Is that a star or a firefly, I wonder as our boat floats silently down the lazy Abatan River. To my left, a tree gently pulses to the rhythms of its resident fireflies, their magic surging like a bioluminescent Mexican wave. Above, the night sky is studded with sugary crystals, our celestial neighbours from many light years away. Occasionally, a bug escapes from a branch and makes its way past our boat, temporarily blending in with the heavens. Between the luminous trees and the constellations stretching out to the horizon, I don’t know where to look.
I am on the Filipino island of Bohol, trying my best to capture the breathtaking scenery before me on my phone camera. Only, no matter how much I try, I cannot get a shot of the shimmering bugs or skies. My friends with their DSLRs aren’t having much luck either and after some time spent fiddling with our cameras settings, we all give up and sit back to enjoy the view.
Free of distraction, I focus my energies on really relishing the night. As my mind quietens, my senses sharpen and I begin observing things more clearly: how Orion has moved across the sky over the course of our ride; the ripples our boat makes as it moves through the water; the faint buzzing of insects in the foliage around. I experience the night differently, and the impressions I wake up with the morning after are somehow more vivid, visceral, and textured.
My recollections are richer because I put my camera away, which leads to another mental shift. I begin trusting my mind to create worthy memories of my experiences: What I see, what I can smell and taste, the emotions I feel, I focus on things that a photograph could never capture. I realise later that it was this awareness that helped me tune out the chatter around me and really tune in to my natural surroundings on the nocturnal Albatan River . Even though this memory is likely to get blurry over the years, I see the value of the experience over the picture.
That boat ride wasn’t the first time in the Philippines that I felt a heightened sense of being. A couple of days earlier, I was island-hopping in Palawan in the west of the country, a place worthy of a dreamy desktop wallpaper. Palawan’s waters were mesmerizing. They played tricks on my mind, changing colours in the light faster than I could fathom. Deep indigos blended with ribbons of emerald green, rings of aquamarine-fringed rocky islands, giving away the locations of swarming multicoloured reefs beneath. Whoever created this place must have been tripping on something, I thought.
The highlight of our time in Palawan was the afternoon we spent at the Twin Lagoons of Coron Island. Towering limestone formations that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord Of The Rings surround the two water bodies. We were docked at the far end of Lagoon 1 when we noticed a low underpass in one of the rock walls. It was a little passage connecting to Lagoon 2 but the only way to get through was to swim or lie flat on our backs as we kayaked. In no time, my friend and I were rowing through the opening, dodging the pockmarked limestone balls that clung to its low ceiling. We’d left our valuables on the boat, on the off-chance our kayaking skills left us wanting.
It was like passing through a force field and entering another world; so quiet, I couldn’t even hear the faint thumping of my own heart. As if the scene that greeted us had caused my brain to momentarily shut down. Gradually, the blood flowed back and I started to process what I was seeing. The water was a different shade from the neighbouring lagoon: a psychedelic blue-green, instead of the Camlin-poster-blue of Lagoon 1. The limestone rocks on either side hemmed us in, creating a bubble of sorts. Above, the sun blazed in a blemish-free, baby blue sky.
As I swam around, drinking in the water and the view, I could feel my brain whirring, working to absorb this moment and embed it deeply in my mind. Since I had no camera, the only memories of this moment would be those in my head. I made random connections and references to try and remember things the best way I could. How does the water feel? Like swimming in a warm, buttery pool of sunshine. What colour is it? Colin liquid cleaner blue (weird, I know). Is that a stingray at the bottom of the lagoon? Nope, just weirdly shaped dead leaves. I was alert in an entirely different way, but more significantly, I felt like an active part of the moment. I wasn’t just registering the landscape, I was also feeling it.
I am far less possessive of my phone for the rest of my trip. I continue to take photos like everybody else, but I’m less focused on recording every single thing I see. It’s oddly satisfying, relinquishing the pressure to get the perfect shot. Instead of thinking about sharing my stories with friends and family back home, I revel in the thrills of savouring something just for myself. We all know that the potency of an experience doesn’t translate into photographs—but I learned that you have to put that camera away to realise it.
Cover photo: The trek up to Kayangan Lake, in the Palawan region of the Philippines, affords breathtaking views of the surrounding waters. No filters here. Photo: Kamakshi Ayyar
Published on National Geographic Traveller India – January 2016