It arrives and I see that the shuttle we’re taking on a six-hour journey is nothing more than a glorified mini-van. We are a jumble of straps and bags and confusion. The driver barks something unintelligible at us as he takes our backpacks.
We peer into the darkness of the back of the van at two white moon faces in the backseat. The driver returns and points toward the back of the van. “You go.”
“I can’t fit in there, man,” Kelly says. I nod behind her. There is no way we can fit four people in a space made for three.
“You pay for two seats. You only get two seats.”
Kelly and the driver work out a deal so that we both have more room to the tune of 200 pesos. I am sitting awkwardly in the front passenger seat. I can hear Kelly talking to a guy from Seattle behind me. I notice there is an open can of cat food in the cup holder.
The van stops a few more times and more people board. Finally, the driver motions me out of the front seat. He wants me to move but there aren’t any more seats available. The couple in the front move over as far as possible and I perch next to them. The driver produces something from the back. He bungee cords a half seat into the aisle way. A young man climbs in and folds himself into the halfseat. The driver slams the door. The sound echoes in my head.
My thighs are white, beached whales. I tug my skirt down past my knees. The man’s elbow rests against my soft side. I try to make myself smaller. His Full Moon Party tank top reveals incredibly toned, tan arms – the kind of tan you only get from lounging on beaches in Southeast Asia for months. I wonder what it’s like to be a thin, white man traveling. I will never know. I imagine that experiences like this are more bearable and less guilt inducing. Everyone would be more comfortable if I was smaller.
The van shudders and pulls out of the parking lot. The driver takes corners hard and fast. I tense my body but I can’t stop myself from leaning into the woman on my left and the man on my right. I focus on the road in front of me and ignore the carsickness building into a vicious knot of nausea in my stomach.
Three hours into the journey, we stop, the door slides open, and I fall out of the van. My muscles are stiff and uncooperative. We are at a tourist trap to rest, eat, whatever. I collapse on a plastic chair in front of the restaurant, breathe slowly, and wait for the carsickness to pass.
My seatmate corners the driver. They have a tense discussion in low voices. He ends it loudly with, “I did not pay 500 pesos for half a seat!” and walks away with stiff limbs. I notice the tank top he’s wearing says “Full Moon Party 2015” on the back and I smile to myself. I was right about this guy.
I watch him sit down at a table and pull out a battered Ernest Hemingway paperback. I think about going over and saying something to make the situation less tense, but three hours of us politely ignoring each other makes that feel impossible.
Kelly sits down next to me. “I can’t believe we paid extra to each have a seat and he’s fit 13 people on a van meant to hold 10. This is outrageous!” She opens a bag and roasted cashews. My stomach flips at the thought of food.
I tell her to breathe. In the grand scheme of things, the $4 we overpaid isn’t that much. I don’t want the driver to leave us in the middle of this nothing place at a tourist trap.
The driver motions us back to the van, and like clockwork we all file in and assume our previous seats. The door slams. I vow to make myself as small as possible. I pull my elbows in. I hold my knees together.
Eventually, we arrive at the bus station in El Nido, a sleepy beach town in northern Palawan. We negotiate a trike ride, lash our backpacks to the back, and I fold myself into the trike.
It drops us off in front of a dirt road. We hoist our backpacks up and begin walking. A yawning stretch of stagnant water blocks the path forward. There is a makeshift walkway in the middle, shored up with bags of concrete. I can see trash floating in the water. A woman brushes past us and walks down it. She takes a sharp left into the murky pool. The water goes up past her ankles. I shudder. She takes a few steps up into a house I hadn’t noticed. I watch her close the door as Kelly begins hopping from concrete bag to concrete bag.
I follow. Down a sand path between a building and fence and we stumble out onto a beach. A few banca boats float gently in the water, spider-like.
To our right is the little bungalow that will be our home for the next week.
We’ve made it.
“On the way back,” I say as we walk towards the bungalow, “we’re taking the tourist bus.”