Roughing it in the Philippines with Tao

05.25.12

Originally published on The Vine, May 17, 2012.

In his most famous work, Swimming to Cambodia, the American memoirist Spalding Gray talks about his need to find some Perfect Moment before he can allow himself to leave a country. To find a pulsing, singular memory that ties together his experiences of the place and somehow serves to draw him out of himself. For Spalding, it was a search that could take months.

In the seven days we spent in the idyllic western reaches of the Philippines on our remote island boat expedition with Tao, I counted at least three.

In one I’m floating, weightless, in crystal clear, 28 degree waters, looking down upon an endless coral landscape thirty metres below and thinking to myself that this must be what it feels like to fly.

In another, I sit with two of my travel companions at the prow of the boat, silent, beer in hand, as the setting sun is eclipsed by the upthrust silhouette of the primeval, densely forested mountain island that is our home for the night.

And in the last, I’m having an underwater handstand competition with three laughing children from a local fishing village as the afternoon sun beats down on the soles of my upturned feet. If you’re wondering, they won.

By and large, the Philippines is what you might call a “bad news” country. In that it’s the sort of place you only ever pay attention to when something awful happens there. In the two months before I departed I counted a  kidnapping, a hostage-taking, a terrorist attack, a multiple murder and then, a week before I was due to get there, a typhoon that killed over 1 000 people. When I mentioned to people that I was heading to the Philippines for a two week holiday they tended to look at me with concern in their eyes and ask the simple question, “Why?”

The answer was similarly simple: Tao.

Tao, which means person, or human, in Tagalog, are a locally based, locally owned and locally oriented company that offers bespoke 7-10 day expeditions that take in some of the most remote islands in the Palawan region. Oft-ignored by outsiders, Palawan contains a quarter of the Philippines’ 7000-plus islands and matches this figure with some of the most distant, undeveloped areas in the entire country. Journeying from the town of Coron to El Nido, or vice versa, and taking advantage of the 11 base camps they have set up in the area, Tao is the only company that takes people through this part of the world.

Catering for groups of between 7 and 20 people (and combining groups together if there’s not quite so many of you), Tao sets you up on one of their five modified fishing vessels with a six-strong crew of locals and an expedition leader who designs your journey day to day.

 

Our guide was Ollie, a 29-year-old with a ready laugh, a mischievous grin and an ability to clamber up a coconut tree with his bare hands. Ollie had been a fisherman for 12 years before he started working for Tao; he told me at one point that he knew his way round over a hundred of the islands and spoke six regional dialects. Everyone we met throughout the islands seemed to know and love the guy. Kids in particular flocked to Ollie like the Pied Piper – we woke one morning to find a dozen of them clambering all over him and laughing hysterically as he lay in a hammock.

Each day of the expedition we’d slowly make our way from one base camp to the next, taking in an array of pristine white beaches, freshwater lagoons, untarnished coral forests, World War Two shipwrecks, hidden coves and local villages as we went. To call the scenery postcard-worthy would be to do it a severe injustice. More than once I found myself laughing at how absurdly paradisal the entire thing was. In between each stop there’d typically be 1-2 hours of sailing time, which provided an opportunity to laze in the sun with a beer in one hand and a book in the other or simply watch the world drift by. At night, the crew would set up tables and a ring of flaming torches and you’d eat and drink under an endless expanse of stars.

The food probably bears special mention. We ate well on this trip. And not just “as well as you can eat in the middle of the ocean”. No, for these seven days we ate as well as I think I have ever eaten. One of our number, a professional chef, could barely wipe the look of disbelief off his face as we were served three meals a day of whole jackfish, mackerel, snapper and tuna, fried calimari, squid served in its own ink and heaped platters of whole crab. At one point, Ollie caught a tuna and 20 minutes later our chef, Jimboy, 19, had transformed it into the freshest sashimi imaginable. It was borderline life-changing. The vegetable options were similarly impressive: finger eggplants, squash, sweet potato, beans and okra combined into finely flavoured, ginger-laced curries, stir fries and salads. Desserts were bananas fried every which-way and served with condensed milk. More than once, we had pina coladas made with coconuts that Ollie had just plucked from the tree.

With all this said, Tao expeditions aren’t designed as pleasure cruises. While the pace is leisurely and the atmosphere relaxed, you do spend most of your time in areas without electricity, mobile phone reception or running water. The accommodation usually consisted of open huts and mosquito net-covered camping mattresses and the toilets were, at best, rudimentary. There wasn’t much walking, but there was a lot of swimming, at times through choppy water. Similarly the sailing, while usually easygoing, occasionally had you bouncing through swell as tall as the boat. By the end of the trip you’re dirty, salt-streaked and invariably sunburnt.

 

All of which is part of the point. Tao wants you to enjoy yourself but also to come to grips with a particularly Filipino way of life, occasionally idyllic, occasionally bare and difficult. For most of the places we visited subsistence fishing remained the primary industry and contact with outsiders was still a welcomed novelty. There were no medical facilities and little clean water. One of the crew members, a shy 17-year-old named Dudong, had his birthday on the fifth day of our trip and we stopped by his village to celebrate.  It was a sweet, spontaneous moment, but one that threw into relief the rudimentary nature of existence here: this village possessed the only school we’d see for the entire trip.

To this end, Tao directs a portion of the money you pay toward local development projects. We spent one night in a tiny riverfront village where the group had set up a childcare facility to provide educational opportunities to the families there. On another island they have set up a locally run farm with a view to fully supplying all their expeditions with their own organically grown produce. More to the point, the company actively employs dozens of locals, giving them one of the only paths out of village life they’re likely to find.

As we drifted into El Nido on the seventh day, one final, incandescent sunset colouring the sky, I had the sense of something singular passing me by. For a full week we had existed in a self-contained universe, oblivious to the outside world, as detached as I’d been in my adult life, idling through landscapes that only a handful of non-locals had ever seen. It was as unimpeachable a week of my life as I can remember.

But it made sense for the trip to finish when it did. I needed to feel the pull of other people and the thrum of civilization to throw into relief what I’d just experienced. I also needed a hot shower. I really did. But more than anything I needed to leave in order to preserve these Perfect Moments, to have them hover in my mind, contained and unrepeatable, always, purely mine. An indulgent finish perhaps, but, then again, this week with Tao reminded me anew why we travel.