I didn’t know how or where or when. I didn’t even have the ring yet. But I knew I had a week in what looked to be paradise.
My girl Nammin and I had cut it short leaving Seoul for Incheon Airport, so when we were walking to our gate and I was passing duty free shops selling jewelry I knew I didn’t have enough time for a covert ring-buying mission. I would have to keep looking for my chance. I was leaving to start a new job in the States right after we got back, and I wanted to propose before we started our long-distance relationship.
After a night in Manila we took a quick flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. We hung out at our hotel most of the day and then went out that night, but no opportunity to buy a ring presented itself. I wanted to get it over with early in the trip so we could enjoy being engaged.
Each day we moved closer to the moment I was unsure would ever materialize. The next afternoon, we shoehorned ourselves into an air-conditioned van that had seats for 15 but was carrying 20, plus a toddler and an infant. “About 5 hours,” they said. It took 7. “We will leave at 1pm no matter what,” they told us. We left at 2, stopping along the way to drop off packages the delivery of which the passengers’ fees subsidized.
The Philippine countryside entered our windows in every shade of green. Emerald hills reflected in the standing water of irrigated rice paddies. Jungle forest encroached on the houses in the villages with their chickens and wild dogs. Gray-black water buffalo crossed Apocalypse Now rivers, palm trees on the banks, heat lines shimmering up off the water.
When we got there we were the only people on the beach and I could have dropped to one knee, but I didn’t have a ring yet.
Then we were in El Nido and soon forgot all about the cramped, bumpy ride. The van dropped us at the terminal and we took a tricycle to a budget hotel in the middle of town. The hotel was next to a bakery that made banana bread fresh daily. It also sold donuts. It didn’t sell rings.
That it was rainy season added to my anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to pull off what I came there to do. A strong chance existed that we would have to stay indoors for the duration of the trip and my plans would be foiled.
The morning rain didn’t alleviate my worry. Plus, our lights and hot water didn’t work when we woke up. We found a better room on the beach with a balcony view of Bacuit Bay. We rented a motorbike and headed north for Nacpan Beach, the road scenic and barely traveled and a good start to our trip. When we got there we were the only people on the beach and I could have dropped to one knee, but I didn’t have a ring yet.
Back at the hotel, when Nammin took a shower before dinner, I went out under the guise of looking for shaving cream and a couple of cold beers, the latter everywhere, the former easier to find than I let on.
I went to the opposite end of the beachfront businesses to the Art Café, with its high ceilings, white walls, and large balcony, similar to something like the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh, a place for drinking cocktails that sweat out all the ice before they’ve finished and thinking about Graham Greene.
They had shaving cream and beer in the souvenir store, but they didn’t have what I really needed. So I went back north, stopping at a little jewelry shop across from the backpacker restaurant Squidos. The man had two choices in the size that might work, so I settled on the silver ring with a design resembling an infinity symbol.
Heavy rain early and again no electricity or hot water. We realized then that the whole town, unless the resort or business had enough money to run generators, operated without power from 6am until mid-afternoon. We waited until mid-morning to book our tour of the islands. By then most of the other groups had set out, so the two of us hired our own boat. We bought sandwiches, water, and wine and left on Tour A.
We sailed a passenger pumpboat out to the lagoons, largely held as one of the top attractions in the area. With the ring in my pocket, I talked the captain into letting us stay at our final destination until sunset, hopeful the conditions would hold out and the other travelers would depart before the sun went down. We might not have our own beach again, so I knew I wanted to make it happen if I could. But first we would swim in the aquamarine water of the small lagoon, make a lap around the tall cliffs of the big lagoon, pointing out small swordfish and sea urchins in the clear water, and eat sandwiches and snorkel off of Simizu Island.
It didn’t come off. The clouds came in and blocked the sun; the sky turned gray as dusk set in and we had to go home. Before we left I decided to tell Michael, the son and assistant to the captain, my intentions, and we arranged to try again tomorrow. “OK, sir,” he said. “This is our secret.” We booked Tour C for the two of us the next day.
On the morning of what I hoped would be the big day, we woke up to clear skies and sunshine. I was ready. The sea calm, the air warm. Our best weather yet. We crossed the bay and anchored at the mouth of a cove, where we snorkeled in to Hidden Beach, a stretch of sand about 50 yards end-to-end, obscured by limestone rocks, and again a beach that was ours alone. It could have worked, but I was holding out for better skies and a better view.
Opportunities continued to present themselves. Our next stop, the Matinloc Shrine, was, on the surface, perfect for a proposal. A marble gazebo with a statue of the Virgin Mary built on a heart-shaped island sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Michael even passed by while Nammin was taking in the spectacular view and said softly to me, “This is a good place. Good for our secret, right?” I started thinking he might be on to something, until we toured the abandoned building and Nammin deemed it “creepy.” Then it was out.
“I brought you here to ask you something.”
On to the next one, our second-to-last stop, the aptly named Helicopter Island. We kept at it with more swimming, snorkeling, and taking the sun.
While we were lying on the sand, Nammin asked me, “Where are we headed next?”
“Don’t know. Where should we go? Australia?”
“No, I mean our next destination.”
“Wouldn’t you want to see the Great Barrier Reef?”
“I mean where are we going next, today?”
“Oh. I see. Do you mind if I borrow your snorkel?”
I could see clouds forming to the south, but not knowing the weather patterns, I couldn’t tell if it meant rain was coming for us or somewhere else. Michael came over and asked if we were ready to go.
“I was thinking we could wait a little bit,” I said.
“We go now,” he said, smiling directly at me.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we waited?”
“We should go now.”
We loaded up and took a short trip over to Terabit Island. On the boat, Nammin, who had picked up a stomach bug, was lying down, trying to rest. Every time I looked back at Michael he gave me a winning smile, a “you’ve got this” look. I responded with a looked of utter terror, mainly for his entertainment.
We anchored and disembarked. The boatmen also got off but they headed in the opposite direction, around the edge of the inlet, out of sight. The beach was empty, the footprints we made the only tracks we could see — ours, ours and the sand crabs’ — and after we walked for a few minutes I found a good stretch of sand.
“Isn’t this a beautiful place?” I said. “I brought you here to ask you something.” I dropped to one knee and said, “This has been a great adventure so far, and I hope we can have a lifetime of them together. Will you marry me?”
After a beer with the boatmen and a lot of pictures, we got back on the boat, and as we started back for El Nido the rain began.
That night over San Miguels on the beachfront in town, we laughed about how long it took me to get shaving cream, about our final destination on the island tour, about why I wanted to go to El Nido in the first place. I said we came here because I wanted you to say yes. And you did.