z about what happens after “the big trip” by now?? (not that we even know yet when that will be…)). All I’ve got to work with is the present, so I may as well be there for it.

Letting go of expectations – becoming more present with what is here in the moment, rather than what I think should be here (or what I think I should be here) – I find I’m feeling better in my own skin (even if it doesn’t tan well) and enjoying this beach break more and more with every passing day. And I’m getting to see some pretty awesome aquatic life along the way!

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Thai Island Dream: Part 6 (Ko Lipe, learning to dive)

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Ko Lipe is surrounded by a group of islands that form the protected Ko Tarutao Marine National Park. It’s meant to be some incredible nature and we’d had plans to hire a long tail and go exploring, but Roman enjoyed the dive intro on the Aquila so much that he came up with a suggestion: Why not get certified?

Lipe has a good number of dive shops that have Lonely Planet’s stamp of approval, so we decided to go for it, and we signed up for the PADI Open Water Diver course the next day. I’ve added “Seeing the Tarutao National Park” to my to-do list for the next time we go on vacation in Thailand, but the diving was such a phenomenal experience; I have no regrets about saving the park for next time. 🙂

We ended up diving with a shop called Ocean Pro. Chilled out but professional, and if all their instructors are as good as the one we learned with then I can recommend them hands down. Rebecca was our teacher, a very cool chick from NYC of all places. She was informative but very fun and knew tons about the fantastic marine life we got to see in and around the coral reefs we dived at. We also bonded over the time we’d both spent working in the in the finance industry making the money to fuel our dreams. 🙂

Learning to trust the breath

The first time I went diving was back in 2002. Getting over a hard break up I decided to shake things up and do something completely new, so I took myself on a short island vacation to Aruba. Following the “be adventurous” theme, I signed up for one of those hotel one-day dive packages, where you learn the ropes in the pool in the morning and then do a simple dive in relatively shallow waters in the afternoon.

It sounds basic, and it is, but for me it was a big deal, because I’ve got a bit of a fear of drowning. I’m not sure where this might come from, but not being able to breathe really frightens me, more so than the normal person. I was fine during the pool practice, but I started to freak out as soon as my head went under the ocean water in the afternoon and I began hyperventilating.

Luckily the instructor saw me and was able to “talk me down” using eye contact and sign language. What happened then was amazing. Using my mind and my breath I was able to calm down enough until the wonder of the dive – the amazing feeling of floating through the water as though I were flying and the excitement of seeing beautiful fish in their natural habitat – overtook and completely replaced all of the irrational but massive fear I had been experiencing.

Power of the breath

Holding to and working consciously with breath is something I learned even more about as I began and developed my yoga practice shortly thereafter. It’s something that is so simple and yet so powerful; it never ceases to amaze me when I can reconnect to it.

It was therefore really interesting for me to come back to diving after my first experience years ago and after all the practice with breath work that I’ve had from yoga. In fact in some ways certain things were actually harder for me – yoga breathing is primarily through the nose and of course when you’re diving everything is through the regulator in your mouth, so I had to overcome some well-ingrained habits.

But it was fascinating and fun to see how big of effect conscious breathing has on diving. The amount to which you can regulate your depth or the amount of oxygen you use is astounding. It was especially eye-opening to me when I was diving with an underwater camera (this was after we’d completed our certification) – I was distracted by taking photos and didn’t pay attention to my breath at all and I went through my air twice as fast!

Dive fans

The course was pretty full on (the days started early and were full of painfully dorky PADI videos, above and underwater practice, independent study and practice quizzes until it was time to sleep) but fun, and we loved the dives so much that we signed up to join a fun dive (means that the crew would set up and clean up your gear for you and you can just show up 🙂 ) bright and early the next day and ended up diving at three different sites.

We didn’t see any big critters under water, but the reefs around the islands were just teeming with life. As soon as your head is under the surface (or sometimes even before!), there’s not a direction you can look where you wouldn’t see something interesting. Puffer fish, clark’s anemone fish, sting rays, trigger fish (some that tried to attack me! 🙂 ), clown fish (the Nemo fish, in case you didn’t know that already 😉 ), porcupine and goat fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, fancy looking lion fish, poisonous and camouflaged scorpion fish, eels, sea slugs and cucumbers – the list goes on. And the anenome and coral were gorgeous and fascinating too!

We couldn’t get enough of watching it all, and we definitely plan to make diving a part of the rest of our trip, depending on location and budget. 🙂

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Dive plan Rebecca drew up for one of the fun dives

We got to use Rebecca’s underwater camera one day. I have a lot to learn about underwater photography yet – the pics aren’t great, but here are some of them anyhow. 🙂 Full disclaimer: Most of the pics have been pretty heavily doctored in iPhoto to try to get the colors to match my memory…

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Can you find Nemo? 🙂

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Sea squirts – This particular version are one of my favorites, they are so pretty and such an amazing color in real life

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Porcupine fish

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Eels

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Can you see the scorpion fish in this photo?

Other random stuff
Just for myself, I want to remember:
– how amazing the sunsets were on Ko Lipe. Some of the most colorful and stunning we saw in all of Thailand, with the sky and ocean reflecting a ever-changing rainbow of pearly pastels at each other until the sun got low enough to turn it all to purple-grey.
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This is a photo of the least pretty sunset we saw on the island – and the only one I had my camera with me for. 😉

– the bizarre incident of breaking up the fight we happened upon as we walked back to our hotel one night, and how the Indian guy, Joseph, who was outnumbered and definitely getting his butt kicked, was happy when he finally found us a couple of days later to say thank you.
– the hilariously unenthusiastic and pathetic karaoke that was going on at the hotel down the street from ours. Hotel California with the words half remembered, sung by a guy who couldn’t even be bothered (or maybe was too ashamed?) to get up from his table. Cracked me up. 🙂