Dec. 13, 2016: El Nido Airport, the island of Palawan.
I'm sitting on a tiny plane in an open field in El Nido. We're about to take off, there's an empty seat next to me, and my heart is aching, bursting, full. It aches because this island showed me so much goodness. It aches because its people treated me so well. It aches because I miss my own family. But it's aching most of all because I'm just not ready to leave.
While the island of Palawan is a visually stunning place, it was the people who made me want to stay and the reason I'm sitting here crying on this plane.
She was the old lady who gave me a massage on the beach, who told me to open my eyes when a butterfly landed on my belly, whom I watched move the bad spirits away from my body by moving her hands over my head, chest, then out through my feet. She was the clerk at the gas station who worried about me and my motorbike, who prayed over me before I clumsily drove away.
They were the local couple who picked up my bike and held me up after I slid down a rocky hill, scratched my knee and spilled gasoline all over my legs. He was the German man with the tribal tattoos who watched me carefully from his rearview mirror in a sweltering valley, who slowed down to make sure I could drive across the pool of water, who stopped me to tell me I was going the wrong way.
They were the Filipino family on the boat visiting from Manila, who took pictures of me when I had no one to take them, who gave me baby wipes when I didn't have any napkins, who asked me to join in their family photos, whom I told, "You remind me of my own family," when I really meant, "You make me miss my family back at home."
They were the island's few surfers, who gave me water when I had none, shared their rice when I was hungry, and took me on their motorcycle to their secret surf spot after they saw me out at sea. They were the couple and their friends who invited me over for dinner, who talked about teaching, who cooked me food in their home. They were Felix and Dexter who built me a fire, told me stories about their island's villagers, the duendes, and followed me slowly in the dark when I had to ride my bike at night through a rocky, muddy road. She was the Dutch girl on her way to Australia, who talked about dancing, listened to my poems, who talked about love, who shed a tear with me, who became a friend.
It's natural to be afraid of strangers. After all, the risk for danger when you're a woman traveling alone is very real. But I think, for the most part, good strangers can sense when you really need help and will try to help you if they can. To receive that help, though, you have to trust them, and that can be very scary.
The reward is that these people will let you into their lives. Maybe it's for just a few minutes when they're picking your bag out of the dirt and holding your fallen bike up so you can get out from underneath. Maybe it's for a whole week to surf, to share water and rice, to share stories, fears, wishes, dreams.
All I know is this: I was afraid to trust, but I did because I had to. And I walked away from it all with a few more lifelong friends.