And we all float on okay. – Ina Nolasco
I had no intention to go swimming my first morning on Olango Island when I spotted a young woman who was heading out in a bright yellow lifejacket with snorkel gear in hand. Before she descended the steps to the marine reserve, I told her that maybe I’d go in later. “You want to join me?” she asked. I wasn’t planning to but then she said, “It’s better that we go together now as the tide might pull out in the afternoon.”
It took me all of half a second to say, “Sure, do you mind waiting for me to change into my bikini and grab my gear?” She said she’d wait.
Her name was Willerie and she was originally from Seattle. She was on a solo weekend island getaway while I had just arrived with my mother, aunt, and best friend to explore Cebu and the surrounding cities for the next few days. It was her last morning on Olango Island where she’d try to get some last-minute snorkeling in before she was to return to Cebu City.
The tide had pulled out so far that morning but we were determined to walk as far out as we could to the deep. We had chatted about our Filipina-American lives while we walked about two hundred feet from shore with the water still barely above our waists. She was now living in Cebu with her Indian boyfriend, running a nonprofit together where they hoped to inspire young business leaders in the community. They had already been in Cebu for two months and were hoping they could make it to two years. She was skeptical that they would reach their two-year goal.
Despite her Filipino background, she expressed her concern that she wasn’t Filipino enough in our Motherland. I could relate. We both were American-raised girls who weren’t fluent in Tagalog and did not have parents who encouraged us to learn despite being daughters who held a love, longing, and fascination for our Motherland. I told her about my past reproductive rights activism in Quezon City and about the risks the work had entailed considering birth control remained largely inaccessible and abortion was still criminalized.
As we chatted away, we discovered that we had unknowingly worked in the same building in the Financial District in San Francisco. Me on the 27th Floor. She on the 15th. We marveled at meeting each other just now, theorizing that we were destined to meet in this tiny moment while snorkeling off Olango Island. I suddenly remembered the well-suited bodies in slacks, ties, dresses, and heels that crossed paths in the lobby every day. We were all there to do our 9 to 5, and that was it. That was our day. That was our life. That was the point of everything then.
We had laughed about our experiences on the public ferry just getting to Olango Island, when underneath the laughter had been a real fear as we each rode through monstrous waves in a boat that was barely a boat, completely ignorant and naïve of the fact that the equivalent of American safety standards was not necessarily paralleled in other countries.
When the water finally rose to our chests, we dove in, pummeled by the morning breakers. I was feeling nauseous when the appearance of teeming fish made it worth it to be battered by the waves.
Willerie had a bag tied around her waist with bread in it to feed the fish. She asked me if I’d like to feed them too. A part of me momentarily felt guilty as it was unnatural to feed them but I couldn’t resist the excitement of inviting the fish to us.
As we shredded the bread, the fish came like piranhas, not that I know what that feels like, but this seems to have come close. I watched as Willerie was besieged by strange and wondrous floating bursts of colors – of purple, green, blue, orange, red, pink, and yellow – all around her. I must have looked like I was exploding in underwater colors too.
The fish were eating from her fingertips. I was fascinated by her method and decided to do the same. It was the first time I felt small sharp teeth nibble at my fingertips, so I shredded the last of the bread and spread it all around. They began to swarm in a feeding frenzy. I noticed the sharp teeth from every little fish and became afraid that I would be eaten alive.
“Do you want more bread?” Willerie asked as I came up for air, overwhelmed by how many fish we had attracted.
“No, that’s okay. One bit my finger. I’d rather not lose my fingers,” I laughed.
“Yeah, they’ll do that. It tickles.”
I didn’t think it tickled. It terrified.
We swam for a good while when I opted to chase the fish rather than them chase me for food. It’s hard to say how long we had been out there. The simple act of swimming with the fish could’ve taken twenty minutes or forty. Every second seemed swallowed as we focused on the fish that swarmed all around in colorful explosions. There was also a magic about the ocean and the intimacy that water can bring when you’re in it with someone else, drawing a fear and longing, maybe because to be completely submerged subconsciously reminds us of that original haven of floating in our mother’s watery womb. Willerie suddenly felt like a birth twin. We could’ve been in that water forever, until tired arms and tired legs remind us of our mortality, forcing us back to shore. It was Willerie who proposed to head back.
By the time we climbed the stairs from the marine reserve back to the resort, Willerie was informed by our resort hostess that the next private ferry was leaving in twenty minutes as a typhoon was approaching and this would be her last chance to get back to Cebu City before it hit. All public boats would then be detained until the typhoon passed, which could take another day or two. The Coast Guard would not be letting any boats cross after this. She rushed back to her room and packed. Willerie’s weekend was over while mine had just begun on Olango Island.
As she hurriedly packed, we exchanged Facebook profiles, phone numbers, emails, and hugs. We had at most one hour together that morning, when you impatiently pull out the most important parts of yourself to share. We agreed that there could have been no better time to meet when we had. Not at the Financial District where we went to and fro as drones, but we had to meet on this lonely island, two gals snorkeling among a myriad of fish, and sharing the expanse of the sea.