Puerto Princesa from the Air

Let the adventure begin, Shelby thought as she lugged her huge backpack through the open glass doors of the Puerto Princesa airport into the blazing sun. She’d arrived on the island of Palawan!

Shelby Landour left San Diego, California four days ago, a freshly-minted college degree in hand. She flew into Manila first, the Philippines’ mega-city of twenty-plus million people. Family friends met her and hosted her there for three days.

And what she learned during her time with them was still ricocheting around in her heart.

As if I need more confusion. My heart is already hurting. Garrett. Shelby shook her head with the thoughts.

Now it was time to dive into her assignment. She knew she was lucky to get this opportunity. For the next two months, she would be researching Palawan reefs with the Tropical Seas Project. And then, hopefully, she would get into grad school. That is the plan. This time. I’m going to do this.

Shelby wanted to twirl around and celebrate this new beginning. Instead, she stopped and blinked at the chaotic scene before her. Across a narrow street, a line of people waved signs on sticks for the city’s hotels. She searched for a sign for the name, The Backpacker Inn, where she would be staying, and didn’t see it. No one was here for her. Other passengers from her plane swarmed by, pulling their suitcases and carry-ons, someone jostling her hard enough she almost tipped over. A couple of Filipino men in t-shirts and jeans called out asking if she needed a ride. Three women nearby waved colorful fliers for area hotels in her face.

Shelby froze in place, daunted by all the activity. To stall before venturing further out, she turned her back on the crowd, lowered her backpack to the cement, and pulled a handful of papers from her purse. She riffled through them, choosing one. A sultry breeze caught the other papers, scattering them into the crowd. Scurrying to gather them up again, she stamped on one with her foot to stop it from flying further. Muttering under her breath, she stuffed them back in her purse.

The breeze also brought a whiff of a familiar scent. Shelby took in a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and smiled. The salty tang of the sea. She knew she stood only a few hundred yards from the ocean. On her one-hour flight from Manila, in a window seat, she’d viewed dozens of the Philippines’ 7,700 islands, alternating with expanses of tropical seas. She’d watched entranced as her jet lowered over a gorgeous turquoise bay, landing on the Puerto Princesa airstrip. The long, skinny island province of Palawan was hugged by the Sulu Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the west. This summer she would never be far from the sea. Her heart soared at the thought.

But in the meantime, Shelby was getting hotter by the minute. The sun scorched the top of her head like a blow-dryer set on high. It was 1:30 p.m., in the middle of June. She pulled her thick sandy-colored hair off her prickly neck with one hand, while she scanned the sheet — ‘Palawan Arrival Instructions’. She was hoping they had magically changed. But no, the instructions were the same. Take a tricycle, the local motorcycle sidecar taxi.

Okay, then, off to find a “tricycle,” whatever that is.

Shelby took a deep breath, hoisted her heavy pack up onto her back, settled her computer bag and purse on one shoulder. Ahead, at one side of a parking lot under a row of spreading shade trees, she saw a line of motorcycles with the little blue and white covered cabs attached.

I guess those are the tricycles.

As she approached, the first cab in line pulled up in front of her. The driver, a swarthy young man in shorts, flip-flops, and a faded t-shirt, hopped off the cycle, asking “Where to?”

Shelby hesitated a second, as she considered trusting herself to this guy with no uniform. But his tricycle looked like all the other ones in the row and seemed to have some official-looking seals on the window and sides. So she showed him her paper, and said, “The Backpacker Inn.”

The driver nodded and then pointed toward her big backpack.

Shelby tipped her shoulders, easing it off her back. She eyed the tiny cab, with its open side and bench seat. “Will this pack fit in there with me?” she asked him.

The driver didn’t answer, but gave a quick nod, and reached out to grab her pack. He flipped it up on his shoulder and took it behind the cab. Shelby watched him nestle it snugly on an open rack in back. In a flash, he hopped back on his seat on the motorcycle and gunned the motor.

Startled, Shelby realized it was time to get inside and go. The opening was low, and the bench inside even lower. She bent over and crammed her long legs in, knees up around her chest.

Then, with a quick U-turn, they were off. Shelby’s head knocked against the overhead metal framework as they turned.

“Ouch!” Dang it. What’s this guy doing?

She should have known then — this summer would hurt her in ways she’d never experienced before. She clamped her left arm around the computer bag and purse on her lap and tried to steady herself with her other hand.

