Pitch black. Silhouettes of palm trees are barely recognizable against a starry sky. The air is humid, and the ocean is still – the absence of the sun has done nothing to lower the dry season’s broiling temperature in the evening. The narrow trail across a forest is only visible through the flashlights that inform us of barbed fences precariously lining the sides of the path and the imposing forest beyond swallowed by the darkness. Crickets form a steady rhythm of calls to accompany the sound of our steps and occasional heavy sighs.
It’s already 8 p.m. when we reach an inconspicuous stretch of coastline hidden from the main highway by a thick dense of trees. The sky is filled with a dizzying array of constellations. Adjusting my backpack, I follow five well-built men as they push lola (grandma) across the sand through a wheelchair. The evening’s low tide means that the waters have receded far from where we are walking, revealing rocks that threaten injury to those unaware of their presence. A few minutes later we reach a hut, where three of our companions are already resting, waiting for us and basking in the comfort of a dimly lit incandescent bulb. The five men take a break while lola sits on her wheelchair, letting out incomprehensible murmurs. Dogs start approaching us, but their defensive barks turn into welcoming whimpers as soon as they realize of our pacific intentions. A couple of moments and the rest of the group converge on the small terrace that functions as the resort’s restaurant.
And so begins our first evening in a lonely section of El Nido, a town in northern Palawan famed for the pristine beauty of the topography off its coast. Year round, tourists flock to the town but the area has managed (so far) to stave off overdevelopment that has plagued other similar sites both in the country and abroad, in part due to its relative inaccessibility. With the nearest airport indefinitely shut down, El Nido can only be reached by a six-hour ride from Puerto Princesa – Palawan’s capital – through unpaved roads. The town proper isn’t exactly cover material for what the municipality as a whole has to offer, looking like a typical nondescript Filipino village, albeit with a lot of restaurants and other establishments that obviously cater particularly to foreign tourists.
I’ve been to El Nido 15 years before, doing the usual island-hopping with my parents, siblings, an uncle, his wife, and their kids. But this time my trip with my parents and another set of relatives has a different feel to it. Tito (Uncle) Boy has bought a piece of land here and has converted it to his private getaway whenever he wants to remove himself from mainstream society, which is basically once a month. In addition, he has purchased an offshore island and before he realizes any of his sketchy plans to develop it, he has decided to show it to us first and let us experience what it would probably be like if time has frozen before Spaniards came to these parts. So here we are – me, my mom, my lola, Tito Boy’s wife Tita Fenny, his youngest daughter Abie, my lola’s business partner Evelyn and her daughter Carissa, and Tito Boy’s three architect friends. We’re a ragtag team and survival means relying on the most basic of resources.
This is not an effortless stunt, if only because my 92-year-old lola – my mom and uncle’s mother – is with us. With her legs’ strength considerably gone, any hope of us and her simultaneously enjoying the trip will depend on our ability to push, carry, hoist etc. her and her wheelchair around, as well as support her deteriorating physical conditions. And as the evening has shown, it would take a collective effort from everyone involved. Our energy restored a bit, we leave the hut and proceed to our actual destination – Tito Boy’s hut, two kilometers away, and compounded by the darkness and our baggage. Here, there is no electricity. The only light comes from a couple of gaseras.
Palawan in general still radiates this kind of rusticity and beauty that has gradually disappeared from many areas in the Philippines. In other words, it marches to a different drum and the local government intends to keep it that way. Puerto Princesa, for instance, strictly enforces a no-littering policy. Local officials have also actively helped in getting the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park into the New 7 Wonders of Nature, which were inaugurated on April 22. As for El Nido, the Philippine government designated the surrounding Bacuit Bay as a marine reserve in 1991, thereby recognizing the need to conserve the waters as well as the islands and other land formations within its scope.
It’s fitting, then, that the setting tonight resembles that of an era when people still forged connections with nature, that of a period when sceneries were capable of eliciting wide-eyed amazement that have been harder to come by when information has become as accessible as – if not more than – a fast food burger. The quiet solitude of the evening provides glimpse of the bravura nature can pull off if human beings started surrendering more to the unexplored.
