I am a small town girl. Many years ago, I had to leave this town full of curiosity for a world bigger than the only one I knew. My curiosity made me set foot on so many places but I also always looked back to the island where I came from. Just like a mighty lighthouse, that humble town where I was born and raised serves as my guide, my anchor. Weary of spending the holidays at the city, I longed for this town on Christmas Eve of 2008. Spending Christmas Eve on the road didn't matter. All I wanted was to be home.

Travelling in the Philippines during the Christmas season comes with a lot of challenges. Apart from impractical and unreasonable ticket prices, one has to endure long lines, heavy traffic, chaotic and miserable situation at terminals, a lot of expected/unexpected delays and worse, a tropical storm warning. I found myself in the most risky real-life adventure of my young life.

After a gruelling night bus trip, the next morning of December 25 welcomed us with an advisory that all boat trips were cancelled because of the gale warning. It meant that I was going to spend Christmas stranded in the neighbouring island just 3 short hours away from home. Desperate to reach the other island, we kept approaching different groups of fishermen who could bring us home in exchange for money five times the cost of a regular fare. I and some other brave and stubborn travellers managed to sneak away from the coast guards' supervision on our fourth attempt. We were all aware that we were getting ourselves into a dangerous deal. To keep us from getting caught, we were instructed to hide our departure away from the coastguards' sight by not sailing at or near the main port 's territory. We had to travel a few kilometres away from the main port to board a surprisingly very small boat, smaller than the three previous ones. The waves were so big, the boat was shaky and there was no way we could stand firmly on two feet. The journey has not even begun. People started to chicken out. From 17 passengers, the number went down to 7. The fewer the passengers, the higher the fare because the price of the trip was fixed and it had to be divided into the number of passengers. It was obviously going to be a very expensive, risky and dangerous ride. It seemed like I was paying for my own death. Still I made the decision to go, aware of the risk and its consequences.

So the journey began at 4:30 in the afternoon of December 25, 2008.  Without the coastguards´ consent, we sailed off to cross and hopefully make peace with the angry ocean. I grew up and got used to travelling by sea. I have been exposed early on to the many forces of nature. But imagine battling against its fury at pitch black night while trapped in a small fisherman's boat. I fancied the light from the moon but I couldn't see anything...not even the neighbouring islands. I looked down and imagined all the creatures living underneath our small boat. I looked up to count the stars and saw that there were only four. I saw nothing but grim, scared faces and the blinding darkness of the night.  Knowing that our tiny boat was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, I felt so helpless. There was no escape. I have to mention though how I was in awe of those 4 men who expertly manoeuvred that little boat making sure that it kept afloat. While one was handling the direction of the boat, the other three stood at the edges to keep its balance. They kept changing positions depending on the trajectory of the waves and the wind.

San Miguel Strait is known to Bicolanos for its feisty waves where the water flow coming from the shore meets the current of the mighty Pacific Ocean. In that strait, both forces meet in an opposite direction. I talked to God in silence while the stranger from another town chose to sing. He would tell me later on that the songs helped him ease his fear. Any little mistake or unfortunate mishap during those 4 fateful hours could have meant a tragic end of our lives. I fervently prayed while my right hand gripped hard at the bamboo and the other at the thermo chest which I thought I would use as an improvised life saver just in case. I stared helplessly at the water and thought about my life, the dreams I have fulfilled and those I have yet to conquer, the people who stood by me in difficult times. I thought about all the blessings, opportunities and scholarships I’ve received, the chances I have had and those that I had let go of. I thought of my successes and my defeats, the words I’ve said and how I said them,  the choices I made. I thought of my father and how things could have been different if he was still alive. I learned how pleasing it was to reflect and  how to be truly present by becoming fully aware of the anxious beat of my heart, the maddening sound of the wind, the waves, and the dreary noise of the motorboat, the awareness of our impending death. No tears escaped from my eyes but I was not the strongest person I was at that time. I felt that my life was not my own. Life seemed so fragile, so delicate like a waving feather in the wind. I was spending the most fearful hours of my days and it was also the same time when I had the most honest, quiet, one-on-one conversation with myself and with God. It was the only way to feel okay, to make sense of those perilous moments.

The two hours we spent along San Miguel Strait seemed to last forever. Little by little, the lights at the shore were getting bigger. A sign that we were getting nearer to safety. A heavy rain was looming at around 8:30 pm of December 25,  the time that my feet finally reached safe ground. I heard murmurs of concern, disbelief, anger and love. I heard my mom’s voice as she spoke while fighting back her tears.

What a journey...from feeling helpless in the middle of the sea to indulging in the familiarity and warmth of my old bed and hugs from my little nephews and nieces, family and friends, the sight of familiar places and faces, the delicious hot soup freshly served by my mama Tim. Finally it was Christmas! It was a crazy ride but I made it alive and well. It was a real life and death experience which made me ponder on the many blessings I have been given, the challenges I had to overcome and new hopes for the coming New Year.

Published by Lot Ramirez