As they left the airport parking lot and entered the busy streets of Puerto Princesa, she worried that her big pack would fall off the open rack behind her. What if someone tries to grab it? She scooted sideways and awkwardly grabbed a strap of her backpack through the back window opening, afraid it would spill out onto the street any second now.

Bending low, she peered out the open side door. Motorcycles zipped past, leaving whiffs of blue smoke. Along with the exhaust, the hot smell of grease from food stands on the street wafted in. Pedestrians swam around her cab when the driver was forced to slow enough not to hit anyone.

Sweat trickled down her face, and her top stuck to her body. What was I thinking this morning when I dressed up for the flight from Manila? Jeans and boots and this blouse? I’m dying in the humidity. Might as well be in a sauna.

Shelby’s heart raced as the trike veered around another corner in downtown Puerto. It was as exciting as a ride at Disneyland. She checked around her, but no seat belts were anywhere to be seen. Am I going to fly out at the next turn? She braced her feet like anchors. She didn’t have a free hand to hold onto the trike’s framework or guard her head from bashing against the bars at every turn and bump.

She wished her brother Rob was here to see her. He would die laughing at her white-knuckle grip and klutzy position, but he’d love the craziness of it all. Garrett, on the other hand? She couldn’t imagine him here. He’d be spewing, his uptightness coming unglued. Nope, he’s not meant to be part of my adventure. Just as well that he’s an ‘ex’ now.

Finally, the tricycle screeched to a stop. Shelby rocked back in her seat. Are we here? I survived? Relaxing her death grip on her stuff, she peered out the door. They pulled in front of a woven bamboo building. Wooden steps led inside, up from the street. She unclamped her hand, pulling it back inside the cab and stretched out her cramped fingers. She shook her head, and let out a breath of relief to not be careening through the streets.

Okay then, next step.

Shelby twisted herself out of the tight little sidecar, happy to be able to stand straight to her full height. Overhead a spreading acacia tree gave welcome shade. Birds chattered in its branches. She caught the sweet scent of plumeria blossoms from a huge tree on the other side of the steps.

The driver brought her big pack around to her. He nodded toward the opening of the building they were in front of, and said, “The Backpacker.”

“Yes. Thank you. Just a second. I need to pay you.” Shelby dug around in her purse for her newly-acquired Philippine pesos. What did the guidebook say about motorcycle cab fares? That was one crazy ride.

She wondered if she should pay him more for the excitement of it, or less for making her bang around in the cab. She seemed to remember something about five dollars.

What was that in pesos? Forty or fifty pesos to the dollar times five. She counted out some bills and handed the driver two hundred fifty pesos. “Is this right?” she asked with a smile.

The cab driver looked at the money in his hand. “No,” he said, shaking his head.

“What?” Shelby’s smile faded. “How much more?”

Oh no. I’ve underpaid him. I’ve already offended someone, and I just got here.

“No, is too much,” the driver answered.

“Oh, okay then. Keep the change.” She let out of breath of relief.

“Thank you!” the driver gave her a nod and hopped back on his motorcycle. He grinned and waved as he gunned the engine, dousing her in a cloud of blue smoke before speeding down the street.

Well, he seemed happy about that.

Shelby hefted her pack and computer and bounded up the wide steps into The Backpacker Inn. Weaving around a blue mountain bike chained in the lobby, she made her way to the front desk. A faint musty green odor met her. Behind the desk, a young Filipino man in a beige uniform sat in a bamboo chair. He looked up as Shelby approached, and raised his eyebrows above his deep brown eyes.

“Hi. I’m Shelby Landour. Do you have a reservation for me?”

“I will check,” he said. Pencil in hand, the clerk drew his finger down the page in his wide-lined reservation ledger.

Shelby took a minute to glance around the lobby. Bamboo slat floors. Woven bamboo walls, open half-way up to let an outside breeze sift in. It was good to be inside, out of the blazing sun.

Rustic. I love it.

Electric fans in the corners of the room stirred the air. A shelf of paperbacks was set against the wall, with a big conch shell on top. Shelby tried to make out the title of one, but couldn’t. What language is that? Maybe German.

She mopped her shiny face with her hand and turned back to the desk.

The Lobby

“Yes. Mom Shelby, with the Tropical Seas Project,” the clerk said. “I see we have your reservation here. One night. Are you only one person?”