It’s close to noon but the clouds, which have brought rains during dawn, have obscured the sun. Abie and I are walking along the shoreline to the highway to fetch my dad, who’s coming from Capiz a day after us. Carissa and her mom take pictures of the scenery, the beauty of which is now on display, albeit not in its full glamour mode with the sun hidden behind the clouds. A handful of Caucasian foreigners are dipping in the beach, taking advantage of the overcast skies, although the air is still humid. For the first time, the view of the forest comes into view, its intimidating presence in the dark drastically decreased in the morning.
We meet my dad at the shed by the highway and, accompanied by Israel’s wife and a pack of eager dogs, immediately return to Tito Boy’s hut where lunch is waiting. The sun finally starts to peek out of the heavy clouds, and tummy grumbles fixed, Joy, one of the area’s caretakers, volunteers to be left behind to take care of lola while the rest of us start the island hopping tour. It’s high tide now but the level of the beach remains shallow far from the shore so we have to walk towards the pump boat anchored a few meters away. The dogs walk – even swim – with us to the boat, as if knowingly seeing us off and wishing us the sea gods’ blessings before we depart.
The clear waters quickly turn into a huge, calm blanket of turquoise on our way to Miniloc Island, which, Tito Boy claims, is owned by the Ayala clan and is the first resort in the Bacuit archipelago. The resort itself sits on a beach and fronts tall limestone cliffs. This afternoon, though, our main business is snorkeling through a small hole in another side of the island towards the Secret Lagoon. The concealment is purely nominal since people have been coming here to enjoy the green waters surrounded by jagged rocks and as our boat is anchored, two other boats join us this afternoon. We put on our snorkeling masks and life vests and jump into the water. Swimming our way through the lagoon isn’t as easy as it sounds, but it’s not really hard for an inexperienced swimmer either, although it’s probably better to navigate your way with a guide. Fatally crashing into a sharp rock or being eaten by a shark is very unlikely, but a cut on your leg from a coral is possible if you’re not careful.
We make our way into the lagoon, which isn’t immediately obvious from the boat. The hole opens up to what seems to be a set of a fantasy movie. For half an hour, we enjoy the light green waters surrounded by dark limestone walls before we head off to another island.
Six hours later, we’re back at the hut. I go outside with Titan, one of the dogs, to photograph the night sky with the hut’s gasera and the stars the only light sources. It’s dark. Really dark. I take a few long exposure shots while sitting on the sand and with Titan beside. I stand up and call Titan. “Come, we have to wake up early tomorrow.” The group’s plan is to do the island hopping at 7:30 in the morning and return by lunch.
We set sail at one in the afternoon, way behind schedule. In part because we’re typical Filipinos, but mostly because the rains refused to let up until shortly before noon. Together with lola and Whitey, another of the dogs, our group’s destination today is Tito Boy’s prized possession, the Tapiutan Island. It’s at the fringe of the archipelago and about as far as we can reach westward without setting off another South China Sea controversy.
The island, forming a strait with Matinloc Island in the southeast, is a spectacular display of coral reefs and limestone cliffs, where, aside from an improvised hut and bridge that connects two beaches in the island, there are no signs of civilization. Formed thousands of years ago by crashing waves and the weather, the jagged rocks today provide a challenging path to anyone who wishes to witness a clearing that came out of a Lost episode. But, together with the golden hour, it evokes an egocentric thought of, as a song puts it, having your own private archipelago. Perhaps my professor was right – China’s behavior is normal for a state with enough resources.
The sky deepens to a darker shade of blue and the waters have slightly receded. It’s 4 p.m. After our late lunch, we hurriedly pack up and board the boat to avoid having problems with the impending low tide. Dusk slips by as our boat cruises through the sea in a hypnotic cadence. The wind hitting our faces and the lapping of waves provide an antithesis to our experience during the first evening. Conversations subside and my head starts to drift off towards thoughts of island life.
We reach the hut in the dead of the night. Tito Boy and his architect friends discuss development plans with Israel. The plan with Tita Fenny and Abie had been to catch octopuses left among the rocks by the tide. “I’ll catch up with you,” I tell them, before the silence of the surroundings overpowers me and puts me to sleep.