travel: Loboc River, Philippines

 

As dusk hits, we are bussed to a small shack by a river. We drop off our things, don lifejackets, and get a quick lesson in kayaking. The woman asks if anyone has done this before. I reply yes, remembering the days when my family’s friend Wendell would take us out on Lake Okanagan for tours around Rattlesnake Island. The tour manager then proposes that I don’t need a guide, and I can go solo in a sea kayak. I am skirted up and we take off against the current under a darkening, star-filled sky.

The sea-kayak by comparison is much faster than the guide boats, but I am still responsible for powering myself, turning, obeying instructions quickly and keeping to whichever side of the river the guides request. My personal task is to dodge oncoming motorboat traffic and do my best not to collide with the river kayaks. I’m starting to wish I were relaxing in front of a strong-armed guide. I now see their trick. Get the guy who claims to have experience and you don’t need to send out a
guide. Hoisted upon my own ego yet again.

Nohyun and I question a guide and he is filled with information. He talks about the two combining phosphorescent chemicals in fireflies. He tells us they are poisonous to eat. I never planned on eating them, although I do come from the land of bon-dae-gee. We learn that they have an average lifespan of two weeks, and that they mate at night, using their lights to communicate with each other. He talks of the mangrove tree where they live, a tree that sends out a scent signaling to fireflies that there is abundant food beneath the tree in the claylike mud. Periodically as we paddle, some fireflies come out to meet us. Strings of brightly coloured plastic netting float by, but I might be the only one here with the night vision to see them.

I’ve been showing off. I’ve been going much faster than I ought to. I’ve been doing as I was instructed and pushing rather than pulling the water with the oars. My arms are spared, but my back is beginning to ache something fierce. We are two kilometers away from the shack, two kilometers that I am not ready to paddle. I need a rest, but I don’t want to voice my pain. The guide next to me whispers: Now we’ll really see something. We’re going to the firefly city.

We edge around the elbow, and there it is. After ten or so Mangrove trees we had seen swarming with fireflies, here is the city: a tree fully lit, looking like festive holiday decorations. The tree is shorter than most, but it is swarming with tiny lights. We sit quietly, spellbound.

Our guide whispers to me a few things about the fireflies passing by my cheek. He tells me they are males, for the females stay within the mangrove trees. Eggs are deposited in the mud beneath the trees, sometimes underwater. Another guide remarks that obnoxious motorboats disturb their habitats. We watch a motorboat putt through, its engine loud and sputtering. He laments that some tours run a motorboat straight onto the mud and up to the trees, destroying countless firefly spawn. Maybe they don’t know about that, I tell him. Maybe they don’t want to listen, replies the guide.

The guide informs us dinner is almost ready and asks us if we want to leave now. Don’t give them the option, I whisper. Nohyun laughs, understanding that this group is too polite to make a decision. Back in the shack we eat coconut rice bound in reeds alongside chicken and squares of pork. For dessert we have a stupid man game where we eat ridiculously spicy peppers no bigger than a pushpin.

A handicraft catches my eye. Most of the things here are woven reed, but this item is a colourful little change purse stitched with brightly coloured stars. It is made of plastic, probably from those colourful plastic strands of river refuse I saw in the night water. The tour manager explains to me that it has been woven by the local women. The woman who made it comes over to our table, combat-prepared and ready to bargain. I just pay her the price she has asked and her look softens into a smile.

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family stories: flying fish (pt. 1)

young gun park

So, Jacob starts swimming with me. I’ve heard about Jacob. He’s that fish who swims with all kinds of schools. He starts talking with me about all the different schools where he’s been swimming.

 

“Don’t you get tired of swimming with so many schools?” I asked.

“Life’s got all kinds of schools, man. Do you ever look up at the night sky?”

“No. Why bother? It’s just a bunch of darkness,” I replied.

“Aw, then you really HAVEN’T looked up at the sky. It’s not just darkness. There be stars up there, matey. Beautiful stars. Constellations. Galaxies. Places you can visit and chill out at. Realms of wisdom lost to the ages. Been a long time since folk dared to go up there.”

Go up there? Are you insane? There’s no water. You’d die.”

“Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been up there? Let me tell you, life’s like a stream. It flows into this nook or that cranny. Right at the end of the stream you see something folks call death. But it’s actually the big unknown; the mystery. It’s waiting for you, yah know?”

“So, if you’ve been to the stars, why are you down here swimming with us normal fish?”

“You all are too far out. I love to observe. Fish swimming here and there, darting furiously after little pebbles of food like it’s the most important thing in the sea, never looking around and feeling the gift they’ve been given. Every now and again though, I see a fish who needs to fly, you know? Just needs to. You ever hear of this salmon giving talks out at the berg? He says there’s this kind of fish, the boddhisatfish, who goes to the stars and then comes back to the schools to chill and help wherever possible. Help in the real way, dig? So now you know it can be done. Do what you will.”

He swims away. Pfffft. Far out. I’m not the one who’s far out. Yeah, jump out to where there’s no air, and maybe even a hook. Enough hooks dip into the schools as it is. I don’t need to get closer to the surface, where all the hooks come from. What’s wrong with swimming with the same school? Here, I know I’m safe. I’ve got a bunch of fish to swim with, and we’re doing just fine. Everyone shows up on time, and we have a purpose. We’re here to keep the schools going. We toil tirelessly for the greater good. If he really wanted to help, he’d be stooping to dart after pebbles of food like every other fish. He’d be a part of one school, and he’d devote himself to the greater purpose. Once we start going off on our own, the whole thing will fall apart. No more schools. No more structure. Everyone just going off and doing what they please. It’s shellfish.

Still, it hits me one night. I’m having dreams about what he said. I’m filled with the burning desire to see what’s beyond the schools. The feeling is so strong it could filet me. One restless night, I decide to swim closer to the surface. I’ll just have a look. I just want to see if what he’s talking about is true. Once I know he’s putting me on, I can come back to the safety of my school and I’ll know not to trust what he says. That’s why I’m going out there. To prove Jacob wrong.

Once I get there, I see what Jacob was talking about. There really are stars out there. Well, I guess I can’t prove him wrong. From this view, I take a look down and see why it is all the hooks dip into the schools. It’s because that’s where all the fish are. There they swim, just waiting to die. No, there must be a reason I felt so safe there. Now that I look out at these stars, however, I can’t think of a single reason why I thought that place was so secure. I’m just as secure here, with this beautiful view! I think I can even see something in that cloud of burning stars. Now I’m seeing words swirling around in that cloud. I dare you. No, there’s something more. I dare you to be free.

It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to go and see beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Oh, but the risk—I dare you—it really isn’t safe—to be—but what if I—free.

Nothing in the world can stop me at this point. I swim back to give myself some momentum. I am gaining speed I never thought I had in me. I am hurtling myself toward the surface, towards the deep darkness and luminescent flare of astral bodies, and I anticipate a painful crash. I break through the surface. Instead of a crash, there is a sudden wash of nothing: a perfect lack of sound. No more voices. No more posturing. No more fish telling me what I am and what I should be and what I need to do with my life. No more schedules, no more appointments, and no more expectations. Nothing remains but beautiful, sterling silence. I thought I was going to die, but now I feel as though I haven’t been alive until now. The remaining bits of water fly out of my gills and I need to keep the breath in my body. A new breath emerges. Now I am breathing fully, deeply, and meaningfully. The light of the stars is approaching me, and I see that the stars are not terrible and pain-inflicting balls of fire, but just water in another form. I prepare to enter the mass, the words growing before my eyes.

I dare you to be free.