Shelby pondered this, then answered, “Yes. It’s just me. One person, one night.”

But why did he call me mom? I’m only twenty-three.

“You are in room seven. Here is the key. An aircon room.”

“Aircon? Is that air-conditioning?”

“Yes, mom. Air-conditioned. And do you have any other needs?”

Shelby tipped her head as she thought a second. Facing the clerk again, she said, “Yes. I’m going to need a ride to the bus terminal tomorrow. Can you arrange someone to pick me up in the morning at seven?”

“I would be happy to do that,” the clerk said.

“And be sure to let me know how much it will cost, okay?” Shelby said.

“Yes, mom. We’ll inquire for the charge. And now we will show you to your room.”

A young woman, in a similar beige uniform, materialized by his side. She looked so much like the clerk — slight, brown-skinned, straight black hair—Shelby wondered if they were brother and sister. “Here, I will be the one,” she said, as she reached out to take Shelby’s computer bag. She turned away from the counter, saying, “This way, mom.”

Shelby followed. Is this their charming custom, Shelby wondered? Maybe ‘mom’ is a term of respect for women.

“This is our dining room,” the woman pointed as they passed. “You can order meals here at daytime.”

Shelby took in the empty rattan tables and chairs. Bright flowered cotton tablecloths. The whole room was open to a garden. Nice. An orange cat lounged in the doorway to the kitchen, lazily giving himself a tongue bath. Through the kitchen door behind the cat, the wonderful aroma of frying garlic tantalized her, while pots clanged and pop music blared from a tinny-sounding radio.

She followed as the young woman continued on. They turned a corner and stopped in front of room seven. The woman took the key from Shelby, opened the door and walked in ahead of her.

Shelby followed her in and looked around. The hotel employee placed her computer bag on one of the small rattan tables, then opened a shutter on a window on the far wall. The room was basic but clean. Two neatly-made twin beds. A couple of rattan tables. A little bathroom. A fresh Lysol-y smell. A small TV. And her room faced the garden. She could hear birds chattering outside.

Yes, this will do fine.

“If you have any needs, please inquire at the desk, mom,” the woman said as she backed out of the room and bowed slightly.

“Thank you so much. This is just great.” Shelby lowered her pack off her shoulder. Man, it’s good to be here. The end of a long trip. At the same time, the beginning of a whole new adventure.

Shelby zipped open her backpacker’s pack. REI’s highly recommended model. Serious zippers and compartments and straps. All bright and new. It was a gift from her dad and her brother. They had to decide between green and blue, then went with blue, the color of the ocean. That seemed appropriate. She pulled out some her books — Marine Biology of Southeast Asia, Philippine Coral Reefs and Fishes. Nestled underneath were her snorkel, mask, and fins, fresh notebooks, a packet of her favorite gel pens. She couldn’t wait to get started on her assignment researching the ocean that hugged Palawan.

Shelby graduated from college on the Dean’s List. Biology major. She loved San Diego, and fit the image of a California girl. Slim, tan, healthy and clean. She didn’t think she was a beauty but knew people thought she was attractive.

From the outside, she seemed to have it all together, but inside she was a mass of insecurities. She never felt like she was good enough. Academics came easily to her, but she was only an A-/B+ student because she always made B’s in PE. She was a bit uncoordinated. Well, more than a bit! And because of that, to her great embarrassment, she was always one of the last to be picked for teams.

Some of her friends were so sure of themselves, but Shelby changed her mind about what she wanted to do with her life on a regular basis. And every guy she ever liked broke up with her.

Maybe I should go to grad school. Maybe I should go to Europe. Should I go to Mexico and study more Spanish? Get a job and start building my resume?

But because of a crazy convergence of circumstances, here she was on Palawan. Shelby decided not to unpack. She just pulled out some cooler clothes. Khaki cargo capris, a tank top, her flip-flops. She went into the tiny bathroom and hung her sundries bag on the shower bar. She grabbed an elastic hair-tie out of it. The bag was red. A gift from her mother. Her mom said she’d bought a bright color so Shelby wouldn’t accidentally forget it in a hotel bathroom. Her mom was always well-meaning but rarely got things right. This time, she did OK. Shelby’s stomach tightened thinking about her mom as she stood in front of the mirror, gathering her shoulder-length hair in a ponytail.

