The Lenten season is near its end. So too are the academic calendars of most Philippine schools. This week is a time for reflection and recollection.
An entirely different sort of reflection and recollection occupied me in the past week. My high school batch had decided to hold a reunion in Palawan, Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice for best island in the world in 2014.
Like Boracay, the other Philippine island with a global profile, images of Palawan include pristine sand and clear waters. Being an archipelago with a main island significantly larger than Boracay, Palawan has much more to offer.
Palawan is not only about lazing in the sun. Palawan is home to some of the most biodiverse waters in the world. The calm waters are punctuated by gliding flying fish, their silvery emerald bodies glistening in the sun. When swimming in these turquoise waters, t is not unusual to find yourself surrounded by thousands of fish or swimming with sea turtles. It is an island that boasts of salt water hot springs and island lakes fed both by fresh water springs and sea water tunnels.
Palawan is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Tubbataha Reef and the Puerto Princesa underground river, which was recently named one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Palawan is a place where you can come face to face with stalactites and stalagmites over land and over water, where you can knock on rock formations and listen to the odd humming noises that echo across the long caves.
The waters of Palawan are framed by spectacular white cliffs, limestone karst formations filigreed in green vegetation standing sentinel over waters that gleam like precious stones. Like much of the non-urban areas of the Philippines, these islands bring fresh water, salt water, mountains and sea together in magnificent micro-ecologies. There are mangrove forests rich in shellfish. Those mangrove forests are the home of the infamous tamilok, Palawan’s bizarre foods challenge for the intrepid traveler.
Perhaps one of the most magical experiences Palawan has to offer is the evening tour on Iwahig river. The river is protected by the local community. On oar-powered little boats, you are surrounded by sparkling lights on all sides. On this river, artificial lights are generally disallowed. The night sky sparkles with stars. On both sides of the river, the mangrove forests are home to fireflies, twinkling in tiny bursts of light. The odd firefly moving between trees trace fleeting curlicues of light. Perhaps most magical of all are the starbursts in the river, bioluminescent plankton lighting with the movement of the waters.
It is a magical place.
Rene Sabio, owner of Rene’s Saigon restaurant agrees. Rene’s restaurant is a small eating spot on the main road of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, past the airport. Locals and some tourists head out to this restaurant for what my host assured me is the best Vietnamese food in Palawan.
Half-Vietnamese and half-Filipino, Rene brings to his food an understanding of Vietnamese flavors and local ingredients. His bread is so good tourists order them in bulk to bring home. His rice noodles are fulsome and memorable. These are clearly noodles made with love.
Locals will tell you to come early. Rene will make only as much food as he wants to each day. He is not one of those owners that will make more food simply because there is increased demand. When the food quota of noodles and bread for the day have been consumed, he is done.
We had decided to do a bread run the morning after our dinner and were lucky enough to find a relatively empty restaurant. Rene was there and had time to chat. His parents had migrated to Palawan from Manila when he was a child. He said he had actually migrated to Australia at one point and had then decided to come back home to Palawan.
“This is paradise,” he said. My friends in Australia have to work hard simply to earn a few days of paradise. In the vernacular, he continued. I think it’s important to know what you really care about. Sure, I’m not not a big city. But that’s not what I want anyway. I don’t need frills or large malls. Especially not if I have to pay for it by sacrificing time for things I truly love. Here, I can decide how much I have to work. I set my targets. I own my life. I have no boss. I can do what I enjoy. I can make food people enjoy. I love the sea. I love to dive. Here, I can go diving any time I like, the whole year round. Why would I want to be any place else?
A long time ago, one of my editors posed what I still think of as a slightly awkward but important question, “What is the why?”
In management, we think of it as rationale, the reason for the directions we set and the decisions we make. In strategy, it is the mission statement, the organization’s “raison d’être”, its reason for being.
Very often, in real life, we lose sight of this. We chase the next promotion, the better car, the larger house, the higher salary. In the process, we lose things. We lose time we can never gain back, time with our children while they are young, time to spend with parents while they are still with us, time spend climbing mountains while we still can.
It is a question that belongs only to the young. It must be asked at every age. Just recently, my son asked me: “Mom, why are you still working?” No matter how old you are, there are moments that you forgo when you decide to spend time on things that you do not truly believe in.
There are, of course, economic and practical realities. The basics must be covered. But for those who have choices, there is a truly important reckoning that needs to be made. What is your truth? In the skyline of your life, what is the light that keeps the dark away?