What she really wanted she couldn’t have. Lines from her parent’s old vinyl albums played in her mind, “. . . two cats in the yard . . .” Crosby, Stills and Nash knew what a happy life was. Those two cats seemed to symbolize the happy life she dreamed of. A cozy home of her own, someone to love. Why didn’t Garrett get it?

Even Jason Mraz was now singing the 70’s Seals and Crofts’ song about the life Shelby wanted, a song about curtains hanging in the window, food cooking, plates for two, and a summer breeze blowing through.

Did guys ever feel like that these days? Shelby thought Garrett was the one to be serious about, but a bleached thing with a fresh chest “enhancement” stole him away. Skinny. “She’s a model,” Garrett said. Yeah, and she only eats a cup of cooked cabbage for dinner every night. And spends two hours on the treadmill every morning. She’ll be lots of fun. You two go enjoy life. I wish you well.

Shelby fought the bitterness that welled up at those memories. She really didn’t want to be a hard old broad. She didn’t want to turn into her mom.

Thinking about her mother helped Shelby make her decision. She would go to grad school. If there was one thing Shelby was sure of, it was that she wasn’t going to be like her mom. Her mom was just too much. And then not there. She ate too much, she smoked too much, she drank too much. She didn’t finish what she started. Shelby thought back to the little pieces of cotton eyelet laying in a drawer, cut out into a pattern, but never sewed together into a pretty little girl’s dress for her. Her mom didn’t finish things. She didn’t even finish her family. Shelby knew she and her brother and her dad weren’t perfect. But hey, you started a family here, Mom. Don’t bail out now.

Shelby jerked her mind away from that painful train and sat on her little bed. She found a little pad of paper and pen and started making a list, remembering the advice from the woman she met on her jet from Manila earlier today.

Shelby had been able to relax during the one-hour flight to Palawan, seated next to this friendly stranger. She was an American too, had lived on Palawan, Shelby’s soon-to-be new home, for many years. She answered so many of Shelby’s questions and volunteered helpful information.

“Make sure you treat every little cut, bite and scrape seriously. Clean them, put antibiotic, or anti-fungal ointment on them, so they don’t develop into big sores. You’ll find you don’t have the native antibodies for the bacteria here yet,” she told Shelby.

Listening to her, Shelby could forget the tiny grave she left behind on back on the big island of Luzon. But her family’s secrets came along with her as unwelcome excess baggage. She paid the excess baggage charges in sleepless nights, not pesos. This was her fourth day in the Philippines. Already this trip jolted her life, and she was just starting.

As their plane lowered over the turquoise sea, coming in to land in Puerto Princesa, Shelby had pressed forward against her seatbelt, watching out the window. She didn’t know if she was as excited as a child at Christmas or scared to death. Her stomach was a knot.

“We’re here.” The kindly woman in the next seat leaned over and pointed, a narrow sandy beach rushing underneath, then the runway.

“It’s beautiful. So green,” Shelby said. Palm trees, banana plants, deep red bougainvillea lined the sides of the runway. A goat lifted its head and watched the plane taxi by. I hope it’s not going to be as hard as the last few days have been. I hope I can make it.

Now here she was, in a little bamboo hotel room, ready to go. Shelby pushed back her thoughts and locked up her room, list in hand.

She went back to the desk. “Can you direct me to a drugstore? I need to buy some medicine,” she asked.

“Yes, Mom. Mercury Drug is just over there,” he pointed out the door and down the street. “Just go straight and you will see.”

“OK, thanks.” Shelby stepped out into the sun. Wow, the heat here assaults you. Shelby headed in the direction the guy seemed to be pointing. She felt her excitement rising. I’m really here. My first foray out into the city of Puerto Princesa. I’m doing it. This summer’s work was a step into her future. She was going to do everything she possibly could to get that master’s degree. It’s been a long road to get this far. But I have everything I need. I think. Except maybe some anti-fungal ointment.


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Donna Amis DavisNovelbeach reads,clean reads,contemporary fiction,fiction,Palawan,Philippines,puerto princesa,women's fictionLet the adventure begin, Shelby thought as she lugged her huge backpack through the open glass doors of the Puerto Princesa airport into the blazing sun. She’d arrived on the island of Palawan! Shelby Landour left San Diego, California four days ago, a freshly-minted college degree in hand. She flew...Author of BY THE SULU SEA